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  • Ken Ilgunas

Working in the arctic

It’s starting to get cold up here. Summer is turning to fall, green to red, rain to snow. Because I don’t have any source of heat in my cabin, I’ve been having to wear a set of thermal underwear, as well as a coat and hat while I write. Lately I’ve been able to see my breath.

It was my original agreement with Coldfoot Camp that I’d work one day a week (for free) to cover my room and boards costs, and I’d spend the rest of my time writing. While we faithfully kept to that agreement for the first month, things have changed lately, now that business, here, has picked up. So, for the past several weeks, I’ve been working about 20 hours a week–all on the clock–for $11/hour. And it’s been great.

I’ve learned that writing is not the greatest full-time job. It’s a lot of fun to write every day, but I tire of sitting on my ass. Plus, the muse is fleeting when you continually harass her for inspiration. Working a part-time job and making a little extra cash has been an unexpected benefit of my life up here, plus I don’t feel like such a free-loader because I’m no longer sitting in my cabin all day while everyone else around here does what is commonly regarded as “real work.”

Here I am roto-tilling two large rectangles of ground. Coldfoot Camp is powered by diesel, and about a half-decade ago there was a 4,000 gallon spill. That dirt was removed to a special location. And here, once a year, it’s roto-tilled so the diesel that has drained to the bottom can evaporate in the sun.

I found this frog in the unlikeliest of places: the diesel pond. A striking find because this is my first sighting of an amphibian in the arctic.

I’ve also done a good deal of tour guiding (which I did up here full-time five years ago when I was paying off my debt). Typically, I’m either oaring a raft down the Koyukuk River or driving tourists up to Wiseman (a semi-subsistence village fifteen miles north of Coldfoot) where the tourists get to meet hunter and trapper, Jack Reakoff, who’s lived in rural Alaska all his life. I give them a broad overview of the region’s history, plants and animals; Jack tells them everything about Wiseman and subsistence living.

Here I am, guiding.

Jack talking to tourists by his home in Wiseman.

Jack with moose and caribou hooves.

Jack showing tourists the inside of his cabin.

Jack’s cabin.

The northernmost garden in Alaska.

Princess and Holland America buses do tours up and down the Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, which is just a few miles south of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and the Arctic Ocean. I have a love/hate relationship with the tourists. They’re all so kind and nice and grandmotherly, yet I’m constantly appalled with their poor health, and I–in general–frown upon their overly structured way of living/traveling. But still, I like them.

A few weeks ago, one of the Princess buses broke down 30 miles north of Coldfoot, and 220 miles from their destination, Deadhorse. Because all the guides here in Coldfoot were busy, I got to drive them all the way up in one of Coldfoot’s tour vans to Deadhorse–easily the worst place man has ever created.

(“A” is Coldfoot; “B” is Deadhorse.)

This is what the road looks like north of the Brooks Range when it turns to flat tundra.

And here’s Deadhorse, near the arctic ocean, which is working camp that houses all the oil field workers. It is a cold, steely, metallic industrial town with guys outnumbering girls at least 15 to 1–a ratio I created based on my own observations. And while this number may seem intriguingly favorable to some of my female readers, I beg you to beware of the common Alaskan adage that holds true all along the Dalton Highway: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” In Deadhorse, there are no schools, no churches, no libraries. There’s nothing really, except for lots of oil, dudes, and metal. I feel like the joke needs some punch line, but Deadhorse is no joke. It’s the sort of place you go if you want to descend into a Shining-like mania; the sort of place where you’ll find your roommate hanging from the ceiling with the elastic of his underwear ringed around his neck.

Some views of town.

I drove back to Coldfoot the same night–literally a 500 mile trip in a day. Here are some pics of the sun hovering above the horizon at midnight.

Lastly, some weird/dumb things tourists have said… I’ve spent much of my time at Coldfoot dealing with tourists as both a tour guide and park ranger in the visitor center (also located in Coldfoot). Recently, I got hold of a document containing a secret list of quotes, which I share for your amusement.

“Where do they put them at night?” –woman from NY asking about what animals she might see and someone mentioning a musk ox.

“Do you drive back to Fairbanks every night?” (Fairbanks is 250 miles away.)

“Do you have any sort of 7-11 up here?”

“When do the caribou turn into moose?”

“Do you sell condoms here?” (not a stupid question, I guess)

“This is the United States. A places like that should not exist.” (Woman referring to the lodgings at Coldfoot Camp. She refused to shower there and desired to sleep in the bathroom at the ranger station across the road.)

“I was wondering if bears are attracted to blood and if so, should I be worried about this cut?” –girl from NYC

“So how do I go about applying for religious objection for paying to go into the park?” (There is no fee to enter the park.)

A couple asked a tour guide if they were still offering dog-mushing tours for $79. (It was summer and there was no snow on the ground.)

“Is there a dotted line marking the location of the Arctic Circle?”

“I have heard that watermelon berries have a laxative effect. Is that true?” –Older man

“Is that the sun or the moon?” asked looking up at crescent shape in a dark sky.

“This is a snowy owl,” someone said, looking at a ptarmigan

“Where am I??! THEY NEVER TELL ME WHERE I AM!” said an old lady, while threateningly pursuing a guide with her cane

“We’ve just come down from Deadfoot!” (probably referring to Deadhorse)

“Are the northern lights running now?”

“I’m not sure if I want to go to Deadwood.” (again, probably referring to Deadhorse)

“Today we came up from… somewhere.”

“Is this all there is to Fairbanks?” (woman upon waking up in Coldfoot after a long drive.)

“Don’t do drugs. This is what you’ll look like.” (Framing her face with her hands)

“Wolf-colored” (Lady’s response to a question about what the color of the wolf was that she saw.)

“Is there any water at Galbraith Lake?”

“Good morning.” (It was 6:30 p.m.)

“Can we stamp our US passport?”

“It’s like a Stephan King novel” (referring to Coldfoot)

“Will there be other people at the campground? We don’t want to be alone.”

“I need some help here… this stamp pad is completely dry.” (The pad was closed)

“Can I have an Arctic Circle certificate for my cat?”

“How do the animals know when to sleep?”

“Well, you’ll have to tell me where your glory holes are then.”

“How far is Horse-dead?”


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