What’s the appeal of walking next to a giant pipe all summer?
Excellent question. This summer, my dog Cora and I covered 850 miles, from the Gulf of Alaska at Valdez to the Beaufort Sea at Prudhoe Bay. In 96 days. Enabling this traverse of our favorite giant peninsula is a somewhat straight line of gravel dumped on the landscape 40 years ago: The service road that parallels the trans-Alaska pipeline.
That gravel road, there whether the pipe is above ground (420 miles) or buried (380), allows travel through the dozens, maybe hundreds of swampy lowlands across Alaska from south to north.
The pipeline pad is very inclusive, easy to walk when compared to 10 feet on either side, which would require busting through alders and rose bushes. The hills, however, are steep, numerous and I think unbikeable. Engineers were not thinking of human-powered travel when they mapped a pipe’s route across Alaska.
Most important to me, there is no traffic on the pipeline pad. This is in contrast to the nearby Richardson, Elliott and Dalton highways. Maintenance trucks sometimes travel the pad, but drivers for Alyeska and contractors can’t go faster than 20 miles per hour. They obey that rule —there is no washboard road on the pipeline pad.
No traffic mattered to me, because I was walking with my dog. She was free, free, free, all summer long. All because of that industrial pathway through the wild.
One month after finishing, I miss that life of 10 miles per day. Wake up. Walk. Find a tent site. Eat. Repeat. The simplicity: Just add hot water to my oatmeal and freeze-dried dinners (of which I never tired), drinking beautiful water from streams that ran across the gravel road.
In early August, after 96 summer days, I arrived at Pump Station 1 in Prudhoe Bay. I became the second person to ever hike the length of the pipeline. Twenty years ago, I became the first. I wrote a book about that journey: Walking my dog, Jane; from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay along the trans-Alaska pipeline.
I never intended to go the distance twice. The UAF chancellor a few years ago suggested I hike the pipeline again at the 20-year anniversary of the first walk.
His words stuck with me. As 2017 neared, I kept thinking about rehiking the line. Of course, my life is not the same 20 years later. In 1997, I was a single guy living in a small cabin with a great dog. In 2017, I’m a married guy living in a real house with a flush toilet appreciated by an 11-year old daughter and wife. And we have a great dog, a zippy 38-pound Lab/blue heeler mix.
I am 54 years old and am incredibly healthy. I’ve jogged a 100-mile race in winter and have played softball every summer because I love the challenge of playing short and hitting the ball even though the season dings you up. My busted-up friend Andy (who broke all his lower leg bones in his last climbing accident) said I’m like LeBron, who never gets injured.
I appreciate that comment. And I understand mortality. My dad died 17 years ago of a bad liver. By that time, Mom had lost her mind to early-onset Alzheimer’s. I cared for her for a month after Dad died. In her prime she was a tiger on the tennis court, lovely, smart and strong. In the end, she was squeezing toothpaste on her hairbrush. She was in her 60s when I dropped her at the nursing home during a visit and, not knowing what else to do, hid in the bushes as a worker escorted her to her new room.
My parents were both on my mind when I decided to walk across Alaska again. Tempus Fugit, man. Do stuff.
As I was heading up to the high point of the route across Alaska, just under a mile up at Atigun Pass, I passed a woman contractor making a set of stairs for a project. She asked me why I was walking the pipeline.
“Why not? It’s better than working.”
She thought for a second. Set down her drill.
“Yeah, you’re right,” she said.
But yes, I was working, writing weekly newspaper columns as I’ve done for 23 years. I enjoyed that mission. And walking the pipe gave me something to write about (which was another of my motivations). I sent the stories back to my editor at the university when I could find wifi, which wasn’t too often. It was nice to be out of range of all those communications waves passing through our heads.
Every day, walking the pipeline pad was better than being inside. For 96 days, I smelled the salt air of two oceans, swatted moose flies in 80-degree heat, shook three inches of snow off the tent, swam in the Yukon, pulled on wet socks. I drank from 800 rivers and streams. I shared campsites with my 11-year-old daughter Anna, my wife Kristen and 10 friends. I walked on top of winter’s remnant ice and I stepped into streams to cool my feet.
And I again crossed Alaska, a place I’ve lived for more than 30 years. In the middle of my trip, I camped on French Creek, which snakes through Eielson Air Force Base, requiring four or five bridges. That’s where I first discovered Alaska, as an Airman First Class when I was 18. There, I found the fishing wasn’t as great as the canals of upstate New York, the mosquitoes were terrible and winter was like Mars.
But there I also observed guys in Fairbanks town smelling of wood smoke, sleeping in cabins, living free. I could do that. And there was something about the endless days of summer, the quiet of the evenings, the space that enables wolves and bears and more caribou than people to live here. When I got out of the Air Force I drove from New York right back to Alaska.
I’ve been living here ever since. Most of my life. And if I’m still here in 20 years, at 74, I’ll walk the path again, with another great dog. Why not?