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> The Voyage Home Part 1 of 5, Don't stop reading
Tom_Crumrine
post Jun 30 2005, 08:50 PM
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30 June 2005

Happy Birthday to my old friend from Tiffin, Chris Neukom. For many years Chris has been involved in hot shot programs (fighting forest fires) out of Colorado and Iím sure he would have been interested in the fires along the Dalton Highway yesterday.

Leaving camp was a sad experience. Everyone goes out in the field during the day so the camp feels like a hot, dusty ghost town. A couple of people were there to see me off but everyone else was off doing something else. Being at Toolik was such a full experience that it was hard to believe I had only been there a little more than two weeks.

The ride along the Dalton was much different this time. On the way North the feeling of anticipation and the fact that each mile held never before seen things made the trip very exciting. Also on the way North the scenery improves the farther North you go. On teh return the views go from dramatic, to pretty nice, to OK and then you see a Taco Bell.

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Adding to the overall gloomy feeling of the day were the fires that continued to burn South of Coldfoot. Hot shot teams and helicopters had been working to protect Coldfoot so only the smoke traveled north of there. On foot people worked on fire lines and I was interested to learn that they use my favorite chemical potassium permanganate to start controlled burns from the air. In places that are hard to get to by foot or with vehicles, helicopters can drop ping-pong ball sized spheres filled with potassium permanganate. Just before they are dropped an ingnitor is added and the chemical reaction starts the decomposition of the potassium permanganate. This chemical burns hot and it produces oxygen as it burns so a very hot flame is achieved very quickly.

When I went north I saw flames. This time I felt the heat. As we drove south after stopping at Coldfoot for dinner ($23 dollar all you can eat buffet and it was worth it) we began to see increasing amounts of smoke. Over the CB you could hear people talking about zero visibility for 10-20 or 50 yards. Our driver, Chris, noted that it was the worst he had seen it and he makes the trip 4 times a week.

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If you look closely you can see that there are flames at the bottom of this smoke. It didn't photograph as I hoped but it was a raging fire as we passed.

The fires began with a lightning strike on May 30. Initially the fire was allowed to take its natural course but as it neared Coldfoot and peopleís homes efforts were marshaled to suppress it. So far they have been successful and Coldfoot has been smoky but fine. As of my visit 91,000 acres had been burnedósmall by Alaska standards.

Chris mentioned that this was the first time he had seen yellowish thick smoke rather than white. Nearing one particularly bad section we could see the smoke, thick yellow and billowing forth much faster than at any other spot. The fire was burning strong and the smell was noxious. The man riding shotgun rolled down the window to take a picture and Chris said, ďSebastian, you are going to want to roll up that window,Ē in a calm voice that belied concern. Seconds later we were moving at 3 mph and looking out for the edge of the road to make it through. I would not have known where we were on the road except that this section happened to have a centerline. I could see this line if I looked directly down out the window but it was still hard to see. Then we felt the heat. Suddenly we could see large orange flames about 10 feet high out the window. Jim the passenger to my right said that he could feel the heat, and a little later we could feel it on both sides of the van. It felt like the kind of heat that is felt when you are too close to a bonfire.

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That spot near the Jim River 3 was the worst. The smoke remained with us for the next 150 miles all the way to Fairbanks. Visibility of the road was fine but all scenery in the distance was obscured by the haze. The sun was an orange ball that seemed too close with its glare and halo removed. Just an orange sphere seen through the smoke just above the hills behind us.

In Coldfoot we had picked up Jim, a bicyclist who chose not to ride 3 days through the smoke. He began to ask about free spots to camp and where might be a good place to just set up a tent. Chris said, ďDonít get shot, this is Alaska,Ē and Jim didnít take that so well. He didnít react right away but it set the seed for anger. Jim was a nice man but it was clear that he had biked all over the west coast and did not feel like being told to avoid getting shot.

I was happy to spend 10 dollars at the Tanana (pronounced Tana Na NOT like banana) Campground for a spot to unroll my sleeping bag. As we got closer to the campground Chris mentioned that if Jim wanted to get out with me he would have to split the 15 dollar drop off fee with me. I said that I didnít mind paying it but was too late. Chris and Jim were already hotly debating why Jim would have to pay anything just to get off at a place they were already stopping. I considered offering to share my campsite but with exhaustion setting in I must admit that I wasnít thinking too clearly and I just chose to stay out of the fight. It was sad to put a sour note right at the end of long trip.

At 12:30 I found my very small site and was glad it was just me. The Tanana valley campground is fine but it is clearly a spot for car camping and campers. I only saw a few other tents and they seemed to be near campers anyway. I found a spot and was happy to have a inflatable mattress that someone had left behind. I always have a bit of trouble getting to sleep when it is light out but the fitful tossing and turning only lasted a few minutes and I slept well.

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Well that is until red squirrels or the Alaska equivalent began chirping, screeching and creaking not more than 10 feet from my head. This was a well used campground and maybe they were waiting for me to feed them or for me to get out of the way. The final straw was when one walked right across my sleeping bag (I didnít have a tent) and I had to kick it off. I decided to wake up and start my last two days in Alaska.
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