Ptarmigans and Musk Oxen

I was in Teller, Alaska on the rainy windswept shore of the Bering Sea, 95 km by gravel road from the nearest gas station in Nome. I was doubtful I had enough fuel to get there. The only person braving the elements was a fisherman cutting gear with a knife like a machete that was longer than his forearm. The whole place looked deserted. Rusted cars with flat tires or smashed windshields or both sat idle in front of almost every building, exposed to the relentless north. What was I to do?

First, let me explain how I got into this predicament. I do lots of research on the places I visit but no amount is ever enough. I had no idea that Teller was basically a ghost town! There were no signs about the lack of gas stations when I left Nome. Perhaps I had become complacent after visiting Whittier, a tiny coastal town reachable only by taking a shared railway/car tunnel. They had a restaurant with wifi that was open at 10 PM so surely Teller would have a gas station, right?

I left Nome at 5:30 AM and planned to stop in Teller for lunch, fill up, and head back. I took my time. I stopped at every eBird hotspot to look for rarities. It was 11:30 AM before I got close to Teller. The closer I got, the more concerned I became. There was an airport but there was not a restaurant or gas station; there weren't even other people save for the fisherman. I hadn't seen another car for over an hour. The drive didn't yield any rarities except for a possible Northern Wheater near a gravel pile at milepost 41 where Bluethroats had also been reported. However, I was delighted with the number of ptarmigan - four Rock Ptarmigan and eight Willow Ptarmigan. They often sat motionless beside, or even on, the road. If only more animals were such dutiful subjects!

Willow Ptarmigan (male), Nome-Teller Highway, Alaska

Willow Ptarmigan (male), Nome-Teller Highway, Alaska

With the meter on my rented red Jeep reading an eighth of a tank, I decided it was best to head for Nome and get as close as I possibly could. I fully expected to run out of gas and rely on the kindness of strangers to help me get back. (There is no cell reception on the roads outside Nome.) I did everything I could to conserve fuel. I didn't stop, even for birds. Nonessential items like rear defrost and headlights were disabled. Front wipers were used as infrequently as possible. I used cruise control initially at a slow speed of 50 km/h to reduce RPM. The mileposts counted down agonizingly slowly... 72... 71... 70. Before milepost 60, I heard a ding. My jeep calmly reminded me that I needed fuel. Thanks for the update!

Dashboard indicator lights and car problems in general are mostly ignored in Nome. My jeep's check engine, check tire pressure, and check gas cap indicators were all constantly on. I was told to simply ignore them. The gravel roads take such a toll that nobody ever gets indicators fixed. Plus, there's nowhere to get them fixed even if you wanted to. My taxi van to get to the airport had one back window missing and a wide crack across the entire front windshield that forked on the passenger side and looked like a giant sideways Y. However, I knew my jeep's fuel indicator was legitimate.

I conserved fuel further by using neutral on hills. At one point I went over two miles without using the accelerator! The mileposts kept counting me down... 60... 50... 40. I saw the first other cars around milepost 35 so I knew at least there would be an opportunity to ask for help when those people returned to Nome. At milepost 23, my jeep's engine stopped and I pulled to the side of the road, disappointed that I hadn't made it further. As a last resort, I tried to restart the car and it worked! I got to milepost 20... 15... 10. The fuel gauge was well past empty when the outskirts of Nome came into view. Pavement started around milepost 7 and I started seeing roadside runners competing in a race. I casually rolled into town desperate for the gas station.

I actually made it! I've never been so happy to pay $95 US dollars for a tank of gas in my life! After the euphoria wore down, I went back to my hotel, ate dinner, and decided that I had to return to the road that had nearly defeated me. Were there really wheatears and bluethroats at milepost 41? After more than an hour of driving and plenty of searching, I found neither. I started the drive back to Nome, this time confident that I had enough gas for such luxuries as headlights and stopping.

I was ecstatic when I needed to stop just before Nome. Musk oxen were on the road! They're such cool and weird beasts, looking like they should be tripping over their own long fur. According to Wikipedia, their Inuktitut name "umingmak" translates to "the bearded one". I like that!

Musk Oxen, Nome-Teller Highway, Alaska

Musk Oxen, Nome-Teller Highway, Alaska

The moral of this story is twofold. First, always leave Nome with a full tank of gas. Second, pay attention when driving the roads there - you never know when you'll see a ptarmigan or musk ox!