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Alaska: The Dalton

Mile 4480 to 5475

Staring out across the vast tundra of the North, it can be easy to let the mind wander. Some of those thoughts are grand – for instance, the joy of thinking about the start of my fantastic adventure across the globe, traveling the Pan-American Highway from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia. Which can now be traced to a genesis point a few miles down the highway. Other thoughts can certainly turn morbid after hour upon hour of gravel – such as wondering if I did hit a pothole, and I did veer into the tundra - would they ever find me? Invariably, a solo ride across the wide open north leads to a lot of thinking and whole lot of hard riding. So, to kick off this ride report I will skip back to the beginning of this trek in Fairbanks, before truly touching the Arctic Ocean to begin the ambitious journey South.

Fairbanks is the home base for riders planning to challenge the 414 mile Dalton Highway. For me, I had originally planned to arrive a little later in the summer, bide my time for an ideal stretch of weather, and maybe even in that time frame meet up with a few other motorcyclists so that I did not have to tackle a solo trek of the Dalton. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I expedited my turnaround when the weather report that week showed up as sunny & dry, albeit fairly cold in the far north (34 degrees overnight in Prudhoe Bay by that Friday). Followed by a forecasted streak of rain.

For me, I preferred dry conditions since the Dalton Highway can be notoriously dangerous when wet. They coat the road with a chemical to cake the dust, but when wet it can be terribly slick for a motorcycle rider. Especially when the unexpected happens, such when the front wheel hits a pothole that is deeper than expected when covered in a layer of water. Or construction zones laying down fresh dirt and gravel are not compacted, leading to the bike sinking into gooey mud instead of a firm roadway. Regardless, my path seemed clean, so I planned to leave the morning after my Fairbanks arrival.

I rolled into town on Tuesday with my OEM Suzuki V-Strom tires & 7000 miles of wear, so I was set for a replacement pair that would keep me safe of the Dalton. I visited Dan Armstrong, who operates Adventure Cycleworks (http://www.advcycleworks.com/ ) out of his house in Fairbanks, and he did an outstanding job getting my bike ready for the road. Dan does not take appointments so he is first-come, first serve when you arrive (he does want you to email ahead of time so that tires can be reserved for you, and he does not service Harley’s or Hondas). He installed a set of TKC-80s in lightning fast speed, and got me back on the road in the time I would sometimes be waiting just to check-out at a dealership. That said, he does non-stop tire installs all summer long (all hours available for riders) so focused energy on mainly one thing. He also provides gas can rentals, and powerwashes for the bike upon return (as well as oil changes and other bike services). I highly recommend paying for the wash, since even on dry trips there is still muddy construction and other areas of the Dalton which will cake your bike in a cement-like grime that once baked on may stay with your bike forever.

Tuesday night I stayed at the University of Fairbanks dorms, which rented rooms out at a cheap $38 rate. It was a little less collegial than I remember college, mainly since the halls were empty for the summer and almost no one was around. I had hoped to meet a few motorcyclists for the road, but no one seemed to be around that night. That said, upon my return I realize I just needed to loiter in the front parking lot working on my bike and I was able to run into at least a dozen riders and other interested folks to chat. I met Ben, Dom, and Tym, who are completing their own Alaska to Patagonia trek. They were the second other set of riders I met this week on the same trek as me (the first being Scott & Nick, who were getting at Dan's for bike repairs same day as me).

After my trek North, I was tightening all of the loose fasteners on my bike from the recent ride, and started talking to Marc and Steve who were running a dorm camp that week. Not only did they have their own great experiences (Marc Cameron is a prolific writer with a strong motorcycle bent, and both Marc & Steve had deep law enforcement backgrounds leading to their summer work with youth camps), but they also shared with me a couple pieces of spare gear that they had which will be great additions to the V-Strom for the trip south to Patagonia.

On Wednesday I hit the road North. A paved Elliot Highway covers much of the distance to the start of the 414 mile long Dalton, but then the gravel road starts in earnest. It took a little while getting used to the technique of ‘meandering’ across the road, back and forth to dodge the divots and holes which rapidly appear why you rev the bike up to 40 or 50 mph. I hit more than a fair share and was probably only 40 miles in when I pulled aside for my first pit stop. Randomly, one of the motorcycle riders I met yesterday when getting tires replaced at Adventure Cycleworks (on a KTM adventure, from Michigan) stopped on his route back to Fairbanks. He went as far as the Arctic Circle sign and camped, traveling about 115 miles of the Dalton. He was a solo rider and did not want to go further by himself. He reported the conditions were about the same everywhere – lots of bumps and dips in gravel.

I carried on myself until I reached the same 115 milepost and Arctic Circle Wayside. I met a couple other riders there, took my obligatory “I made it to the Arctic Circle” picture, and then lit up the campstove for some dinner. I had started around noon, so at that point I was around 6 1/2 hours on this leg, with the final 60 miles ahead to close out the day. While eating there were a constant cycle of other tourists coming through for the sign pictures. Many in RVs going only so far, not to the Deadhorse terminus. I did meet John on a camping trip with his family – I think I crossed paths with them 4 more times on the road, and they provided an awesome recommendation to stay at Marion Creek Campground rather than Coldfoot that night.

Coldfoot was barely a service station and camp lodging – I could see some motorcyclists camping in a grass area across from the fuel pumps and was happy I got a recommendation a quieter campsite. Marion Creek was a very serene BLM site, which only cost $4 per night with a National Parks annual pass. The weather was gloomy all day by stayed dry. It was even better by morning; I was fearing a cold wake-up call since the weather was forecasted to be in the 40’s in Coldfoot. But my tent was placed right in a sunny little clearing, so the thermal benefit of the midnight sun actually had the inside of the tent warmed to t-shirt weather by the time I woke up. I hopped on the bike around 9am to get onto the road for the ensuing leg to Prudhoe Bay.

Day 2 of the ride up the Dalton (another 240 miles) was expected to be rougher conditions so I planned a little extra time for that, as well as to factor in more time for pictures. That northern segment was radically more scenic than the day before. Sweeping vistas of spuce covered slopes transitioned to snow capped mountain peaks before flattening out to a wide expanse of tundra. All the while the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline was an ever-present companion. Like a serpent it snaked along the Dalton Highway and before peeling away here and there. Into a hillside, across a valley. The Dalton is the Haul Road that was build in only 154 days (1974) to provide all the essentials for the oil industry’s development of the northern Prudhoe Bay fields. Both the road, and the pipeline are admirable engineering accomplishments worth frequent pause during the enchanting drive North.

Further North after a forbidding ascent of Atiqun Pass, the Dalton Highway leave almost all normal traces of well-marked roadways behind. You are left with a narrow strip if gravel, elevated above green open tundra on either side. At certain points it seems like floating passageway to lands-end. All the more mesmerizing when you have a clear azure blue sky like the day of my ride, which truly seems to go on to the end of the world.

The road remained generally fine until about 32 miles from Deadhorse. Cars were in construction queue waiting for the one-lane road pilot vehicle. Initially, my only grief was waiting in the cold weather for 20 minutes. But, once I saw the road conditions through the construction zone, I got separate chills. Unlike many of the other road construction zones in Alaska, where pilot vehicle steer you through a compacted surface separate from the one being worked on, it seemed like they were working on both sides in staggered succession. One side got built up, then they built up the next side. Hence, the surface we were lead down was very far from ideal. At first it was just gravel rubble which left the tires skittish at the low speeds in pace with the pilot vehicle. But it got much worse into sections with soft gravel and dirt. You had two deep treads that the trucks had packed, and on either side of the grooves you were next to 3 inches of cake. The bike tires had to stay in a row, or risk a quick tug into the mud. I probably left indents onto my handlebars, but I made it through the two separate zones of construction during those final 32 miles (both as a result of the entire roads being washed away by the river the prior winter).

I arrived then at Deadhorse. Even with the blue skies, it seems like a gloomy place. Like an industrial park set up behind the rail tracks in any major city-USA. It seemed even gloomier the next morning when the skies became overcast (as the picture below shows). But at least for that night I found the Tesoro gas pump, refuel, and arrived at The Aurora Hotel. Very pleasantly surprised by the experience, since with the outer surroundings you initially suspect you will be sleeping in rooms with plywood floors. The hotel was far from it. It was a full service spot for the oil and service industry workers which arrive in Prudhoe Bay for a week or two on shift and then fly back home. The Aurora had full facilities with recreation rooms, laundry rooms, a gym, and an excellent cafeteria which was all inclusive with the room rate. And the food was unexpectedly good. Fresh fruits, deserts, multiple choices of entrees. Not only that, but they allowed you to pack up a lunch as well the following day at breakfast, so that I had a pretty fresh meal for the ride out of town.

The next morning I traveled back down the road to the yellow check-in building for the Deadhorse Camp shuttle tour to the Arctic Ocean. It was good that I had both booked a room at The Aurora in advance of my trek, as well as the shuttle tour. Everything fills up this time of year. The shuttle was full of visitors from as far as Germany, all in this crazy part of the world to check the box on seeing lands end at the Arctic Ocean. The “tour” was barely that, and mainly a ride through industrial landscape of Deadhorse on the way to the ocean. The driver stopped a few times to showcase the birds by the side of the road, which are apparently the only thing alive up here besides humans and polar bears. At the end of the shuttle route, we all scattered across the gravelly shoreline of the ocean.

There really was not much to see. And surprisingly, only me and one other guy were tempted to strip down to our skivvies to head out into the water. It was cold. I guess in May and September there are floating icebergs that drive by the shoreline. For me, it was enough to run out and run back to shore for the security of warm layers of clothes. The dad for the other guy made him do a forward flip and a backward flip for some quality pictures and he was definitely taking some extra time to warm up when back on the shore.

With that, it did feel a little like the clock for my trip from Alaska to Patagonia started ticking. Everything at this point headed South, with no more prep or waiting to get things started. Back at the bike, I bundled up and peeled back onto the gravel for the 240 miles to my tent in Coldfoot. As probably an ominous signal, I purposely stopped to take a picture of the warning to motorcyclists before the construction zone on the reverse stretch.

Now, at least on the way into town I felt good about handling the road conditions. On the stretch out, I had hoped the overnight movement of vehicles had plowed down the softer spots and made the route a little more compact. Unfortunately it seemed even worse than yesterday. I had been queued up ahead of another group of 4 motorcyclists, and I veered into the dirt twice, tumbling off the left of the bike. There were a few more zones of mud by I navigated them, and then some horrid loose gravel that got one of the other riders stuck for a couple minutes. But, we made it through and back to normal road once again.

The afternoon ride was a spectacular one. Blue skies across the horizon punctuated by puffy white clouds over the tundra as far as the eye could see. The crisp weather of Prudhoe Bay moderated the further inland I traveled. And the Dalton Highway that seem so riddled with sporadically placed potholes the day before, now seemed transformed into a flat speedway. It was all I could do to restrain the throttle from carrying me past 70 mph on the gloriously straight stretches.

All the while, the pipeline was the constant companion. You knew to watch the road, but your gaze was slowly pulled back to the path where the pipeline linked the far north to Valdez in the South.

To a certain point, you get a little loopy as you trace mile after mile after mile. I can only imagine what the Haul Road drivers need to do stay safe and sane on their routine back and forth supply runs along the Dalton. It does not appear that they stop many places for breaks (there just are very few waysides for module trucks). At least with a motorcycle you can pull over to the side road entrances to pump stations, stretch the legs, or take a picture. Here’s one where I noted just a little dip in the pipeline so made sure to push it back into a straight line again.

Finally, the tundra fades away and the spruce trees start to reappear. A couple here or there at first, and then the landscape opens back up into its northern forested glory. When the gravel recedes and you hit pavement again north of Coldfoot, it is like your motorcycle has returned to civilization. My tent was waiting securely back at the campground, and after a fill-up I was on the final leg of the Dalton on Saturday morning. My weather luck did run out, with overnight rain south of Coldfoot making for a muddy trek down to the Yukon River waypoint. And then 50 miles north of Fairbanks the sky opened up with a downpour on the bike. But it was pavement by that point in the trip so I was at least blessed to survive the Dalton Highway with only a couple scratches on the bike, and now yonder to warmer Southern climates.

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