September 03, 2007 GMT
North Alaska

After a refreshing nights sleep the adventure began - we left Fairbanks mid morning for the first stop at the Yukon River Crossing and our first taste of the Dalton Highway.

Neither of us were really nervous- just keen to get going!

After leaving all our camping gear in storage, we strapped the tool / tire kits to the tank bag and streamlined our panniers down taking only necessities - one set of clothes and washgear only. This meant that we could fit two 20 litre petrol cans in each pannier, keeping the extra weight low and avoiding having to strap them to pannier tops, making it harder for me to get on and off (this makes a real difference when on slippery surfaces as just me getting on the back can pull the bike over if Darren can't keep his footing and I get my weight placement wrong). Yes it is that technical getting on and off as a pillion - the weight we are carrying is unbelievable- if we dropped the bike it would be nearly impossible for both of us to lift it back up again.

After the scare stories we had heard from everyone we spoke to in Alaska about the Dalton Highway, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that at some point we would have an off and having petrol strapped next to you might not have been a good idea. We had heard a lot of bad things about the Dalton and I came to the conclusion that it was locals trying to scare us away...the comments ranged from;

'you are nuts doing it 2's up with that extra weight'

' the biggest grizzly bear ever seen at mile marker 240'

'the steepest off road slopes ever seen, it took me half a day to work up the courage to go down Atigan - it still scares me to this day' (This from a Dalton Highway trucker veteran of 30 years).

'the highway regularly gets washed away in heavy rain - make sure you have enough fuel to turn around and head back'

Well it wouldn't be an adventure if the road was going to be easy we thought!

DAY 1

As soon as we hit the Elliott Highway heading toward the Dalton it was bumpy wih potholes and poor attempts at filling them. I was already begining to wish I had velcro on my backside to stop me sliding around. Then we saw the James W Dalton Highway sign and I started to feel apprehensive - I had tried very hard not to let my imagination run away with me and to make my own mind up about the road.
After rounding the bend 100m after the sign we hit the gravel and the awful feeling of the bike sliding side to side under you, then a huge truck passed us at 60mph and showered us in gravel- talk about baptism of fire!
Darren described this gravel section as "like riding on marbles on glass".
There were a few tarmac sections mixed in between the gravel. We called them 'tarmac teasers', they never lasted for long and would seem out of place in the middle of nowhere.
After four hours we reached the Yukon River and crossed the huge bridge to our lodging for the night.
This was a truckers stop with very basic facilities but really friendly service, just as well I brought the wet wipes as there was no way I was getting near the shared bathroom!

Day 2

After a hearty truckers breakfast we set off for Coldfoot Camp and another 5 hour ride, crossing into the Arctic Circle.


Arctic Circle.JPG
Next stop top of the world

This section of the highway was mainly off road with some gravel sections, then some really horrible slippery mud sections made worse by the onset of rain.

Heading up from there we crossed into the Arctic Circle and stopped for the photo opportunity then examined the back of the sign as it was covered in motorcycle stickers from past travellers.
A coach load of american tourists made a fuss of us when we arrived (it was like being famous for all of 30 seconds) taking photos of us and standing around us looking in awe. By this time we were covered in mud, wet from the rain and had a cloud of mossies hanging over us.

We arrived at Coldfoot camp mid afternoon and were pleased to get cleaned up and into our civvies. First impressions of Coldfoot Camp aren't great -


Coldfoot Yard.JPG
A warm welcome at Coldfoot

However, this place really is good, with clean, basic accommodation all en-suite, a great cafe with a full on buffet most nights, friendly staff and a full bar.
I joked to Darren about needing a big glass of chilled chardonnay after a hard days ride and to my amazement I got one! This must be the furthest bar north.

Day 3

We were up early next day in anticipation of a long, hard day to Deadhorse/ Prudhoe Bay which is the furthest point North in Alaska. We had estimated it would take us 9-10 hours based on GPS stats and advice from locals on weather and road conditions.

After giving a fellow biker some epoxy resin type liquid metal to fix his leaking radiator, we headed off.

It was a hard days riding but amazing. The views are astounding especially when you start to climb higher. The road itself has no shoulders or edges and their are a lot of steep drops. It is certainly not for the faint hearted.


forests.JPG
A rare tarmac teaser

The vastness of this place is awesome and a little scary, you really do feel in the middle of nowhere with pine trees stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. The road climbs higher through forest valleys with twisting roads and very little tarmac now, it is all gravel, mud and worse still some awful black stuff which is slippery as hell- worse than the gravel 'marbles'. Add into the mix at intervals road works or to be more precise- grading. This is when they literally re-cut and level the road after trucks have worn away the surface or it has been washed away, or the road moves because it is on a permafrost patch. This happens alot and is by far the worst experience so far. As they re-cut the road they layer up a mound of loose stuff which, depending on which side of the road you are on, can get tricky trying to pass trucks. We then had to ride over the mounds, some were 2 foot high and with our weight it wasn't pretty.

We stopped for lunch (a twix and red bull) by the farthest North Spruce tree which was a couple of hundred years old and had been stuck back together again after a vandal had cut it down sometime before.


Muddy Bike Atigan.JPG
If you think the bike was muddy you should see us!

Then began our climb up the Atigan Mountains and onto the Atigan Pass itself. This was the point I had been dreading and we set off with trepidation.
As you approach the higher section the road curves up and to your right giving you a clear view of it's steepness, ok hold on tight - this is it.
As we climb steadily in second gear on the gravel the steep drop on our right increases showing the road behind us. We head into the pass and the view is amazing with mountains either side. Dodging the crazy goats that like to jump out at you then over the barrier, we continued through. The descent then started past a sheer plataeu and winding down and round into the valley. The valley continues through the Atigan range of mountains either side for a good 2 hours before flattening out into arctic tundra and low skies.

Again nothing on the horizon except the road and the oil pipeline.


Darren.JPG
Pipeline and road

This section of the road was really quiet and we stopped for another half hour break in which time no vehicle passed us in either direction. It was eerily quiet.
This is true wilderness.


twix break.JPG
Another scenic twix break

Due to the vastness of the views we could see the weather closing in on us making this stretch of the road with more grading work particularly fun! We pushed on steadily to Deadhorse through the rain with no mishaps.

When we reached Prudhoe Bay, it was such a relief , we had made it without any incidents and the sence of achievement was amazing. There is very little that is welcoming about Prudhoe - It is what it is - a working area where countless teams of men work on the oil fields supplying gas and oil to the USA via the pipeline.
Our 'hotel' was little more than a metal shack that exsisted to house the workers, meaning that not only did we feel very much out of place, but that also facilities were bleak to say the least.

We got cleaned up and went to bed with our heads full of an incredible day, then it hit me - we have it all to do again tommorow...


*******************************************************


Arctic Caribou Inn.JPG
Ready to leave Prudhoe Bay - top of the World

Its interesting for me to read Ems account of the trip up, I guess just like the road is different for each rider, it's also different for two people on the same bike.
With Em perched up on the back of the bike and not in control the feeling must be different (and scary) to say the least. Hats off to her, I could not have ridden pillion on that road.

The weather has a large effect on what you ride on when tackling the Dalton Highway, on the way up the "road" was either wet from past rain or was very wet from a current downpour, making things very tricky for me to keep things upright.


Atigan mist.JPG
Slippery when wet

We did have one or two moments, mainly the front washing out due to ruts in the gravel that had been filled in by the grader (one minute you think you are riding on firm, wet slimy gravel and the next the front drops into a soft section), but thankfully I managed to keep things in a straight line.

When re-grading the road, the workers wet the surface with tankers (bowsers) then they apply a granule that "bonds" the road together when rolled. This is great for the road I'm sure, but not so great for bikes - everything gets covered with sticky road surface, then bakes hard from the heat of the engine, you quickly get into a routine of stopping and scrapping off the muck from the engine before things start to overheat.


Engine Mud.JPG
The road sticks to everything

I definately found the trip up a challange, but next day the section from Prudhoe back to Coldfoot proved to be the most demanding riding I have ever done.

We left Prudhoe with the clouds heavy and the road surface awash from overnight rain. The next few hours passed with very little conversation over the intercom as I concentrated like never before on the road ahead, while always looking in the mirrors for the terrifying view of an 18wheeler coming up on you out of nowhere.

The phsyical input required is difficult to explain, but with fear comes tension and the tension starts to make your muscles scream after a while. I constantly had to tell myself to relax and let the bike do as it wanted - dont fight it, then you have another slide and the tension returns, this cycle continues until we get to Coldfoot.

The fear is more out of respect for what you are doing, but more importantly where you are.. even a minor accident could leave one or both of us in major trouble due to the remoteness of our situation - it could takes hours for anyone to come by, then further hours for a helicopter to reach you from Fairbanks.

For me the responsibilty was to ensure that I did not put Em in a situation where she would be injured or helpless if I was the one with the injury - mobiles don't work out here, hence the fear, hence the tension.

But the remoteness of this road and this area is what we came for and believe it or not, despite the rain and fear of hurting the other half, I was having the time of my life.

The rain continued, the Atigan pass was thick with low cloud and visibility was down to about 10 meters, I was using the metal barrier as a marker as to where the road went, then remembered that near the top of the pass the barrier dissapears for a section, just in time I steered into the middle of the track as the barrier stopped and I briefly stared into cloud and quite possibly a bit of a drop.


Atigan rail.jpg
Up in the clouds

I dont remember seeing too much scenery on the way to Coldfoot, but I do remember the weather and road conditions inproving for the final hour and was really happy to see Coldfoot Camp - we were both wet and cold and covered in crap, the bike looked like it had been to hell and back, but we were here again without incident.

Time now for a clean up (all three of us) before a meal and a couple of beers in the bar with some fellow bikers who were also tackling the Dalton.

After a restful nights sleep (with my mind replaying every incident of the last few days) We leave Coldfoot Camp for the last leg of the journey, the sun was out and the road was now firm and progress was much quicker - before we know it we are at the refuel stop of the Yukon Crossing and enjoying lunch.

Its here that we meet up with two of the bikers from the bar the night before and ride the rest of the Dalton Highway together with the sun out and the road now as firm as tarmac.


Dalton last leg.JPG
Good company and finally a dry road

I watch the last few miles count down on my GPS and realise that an awsome adventure, one of huge personal fulfilment is about to end and I reach round and touch Ems leg "well done mate, we made it".


Prudhoe sucess.JPG
Tarmac at the end of the Dalton




Posted by Darren Homer at September 03, 2007 02:39 AM GMT
 



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