June 24, 2005 GMT
OUTTA GAS AT ATIGUN PASS!

Bear Attack at Sukakpak! Solstice Ride: Three Days--and No Nights--Above the Arctic Circle. Smoke Jumping on the Alaska Pipeline! Alcan Sans Gas Can! These headlines write themselves.

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I'm back from 70 point something degrees latitude with two fairly obvious observations: 1) the air is not thinner the further North you go--that's altitude, not latitude, 2) it's chilly near the Arctic Ocean. I was on a bus in Denali Park with a lady who said "They should bring out more bears!" so I shouldn't take for granted that everyone knows these things.

The Dalton Highway is sort of like the Mt. Everest of motorcycle touring. It is as far North as one can go on a North American highway, it's almost 1000 miles roundtrip of dirt, mud, gravel and sharp rocks. It can be muddy, dusty, and busy with 32 wheelers and grizzly bears. Rental car companies will not let you take their cars there. Some motorcycle adventure rentals will let you go--for an extra $500 non-refundable fee. Trucks use 10 ply tires--whatever those are. Brochures say to bring TWO extra spares already mounted on wheels. They also spread some kind of calcium chloride (or calcium sulfate, or calcium something), to keep the dust down. The only problem is that when it rains this stuff is slicker than the oil going through the pipeline. I only heard about it from this site and the people who blazed the trail by motorcycle and told the stories.

Mile One is rough wet dirt and sharp rocks protruding up. Imagine an ice rink in which lots of sharp rocks have been frozen every 5 or 6 inches. Now imagine a zamboni lays down a fresh layer of water on top. Only it's not water, it's like coffee colored mud. Add loose gravel on top of that. A few deep ruts, some pot-holes (deep) filled to the brim with the same coffee colored mud so you can't see them until you can make out the rim as you are on top of them. OK, now you've got 827 miles of this to go, most of it above the Arctic Circle. (On the barstool, in the hurricane, with the sandwich board and the pail on your head, etc.)

Gas is available at mile 56, mile 170, and mile 414 (Deadhorse). That's 244 miles between the middle two fill-ups, in the middle of frozen tundra, with nothing--I mean NOTHING--around. You had better bring enough. A 2 gallon gas can was added in Fairbanks. I got 215 miles to tankful on the Alcan, but that was at full throttle on good pavement. Hard to tell how much I will get on the Dalton.

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Mile 13: A cross on the side of the road with a hard hat on it.
Mile 14: An 18 wheeler comes out of the mist slowly and doesn't throw much mud on me. That's good.
Miles 14-18: Smoke, fog, rain. You get a surreal tunnel vision like the movies where the thing in the background keeps receding while the trees on either side seem to be coming into the helmet. Freaky.
Mile 19: A sign: "Road Construction Ahead" (You mean it gets worse?)
Mile 19.5: The cleanest, smoothest asphalt I've seen in 5500 miles. Nicely painted lines, full shoulders. They sky lightens. I open my fogged visor to see. Is this the road to heaven? Have I been hit by a truck and I'm heading toward the light? Since it will take me 2.5 hours to get to mile 56 at this pace, I roll on the gas and roar towards 75, leaning into the turns. My GPS is way off the map now; I'm a little triangle pointer in a yellow field heading North.
Mile 22: Another sign: "Road Work Ends." Should have said "Road Ends." Things apparently mean the opposite on the Dalton.
Hard on the front brake as I approach hard-pack again. Hard on the rear brake when I hit it, downshifting the whole time. The pipeline is visible about 50 yards to my right. A vulnerable target for would-be terrorists, but as I understand it only three times have people messed with it--mostly unsuccessfully--as the pipeline is encased in insulation and pressurized to 100 psi.
Mile 28: A semi with about 32 wheels.
Mile 33: A tour bus?
Mile 34: Another cross.
Mile 35: With apologies to Satchel Paige, ALWAYS looks behind you; something might be gaining on you. A semi nearly rides up my tailpipe as I pull to the edge of the shoulder to let him by. The clouds are clearing and visibility is much better. It's 9 pm. This elevated dirt road is like a sumo wrestling ring, with about a four to five foot drop off into loose gravel if you fall off of it. The good and bad news is that a nearby tree should bring you to a rapid halt.
Mile 44: A Pontiac Fiero coming the other way. WTH?
Mile 55: Pump Station #6, a steep bridge and the Yukon River. At the bottom, Alex on his new KLR has raced ahead and reserved a room for $90 for three people. That's a budget buster for me. Given the rain and how soaked we are, we take it anyway. The place is a corrugated tin and plywood trailer-like thing. For the amenities this place makes the Trump honeymoon suite look like a bargain. In the dining hall, two beautiful young women are cleaning up. They are college students from Eastern Oregon U. (Is there such a school?) working here for the summer. Wow. Since we are the only guests in the place, we are allowed to use a room next to ours to dry out all our wet gear.

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Next day, the 20th, we head north to Coldfoot. The day is clear and warm and though we encounter lots of washboard--tiny ups and downs that rattle the bolts right out of the bike--the ride is good. I manage to hit the Arctic Circle solo between tourist busses and I take all the pictures I want. Later I run into John the Snorer! He's coming down the road after having "done Deadhorse", having literally ridden through forest fires, crashed, having broken his chain oiler, oiled his rear brake permanently, having lost his speedometer borrowing one off a KLR owned by the daughter of the Leather Lady of Anchorage. (You can't make this stuff up, people!) But he's in a good mood as always. There's nothing to see in Deadhorse, he says. I believe him. I wonder why I'm doing $500 damage or more to my bike just to say I did it, but I ride on.

Coldfoot is the furthest North truck-stop in North America, perhaps the world. More beautiful girls were working there. Some work at the stop itself, others for Fish & Game, some at the Visitor's Center, and another at the hotel across the way. Who knew?

So I chat a bit with "The Girls of the Arctic Circle" and get all the info. I finally ride another 30 miles to Sukakpak and set up camp by the river.

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I start a fire. It is 68-70 degrees out. It is 10 pm and the sun is shining. Anne comes by while I'm up to my knees in the river, skipping rocks. She's coming all the way from Fairbanks and is so excited she wants to go all the way to Deadhorse. At best she wouldn't get in until 3:30 a.m. But the sun won't go down, she said. Off she goes. I get a great night's sleep and head North in the morning. I woke up to the 21st, the solstice, like it was Christmas morning.

Atigun Pass is 4760 ft above sea level--further north than any trees can grow. In fact I passed the "Furthest North Spruce" on the way. The previous "Furthest North Spruce" was chopped down by vandals. They must have realized finally that no matter how much they chopped there would still be a "Furthest North Spruce" somewhere nearby. The Brooks Range is incredibly beautiful, part of the Continental Divide. Water falling here flows either to Arctic Ocean or the Pacific, depending on which side of the range it falls. I look down the North Slope into a glacier carved valley. I can see 20 miles in both directions (ahead and behind). I'm the only one there at 8 a.m. Awesome. These were the best views of the entire trip so far--and that includes Valdez. Just a pipeline, a dirt road and frozen tundra as far as the eye can see. I don't see any of the Dall Sheep that are supposed to come down to the pass to lick the calcium chloride. There should be a picture or two of the pass in the new album.

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At 100 miles outside of Coldfoot I put the 2 gallon gas can into the tank. Better to have the 20 lbs of fluid in front of me than on the back. It would get me all the way to Deadhorse without reseverve.

As you ride, you sometimes daydream of nothing in particular; movies, people, conversations, songs. The funny part is that you almost wake up and think, "Hey, I'm on my motorcycle on the Dalton highway!" Pause. "Um, who has been doing driving for the last 10 miles?" I was very aware of this habit on the Dalton.

The tundra is very cool: like open rolling hills, pocked by open water and snow in patches like sand traps on a golf course. The ever-present stainless steel pipeline goes on and on and on like some crazy Christo art piece, 800+ miles from Valdez. "It's all about the oil, Ichiro." I say. He says nothing back. (Probably frozen after the 40 degree temperature drop from the day before.)

10 miles before Deadhorse I finally see Caribou. They look like reindeer sitting and standing between the pipeline and the road. I finally shiver into town feeling like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber after going up the rockies on his mini-bike with his snot frozen to his lip, "Th-th-that was c-c-cool, man!"

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John was right: there is nothing to see in Deadhorse. It's a flat oilfield, basically, abutting the Arctic Ocean. The world must be out of oil, because to search for it, find it, and pump it out of here means that they must have tried everywhere else in the world first.

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Some tourists at the corrugated tin hotel ask me about my ride. "How much do you pay for a gallon gas?" a lady from Ohio wants to know. "He'll pay what ever they're asking!" says a man from Indiana. They all roar with laughter for so long I don't get to answer. Funny guy. It's 2.89, by the way. $3.30 in Coldfoot.

I'm told by the concierge that there is a bear in town today and that I should take wide turns around building corners if I go outside. I cinch my beef jerky and Snicker's-stuffed jacket and make a run for the bike. It is 34 degrees outside and mostly cloudy. "Gorgeous weather!" say the oil workers.

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The food at the Prudhoe Bay cafeteria is fantastic. Cinnamon rolls as big as your two fists for a dollar. They really feed these oil guys right. They work six days a week. I wonder where they go on their day off. Grilled salmon and prime rib tonight. Now I know what's on all those 18-32 wheelers coming up the highway.

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Beyond here there be dragons, Ichiro!

I eat and head out of town one hour after getting in. I pumped gas from a barrel after throwing a few levers in a shed and inserting a credit card. I can't be too sure that all of Deadhorse isn't now pumping gas on my card. I fill the two gallon gas can again and strap it on securely (or so I thought) with bungees.

On the way out I snap a caribou picture while riding. Nowhere to stop and pull over. At 89 miles I'm ready to put some gas from the can. I pull over by a pipeline access road and reach back. No gas can. Oh crap. It fell off somewhere. But where?

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Decision time. If the can is 10 miles back I'll pick it up and keep going. If it is 40 miles back I might as well go all the way back because now I'm short on gas again. What if the can fell off and broke? I didn't see gas cans for sale at Deadhorse. There might be nothing to fill when I get back there. Maybe I should wait for the others. Maybe they picked it up and are bringing it. But if I ride further ahead they may have already put the gas in their own tanks by then.
I ride back to Deadhorse about 500 feet then say screw it--I'm going on. I gotta get over Atigun Pass to the warm side in case I'm stranded. If I'm stranded 60 miles short of Coldfoot perhaps I can convince them to go on to Coldfoot and come back for me. Actually I shouldn't count on that either.

As luck would have it, not 10 miles later I find an old RV towing an ATV with three gas cans on the back. I pull over and knock on the door--which seems like a strange thing to do in the middle of the tundra in the middle of nowhere with nothing in any direction for miles. But someone answered. "My gas can fell off and I don't think I can make it all the way to Coldfoot. Could I possibly buy some gas from you?"
The man in the RV says "No, but you can have some."
"You might be surprised how much I'm willing to pay you for some right now."
"Heh, I'll bet." He hands me a three gallon gas can about 1/2 full. I don't want to impose so I only put in about 3/4 of a gallon, even though he told me I could take it all. Only later do I realize that if I'm still getting 185 to reserve, I didn't take enough to get to Coldfoot. I thank him profusely but he won't take my money. "I'll pay it forward to the next guy," I say. "That's the way to do it," he says.

So I ride on convinced more and more with each passing mile that I still didn't put enough in. Approaching Atigun Pass the dust is terrible. The fine stuff gets thrown up into the air whenever something touches it. I pull over and stop every time a truck comes in the opposite direction, making sure first that noone is behind me when I do. My lights are so covered with filth, they can't be seen. I wipe my visor with a wet towel from my pocket every 20 miles.

I make it over the pass and shut off the engine to coast down every hill. At a rest stop the others catch up with me. They saw a gas can on the side of the road outside of Deadhorse, but left it there! I ride ahead hoping to make it to Coldfoot. I do. The others catch me minutes later having split their own cans between them. I fill up and realize I was getting about 50mpg with my conservative ride downwind and downhill. Looks like I would have made it anyway even without the gas can.

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Hit 10,000 miles on the way back.

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At Coldfoot station I recount the story of the lost gas can for the girls there. Apparently someone left a gas can there the day before for someone in need to have for free. They happily give it to me. I sleep on it, and realize I'm not paying it forward, so I fill it with gas and leave it back at the counter with a note for the next rider in need. Those girls thought I was the greatest. They liked watching the pay-it-foreward saga continue.

At Yukon River camp, the lovely Natascha (E. Oregon U.) is there to welcome me back. I recount the gas can story. And what had someone dropped off, just that day? My old gas can (empty). Wow. Karma.

So at the end of 840 miles of the roughest road, what do you do? You take another 80 mile dirt road to some hot springs!

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Again, absolutely nothing around. Just a dirt road through the wilderness for 80 miles, ending in a roadhouse with a trading post, a post office, a river, and a makeshift campground.

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I rode miles and miles without seeing a single car, leaving dust swirling behind the rear wheel like a jet-trail. I saw ptarmigans, another moose, and lots of dragonflies. One splattered all over my GPS and I had to pick out the pieces later. Lovely. The locals all have their favorite bar stools at the roadhouse. They were on them that night. They were on them the next morning. They are probably on them now.

I'm headed for different hot springs tonight--just for comparison purposes of course. And my hands/claws could use it. It's actually after 8 p.m. now that I've been typing so long. Maybe that $25 hostel in town again. I'm beat--but the sun will still be up for hours.

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Checked my bank account just now. I spent more money on this trip than I ever should have. A digital camera, memory card, and the two tires installed were the big stingers (almost $1000) but I haven't been too frugal daily either. I should be cooking my own food instead of eating at truck stops. Maybe open a can of tuna instead of having a $9 sandwich and coke.

Met a young guy at the Roadhouse who works road construction in AK in the summer, makes $10K/month driving a backhoe, then goes back to school in Florida. Room and board is covered at the roadhouse, and there is nothing to buy there, so he leaves town each fall with all $30K in the bank. I gotta rethink this Bay-Area-lawyer thing! Do you know how long it would take to save $30K free and clear when rent is over $2K per month in SF? If I did what this guy was doing, I could work three months a year and travel the other 9. I hear smoke jumpers make good money too. What do you think? Do you see me jumping out of planes and into burning forests?



Posted by James McPherson at June 24, 2005 04:42 AM GMT
 
 

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