To The Arctic Ocean – Day #1

If you’ve been following my ride for the last week or so you’re undoubtedly sick of hearing about this Dalton Highway, or the haul road as it was called before it has become something of a tourist attraction for the adventure minded looking to brave it to the Arctic Circle and for the perhaps suicidal who wish to venture beyond to the Arctic Ocean.

The Dalton Highway begins 84 miles north of Fairbanks and ends 414 miles later in the town of Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean’s Prudhoe Bay. This road goes further north than any other road in North America.

About the same time our astronauts were exploring the lunar surface of the moon, geologists and oil company engineers were exploring the tundra of Alaska’s north slope. And while Armstrong and Aldrin didn’t find cottage cheese on the moon, in 1969 oil was discovered in similarly desolate terrain. This at a time when Alaska’s economy was still trying to recover from the boom days of the gold rush and the massive earthquake that rocked the southern part of the state in the mid 60’s. Oil would revitalize Alaska but the process of getting oil from the coast of the Arctic Ocean to the motorhomes, automobiles, plastic processing plants and more would prove to be a major challenge for Alaska and the rest of the United STates.

The oil flowed directly under Native land claims. And environmental groups were extremely weary about oil company claims that precautions would be taken to minimize disruption. Finally after claims were settled, environmental groups pacified and investment dollars in place, the Trans- Alaskan Pipeline was approved in the early 1970’s.

Overcoming permafrost, mountain ranges and the wacky and winding waters of the Yukon River, the pipeline and the Dalton Highway were built in just three years between 1974 and 1977. This pipeline would send the valuable oil nearly 1,000 miles south to Valdez, just east of Anchorage.

The truckers who make riding this road a menace to motorcyclists and automobiles a like still call it the Haul Road. After all, it was built for truckers and still is their road.

And you can tell by the way they drive it. For the first 4 or 5 years until after its completion the road was open only to commercial traffic. It’s called the Haul Road, because everything needed to support building the oil fields, the pipeline and the road itself was hauled on this road on giant tractor trailer trucks. But in 1981, the state of Alaska named it after James B. Dalton, a lifelong Alaskan and expert in arctic engineering who was involved in early oil exploration efforts on the North Slope. The road at this time was only open to milepost 211. Finally, just ten years ago in 1995 the road was opened for public access all the way to Deadhorse, the industrial oil camp at Prudhoe Bay.

Eager to wet my feet in the Arctic Ocean I finally turned onto the road I thought I was riding early yesterday, the James B. Dalton Highway. Dick Hutchinson assured me this would be easier than the long ride to the end of the Old Steese Highway, which I soon learned was my fabled 300 mile rocky dirt wrong turn. Here the road turns to packed dirt and gravel.

Within the first 10 miles I ride through the charred timber from the Erickson Creek Fire which burned for more than a month and burning nearly 118,000 acres. But signs of life in the radiating fireweed that blankets the ground scattered with burnt stumps and sticks.

Planning for this ride I knew that fuel could be an issue. With only two gas stations between the start of the highway and Deadhorse at the end of the road, it’s important to take advantage of every fuel stop. My first would be at the Yukon River crossing. With a little cafe and gift shop I topped off the tank and met a fellow adventure ride, Ramon. Riding a KLR650 he was returning from the ride to the Arctic Ocean and would eventually make his way down through the lower 48. Without an itinerary or agenda he was simply on his own solo adventure. His biggest regret would be not getting a good jacket. Cursing his First Gear riding jacket for chafing his neck and the velcro strap belting him in the face, he hoped to find a shop to get something good. A reminder of those who try to adventure with gear that may suit a weekend or weeklong journey, but for extended adventures the importance of a good relationship with gear and clothing you’ll become all too intimate with can’t be overstated. I was happy with my riding suit though in dire need of a cleaning — this would have to wait.

As I continued up the road a few large big rigs had me eating dust and construction crews watering the dirt and gravel had me side-winding like a snake through the slick mud. But overall the road wasn’t as bad as my previous day. Confident and thrilled to be riding fresh and on the road north, I kept the throttle rolled and my eyes on the road.

Soon I found myself on a steady incline as I rose to feast my eyes on the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, the smoke from fires burning nearby in Fairbanks had blown my way and any wildlife had long migrated away from these flats. I continued winding my way through Tundra and brush when I was treated with a surprise — pavement. After nearly 100 miles of gravel and dirt, I was happy to crank up the speed and make more time while taking in my first views of the Arctic summer.

Then I crossed it. The Arctic Circle. A milestone that had been on my list for years and one that I thought I’d check off yesterday, but here I was standing on the Arctic Circle. Perhaps slightly anticlimactic save for the photogenic sign and sense of accomplishment, but after a few snaps of the shutter I was eager to get to the Ocean.

As I rolled closer to Coldfoot Camp I blew by the first entrance and then the second. I wasn’t clear to me which way to turn. So I slowed watched a big rig approach me from the opposite direction and slowly started to make a U-turn after it passed. Then it happened. And I’m not sure how. But as I made my u-turn and crossed the crest of the road my bike started to fall. Going to slow and spacing on goosing the throttle the bike fell to the high side. I stuck out my bad and broken foot to try to catch it, but the weight and the pain bolting through my foot sent me down. All at a couple miles per hour. The young guy in the rusted out old Pontiac Sunbird helped me get on my way. But I felt a setback to any healing of that foot and the weight of the bike and its gear pushed the Jesse bag closer to my gas cap making it impossible to open it wide enough for refueling. Ahhh. A mild predicament.

The second gas stop is exactly 240 miles from Deadhorse, the only other gas on this road, is in Coldfoot. Coldfoot Camp proudly touts its claim to fame as the northern most truck stop in the world And it is a truck stop. Dusty, dirty, noisy and expensive. But it’s got gas. And with a riding range of just over 200 miles, I’d have to plan my continued ride to Deadhorse carefully. With two 1.5L spare fuel cans, I’d have no problem getting to Deadhorse.

In 1900, early prospectors early prospectors got cold feet as the winter set in and left this camp which has taken on the name Coldfoot. Nearly 8pm and tired from riding 200 miles and breathing the dust from the road and smoke from the air, and with an aching foot and obstructed gas tank, I figured this would be a good reason to call it a day here in ColdFoot Camp.

For $45 the small mechanic/hack shop in Coldfoot managed to help me straighten the bag and rack slightly enough to get the fuel cap open. Shelling out another $145 for a room, beers and some grub I once again the captive audience is taken advantage of and pays its price — there was no way I’d set up my tent with the pain still shooting through me previously healing broken foot. Such is life on the Dalton Highway – Day 1.

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Stats:

Chatanika, AK to Coldfoot Camp, AK 8-10-05

Moving Average: 45.4 mph

Maximum Speed: 72 mph

Moving Time: 5:45:55

Total Miles: 262

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