Bad things could have happened today. But thankfully the wind had blown the smoke away for the first couple hundred miles revealing the scenery I had missed yesterday. The arctic desert, tons of Caribou and somewhere out there Dall sheep and grizzlies.
The first 20 miles leaving Deadhorse today were the most nerve racking and scary of the trip. While the rough roads of the Old Steese Highway to Circle certainly taxed my concentration and focus, my continually improving riding skills guided me safely to Chatanika. Today the odds seemed stacked against me. As the old adage goes: timing is everything. Circumstance counts too.
The Dalton Highway is build on top of permafrost which is soft and squishy in the summer and hard as ice in the winter. Gravel and dirt is laid on the permafrost and the wind continues to blow the gravel and dirt away. The road is barely wide enough for two cars, to pass and if you make one move to side the road falls quickly several yards into the tundra. And if that doesn’t do it, the constant pounding of 100,000 lbs. plus loaded trucks spits the gravel to either the side or to the crest of the road. This leaves nice lines of semi deep gravel.
So maintaining this road is a full time job just as painting on the Golden Gate Bridge never stops. As the whipping winds of the arctic send the gravel and dirt flying slowly breaking down the road. To keep the road in place trucks periodically will “fertilize” the road with more gravel mixed with calcium chloride. Then grading trucks smooth this gravel cocktail. Finally, a water truck follows to wet the road so that the new gravel doesn’t fly away in the wind and the calcium chloride eventually dries and seals the gravel to the road.
Problem is if you happen to be in the vicinity of the maintenance trucks during any step of this process, you’re in for some interesting riding. Typically riders like to avoid riding in the gravel on the side or the crest. But if you happen to come upon newly dumped gravel, it’s fairly easy to wade through it though often jumps and jerks and sways of the wheels tense the muscles and wracks the nerves. But it’s the water trucks that can truly test your relaxability quotient. If you happen upon a freshly wetted strip of gravel, the calcium chloride cocktail turns the road into a greasy wetland where traction is non-existent. Hit this going to fast and your going to face plant. Go too slow and you’ll slip out and fall. Best thing is to hit this a couple hours after the sun, if it’s out that day, has started to harden the mixture. At least then you’ll have a tad of traction.
After my Arctic dip in the ocean I hopped on Doc and headed south. Within 10 miles of Deadhorse and cruising confidently at a nice clip I see a massive extra wide oversized load barreling down at me. First the pilot truck passes and just behind it taking 3/4 of the road is a 350,000 pound twenty some odd wheeled truck hauling a massive tank to be used in the natural gas operation at Deadhorse. The eminent outcome of this encounter would have me eating dust, deflecting rocks and blown around as if in a wind tunnel. The road climbed up at about 30 degrees and the massive truck barreled closer, I started to move to the side and rolled the throttle back. As I slowed down I rode directly into a foot of more deep line of gravel. Immediately my front wheel went into a low speed wobble throwing my handle bars back and forth. I could see the eyes of the driver as he passed precisely when I felt i had no control of the bike. I saw two options, I’d either dump it right there and become a pancake on the grill of this massive rig, or I’d go sliding down with my bike into the tundra. Either option scared me, but fate would have its way. Somehow I maintained to keep the bike straight. But I’m sure the driver of that rig thought he’d be contributing to yet another Dalton Highway statistic. Thankfully not. My mistake in this near fatal encounter had been slowing the bike as I rode into gravel — gravel I didn’t expect to be so deep.
If this encounter wasn’t too much to shake the wits out of me, just a further up the road as I approached Franklin Bluffs I found myself hot on the trail of a watering truck. For 10 miles or so I was wallowing in the greasy, slip-sliding mud of the calcium chloride cocktail mentioned above. White knuckled and still shook up from the near collision with the heavy duty, extra wide big rig. Fearful and visibly shaking and with high-anxiety I just held onto the handlebars, maintained my speed while the bike skated in the mud with me just wondering and waiting when I’d bite it and be picking up my broken bike and strewn luggage off Dalton’s fabled highway. But mile after mile of skating I made it.
A trucker I talked to later was part of a three truck entourage bringing parts for the natural gas operation. He told me his rig was 175K gross vehicle weight but the truck that nearly sent me down a road I felt too young to go was at 250K.
“When we go through that crap it’s the same thing. Wondering if we’re going to jackknife or high side the rig,” he confided. “I hate it too.”
Having beaten the highway and its massive haulers at its dangerous game, I began to relax and take in the scenery as I cruised through the remainder of the coastal plain, the north slope, crossed the continental divide over the Atigun Pass (4,739 ft) and flanked the Brooks Range in the full splendor of glorious light and better conditions.
Somewhere around Happy Valley I ran into a bunch of vans with colorful graphics and logos. After passing the third vehicle I pulled over to satiate my curiosity. I met a girl on a bicycle, a driver and a bicycle mechanic. Part of a 6 or 7 person team aiming to brake the record at riding a team from Deadhorse to Ushuaia, Argentina. Taking shifts each rider spends two or three hours riding. Others sleep, rest and eat. They will ride non-stop trying to make it to Argentina in six weeks.
At one point climbing the pass a water truck taking a leak cruised toward me in my lane. With the opposite lane soaked and slippery, I maintained course figuring he’d move – after all, he was in my line. WRONG! I could see the guy as I moved closer waving his arms directing me to the opposite lane. Wondering once again what would happen in my favorite roadwork cocktail mix, but I managed the short barely a mile stretch and continued to climb the pass.
Perhaps the insanity of the goal to reach the top of the world and the Arctic Ocean depletes common sense in those in it for simply the adventure. At least this is what I thought when three Harley Davidson’s blasted by me on their way to Prudhoe. Two of them wearing simply bandanas and sunglasses. No helmets. What are they thinking. The rocks, mud and gravel beat me up enough with my full-face helmet. But some guys just happy they’re in a state stupid enough not to have a helmet law take advantage of it regardless of the danger. But this isn’t Ohio, Minnesota or Texas. This is the arctic. And this is the Haul Road. Not my problem, but just makes me wonder.
Before I got to Coldfoot my fuel reserve light flashed. About 40 miles later I pulled over to tap into my reserve fuel cans I’d been carrying to add some fuel to my Dalton fire. In Coldfoot filled up on gas and cruised toward the Yukon River Crossing. Just south of Coldfoot Camp I ran into the smokey air.
Confident I could make it far enough south to avoid the smoke and the high prices of Coldfoot I pressed on. But the smoke didn’t let up. And just north of the Yukon River I decided to pull over at perhaps a little known restaurant on the Dalton Highway, The Hot Spot Cafe. Here I joined a team of smoke-jumpers for a buffet laid out by the owners including great pasta and fresh Yukon River Wild Salmon.
One of the fireman was hobbling around on crutches, so like men comparing scars I enquired as to the nature of his injury. TWo months ago on a jump he fractured both bones in his lower leg. Feeling a bit lame for my painful but much less complicated injury, he filled me in on the nature of smoke jumping. Because these fires burn rampantly out of control and that fires started by lightning, as most here start, are simply part of the natural course of changes in the wild. Smoke jumpers parachute from planes into the forest and carrying a dual-purpose tool that contains something like a brush or broom on one side and an ax on the other their sole purpose is to save property by cutting and creating a barrier between the property or dwelling and the fire. Then they moved on to the next. I thought to myself, jumping into the forest in the middle of a wildfire. These guys are crazy.
As the smoke created a fiery sunset I snuggled into one of the few rooms at the Hot Spot and dreamed the night away and about Jimmy D, and his highway.
The next morning I raced my way back to Fairbanks to have coffee once again with George, the legend behind Trails End BMW.
Deadhorse, AK to Arctic Circle, AK (Hot Spot Cafe) 8-12-05
Total Miles: 355.6
Total Time: 9:40:00
(1) The beauty of the Brooks Range from the legendary Dalton Highway – when wildfires aren’t blowing smoke this way; (2) the infamous trucks that create challenges for all drivers and riders on the highway; (3) count those wheels! the truck part of the convoy that nearly sent me to a Dalton statistic sheet; (4) My argentenian friends I connected with last night in Deadhorse; (5) the beautiful Brooks Range at magic light hour climbing Atigun Pass; (6) refueling Doc (7) the Atigun Pass; (8) Doc looking good in the shadows of Dalton’s scenic glory; (9) Smokey roads forced me to stay the night at the HotSpot; (10) Fiery sunset and Firetruck at the HotSpot
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