With clean laundry, a hurting foot and a thank you note on the counter, I bid Stormy’s pad farewell and head to DHL to be finally reacquainted with my long lost but not forgotten PowerBook. But finding the DHL office proved to be a challenge. I take the Chena Hot Springs exit and flashback to my moose race the night before and spend 20 minutes of u-turns, wrong turns and turn arounds I find it sharing the same modular building as the post office. A tiny yellow and orange DHL logo above the door of Arctic Couriers is the only clue this is the right place. But there was my package sitting on the floor next to the big dog who was excited to see me.
“I don’t think you can just go up there,” the other half of the husband and wife team that run Arctic Courier, when I asked her about the road up to Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay.
“We’ve been up there twice,” according to the husband, ” first time our driver limped back with three shredded tires,” shaking his head, “second time we had to send a truck up to get him.”
In the parking lot the prim and proper lady who seems out of place here in the outskirts of Fairbanks says, “I wouldn’t go up there,” slamming the door of her car and rolling down the window, “and I live here.”
Everyone has stories about the Dalton Highway, or the haul road as it’s called.
“You should call the Sherif before going up there,” another advises me.
“A group from England shipped there bikes up there a week or so back,” the manager at the Harley shop explained. “One of our guys was called up to Medevac a guy out of there,” his beard, tatoos and black Sturgis t-shirt are like a road sign proclaiming his bike of choice, “a guy came around the corner and a rock rolled out in front of him and he went down. Broken femur. And he only made it to pump station #2. I don’t understand why people want to ride that road.”
Even George at Trails End BMW offered his opinion. “Did you lose something up there?” Shaking my head. “Then I guess there’s no need to go up there then, huh?”
I recalled reading the stories on the internet that have cast this road into the motorcycle riding history books as legendary. I remembered the guy who blasted down the road and hit a surprise patch of mud that sent him sailing. Bruised and embarrassed he faired better than his bike which had to be towed 400 miles back to Fairbanks. Then the guy who hit a good sized Caribou. I seemed to forget about the stories of the many who have successfully completed the journey and marking the Arctic Circle and Ocean off their lists of “been there done that.”
I left that Post Office DHL “complex” determined to ride 500 miles to the top of the world. 425 miles of those miles on dirt and gravel — each way. Stopping off in Fox to top off the gas because there are only two gas stops along the 500 mile route. And the last 240 miles there are no gas stations, no services, nothing.
In Alaska the summer time is sacred for building and construction. And with the extreme temperatures of the winter the roads get punished. From frost heaves and the constant scraping of snow plows construction crews are everywhere. Pulling out of the gas station the flagger waved me on and I cruised forward offering the ubiquitous smile and wave and rolled the throttle on. Thirty of so miles later the pavement ended and I found myself cruising the dirt following a guy on a KLR 650. After about 10 miles of construction the road gets progressively worse, but not real bad. Feeling confident and cruising at a good clip I cruised past a section of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline through muskeg, passing through the remnants of last years wildfires and the beautiful fireweed, along the Chatanika River and climbed the dirt road to Eagle Summit.
“Come up here during Summer Solstice,” the elderly man suggested. “You wanna see the midnight sun?” his advice and passion intrigued me, “this is the best place in Alaska to see it.”
I continued cruising the road. Those fabled stories of extremely rough road and heavy traffic of big rigs and tankers seemed to be folk lore. The road was rough but not bad, hadn’t seen a truck in an hour and in the distance I could see the silhouette of the lone rider on his KLR.
After a couple hours of riding I pull into a small settlement. Spotting gas pumps and a sign for the general store, I pulled in only to find out that the dilapidated building was boarded up. The pumps closed down and debris strewn everywhere. Seemed like someone just packed up in the middle of several projects and bolted.
Less than a mile down the road more gas pumps and a cafe store. I spot the KLR in the parking lot. After filling the tank I entered the cafe to pay for my fuel and make acquaintance with Mr. KLR. This was an afternoon ride for him. But he wasn’t going any further. With an empty bottle of Motrin lying next to his burger and fries, he said that this was a day’s ride for him – time to go home.
I was in Central, Alaska. The town of Central, that is. An old mining town, today Central gains infamy and tourists for what’s billed as the “Toughest Sled Dog Race in The World”, the Yukon Quest.
At the Top of the World, in the Yukon-Alaskan Interior, an epic event takes place every year that few people from “down south” have experienced. Covering 1000 miles between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and Fairbanks, Alaska during the depths of the Arctic winter, the Yukon Quest is the “Toughest Sled Dog Race in the World.”
The Yukon Quest Trail follows historic Gold Rush and Mail Delivery routes from the turn of the 20th Century. Once a travel highway of the Northern frontier, the trail comes alive each February with the breath of hundreds of sled dogs. Teams of one human ‘musher’ and 14 canine athletes, travel for two weeks, racing through some of the last pristine wilderness remaining in North America.
“You staying with us tonight,” the spunky petite brunette asked me as I was putting on my gloves. Hmmmm. Was this a proposition?
“Should I?” She smiled and told me the cabins were very nice.
“I’m think I’ve got to move on, going to try to make it to Prudhoe,” I declined the invitation. “How far is that?”
“I don’t know, but if you’re continuing up the road be very careful. It gets very rocky and windy just a few miles up.”
I pushed the orange starter button and with a wink and a smile I was on the road again. It wasn’t more than a few minutes when I realized my cute brunette wasn’t kidding. The road turned from nice loose gravel and dirt to rocks, ruts and sand. After jarring my teeth around and playing keep the front tire away from those sharp jutting rocks I relaxed the throttle. The road got worse. The sand came and went and deep beneath it hidden gems of sharp rocks shook me up and my wheel around a bit more than I cared for.
After about an hour of 25 mph riding a large truck heading my way, but simply a grader. Bad thing was he was pushing all the loose gravel and send from the side of the road into my path making it harder to negotiate the bike through the winding curves and tire piercing rocks. Tenuous at times all I could think about with my white knuckles holding my handlebars was dropping the bike and standing exhausted in the middle of no where with a broken foot and 600 pounds of motorcycle and gear that I wouldn’t be able to pick up on my own.
The front tire continued to wobble and spit rocks while testing my patience, endurance and skill. On parts of this road I had to drop to about 20mph, but cautious and slightly fearful I pressed on.
Per my GPS my average speed was a crawling 28mph for the day and the road kept dragging on. Ironically, I was amazed at the lack of traffic. Not a truck, car nor motorcycle in the last hour. And after two hours of riding since fueling I’d barely gone 50 miles. But then the road got better. I rolled the throttle on but caught myself as I spotted a few kids and a “slow down” sign.
Riding on roads the require every last bit of concentration and focus drain energy faster than those huge RVs I saw on the Alcan guzzle gas. I was feeling slightly fatigued but happy to take a break.
I pulled up to one of the two rustic gas pumps at the general store. The only dial that registered as I topped off the tank of my Dakar was gallons. Not sure of the price nor my total, but I noted the gallons before pulling on the screen door and entering the small store. Sitting behind the counter was Dick Hutchinson. A sturdy older man with a silver beard, ball cap he was reclining in an office style chair flanked by a television, cash register and 15″ PowerBook computer.
I dropped a snack and bottle of water on the counter.
“So you made it!” He said peering out at my motorcycle. “That’s some road, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Stressful,” I assured him. “Hey I like your computer. An Apple guy huh?”
I explained to him that in my panniers was a computer identical to his and my story of long detachment and reaquaintening.
“I literally just picked up my computer from DHL in Fairbanks a few hours ago.” Mac users are like dual-sport adventure motorcyclists. Not content with the common everymen machine, we find something special in our computer and bike. We like to go off the beaten track, explore the unknown and take a more creative approach to our hobby and work. “No reason to have a PC when you can have a Mac.” He offers me to use his wireless internet access. Thinking that its been nearly two weeks since I had “plugged in” I pondered the time and the opportunity.
“Wow! Wireless way out here. How much further to Prudhoe?” I ask him.
He looked at me as his smile turned to a grin. “Prudhoe? You want the good news or the bad news?” I fiddled for my wallet preparing to pay when I lift my head up in wonder?
“You’re on the wrong road.”
I think the whole town heard my jaw drop to the ground.
“You just made a 300 mile wrong turn. But the good news is the road to Prudhoe is in much better shape.”
My mind started spinning. In seconds I relived the last 4+ hours, and particularly the last 50 miles, and the thought of turning around and doing it all over again floored me.
A customer walked in and Dick introduced me to her, the town’s postmaster. “He made a wrong turn and thought he was heading to Prudhoe,” he tells her. It’s happened before they assured me. Earlier this summer a few tractor trailer trucks ended up in Circle City.
It’s the sign outside of Fox that fooled me and several others during the year. “Circle” I thought for sure I was heading to the Arctic Circle. And there’s only one road that gets you there. But I wasn’t on it.
Located on the Yukon River, Circle City was once the largest gold mining town on the Yukon River, earning the nickname ‘the biggest log cabin city in the world’. The town was named Circle City because the early miners thought they were at the Arctic Circle. And I thought I was going to the Arctic Circle!
In 1896 Circle City was ‘The Paris of Alaska’ with a population of 1200 and a gold production that exceeded one million dollars. The town featured eight dance halls, an opera house, a well-stocked library, 28 saloons, a school and a hospital. But before the winter was out it was all over. News of the Klondike gold strike, upriver near Dawson, turned Circle City into a ghost town by the summer of 1897.
Today Circle is a quiet town with a population of around 80, an air strip, a store and a trading post — owned by Dick and his wife. Dick moved to Circle in 1966 from Santa Monica. Why? Because it was the end of the road. But actually, Circle City is the beginning of the road. Miners and settlers arrived her by riverboat and the road I rode on was built as they moved down the river staking claims and mining for gold. Dick is also an expert on photographing the Aurora Borealis. His web page has stunning photographs and tips on how to shoot pictures of the heavens and its amazing planets and light shows.
Dick built the town’s phone system and power company. Judging by the gentle purr of a generator from behind the store, he’s still the man withe power in Circle. And for the next hour or so, we bonded over motorcycles, wrong turns, photography and peregrine falcons. He and a friend have been filming a family of peregrine falcons for the last several years. “Last year none of the eggs made it,” he told me.
“The wife and I just like to go out there to get away from it all – and relax,” he explained. I chuckled and thought what “all” was in his life. To get away from it all. Funny. And many of us go to places like Circle to get away from it all. He invited me to join him that evening to watch the next. But even with the virtual endless daylight I convinced myself to turn that bike around and do that road all over again.
“You’re going to be tired. It’s a long way, nearly 5 hours back to Fairbanks,” he cautioned. it was pushing on 7 O’clock. I didn’t want to ride any part of that road in the dark.
So I packed up my Powerbook and rode into the sunset. Literally. The road going back was even more rattling than coming up. With the sun in my eyes, I could barely see the road and was forced to ride slower. I popped in and then jerked out of a rut into a deep patch of sand causing me to tighten and nearly lose my balance. I was tired. I thought of the cute and petite brunette. Maybe I should’ve stayed with her tonight. Dream on.
By now the fun had drained out of me. I couldn’t wait to get back. Back somewhere.
Today’s Ride Stats: Fairbanks, AK to Circle City and back to Chatanika Lodge
See the next post
(1) the good part of the road to Circle City; (2) Iconographic road sign tells it like it is; (3) Abandoned gas station and store in Central, Alaska; (4) No kidding!; (5) Dick Hutchinson, Circle City entrepreneuer, photographer and wildlife observer; (6) My bike at the end of the road in Circle City on the Yukon River – Still 565 miles to Prudhoe Bay; today’s ride put my 300 miles off course.; (7) Circle City sign and facts.