Day 9: Crossing Arctic Circle and Reaching the Top of North America and the Arctic Ocean (510 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska 23-Aug-13)

As Prudhoe Bay was the geographic goal of the trip, this longer post is in parts: the Dalton Highway, the ride, and the destination.

The Dalton Highway

The Dalton Highway (the North Slope Haul Road to locals) starts 90 miles out of Fairbanks and is the most northern maintained road in North America, ending at the Arctic Ocean, well above the Arctic Circle. Its 414 miles were hastily constructed in 5 months for tractor-trailers to bring supplies up to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. It was opened in its entirety to the public in 1994. While they are working to pave it over time, the majority is unpaved, packed gravel, and chip seal.

“The Dalton Highway is one of the most remote stretches of road in North America. A tow truck or emergency vehicle will take hours or even days to reach you (MotoQuest).” The lowest temperature in North America (-83F) was measured just off the Dalton, and there are 24hrs of daylight in the summer above the Arctic Circle at mile 115 of the 414 mile highway.

It can be punishing and dangerous in bad weather, of which I had a taste. Two days prior to my ride, six British motorcyclist got in trouble on Atigun Pass with a snow storm. They shut the road so that they could slowly be helped down without getting hit by the fast moving trucks that are a constant threat on narrow sections with no shoulder. Others experience that it can take 3hrs to go 10 miles when wet and can become impassable for a bike, in large part due to the surface becoming notoriously slick when wet.

The Ride

I set off from Fairbanks late at 11:45am, waiting longer than expected for tire and oil changes to get the bike ready. It had rained solidly all night and continued to do so all morning – the road was going to be challenging once the pavement ended.

The original plan was to camp near Coldfoot. As expected, conditions were poor, with a number of very slippery sections that felt as if you were balancing a 700lb motorcycle on a greased ice skate. After crossing the Arctic Circle, the ranger at the Coldfoot Information Center explained that Atigun Pass had light snow today, heavier snow and rain tomorrow, clear the following day, and bad weather after that for a number of days.

After much deliberation, I decided to go for it and make use of the late light. It would be unsafe to try the pass tomorrow, and I needed one clear day to get in and one to get out. At 6:15pm, I left Coldfoot with 240 hard miles to Deadhorse. It was the right decision; but, another 5.5hrs of challenging riding.

It rained nearly the entire time, it snowed for 90min, and the temperature ranged from 28-38F. Thankfully only the top of the pass and a few other sections were really slippery. Once down from the pass, it was a race against time. Although it never gets dark in the summer, after 11pm it is hard to see the road clearly.

The bike was absolutely perfect and was designed to eat up these roads. On cleaner packed dirt and chip seal sections, I could do 65-70mph, floating over the constant ruts and potholes. I had the throttle going to the point that my throttle hand had blisters through the gloves.

The biggest challenge was visibility. Despite generous amounts of anti-fog spray, my visor fogs, if I close it too much. If open too much, the rain at speed is like little needles in your eyes. In expectation of this being a big problem on the Dalton and with trucks throwing up waves of dirt and stones, I bought a pair of clear shooting glasses in Fairbanks. They were essential.

After a hard 12hrs, I pulled into Deadhorse at 11:45pm, relieved to be off the road. I had the right low temperature gear and could always have camped on the side of the road; but, it was heavenly to get into a bed, instead of a sleeping bag for the first time since the trip started.

My fingers are crossed that the weather is as forecasted on Sunday for the return. When the conditions are good, the road and scenery are much more enjoyable.

The Destination

Deadhorse looks like the set of a Bond movie. It exists to serve the oil industry and is almost exclusively industrial. There are officially less than 50 permanent residents; but, up to 3,000 temporary, resident workers at any time.

There were no homes that I could see but instead large, pre-fabricated blocks of rooms that are accommodation for shift workers, hunters, and errant motorcyclists. After the second try, I got lucky as normally you cannot get a room without a reservation, particularly at midnight.

While not an architectural masterwork, on the strongly plus side, all meals are included, and you can eat 24hrs a day from the cafeteria. Having not eaten any junk or fast food on the trip, I could not resist the soft serve ice cream machine – we became fast friends. With all that food and harsh outdoor conditions, these are men of stature. I looked nearly clean shaven compared to many and saw more Carhart overalls at dinner than in my whole life.

Although you cannot drive your own vehicle right to actual ocean, a short shuttle takes you there. After more than 4,000 miles riding, it was a moving experience to gaze out over the Arctic Ocean and dip a toe.

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6 thoughts on “Day 9: Crossing Arctic Circle and Reaching the Top of North America and the Arctic Ocean (510 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska 23-Aug-13)

  1. kevinpidduck

    Awesome Rog! Way to keep the ship upright. Here’s hoping for fare weather for the return. That pass sounds a little sketchy. K

    Reply
  2. Tom Paparatto

    Roger,
    As I sit here in San Diego enjoying my Sunday breakfast reading your post, it’s pretty hard for me to relate to the ruggedness, weather, and wilderness that you are experiencing! I am sure it is something that you will always remember. Love the stories of the people you have met along the way as well…I’m a bit envious of that part of your travels.
    Safe journey back. Hope the weather cooperates and look forward to your updates!
    Tom P.

    Reply
  3. Nancy

    Heretofore, I shall refer to you only as “Jack,” as in “Jack London,” or “you don’t know Jack,” or “Hit the Road, Jack.” You pick! Your adventures are insane! 🙂

    Reply
  4. Pete

    Congratulations on your success to reach the top of North America. If you send me your address when you get back home or if you stop at the Trading post I will let them know to give you a free copy of my Dalton Highway DVD. Have a safe trip…

    Reply

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