Day 13: Breakdown (120 miles from Denali National Park to ???? 27-Aug-13)

The 135 mile gravel Denali Highway is the old enterance to the National Park. The scenary is absolutely breathtaking and by far the most beautiful drive so far in Alaska. You drive right through a range of snow capped peaks and wind through valleys with every shade of green, contrasted by bright red fireweed.

Perhaps I was enjoying the scenery too much as, at mile 53 of the road, my front tire was swallowed by a mammoth size hole. While the whole road was potholed, most holes can be floated over at 45-55mph. Most, apparently not all. I hit this one so hard that the wheel rim bent, making it impossible for me to get my tubeless tire to seal and inflate using a low power air compressor that I carry. I took the wheel off and attempted for 90min to straighten the rim caveman style, slamming it as hard as I could over and over with various shaped rocks. It would not budge.

I flagged down two hunters in a pickup, Dave and Neil, who were seasoned Vietnam vets and they drove me to a hunting lodge with make shift tire repair 12 miles away. While they could not bend back into shape my rim with a large bench press, they had a proper air compressor and were able to pop the tire bead back in place with a burst of air. Dave and Neil then drove me back to the bike, waited while I remounted the wheel, and escorted me 35 miles to another lodge where the rough gravel road ended and my tire would be safe from the savage potholes. The lodge had rooms and a perfect dimly lit bar.

I had dinner with them and a great conversation before they headed back to their hunting trailer. I am absolutely indebted to them and hope that karma delivers them two big caribou.

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Day 12: Do You Smell a Pic-a-nic Booboo? (120 miles: Fairbanks to Denali National Park 26-Aug-13)

After getting the Dalton Highway cement-like-mud off our bikes by Dan the Man and his power washer, my new companion, Ofir, and I rode an easy 120 miles to Denali National Park. We arrived just in time to reserve a campsite and run to a park bus that left at 5pm for a 6hr tour – 3hrs in and 3hrs out the same way. It turned out to be a private tour as we were the only ones on the bus.

We were lucky to see 5 grizzley bears, including 2 cubs, and breathtaking views of the park and Mt. McKinley. We pitched our tents at 11:00pm and had a below freezing night. The cold was well worth it to see the bears.

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Day 11: Pain then Pleasure (502 miles: Deadhorse to Fairbanks 25-Aug-13)

While the ride up to Deadhorse was painful, the return was a pleasure. There was a short dusting of snow but otherwise sunny. I would have made it back about 2hrs faster but accompanied a KLR with broken rear sprocket 150 miles, limping at below 50mph.

Here is a map of the Dalton Highway that I forgot to post – it is a long way.

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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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Day 8: This Particular Man Walks into a Bar in Chicken, Alaska … (Dawson City, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska 22-08-13)

Two guys are talking to the bartender in a bar in Chicken, Alaska – a town of 23 in the summer and 6 in the winter, with no electricity, on the Top of the World Highway. The bartender asked them to mail a package for her. I interjected that I had seen that movie before and I hope they enjoy federal prison. One of them retorted, “well, at least there is plenty of sex.” We got along famously.

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