Anchorage to Fairbanks – 350 miles
Rising slowly from sea level to around 3,000 feet, the highway north is bordered by thickly wooded landscape. About half way from Anchorage to Fairbanks, you pass to the east of the Denali National Park, and Mount McKinley, at 20,000+ feet, the tallest mountain in N.America. Unfortunately we only saw clouds, so imagination had to take over from where reality left off. A 13 mile drive from the main highway takes you into the park where we saw a large stag caribou and two bull moose. Heading back north again the road rises along
a ridge as you approach Fairbanks with broad, flat-bottomed valleys on both sides. It is curious that this far north how vegetation is sensitive to elevation, and even with a minor change (300-400
metres) in height, the vegetation changes – trees smaller and sparser.
We arrived on Fairbanks at around 6PM, checked into the hotel and then went for dinner in “the pump room”, an old water pumping station now converted into a themed restaurant and bar complex. It has been a fairly long (350 miles) but gentle first day, with only minor rain in the middle.
Fairbanks to Coldfoot and the Dalton Highway – 260 miles
Setting off at 08:00 our first stop was to visit the Alaska Pipeline visitor centre. For people outside of the oil industry, or without a technical background, this was probably of no more than vague or feigned interest, but for me provided a chance to touch and see the Aleyaska pipeline for the first time for real. Crossing some 800 miles of mountains, tundra, lakes and rivers from the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Valdez in the south, it carries 800,000 barrels of oil a day (that’s about 128 million litres or 27 million imperial gallons).
In gentle rain we continued north to the beginning of the James Dalton Highway which was constructed in the 1970’s as the access route to build the pipeline and haul equipment to Prudhoe Bay oil field operations. The Dalton Highway is a challenge. Gravel, deep and slippery mud, hard-packed dirt, ruts, pot-holes and occasional smooth tarmac blacktop all in the space of a few miles, with often steep gradients to deal with and long, heavy trucks with a timetable to keep. Add motorhomes, hunters in big 4×4’s and motorcycles and you get an eclectic mix of humanity. Perhaps the hardest parts to
deal with were the areas where road works were taking place. Water is sprayed on the dirt surface to soften it, followed an hour or so later by a grader which provides for an unpredictable slippery surface until the many 60 ton trucks have past to compact it again. The weather plays a significant role as a light rainfall turns a hard-packed surface back into slime. The opposite is true also – an hour or two of sunshine creates a very driveable surface again but watch out for the shaded areas!
After a long day we arrived at Coldfoot, about half way to Prudhoe Bay. Initially a gold mining camp in the early 1900’s with the lure of the “get rich quick” Alaskan Gold Rush, it boomed and busted in a few years along with its nearest close town of Wiseman, 15 miles or so north. A small amounts of mining, mostly panning in river silt, still takes place but not on the scale of the 1900’s boom.
Coldfoot to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay – 240 miles
Coldfoot was named after the less-than-hardy, would-be miners around 1900 who got “cold feet” and turned around when the going got tough. Languishing in obscurity for 60 years or more until it was re-established as a construction camp for the pipeline and road, it is now a rest stop for truckers, hunters and hardy tourists. Accommodation is in the same basic but functional pre-fabricated modular units used by the construction crews 40 years ago. A newly built visitors’ centre has well laid out exhibits and daily talks by park rangers, naturalists and visiting speakers, as well as excellent educational documentary films of the area.
An incident on the way up to Coldfoot, which I will explain at the end of the trip, meant that we had to make some adjustments to the itinerary, and split the group into two parts for the next part of the
expedition. Owing to the difficulty and unpredictability of the Dalton Highway it was decided that only the most experienced riders and the support vehicle would continue north by motorcycle to Prudhoe Bay, while the others had a chance to ride up in a van. As one of the slowest riders with a strong sense of self-preservation to avoid putting in jeopardy the next 24,000 miles for the sake of 240 miles, I rode in the van. In this way the line of riders was kept tighter and not spread out too far in case of emergencies. But I still reached Prudhoe, the official start point. Driving up in the van it was clear that the road was in pretty good condition, still very challenging, but no more than the Fairbanks to Coldfoot section we had already achieved. The fastest riders completed this 240 miles in 5 hours…it would have taken me a lot longer, but I am sure I would have made it. Leaving Coldfoot in fairly dense forest, following a river valley, the trees thin out until reaching the signpost for “the last spruce” at the foot of the major mountain range, the Brooks Range, which stretches from Canada into Alaska, and forms a watershed. After a gentle foothill
climb, the road rises rapidly to the Atigun Pass through now bare rock scenery, but with enough isolated grass patches on the slope to support a few Dall sheep and attract bow hunters. Descending on the
north side towards Deadhorse, the scenery changes dramatically to wide, flat tundra filled valleys between widely spaced, low lying hills. Here nothing grows taller than a low scrubby bush, moss and occasional blue flowers between the many pools of water. The road creates challenges where the maintenance crews are scraping off the top layer, grading with new layers of dirt, gravel and oil to bind them together, and spreading water to consolidate the new surface.
The Arctic Caribou Lodge in Deadhorse was again a former construction camp from the 1970’s serving the oil fields, and still acts as such but for the few tourists that make it this far up. Arriving as we did at around 9 PM we had no chance to take the oil field tour bus, but I think we absorbed most of the remoteness and atmosphere of a working oil camp. Notwithstanding low cloud, there was daylight/twilight to beyond midnight. We again headed south in the morning, after purchasing the obligatory Prudhoe Bay stickers for the bike of course! Today the same road we drove yesterday is anything but the same as we set off in a damp, cold morning with yesterday’s dry dusty surface once again turned to slime in some places, but after 40 miles or so the sun came out, and road surface quickly dried from passing trucks consolidating the top surface. We arrived back in Coldfoot at around 4:30 to torrential rain…not boding well for our 280 mile ride tomorrow back down the Dalton to Fairbanks and then Delta Junction overnight.
Coldfoot to Delta Junction, Alaska – 350 miles
Days are starting to merge, and absent newspapers, phone signal, internet connection or anything remotely resembling national or
international news media, I have no idea what is happening in the big wide world beyond a remote corner of Alaska. Rumours about riots in London and a stock market crash, but I am blissfully ignorant.
Today is a day I was not looking forward to – the return south on the Dalton. On our way up here just 3 days ago, it was an absolute nightmare of slimy mud and heavy trucks travelling at high speed. A moment’s lost concentration and one can see the result in skeletal remains of trucks and cars over the precipitous edges. As I prepared
the bike for leaving at 6:30 I had to scrape ice off the top box and side
cases. The temperature gauge showed 3.5 degrees C (about 37F), and fell to 1.5 in the valleys which were filled with ethereal mist. The first 70 miles or so were on good tarmac hardtop, and as the morning wore on, the sun gained strength and it turned into a delightful morning. We passed the famous Gobblers Knob, the official ending point of the Pan American Highway, though there is nothing to show for it. Then the second obligatory “Kodak moment” as we crossed the Arctic Circle for the second time. The final photo opportunity was “Oh Shit Corner”, and I’ll leave you to figure out why it was named such!
What was a slimy morass only 3 days ago, had turned into hard baked slightly dusty road surface, and while we barely exceeded 20 miles
per hour coming up, we happily dashed along at 50-60 mph on our way back….until reaching the last section at the end of the Dalton, when we had to pay the price in 5 miles of steep gradients and deep mud, with heavy trucks using more than half the road. This was quite
scary, and only the prior training of standing on the pegs, trailing the back wheel as it fish-tailed around while putting all the weight on the front wheel to dig into the mud and maintain stability kept us from laying the bikes down in front of 40+ ton trucks coming the other way. We were pleased to get back to a hard surface and the rest of the day passed without incident, arriving at Delta Junction at around 6PM in a heavy rain shower.