Ride Report: Day 11

Day 11 / Sunday, June 22, 2008

We got up early but couldn't get rolling right away since we found a flat in Chris' back tire. No problem. We had the tools and plugged up the hole pretty quickly. Onwards to the Arctic Ocean.

The next morning, Chris noticed his rear tire looked low on pressure and it wasn't getting filled up with air...

Because of this little sucker who was letting all the air out. No problem, because we can handle simple issues like this.

Chris' Tire Repair Kit using sticky rubber snakes.

First, ream the hole nice and clean.

Then place sticky snake in eye of holder.

Ram into the tire while twisting to get a maximum seal around the hole.

Now, this is where it's tricky. You have to pull the holder out while leaving the tire snake in place. A quick swift motion is required.

Voila, hole in tire is plugged. Trim off excess tire snake and fill with air. I myself prefer the mushroom plugs, as they're easier to work with. But whatever gets the job done.

Chris' full set of tools that he brought along. Nice machete.

Finally all set to leave. Time was around 10 am local.

I knew from previous ride reports that the famed Dalton Highway started a ways out from Fairbanks, but didn't realize it was around a 100 miles out. From Fairbanks, you take the Steese Highway, then straight onto the Elliott Highway, which had some fantastic sweepers and generally good road surface quality. It made for some fun riding, that too with hardly anybody else out on the road. Since this was Chris' first street bike in a long time, I gave him a few pointers on leaning into the corners and being a natural motorcyclist, he quickly caught on. He in turn helped me out with my off-road riding skills.

At the start of the Dalton, there are signs warning that the pavement ends here and that there is heavy industrial traffic on this road. But what they don't mention is that there are still large sections of pavement interspersed all along the route. It's not just 400 miles of gravel road. It almost seems like the initial part of the highway is much worse than the road further north. Maybe it’s to turn back the not so willing.

The road out of Fairbanks, leading to the Dalton Highway was nicely peppered with long sweepers and note the blue skies.

Since this was Chris' first street bike in a long time, I gave him a few pointers on leaning into the corners and being a natural motorcyclist, he quickly caught on. He in turn helped me out with my off-road riding skills.

Twisting this way and that way...

See what I mean by enjoying these signs that point to such huge landmarks.

At the start of the Dalton Highway.

The pavement ends and it's gravel for the next 400 odd miles to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay.

Speed Limit of 50 mph on the Dalton.

One prominent feature of riding the Dalton is the Alaska Pipeline, transporting precious crude oil from the North Slope down to Valdez. The pipeline is easily visible from the Dalton as the road was constructed to help build and maintain the pipeline. It usually rides above ground, because the heat of the oil (coming out of the ground at around 180F) would melt the permafrost, which is the frozen ground up here in the Arctic.

The highway was open to the public in the 80s and since then the road itself has become a destination for travelers along with the obvious stops at the Arctic Circle and then onto the Arctic Ocean itself. In the motorcycle adventure riding community, it is considered one of the hallmark rides in the world due to its remoteness and difficulty in bad weather. The gravel portions of the highway become very slick when it rains, but in the dry, it's a nice ride with stunning views.

Take me North.

We soon realized that it's actually not all gravel. There were bits and pieces of paved tarmac. Here's an example of some frost-heaved tarmac.

The first sight of the Alaska Pipeline that the road follows all the way to Prudhoe Bay. The road was built to service and build the pipeline in the mid-70s.

A beautiful piece of tarmac on the Dalton.

Heading north with this section of tarmac ending soon.

Coming up to the Yukon River.

The first rest stop on the highway comes 150 miles from Fairbanks at the Yukon River Crossing. There is a restaurant and oil depot at where almost everyone on the highway stops. It's a good place to meet other travelers and see who else is out here. While riding on the actual highway, it really seems that you are completely remote from civilization and only hearty adventure travelers would be out here, but then you see a minivan and a Ford Taurus out for a drive to the Arctic Circle. At least we can relish the fact that we're doing this on motorcycles, that too adventure motorcycles. But wait, there's a full-dressed Harley on touring tires doing this same ride. Of course, we'd like to think that we're better prepared for the ride, but everyone's out here for the same reason - to soak in this beautiful wilderness.

The restaurant is closed during the winter and they had pictures showing how a huge grizzly broke in during a recent winter and ransacked the whole restaurant. They said he must've been driven by starvation because there was a big forest fire the summer before that destroyed most of the fruits and food that the bears rely on. The owners had to come up and shoot the bear.

Regarding the restaurant building itself, the remoteness of the location lends the construction of these facilities to be made using modular blocks, which are prefabricated and delivered by trucks. It's a very basic design as function rules over form out here.

Crossing the Yukon River.

The E. L. Patton Yukon River Bridge.

Stopping for lunch and gassing up at the Yukon River Crossing out post. This is about a 100 miles from Fairbanks and the next gas stop is about 140 miles north at Coldfoot, the halfway point. The restaurant inside was pretty decent. They had pictures of when a huge grizzly broke in during the winter and caused lots of damage. The other regular cars here are most likely just going up to the Arctic Circle and then turning back. The road gets more remote past the Circle.

A Harley on the Dalton. It just goes to show it doesn't matter too much what bike you're riding as long as you have the right mentality.

And here's the rider. He said he went straight to Aerostich's warehouse in Duluth, MN and dropped about 2 grand in getting fully kitted out for this trip. He said lots of people have called him crazy for doing the trip and we said, fear not, you're among friends.

The lone road cutting a path amongst the wilderness. It might be a lonely highway, but I didn't really feel lonely and actually felt very much at peace being deep in the wilderness (besides the road).

The zigzags of the pipeline were designed to allow it to move horizontally due to either temperature expansion/contraction or earthquakes. It was considered an innovation in the 70s.

Mile marker post south of the Arctic Circle.

While we had great blue skies for most of the day, there were some passing rain clouds. When it gets wet, the Dalton Highway can be a real challenge to ride as the gravel parts become slick like wet clay.

A passing rider heading south.

Around 50 miles north of the Yukon rest stop comes the signage for the Arctic Circle, which is defined as the place on Earth where at least there is one day in the year that the Sun is continuously above the horizon for 24 hours and this of course happens on the Summer Solstice (same applies in reverse for winter and for the Antarctic Circle in the southern hemisphere). One thing I recently learned was that the Arctic Circle is not at a fixed latitude. Its exact location is dependent on the tidal forces of the moon acting on the Earth and currently, the circle is moving north by about 15 meters every year due to the Earth's moving tilt. It will come back south sometime in the future as the cycle is around 41,000 years, which obviously is hard to comprehend in our short life times. In the same note, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are moving in the opposite direction, closer to the Equator, by about 15 meters every year.

I find it thrilling to see for myself all these things that we learned in school about. Growing up in India, the thought never crossed my mind that someday I would cross the Arctic Circle, which was just a line on a map way north on the globe. Not many people live north of the Arctic Circle, obviously because it's cold, but there are still three big cities in Russia up here, which survive due to the warm North Atlantic current. Just like Prudhoe Bay, those cities only exist to extract resources from the Earth (oil, minerals, etc). Besides the Dalton Highway, one can also ride up to the Arctic Circle in Norway on the way to Nordkapp and of course in various parts of Russia.

I'm not sure how touristy the Arctic Circle is in those parts of the world, but here, it's a destination for many family road trips and also many riders. At the pullout for the well-made road sign marking the Arctic Circle, there were cars, RVs and a biker who was turning around here. One of the RV people taking our picture thought Chris and I were crazy for wanting to ride an additional 300 miles north to Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Circle. To us, we felt that if we came all the way to the Arctic Circle, covering around 3,000 miles at least to get here from our homes, what's another 300 miles, eh? I think the ones who turn around at the Circle think that the road north gets even more difficult to navigate and is only for the crazies, but as we found out, it's not that much different, at least in the sunny weather that we had.

Yes, this is the Arctic Circle and I made it with auDRey! Pretty cool to actually be here after seeing so many pictures and thinking about how high up in the latitudes you actually are. Besides Alaska, I think Norway is the only other place in the World where you can drive up to the Arctic Circle and of course, some roads in Siberian Russia.

Nice to have met Chris to share this experience with.

Onwards, we're headed to the end of this road.

We took our obligatory pictures and continued north for 60 miles to the last rest stop before Prudhoe Bay at Coldfoot. A light passing rain added a misty effect to the environment making the ride already seem worth it whether we got to Prudhoe Bay or not. Even though the road is long and straight at times, just looking around at the unique environment was enough to keep us occupied.

Prudhoe Bay is a nice destination and all, but the ride up there was something else. Some very beautiful riding terrain.

The passing rain added a bit of a mystic effect.

At times if felt like we were riding off the face of this Earth...

Huge valleys. This was quite a common sight, yet its awe-inspiring effect never got old.

Coldfoot is a year-round truck stop that was originally a mining camp and was later built up with the help of truckers heading north to Prudhoe Bay. It's the half-way point between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay and north of here are no services for 240 miles till the Arctic Ocean, making this probably the remotest section of road in the US. It got its name of Coldfoot during its mining days from prospectors who would get cold feet and turn around as they prospected for gold in the nearby Koyukuk River.

There's a motel and even some free dry-camping (no bathroom facilities) available and of course a restaurant serving some hearty meals. It's also open 24 hours I believe.

We saw two BMW riders here that we saw earlier in the day at the Yukon River Crossing and after some introductions, we decided to ride together as we were obviously heading in the same direction. Steve was on a R1150 GS that he setup with an additional Touratech gas tank along with Caribou cases for his pannier. Regarding his setup, he said he likes to beat to his own rhythm, doing something different from the norm. Rick was on a F650GS, which he setup using 20mm ammo cans as panniers. Among the four of us, we had the whole spectrum of pannier options.

Steve and Rick were from Seattle and I think they had only two weeks for their trip. We all got along well pretty quickly and it felt nice sharing the road with like-minded riders.

An interesting fact to take in as one heads straight north on this road is that the trees get smaller the further north you go until there's only tundra left. The sun still shines up here on these plants, but the intensity of the sun's rays are less and thus the plants can't grow too big. I learned that from Planet Earth, a stunning BBC nature documentary series.

We took a break before Atigun Pass and Rick being an avid hunter told us that all this land is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and thus it's public land, which means we can camp wherever we like. Before we even got to Coldfoot, I was so impressed with the landscape and really wanted to spend a night out in the wilderness, maybe on our way back I thought. I asked the clerk at Coldfoot if it was possible and he said we're actually encouraged to camp wherever we like.

Stopping at the half-way point on the Dalton Highway. From here, it's a 240 mile desolate stretch of highway and this is where all the extra gas cans come in handy. Our two-man group of Chris and I became a four-man after we hooked up with these two guys: Steve on a BMW R1150GS and Rick on a BMW F650GS from the Seattle area.

A trucker heading north to the Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields with some pipe casings for drilled holes.

Leaving Coldfoot and heading for the Brooks Range and Atigun Pass.

Riding huge valleys following the pipeline.

The last of the tall trees.

The sparse vegetation indicating that we were getting closer to the Brooks Range, as the tree line stops there and tundra is the predominant flora north of there.

A close-up of the pipeline. Since oil travels through the pipeline at about 120 F, the Vertical Support Members need heat exchangers on them to reduce the heat given off by the oil to the VSMs, so that they don’t melt the permafrost underneath and sink, damaging the pipeline. As an engineer, the pipeline is truly a marvel, especially considering it was built in the 70s. But as a naturist, it's also truly a sight for sore eyes dotting the entire landscape all the way to Prudhoe Bay. Two sides to every coin.

auDRey soaking it in. Dramatic views around every corner.

Steve on his R1150Gs.

This exposed granite peak was quite a sight.

Our intended goal for the day was Prudhoe Bay and paying the minimum $90 per night for a motel bed. Not wanting to shell out so much money and also wanting to be more part of this wilderness, I asked the rest of the guys if they were up for camping out in the wild and it was a unanimous yes. We started keeping an eye out for suitable camp sites. Of course, we were all aware of the serious danger of grizzlies as this is their land. Along with my bear spray, we were hoping that safety in numbers would be good enough along with the basic notion of not leaving any food smells lingering. We still wanted to get to Prudhoe Bay the next day and take the BP tour to get to the Arctic Ocean, so we figured camping north of Atigun Pass would be a good idea.

The road surface around this area was hard packed clay, which was a breeze to ride over, but I can just imagine how slick it must get when it rains. We were cruising along at or above 60 mph most of the time. I don’t recall any real actual gravel sections. I believe the road has been tamed over the years. It must've been a much more hair-raising road to ride back in the day.

Getting close to the Brooks Range.

It was definitely nice to travel with this group on this remote road. We were all getting along nicely and decided to camp out on the tundra instead of making it all the way into Deadhorse.

Rick taking in the sights.

Passing a truck. On the real gravel parts, rocks kicked up by the trucks are known to break a lot of passing windshields, but it’s not an issue for rider’s helmet shields. It's just a matter of life up here.

Rick taking in the sights.

Chris taking in the sights.

Chris relaxing on his Cadillac.

Going north... far north.

Coming up to the first mountain pass in the Brooks Range before Atigun Pass.

Passing Rick at a random rustic restroom. Note the Century21 realtor sign out in the middle of nowhere. I guess this land is for sale then.

Climbing up the first pass.

Great views.

Looking back at Rick and Steve (excuse the flopping lanyard).

Rick climbing up.

Coming down the other side and heading to Atigun Pass up ahead. At this point, we had all agreed to camp out on the tundra. Rick, an avid hunter told us that all these lands belong to the Bureau of Land Management and not the National Parks. So, this is all public land and we're encouraged to camp and make use of the land. The only fear is grizzly bears. We were on the look out for suitable areas to setup camp.

The main challenging part of the Dalton Highway is Atigun Pass over the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain pass in the world that is kept open year-round. Truckers constantly make the trip up from Fairbanks to re-supply Prudhoe Bay and help with new construction. Antigun Pass is known for it's steep 10% grade climb up and what goes up must come down, making the descent as tricky as the ascent for truckers. To transport really heavy equipment, a road-train is used where the heavy trailer gets a push from another truck, which is driving blind right on the bumper of the trailer. In winter when the road is iced over, one can just imagine the skill it takes to safely navigate this pass.

We took a break at the top, which is only at 4,643 ft, compared to mountain passes in Colorado, which can be in the 11,000 ft range. We were looking at a half-bowl shaped valley where snow was melting to form a stream that would end up flowing all the way to the ocean. Steve said he noticed a path heading down into the bowl and I went down it. This was being quite adventurous for me and I was loving it. Soon, everyone else came down and we had fun crossing the stream a few times and just hanging out on a mountain pass in the Arctic. I was a bit nervous about following these experienced off-road riders across the stream as I knew I didn't want to get in over my head and drop the bike in the water. But with a little encouragement and skill pointers of keeping the throttle pinned open, I crossed the stream successfully. It was about a foot deep.

Chris then decided he wanted to see how far up the melting snow and peat he could take his Bimmer. He went a fair ways up, got the picture and then needed a little help in getting her turned around. Steve was probably the most experienced rider there and he was riding his big Bimmer through ruts and over boulders with great precision. Chris and Steve went beyond the simple stream crossing and actually went down the stream navigating over all the boulders in the water. It was very impressive riding. But alas, a bike had to go down at some point and Chris's Bimmer just laid down on her side as he was trying to make a slow sharp turn. No harm done; maybe a small scratch on the panniers, which is what they're meant for anyways, right?

Rick's boots got soaked in his stream crossing as water went in over the top and as he was drying them out, he gave a detailed retelling on how he recently successfully stalked a deer with a bow and arrow, which requires much closer range and skill compared to hunting with a gun. It was very animated and he's a great story teller. I was just taking it all in. Here I was up here in the Arctic, in a mountain pass, near a stream, listening to a guy I just met a few hours ago, telling an exciting deer-hunting story.

We thought we should maybe just camp right here, but the ground was completely rocky and something didn't feel right about staying there too long. We spent maybe an hour down by the steam and as were getting ready to head down the pass, a trucker pulled up to Steve and asked how we got our bikes wet. When he said we were down by the steam, the trucker warned us that the area down by the stream was off-limits as that's where the pipeline is buried and if the pipeline police saw us down there, it would be a serious offense. He told us it was worse than being caught for poaching. Oops. We didn't see any warning signs and didn't think we were in an off-limits area, but time to get going anyway.

Knowing that we'd be camping on the tree-less tundra, we were keeping an eye out for any suitable firewood to burn at our campsite. Before we left the pass, we saw a piece of 2x4 lying on the shoulder and not thinking anything of it, we broke it up and took it with us. Later we realized that it was probably meant as a marker for where the pipeline is buried, but since it was lying down and seemed discarded, I guess it was fair game.

Heading to Atigun Pass.

The start of Atigun Pass, which is supposed to be a really hairy ride in the wet or during winter.

Starting up Atigun Pass.

Heading up Atigun Pass - the northernmost pass in the world that is kept open year-round.

In the summer, the road itself isn't much of a challenge to ride as it's designed for huge industrial trucks. But the steep 10% grade is a serious challenge for the big rigs that have to cross it, especially in the winter.

At the top of Atigun Pass at 4,600 ft. Steve said he noticed a little path leading down into the basin behind me so I went to check it out...

In the basin of Atigun Pass. This is how most rivers form, from snow melt. This little stream will pick up strength along the way and empty into the ocean.

I was a bit apprehensive about crossing that little stream, since I don't have much experience in water crossings.

But after watching Chris and Rick run through there and getting some pointers of just keeping the throttle pinned open, I decided to go for it.

Yee haw! What a load of fun. I guess this counts as a bike wash. Here we are playing around in the water about a 150 miles from any civilization. Awesome. I didn't get that wet either. Thanks to Steve for the great picture.

Climbing up the hill on the other side of the stream. It always looks less steep in pictures compared to how it actually felt. Chris said he had great respect for the DR after seeing her do everything the big Bimmers could do, that too fully loaded down with all that luggage. What a great bike.

Chris taking his bike as high as he could go among the ice and tundra.

Voila, he made it into the mush. Getting out required just a bit of help from the rest of us.

After crossing the stream again and while attempting to turn the big beast around, she decided to lay down for a nap. That's what those panniers are for anyway. No harm done and lots of smiles. Nice to be having some off-road riding fun high up in the Arctic.

Steve's silhouette against the Brooks Range. This huge pullout at the peak is meant for the truck drivers to take a break before attempting the equally hairy steep downhill for them.

We found some wood lying around and decided to break it up and use it as firewood at our camp.

Rick with the broken wood on his bike. Heading down Atigun Pass.

The north side of Atigun Pass appeared steeper to me than the south side as I couldn't bring myself to take one-handed pictures of the descent. As you get to the bottom and start riding out of the valley, the view is phenomenal as the mountains seem very close to you yet you know this is a massive valley and the mountains must be far away. As I was told by previous riders, the view north of Atigun Pass is alone worth coming up this road for.

Before deciding on just setting up camp wherever we wanted to, we saw on a map, a rustic campground called Galbraith Lake. We figured there would at least be a bear-proof container there for our food waste and that should decrease our chances of a bear attack. The road leading to the campsite was about a mile long and it was precisely as we guessed it would be: one bear-proof container and some gravel sites. The campsite was located on a ridge with a great view of the Brooks Range. But even though we were so remote, there was amazingly a family reunion taking place there. What are the odds? And after we setup camp, two girls in a Subaru Outback also pulled into camp. This was turning out to be quite the gathering.

I was told the best part of the ride is just after Atigun Pass as the valley opens up.

This view alone in person is worth coming up this way.

The lonely Dalton snaking away out of the mountains.

Chris stretching the legs, nearing the end of the day for us.

To get a feel for how big this valley is, note how small Chris is on the bridge up ahead. The feeling of being there and experiencing this Big Nature really drives home the point of how small mankind is in comparison to this Earth.

Even though the road is so straight at times, one can hardly be bored with views like this.

The last traveler to pull in was one of the four-wheeled-kind. Steve, a Brit from Denver, was doing a tip-to-tip trip - from Prudhoe Bay down to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. He was traveling in a Toyota Landcruiser that he had setup in expedition trim. We invited Steve to hang out by our fire. He recently sold his computer software business and decided to do this trip with no timeframe in mind. The Landcruiser had a skid plate underneath it, lifted suspension, a mini fridge inside for fresh produce, a propane cooker and a tent on the roof. He was taking along all sorts of gear to do various outdoor activities, from hiking to rock climbing and I think he said he had a foldable bicycle in there too along with maybe an inflatable canoe. He had already been in Alaska for a month and just recently spent some time at the Grizzly Sanctuary on Kodiak Island where he took some amazing photos of Brown Bears fishing for Salmon.

Steve had this simple light jacket that was attached to a mosquito head net, which was soon the envy of others who were simply wearing mosquito head nets over a cap. I wasn't using a mosquito net and Steve asked if my time in Zambia (I mentioned to him that I lived there as a kid) made me immune to their bite. No no, I was just wearing 100% DEET mosquito repellent as I didn't like wearing the net. 100% DEET is supposed to be very bad for your skin, but it works amazingly well against the worst of mosquitoes.

It seemed like the only living fauna up here were the mosquitoes and as soon as you stop, they're on you immediately. The reason they're so vicious and large up here is because they have a very short window of warm weather where they need to suck up enough blood to survive the long winter. With other fauna being so sparse up here, they can smell a warm-blooded meal from far away and zero in on us very quickly. The caribou that migrate through here have figured out how to keep the mozzies (as British Steve calls them) at bay by standing at the top of ridges where the wind is the fastest making it hard for the mozzies to hang on. The chance of getting malaria from these mozzies is much less than a bite from their tropical cousins, but they're still very annoying.

For dinner that night, I had enough MREs and other dinner items for everyone, but just as we were getting ready to boil water, the father from the family reunion walked over and said they had excess steak and chicken fajitas and asked if we were interested. Yes please. We got some beans and Spanish rice as well. He said his family was making a road trip and they wanted to see Prudhoe Bay. Of course he thought we were all crazy for doing this trip on motorcycles but respected what we were doing. It was a great meal to have in such a remote place; steak on the tundra.

The best part about camping out there on the tundra was seeing the Sun not go below the horizon and just come right back up. This was a day after the Summer Solstice and how amazing to see the Sun that we've seen all our lives dip below the horizon every evening and rise the next morning, to break that rhythm and just make a big circle in the sky as the Earth rotated. I'm very much interested in Astronomy and Cosmology and seeing an event like this was reaffirming that events on a much bigger time scale than our own lives are at hand around us. For those that doubt Science and its profound revelations of Nature, they only need to travel to see with their own eyes.

Setting up camp at Galbraith Campground, a remote, rustic campsite that had one bear-proof garbage can and that's it. This is at the foothills just north of Atigun Pass, about 150 miles from Prudhoe Bay. We guessed that this was an old industrial campsite, maybe for building the pipeline or the road.

The view was great in all directions.

Chris checking in with his wife through an Iridium Satellite Phone from literally the middle of nowhere. The phone worked like a charm. And not too prohibitively expensive: about $300 for 3 weeks with minutes.

Enjoying the little campfire that we got going in one of the best campsites I've ever been at. Local time is about 12:30 am.

Here is another way to Adventure-Tour. This is Steve from Denver/London who's making a Tip-to-Tip trip (Prudhoe Bay to Tierra Del Fuego in southern Argentina). He got his Toyota Landcruiser all decked out for the trip with skid plates, lifted suspension, tent on the roof for some security, a fridge, propane cooker, plus all sorts of adventure gear: climbing equipment, a foldable bicycle, I think an inflatable canoe, etc. He's doing the trip solo and has no timeline. He had been in Alaska for a month already. We met up with him on Atigun Pass and we all got along pretty quickly.

One of the most memorable aspects of this trip was being up this far north during the Summer Solstice and experiencing the never setting Sun. The Sun is behind me and I couldn't take a picture directly of it, but we enjoyed seeing the Sun just skimming the horizon and riding back up. It's about 1:15 am.

We just soaked up the great views.

I think the Sun was rising again at this point. Time is 1:45 am.

Next: Day 12, Getting into Prudhoe Bay

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