Ride Report: Day 12

Day 12 / Monday, June 23, 2008

The plan for the day was to head into Prudhoe Bay, take the BP tour to the Arctic Ocean and maybe make it back to Coldfoot for the night. Things stopped going according to plan for me right away. I was in good spirits in the morning, after doing some adventurous riding the day before up in Atigun Pass and spending a night out on the tundra. The two big Bimmers that I was with (Rick left earlier as he wanted to take it slow) didn't bother with dropping the air pressure in their tires for these dirt roads. However, since I'm not that well experienced in dirt-riding, I need to lower the air pressure so that I can get better grip with my tires to feel more confident.

Leaving the campsite and heading out from Galbraith back to the Dalton, Chris and Steve were flying through the water-filled potholes and having fun splashing water as they did. Feeling pretty good about my riding, I followed them through and I should've known better as the last big pothole that I went through was too much for my under-inflated rear tire and the tire rim bottomed-out against the tire, which pinched the inner tube and blew an 8 inch wide hole in the tube. I immediately knew what a stupid idea it was for me to go flying through these potholes with under-inflated tires. Ok, stupidity acknowledged, let's get on with fixing the problem.

This was not going to be a simple fix because I ran out of the correct sized spare tube. My rear wheel is 17" in diameter and the front is 21". I used my spare 17" tube when I mounted my new rear tire in Dawson City and I thought I would get another spare 17" tube in Fairbanks before doing the Dalton Highway. But somehow I overlooked getting the spare tube in Fairbanks and here I was stuck with a 21" tube to fit in a 17" tire. Riders have done this before, but it's only a short-term solution as the longer front tube will fold over on itself and lead to a likely pinch in the tube. The Bimmers use tubeless tires, which comes with the more expensive bikes, so they didn't have any spares.

Steve (from Seattle) said he was impressed with how quickly Chris and I installed the 21" tube. Before this trip, I had never changed a tire or tube by myself and he I was quickly gaining experience on the job. If I was by myself, I think breaking the bead on the tire would be the hardest part, but with another bike around, using its kick stand solves that issue.

The start of my serious troubles on this trip. In the morning, on the road leading out of Galbraith back to the Dalton, I went through a puddle a little too quickly for the reduced air pressure that I was running and the wheel rim bottomed-out and blew out the inner tube; not patchable. And I only had a front 21" spare tube for my 17" rear tire. I knew this wasn't the best solution, but what to do.

Breaking the bead of the tire on the rim using Chris' kickstand. Steve (from Seattle) who was watching and taking pictures was impressed with how quickly we were going about this tire change. Not having replaced a tire by myself before this trip, I was quickly becoming a pro.

Getting the tire back on.

We're still smiling. I mean, come on, we're doing a tire change in the tundra, high up in the Arctic. Not many people get to experience this.... because you're not supposed to, haha.

The longer front tube would be folded over on itself in the shorter rear tire and we didn't know how long it would hold, so to reduce weight on the rear, the guys offered to take a pannier each. What great guys.

It was 150 miles to Prudhoe Bay and I figured once we got there, we'd reassess the situation and decide how to proceed. To reduce the weight on my rear tire, Chris and Steve offered to carry one of my panniers each. What great guys.

I kept the speeds down and the tire lasted a good 70 miles, but then it let go. Knowing that this wouldn't be an easy fix, we had to figure out how to get my rear tire into Prudhoe Bay to get it fixed. The guys obviously had luggage on their bikes, so giving me a ride was not possible. Then someone suggested that we could ask Steve in the Landcruiser to give me a ride into town. He had left before us but was going at a much slower rate taking in the sights. Steve from Seattle took off to get Brit Steve to turn around. This sounded like a rescue mission.

Tundra and very little elevation change from here to the Arctic coastline.

Note the paved road in the middle of nowhere and the almost perfect horizon. We figured the road was paved near the pump stations along the way for the pipeline, because those were the sections most traveled by the Alyeska trucks (company managing the pipeline). Maybe they flew in to the pump stations and drove from there.

The road changed from pavement to gravel multiple times.

About only 70 miles away from Prudhoe Bay, guess what happened...

Yup, that folded over front tube in the rear tire finally let go. It lasted about 70 miles, which is not bad. I knew it was a temporary fix (putting the bigger tube in a smaller tire), but I was hoping it would at least last till Prudhoe Bay. Having run out of patches and spare tubes, I figured my options were waiting for a passing biker that had a spare tube, or hitching a ride into Prudhoe Bay and fixing my tube.

Being still in the middle of nowhere, I figured hitching a ride into Prudhoe Bay would be the safest thing. Steve (from Seattle) rode ahead and flagged down Steve (from Denver) in the Landcruiser and asked if he could give me a ride into Prudhoe Bay. I used my Bike Crutch to hold up the swing arm and also piled a lot of stones to stop the bike from rolling and support it in case the stand gave way. I hid my side panniers in the bushes down from the road.

I was going to leave auDRey standing by the side of the Dalton Highway while I went into Prudhoe Bay to fix the tire and come back. To further support the bike, I put lots of big stones around the front tire to keep it from rolling back and around my bike crutch, which was holding up the swing arm. Steve turned around and was more than happy to give me a ride into Prudhoe Bay. While he was strapping down my rear tire on the roof, planning for the worst, I took my contact lens solution, money, phone and camera and then stashed my side panniers in the bushes below the road as I couldn't take them with me. It sounds funny now, but that's what I had to do.

One strange incident that happened while all this about my rear tire was happening, was another biker (forgot his name) returning from Prudhoe Bay on a yellow BMW GS, stopped to find out what was going on and then asked if we could watch his bike for him because he caught a glimpse of the rare Muskox (a bison of the tundra) over some hills and wanted to hike over and try and get some pictures. He was really enthusiastic about the Muskox and he was gone maybe for 45 minutes. While we were waiting for Brit Steve to turn around, Chris and I joked that if this other guy didn't come back for his bike, I had myself a GS to continue my trip on. He came back and was thrilled to have seen the Muskox up close and he got lots of good pictures of them. They're a rare artic mammal and it's hard to see them in the wild.

Steve and I got going and I wasn't really feeling down that my trip wasn't going according to plan because I was currently riding in an air-conditioned Landcruiser on a reasonably hot day. Surprisingly, the warmest day of the trip was probably the one where I was closest to the Arctic Ocean. It was around high 70s, maybe even 80F. Steve and I had built up a rapport from the previous evening and we soon got into some engaging conversation about travel, life, politics, philosophy, etc. In my view, there's always a plus side to every situation.

Steve came back and offered to give me a lift into town. What a great guy. Here he is strapping down my rear tire on to the roof of the Landcruiser. He had this cool lite-jacket that had a mosquito net sewn into it, which others asked if they could buy from him.

Pictures from the Landcruiser. It was actually quite a hot day, temps were maybe near mid-80s F, so being in a nice air-conditioned jeep was a welcome ride. Plus, Steve and I had a good rapport from the previous night and we had good conversation in the jeep. One funny incident, I asked if anything had gone wrong on his trip so far and just then, a rock from a passing truck came flying and cracked his windshield. Oops. He told me not to mention bad things anymore, haha. Something about Quantum Flux where just saying something negative puts into motion a negative action somewhere in the Universe.

Yes, I did fail myself in terms of my trip preparation and now I wouldn't be arriving in Prudhoe Bay on my motorcycle, after all these months of planning for this great adventure. But you know what, in retrospect it makes for a great story, doesn't it?

As we were getting to the end of the Dalton Highway, the horizon started playing tricks on our eyes. A few times, we thought what we say up ahead was the Arctic Ocean or even the sea ice, but it turned out to be another hill crest.

The Dalton Highway is known for being tough on vehicles and just as I asked Steve if anything had gone wrong for him so far, a rock from a passing truck flew up and cracked a small part of his windshield. Right then he told me not to talk about anything negative anymore. He shared with me his philosophy on this and what I understood of it was that using Quantum Theory's notion that everything is connected to everything else at the Quantum level, saying something positive here would result in a positive action somewhere else in the Universe and same goes for saying something negative. So if we stopped talking negatively, we would reduce the number of negative events that happened. Sounds logical and I'm willing to adhere by it.

He was being extremely careful all the way up the Dalton by slowing down for oncoming truck traffic, who would respond in kind and slow down to reduce the number of rocks flying up behind them to crack windshields. He said he also lost his CB antenna along the way.

We pulled into Deadhorse around 1:30 pm and went over to the Arctic Caribou Inn, where Steve was staying the night and where the Arctic Ocean tours were booked from. I met up with the other guys and Rick who arrived much earlier than all of us had already been on the tour and didn't think it was worth it. He said if you've seen the documentaries about Prudhoe Bay, it was nothing more than that and he didn't think the ocean part was worth it. When I was planning to do this Alaska trip, I thought being able to touch the Arctic Ocean would be a nice accomplishment, but with my current situation, it was down my priority list.

I found out where the tire shop was and soon realized that all the services out here were geared mainly towards the heavy machinery. The tire mechanic at GBR Tire, Rick who was very busy accepted to fix my tube, although he'd never worked on a motorcycle tire before. The principles are the same. After he finished patching up the major hole, I found 4 other holes in the tube. I told him I could do it myself since he was very busy and he gave me a handful of industrial strength tire patches and tire cement. I went about fixing every known hole in the tube. This was not a good sign if in just 70 miles I had about 5 holes in my tube. How was I going to make it back to Fairbanks that was around 500 miles away?

Once that was taken care off, I now had to find a way to get back down to my bike that was 70 miles south of Deadhorse. It was around mid-afternoon by now.

I knew I needed another spare gas container for auDRey because I would have around 170 miles to make it back to Coldfoot before I could refuel. Besides the two hotels (Arctic Caribou Inn and the Prudhoe Bay Hotel), the only other public place to go to was the General Hardware store, where the post office is located. On the way there, since I wouldn't be staying for the Arctic Ocean tour, Brit Steve took me around Prudhoe Bay on the route the tour bus would take, but of course not into the security controlled BP oil fields. The hardware store is well stocked and I also bought a roll of Duct tape as a last resort method of sealing the tube.

Chris followed us around Deadhorse and being a great riding buddy, he was going to stick with me until I could find a ride down to my bike and then we would ride to Fairbanks. Steve dropped me off at the start of the Dalton Highway and I figured I would hail down the next truck heading south and ask for a ride. Some confusion ensued and Chris didn't see where I was standing and figured I had already gotten a ride and continued to head south on the Dalton. I tired to get his attention but he was already too far away down the Dalton. I figured he would wait by my bike until I got there.

The end of the road. That stop sign is the end of the Dalton Highway and probably the northernmost publicly accessible road in the world. You turn left to go to the motels and right to go to the oilfields. That water there is connected to the Arctic Ocean, so that was good enough for me as I wouldn’t have time to take one of the tours.

In Deadhorse (the town that supports the Prudhoe Bay oilfields) I found a truck tire repair shop and Rick here fixed my tube up real good and even gave me a bunch of industrial strength patches and tire cement in case I had more punctures.

That's a nicely done patch. But bad news was that I had 4 other holes in this tube that I patched up before installing in the tire.

The classic picture of the end of the road sign at the general store.

Steve was staying the night and going to do the Arctic Ocean tour in the morning and by now, the focus of seeing the Arctic Ocean was down on my priority level, as I was more focused on trying to get back to civilization (Fairbanks). But since I was here, I figured I might as well see a bit of the area. Steve drove me around town to get a feel for it.

The whole focus up here is to get the oil out of the ground (about 9,000 ft below) and pumped into the pipeline. And there is a whole oil field services industry up here: someone to do the drilling, someone to do the pumping, someone to service the trucks, etc. There are about 5,000 people up here, all working 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off.

An oil derrick.

Summer is actually the slow season here, because most of the ground becomes swampy and heavy equipment can't be moved easily. As soon it gets below freezing (I think in late September), they make ice roads and things start moving a lot easier. It's busiest here in the dead of winter.

So my bike didn't make it to Prudhoe Bay, but my rear tire did, so that's got to count for something. My plan was to hitch a ride down with all my belongings to my bike, put her back to together and get going. But surprisingly, I couldn't get a lift. The trucking companies said they have a liability issue with picking up passengers, and no private vehicles were heading down the road.

Here I was trying to hitch a ride out of a remote industrial oil town. I had with me my rear tire, my helmet, a garbage bag of my belongings and a gas container. I must've looked like an out-of-place modern hobo. It was pretty amusing to see the stares from passing oil workers who were going this way and that way in their pickups. I'm sure they've never seen someone try to hitch hike out of their oil town, that too with a tire and helmet in hand.

I realized that I had forgotten to put fuel in the fuel container that I bought. There's only one public fueling station in Deadhorse and it's in the same area as the Hardware store, maybe about a mile or two away. I started walking in that direction with the gas container and a pickup truck slowed down and offered me a ride. He obviously figured I was going to the fueling station and said he's never seen someone just walking around Deadhorse. I explained my situation and he wished me luck in having a good trip. The fueling station was fully automatic with no attendants and was simple to use.

On the way back, another pickup truck stopped and offered me a ride back (the fuel container helping me out). I got talking with the driver, Matt and he said he's been working here at Prudhoe Bay since 1976. He works two weeks on and two weeks off and is based in Anchorage. I asked him why the place looked slightly deserted and he said summer is actually the low season because the ground is soft from the thawing permafrost and heavy machinery can't be moved around easily. Once the ground starts freezing in September/October, they build frozen roads and the place gets very busy.

He had multiple cracks in his windshield and said it's so common here that they only replace the windshield when you can't see through it anymore. I noticed that all the pickup trucks here were Fords and he said Ford actually had a remote dealership here in Deadhorse where they sold new F250s, F350s and Expeditions at a hefty premium as each one has to be transported on a semi-truck from Fairbanks.

I asked him if hitting peak production has affected life here (peak oil production here was reached in 1998 and the pipeline doesn't run completely full of oil anymore). He said he's definitely seen things slow down and the slower rate of oil has affected how much everyone gets paid. He said in the heydays, it was easy to become rich real quick. Prudhoe Bay has been through a boom, a drought and now these are recovery days as they figure out better methods of extraction harder to reach oil.

The thing with oil production and our global economy based on cheap oil is that as long as we keep finding new sources of oil, we know that there will be supply for the demand. As soon as global peak production is reached (the halfway point of oil extraction), we know that from then on supply is limited for the oncoming demand and this will cause the price of oil to shoot up significantly. Globally, we've extracted about 900 billion barrels of oil out of the estimated 2,000 billion barrels of speculated recoverable oil. Once we hit the half way mark in about 10 to 20 years (which we won’t know precisely until we've crossed it), oil prices will shoot up dramatically.

Before that happens, I hope they make a hybrid motorcycle soon. I don’t know how I'd like an all electric motorcycle but that seems to be the way the future is going. Until then, let's responsibly enjoy our internal combustion engines. Right now, I needed to get back to my own engine to carry me back to civilization.

As I stood by the start of the Dalton Highway, the tire mechanic from before pulled over and said he could give me a ride if it was within 20 miles of Deadhorse but 70 miles would be too much as he was currently on the clock. Two semi-trucks went by and wouldn't stop, shaking their heads. Rick, the tire mechanic swung by again and after giving me two bottles of water (since I was standing out in the sun) said he would call the trucking companies over his CB radio and see what they could do. He exaggerated my story by saying I walked 4 hours with my flat tire before getting a ride into town, while giving me a wink. The agent at the trucking company couldn't believe the story, but he said regardless, their trucks can't pick up passengers due to insurance liability reasons. He even called down to their main office in Anchorage with no avail. Damn the litigious culture. I tired to hail down some tourist vehicles that I saw but they didn't have any space in the back for me or my belongings.

Two older gentlemen on Triumphs coming into Deadhorse stopped and asked if the yellow bike that was propped up down the highway was mine. I asked them if they had any spare tubes, but they didn't and I gave them directions to the hotel and they carried on.

After giving it another hour, I decided to spend the night and go back down with Brit Steve the next morning after he took his tour of the Arctic Ocean. I felt bad for Chris who would be waiting for me down by auDRey and I hope he didn't wait too long before realizing that I wouldn't be coming down that day. He later told me that he waited about two hours and then continued on to Coldfoot. We parted ways and didn't even say a proper farewell. This only means that we have to meet up again in the future.

I got another ride from another pickup truck as I was walking towards the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. This time it was a bunch of younger engineers who were out here on a short assignment and were heading to the same hotel. They were based in Ontario and I was surprised to hear them say they were amazed that people could actually ride through Canada to get to Alaska. And beyond that, they were impressed that it's possible to ride all the way to Prudhoe Bay. They thought the road was meant only for the trucks. And I realized then that almost everyone working here (around 5,000 people) all flew into Deadhorse and only the heavy machinery was trucked up.

The two places to stay in Deadhorse are the Prudhoe Bay Hotel (at $90 for a bed) and the Arctic Caribou Inn, which is twice as expensive. Both hotels are built using modular construction and are used primarily by the short term oil workers and the tour groups that come up from Fairbanks. While the exterior aesthetics leave much to be desired, the interiors are not bad at all and have informational posters all about the oil industry in the hallways. I learned that the oil here comes from 9,000 ft below ground. The room price includes access to the 24 hour buffet cafeteria and laundry services. I went through both the hotels and couldn't see why the Arctic Caribou Inn was twice the price as it looked the same, even the basic rooms. Regarding technological comforts, there was WiFi throughout the hotels, provided probably through satellite connection. However there were signs of future improvement there as I saw a 'Broadband Test Vehicle' roaming around town throughout the day.

One thing to note about both the hotels was that hand sanitizer solution (Purell) was available throughout the premises; in the rooms, in the bathroom, in the dining room, in the hallway etc. They must either be really worried about spreading infections and diseases in this closed-off community (images about Nome's diphtheria epidemic in 1925 and the serum run come to mind) or it's just because everyone's hands must be so dirty from the work they do.

Another interesting thing about both hotels is that anyone (non-paying guests included) can buy a brown lunch bag for $10 and take whatever they can stuff in the bag. Earlier in the day, before I tried to hitch-hike out of here and thinking I would be camping out on the tundra again, I bought a brown bag and stuffed 2 Philly cheese steak sandwiches (they had a cooler with take-away foods), fried chicken, canned juice, yogurt, milk, cookies, Fritos and an apple. That's a pretty good diet there, huh? It was definitely great value for the money. Don't worry, the yogurt and milk was consumed pretty quickly. I still kept most of the food and took it down with me the next day.

I settled in for the evening with a nice shower (it had been a few days since I had taken a relaxing shower) and a nice slow meal. The food was hearty American fare and resembled a college cafeteria with lots of different choices from a salad bar to burgers to chicken to sandwiches, etc. It was a very lively dining room when the oil workers came in after their shifts and I was just taking in the situation. A tour group of elders sat down next to me and one woman, maybe in her 60s said she better do all the rough traveling now before she got too old with hip problems and other mobility issues. Great mentality; do it while you still can.

After dinner, I washed everything that I was wearing and set down for some much needed rest. I hung out in the social room and watched TV for a bit with some burly looking gentlemen. I hadn't watched regular TV (life before Tivo) in a long time and was happy to note that I wasn't missing much.

Even though things didn't go according to plan, I felt I had a very rich and unique Prudhoe Bay experience.

Next: Day 13, Tire Repairs and Overnight Dalton Ride

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