Deadhorse or Bust

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July 27, 2010

The day had finally arrived. I loaded the bike back up, topped off the tank, and headed north to get on the Elliott Highway. The GPS started directing me down some steep backroads to get to it, but I noticed and got back on the highway to get to the Elliott Highway. The highway was nice, until I came to the exit to the Dalton Highway. Almost immediately it turned into a dirt and gravel road. It was raining intermittently, but the road was packed enough and had enough gravel so it wasn't too bad.

A few hours later I crossed the Yukon River and pulled off to the Yukon River Camp immediately after crossing the bridge. While waiting to get gas I met a Harley rider from Florida who was also heading up to Deadhorse. He had been on the road for several months at this point. I would see him a couple more times down the road.

I also met an interesting couple, Penny and Bill of Ageing Overlanders, who were traveling up to Deadhorse in their '74 Mercedes Benz 206D. They had been all over the world in that van. For the trip up the Dalton, they had added a metal screen in front of the windshield to protect it from rocks on the road since it was an original. The screen had a small cut-out to help see out of the front of the van.

I continued up the Dalton to Coldfoot. It drizzled now and then, and the road was usually packed dirt and gravel, but it was alright. I passed the point the GPS indicated Coldfoot should be at, and started to get concerned. I doubled back looking for a missed turnout, thinking maybe it was hidden. I tried to flag down a couple big rigs, but they were on the job and had no interest in stopping. I eventually flagged down a pickup and asked them where Coldfoot was. They told me it was further north, so I continued riding north and started seeing signs indicating civilization was near.

Further down the road was a woman directing traffic through a construction zone. I tried to ask her where the gas station was, and she waved me on. I thought she was telling me the gas station was down the road, but she was actually trying to get me to follow the group that had already started following the pilot vehicle through the construction zone. A few miles into the construction zone I knew something was wrong, and pulled off to ask a couple guys where the gas station was. They told me it was back the way I had just came! I was getting pretty irritated with the situation. I had to get gas at Coldfoot or I wouldn't make it to Deadhorse. The ride from Coldfoot to Alaska is almost 250 miles, and I needed the extra fuel in my gas container to even make that distance.

I abandoned the group following the pilot truck and started back to Coldfoot. A little ways down the road a truck pulled up next to me wondering what I was doing driving the road without an escort, and I had to wait on the side of the road until the pilot truck passed by on the return to Coldfoot. After waiting around the pilot truck came by and I tailed that group back to Coldfoot. I was still pissed about wasting all that time and possibly being sent on my way to Deadhorse without enough fuel and yelled at the flagger that she directed me the wrong way to the gas station, which was actually down a right turn at the intersection she was standing at. It was just a misunderstanding though and I felt better after fueling up, and we talked while waiting for the pilot truck to return. I still got a laugh out of watching her do the gotta-pee dance while waiting for the pilot truck to return.

As I got back in line to wait for the pilot truck to escort us through the construction zone, the guy on the Harley from the Yukon River Camp pulled up, looking for the gas station. I talked with him briefly before he left for the gas station. I would see him one more time on the return leg.

It had been a little difficult to get to Coldfoot, but I was feeling pretty good about it. It was already the evening, but I was in the Arctic Circle in the summer so the sun was always up. The road conditions varied, with stretches soft dirt in construction zones interrupting the usual harder dirt/gravel combination.

About an hour or two outside of Coldfoot I ran into trouble. The road had gradually been getting slicker, with less gravel and more silty river soil. From what I gathered, the road was built from this river silt and was rock hard when dry. But because it had been raining frequently, the silt had softened and formed a slippery layer on top of the hard road below. I began to ride slower and slower, finding the bike would slip into grooves in the road at every chance. The worst spots were where it had really gone soft and mashed up from the weight of trucks, and turned into a deep slippery muck.

It was just such a spot that brought me down. Going around a gradual bend, a large portion of the road became deep muck, and I caught the edge of it and got pulled in. Before I could slow down enough, the bike started weaving and sliding all over, and down I went. By the time I dumped the bike, I had slowed to maybe 10-20 mph, so I wasn't hurt at all. However, my luggage rack had been severely bent, and one of the cases had been ripped off of the bike. There was no one around and no one coming, so I was able to take my time to stand the bike back up. I tried detaching the luggage, but the latches were binding from both the damage and the stress of being on its side, so I ended up standing the bike up with the luggage still attached, difficult with all the weight and the slippery muck.

After getting the bike off to the side, I began to work on getting the rack in good enough shape to hold the case that had ripped off. The hammer and prybar I had packed came in handy as I beat and pried it back into shape. Finally, a bit of rope held the case on so it wouldn't vibrate off the damaged rack. I tried to bend the rear brake pedal back as best I could, but it still felt funny, and I didn't want to risk damaging the bike worse. After packing my tools back up, I got back on and continued north.

While on the slick silt, I proceeded at a slower pace, still wary from my crash. After a while the road returned to the dirt/gravel mix I was used to. Mountains began to rise around me, and it got cooler. I was heading deeper into the mountains, into the Brooks Range and approaching Atigun Pass. I noticed the doubled up guardrails on the north side of the pass, both rails beat up from numerous impacts. The road quickly descended and exited the mountainous area, opening up to a plain.

The road conditions varied frequently, sometimes muddy dirt and gravel, sometimes packed dirt, even occasionally paved. Some sections were spent putting along slowly in second gear, others I could get up to near highway speeds. Potholes and dips were always a concern, no matter the road condition. Rainstorms passed through, sometimes in the distance, sometimes overhead. I stopped to take a picture of the bike in front of a storm moving in, and between the strong storm winds and the almost upright position of the bike while on the sidestand (I was still keeping the loaded fuel container on the right at this time, where it wanted to pull the bike upright), the bike blew off the stand right after I took the picture.

It was getting late, and still it was bright as usual. I rode on and on, determined to make it to Deadhorse that night. I saw a few cyclists on the road, bikes loaded and towing little trailers, making a journey few bicycles would. While I could make it to Deadhorse in one day, I think the bicyclists must have been camping on the way up, made more difficult by having to carry all their food and water with them.

The further north I rode I saw more and more ponds beside the road, breeding clouds of mosquitoes. Anytime I stopped, they immediately landed on everything, looking for something to bite. I kept my jacket pulled up over my neck, my helmet visor shut, and my gloves on. I really didn't want to camp out here, adding to my determination to make it to Deadhorse. I bet this was really a nuisance to the bicyclists: keep pedaling or get bit.

As I got closer to Deadhorse, the roads started to improve. But before I could get there, I ran out of gas. I had planned on this, and refilled from my gas container (still completely intact despite being crushed by the bike multiple times). As expected, it was difficult to get the bike restarted. But this time I couldn't get it started at all, and the battery was dying. I tried push starting it repeatedly, but to no avail. I was boiling hot from all the layers, but I didn't want to remove anything or even open my visor because of the mosquitoes. Fortunately, a truck stopped and the driver gave me a push start. On the last try, it almost caught, so I retried with the starter and it fired back up. I thanked him and started down the last stretch of road to Deadhorse.

Riding into Deadhorse was underwhelming. I could see lots of metal buildings and trucks, and not much else. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but the place was a lot more bare than I thought it would be. I felt out of place as a tourist, like I had just walked onto a busy factory floor.

I tried going to where I thought the gas station was, but ended up riding down a road which had been freshly "plowed". A machine had just passed through and created deep furrows in the dirt that I found nearly impossible to ride through. Going across them was okay, but trying to ride in the same direction as the furrows would cause the bike to seesaw as it tried climbing the sides of the furrows. I almost dropped the bike several times before putting along the very edge of the road where there weren't any furrows.

I finally found the gas station, an automated dispensary attached to a large tank. I was tired and hungry, so after fueling up I started looking for a place to stay.

Since it was an industrial camp, there were only a couple places in town for people not working there. The first place I encountered was the Arctic Caribou Inn. I went in and talked to a woman about finding a place to stay. As it turned out, the place was rather expensive because it was mainly intended for the workers, and was usually company-supported. She suggested the Prudhoe Bay Hotel down the road.

I rode over to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel and immediately noticed the dual-sport bikes parked outside -- this was the right place. There was also an ST1300, the only other bike with street tires there besides myself. I later met the rider when traveling through Canada.

After putting covers over my boots, I went in and talked to the receptionist about getting a room. I knew it wasn't going to be cheap, and was still considering camping if it was too expensive. She told me a room was $125 for the night, higher than I wanted. But then she told me about the buffet, open all the time, from which I could even pack a lunch to take with me, and I was sold. I had arrived in time to catch the tail end of the dinner, so I threw my stuff in my room and dug in. After riding all day, the food was awesome and in my opinion completely justified the price of the room. I went back to my room and slept, thinking about how I had to do it all over again in the morning.

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Copyright (c) 2010 Paul Miner <$firstname.$>