Riding Alaska’s Dalton Highway up into the Arctic has always been a goal of mine for some reason. I’m not sure why but I guess it has to do with the remoteness of the place and it being one of the farthest places away from home. That’s one of the reasons that I chose the route that I did. The road that was going to take us there is called the Dalton Highway (otherwise known as the Haul Road). We’d heard a lot about this road, both at home and on the trip, stories of horrendous road and weather conditions, bikers being airlifted out and trucks that will try and run you down if you overtake them. This road had had a fair bit of hype around it – my dad even saw it on an episode of ‘Ice Road Truckers’ and wasn’t real impressed that we were attempting it (not quite as bad as the Bolivian road he saw on ‘Top Gear’, but that’s a story for another time).
Rolling into Fairbanks and stopping into visit the guys at Adventure Cycleworks (a couple of guys that specialise in servicing adventure bikes out of their home workshop, offering mechanical services, road information and the like) we met Arty, a towering bloke from Queensland, who was cruising around the states and Canada on a tricked out KTM 950. Arty had just been up to Prudhoe Bay and gave us the run-down on the best way to approach it. He reckoned that it was easy to get up there in a day and told us how he’d camped just south of Deadhorse (as you’re not allowed to camp in Deadhorse because of the security restrictions on the place) and headed in early for the 8am tour to the Arctic Ocean, before heading back down the same day. Contrary to the reports we’d had from others Arty assured us that with the current conditions you could easily tackle most of the road at 70 miles/hour (about 110 km/h).
Feeling pretty confident about the challenge, Jock booked in a tyre change for when we would return and we headed back to the University (we were staying in the student accommodation – best value accommodation we’ve had) to rest up ready for a big ride in the morning.
On getting back to the Uni we ran into quite a few other riders who were staying there, including a guy on a CBR125 that had just arrived back from Deadhorse. Whilst others were complaining about the road conditions, this guy had just riding the 1600km round trip on a street bike that has tyres only slightly wider (and no less slick) than those on my postie bike! All other comments were irrelevant – if this guy could do the road on a CBR125 and is still positive, then no one else has the right to complain.
One of the good things about it being light 24/7 as it had been since Denali, is that it really doesn’t matter what time you head off because you never run out of daylight. We took our time in the morning getting ourselves ready and having a big breakfast because we were planning on camping in the middle of nowhere so we wanted to have lunch in Coldfoot (about halfway) as late as possible.
Heading out of Fairbanks the weather wasn’t looking like it was going to be on our side. Both of us were layered up and tucked in for long day of riding in the wet, but a couple of hours in when we’d actually made it to the Dalton, the rain had cleared completely and we were getting a bit warm! The first stretch of the ride up to Livengood (about 100kms) where the Dalton actually starts wasn’t all that interesting and was all paved. Once on the Dalton heading up to Coldfoot and the road got a little bit more interesting, riding on a mix of well graded gravel and asphalt, the road was wide (good for keeping an eye out for moose) and made its way though rolling hills of pine forest.
It wasn’t really till after lunch, heading out of Coldfoot that the road got more interesting as we approached the Atigan Mountains, sitting on a comfortable 100-110km/h. An hour or so out of Coldfoot the Spruce trees start to thin out and you start to wind your way up through the valleys with jagged mountains lining the way.
Belting up the Atigan Pass (3400ft) as you descended again it was into a completely different landscape. All of the vegetation (bar the grasses and wildflowers) had gone and the rolling hills has flattened out into the immensely vast arctic tundra. You could see for miles and it made for a fun game of catching and overtaking trucks and other slower moving vehicles. You could see their dust cloud from a long way of and it gave you a target to aim for and a sense of accomplishment when you caught them. Whilst the scenery and the road were great fun, on long rides like this you find yourself making up little games to keep your mind ticking over. Long hours confined within you helmet give you a lot of time to think and when you’re done analysing every aspect of everything that comes to mind you brain seeks out new challenges. I know Jock likes to guess distances of things coming up and we had both admitted to talking to ourselves.
We kept pushing through the tundra for hours, passing and trucks until we came to the last place to camp before entering Deadhorse. Were we camped was pretty much just a gravel pit, but the land all around was quite marshy due to the permafrost, so when the snow melts it can’t sink into the earth and just sits there. Another great benefit of this is the mosquitos. Alaska’s national bird. We were pretty lucky as the wind had picked up just enough to keep them away but we’re told that they are that prolific that they send the caribou crazy for a couple of months a year and they just keep running to keep them off!
Laying in our fluro yellow tents in full daylight at 10pm that night we did our best to get some rest, ready for a 4:30am start and our final push to Prudhoe Bay. Only getting some broken sleep we drowsily arose at 4:30, packed up our gear ad pushed on the final few miles into Prudhoe Bay. Jock had to take it easy on the revs as he was pushing the limits of his fuel, but we still made goo time and were in town for the buffet breakfast at the Arctic Caribou Inn, where the tours leave from. Note: The Arctic Caribou Inn has closed down since this was originally written and you can contact the Deadhorse Camp for tours and accommodation.
On refuelling on our way in we got talking to one of the workers up there who flies in from Idaho to work up there. Its a like like the mines for us, they get paid well but have to work in some pretty extreme conditions. Most of the work gets done in the winter in temperatures often below -30 degrees which is pretty hard to even imagine.
After a big breakfast we boarded the only tour bus up there (you can only get to the ocean on a bus and after a security check, which requires a booking 24 hours in advance with your passport number) with a whole bunch of people that had flown up and spent $200 a night in pretty basic accommodation.
We were given a tour around the different aspects of the operations up there, which was pretty interesting, but the highlight was heading out through BP’s mining lease up onto the edge of the Arctic Ocean where we participated in the custom of bathing our feet in the icy water. I did contemplate swimming but I’m not sure the tour guide or all the other tourists that were running late for their flight out would’ve appreciated it, especially given the reports of polar bear sighting in the area.
We didn’t see ay polar bears in the end, but we did get to see a couple of muskoxs, which was pretty cool and then we were back in town and ready to push on again.
The tour cost $45US and breakfast $15US and I think they were both pricey but worth it. We hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before in Coldfoot (we don’t travel with food) and the tour was pretty interesting and definately worth it to get on the edge of the North American continent and look out at the icy waters towards the North Pole.
All done by 10am we saddled up and set out back for Fairbanks. The weather was great and we were able to cover the 800 or so kilometers back at a good pace, without any hassles. With the obligatory stop at Coldfoot for fuel, we pushed on to a cafe called The Hot Spot, about 20 miles from the end of the Highway for a mid-afternoon lunch. Fed and watered we made the final push back to Fairbanks and checked in again at the uni. Something like 900 plus kms for the day and we were both feeling pretty good. If the roads stayed in the same condition as this we’d easily be able to cover more distance than I’d planned for giving us more time down in South America.