Monday, September 24, 2007

Days 14 - 17: North of the Arctic Circle

Day 14: Crossing the Arctic Circle

I was ready to strike north from Fairbanks. But first, I badly needed new tires. My old ones (Anakees, for the connoisseurs) had some 15,000 miles on them and weren't really passing the old Lincoln-head test. Plus, I expected mud and gravel once I hit the Dalton Highway, for which knobby tires are much better suited.

So I took a trip to Trail's End BMW here in Fairbanks. This is not like any Beemer shop I've seen down south. George Rahn runs a one-man operation out of his back yard. And what an interesting back yard it is.

Plenty of bikes that he's accumulated over his 40 years of operation, along with some harrowing debris from accidents along the Dalton. (Check out this final drive and rear wheel, both off of R1150GS's.) George is a great guy, and after some chatting, he swapped my tires. No fancy-pants tire changing machines; he spooned them on with two tire irons, making the whole operation look trivial. (When I did this, I had a friend helping, and it still took me hours.)

Now prepared for the worst, I pointed my bike north. I could tell immediately that it was going to be an amazing ride.

That's gotta be a good sign.

The Dalton Highway stretches from 50 miles north of Fairbanks up to Deadhorse, the oil town immediately south of Prudhoe Bay. It's commonly referred to as the Haul Road due to the large volume of truck traffic to the oil fields and back. And when they say Wide Load, they mean W-I-D-E L-O-A-D.

This truck looked like it was carrying half a con tower off a small ship. Two entire lanes wide, so all the other traffic gets off the road.

Dalton Highway, milepost 96: Finger Mountain.

Although the landscape here is barren, I'd soon learn that this was only temporary. There are still full-blown forests well north of the Arctic Circle, much to my surprise.

At Finger Mountain, I took a picture of my bike, now setup for the rough roads.

In addition to putting on the knobby tires, I took off the heavy side cases and cut my gear down to the essentials for camping: tent, sleeping bag, pad, two changes of clothes, and the most basic toiletries. Plus bike tools and some first aid supplies. Man, that is one good looking machine.

Milepost 115: The Arctic Circle.

Yeah, so it's crooked. That's the best I could get from setting my camera on top of my helmet and using the timed photo feature. Next trip, I'll bring a lightweight tripod.

Milepost 175: Coldfoot.

Originally a Gold Rush town, Coldfoot was revitalized in the mid-70s by the construction of the Dalton Highway and oil pipeline.

Coldfoot is a wonderful place. In strong contrast with Deadhorse, all the workers I met at the cafe/hotel/gas station (the "town" is only a couple buildings) seemed to be there because they loved the place. And near the midpoint between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, it was an ideal base of operations for my time on the Haul Road. I spent all three days above the Arctic Circle camped here --

-- on a foam mat they have in a (free!) campsite nearby. Very comfy. Plus, given that the actual hotel rooms run something like $180 per night -- everything this far north is extremely expensive -- the decision was pretty much made for me. The coldest it got during the night was probably in the low 20s. Cold, yes, but I have a great sleeping bag, and it was no problem. (So long as I didn't have to go to the bathroom. BRRRrrr.)

Day 15: Prudhoe ho!

Not far from my campsite, these guys have a campsite of their own:

These huskies work in mush teams during the winter.

After a hearty pancake breakfast, I hit the Haul Road again.

You can see the Pipeline to the left of the road, through the trees. Another overcast day, but on the plus side it hasn't rained for some 24 hours, so the dirt road wasn't too slick.

13 miles north of Coldfoot, I stopped at Wiseman. In contrast, Wiseman is actually a town rather than just a truck stop. Living this far north, the people there are quirky.

You may have to click on the image to read the signs. The rusty objects in the foreground are the remains of old mining machinery.

I decided to head up to the old Wiseman graveyard. Nothing cooler than old graveyards. Well, maybe this:

Wow. I ... yeah. That's right up there with the twine ball. Not surprisingly, most of those cans are beer.

Man. Some homeless dude needs to come up here and collect these things. At 5 cents a can, he'd be doing pretty well.

Anyhow, after passing the cans, I reached the graveyard.

Even from the graves, it was clear that these were not lives easily lived. I was particularly touched by the inscription on this Mason's marker:

"Daniel Webster, 1862 - 1922. His life is a monument of much good. Loved and honored by native and pioneer."

There are some dirt roads (rutted but passable) at the Wiseman turnoff that lead to some mines. Worth the side trip. No pictures, as the mines themselves weren't particularly interesting, but the roads were beautiful. You can actually circumvent about 15 miles on the Haul Road in this way, eventually passing under the Pipeline and returning to it.

As I continued north, the Brooks Range loomed larger.

All sorts of interesting-looking side roads beckoned, but with limited gas (and riding skill -- some of these looked pretty serious) I continued north.

Milepost 245: Atigun Pass.

The continental divide -- north vs. south, that is. After crossing this range, all the rivers flow north into the Arctic rather than the Pacific. (This raises an interesting question: where is the continental triple point, at which the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic watersheds meet?)

This sign was pretty amusing:

The avalanche warning sign that has clearly been run over by an avalanche. Moments later...

CRAP. Note to self: riding motorcycle with snow-encrusted tires and contemplating irony do not mix. There was some snow at the top of the pass, and I was dumb enough to ride into it for a photo op. Ah well. I got it back up quickly enough. The damage: a cracked but still usable left mirror.

Now's when things started getting weird. The last real tree is just south of the pass. Nothing but tundra to the north.

And the pipeline.

Broken by the occasional hills and pumping station. The Haul Road makes no bones about going straight over the hills. It is quite steep in many places, and the spots of mud and occasional ruts made it difficult going at times. Still, it was not nearly as bad as some of the horror stories that I've read.

I passed through a particularly cold zone, in which everything was covered in thick frost.

It is a spectacularly bleak place.

And somewhere among those frost-covered hills, I met Dai.

Dai is from Japan. Dai plans to ride his bicycle from Prudhoe Bay to Mexico. Dai is nuts. Nice guy, though.

Eventually the frost cleared as I descended toward the coast.

And I thought Penn State was in the middle of nowhere. (FYI: PSU, where I was an undergrad, is also located in a "Happy Valley.")

About 100 miles north of Atigun pass, I came across this herd of musk oxen:

These ice-age beasts were perfectly content to lie about on the frozen tundra. Strange, strange creatures. How they survive up here is beyond me. (In particular, I wonder how they get enough water. Sure, there is water all around, but it's all frozen.)

About 60 miles south of the coast, even the hills end, and the landscape becomes a uniform plane descending gradually toward the ocean. The North Slope indeed.

Milepost 414: Deadhorse.

There is no grand sign welcoming you, so instead I just took a picture of the local gas pump.

I did not like it there. I am an unapologetically liberal Democrat, and this place just made my skin crawl. I felt like I was going to get ambushed and shot by Dick Cheney at any moment.

Ah, those Halliburton folks. What will they think of next? (OK, so actually that is pretty funny. In the dark kind of way you'd expect from Halliburton.)

And I never made it to the north shore. This is as close as I got, roughly 12 miles south of the ocean:

North of this point you enter the oil fields, which are closed to visitors. The only way through is on a tour bus, which was done for the season. Even then, you need to pass a security check before they let you on the bus. The guard there brusquely turned me around. (Ah, and as for the possibility of flying to Barrow, AK to see the shore: the cheapest round-trip tickets went for $370. Not worth it.)

Well, at least I can celebrate my successful journey with a beer, right?

WHAT?? I rode 5,000 miles, suffered a costly transmission failure, and traveled the roughest highway in the United States for THIS? A dry town??

Forget that. I rode back to Coldfoot.

Well, not quite immediately. I was hungry, so I had the $18 cafeteria-style buffet at the Arctic Caribou Inn in Deadhorse. I wound up sitting with a bunch of pipeline maintenance workers. Young guys, all in their early to mid-twenties, to my surprise. The few I talked to had come to work here shortly after high school. Working 2-and-2's: 14 days on, 10 hours per day, followed by 14 days off. One was working a 3-and-3. Man. Anyhow, they quite reasonably pointed out that if Deadhorse was not a dry town, all hell would break loose. I see their point.

Regardless, I wanted my beer at the end of the adventure, so I did indeed ride back to Coldfoot that evening. Although it was dark, the road was relatively dry, and the pass was clear. According to one of the truckers I talked with along the way, that was not predicted to be the case the next morning. So it all worked out.

And returning through Atigun pass, I saw the Aurora. It was beautiful. It shone all the way back to Coldfoot. And I had my beer: a Coldfoot Pilsner, brewed by the Silver Gulch Brewing company in Fairbanks. All in all, the perfect end to a great day.

Day 16: Exploring around Coldfoot

Well, not much exploring, really. I wanted a low-mileage day. But a couple people on the Coldfoot staff had mentioned a trail from Coldfoot to Chandalar Lake, roughly 60 miles away. Sounded like a good excursion.

But first, breakfast! I had pancakes again, but this time with caribou sausage. I thought that was sufficiently novel to warrant a picture.

Well, trust me, it's caribou. Tasted good to me. Not at all gamey.

Now, back to the excursion to the lake. As it turns out (and as a more informed staff member later told me), the Coldfoot-Chandlar Lake trail is a winter trail. During the summer, in contrast, it is a mud hole. Excluding, of course, the places where it's a river. And maybe a lake farther along.

I made it about 2 miles, falling twice in the mud and deep ruts. Got to the first water crossing (rocky and swift, although not too deep) and decided enough was enough. Back to Coldfoot (falling once more in the process). Total day's miles: 4.

The next half hour was spent duct taping back together my newly cracked windscreen (oops). Ah well. Adds some more character to the bike. Also busted a turn signal, but that hardly bears mention. Then, a good nap.

That night, the aurora was out again. This time, I was ready with my camera.

Note the prominent constellation in the last picture. These were all taken with 15 second exposures.

Day 17: Back to Fairbanks

After a leisurely morning, I left Coldfoot and headed back south. And I made another appointment with George at Trail's End BMW: all the battering the suspension took on the Haul Road resulted in a blown right fork seal. Not a major problem, as the front suspension geometry of the Beemers makes the fork not bear any significant weight. But still, something to be fixed sooner rather than later.

Back at my hotel, I sat around and watched TV. I was utterly beat.

>>>NEXT: Day 18: a do-nothing day!


Jennifer said...

Absolutely stunning photos, Jake! I don't know how you managed to dodge the call of all those big rocks - I'm surprised you stayed (well, for the most part) on your bike. Glad you got your celebratory beer on, too.

Anonymous said...

As always, everything about the trip sounds amazing, but none the less, don't forget... safety first! Of course that is coming from me, who laid a bike out on my first time riding, but at least it was a good lesson on how to pick it back up myself....

Really enjoying all the stories from your trip!