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The Dalton Highway

June 26, 2010

Unless we decide to go farther tomorrow, we have arrived at the most northerly point of our trip—Coldfoot, Alaska, about 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the Dalton Highway. Although we missed the Summer Solstice here, we are far enough North that the sun will not set for another 15 days! The LadyBug did alright! Here ya go Marty, it’s really true!

Midnight, 1:00, etc.

From the moment we got to Alaska, starting with the border crossing guard, we heard stories about how rugged this road was. As we neared Fairbanks we began talking to everyone we met up with who could tell us about conditions on the Dalton Highway. We were warned not to take old bikes—especially not these; we were warned not to go without extra tires. Some said we’d be fine as long as we took it easy. Some just raised their eyebrows. As it turns out, conditions are so varied that almost anything anyone said was either true or false depending on which stretch of road they’d remembered and at what time of year.

Sebastian’s episode with the wheel bearings, and the fact that he made it into Fairbanks in one piece seemed more and more like a warning from someone who cares for us to act with more prudence.

We decided that taking spare tires made no real sense since we lacked the tools required to change a tire on the road. (I’ve tried that in the comforts of my workshop and it’s no picnic.) Besides, mine were nearly new. But we did concede that Seb’s were iffy, so he bought new ones. The old tires still have some highway mileage left on them and the shop in Fairbanks said they’d hold onto the old tires so that we can change them back once we get back to Fairbanks. Then we’ll ship the new tires to Seattle and put them on when we get there.

The chain on my bike, although new at the outset of the trip had begun to click rather badly, and lubrication wasn’t correcting it. I’d been planning to replace it in Seattle, but in the name of prudence, I decided to do it now. So we left this morning having done all we thought reasonable.

The Dalton Highway begins about 75 miles north of Fairbanks and connects to Prudhoe Bay. It is a two lane road used largely by heavy tractor-trailers hauling equipment up to the oilfields. Public access to Prudhoe Bay has been closed. The road ends now at Deadhorse–just short of the oilfields and tour buses can take you through to the Arctic Ocean if you feel the need to get wet. We decided that all we really had to do was spend a complete night in the sun, and Coldfoot would do it.

The first 25 miles was rough gravel, poorly packed with fist-sized rocks strewn about. We had to slow to 25 to 30 mph to feel at all comfortable. But our destination was only 175 miles up, and it was only noon, so a slow pace was fine. The road was only wide enough that you could see three wheel paths—meaning that the middle one was shared by both lanes. We were passed a number of times by cars, pickups and other motorcycles, but fortunately did not meet up with any oncoming heavy trucks. This was living up to the most dire warnings we’d heard.

But then the road smoothed considerably becoming much better packed and a little more claylike. We were able to make much better progress. The land surrounding the road was lightly forested with smallish spruce trees. Since the road parallels the Alaska Pipeline, we were able to see glimpses of it through the woods quite often.

Nearing the Yukon River we stopped for gas at one of the two gas stops along the 450 mile stretch of the Dalton Highway. The Yukon River Camp is a combination fuel stop, campground, motel, café. The fuel comes from a single pump fed by a huge above-ground tank.

Yukon River Camp

Yukon River fuel depot

We were about 5th in line when we pulled in. We ate lunch at the camp kitchen. The nightly room rate of $200 suggested that we’d be tenting tonight.

The next segment of road was paved, but just barely: deep potholes, frost heaves and deep ruts running along the pavement were difficult to handle at speed, so we slowed down. By now, we had reached tundra. At this time of the year, the tundra looks very much like some parts of the Arizona desert.

On the Arctic tundra

Rock formations, low scrubby plant life rising from gravelly looking soil, all looked similar and really quite beautiful—not nearly as bleak or dull as I had expected.

Tundra plants

Tundra plants

I could easily see animal life flourishing here—in the summer. Don’t have a clue how they manage in the winter though. Apart from hearing a few birds, we actually saw no animals out there.

A sign and a turnout marked where the Arctic Circle intersects the highway and so there, we made it across.

At the Arctic Circle

LB at the AC

The road was in much better condition, but quickly returned to potholes, and one of them swallowed us almost whole. Sebastian was right behind me, and we hit it square on at about 50. My bike immediately quit running for reasons that still puzzle me, and we sputtered to a stop. I chipped another starter gear trying to get it restarted, but was much more concerned about why it had quit so suddenly. But after a head scratch or two, I push started it and it fired back up and has been running fine since.

A few miles down the road I decided I had to stop to remove the broken gear and harvest its broken teeth to keep them out of the engine. And then I saw that one of my rear shocks absorbers had come apart and was spitting its normally confined oil all over my brakes. I checked the other one, and it had come apart as well, although it had not yet begun leaking its oil. One of my front shock absorbers was leaking oil from an earlier encounter with a pothole in Canada, and it had gotten worse from this strike and was now dripping oil onto my right front brakes. We also are seeing signs of oil leaking out of Sebastian’s front forks as well.

We could not go on this way, so I unloaded all my gear and took the shocks off one at a time and stuffed the innards back in and hammered them back together.

Shocking!

The right side one is not providing any shock absorption, but we caught the left-side one just before it began leaking, so it is doing something.

We continued on another 50 miles over potholed, frost heaved pavement until we reached Coldfoot. Like the Yukon River Camp, the Coldfoot settlement is very small consisting of a central café/bar/fuel station. Across a wide dirt parking lot full of tractor trailers is the Slate Creek Inn, a motel that looks like a series of adjoined house trailers. The camp offers temporary housing for highway and pipeline workers as well as the traveler—again at $200 a night. We relaxed with a beer before heading off to a campground just up the road.

Tomorrow we’ll retrace our steps back to Fairbanks. This time we’ll know what to expect and we can drive really fast all the way home. Once back in Fairbanks, we’ll assess the damage and make repairs we may need.

-Peter

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Gord (Rat) permalink
    June 28, 2010 6:58 am

    Looking back …. it will all seem like the spice in the adventure.

    “Rock” on.

    Gord

  2. Claudia Chapman permalink
    June 28, 2010 8:51 am

    Dear Peter and Sebastian;

    I hope that you make a stop in Connecticut on your way back to the wilds of Massachusetts. We’d love to see you. We live in a goofy stone house, built in 1949 by a retired Norwegian sea captain who feared the atomic bomb. We’re in Southbury, not far from 84, but it feels like the middle of Vermont.

    My grandfather went to work in Alaska as a young man. He was a mason who specialized in decorative plaster work. The only “famous” building he worked on that I know of is Radio City Music Hall, but I assume that he would have worked on similar projects in Fairbanks.

    Think of a young Scotsman named Jim Morrison if you see some retro masonry.

  3. Sky Cole permalink
    June 28, 2010 10:47 am

    The left rear turn signal bulb failed. I fixed it. Beyond that, the phrase “better you all than I”, comes to mind.

    But Gord is right; as Lauryn once said to me, “What does it matter, Dad; either way you’ve got another story”.

  4. Debby permalink
    June 28, 2010 12:41 pm

    Fantastic account! What a journey! My fingers are crossed that you make it without more ado to Fairbanks and then on to Seattle!

  5. jan smick permalink
    June 29, 2010 5:23 pm

    Well all I can say is it’s a good thing you have so many hours of daylight to make these repairs!! What an adventure, and how wonderful you made it to the circle. Well done Pete and Seb!

  6. Rob permalink
    July 2, 2010 9:03 am

    You guys are studs! If we were pioneers I’d want to be in your wagon train or whatever they had.

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