On Top of the World!

We set up camp in the Ice Park RV Ground beside a pair of Yamahas bearing New Zealand plates. The bikes belonged to Garth & Sandra Cooper who were also near completion of their own Pan-American run and we had a lot of fun sipping a few beers and recounting tales of the road with them over the few days we spent there. The big difference between the Coopers and us was that they were travelling with their 2 young kids – Nadine, aged 7 and Frankie, aged 5! The kids were amazing. They endured all the hardships and trials of a life on the road with never a complaint. In fact it was the exact opposite – they loved it. To be honest they were a tad on the wild side. Living such a carefree existence they had no clear set boundaries to confine their lives and as a consequence seemed almost feral. What on Earth were their parents thinking of taking them off on this wild adventure? Kids should be at school learning lessons and manners like all the other kids, shouldn’t they? We watched them at play and they had amazing imagination. They didn’t have boxes of toys and made their own games and amusement from whatever came to hand and boy where they having fun. Maggie spent some time with the kids pouring over a big map of the world. They knew all the countries they’d been to and could point them out. In short they were getting the education of a lifetime. The Coopers were also headed to Prudhoe Bay but were caught in Fairbanks waiting for some spokes for Sandra’s rear wheel. She was riding a little XT250 and life on the road had been harsh on it. It seems to be a common problem with smaller bikes in that they don’t take as much punishment as larger bikes and in this case her rear wheel was giving up under the strain. They had already replaced the spokes with heavier items in the US but now some of these had failed and so they were waiting on parts from the indifferent Yamaha dealer in Fairbanks.

Regarding our dilemma on the road north, we decided to try and get to the Arctic Circle. A good part of that road would be paved and we’d met some guys in Anchorage who had ridden there on Harleys so it couldn’t be that bad. If that road was OK we would proceed to Coldfoot half way to Deadhorse and then continue the following day. We said farewell to the Coops and agreed to look out for each other along the road. The Dalton Highway runs for 415 miles from Livengood to Deadhorse. It is also known as the ‘Haul Road’ as its chief role in life is to provide a transport route for the big 18-wheeeler trucks that constantly ferry supplies and materials up to the oil fields up at Prudhoe Bay. We had a reasonable day for the start of our journey but still rode the 70 miles to Livengood from Fairbanks with the odd butterfly rattling around in our tummies. Then we hit the dirt. There was a light gravely section for the first mile or two but then it turned to an amazingly compact hard dirt road and soon we were clipping along. We’d heard somewhere that there wasn’t a lot to see along the road but it tuned out to be a beauty. The main hazards where the big trucks flying along at speeds in excess of 70mph and in the dry they kicked up clouds of dust and small stones. We always pulled over to let them by and they seemed to appreciate this courtesy. They were workingmen on a mission after all and we were just a couple of crazy tourists sharing their road. At Yukon River we fuelled up and had a coffee and delicious hot BBQ Pork sandwich at the Blow Hole café – a none too friendly truck stop in spite of their excellent food. Life is fairly basic in these parts and the restrooms consisted of an outhouse round the back. A week or so previously a woman had just finished in the restroom and opened the door to see a ‘big dog’ sat looking at her and showing her his nice shiny teeth. She screamed and tried to run back to the café when he sank his fangs into her calf muscle. By the time her rescuers arrived, the wolf ran off into the bush. A few days later this same animal gave chase to a motorcyclist on the nearby road. Not happy with mud and bears, we now had mad wolves to contend with on this road! We rode on chasing this gem of a dirt road up and over hills and valleys. We rode through an area devastated by forest fire a few years previously and the entire ground was carpeted with a blaze of pink Fireweed, through which burned pine trunks thrusted out of the land in crazy angles like shattered lances on a devastated battlefield. Fireweed is a beautiful willowy pink flower, growing in long stems with flowery buds off shooting along its length. The locals use it as a sure-fire season indicator. The stems begin flowering from bottom to top and it is reckoned that once the topmost buds have bloomed you have 6 weeks till the first snows of winter. We had a quick look and they were about 2/3 way up so we had a fair margin of safety with the weather! Before long we reached the Arctic Circle and stopped for the obligatory photographs at the road marker. Elated at getting this far so easily we rode on hitting a paved section of road that ran the last 50 miles into Coldfoot. It seemed strange they put this big dollop of asphalt road in the middle of nowhere but who where we to complain? We rode into increasingly wild country and the area around Finger Mountain reminded us a lot of some of the wild mountains and moorland scenery we have at home in Ireland. All the time we were chasing the Alaskan oil pipeline that was never far from the road. We stayed for the night at Coldfoot Camp at the single hotel there. Extortionate rates for a Portakabin room but there was cold beer and food.

In the morning, it was raining and the huge dirt truckyard at Coldfoot Camp was a sea of mud. We slithered through it to the gas pumps and refuelled; also filling up the 1-gallon jerry-can we’d bought at Walmart for this leg of the trip. The signs & leaflets said it was either 212 or 239 miles to Deadhorse depending on which source you believed. 239 miles could be right on the edge of our 650’s range especially if we got held up by weather or road conditions and had to put in a lot of low gear riding (it was actually 260 miles from Coldfoot to Deadhorse by our trip meters so we were glad we brought the extra fuel along. Once again North American road signs were inaccurate). Please be warned if you ever head this way, there is absolutely nothing on the road between Coldfoot and Deadhorse. No fuel, no services, no cafés, nada, only a few rest areas with basic toilets and trashcans. To begin today’s ride, we were back out onto the paved road. This lasted about a few hundred metres until we were out of sight of Coldfoot Camp, and then we were back on the dirt or should I say mud. It had rained a good part of the night and that nice hard packed mud was coated with water. The road was starting to dissolve so it was a question of how far could we get before it totally mired up. A few miles down the road we hit a section of roadworks where they were scraping the road with a huge metal blade and then spraying treated mud down on top of it. It leaves a coating on the road around 50mm thick and it is like riding through porridge. We were down to 1st gear riding with the bikes squirming and sliding in the most horrible way and we rode on with our hearts in our mouths just waiting to fall off. We somehow managed to stay upright and the mud thinned out as we reached more solid ground. But the bikes were disappearing – slowly being consumed by mud. They put Calcium Chloride in the mud as a binding agent and it sticks to everything like cement. License plates became unreadable and we had to stop to scrape it off our taillight lest we get rear ended by a big truck with a sleepy driver in the rain. A little further on we reached Sukakpak Mountain, an ominous chunk of rock looming at us out of the gloom. The road firmed up enough to let us get on a little quicker at 30mph but in places it was rather bumpy. On one of these sections I lost our flask of hot tea off the back of my bike. No problem – it was a good stainless flask and a lifesaver on a day like this. No problem ordinarily that is, but this time a speeding SUV ran over it and killed our little flask that served us so well all the way from Argentina. We buried it in a trashcan just past ‘Last Spruce’. This tree is the last tree on the oil pipeline as you head north and is marked with a little sign saying so. The tree stands there by the side of the road like a little sentry but it is dead now as some brain-dead idiot moron vandalised it in 2003 – chopped into its base with an axe. We couldn’t believe you could or would be inclined to vandalise anything out here but there you go.

The Last Spruce told us that the road was climbing and we were up above the sustainable tree line as we rode on into Atigun Pass, a vicious hack of a road through the Brooks Range. We rode into a melange of low cloud, mist and fog on a road that climbed ever on and soon we were engulfed by enormous snow capped mountains on all sides, as we chased the mud slash on through. Dropping down the north face the temperature plummeted and the road teased us turning to pavement for a few kilometres before dumping us unceremoniously back into the mud. We stopped for a breather and one of the big truck drivers pulled up to talk to Maggie. I was amazed at the tenacity of my wife on this road. She was really shaken up by bad roads after her crash in Argentina and I was never sure we’d make this road until we actually got here. But there was a change come over her and last night at dinner she was positively glowing at how easy the road had been and couldn’t wait for more. It was as if a dark cloud that had dogged her through the trip had suddenly lifted, allowing her to regain all her old confidence on these roads. But now the driver told tales of a sea of mud up ahead. They couldn’t even control the big 18-wheelers through it. They slipped, sided and slid everyway to get through and we were crazy to attempt it on a bike. He actually got cross and annoyed with her and her to turn back. It was freezing up ahead too with driving rain and thick fog and Mags politely listened to him and told him thanks but no thanks. We’ve come this far and it was just over 100 miles to go so we’d at least attempt it. Our single advantage today was that we had the long hours of daylight in the Alaskan summer so we never had any concern about getting caught out in the dark. The truck took off in a cloud of mud spray with the driver calling us crazies in his heated cab.

We rode on past Galbraith Lakes through an invisible land of indeterminate scenery. All we knew was that it seemed to be flattening out as we rode across the Arctic Tundra. A dreaded orange triangle loomed out of the murk telling us of more road works ahead. We stopped for a breather and a guy in a big RV pulled up. He warned us about some really bad mud up ahead and to take it easy. Our hearts sank. The truck driver had been right. So there really was a sea of mud. We’d come this far and we dreaded the idea of a long cold ride back, defeated so close, with our tails between our legs. “How far does it go on – the bad mud?” I asked. “Oh – only about a ¼ of a mile. After that it gets back to this,” he replied pointing to the soggy but acceptable terra firma underneath our wheels! We thanked him and took off grinning and set into the mire. It was horrible with thick ruts filled with mud soup, but I picked a firmer section round the edge and we crawled around it and in a short time we were through. We were elated and rode on happy that if that was the worst the road could throw at us, we had it licked! The big enemy now turned from mud to the cold. There was a freezing, driving mizzle blowing across the road. It made a mess of our visors and the drop in temperature meant they were misting up badly on the inside so we had to ride with them open and our eyes were constantly stinging by bombardment from the icy rain. Our heated vests were pumping heat into our bodies but our legs and feet were freezing. We took to stopping every 10 to 20 miles to get off the bike and jump around to get some warm blood moving and to rest our sore tired eyes. We glimpsed occasional herds of Caribou through the murk but mostly the ride was all about struggling against that cold rain as we counted down the miles to Deadhorse. And in all this we found great kindness too. At one of our halts a couple in an SUV stopped to see if we were OK. The guy jumped out and gave us a handful of those chemical heater pads – those crystal things that you shake up to give off heat. Later on when it was really freezing another couple in a big RV stopped to see if we wanted to throw the bikes in the back and ride the rest of the way with them. We declined but these offers really boosted our morale.

We rode on with snot filled noses, pink-eyed and shivering across the tundra wasteland. It got colder and colder and I was checking puddles at the side of the road for signs of ice. The mud was just the same and thankfully the road didn’t totally dissolve on us and we kept on going. Then I caught the flash of a welding torch in the gloom. Soon we were upon a huge construction yard where some heavy equipment was being serviced. I waved at the guy with the welding torch and soon we came upon wire fences and floodlit oil facilities. We crawled on, the end in sight and soon were surrounded by the full working apparatus of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. We were here. We’d made it to the top of the world. Deadhorse; Dead tired; Dead cold; Dead happy! It was 9:30 in the evening, we had just ridden 260 miles and it took us 12 hours to do it in this filthy weather. We were full of admiration for our little BMWs and how they coped today. We felt bad leaving them outside in the rain all covered in mud but we felt like heroes especially when we were later quizzed by people astonished that we’d ridden all the way here from Chile. The Prudhoe Bay Hotel never looked better – another assemblage of Portakabin luxury and I never even flinched when we handed $99 each for a bed for the night. Actually the price includes all your food for the duration and the food was excellent. The place reminded us of the camp in that John Carpenter movie ‘The Thing’. The corridors were full of people in parka jackets over fleeces with hardhats and muddy boots everywhere. Deadhorse is the name of the town that serves the Prudhoe Bay oilfields. There are around 7,500 residents, none of them permanent – they all come up on short stints to work on the oilfields. The atmosphere was a little gloomy as there had been a big problem with a leak in the pipeline and they were pumping a lot of water through with the oil. They had already laid off 600 people because of this and there seemed to be a lot of uncertainty in the air. We slept like logs and next morning we wolfed down an enormous breakfast. Our eyes were aching from the last part of the ride and we wanted to go see the Arctic Ocean. As the road goes through the oilfield, access is denied to all traffic so the only way to get there is to pay $37 each to go the last 6 miles on a tour bus laid on by the nearby Caribou Inn. We did this but to be honest it was a waste of time and the only thing we got out of it was a glimpse of a filthy Arctic Ocean through the same murk we’d ridden in all day yesterday. You can join the Polar Bear Club – by taking a dip in the freezing sea – it was 37˚F today so we and everyone else on the bus declined. We stayed a second night at the Prudhoe Bay and spent the rest of the day relaxing and feeding up for the ride back. At dinner that evening in walked Garth & Sandra with the 2 kids – they’d got the parts for the wheel repair and had made it! They struck gold too when they met a guy from one of the oil companies who took pity on the kids and gave them a room for the night in one of their unused dorms.

Next morning we said farewell yet again to the Coopers, they were off to see the Arctic Ocean and we were headed back to Coldfoot. Initially we had the cold icy fog but it wasn’t raining and after about 30 miles inland from the coast we saw a ribbon of blue shine through the grey that turned into sunny skies. The road was dry and we could easily see the good hard packed mud and the bad bits too, so we had a fast and beautiful ride back. Approaching the Brooks Range the mountains were now revealed to us in all their splendid glory and the ride through the Atigun Pass was awesome. We shaved hours off our time going up and reached Coldfoot early in the evening where we had a few beers with a couple of American guys on their way up. Today’s ride was one of the best and most memorable of the whole trip and we were elated to have seen the delights of this road in all weather. We woke next morning to the dreaded pitter-patter of rain on the window guaranteeing us that we would see the first part of the ride in all weather too! The ride back to Fairbanks was another mudbath. First we flew along the 50 mile paved section out of Coldfoot hoping that maybe the rain would be off by the time we hit the dirt again but bad weather doesn’t work that way. Roads that had seemed fine and dandy on the way up now tried to suck the tires off our wheel rims as we slithered and slathered south in the mud. But we were old hands now. Veterans; and we’d shaken off the worst this road could throw at us and knew we had it beaten. It eventually gave up raining and before we knew it we were back on pavement at Livengood and blasting down the hardtop to Fairbanks.

The ride to Prudhoe Bay was one of the definitive moments and highlights of our whole Pan-American trip. It was an utterly fantastic experience in that at last we were mastering bad roads and it also marked the completion of the end-to-end trip. We’d been in Tierra Del Fuego and peered out on the Beagle Channel. Now we’d trodden the Arctic Tundra and done likewise over the murky Arctic Ocean. Whereas in Chile it was all ahead of us, now it was all behind. We have both felt changed by our adventures but never so markedly as over the past few days. To our dying days we will never forget those 4 glorious days riding that Dalton Highway.


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