The Dalton Highway, Alaska (Deadhorse to Fairbanks)

Part One: The Dalton Highway (Deadhorse to Fairbanks)

The Dalton highway gets a day-by-day description given that it is the first challenge of the trip (and I am full of the zeal of a new blogger) and secondly because it was an event of a highway.  Deadhorse on the Arctic Sea coast is where this journey begins and its all southwards from here on.  The last few days of the below were on the Richardson Highway between the end of the Dalton Highway and Fairbanks.

Deadhorse Store

Deadhorse: I delayed the departure in order to pick up a few things (bear repelling horn etc) and organise the pack a bit.  I also wanted to get myself in ‘the zone’ for cycling after such a long hiatus (14 years no less) and having everything just right will help.  It has been a while since I attempted anything this foolhardy so really needed to be in the right frame of mind at the outset.  Yesterday turned out sunny with a following breeze so would have been a good day to start as it turns out and with the prospect for the next five days being cloudy with showers, I might regret the decision to dally.  Had a little ride of approximately 5km over to the general store and can feel that new leather saddle will need some working in. The Prudhoe Bay Hotel has ‘all you can eat’ all day long in the cafeteria to cater for the oil rig workers so I take full toll.

Day 1: (50 Miles): So it begins.  I circle around the Deadhorse Airport and then turn south and head down the Dalton Highway, and on towards the great beyond. I set out early and feeling very nervous. Am not sure what I am doing and why. After a few miles every muscle, joint and bone is aching. By mile 20 am stunned by the sudden and belated realisation that I am old. Quite a revelation. A steady one degree gradient throughout the day on straight road.  There is a carpet of tundra as far as the eye can see on either side of the road and the ever present oil pipeline accompanies me for each mile.  This pipeline feeds the USA with crude and runs from Deadhorse straight to the south coast of Alaska.  Am gradually getting used to the bike and she me.  Camped short of Pump Station #2.  Camping for the first time in ages so am relearning how to put the tent up and thankfully it proved very easy.  My mother doubted if I would be capable of camping out at all so I guess I really showed her.  There is, essentially, nothing at all between Deadhorse and Wiseman/Coldfoot (225 miles south) in terms of services such as food, shelter etc so until I get there I will be on my own (apart from the company of the odd passing truck doing the long haul up to Deadhorse).

The ever present pipeline

Day 2: (50 miles): The flat has given way to rolling hills which are a not-so subtle form of torture.  Over one crest and down into a small dip then back up another – repeat ad infinitum – heartbreaking stuff. Loose muddy gravel road surface into the bargain.  The Rohloff gear twist grip changer came loose and sure enough it was the 20mm ‘torx’ that is required while I, of course,  have the 25mm torx.  Better to rig up a wire to the handlebars to keep the shifter from moving so that I can at least change gears.  I may have misjudged the food requirements, or my pace, or both – or more precisely not really judged either of them very well at all.   At my current pace I will be running short on noodles and spam; not good.  It will then be a race to get to Wiseman/Cold Foot (at 225 and 239 mile marker respectively) before the food supply runs out.  Am equipped with the bear repelling kit of knife and hooter and am camping with them at the ready.  Andre at the ‘Happy Valley’ Camp (an airstrip) informs that the hooters don’t work. Thanks Andre.

Day 3: (36 miles): Met biker Robert by the roadside with the small trailer behind his Cannondale mountain bike.  Reassuringly he is only getting 30 miles a day so at least there is one person on the planet traveling more slowly than I.  Mark the cyclist I met in Deadhorse is long gone and will probably be in Anchorage by now.  Today the road just went up and up for 25 miles rolling through the morning.  Not good at my level of unfitness.  Camped just in time to get half soaked putting the tent up. [Note to self: Must get better at weather watching.]  It appears I am going into a canyon before the pass tomorrow.

Day 4: (31 miles): An examination of character.  Awoke to find a strong wind blowing directly from the south which just happens to be the direction in which I wished to travel so had a hellish ride into the teeth of it all day long.  It blows up through the canyon into which I am heading so there was simply no respite all day long.  Even on those brief down hill sections the bike refused to budge as the headwind was simply holding it still.  Majestic scenery though as the continental divide rises out of the rolling hills that have been my companions between miles 50 to 100.  The pass is turning out to be a very long rise (of which 500 metres elevation was achieved today over the 30 miles on the road).  Camped just short of the pass and had the last of the noodles – a calculated gamble to get as many carbs in as possible so that I can get over the mountain pass tomorrow morning and then hope that the going is easier into Wiseman/Cold Foot.

92 Miles to Coldfoot

Day 5: (64 miles):  Awoke to light rain and a decision to make as to whether to ride over the top of he pass.  Hunger and the theory that rain falls on one side of mountains and maybe not on the other prevailed so up I cycled up the hill.  Some truly ugly grades near the top so really there was more pushing than cycling for an hour or so.  The guidebook says something about stunning views from the top: I saw nothing but cloud, rain and more wind in the face.  The weather theory turned out to be rubbish as well so got a gentle soaking for most of the day.  Plummeting down the other side and eventually out of the mist I encountered the first trees since the start of the trip as the road finally broke away into a gentle down hill and level glide for 50 miles into Wiseman and most importantly, a cabin and some food.

A poem:

Brand new bike

New leather saddle

Undulating ride across

Alaskan Highway

Sore bottom

Day 8 (60 miles) Wiseman to ‘Gobbler’s Knob’: Refreshed and rolling after recuperation in Wiseman at the lovely Borreal Lodge.  Headed down to Coldfoot and a truly magic hamburger (with Tots!) [refer photo ‘Best Hamburger’], quite possibly the best hamburger in the history of the world.  The weather was a vast improvement with patches of blue sky in the afternoon so had the opportunity to take in the scenery of rolling hills.  The wind persists from the south (directly in the face as normal).  The nastiest rise all day was up to the oddly named ‘Gobblers Knob’ at the end of the day’s ride (make up own story as to how it got this name).  Gobblers Knob lookout had great views back down the valley with the charming ‘Pump Station Number 5’ shimmering in the distance.  The look out at the summit was the venue for the night’s camp where I met a guy and his girlfriend who offered beer and marshmallows!  All good until a trucker pulled up and idled the truck for the next 10 hours.  Just why they do this is difficult to say; its not that cold. to create more demand for oil thereby ensuring continued trucking employment on the haul road or just run the heater for the cabin?  I fear so. Either way the bastard ran his engine all through the night and woke even a very tired cyclist.

Best Burger – Coldfoot
Reverse Blue Nosing at Arctic Circle

Day 9  (72 miles) (Gobbler’s Knob – 5 mile north of Yukon River [Hot Spot Café]): Hard hard hard ride.  Up and down and up and down until your heart bleeds, your soul shatters, dreams crush, guts tear out and you cry for your mummy like a babe lost in the woods with big nasty wolves poised to attack and nibble on those very same torn out guts.  At last there was no wind in my face but as the wind took a breather, the topography took over in its quest to defeat your humble correspondent.  Monstrous dips and rises all day that take your will and give it a good kicking.  One mile rolling down then One mile pushing up silly unridable 12-14 degree gradients.  In the afternoon made it back across the Arctic Circle line [refer obligatory snap shot next to the sign].  I imagine that makes me a reverse ‘Blue Noser’, a ‘Red Noser’ perhaps?  The plan was to camp and ride to Yukon River the next day but as the camping terrain looked uninviting (bear paw marks along the road’s edge) and the road finally leveled out offering some encouragement, I decided to press on.  As it turned out the ‘roller-coaster’ ride resumed so up and down I went for the next 15 miles over more ugly gradients, each just for ½ mile but more and more of the roll down and repeat scenario until you lose the will to live.  The nearer your destination the more you’re slip-slidin’ away (Simon and Garfunkel), and today I did some sliding.  Suffered through the last 10 miles and felt that if the up and down, roll/push combinations persisted much longer then there was a possibility of my just running out of energy bikkies entirely and sitting down for a good cry.  9pm eventually found me at the ‘Hot Spot Café’ (4 miles short of The Yukon River crossing) with a ‘gift shop’ container full of stickers cautioning not to dare give a difficult time to the proprietors, (“Happy Everything – now leave me alone until next year” sort of thing).  The camp accommodation, however, was very very welcome.  Had the second best and undoubtedly the largest hamburger in the history of the world and a heated room (converted part of a shipping container) with a bed and a hot shower nearby!  Am amazed again at the recuperative power of just one shower and a super-sized hamburger.  I really pushed it out way too hard to get here today and might be in need of a day’s recuperation. 132 miles over that ridiculously undulating terrain in two days was just too much for an old bugger like me who is just trying to get his cycling legs back.

Hot Spot Cafe

Day 10 (62 miles) (Hot Spot to end of The Dalton Highway): Over the Yukon River bridge first thing in the morning and then up a long gentle rise from Yukon River up and up 8 miles.  A few nasty climbs but generally the cranking legs are getting back in shape a tad.  Up until close to the end of the highway everything was in order and again decided to push it out beyond the original plan in order to get the Dalton Highway done.  The Highway, however, really didn’t want to give up without a fight.  The last 20 miles turned into a nasty roller-coaster and the surface deteriorated to ugly dirt and then into a thick gluey clay-like gloop that encased the wheels and jammed up everything.  Over the last 2km the highway threw everything at me.  Horrid horrid grades, more gloopy mud and with 1.5 miles to go the gears clogged (odd for an internally geared rear hub I’ll grant).  Had to push the bike up the last grade and then coast out the end of the Highway with no gears and no energy.  Its not clear, to me at least, as to what the cause of the gear jam actually is but the glue/mud might have jammed the external mesh (cable connection to the hub) up or something might have come loose: or both.  Whatever the problem it will need fixing if I am to continue the red cycling line.  At the first intersection for 414 miles since Deadhorse I can see the sign facing the opposite direction reading ‘Dalton Highway’. A huge moose replete with a splendid rack of antlers, pokes its head out from the road-side trees, sees me and then deciding that the better part of valor is discretion, disappears.  It is done. I am the master of the Dalton Highway! What a road! Oh life! No welcoming committee –  so I camp by the road.

Day 11 (33 miles): A lesson in actually taking the time to get things right.  I had attempted some on-the-roll repairs yet to all intents and purposes the bike remains dysfunctional.  The drive wouldn’t take a load on the drive without the gears slipping – making hill climbs impossible.  There is also a risk of doing some sort of permanent damage to the gear edges.  15 miles down the road and a caravan drink stop I ran into an odd French man who was riding up ½ of the Dalton (Why half?).  I gave him my map which he, blissfully unaware of the way it had been loved and studied over the past two weeks, promptly placed on a wet table soaking the thing, bloody ingrate.  Went on to the Arctic Circle Gift shop (more ‘don’t mess with me’ stickers) that was closed for a lunch three hours.  This turned out to be a blessing in that I decided to wait there and actually clean the bike and (belatedly) consult the Rohloff hub gear manual.  I also inspected the twist shift and within an hour and the assistance of a handy drill bit handle, I had the gear mesh’ cleaned and tightened and the twist shift re-installed properly.  All good to go.  Had one long long climb through the afternoon but called it quits at 8pm on a ‘turn-out’ road with a fire just enough to heat the noodles.

Gear repaired and still stylish

Day 12: (42 miles): Cycled up the remainder of the only pass between the end of the Dalton and Fairbanks and had a decent day of ‘normal’ highway ride. 15 miles out had a stop at the Hilltop Truck stop and a huge plate of stuff called ‘Hilltop demolition’ (a ‘fry up’ plate of assorted bits of animal and potatoes).  Then it was down into Fairbanks and splurged on a room with a jacuzzi! Two days here soaking in the tub and reassess the situation.

2 thoughts on “The Dalton Highway, Alaska (Deadhorse to Fairbanks)

  • Congratulations!
    Today is your day.
    You’re off to Great Places!
    You’re off and away!

    You have brains in your head.
    You have feet in your shoes
    You can steer yourself
    any direction you choose.
    You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
    And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

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