Monday, July 7, 2014

The Dalton Highway: A Different Beast Every Day

Nice clean Hondas, fueled up and ready to get dirty on the Dalton!

Sorry guys, it's a pretty long post, but I feel like people tend to oversimplify the Dalton, either typifying it by the terrifying "Devil Mile" which surely everyone encounters some variation of, or they describe the entire 415 miles as a cake walk. I hope this post helps someone riding behind us or who plans to ride the Dalton in the future. 
  The rain finally stopped, and with the forecast looking decent, we headed to The Dalton Highway, which would take us to the top of North America. 415 miles (668 kilometers) of adventure!!! We fueled up, topped up my oil and sprayed the parts of the bike that will get hot with Pam. 

The PAM tip could have been a load of BS, but we were willing to try anything to make the bikes easier to clean upon our return from the Dalton.

Yes, cooking spray. One of the riders we had met along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway on the way up, had told us that it really helped when it came to cleaning off the caked on cement-like mixture of mud that the bikes would be covered in due to the Calcium Chloride that they mix with the gravel up there to keep the dust down.

The sun came out and although we were looking for hazardous road conditions around every turn, we made it to mile 56, the Yukon River Camp, on a perfect stretch of road. It had been a mix of pavement, dirt and “road works” up until then.

While we fueled up at the Yukon River Camp, a guy in a 4x4 told us how the next 60 miles to the Arctic Circle got pretty “squirrely” in some areas, with deep mud ruts and slippery conditions that had his 4x4 going all over the road. We looked at the sun, willing her to do her magic and dry out the road, and sat down to made sandwiches so we could give her a little extra time.

She listened. While the ruts were still there, they had mostly solidified and the remaining areas of deep mud were easy to avoid. We crossed the Arctic Circle 6 hours before the Summer Solstice. The sun would not set for us that night.

Another 60 miles and were were in Coldfoot, where we fueled up and spent some time stretching our legs as we wandered through the well-done Arctic Inter-agency Visitor Center. The Ranger we spoke with about camping spots and road conditions told us that the portion of the road he had thought to be dodgy last time he rode up to Prudhoe Bay was being worked on, and that we were about to ride the best 100mi of pavement we’d seen so far today. There was a chance of showers the next day, but there had also been a chance of showers for today, as well, and we’d seen nothing but sun.

Off we went, grateful for the information, confident in the road conditions and cooperating weather. The scenery became truly spectacular and we took photos and rolled the GoPros on and off around every turn.

All of the sudden, the reality of the Dalton hit. Roel was riding ahead of me, thankfully, and had been annoyed about a car in front of him that had all of the sudden changed speed, until he realized why and in mid-sentence and yelled out to me. It sounded something like this:

“Really man, what is this? Stop, go, stop, go, wha - SLOW SLOW SLOW SLOWWW DOWN”

My reaction was delayed due to not understanding what Roel was trying to communicate and I hit a 40ft stretch of gravel, the kind that had supposedly made me cry on the Top of The World Highway, at 55mph. The kind of gravel that is sharp and nasty and deep, that they lay down before they lay down pavement. On the Top of the World Highway, I was in first gear going about 8mph and had no problem. Here, my bike immediately went into a crazy wobble. My mind raced and in a fraction of a second, I loosened my arms and considered whether or not to slow down (as Roel had told me to I went into a high-speed wobble on the highway in Pennsylvania), but that is when Roel’s voice blasted through the intercom:


Grateful for the direction, I twisted my throttle back, looked ahead with a steely glare that I hoped told my bike: You WILL go where I look right now.  If seen from above, my bike would have looked like a snake wildly making her way through the gravel, front wheel and rear wheel going to and fro over the sharp rocks. In the end, it may have just been sheer will to survive that kept my bike standing as she continued to sashay across the stretch of rock: in my peripheral vision, I could see an 18 wheeler approaching at highway speed, so naturally the thought occurred to me that if I dropped my bike, I would simply be run over by 18 wheels on the narrow stretch of the road and that would be it.  Not an option.

So we danced to the edge of the gravel, and safely onto the pavement on the other side, where the wobble finally stopped. And I stopped on the side of the highway. Grateful to be alive. Needing to remember how to breath to ensure I remained alive. There had been no “road work” or “rough road” sign. It was just a suddenly treacherous bit of road that came up out of nowhere, and we needed to be prepared for this to happen again, at any point. We rode on more slowly and cautiously, and the road eventually turned back to dirt, with some corrugations and loose gravel.

We continued on over the snowy Atigan Pass and stopped for the evening at Galbraith Lake, to camp at the Bureau of Land Management free campsite. By the time we had eaten dinner (boil-in-a-bag soup and Uncle Ben’s Rice), it was well after midnight and the Solstice Sun was still shining brightly.
Knowing it would be detrimental to our riding the next day, we didn’t stay up to see the sun “not” set at 2am, but given how bright it was every time I opened my eyes throughout the night, I’m confident it didn’t.

After mid-night and the sun was still high in the sky... two hours until the Summer Solstice
When we got out of the tent the next morning, quickly moving dark clouds were threatening to make it a very different day of riding from the previous one. Knowing that there were no services for the next 140 miles (225 ams), we emptied one of the fuel cans into my bike. While we waited on the main road for a pilot car to guide us through the next 16 miles of road works, we watched truck after truck coming from a nearby gravel pit, filled with massive rocks and gravel that would be used to build up the road. That was the stuff we would be riding over a few miles down the road. Yippee.

We followed the pilot car and between stops, reached speeds of 10mph behind he and his buddy ahead of us. By buddy, I mean a watering truck with a fresh load to dump on the road. Who needs to worry about the rain when you’ve got watering trucks making the road a muddy mess in front of you?

After the stretch of road work where we had a pilot car, the road conditions got really bad. Massive corrugations, intermixed with stretches of nasty sharp rocks and unpredictable build-ups of loose gravel. Areas of less coordinated road works with fewer machines which meant there were ridges of muddy gravel built up in the middle of each lane while we were riding it. So we had to make sure to get out of the way of the guy who was in the process of smoothing it all out AND dodge the oncoming trucks. Oh and did I mention, there was LOTS of mud.

From mile 300 to 415 we were in a state of misery. The road was not nice to ride. Once you got used to one condition and how to ride it, it would change. The weather took a turn and it began to mist and rain intermittently. And the closer we got to Deadhorse, the colder it got, until we were so cold we stopped talking.

With visions of me needing to wee out on the arctic tundra with no bush to hide behind and semis passing every minute, I had broken down and bought a SheWee. It is advised that you “practice” with this device before actually using it. That would have been good advice to follow.

We finally made it to Deadhorse, and I’m glad I had developed no illusions of this being a nice place to visit, much less, a nice place to arrive. We fueled up, warmed up with free coffee and popcorn at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel, got our stickers and a photo in front of the sign at the Deadhorse General Store and got the heck out of Dodge. A man who presumably worked for an oil company approached us and asked what we were doing. Still slightly numb and frozen we weren’t quick with an answer. He was: “They have to pay me A LOT of money to come up here.”

No kidding. The temperature on a business sign flashed 33deg F (0.5 C).

We got on the bikes determined to get back to someplace more hospitable. Some areas of the road had already been improved by the time we returned, but a few more watering trucks had apparently been through and there was a LOT more mud. Fortunately, not the kind you sink into, so nothing unmanageable in 1st gear, but it was very slow going.

Just a lil mud and a BIG truck


It did feel like blinders had been removed from our eyes, as all of the sudden we were noticing all sorts of wildlife we hadn't noticed on the way up to Prudhoe Bay.

Musk Ox

We were both exhausted, but there were extremely ominous looking clouds over the Atigan Pass. So we rode past Galbraith Lake, determined to at least get over the Pass in fair weather and camped on the other side near a stream.

Looking towards Prudhoe Bay from the Atigan Pass

Coming down the Atigan Pass towards Fairbanks

Sometime in the middle of the night, I thought it had begun to rain and groaned as I opened my eyes. It was not rain. It was hundreds of mosquitoes bouncing between the mesh top of our tent and the fly.

But it was raining when we woke up, so we raced to pack up the tent and get on the road before the conditions ahead got too bad. I was on the lookout for my little patch of gravel and eventually started to see markers I had made mental notes of after my gravel dance (trees, lakes, etc.). And when we came to that bit of road, there was a fresh layer of pavement over the gravel that had been there less than 36 hours prior. This road is a different beast every day.

We quickly fueled up in Coldfoot and continued on. As luck would have it, by the time we got to the end of the pavement, it had stopped raining. The roads where still quite wet, but again, nothing worse than we had seen the day before.

We rode off the Dalton and pumped our fists into the air, a mixture of feeling accomplishment and relief.
All in all, we got very lucky with weather and road conditions on the Dalton. Slowing down (wayyyyy down), remaining focused on the road and staying away from the notoriously soft shoulders, was the key to this being an "uneventful" experience on the Dalton for us. But it is certainly a different beast every day, for every rider. 

The ride back to Fairbanks was blissful. The scenery touched us more than it had on the way North, the sun seemed to make everything sparkle in a way it hadn’t before, and we encountered very few RVs to slow us down or obscure our vision. I chuckled as Roel continued to duck away from the trucks that passed us going the opposite way: we’d gotten so used to waving at a truck while simultaneously ducking behind our windscreens and shielding ourselves with our upraised arm, so as to ward off any rocks that the truck might be flinging.

Up until the Dalton, I’ll admit that I didn’t quite get the joy in twisties or sweeping curves. For whatever reason, the confidence I had built in riding the Dalton extended to curves and it was a brilliant feeling.

We stopped to have some sandwiches and take some pictures. A couple of Dutch guys in a caravan pulled up to chat, having seen Roel’s Dutch license plate. They asked about the Africa Twin and if Roel had had any trouble with it. Fresh from a ride up the Dalton, Roel enthusiastically raved about what a reliable, excellent machine it was. They guys left. We packed up our lunch. And then the Africa Twin refused to start…

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