Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse) to Fairbanks - Down the Dalton Highway

I finally cycled out of Prudhoe Bay on Monday morning the 23rd July 2012. By this stage I was keen to get on the road and start the adventure proper! I was slightly in shock as to how heavy the bike was when fully loaded and it was an experience in itself to keep my balance on the packed up bike bouncing along the gravel tracks in and around Deadhorse.
It was a surreal sense of excitement and intrepidation to be finally started but most of all it simply felt great. After all the talk, all the research, getting the gear, mental preparation and flights, I was finally motoring, I mean pedaling! I had made this happen, now the only thing left to do was to cycle the 17,000 miles!  I had a smile on my face as I thought to myself, "Here we go..."

I knew the first 800km (500 miles) were going to be some of the most difficult that I would be doing for the next few months as I had been warned by numerous people that it was quite challenging. This was down to a number of factors, such as the mostly gravel unpaved road, heavy trucks, being in grizzly bear territory, crossing a mountain range and the lack of towns or facilities along the way.

414 of the 500 odd miles between Deadhorse and Fairbanks are along the Dalton Highway, named after James W. Dalton, a famous Alaskan engineer. The Dalton Highway is something of a legend in Alaska, one of the last frontiers, it is serves as the obstacle course used in the television programme "Ice Road Truckers". The North Slope Haul Road as it is also known was built in only 154 days in 1974 for the construction and maintenance of the Alaska Oil Pipeline. It has only been open to the public since 1995. The pipeline transports oil from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields all the way down to the ice free port of Valdez in southern Alaska.
Most of day one was relatively flat, sunny and the mosquitoes provided quite the welcoming party. Another thing that I had been warned about was the mosquitoes on the North Slope and they didn't disappoint. Thankfully I had picked up a full mosquito net suit before I left Anchorage.
That evening gave me the first opportunity to put my gas stove to use. (This was about the only item of kit that I hadn't practiced using as airlines claimed they would not take it if there was a smell of gas from it.) As I got the stove set up for the first time, making sure not to set myself on fire, the 3 Musketeers (the 3 French cyclists I met at the Prudhoe Bay general store) arrived along in a big truck they had managed to finally hitch a ride in. We said another quick Allo, Allo/goodbye and they kindly gave me a few tips for using the stove.

They were not long gone when the heavens opened with a heavy downpour. As I struggled in the lashing rain to keep the stove alight, never mind cook some dinner I was thinking to myself "This is great craic". Then through the rain appeared a vision in the distance.. it was another touring cyclist slowly making their way up the hill towards me. Lisa, who had cycled extensively in Mexico and the States was headed in the opposite direction and was nearing the end of her trip up to Prudhoe Bay. She really could not have arrived at a better time. We finally got the stove properly functioning, had a good chat and she gave me some tips for the road ahead including a suggested place to camp that she had passed along the road. We took a few photos and she headed on her way wanting to try and make a bit more distance for the day. I thought that this was very handy altogether that any time I would have stove issues in the lashing rain that a pretty girl would arrive out of the mist and give me some tips. I say she was pretty but she was covered in head to toe in heavy rain gear with her face covered with a mosquito net so who knows.

I didn't go too much further that evening before it was time to set up camp. Setting up the tent surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes that first night is another reason that I will never forget my first day on the road.
Thankfully there were less mosquitoes around the next morning as I had breakfast and packed all the gear. Day two started to involve more hills.

Some time in the afternoon I was hunched over my stove by the side of the road, cursing my waterproof matches that wouldn't light, when a jeep/RV slowly drove by and pulled up about 50 metres past me. Two burly guys in full camoflage gear eventually got out of their truck and slowly started to walk towards me. I wasn't sure what to make of this. You can imagine my relief when one of them inquires with a smile "Are you Billy?" I had totally forgotten that Eddie and Catherine Brosnan who had kindly offered to accommodate me when I got to Fairbanks had told me to look out for their next door neighbour Chris who was up on a hunting trip on the North Slope. We chatted for a while, Chris gave me his lighter and they said I was very welcome to camp with them that night. They had a site set up further down the road with a few others where they had lots of food and even cold beer. As we said our goodbyes I had already decided that I was going to try my best to reach their camp that night even though I was slightly unsure as to where it was... further along the road, down into the valley about a mile off the Dalton over to the right!

Being as far north as I was there was day light pretty much 24 hours a day. Even still, by about 11.30 pm when it felt like I had been steadily climbing all day on the gravel and the mist had become so dense that you could only see about ten metres in front of you I decided it was time to get off the road. Having read a few books on cycling touring before leaving I knew that it was a good idea to be out of sight of the main road so I headed about 100 metres down a side path to what I thought was a discreet camping spot.
My not so discreet camp spot once the mist cleared in the morning.
In the morning with the mist cleared I had a beautiful view for miles around and I could be seen from miles around!
I never found their camp. The next few days brought great sunny weather and constant rolling hills as I slowly climbed my way into the Brookes mountain range and towards Atigun Pass which was the highest point I would pass in these mountains. It was a good climb and just as everything seemed to be uphill in the days leading to Atigun pass the two days after it seemed to thankfully consist of more downhills.

On the far side of the Brookes range the tree line began and helped to make for some spectacular scenery.

By the end of day five I had made it to Coldfoot which is the only proper service facility along the Dalton Highway. It is the half way point between Deadhorse and Fairbanks and the main refuelling point for the trucks. They also have a restaurant where I had a well earned burger and my first cold beer of the trip.

They also had shower facilities which I made good use of. In Coldfoot I met some touring cyclists Rudi and Eddie who were heading north. We had a very enthusiastic chat as we compared notes on the next few days of road in either direction. We camped together that night along with a bunch of motorbikers which is the far more common way of biking the Dalton. Before I left Coldfoot I bumped into another touring cyclist who initially introduced himself as "John" and then advised that his full name was Gianfranco Ferrari, who was from Italia.
Gianfranco Ferrari
The lads had passed him the previous day and warned me that Gianfranco is a man who likes his chat. Not only had Gianfranco done extensive touring in Alaska and northern Canada but numerous other places around the globe including several trips in Patagonia where he warned me about the high winds.

That next night I made it to the marker for the Artic Circle which has a camping area and in the morning I met Czech cyclist Ivo who was carrying most of his gear in a shopping basket attached to the front of his bike. Ivo decided to hitch a ride the rest of the way up to Deadhorse and had left less than five minutes when a tour bus of about 15 Czechs arrived! We had breakfast together as I informed them of their fellow country man and his shopping basket! I was no sooner on my bike that morning when I found myself climbing a hill that didn't seem to end. This one seemed to catch me on the hop because with Atigun pass the few days previous I had plenty of warning but Beaver Slide as it is known really caught me out. An hour later when I was still climbing but about 100 metres from what I hoped was the summit a car slowed down beside me and stuck their hand out the window with a cold Powerade. I nearly came off the bike trying to grab it! Once at the top I got talking to Terry, Cynthia and Daniel Julien who convieniently happened to be photographers with Northern Exposure Photography who took some great shots (you can see them here; This act of kindness with the cold drink was one of many which I received in Alaska.

The next day brought me to the Yukon river crossing. The Yukon river is the longest in Alaska and the Yukon Territority in Canada and one of the biggest in North America.

The night I arrived at Yukon River crossing I spotted my first bear further down the road.

Not far past the Yukon River crossing and not long into my days cycling, crawling up another hill with the mosquitoes feasting on me yet again I made a dramatic decision. I had had enough of the mosquitoes and I decided that I was going to get to Fairbanks as soon as possible.  Fairbanks was still over one hundred miles away and I had been averaging about 50 miles a day so far. The choices were to cycle through the night and get to Fairbanks some time on the Tuesday afternoon or spend two more nights camping and an extra day getting chewed on. Another major factor was that the Dalton was going to be closed for the following day so I would have had to spend an extra day on the road. It wasn't a difficult choice and I prepared myself for 24 hours in the saddle. I still had plenty of food and made sure to stop every four hours or so to eat and it was still bright enough being July in northern Alaska.

At about 5am in the morning with both the battery on my camera and garmin having given up I came to the end of the Dalton highway. It was an emotional farewell. Glad to have done it but also glad to be done with it and certainly the most challenging week's cycling I have ever done. I was excited to be pulling onto the Elliot highway even though there was about another 80 miles to Fairbanks because it was a regular paved highway, you don't miss something until it is taken away and I was tempted to get down and kiss the tarmac.

By about 10am the following morning as the sun began to warm things up again I was really starting to struggle. The legs were still going but the sleep deprivation was really kicking in. The closer I got, the slower I got. I even had to go slowly down the hills as I tried in vain to stop my head from nodding. I knew it was only a matter of time before I nodded off and not long later I opened my eyes to a slow motion crash into the bushes. With thankfully only a grazed knee to show for it I walked my bike for the next mile or so until I mustered up the energy to get back on the bike.
Fox is a small town ten miles outside Fairbanks and the first town you hit on the route. Fox is the home of Silver Gulch, the most northerly brewery in America. A few people had recommended that I get a beer here upon arriving into Fox. I cycled straight past the quaint little brewery and into the local petrol station for a coffee. A beer was the last thing I needed right now. Pepped up on caffeine for the last stretch of heavier traffic between Fox and Fairbanks I climbed the last few hills into Fairbanks at a snails pace.
The first thing into Fairbanks I needed WiFi to try and contact the Brosnan's, an Irish family long settled here who had offered to host me for a few days when I got in. Fifteen minutes later Catherine Brosnan had driven to meet me and greeted me with a big hug. I had made it!
The biggest challenge had not been the isolation, climbs, lack of facilities, bears or gravel roads but those darn mosquitoes!

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