Saturday 24th June

Gravel and gratitude!

Ian

We knew the Haul Road would be tough. This is from Wikipedia:

The James W. Dalton Highway, usually referred to as the Dalton Highway (and signed as Alaska Route 11), and known to locals as the Haul Road, is 414 miles (666 km) long. It begins at the Elliott Highway, 100 miles north of Fairbanks, and ends at Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean and  the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. it was built as a supply road to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1974. It is also the subject of the second episode of America’s Toughest Jobs and the first episode of the BBC’s World’s Most Dangerous Roads.

The highway, which directly parallels the pipeline, is one of the most isolated roads in the United States. There are only three towns along the route: Coldfoot (pop 10) at Mile 175, Wiseman (pop 22) at Mile 188 and Deadhorse (25 permanent residents, 3,500-5,000 or more seasonal residents depending on oil production) at the end of the highway at Mile 414. Fuel is available at the Yukon River crossing  (Mile 56), as well as Coldfoot and Deadhorse. Two other settlements, Prospect Creek and Galbraith Lake, are uninhabited except for campers and other short-term residents.

The road itself is mostly gravel, very primitive in places, and small vehicle and motorcycle traffic carries significant risk. The nearest medical facilities are in Fairbanks and Deadhorse. Anyone embarking on a journey on the Dalton is encouraged to bring survival gear.

Despite its remoteness, the Dalton Highway carries a good amount of truck traffic through to Prudhoe Bay: about 160 trucks daily in the summer months and 250 trucks daily in the winter. The highway comes to within a few miles of the Arctic Ocean. Beyond the highway’s terminus at Deadhorse are private roads owned by oil companies, which are restricted to authorized vehicles only. There are, however, commercial tours that take people to the Arctic Ocean. All vehicles must take extreme precaution when driving on the road, and drive with headlights on at all times. There are quite a few steep slopes (up to 12%) along the route, as well.

 

After our long but relaxing ride up from Anchorage to Fairbanks, we set out on the morning of Friday 23rd June to ride the 275 miles to Wiseman, 175 of which would be on the Dalton. The day was fair, the bikes were in peak condition, we had lightened our loads significantly by leaving gear in Fairbanks, but I think there was a little trepidation too. Phil has already described our journey to Wiseman. Suffice to say that we did well enough to allay our fears and boost our confidence, perhaps too much, as it turned out.

On Saturday morning, we set out again from our Boreal cabin in the woods of Wiseman, on the 240 mile Journey to Deadhorse. The surfaces on the Dalton are very varied; smooth tarmac, tarmac with potholes, calcium salt/gravel mixture (which sets into quite a hard surface with a few loose stones but is lethal in the wet), and gravel which may be tight packed or loose on a harder subsurface, and deep in places. In addition, and perhaps most dangerous of all, there are numerous road works where loose surfaces and slippiness abound. The road itself is perched above the tundra on a packed gravel embankment, to allow the permafrost beneath it to remain frozen in summer and thus prevent subsidence.

We had travelled 100 miles north from Wiseman on good road surfaces and had crossed the Brooks Range of mountains at Atigun pass, and had come down the other side onto the North Slope between the mountains and Deadhorse. I was just rounding a slight curve when I ran into deep gravel that I hadn’t seen. The back wheel immediately flicked to one side, then the other, then repeat of that but at bigger amplitude, and at the third and biggest set of flicks I thought “I’m falling off here” which I promptly did. I’m not sure if I did this passively or if I actively jumped but in any event off I went. All I really remember is the sound of my crash helmet hitting the road. I stood up immediately, and felt OK – no pain.

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Is the sign prophetic?

The bike did not fare so well. It slid off the edge of the road and tumbled side over side down 30ft of embankment to come to rest on the tundra below, leaving various bits in its wake.

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After getting the not-so-shiny side up…
Broken in the wilderness
100 miles from any civilisation – in any direction

We all gathered to ponder the situation – we could hardly have been in a more remote place, 100 miles to the nearest habitation. The bike had lots of broken plastic and mirrors and bent panniers, and wouldn’t start. I thought to myself how ridiculous it would be if my trip was over before it had hardly begun. A couple of guys in a pickup came by and advised us to go down to pipeline pump station 4  about 5 miles away to see if they would let us use their phone to call recovery. This we did, me on the back of Phil’s bike. There is heavy security around the Alaska oil industry, including the pump stations. As we approached a security truck came out towards us and we were stopped and asked what we were up to. After a few minutes of to and fro on the radio, he told us to ride up to the gate but leave the bikes outside. The guards in the guardhouse then let us in. Inside the guardhouse two very large gentlemen with weaponry of various descriptions on their belts asked us for ID, which they copied. They then became quite friendly and provided us with phone numbers, and soon we had arranged for someone to come up from Coldfoot with a trailer. This was great except the charge was 10 dollars a mile, and we were 100 miles away – gulp. But there was nothing else for it. We left the guardhouse, only then realising that Phil was packing a weapon in the form of a can of bear spray in a holster on his belt for the duration. Back at the accident scene, we managed to push the bike at a lean angle up the embankment and back onto the road. At this point various aches and pains began to make themselves felt, mostly around my feet and ankles, but nothing serious I thought. Thank God for good boots. A couple of hours later I was on my way to Coldfoot, and Phil and Tom to Deadhorse.

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$1000 retrieval

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As I was checking in to the accommodation in Coldfoot, I found it difficult to focus on the printed form I was filling in. I briefly wondered if I had got a harder bang on the head than I had thought, but decided to clean my glasses. In doing so, I discovered one of the lenses was missing! My problem in Coldfoot was how to get back to Fairbanks. 270 miles at 10 dollars per mile was a killer. The received wisdom was to find an empty truck going south and get loaded on. Trouble was, trucks were thin on the ground and it was Sunday, so the bike shop in Fairbanks was closed. The girls in the restaurant put up a begging sign for me, but still no takers. That evening, Phil and Tom returned from Deadhorse and we spent the night in our Wiseman log cabin again. Monday morning, still no sign of any lift. We hatched a plan that Phil and Tom would ride down to Fairbanks, rent a large pickup and come get me. So they set off, but about an hour later I managed to arrange a ride with a couple of gold miners with a flatbed trailer. Great – on the way again. We got to Fairbanks about half an hour before the bike shop closed, and who should be at the service counter but Phil and Tom! So now we are resident in Fairbanks until the bike is patched up (no major mechanical damage but still pricey). Hopefully we’ll be headed for Chicken Saturday or Sunday.

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The gold miners who brought Ian’s bike the 275 miles from Coldfoot to Fairbanks