We’re just back from our 9 day, 500 mile journey to Deadhorse, the most northerly point you can ride to in the Americas (the last 8 miles is BP’s private road to the Arctic Ocean).
It’s been an epic trip; following first the Elliott, and then the Dalton Highway. Completed in 1974 in a hasty 157 days, this 414 miles stretch of rough, remote road serves the Alyeska pipeline, providing a year round means to deliver diesel, machinery and food to the oil fields on the Prudoe Bay – via the 18 wheel trucks who ‘run the Haul Road,’ as it’s been coined.
The Alaskan Interior is an unrepentant place, and its sheer size brings with it a true sense of wilderness and isolation not often experienced, wherever you might find yourself in the world. Although the road itself is quiet enough, what you need to remember is that the real expanse is on either side, where there’s simply nothing but swathes of pipecleaner-like spruce forests or barren, rolling tundra for hundreds and hundreds of miles. The few settlements that exist can only be reached by light planes in the summer, or snow machines in the winter.
In the depths of winter, water is dispersed along the highway to create an ice road; temperatures regularly hover around the minus 50F mark (that’s -45C) and have even reached minus 80F. So with the exception of a few crazy japanese travellers who revel in hardship (we heard of one who had walking the Haul Road in the winter, completing a 5 year journey from Tierra Del Fuego), the summer is definitely the time to be here. Like a pilgrimage, each year it draws a few dozen riders beginning or ending their epic journeys across the Americas.
We’d already been forewarned that there’d be very little in the way of supplies. No grocery stores for 500 miles; that’s a long way. Organised, well-researched tourers have food drops mailed ahead to a tiny settlement at the halfway point, Coldfoot. Others, like us, simply loaded up for 10 days on the road…
The first 85 miles along the Elliott Highway eases you in with near perfect tarmac. Then the fun really starts: the Dalton Highway.
Some fellow cycle tourists, Rene and Josh, recommended stopping off at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Artic Circle Trading Post. A good call, as not only did it sell delicious 1 dollar muffins, but it had a nice grassy patch to camp on. Joe Carston, its owner, welcomed us in with free coffee (‘When people come to your house, do you charge them?’). A natural raconteur, he likes nothing more than chewing the cud with tourists who stop in on their journey north.
From the Trading Post, it was just 20 miles to the start of the Dalton Highway, and it welcomed us immediately with loose gravel and unfeasibly steep climbs.
We followed the cyclist’s etiquette of pulling over for these goliaths of the road, and they in turn gave us (for the most part) as much room as they could. We could hear them for several minutes, far into the distance, before they finally thundered past, a grapeshot of pebbles crackling in their wake. Struggling up each climb, we looked back over our shoulders like hunted prey, innevitably making us wobble from one side to the other, front tyre slipping and losing a few valuable joules of energy.
The road, cutting through a sea of forest, wound on and on, up and over ridges that slowed us to turtle-pace.
The Dalton Highway meets the mightly Yukon river at the Dalton’s Mile 56. Even though half of the river lies in Alaska, and it flows right across this massive state, incredibly this is the only place where there’s a bridge that spans it.
Perhaps just as important to the cyclist though, is the fact that crossing the Yukon means that you’re just a handful of miles away from the Hot Spot diner. News of their fabled 10$ burgers spreads from tourer to tourer like forest wildfire – we’d even been shown photos of said burgers. Little more than a makeshift trailer home set up on a parched scratch of land beside an ice-cool spring, it’s run by a formidable ex Playboy Bunny, with a husky voice reminisent of Marge’s chainsmoking sisters from the Simpsons.
Also tucking into a burger was Dave Thomas, from the Isle of Mull. His small stature (and his banjo) fit perfectly into his Mini estate, which he was driving around the world.
Then it was time to tear ourselves from this burger paradise (can there be such a thing?) and head out once more into the heat, closing in on the lumps in the road known in trucker parlance as Sand Hill and Rollercoaster.
To add to the challenge, the road was being resurfaced, a process that involves spreading calcium chloride to surpress dust and break down the rocks. It’s a messy formula that creates a tacky, brake-clogging mud, but once it’s dry, the results are as smooth a the best tarmac.
Our diet was centred around a dwindling supply of blocks of cheese, flatbread, pasta, carrots, copious servings of peanut butter and Dan’s special morning recipe: uncooked porridge oats mixed with water, orange flavouring and a real treat, raisins.
Until, low and behold, we came across a tasty roadside treat…
Finally, at mile 175, we pulled into the old mining camp of Coldfoot, so called because gold prospectors would get cold feet and turn back from the Koyukuk River.
The truckers sat, portly bellies, beards, moustaches, Carhart dungarees and baseball caps for the most part, smoking on their own table. We were finally able to put faces to the mysterious men, who surveyed the world from high up in their cabs, thundering past us like unstopable forces across the plains.
But we had eyes for one thing only. Like the Hot Spot before it, news of Coldfoot’s all-you-can-eat-buffet is passed on with reverential hush by bike tourers travelling the Dalton Highway. On our tight budgets, $20 had seemed an overpriced indulgence back in Fairbanks. 5 sweaty, dusty days later, it seemed like a complete bargain.
With bellies painfully full, we pitched the tent for the night, enjoying an evening drinking cheap rasberry ‘champagne’ and tequila with the friendly cooks and cleaners at the camp, listening to stories of eccentric prospectors and trappers who still live in these parts.
Just 250 miles lay between us and Deadhorse…
To be continued…
(There’s some YouTube videos here)