Running the Haul Road (part 1)

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 Haul Road runs beside the pipeline for much of the time, and varies from tarmac to hardpack dirt, gravel and mud.

The Haul Road runs beside the Trans Alaskan pipeline for much of the time.

XXX

It varies from tarmac to hardpack dirt, gravel and mud.

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.

Come winter, it can get a touch chilly in the Alaskan bush. We had record highs of 92F though.

Come winter, it can get a touch chilly in the Alaskan bush. We had record highs of 92F though.

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…

10 days of food for two hungry cyclist = a lot of weight.

10 days of food for two hungry cyclist = a lot of weight. Our secret weapon was peanut butter; rations included half a pot a day between us.

Black gold. The raison d'etre of the Haul Road.

Black gold, discovered in 1968, is the raison d'etre of the Haul Road. Although reserves are depleting, the area still big business, with the controversial possibility of extracting natural gas too. At the moment, the pipeline provides about 700 000 barrels per day, or 15 per cent of US oil. It's 800 miles long, and transports the oil to the nearest ice-free port, Valdez.

The first 85 miles along the Elliott Highway eases you in with near perfect tarmac. Then the fun really starts: the Dalton Highway.

The journey north eases you in with the promise of tarmac.

A generous shoulder to ride along makes riding pretty relaxing, until the hills kick in.

At times, the hundreds of forest fires burning in Alaska cast a haze across the landscape.

At times, the hundreds of forest fires burning in Alaska cast a smouldery haze across the landscape.

Yep, not too many people live around here.

Yep, not too many people live around here. But those that do have a good sense of humour.

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.

An unexpected, muffin-rich oasis on the Elliott Highway. It was run by Joe Carlston, a jovial, grey beared individual hailing originally from Minisotta. He'd been here for 35 winters. He and his wife have adopted eighteen kids over thirty years, not forgetting the five children of their own.

An unexpected, muffin-rich oasis on the Elliott Highway. The Artic Circle Trading Post is run by Joe, a jovial, silver-beared individual hailing from Minesotta. He's been here for 35 winters, having originally been drawn to Alaksa, like many others, to work 7/12s on the construction of the pipeline - 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Hard work, but a good earner.

He and his wife have adopted eighteen kids over thirty years, not forgetting the five children of their own. An old 1971 Chequer (of NY taxi fame) was parked up in the yard, once used to take his extendeded family on holiday.

He and his wife have adopted eighteen kids over thirty years, not forgetting the five children of their own. An old 1971 long wheelbase Checker wagon (of NY taxi fame) was parked up in the yard, once used to ferry his extended family on holiday. It was the perfect spot to stash food away from hungry bears.

Apparently bears like nothing more than snacking on toothpaste, so don't forget to leave that outside too.

Apparently these furry creatures like nothing more than snacking on toothpaste, so don't forget to leave that outside too.

In fact, we became experts in using the local geography to stash food - in this case a service road gateway leading to the pipe. Even the tree-climbing black bears can get up these.

In fact, we became experts in using the local furniture to hang food away from prying paws - in this case using a service road gateway leading to the pipeline. Even those devious tree-climbing black bears can't get up these.

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 have our work cut out for us.

Goodbye pavement, hello gravel.

Pull over and hold your breath. Actually, the truck drivers were almost always very tolerant of the cyclist who dot what's very much a work road - slowing down and giving as plenty of space.

Pull over and hold your breath. Actually, the truck drivers were surprisingly tolerant of the cyclists who struggle along a road that's very much a workplace for them - slowing down and giving us plenty of space.

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 best tactic is to pull over. Trucks CB radio to each other if there's a cyclist on the road, and get to know where you'll be every day.

The best tactic is to pull over with a wave. Trucks CB radio each other if there's a cyclist, and over the days, get to know roughly where you'll be. The 500 mile journey takes them 12-15 hours. After 10 hours of rest, they turn round and head back again. And repeat...

Know your place in the pecking order. Best not to pick a fight.

Know your place in the pecking order for a harmonious co-existence.

The road, cutting through a sea of forest, wound on and on, up and over ridges that slowed us to turtle-pace.

Although I like my dirt, some surprise stretches of tarmac provide some light relief.

Although I like my dirt riding, surprise stretches of tarmac provide some 'light' relief.

The pipeline.

Some half of the pipleline is overland, and it appeared and disappeared from the earth, zigzagging over the hills, glinting in the sun.

Incredibly, the road comes within metres of the pipeline, so close you can reach out and touch it. Presumably, a satellite keeps a watchful eye on its entire length. No eletric fences, no checkpoints. Occasionally, a helicopter would swoop by overhead.

Incredibly, the road comes within metres of the actual pipeline, so close you can reach out and touch the casing. No eletric fences, no checkpoints. Presumably a satellite keeps a watchful eye, and occasionally, a helicopter swooped overhead.

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.

FBaiiiiii. A reminder not to get any funny ideas. in 2001, a drunken hunter took a pop at the pipeline; six thousand barrels worth of oil came spewing out.

FBaiiiiii. A reminder not to get any funny ideas. in 2001, a drunken hunter took a pop at the pipeline; six thousand barrels worth of oil came spewing out.

The Yukon River. Which meant we were close to the fabled Hot Spot.

The Yukon River. Which also meant we were close to the fabled Hot Spot.

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.

Turning left is good.

Turning left is good.

Not usually one for burgers, this completely hit the spot. Dan had reached nirvana, and blisfully tucked into two.

Not usually one for burgers, this completely hit the spot. Dan had reached nirvana, and blissfully tucked into two.

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.

Diddy Dave and his Big Trip.

Diddy Dave and his Big Trip.

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.

Ridiculous...

The Rollercoaster...

As the miles wound on, the road seemed to become quieter and quieter. It was just us and the mosquitoes.

As the miles wound on, the road seemed to become quieter and quieter. It was just us and the mosquitoes.

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.

With its tors, the Landscape took on a Dartmoor-esque quality. Finger mountain was used by both local XXX and pilots as a reference point.

With its tors and flat, muted colours, the landscape took on a Dartmoor-esque quality, with the 40 foot granite Finger Mountain looming in the distance.

17 miles to go before the Artic Circle. That's about the same distance as my commute from Bristol to Bath used to be...

17 miles to go to the Artic Circle. That's about the same distance as my commute from Bristol to Bath used to be...

A friendly ranger even gave us a certicate!

A friendly ranger even gave us a certicate to mark our crossing of the 66 degree latitude point.

Inventive Place to Stash your Food: the roof of a toilet.

Inventive Place to Stash your Food: the roof of a long drop toilet.

Finally, sun went in and the Jack White and Brookes Ranges came into view.

Finally, the sun went in and the Jack White and Brookes Ranges came into view. Covering almost a fifth of Alaska, the Brookes marks a barrier across the state between the boreal forest to the tundra of the North Slope, which in turn leads to the Arctic Ocean.

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.

A breakfast of champions.

A breakfast of champions.

Until, low and behold, we came across a tasty roadside treat…

Fields and fields of wild blueberries. We sat beside the road, gorging on fruit.

Fields and fields of wild blueberries. We sat beside the road, gorging on fruit.

Forest fires from previous years left a wake of blackened spruce trees, poking out of the ground like giant charred matchsticks. Around them, fireweed was flowering, preparing the earth for regrowth.

Forest fires from previous years left a wake of blackened spruce trees, poking out of the ground like giant charred matchsticks. Around them, fireweed was flowering, preparing the earth for regrowth.

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.

Finally, at mile 175, we pulled into the old mining camp of Coldfoot, so because gold prospectors would get cold feet and turn back from the Koyukuk River. Nowadays, it offers a bar, a truckstop cafe, a camping ground and some basic accomodation for tour groups.

Nowadays, Coldfoot offers a bar, a truckstop cafe, a mozzie-ridden camping ground and some basic accomodation for tour groups.

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.

It was the buffet that we were focused on. Like Hotspot before it, Coldfoot's all you can eat buffet is spoken with reverential hush by bike tourers. On our tight budgets, $20 had seemed somewhat steep back in Fairbanks. 5 days later and it seemed like a complete bargain, what with a spread including salmon, steaks and five deserts. 'Each as much as you want' said the chirpy waitress. We took her to her word.

Surveying the spread of food, including salmon, steaks and five deserts, it was hard not to behave like cavemen. 'Each as much as you want' said the chirpy waitress. We took her to her word.

The smile of a man who has earned his dinner.

The tired but contented smile of a man who has earned his dinner.

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. This phot was taken at 1am.

This photo was taken at 1am.

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)

5 thoughts on “Running the Haul Road (part 1)

    1. otbiking Post author

      cheers jon. just writing up part 2 at the moment. did you see the ti handlebars I bought in anchorage? also, eric’s frame bags look great. reckon that’s the way forward…

      Reply
  1. David

    Hey guys, sounds like you had an amazing ride! My wife and I are thinking of doing the Haul Road this summer. I had a couple questions for you… what sort of bikes did you have? And what size of tires do you recommend for the road conditions?

    I’ve done a couple other tours with my Long Haul Trucker, but not one so much gravel yet with as little food stops along the way.

    Thank you for any info you can share…

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      We were on a Santos Travelmaster and a On One Inbred – so 26in mountain bike style touring rigs. We ran 2-2.25 inch tyres, for comfort. I ran some Marathon Extreme 2.25s, Daniel ran Marathon XR (now mondial) 2.0s, I think. The vast majority of the ride in on gravel, but there is one section of paved at the beginning (if you’re headed north). Bring a spare too between you, just in case. It’s pretty remote up there…

      You can send food to the post office at the half way point, but we didn’t organise that in time so carried what we needed. I expect an LHT with 2.0 Marathon Mondials or similar would be great.

      Reply

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