Running the Haul Road (part 2)

Even the smallest settlements have a little airfield, their lifeline to the outside world.

Even the smallest settlements in Alaska's Interior have a little airfield, their lifeline to the outside world.

After our big evening feed in Coldfoot, it was time to move on. That is, after a belly top up at the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet (muffins/pancakes/fruit/yoghurt/toast/eggs etc), and some careful, sleit-of-hand food smuggling for the road.

Thanks to those at the incongruously grandiose visitor centre for helping us plot the next few days of camp spots, and for the presentation they put on every day at 8pm – in our case, it was on the natural remedies found in the Alaskan Interior.

The road ahead is always a mystery, and it’s easy to wind yourself up with worries and concerns. Wirh everyone making a big fuss about how conditions crumble  from Coldfoot on, and with the rollercoaster ride we’d experienced a few days before, we weren’t sure what to expect. But as if often the case, it’s amazing how perceptions vary – in fact, it was an easy going day, shrouded by low clouds and drizzle as we pulled into camp.

Just as we were beginning to lament the lack of wildlife, a grizzly and her cub came bounding towards us in the rain, thankfully turning away when we broke in a noisy, caterwauling sing-song. Heading up a nearby hill, the two of them kept turning around and standing up to get a better view of us, and then disappeared into the mist.

We detoured to Wiseman, a century old log cabin village on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River. Home to wizened old trappers, various animal pelts and coats were draped out in the sun, along with totem poles of caribou and moose horns.

We detoured to quirky Wiseman, a century old log cabin village on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River. Home to wizened old trappers, various animal pelts and coats were draped out in the sun, along with totem poles of caribou and moose horns.

And well as the obligatory old pickups rusting into the earth.

And well as the obligatory old pickups rusting into the earth.

And an impressive collection of hooves stacked up like tindersticks.

And an impressive collection of hooves stacked up like tindersticks.

A roof made out of gas cans.

Novel. A roof made out of gas cans.

It’s always good to meet cyclists coming the other way on a tour, so when we bumped into Dave, riding down all the way to Tierra Del  Fuego, we swapped notes on what lay ahead. Then the climb began to conquer Atigun Pass, our doorway to the North Slope.

The begins. Actually, to those who have experience Alpine or Himalayan passes, it's not too much to worry about.

The climb begins. Actually, to those who have experience Alpine or Himalayan passes, it's not too much to worry about.

The beginning of the pass, at mile marker 235, is also the end of the treeline. Sadly, the 287 year old Last Spruce was hacked at by vandals a few years ago.

The beginning of the pass, at mile marker 235, is also the end of the treeline. Sadly, the 287 year old Last Spruce was hacked at by vandals a few years ago.

The last couple of miles were pretty steep, rewarding us with a blinding descent on the other side. You can see a bit of it on the video here.

Descending down from the Atigun Pass, Alaska's highest highway pass (4739ft).

Descending down from the Atigun Pass, Alaska's highest highway pass (4739ft).

Happy to have reached the top of the pass. My beard is coming on nicely, if I say so myself.

Happy to have reached the top of the pass. My beard is coming on nicely, if I say so myself.

The transformation on the other side was breathtaking. Not a tree in sight; rolling tundra, craggy mountains and of course, that pipeline wending off into the distance.

Alaska's North Slope.

The majestic, barren North Slope.

It's not easy to get lost. Just follow the pipeline.

It's not easy to get lost. Just follow the pipeline.

Just when you think you're alone, a truck thunders past.

Just when you think you're alone, a truck thunders past.

The Santos is holding up really well. No problems to report, which is just the way I like it...

The Santos is holding up really well. No problems to report, which is just the way I like it...

The dirtpack here was perfect, with a nice tailwind to propel us along too.

The dirtpack here was perfect, with a nice tailwind to propel us along too.

It was a different story for these guys from Bend, Oregon, heading south.

It was a different story for these guys from Bend, Oregon, heading south.

Bodies of water glinted in the late afternoon sun.

Bodies of water glinted in the late afternoon sun.

We pulled over at Galbraith Lake, set back a few miles from the highway. In the late afternoon light, is was particularly enticing, with an impressive backdrop of a glacier bulldozing its way down the mountain.

A headwind buffeted us on our way to the lake, but it was well worth the detour.

A headwind buffeted us on our way to the lake, but it was well worth the detour.

Perfect camping. Official campsites likes these are useful when there's no trees around as they have bear-proof food boxes.

Official campsites likes these are useful when there's no trees around as they have bear-proof food boxes.

We bumped into Jodie and her hiking group, who donated a loaf of bread and a couple of pounds of turkey slices. Ever-hungry Dan's eyes lit up. Then, we sat around their campfire drinking Australian wine and eating Smoors - gooey marshmellow and melted chocolate on biscuits. Hmmmmm.

We bumped into Jodie and her hiking group, who donated a loaf of bread and a couple of pounds of turkey slices. Ever-hungry Dan's eyes lit up. Then we sat around their campfire drinking Australian wine and eating Smores - gooey marshmellow and melted chocolate on biscuits. Hmmmmm.

We’d been told about the mosquitos who frequent these swampy lands, but so far the numbers hadn’t reached the ‘biblical proportions’ one local had forewarned. Travelling towards the end of the season is a good move – apparently a couple of weeks earlier, they’d been following everyone around like an aura, clogging up eyes and diving down nostrils even as you ride.

Still, Daniel wasn't taking any chances, donning his face mask and mozzieproofs - close that can withstand their tenacious attacks.

Still, Daniel wasn't taking any chances, donning his face mask and mozzieproofs - clothes that can withstand their tenacious attacks.

Bring it on.

Bring it on, punks. Alaskan mozzies are a kind of superbreed of the mosquito world, with their own antifreeze that keeps body fluids liquid even when the ambient temperature is well below zero. The females don't even need blood to lay eggs, though it doesn't stop them having a go. In the daytime, they bask in the cup-like shelter of flowers for warmth.

In a land where the sun rises for barely a couple of hours in the winter and the summers are short, it’s all but survival. Plants eek out every available beam of light and heat. The Artic Blue Butterfly angles it wings to direct heat onto its abdomen, and the Mustard White flies low to conserve energy. Where elsewhere their lifecycle from egg to adult might be a month, here it’s a couple of years. Plants reach dward proportions and seem to grow in slow motion.

100 per cent DEET. A necessary evil in Alaska. Keeps the mozzies at bays, and will melt your watch too.

100 per cent DEET. A necessary evil in Alaska. Keeps the mozzies at bays, and will melt your watch too.Without it, expect your evenings to be spent practising the 'Alaskan Wave'.

Soon, the Brookes range pettered out of view, and we were left with the last slog: miles of rolling tundra, and a biting-cold headwind blowing straight of the Artic. Trucks appeared on the horizon like ships on a gently swelling sea.

Our campspot at Happy Valley. It looks scenic enough. Behind, there's a road crew camp, a helicopter and piles of gravel.

Our campspot at Happy Valley. It looks scenic enough. Behind, there's a road crew camp, a helicopter and piles of gravel. Alaska!

Happy Valley sounded a lot more appealing in name than it was reality – a workers camp, with a helicopter for refertalising the tundra after the construction of a winter ice road, mountains of gravel for resurfacing the highway, and dozens of trucks parked up for the night. But our warm welcome there made up for the setting, and the campsite we were pointed to by the river was idyllic. Like many Alaskans, foreman Ed had an old school bus amongst his collection of delapitated pickups,, which he’d painted gunship grey after being ticketed by the police – apparently Chromium Yellow is patented on school buses by the state! Every May, he hauls up 10 000 pounds of supplies to run the camp.

The last seventy miles or so were pancake flat and almost bolt straight - straight into the wind. That little blip there is Dan struggling on.

A real end-of-the-earth feeling. The last fifty miles or so were pancake flat and almost bolt straight - straight into the wind. The little blip there is Dan struggling on.

Emotional. 20 miles to go.

Emotional. 20 miles to go. Bumping into Jodie again, we found out that the fabled Prudoe Bay Hotel buffet ended in an hour and half, throwing our carefully planned arrival into complete disarray, and forcing us into a hectic dash for the finish line.

20 miles out, I started to practise my jubilant wave. But like a Tour de France rider who’s attacked too early, legs were starting wobble, just as the wind really blustered.

But with 10 miles to go, arrival is innevitable, whatever the world throws at you. The wind-down should be a carefully calculated affair, with food whittled down to the last munch on a Cliff bar, leaving nothing in the panniers, like a game of scrabble.  Revel in the last few hundreds metres of cruising into town in time to find somewhere to stay, and bask in the contened glow of having arrived. This is our moment. In the bike tourers mind, we are the coolest things to have hit town: caked in dust, battle hardened, hardy-souled. (Of course, the reality, once we survey ourselves in the mirror, is generally a whole lot different. We’re just more dirty, grimey travellers passing through…)

We've arrived. Just a few moments later, we were tucking into dinner.

We've arrived. Exhausted after our Last Battle with the headwind, just a few moments later we were tucking into dinner.

Don't expect much of Deadhorse, home to oil workers and machinery.

Don't expect much of Deadhorse, home to oil workers, machinery, bears and caribou.

Various crazy looking machines were parked up around the site, and the air was filled with the drone of generators and diesel engines.

Various crazy looking machines were parked up around the site, and the air was filled with the drone of generators and diesel engines.

Budget accomodation. With the hotels costing upwards of $150 per person a night, we opted the delights of a container to shield us from the wind.

Budget accomodation. With the hotels costing upwards of $150 per person a night, we opted the delights of a container to shield us from the arctic wind.

Im Deadhorse, we met Koko, a Japanese tourer 4 year and 3 months into this world trip. 2 more years to go...

In Deadhorse we met Koko, a Japanese tourer 3 year and4 months into his world trip. 2 more years to go...

Kindly, Annie and Jim at Carlisle hauling sorted us out with a ride in a couple of trucks. Which was an experience in itself! Bill and Mike were the real deal, and the 13 hour journey back to Fairbanks was great.

Kindly, Annie and Jim at Carlisle shipping sorted us out with a ride back to Fairbanks. Which was an experience in itself! Bill and Mike were the real deal, and the 13 hour journey was great. Dan and I were in two different trucks, and their banter on the CB radio (generally about Harleys) was priceless.

280lb Texan Bill was a real character. He's been running the Haul Road for nearly 25 years. He's worked as a ballroom dancing teacher, used to have a 23 ft Burmese boa constrictor (called Morticia) who travelled with him in his cab, and a clutch of some 40 guns. It was really eye opening to see life from being a truck window, and we chatted away throughout the journey. Thanks guys for a great lift!

280lb Texan Bill was a real character. He's been running the Haul Road on and off for nearly 25 years. He's worked as a rodeo rider, a ballroom dancing teacher, and used to have a 23 ft Burmese boa constrictor (called Morticia) that travelled with him in his cab, as well as a clutch of some 40 guns at home. It was eye opening to see life from being a truck window, and we chatted away throughout the journey. Thanks guys for a great lift!

Back at last, after an epic ride.

Back at last, after an epic ride.

Phew. Now it’s time to head south, and finally travel in the ‘right’ direction!

5 thoughts on “Running the Haul Road (part 2)

  1. Colin Trees

    Just fantastic, wonderful reading, thanks again Cass, keep it up. A truly amazing adventure and one that I just devour reading about and seeing all teh wonderful photos. Cheers Colin

    Reply
  2. Simon Giles

    Awesome Cass…loving the updates. The landscape and experieces are equally epic. Looking forward to seeing updates as the days get shorter. You’re not missing much on the weather front back here (although the Lakes were awesome). Half expected to see the macro flower shots when you were describing the butterflies.

    May the wind caress your backs!

    Reply

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