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