The Haul Road

Published: June 22nd 2012
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For this update, Kenz has tagged out and it's Adam's turn....

Tuesday 12/06/12 – Today was a day of idleness and preparation. It started out raining in the morning, and coupled with the intense attention of the hordes of insects we beat a hasty retreat back into the tent. After the rain stopped at midday, we decided to spoil ourselves by going to the local cinema. The Tim Burton and Johnny Depp movie called ‘Dark Shadows’ was entertaining enough to make us forget tent life, insects and 22 hour sunlight days for a few hours. We purchased some M&Ms and a small popcorn at the movies and Kenz even managed to score a free popcorn refill! We spent the late afternoon purchasing food and setting up the bikes in preparation for the long haul up to the sparsely populated northern Alaska.

Wednesday 13/06/12 – We left Fairbanks very excited (and a little nervous!) about the days ahead. We had planned a 1400 km return trip up to the northernmost town in Alaska – the town of Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay. This included about 1100 kms on the notorious Dalton Highway which is a road that is usually only used by truckers hauling supplies up to the Alaskan oil fields, or people on motorbikes who have far too much enthusiasm, determination and courage, but who are typically short on intelligence and critical thinking skills and poor decision makers (ie adventurous idiots).

The day started out well with a large moose crossing the road in front of Kenz with a baby in tow. Apparently it was cutie with big long legs that could barely keep up with its mummy. We turned off the Elliot Highway and onto the beginning of the Dalton when we came across two Suzuki DR 650s on the side of the road. It turned out to be a couple from New Zealand doing a similar trip as us, but over two years! They bolstered our spirits by telling us that the road up ahead wasn’t too bad except for a few areas where roadworks were being done. We swapped details and headed off to see for ourselves.

The road was interesting with the surface being quite dynamic! Some of it was world class highway which abruptly became horrible gravel for a few kilometres, and then back to highway, back to gravel and repeat for 8 hours… The scenery was also dynamic, we were able to look at the beautiful mountains and valleys whilst on the tarred highway, whilst the scenery while traveling on the gravel mainly consisted of the patch of gravel about five metres in front of us.

The roadworks on the highway were so long (usually at least 15 kms), busy with construction vehicles and the surface was so deteriorated that you had to wait up to 25 mins for a pilot car to come and guide you. The kiwis had warned us that the first section of roadworks were probably the worst, especially since it had been raining for the last 2 days. We managed to make it through the roadworks physically unscathed, however we were mentally scathed by the woman in the pilot car who thought we were going to slow and yelled at us to hurry up. I felt like getting off the bike and telling her exactly what I thought of her, however I realised that I had to return via this road so I didn’t want to burn any bridges (plus she was a lot of woman and probably could have beat me down anyway…)

We made it to the town of Coldfoot after 8 hours on the bikes. The town consists of not much, a petrol station and 2 campsites. One costs $39 dollars a night, the other was $8. Not in the mood to be stooged out of our cash, we chose the second. It was a great spot however it was difficult to tell where the sun was in the sky, instead there was a strange ambient light coming from all around – this is a strange phenomenon that occurs when the sunlight in obscured by a 5 metre thick belt of flies and mosquitoes. My estimate was about 300 insects per m3 of space; however we got tipped off back in Fairbanks and had bought these stylin’ hats with mosquito netting over them so we kind of had the last laugh. Whist Kenz prepared dinner, I walked off to the honesty box to submit my site registration and $8 when I got kidnapped by an old, lonely couple in a massive RV who turned out to be the campsite caretakers. After chatting and patting their chihuahua for about 45 mins Kenz got worried and came looking for me thinking I had been dragged off into the bush by a bear, or dragged off into an RV by an old couple. I said my goodbyes, tucked into dinner and then into bed, glad for the sleep-in that I knew was coming.

Thursday 14/06/12 – Refuelled (as there was no more fuel for over 400 kms), rejuvenated, refreshed, rehydrated and reinvigorated, we packed up and headed back out on to the glorious Dalton highway. The first 10 minutes consisted of spectacular views, beautiful sunshine and a world-class highway surface where we could cruise along at 100 kph enjoying life. However it wasn’t long before gravel and reality set back in. At about lunchtime we crested a hill and all of a sudden there was a wild wolf standing on the road looking at us. It was pretty incredible as he gazed at us and then slowly walked of the road and criss-crossed up the hill, over the horizon. He was very calm and relaxed, if you saw it out of the corner of your eye you would think it was a white German Shepherd. We took some photos of him and then had lunch. Kenz also spotted a caribou standing on a frozen lake down in the valley – not bad company to break bread with!

We endured another patch of roadworks which included a 2 km stretch of road where the gravel was the size of golf balls, no joke! We both had a few ‘Oh Dang!!’ moments but we both managed to stay upright. The trucks here are so big the wheels dwarf us when we ride past them, I think they needed this gravel for traction on the steep slopes. We pulled into the most northern campsite in Alaska and it was free! After setting up our tent, and enjoying an afternoon snack we passed the time by watching the silly antics of the local ground squirrels (think a cute ferret/squirrel/meerkat creature), a red fox circle the campsite, and a stroll down to a local frozen lake. The ice appeared to be about 3 metres thick and there was a large crack that had split down the middle of the lake where you could walk part the way in. Standing there I felt like Moses parting the (White?) Sea!

Friday 15/06/12 – Today was the final northern stretch of the Dalton Highway - a gruelling 250 kms stretch of mostly gravel road. It was really interesting riding down from the mountains onto the tundra where there are no hills, no trees, and no people for 100s of kms. It was a desolate and flat horizon where you didn’t see any cars or people for sometimes over 30 mins. We did get to see some of the local wildlife including many Caribou, Musk Oxen (look like Buffalo) and of course the ever present ground squirrels with the giant personalities and midget intelligence.

We had another encounter with an angry construction worker who also told us to hurry up when riding through the roadworks areas. This time I had no ridiculous fantasies about getting off my bike and punching him in the head as he was huge! Instead I was like a school boy: “OK, sorry. I’ll try to do better” etc. Then when I was out of sight I slowed down again just to spite him, for some reason doing that sort of thing makes you feel better. There was no way we were going to let him pressure us into riding fast through the deep gravel sections and risk dropping the bike or hurting ourselves.

Finally at about 2pm we rode into our destination, Deadhorse, Alaska – at latitude of 70 degrees N! It has been described as the world’s northern most anticlimax, but we were still pretty excited! We were expecting an industrial town full of rusty equipment, buildings made out of shipping containers and a bunch of gnarly guys with tattoos, massive arms, eye patches and no teeth. It turns out that was a pretty accurate description of Deadhorse, except that the people were pretty normal and really friendly. They didn’t allow camping (you would be crazy to do it anyway, the grounds 3m above sea level and covered in ice/permafrost) so we had previously arranged some accommodation. As Deadhorse is so remote there is little available in accommodation. We had to stay at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel at an exorbitant price which upon hearing made the stool in my lower intestine turn to mineral water. The hotel was actually alot better than we were expecting, and the best part was that all meals were included which is a big deal when you’re travelling so light and (until that night) cheaply. The buffet dinner was the best that I have ever been too, it included red meat, fish, huge salad bar and selection of cakes, chips, juices, drinks, ice creams, about 6 kinds of doughnuts and an unbelievable amount of pastries – we stuffed our stomachs, pockets, shirts and bags with so much food. We looked like the guys in cartoons when they try and carry as much gold or treasure out of a goldmine as they can and end up leaving a trail of gold nuggets and coins behind them. There was a trail of crumbs, spilt food and drink going from the hotel dining room back to our room.

Sat 16/06/12 – As the sun should have been rising (it hasn’t set in Deadhorse since May 20th, and won’t until July 22nd) we headed into the hotel diner for round 2. After an incredible display of overeating, we headed to the Deadhorse Camp to be picked up for a tour to Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean. The public highway finishes at Deadhorse and the road continues 14 kms further to the Arctic Ocean, but is owned by the oil companies. Public access is restricted and you can only reach the ocean if you book a tour with a local company 24 hours in advance as they require passports and a police background check. The tour was great and we got to go all the way up and get our feet wet in the ocean. The actual area of Prudhoe Bay was much bigger than we expected and its population can exceed 5000 workers during peak season. The Prudhoe Bay area supplies America with between 5 and 10% of its oil requirements and it is transported 1300 km to the south of the state via the trans Alaskan pipeline. The tour guide was ¼ German, ¼ French, ¼ Norwegian and ¼ Eskimo – a fairly unique guy! He was telling us that there were 3 Grizzly Bears spotted on the previous day’s tour however we didn’t see any. The Arctic Ocean was pretty cold; we could only stand in it for about a minute before it became unbearable. There was only a ~5 metre strip of water at the edge of the ocean; the rest of it was a sheet of ice that extends all the way to the North Pole (apparently about 1100 miles). And no, we couldn’t see Santa. We were joined on the tour by Walter, a German born man from California who was also touring Canada and Alaska on motorbikes with his relatives from Germany. We are yet to meet a German on a motorbike that isn’t a BMW!

After the tour it was back on the bikes to retrace our route back down the Dalton Highway. We had been passing a few groups of Arctic Caribou and about an hour south of Deadhorse we passed a $100,000 massive SUV on the side of the road. I slowed down as I passed it and then noticed the guy was crouched down in the grass and was stalking one of the groups of caribou and he was holding a bow and arrow! I sped up as I didn’t want to see him attempt to kill one with a single arrow. I hope he was going to take the whole animal with him and not just trophy hunt it for the antlers. I felt like going back and tooting the horn to scare the animals away – but I didn’t think of it until like 10 minutes later.

Luckily the 2 km stretch of horrendous roadworks wasn’t as bad this time. They must have just laid down the gravel when we went on it the day before, as most of it was gone this time – either the trucks had flicked it off the road or there had been a golf tournament in the area. We made it back to Coldfoot quite late and were greeted by our 6 million friends that had missed us for the two nights, needless to say those bug hats went straight on as soon as we hit the camp. I also managed to sneak around the RV on my way to pay the camp fees this time – once bitten, twice shy.

Sunday 17/06/12 – 45 minutes after hitting snooze on my phone alarm we got up, packed up and hit the road. It was again pretty windy and there were a few storms with no rain but plenty of lightning in the sky. We joined the queue at the single Yukon River fuel bowser; it’s the only fuel for a hundred miles in any direction. I have never seen a queue 6 vehicles deep at a fuel station before. We got chatting to another biker called Paul who was also touring Canada and Alaska which made the time go quicker. There was also another biker there on an old school Harley complete with an American flag. Not only was he decked out in these magnificent leather chaps, vest and jacket with the tassels, he also had a huge knife on one side of his belt, and a revolver tucked into the other side! We have a Canadian flag sticker on the side of our pannier and he was making rude comments about Canadians (thinking that’s what we were…), but we weren’t going to argue with him! Being a Sunday there was no roadworks happening which was a bonus, so we made pretty good time considering the road conditions (about 480 kms in 8.5 hours of riding). Kenz somehow lost her sunglasses over the side of the bike on the main highway into Fairbanks, apparently they were very important to her so I had to go back looking for them… Anyway I found them which made me the hero for the day, my reward was a milkshake at Dennys for dinner. Whilst there I also noted the all you can eat pancakes for $4 and all you can drink orange juice for $2 – I think we may have a few breakfasts here.

Monday 18/06/12 – We started the day with our usual morning ritual of going to Walmart and the hardware store for supplies. Unfortunately we were unable to find most of the items on our list - however the nice man at a camping store cut a new section of tent pole for us as a section of ours had started to split. We headed down the Parks Highway to Denali National Park (a 6,000,000 acre national park around Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America). We rolled into town at about 3.30 and joined the extremely long and irritable queue at the campground registration hut. All the campgrounds and sites were taken for the night until someone cancelled just as we got to the desk. We booked 2 nights at the Riley campground and included in our fee are free ranger information sessions each night; tonight was ‘Rappin with Raptors!’. The ranger was a lunatic but he had so much energy and was so excited that he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. It was all about the birds of prey in Denali and he finished the night doing a rap that he had wrote about birds. It was so unashamedly bad that it was fantastic, everyone (except Kenz) was rapping along with him at the end!

Tuesday 19/06/12 – After much arm twisting by Kenz, I had promised to have a shower this morning, and it was a good thing too! On the way back I strolled along the path with a mother moose and her two babies. They say you should never get closer than 25 yards to a moose as they can be aggressive if they have babies, but this mother walked straight up to and passed me. She didn’t even look at me twice, but her babies were fairly cautious.

We jumped on a tour bus and got driven 66 miles into the park (it only has one road) to the Eielson Centre which has a great view of Mt. McKinley. We had read that taking the bus was a great way of seeing some of the wildlife in the park however intently staring at shrubs, trees and mountains for 4 hours expecting to see an animal but not, can leave you a little jaded! Spending 4 hours as one of 42 people on a tour bus made me truly thankful that we decided to tour on motorbikes. We went on a free guided tour once we reached the Eielson Centre and the mountain even came out from behind the clouds for a few minutes. Our bus trip back was far better than we expected, we saw some moose and caribou on the tundra. We then saw a long trail of about 15 Dall Sheep carefully walking the edge of a sheer cliff. And most exciting of all, we saw 7 Grizzly Bears! We saw two different mothers, each with two cubs, and then later we saw a single bear walking through the snow. One of the mothers seemed to be busy digging up ground squirrel burrows whilst the cubs wrestled together on the snow. Observing large wild animals like that in their natural environment is really something special. I wish more people got the opportunity to appreciate experiences like that. Grizzly bears in Denali are naturally a much blonder colour than grizzlies elsewhere in Alaska, although the scientists aren’t sure why this is. They also don’t grow as big as bears elsewhere in Alaska, as they don’t have the salmon to feed on like the bears near the rivers, because glacial rivers (like those in Denali) are full of glacial silt which is not suitable habitat for fish.

Additional photos below
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22nd June 2012

Biker Falls from Sky...
I have seen quite a few Pics from that Monument/Sign... Yours, I must say... Is the most Clever that I have seen! Thanks for giving this Old Guy a Laugh... I Hope you two have a Great Trip!
12th August 2012

Great info
I really like how much info you've packed into your blog. My dad is doing a tour on his motorcycle with friends. They started out here in Seattle and are going to Inuvik, Alaska. I imagine he's probably experiencing some of the things you have talked about.

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