Into the wild – cycling Alaska’s Dalton Highway

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Scott cycling through the breathtaking tundra of Alaska’s Arctic on the famous Dalton Highway

 

I’M squatting in a spiky bush holding down my pants with one hand and wildly waving over my backside with the other to stave off a hoard of mozzies when all of a sudden I pee on myself.

It’s not the worst thing that’s happened to me this week – hell it’s not even the worst thing that’s happened to me this morning – and for not the first time I wonder what the bloody hell I’m doing here.

Here is the Dalton Highway – an 800km stretch of tough and beautiful road that runs from north of Fairbanks, Alaska, all the way to the Arctic Ocean at 70.2 degrees north.

It’s not for the faint hearted (grizzlies roam the tundra, the weather can turn from snow to blistering heat in a few hours and the road itself is a blend of gravel, tarmac, mud and something like peanut butter) but it’s a stunning slice of Alaskan and Arctic wilderness that’s been our home for the past 13 days.

 

Sarah cycling south from Prudhoe Bay, just below 70.3 degrees north.

Sarah cycling south from Prudhoe Bay, just below 70.3 degrees north.

 

But before I unleash my feelings on Alaskan mozzies and local road designers let me backtrack to two weeks ago in little old Fairbanks, from where we’d decided to make our way to Prudhoe Bay, the most northern destination accessible by road in North America.

First things first, there’s a very good reason why the number of cyclists tackling this wild stretch each year are limited. It’s not just because of the road conditions, the weather or god forbid the bears – it’s because it’s so difficult to get there or back again.

Public transport to and from America’s biggest oil field is pricy. A one way flight will set you back a minimum of $350 USD (then you’ve got to pay for luggage) mini buses are infrequent and just as pricy and hitch hiking is tough at the best of times owing to a majority of the traffic being truckers or company workers who aren’t able to take travellers.

Nevertheless this was our only option.

With nothing but a ratty old poster (which said: “two Aussies need a ride to Deadhorse..have cookies”) our very overloaded bikes and a vague plan we wrenched ourselves away from the warmth of our Warmshowers host Ben’s house and pedalled to a northern truckers cafe called The Hilltop.

 

How could you drive by this?!

How could you drive by this?!

 

It’s the last proper gas station for the next 400km or so and we figured anyone who was Deadhorse bound would stop there.

Several hours of waving our little sign later the only thing we’d managed to get was an appetite for pie. So we ate a consolatory piece, pitched our tent around the back of the cafe and set the alarms for 5.45am.

By 6.30am we were back at it but as the hours dragged on we felt hopeless. We needed a contingency plan as time was not on our side. Scott’s mum and step dad were flying out to Canada which meant we needed to be in Vancouver by July 9, and while there was no way in seven hells we’d make it all that way we figured Whitehorse, in the Yukon, was doable instead and so booked a flight from there to Vancouver. We’d leave our bikes with a host in Whitehorse and after a two week family holiday we’d backtrack to the Yukon and continue the cycle.

The only contingency we could think of was to start cycling up the Dalton “the wrong way” and hope we could hitchhike back from Prudhoe. We gave ourselves a deadline of 9am the following morning before we’d hit the road.

 

It's not going to win any aesthetic awards - but the ole Hilltop does make good pie!

It’s not going to win any aesthetic awards – but the ole Hilltop does make good pie!

 

At 8.45am the following morning it felt hopeless and we were moments off jumping on our bikes when a red pick up truck pulled in.

An affable old First Nations American leaned out and asked if we wanted a ride. “I’m not going to Prudhoe Bay”, he said. “But I’m going 70 miles up the road.”

We threw our bikes in the back and spent the next couple of hours chatting about salmon recipes, how to trap game in winter, the virtues of eating beaver and life in a remote community.

We were sad to see the back of our new friend (even sadder that he’d dropped us at the foot of a hill) but there was nothing for it but to pedal north in the hopes someone else would pick us up.

Ten minutes later a 4×4 came into view, I stuck my thumb out experimentally and two Germans stopped. They were headed 100 miles down the road – to the official start of the Arctic Circle – and were happy to take us.

 

Reaching the Arctic Circle felt pretty special!

Reaching the Arctic Circle felt pretty special!

 

Once they’d disappeared back to Fairbanks we jumped on the bikes to tackle the rolling tarmac that felt as gentle as the Himalayas and managed 40km before deciding to camp in a oil pipeline pull in.

The slight cold that crept on me in Fairbanks had turned into a slight chest infection – egged on by the cold Arctic air and the fact that I was an unfit cyclist attempting to pedal a bike that felt like a small killer whale.

The following evening we’d managed to get a stone’s throw from Coldfoot when an enormous pick up truck roared around the corner and I wildly stuck my thumb out.

To my complete surprise it stopped and a young face peered out of the window and asked where we were headed.

“Um, Deadhorse, actually,” I said without hope.

“That’s where we’re going!” he said.

Billy (a Canadian who’d travelled over 25,000km in his truck) with his mates Erik (an Aussie) and Hannah (another Canadian) were road tripping up to the Arctic Ocean and despite having a loaded pick up they’d decided they couldn’t leave us there.

 

Billy, Sarah, Scott, Erik and Hannah - oh and the truck of course

Billy, Sarah, Scott, Erik and Hannah – oh and the truck of course

 

In a matter of minutes we’d made friends with the trio and we hurtled up the highway stopping to take photos of the tundra, muskox, some foxes and caribou before pulling into the shipping container town that is Prudhoe Bay.

This make-shift, ice-coated town sits on the edge of the Arctic Ocean and lives to serve the many oil companies keen to take a slice of the profitable oil field. The big players (think BP) had camps  about 20 miles out on the ocean itself while the smaller players could be seen from the town. It was a grey, windy and wild world filled with some of the country’s most colourful characters and while we’d been warned it was a “nothing town, with nothing to see” I was awestruck.

 

A herd of muskox just a stone's throw from the Dalton Highway. They look a little like miniature wooly mammoths

A herd of muskox just a stone’s throw from the Dalton Highway. They look a little like miniature wooly mammoths

 

At 70 degrees north I was overwhelmed by the hive of life in this icy, winter wonderland. The normal rules just didn’t apply – hell they couldn’t – when your life was at the whim of the Arctic.

Camping in the village itself isn’t possible so we moved a mile out of town to camp in the only dry place on the tundra – a gravel pull in – while struggling to pitch our tent in the icy arctic winds and thinking bleakly of polar bears.

The temperature was -2 degrees celcius but wind chill took it down to about -11 (according to the locals) and we dove into the tent in record speed.

By the next morning my cough had worsened and I sounded like an ad for emphysema .

 

A red fox runs across the road just near Prudhoe Bay

A red fox runs across the road just near Prudhoe Bay

 

We’d never considered staying more than a few hours in Prudhoe Bay but while time was of the essence I couldn’t face the bike. I felt weak and while secretly hating ourselves we made the decision to book a night at the hotel. It was way, way above our budget and a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a mediocre room but we had little choice. Luckily the price included three buffet meals, unlimited access to snacks, tea and coffee, wifi a laundry and a blissful hot shower.

And boy did we get our money’s worth.

Around 4000 people were stationed at Prudhoe Bay and judging by the quality of the buffet the oil companies weren’t about to skimp out on them.

We tucked into beef casseroles, plates of biscuits and gravy, thick, fluffy pancakes, crispy chicken wings, creamy soups with chunks of cheddar, enormous meatballs and endless cups of coffee. After my first few plates I began to understand why the (ahem) workers were so large and privately thought that if I ever found myself working here I’d be the size of a bloody house.

After 12 hours, several meals, a hot shower, a large load of laundry, a dozen cups of coffee and a big sleep I began to think the cynics were wrong. There was plenty to do in Prudhoe Bay if your priorities were food, warmth, wifi and a bed.

The plan was to set off early in the morning but by midday we were still sipping coffee and procrastinating – and then we met Alvin.

With a face like he was headed for the gallows the wiry Minnesotan was heading down the hall with arms full of panniers and we stopped him immediately to ask which way he was cycling. “South”, he said (although the tone said Mordor) and he was about as excited as us to head out into the cold.

 

Posing on the edge of the lake in Prudhoe Bay before setting out

Posing on the edge of the lake in Prudhoe Bay before setting out

 

To make matters worse his wife had called to tell him their dog was dying and all of a sudden Prudhoe Bay was not the place he wanted to be. He planned to hitchhike back but after meeting us decided to at least pedal out with us for perhaps the first day.

To put it simply the first 50 or so kilometres out of Prudhoe Bay is hell.

The gravel road is made of loose, big rocks that meant we were often forced to push as the Arctic wind howled down the tundra. It was so cold my exposed skin felt as though it was aflame with a cold fire and my nose dripped like a tap.

We’d been told an exploratory oil drilling camp sat at around the 40 mile mark and that if we popped our heads in chances are they’d give us a cup of coffee. There’s not much I wouldn’t do for a free cuppa (sadly) and so at around 5pm we found the camp and popped our heads in and within minutes we were being ushered into the kitchen for steaming cups.

 

Pedalling through the tundra

Pedalling through the tundra

 

An hour later they offered us dinner, and then an hour after that a bed in one of their heated camp rooms to sleep.

The camp was full of Americans from all walks of life – from the boss (a Washington-born man who’d lived in countries around the world) to the head of camp (a young Californian who’d spent weeks off travelling around Asia) to the vivacious cook who spent all year in shorts and (my favourite, but not a staff member) Elsie, a former cop, turned truck driver who was also a vegetarian yogi.

Leaving was tough but somehow we pulled ourselves away from the coffee urn and the buffet and jumped back onto the gravel. It had snowed overnight and again the ice sunk into my pores as we pushed slowly out of camp.

On both sides of the road the tundra sprawled out in hues of orange and brown while the distant Brooks Range sat like  a snowy frame.

 

With views like this why would you want to sleep anywhere else?

With views like this why would you want to sleep anywhere else?

 

Just two hours later a pick up truck pulled over to warn us of a young grizzly bear up ahead, about 100 metres back from the road and like most encounters with wildlife the bear was happy to look up lazily and then get on with his life.

In fact the tundra was alive with so much beauty and wildlife and even the Dalton Highway itself was a veritable community of social calls. Trucks hurtle down this road at all times of the night and day, alongside oil pipeline security, camp workers and tourists (who frequently pulled over for a yarn or to pass you a chocolate bar).

By day three Alvin had pulled ahead (he was determined to cycle at least over the Atigun Pass before hitching south to be with his wife) leaving Scott and I to plod along like two elephants with a Tourettes problem.

 

Scott about to be engulfed in dust as a trucker overtakes.

Scott about to be engulfed in dust as a trucker overtakes.

 

The road had climbed steadily since Prudhoe and by time the mighty Brooks Range was in front of us we had just 400 metres to tackle over about six kilometres to reach the top. It took just a couple of hours in granny gear we reached the top and were greeted with a crystal clear day.

Our campsite at the foot of the Atigun Pass

Our campsite at the foot of the Atigun Pass

 

While flying down the other side we spied a girl pushing a loaded bike up and pulled in to be reunited with Brita – a German girl we’d met on the outskirts of Fairbanks when we set off. In a fit of ambition Brita had decided to ride up and back but while she’d made a good crack of it she was clearly having second thoughts. We found out later she’d had a huge stack downhill which resulted in a broken arm. It meant trip over for Brita and in a cheerful but heartbreaking email later on she said she would fly back to Germany from Fairbanks.

We rolled into Coldfoot just after lunch time a couple of days later and hooked into big burgers and bottomless cups of coffee while lapping up the fact they had a flushing loo and heating.

 

Possibly the greatest image of a pancake you will ever see! Thank you Coldfoot chef!

Possibly the greatest image of a pancake you will ever see! Thank you Coldfoot chef!

 

The cheery crew told us we could pitch the tent a stone’s throw from the restaurant (bloody hell, we’d never leave) and somehow our half day off turned into almost two days as we tucked into buffets, connected to the bloody awful satellite internet and drank an inappropriate amount of coffee.

We were planning on pedalling out early the next morning but we tucked into one final trucker’s breakfast a fabulous group of walked in and began chatting to us. They consisted of three retired teachers and a Polish film maker and within minutes it felt as though we’d made friends for life. Minutes turned into hours and when we finally parted ways they left us with a kilo of moose meat (to cook on our stove that night) and sneakily paid for our breakfast!

We were feeling the love – and boy would we need it.

 

Sarah cooking some moose meat (in her mosquito net)

Sarah cooking some moose meat (in her mosquito net)

 

Over the coming 350km we were set to tackle what truckers had dubbed the rollercoaster and while we remembered a little from the drive up (and what we’d already cycled) nothing could prepare us for the utter shit to come.

We found ourselves cycling for almost eight hours a day just to get another 70km down the road and by time we crossed out of the Arctic Circle and reached the tiny hamlet of Hotshot (famed for it’s big burgers and bold women) I was buggered. That morning we’d met British cyclist Richard who was on a mission to pedal to South America and had initially planned to cycle from Fairbanks to Prudhoe and back (averaging 100 miles a day). He’d gotten to the Arctic Circle, realised he’d found Satan’s road, and abruptly turned back with the realisation he’d bitten off more than he could chew.

 

A rare stretch of flat!

A rare stretch of flat!

 

For the past two days we’d forced our aching limbs over brutally steep gravel climbs (taking sometimes two hours to ascend) before spending 10 minutes hurtling down only to do it all bloody over again and we honestly couldn’t blame him.

Contrary to what we’d initially thought – it wasn’t the tundra and Atigun Pass that had been the toughest part of the Dalton, instead it was this effing god-forsaken rollercoaster that made me want to personally punch every Alaskan road planner in the face. Between that and my bleak mafia conversations with the hordes of mosquitoes (“I’m going to kill you, your mother, your father and all your family”) I was another headwind off insanity.

Just Hotspot’s giant burgers and Richard’s empathy kept us going and with 250 or so kilometres left until Fairbanks we figured we could smash it out in three or so days (I mean the worst was behind us right?)

 

The never-ending rollercoaster that is the Dalton Highway

The never-ending rollercoaster that is the Dalton Highway

 

But the following morning we realised not only was the worst definitely not behind us, but the gods of cycling and road management had a sick sense of humour.

From the banks of the Yukon River (about eight kilometres from our camp) the gravel road rose sharply up for about 30 kilometres before bucking like a rabid bronco to the end of the Dalton.

My body’s initially feeble protests became loud screeches and by 9.30pm we’d covered just 85km. To make matters worse a handful of small saddle sores on my bum had become open, weeping wounds and I felt close to breaking.

Too tired to cook, we threw up the tent and crawled in, hoping like hell the end of the Dalton (just 15 or kilometres away) would bring an end to this stretch of sadistic road.

 

Our last night of camping on the Dalton Highway

Our last night of camping on the Dalton Highway

 

The following morning my body ached as though a semi had smashed into it and my open sores burned mercilessly. The mosquitoes were out in force and while attempting to bush squat I managed to pee on my hand while trying to wipe them away.

The worst part is I didn’t even care (hell my hand was probably cleaner now), all I could think about was the fact that I wanted to be in Fairbanks, stuffing my face with calories, sitting on a couch and being warm, clean and out of this shit.

Instead I popped some paracetamol, smeared antibiotic cream on my bum, and jumped on my bike.

As we pedalled up another brutal, gravel climb it all came crashing down on me and I stopped, screamed FFFUUUCCCCKKKK at the top of my lungs and threw my bike on the ground.

“I can’t do it – I just can’t.” I screamed.

But I didn’t have a choice – and so I continued pushing (it was too steep to pedal) to the faraway top.

An hour and a half later the “Dalton Highway” sign came into view and we sat down to scoff some chocolate and give ourselves weary high fives.

But it wasn’t over.

 

A nice stretch a packed dirt!

A nice stretch a packed dirt!

 

Fairbanks sat another 130km away and as much as we wanted to get within a stone’s throw of it I doubted it. Two hours later it began hailing and an hour after that it was almost 8pm and we were still a few hours cycle from the city.

My backside was burning, I could hardly walk and Scott’s face had turned grey with fatigue.

It was crunch time.

We’d joked earlier about having 100km or so of credit points up our sleeves (having cycled in the other direction for a couple of days) and while we wanted to push out the last little stretch I was done.

I’ve only ever hit the wall a couple of times in my life and this was one of them. No amount of mental force could get me over the line and Scott wasn’t far from that point either.

We decided to flag down a lift and if after 30 minutes no one stopped, we’d keep going (although I didn’t think I was capable of even that.

The rumble of a big vehicle came into earshot and we stuck our thumbs out.

It was an enormous pick up truck towing a boat and the driver immediately pulled in.

“You headed for Fairbanks?” he asked.

“Yes!”

“Ok jump in,” he said.

Our new hero was a Fairbanks local who worked at Prudhoe Bay and I was so bowled over by his generosity I nearly kissed him on the spot.

He was also a wealth of knowledge and as we chatted easily on the way back to Fairbanks I began to forget the pain of the past few days.

Instead we raved on about the beauty of the road, the wealth of wildlife and the fascinating people we’d met along the way.

 

The stunning Dalton Highway

The stunning Dalton Highway

 

Our new best friend dropped us at a big supermarket just a stone’s throw from Ben’s house and I staggered in to buy two frozen pizzas before we slowly and painfully pedalled the last two kilometres back.

We were almost delirious but a blissful hot shower and an entire pizza each made us feel closer to human than we’d felt in days.

Later that night I curled up in bed, trying to ignore the dull throb in my quads and the sharp pain in my backside while feeling utter, sheer relief that we were clean, warm and out of the elements.

I didn’t even want to think about the next leg (1000km or so to Whitehorse) I just wanted to do my best impersonation of a vegetable.

The last two weeks had been one of the roughest, toughest and most fantastic two weeks of our lives. The magic of the tundra almost moved us to tears while the road itself almost did the same thing for other reasons. We’d lapped up the hospitality of kindness of both locals and tourists while diving headfirst into Alaskan culture and falling in love with a state that’s as wild as it is beautiful.

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4 Responses to “Into the wild – cycling Alaska’s Dalton Highway”

  1. Safe travels Sarah and Scott

  2. Pain – with us one minute – gone the next. But it’s the achievements and sheer beauty of where you have travelled that remain with you. You are both so strong. I’m astounded by your fortitude and openness in writing about your adventure and as always look forward to reading more. Debbie

  3. Totally agree Debbie! The most painful routes are ALWAYS the best ones!

  4. Thanks so much!

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