Friday, August 22, 2008

Top of the World (or "To Hell and Back" or "I froze my Tonton")

The first hundred miles today brought me to this sign... and what a good sign it was. There was pavement just after this sign - from what I had heard, that was a scarce commodity.
Just around the corner my suspicions were confirmed and I met with this sign...414 miles. I think I'll stay at Coldfoot or perhaps camp about 100 miles out of Deadhorse.
Seems like the world ends at the horizon. I am still about 370 miles from the end of the world - that is just a "false crest" (one of many that I would experience this day.)
The pipeline meets the road/bridge at the same time I get to Camp Yukon at Mile 56 on the Yukon River. The government has great concern that having the bridge and the pipeline attached could allow someone to sabotage both. Their other thought is that the bridge will fail and with it, the pipeline. This would be catastrophic to the eco system of the Yukon Watershed.
The bridge is not the first time that the oil will flow uphill en route to Valdez. It is hard to see from this photo, but there is a "drip pan" that spans the Yukon to mitigate potential spills from entering into the river below.
The Arctic Circle was not the first time today that second thoughts crept in about making it all the way to Prudhoe. As you can see (or can't see) by all the mud covering my license plate and rear of my bike, this first 115 miles has not come easy.
Road maintenance is a common occurrence on this road which includes putting new road base down, grading the current road or putting water on the road for dust abatement and compaction. All in preparation to allow passage of trucks on this road through the harsh winters. This is a normal activity for country roads around the world (if the country is so inclined to maintain the roads) and a little construction has not been an issue up until this point. There is a caveat, however. The aspect of the road that is particularly interesting is that it is treated with potassium chloride, which is a "salt" that helps hold down the dust during the dry season. BUT - when it rains the road becomes extremely greasy and very slick. It doesn't help that all the Motor-graders tow a compactor with 10 wheels that leave grooves in the mud. So, not only is it slick, you now have limited control of the direction that the front wheel tracks in. After 5 miles of "crawling" through this opens up into a patch of pavement, which ends a mile later.
That mud didn't just cover the rear of the bike, it was everywhere. Note the fog lights - I had them on later in the day thinking I was doing some good...hehe! If this looks impressive to you, picture in your mind what it will look like in yet another 713 miles (return) of the same terrain. It was impressive! 
This sticker was found on the back of the sign. The funny thing about this is that I met one of these guys in a bar in Moab, UT. I figured that I might run into them somewhere in South America where it would be rarer to see "gringos" on bikes. I didn't think that I would see signs of them so soon - I missed Simon (not the guy I met in Moab) by 5-6 days. If you google Fragile X-Pedition you will see their blog for another take on the Dalton Road - his account makes things sound a whole lot more daunting than I will. His take is accurate...
One of the vistas on this 411 mile "marginally" maintained road.
Coldfoot - the last bastion of civilization before Deadhorse, well, that is not really true. There are Pump Houses (maintenance stations for the pipeline that pump the oil over the hills and advance the black gold just a bit further toward refineries), camp sites, outhouses and Happy Valley. None of these provide gas for your vehicle, food for your belly or warmth for your body and your soul. I am 242 miles from Deadhorse, and my goal, or 258 from Fairbanks and civilization. 
I had already tricked myself into continuing from the Arctic Circle and since it was only 2 pm, why not see what is ahead a bit? After talking to one of the bow hunters that just came from the north and another guy with the same bike I have, I learned that once I crossed the Atigun Pass the temps will drop some and that it snowed this morning in Deadhorse. The mention of better roads ahead was also tantalizing - I knew what was behind me.
Around this mountain and I'll turn around... I have been doubting my decision to ride this solo since before Yukon Camp. There is so much that can go wrong and while this is not the most remote place I have ever been, it IS one of the few times I have been so remote without being able to radio for help or a SAR. There are still trucks, but they are getting sparse. 
Well, "around that corner" became, "just over Atigun Pass" and then I figured that I would search for a suitable camping site (it is 8 pm by the time I cross Atigun Pass and ostensibly the Brooks Range) that is close enough that I can make a quick run in the morning to Deadhorse and make it to Coldfoot for the next night. Uhhhh... why haven't I stopped? I just kept going and going and going. I wanted to find a turn off, but every turn off seemed to be filled with the tents of bowhunters until I reached this one place about 150 miles out of Deadhorse and by then the temps were in the 40's and all I wanted was a cup of coffee and something to eat. I wasn't in the mood to boil water and set up my tent this night... so I pressed on.
As you can see by the previous pics, I have had a very clear and cloudless day. That all changed about 100 miles out of Prudhoe to grey with a cold wind blowing off the Arctic Ocean. It was at this time when I wished I had a tonton to slice open and crawl into. (32 degrees is not very cold when you are moving around, but being on a bike is like being on a chairlift for 3 hours.) I still have enough gas to turn around at this point, but I am closer to my goal than Coldfoot... I press on and find more mud in Deadhorse and don't feel like exploring once I see this sign.
Had I rounded the corner I would have seen this sign and saved $60 on lodging. To stay in a room similar to a single room in Building 155 cost me $185 per night. I didn't question, I didn't argue, I didn't barter or ask for the AAA discount. I paid the bill and went to bed. Even the three large cups of coffee didn't prevent sleep from finding me that night. 507 miles from my morning departure. 411 of that on a road that is arguably one of the most rugged roads around. It even boasts the furthest north truck stop in Coldfoot.
A view of the slick road on day two of my trip to hell. 
I made it around the "ice rink" intact and to the gas pump to find it out of service... WTF - o!?
Fortunately there was an alternative back across town (and the mud), just next to where I stayed the night. It was tucked away and usually just for employees of that company who owned the pump. An exception was made and they allowed me to purchase gas. 

It would have been a long day if I couldn't get gas. Not as long as the guy who rode in on his Harley (and trailer) last week. He is still waiting for a flight to extract his bike, trailer and self. The trailer had a broken axle, the bike was chipped up, dented (he went over in the mud) and the plastic bags for his gear... well, they are plastic. 'nuf said. His tires were fine, but his front shocks blew a seal and were leaking oil. I wanted to take a picture of it, but I felt that would have been rude. His pride was hurt and he was a bit spiteful that I had no real problems and my bike was in fine shape. He clung to the phrase, "I got the t-shirt". What an expensive shirt - over $3000 to get his trailer and bike back to Fairbanks (not sure how he intends to get it to Missouri.) 
I didn't dawdle on the way outta town. I passed the sign that said Coldfoot 240 miles, Fairbanks 494 and didn't have any inclination of stopping. It was too cold (see temp gauge) and snowing - the gauge registered 31 a short way from town.
Once well past Happy Valley, the sun came out and began to warm up. Warm enough that I stopped to take some photos of the musk oxen that were gathering near the side of the road.
One of the maintenance stations.
The north side of the Brooks Range - about an hour away. Still 40 degrees and windy.
The pipeline still keeping me company.
I stopped here to talk to a couple of bicyclists on their way to Prudhoe. What a fantastic cacophony of colours. This is also the beginning of deciduous trees that proliferate the rest of Alaska.
After a stop at Coldfoot, Yukon Camp I was back in Fairbanks ready for a break. This is truly a beautiful place to be and I recommend it highly. What I would stress against is to do it in one day. It is 5 days later and I am still paying for my folly!

Here is the email I wrote to Eric on the night I got back - I still can't come up with enough adjectives to describe the emotions I dealt with during that first day. The second day was much easier - I was headed to a place that meant safety from being stranded, being eaten by bears (a reality there), falling off and having nobody find me for hours or any number of things. (here are my first thoughts)

Bret A. James

 to Eric
show details Aug 21 (5 days ago)
Ok, I am back. I am sure that I will figure out how to put this in my blog, but I will just have to say that the past two days may have been the most challenging days (mentally and physically) I have endured in a very long time - if ever! Was it worth it (riding 522 miles each way - in a day - over difficult terrain) just to say I did it? Whew! If you asked me that last night about 50 miles away from Prudhoe, in the cover of the clouds and at 33 degrees, I may have told you that this was the worst thing that I had done EVER!!! Today, it is one of the most amazing things I have taken on, EVER.

I keep deleting everything that I try to put down to describe the trip, so I am going to think on this a bit more. 

"Good God, what an awful place this is" came to mind a few times during the latter part of the first day. Thank god that Scott left me with those words, otherwise I would have been left with curses and less prosaic thoughts.


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