Ride to the Top of the World

August 26, 2021

We are on our fourth day of riding the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay and back. Twenty miles from the end, Diana says over our intercom system: “I am over this road!”

So am I, but we have another twenty miles and I am using all of my concentration to focus on the greasy, slick road.

When we finally reach the pavement at Mile 0, she has another comment: “That was the most adventurous, exhilarating, beautiful, and frightening experience I’ve ever had on a motorcycle.” It’s hard to disagree with that.

The Dalton Highway was built in 1974 as a supply road for the Alaska Pipeline. It stretches 414 miles from north of Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. Sections of it have been paved, but the majority is still dirt and gravel. You may be familiar with the Dalton if you’ve ever watched Ice Road Truckers on the History Channel. Yep, that’s the road we are on. Our friend Dave, who lives in Fairbanks, has offered to ride with us on his 700 Tenere. He has driven as far as Coldfoot (the halfway point) in a pickup, but hasn’t been north of there. We have spent several days watching the weather, and discussing our best approach. We have decided that we will take four days to do the round trip, spending the night in Coldfoot, Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) and again at Coldfoot on the way back down. There is no gas available for 245 miies between Coldfoot and Deadhorse, so we have to carry at least one extra gallon each to cover the gap. As Dave, who is a retired military pilot, reminds me: “You can never have too much fuel unless you’re on fire”. So I opt to carry a two gallon Rotopax container in place of our normal one gallon water container. The gas stops available are at:

Mile 56: Yukon River Camp, just after the Yukon River Bridge, the only bridge across the Yukon River in Alaska. The bridge is a half mile long, paved with wooden planks, and has a 6 percent downhill slope heading north.
Mile 175: Coldfoot Camp
Mile 415: Deadhorse

When I say there is no gas between these places, what I really mean is that there is no anything between these places. It is truly uninhabited wilderness, save for a pipeline following along beside you.

Phil Freeman, author of “The Adventurous Motorcyclist’s Guide to Alaska”, sums up the Dalton Highway like this:
“414 miles of frost-heaves, broken chip seal and grated dirt surfaces, the Dalton Highway has its challenges. On a good day, you can ride it wide open. On a bad day, you can go home in a helicopter. Every year motorcyclists are killed on the Dalton Highway. This road offers the rider the adventure gamut. Almost half of the highway is paved or chip sealed. The other half can be smooth or baseballs. There are relatively no places to stop along the way: no gas, no convenient stores, no McDonalds. There are stretches of up to 245 miles without gas. You are literally riding through pristine wilderness. There are no tire shops or police stations. A wrecker to the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks is a $1,600 bill.”

The Dalton Highway can be a different experience from day to day and from mile to mile. In normal summer conditions, it can be gravel, dry, and dusty, except where the water trucks have sprayed it with water, creating a slick surface. August, however, is not summer in Alaska. August is “rainy season”. Traveling the 414 miles (each way) of the Dalton Highway in the rain can be treacherous with any vehicle, much less a motorcycle. Now add a passenger, and full gear, for a total weight of around a thousand pounds and take off down a greasy, slimy, muddy road with most of the other traffic being 18-wheelers, who own this road, as it is still today a haul road to the oilfields. Add to this a ridiculously bad modification (a high front fender kit on our motorcycle) that basically causes the mud to completely block out the headlight and my helmet face shield, so not only can the oncoming trucks not see us — especially in the fog and clouds of Atigun Pass –, but I can barely see them. Now ride like this for six hours each day. Yes, I am exhausted.

So was it worth it? From a risk standpoint, we probably pushed the limits, though the ride up to Deadhorse wasn’t bad. We had a sit-down meeting each evening to discuss our next move. When we arrived at Coldfoot the first night on our way north, the weather was good, with temperatures in the upper 40s to low 50s, and no rain. The problem, of course, is that because of the nearly 500 mile roundtrip to Deadhorse and back to Coldfoot, you have to consider all weather possibilities and make a decision: if you go north, and the weather changes, you may or may not be able to make it back the next day. The weather systems on either side of the Atigun Pass can be vastly different. Forecasts are wildly inaccurate at best. And this late in the season, we were taking an even bigger risk, because snow was predicted just three days later. We agreed that we would take one section at a time, and turn back if things got too bad.

Our first view of the pipeline, just north of Fairbanks.

Gas at Yukon River Camp. Our record high would be $5.89 a gallon in Deadhorse. Note: I didn’t take this photo to show the price per gallon. I took this photo because that’s how it works up there: you pump your gas, you take a photo of the pump, then you go inside, show them how much you got, and pay. There is no electronic connection between the cashier and the pump, which is in a different location.

This sign was my goal in 2004 when I rode to Alaska for the first time. Due to the wildfires, I didn’t make it. Now, in hindsight, making it to this sign is pretty easy, as it’s another 300 miles to Deadhorse.

Tour companies take people to the Arctic Circle sign, and back. This photo reminds me of the “End of the World” sign outside Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina. Just like there, you have to stand in line to take your photo with the sign. FYI, the Arctic Circle marks the southern limit of the area in which for at least one 24 hour period, the sun does not set (about June 21) or the sun does not rise (about December 21).

At the end of dinner and our discussion in Coldfoot, we decided to go for it. There is no reliable weather forecasting way up here. You talk to every trucker that just came from Deadhorse, and you talk to the locals. You look at the forecasts (with a grain of salt), and you decide. We decided our weather window looked good enough.

Our lodging at Coldfoot Camp. These camps were built to house workers during the construction of the pipeline in the 1970s, and continue to serve as lodging for oilfield workers and haul road truckers, along with the occasional crazy motorcycle tourists.

Inside our room at Coldfoot Camp. It’s not luxurious, but it is clean, and warm. It’s also $219 a night. Not cheap, but they don’t pretend it’s anything other than industrial housing at industrial rates.

Day 2

The climb over Atigun Pass was muddy and slick, as it had snowed there just a few days earlier. But the scenery was a great reward for the effort. On the south side of the pass, it is spruce forest and very green. On the north side of the pass, the North Slope begins, and it is tundra. There are no trees whatsoever, but the contrast of the colors of the vegetation against the snow on the mountains is eye-popping.

Atigun Pass.

Dave, crossing the pass.

On the North Slope side of the pass.Spectacular scenery.

Coming out of the pass on the North Slope.

A break in the weather, the pipeline surrounded by the colors of the tundra.

Dave, around Mile Post 270 on the Dalton Highway (about 100 miles north of Coldfoot). On the ride up, we had bouts of sunshine and things looked like we were in for a great ride. The forecast at this point was calling for no rain until our last day. That would change.

Here is an excerpt from Phil Freeman and Lee Klancher’s “The Adventurous Motorcyclist’s Guide to Alaska”:
“The road across Atigun Pass is a narrow, hellaciously steep stutter-bump-filled stretch of gravel cut into the side of the mountain and bordered by a rusty, avalanche-battered piece of guardrail. The mountains are steeply pointed piles of black sandstone and shale. Riding through during a heavy rain accentuates the experience, as the sky becomes as dark as the mountains, with rain showers and mist dripping on the land. The whole thing has the feel of Tolkien’s Mordor, a dark, mysterious, and sort of post-apocalyptic place.”

About fifty miles south of Deadhorse pavement suddenly appears. Beautiful, glorious, smooth road. No more potholes the size of my wheels. No more hundreds of potholes in a line. They are still finishing grading the sides of the road, and we are halted, waiting for the pilot car to lead us through the construction. Due to the permafrost, the road here is a challenge to maintain. The state has experimented with several different designs. The current iteration is about a twelve foot elevation, with four six-inch layers of foam built into the base, in an attempt to keep the heat of the road from melting the permafrost.

Last time I was this happy to see pavement was on Ruta 40 in Argentina.

While sitting in line waiting on the pilot car, suddenly the passenger in the truck ahead of us jumps out. He is wearing hunter’s camo gear. He looks through his binoculars. From where we are, we can see that he is watching a caribou that is crossing from right to left ahead of us, and is about to cross the road. The driver and passenger both reach into the bed of the truck and grab some very high-tech bows and arrows, and begin running ahead into the construction zone. They stalk the caribou for what seems like 20 minutes or so. The caribou crosses the road and seems aware of their presence, at times stopping to look back, then running ahead. The hunters continue to follow the caribou across the tundra. Eventually the pilot car arrives and we head down the road, around the abandoned pickup. Unbeknownst to us, the pilot car will lead us for 38 miles, eventually setting us free just a dozen or so miles before Deadhorse.

We find our lodging (Deadhorse Camp) and check in. Deadhorse is the end of the road, and the reason for the Dalton Highway. Here, eight different oil companies agreed to work together to extract oil and ship it to Valdez, some 800 miles away, via a pipeline. This town (Prudhoe Bay) only exists because of the oil industry. It’s said there are 35 permanent residents here, but 5,000 or more temporary oil industry residents.

Our rooms at Deadhorse Camp. Note that all of the buildings are built off the ground. This keeps the heat of the building from affecting the permafrost.

Our room at Deadhorse. Similar to Coldfoot, but the bathrooms are community-style down the hall.

This door was closer to our end of the hall, so I asked one of the workers if we could park the bikes down at this end and bring things in through this door. He politely pointed out the metal box that is wedged under the doorknob, and the fire extinguisher precariously perched at the edge of the metal box. “Bear Alarm”, he said. Then he proceeded to explain how the bear enters the building through this door, and not long ago made his way into the room of a woman who works there. After some loud yelling between the woman and other workers in the hallway, the bear left. He appears to be a regular, as they named him Charlie.

Charlie, caught on camera entering one of the other buildings at Deadhorse Camp.

Day 3

We wake in Deadhorse to a light mist and near freezing temperatures. Before we head south again, we take a van ride to the Arctic Ocean. There is no public access to the ocean. We are cut off by large oil company properties, so we must be escorted to the Ocean by company security. We are not allowed to take our own vehicles.

The Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay. It was 37 degrees when we were here. The water was similar.

It’s a tradition for people to stick their toe in the water here, to mark their farthest point north, then do the same at Ushuaia, the farthest point south. I didn’t see the need. Some people do the full Polar Bear Plunge. Colin, here, did it twice because his GoPro didn’t work the first time.

I’m still shivering just thinking about him doing it twice.

After our visit to the Arctic Ocean, we load up and head back towards Coldfoot. The mist turns to drizzle, and the temperature hovers around 40 degrees. The pavement ends and the mud begins. In places, the road surface is predictable and we can run up to 50 miles per hour. In other places, it suddenly turns slick and we have to slow to 20 to 25 mph and tip-toe through. The mud covers my face shield and I end up having to ride with no eye protection. The mud and rain continues to pelt me in the face. It is cold and difficult to maintain more than 35 or 40 mph for more than an hour or so without stopping. We each have about four layers on, plus our riding gear. My heated grips help, but the backs of my hands and my thumbs, along with my face, are freezing.

We make it back to Coldfoot in time for the buffet dinner. I must admit, while it is basically cafeteria food for oilfield workers and truckers, the food is pretty tasty. Of course, I may also be a bit biased because I have been working so hard at trying to stay upright that I am starving.

Day 4

On the morning of our fourth and last day, we wake to more drizzle in Coldfoot. Dave talks to the locals and the truckers, and the consensus seems to be that the road will be muddy but passable. As we are getting gas, a woman in a 4×4 Sprinter adventure van approaches and shakes her head. “Every time I see one of you guys on the motorbikes, I question your sanity.”

“Me too”, is all I can reply.

I have determined that the chain on the bike is worn out, but should make it to Fairbanks. We decide to aim for Yukon River Camp, our last gas stop, and see how we feel. We again get a short break leaving Coldfoot as there is a section of pavement before the mud begins. Once the mud starts, the rain starts also. Then the clouds and fog. It is a workout to go sixty miles at a stretch.

The thermometer on the deck at the entrance to our rooms at Coldfoot read 25 degrees when we left that morning.

They’re only new once, but the memories they create last a lifetime.

Diana pondering whether she really wants to get back on. “Is there a tour bus around that I can catch a ride?”

A quick technical comparison. This is Dave’s stock motorcycle. Note the headlight, windscreen, and hand guards. All clean.

This is my bike, after the same exact ride. Note the same parts, covered in mud. The headlight is completely blocked of light. The only difference is that I have an aftermarket fender kit that looks cool when it’s dry but is beyond useless when it rains. It’s not just the bike that looks like this; I did too.

Another view of Dave’s bike from the cockpit. Handlebars, controls, instrument panel, handlebar bag and fuel tank, all clean.

Same view of my bike. My gloves, helmet, etc were also completely covered. Note the mud flowing up from in front of the fuel tank and behind the handlebars. Compare the windscreens and instrument panel (I’ve wiped my instrument panel multiple times trying to read it prior to taking this photo).

We continue to self-assess as we move closer to Fairbanks, eventually realizing that the “end is near”, and it looks like we will make it without any tip-overs or trip-ending mechanical failures.

The DOT treats the roads with calcium chloride salt, which is used as a binding agent. On wet days, it will not only have you sliding all over the road, but the mixture will stick like glue to every inch of your bike and gear. When it is muddy, it has the consistency of wet pumice. Wiping it off of my face shield is like dragging sandpaper across the shield. It has the same effect on motorcycle parts: by the end of four days, the drive chain is trash; the rear brake pads are completely gone and the brake rotor is scored; Dave’s front fork seals are leaking so badly it’s hard to believe there were ever seals there. I spent $20 at the car wash just getting the big bits off of the bike and our suits, another $100 on replacement face shields, and $185 on a new chain and brake pads.

We have conquered the Dalton Highway in less-than-ideal conditions, two-up on a loaded motorcycle. This nearly 1,000 mile round-trip has been the most abuse I have subjected our motorcycle to. I am concerned about the wear and tear we have caused, but convinced that it will survive the rest of our trip home, at which point I intend to do some major disassembly and cleaning.

I am thankful that Dave chose to ride along. He added a sanity check that helped all of us stay safe, and we enjoyed the time spent together. AnneMarie was also a wealth of information about Alaska, and prepared some amazing meals for us during our time in Fairbanks, both before and after the Dalton (she needs to start a YouTube Food Channel!). We hope to return to Alaska in the future to do some further exploring and spend more time with Dave and AnneMarie.

Dave and AnneMarie, looking happy to not be riding in mud for a while, and happy to have these muddy people out of their house! (Just kidding. They were extremely gracious to host us and feed us for many days while we were in Alaska.)

Our cook and tour guide in Deadhorse might have summed it up, when he learned that Diana and I had arrived both on one motorcycle: “Huh. You don’t see that up here.”

There’s a reason for that…

7 thoughts on “Ride to the Top of the World

  1. The best reading on Alaska I have ever read. BIG SMILE and Laughter. Reliving our time up there I can only include snowmobiles at below freezing. Ride on!

    • Thanks. Now that it’s complete, it was a bit of work but a great experience that I’m glad we did. Speaking of snow machines, we are just outside the entrance to Denali now, and it’s snowing. Might need one of those to get to our tour tomorrow. ?

    • It would have been a totally different trip without having your dad along for the ride. More than once we all said we wished you had been there too!

  2. So I suppose a Gold Wing with knobbies would be a no no?… Note to self, Low front fender if travelling the Dalton Hwy. Fantastic write-up. Glad you made it back to Fairbanks safely….and that Charlie the bear left you alone. I don’t feel so bad now for paying $2.59/gallon down here.

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