Monday, August 19, 2013

The Dalton 2

I woke up sluggishly that morning.  Somehow the cold had penetrated through the tent and sleeping bag and deep into my bones.  Some how I managed to shove my body into a tightly jammed ball at the bottom of my sleeping bag during the night which made it difficult to get out.  I dont know how I could breathe down in there but the cold I experienced when I finally made it out of my bag made it all make perfect sense.  My subconscious sleeping mind had chosen lack of oxygen over freezing to death.  Good job brain.   The sides of the tent had a shiny glazing of frost on it as did all my gear inside and outside of the tent.  The sun was shinning brightly but it was at such a low angle to the horizon it wasn't providing much warmth.  

Coffee.   I couldn't manage anything else just yet.  My mind and body needed caffeine and heat quickly.  I fired up the jet boil and waited for a life giving cup of joe.

Less than two weeks ago I was riding my bike through the Florida everglades in 105 degree heat and today I was shivering uncontrollably with temps in the 40's somewhere on the northern slope.  It's funny how things have changed so quickly but remain the same.  The scenery and people are on constant shuffle but the constant of waking up each day and riding as far as I can go remains the same.  This life on two wheels is addicting.  

I gathered my wits with each sip of coffee.  The warmth of the cup warmed my blue and shaking hands and the coffee itself warmed my core and slowly began to sharpen my mind.  Each sip seemed to bring me back to the reality of where I was and what I was doing.  Today was the day I would get to Prudoe Bay and Deadhorse.  Today was the day I would get to see the Arctic freakin' Ocean.  

I sat a quietly that morning over a few cups of coffee and thought about what reaching my goal would feel like and why I am even here in the first place.  I hoped it would be one of those moments that you see about in movies where the clouds open up and the band strikes up a tune.  Maybe some sort of flash of light and a few white doves flying around to add to the hollywood effect?  I wanted it to be anything but disappointing but I had to get another few hundred miles further North to see for myself.  

Although I was goal driven the trip has always been about the journey.  The destination was just a clever excuse to buy another bike and get the hell out of town.  What I've wanted and what I felt I needed was an escape from the monotony of my regular life.  I can't say I live a boring life, in fact just the opposite is true.  I live quite an amazing life and I'm fortunate enough to have a great set of loyal friends, a great job and a supportive family.  I think I just needed to step away from the chaos of it all.  To be on my own for a while and to try and be able to put it all in perspective.  Ten hours a day in your helmet will really clear your mind in the most amazing way.  Camping out in the tundra on the wrong side of the habitable world will push those thoughts even further into a crystal clear peace of mind that would make a buddhist monk get exited.  I won't go into too many details about where I am and what it feels like to be where I am at psychologically right now but it is a good place.  I feel, see and speak differently right now.  I want different things for my life then I did before and I have a different kind of focus then I have in the past.  Buying and riding this ridiculous bike this ridiculously far has been the best life choice I've made to date.  Win, lose or draw on actually seeing the Arctic I cant help but feel like I'm already there.    Damn this is good coffee.

I packed up while warming up the bike.  Camp was easy to pack up this morning.  I hadn't used much and decided to keep wearing the same dirty clothes.  Within 20 minutes I was back on the throttle plowing over the tundra (instead of the path) to say goodbye to the fellas I had beers with the night before.  Our time was short together but it was just enough to make the spark of a friendship.  Emails and Facebook accounts were exchanged and I was off.

As I was leaving my campsite at Galbraith lake the sailor in me took notice of the clouds and sudden change of wind direction.  There was a weather front on it's way in a major hurry.  The rain started almost immediately.  I've never seen a front blow through that fast in my entire life at sea and we make a living keeping one eye on these sorts of things.  The temperature immediately dropped and the clouds began to dump rain like water from a faucet.  Within minutes the gravely, sandy roads turned to a semi chunky, mostly muddy slurry.  I've never seen mud like this in my life.  Most roads will only turn to mud when the dirt and water are churned together.  This stuff immediately turned into a muddy wet cement like concoction that gave the appearance of solid road but once you drove over it behaved like a greasy soft serve ice cream. 

Traction on my brand new off road tires was almost nonexistent immediately.  The big girl and I waltzed, two stepped and even rhumba'ed ourselves from one end of the road to the other.  Whenever a truck or car came in either direction I did the best I could to get over to the right hand side of the road and stop.  There was no sense in trying to keep moving whilst they passed.  Trucks and cars (4 wheel drive pickup trucks) were spraying and splashing me with mud from head to toe.  I constantly had to wipe my helmet visor clean.  The rest of me was filthy and cold.  

COLD.  I was soaked to the bone.  My "waterproof" riding gear quickly proved to be no match for the Datlon Hwy.  According to my bike's computer it was 41 degrees outside.  According to me, which was dealing with being soaked and fighting a windchill it was minus 41 degrees.  

I was fighting the bike, fighting traction, fighting the rain, fighting the traffic, fighting the cold and fighting the mud on my visor.  I needed a break.  I needed to walk away before I lost one of the fights. I  pulled over somewhere with some distance to go for a break from it all.

The place I randomly chose to pull over had some cars and a tent set up a few hundred yards away.  I must have looked like a whipped dog or like a man about to fall down because the 2 guys that were using this spot as a base as their elk hunting operation came right over for a chat and invited me to warm myself by their camps stoves.  They were both my age and seemed to be much better prepared to deal with whatever the tundra could throw at them.   The conversations were about bikes, travel, the tundra, our home towns and hunting.  I helped myself to some dried fruits and chocolate but magically abstained from the plethora of booze that was strewn about the tent.  It must have been the cold getting to me or maybe the hight latitudes because I normally don't refuse liquid hospitality.   I stayed for about an hour and told them that If I made it to Deadhorse I would come back and tell them what its like.

After warming myself up in what seemed like a white tent oasis at the time I was back on the road.  The mud and sogginess continued as before but I felt like I was on the home stretch.  I was surrounded by a vast nothingness.  The fog and rain obscured most of the view but I could tell there was nothing to see.  The landscape was now as flat as could be and there were no trees or bushes.  Just some very thin grasses and various types of moss.  The tundra may as well be a desert.  The closer I got to the sea the less interesting the landscape was.  I was getting closer.

Out of nowhere appeared the silhouette of a building, then another, then a few trucks and warehouses.  I was paying so much attention to the roads and the trucks and the mud and the cold that I couldn't really see anything.  The rain and the fog didn't help either.  I cruised right into Deadhorse without a clue where I was going and what I was going to once I got there.  The roads in the work camp were awful.  Trucks, loaders and cranes were tearing through the place going from work site to warehouse and I immediately felt out of place on the bike.  More so, I felt like a target.  The entire place was sketchy.  

I did a complete lap of the "town" and within 15 minutes I had seen it all.  There wasn't anything to look at other than industrial equipment, warehouses and oil field supply trucks.  It was basically Port Fourchon Louisiana of the North.  It's funny that I rode all this way on my vacation from the oilfields to come and see another oilfield.  

I booked an Arctic Ocean/oil field tour at the security office and made my way over to the "hotel".  They dont allow camping anywhere in the area because of the polar bears and the cold.  I hadn't seen any bears but I didn't argue.  If being cold and wet didn't kill me in my tent that night those trucks wizzing around would.

I parked my bike next to another one like mine at the hotel and checked in for the night.  It was late and I was exhausted.  I was glad to be in Prudoe but I couldn't make sense of it at all.  I was brain dead from the cold and exhausted from the experience of the journey.  I'll get to see the Arctic Ocean tomorrow.  Hopefully after a good night's sleep I'll be able to make sense of it all.

That's it for now kids.  Pictures soon to follow.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Dalton 1

I woke from my snore fest with a slight hangover but I was excited none the less.  I've come a long way to get up here and today was going to be the day that my bike and I took on the Dalton Highway.

The Dalton can be done in 2 days but it completely depends on the road conditions.  It'll take 2 days if the weather is fine and up to 5 if it's awful and you're just spinning your wheels.  I asked the guys at the bike shop how the road was and most of them said I should be fine.  2 of the guys said I shouldn't go at all but I just figured they were Honda GoldWing riders so I didn't pay them much mind. I had enough food and water to last 3 days with me so if I run into any difficulties I should be okay for a little while.  It really just all depends on the rain and I hadn't seen any yet so I figured I'd be okay.

The gas situation on the Dalton is interesting.  You have to buy gas at the last legit gas station in town just to have enough to make it to Coldfoot.  You have to buy gas at Coldfoot just to make it to Deadhorse and the same for the way back.  The bike I'm riding carries more gas then most but that only buys me a little more room for error.  Most bikes carry extra gas bottles with them just to make it the distances between stations.  Each time you gas up you have to plan a turn around point half way because if you go 2/3rds of the way then decide the roads are too bad to continue you won't make it back to the next gas stop.    

I topped off my tank and started up the road.  The roads were made of really loose gravel and sand for the first half of the day.  Some sections had just been rough paved by stimulus money, but construction trucks were everywhere trying to get a few more miles done before winter's grip put them all out of work.  The deep gravel in the construction sites were challenging enough.

The Dalton has been around since the mid 70's and the fact that they're just now getting around to paving it is astounding.  The difficulty lies in the permafrost.   The ground up here is frozen solid. Trees have gone from 30ft tall giants further south to completely gone all together.  The only thing that can grow are small shrubs and bushes that take 50 years to grow to be a foot tall.  Temperatures dropped from the mid 70's to the mid 40's just in my first 150 miles of riding.  I didn't bring much for winter clothing but then again I don't plan on spending much time up here. 

Mile after mile of slimy soft mud and loose gravel takes it's toll.   I took regular breaks and continued the arduous task of climbing and descending the slippery and filthy mountains in the Kanuti Wildlife Refuge.  By the time I reached my first 100 miles I was already exhausted, covered in mud and I still had 15 miles to go just to make it to the Arctic Circle. I don't remember crossing the Yukon river.  The map says I did but I must have been too busy slipping and sliding all over the road or stuck in a fog bank at the time.   

By the time I reached the Arctic Circle It must have been 3 or 4 in the afternoon.  In all the days riding so far I haven't been on the bike this long and not been at least 400 miles down the road.  The roads were just too slippery with all the gravel and too rough with all the pot holes to put on any kind of speed at all.  At this point I've only done about 190 miles so far.  The Arctic Circle turn out was done well.  They had a nice sign to take pictures in front of and also some sign posts describing the animals, landscape and how the sun affects each of them.  It actually seemed a little too nice for something that only a few people trek up to see every year.   I wasn't shy about asking a passing trucker to take a few photos too commemorate the milestone.  

I continued north another 80 or so miles past Gobblers Knob, Grayling Lake and then finally made it to Coldfoot.   Coldfoot got it's name in the early 1900's because it marks the spot where the original gold rush prospectors got cold feet and turned around.  I was having a tough time with the roads but wasn't nearly ready to turn around just yet.  The road wasn't soaked enough for me to call it quits just yet.  I wanted to see Sukakpak Mountain and Atigun Pass before I made camp somewhere.  Sunlight was no longer an issue, apparently I would not be seeing night time until I got off of the mountain.  I grabbed a cheeseburger and a beer at the truck stop and spent an hour chatting with a trucker about trucking of all things.  He was more then happy to talk about work with me.  I'm just glad we didn't start talking about my job.

Sukukapak mountain is a massive wall that juts out of the landscape to almost 5000ft right in front of the road.  Luckily I was stopped at another construction site right in front of it and was able to catch a few photos during the wait.  

The road bobbed and weaved around the Alaskan oil pipeline the entire way.  Sometimes it was less than 20 yards away and sometimes it was a half mile in the distance.  The pipeline would duck underground for a mile or two then pop up on the other side of the road.  I was so busy starring at the scenery and concentrating on the road that when the pipeline would pop up next to me it would surprise me.

The ride up the Atigun pass was amazing.  The mountain rises up out rolling hills to 5000 ft above sea level and it's a really steep too.  I have no idea how the truckers make it up and down the pass without going over the edge every time.  The guard rail was mangled in at least 8 different places, so that just proves to me that it was treacherous for them.  I was spinning my rear tire most of the way just trying to keep momentum and stay straight.  Atigun pass has been on that show Ice Road Truckers a few times.  They respect the pass on that show and don't add extra drama like they do everywhere else it seems.

After Atigun the roads started to descend towards the Arctic in a really gradual way.  I still had about 250 miles to go but my shoulders were tired from wrestling with the roads bumps and ruts.  I pulled into a secluded spot in a valley called Galbraith Lake.  What a spot!  Gorgeous scenery and a nice cool breeze.   I pulled in and set up shop at the end of the path. Within 3hrs I was sitting around a campfire with a cool German dude in his early 40's  and his dog, and a Mongolian guy in his late 20's or early 30's.  The German guy had traveled everywhere and absorbed as much culture and history as he could from his travels.  He even knew interesting stories of even our own American history that they don't teach in schools.  He also used to ride a bike like mine but traded it in for a truck when he got the dog Nu'ka. The Mongolian kid was also camping in the area.  He was with his dad showing him around his new home state.  He was a gold mine engineer at one of Alaska's modern mines.  Who knew Colorado had a mining university?

We chatted for hours about travel, culture and the places we've been.  The conversations were light and humorous and never got awkward or forced.  We each had completely separate backgrounds and came from opposite sides of the globe but that night we were all friends camping under the midnight sun sharing a few beers and a box of wine around a fire.   It was a really diverse group of strangers having a great conversation without any difficulty

this is as dark as it got