The DAMN Dalton Highway
Updated: Oct 7, 2018
"Does he know about Charlie?" said an ex marine now oil rigger.
"I don't know," responded an oil rig mechanic from Texas with an uneasy look on his face.
The first guy turned to me."Be really careful, there are reports that there's a grizzly patrolling Prudhoe Bay right now"
I decided it was my time to go.
I had taken a bus into Deadhorse, and when we got in at 11:30pm it was raining and cold. Our white Ford van was now brown, covered in mud splashed on us from oncoming trucks on the dirt (now mud) highway. We had been driving since 6:00am, so I was exhausted, but by the time I had brought my bags to my room, eaten dinner, washed up, and gotten into bed, it was already 1am. Breakfast was only 4-8, and I realized that if I were to eat and make it out by 9am like I originally wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to get even 7 hours of sleep. When I went to breakfast, I saw that it was perfectly sunny and warm (55 degrees F, but that's warm for up here). I decided I would wait until the roads were drier and less of a mud puddle, so I would have a quicker, cleaner, and easier ride out. I went back to sleep. After I had woken up, gotten dressed, and packed my bags, I went to the front desk for noon checkout. They checked me out, but encouraged me to take my time, eat lunch there, and take some food for the way out. I got distracted at lunch and ended up talking to a bunch of different people in the cafeteria.
So at 1:30pm, when the guy told me about Charlie, I got out as quickly as possible.
I had an idea that there was a creature outside when I saw the uneasy look on the mechanic’s face, because he had told me about a few too many encounters with polar bears that made him hate the place. He was at the end of his assignment and on his way home, and told me he really couldn't wait to be back. "This really isn't the place for me, I'm gonna make sure they don't send me up here again.” It was really interesting for me to spend a night in Deadhorse to better understand the people working on the pipeline. A ton of them were Alaska transplants. I only spoke to one person from Alaska, and she was a house cleaner in the hotel from Fairbanks. People like me go up to Deadhorse to experience wilderness, peace and quiet, the Arctic tundra, the animals, the views. People working on the pipeline are there just for work. They're sometimes assigned there without an option, and sometimes they have no better work option. It's a hard life though, and to them it's not the glorious place that I had been looking forward to for so long.
Working on the oil rig in Deadhorse is hard work. The oil riggers work two weeks on and two weeks off. They work 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, and alternate the night shift and day shift every time they come back from their two weeks off. Two workers share a single room with two double beds and never see each other because of the alternating shifts. When the two workers leave for their two weeks off, they’re required to fully pack up, and then another two workers come in and do the same thing. So four different people share one small room and never see anyone else in the room. To get home, there’s an air taxi that flies a loop from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay to Barrow and back to Anchorage. If you want to get to Fairbanks from Prudhoe Bay, you have to fly to Barrow, and then to Anchorage, and then to Fairbanks. Every two weeks.
Once I said goodbye to the people that I had met, I hit the road with my bear spray close by, went to the Prudhoe Bay General Store where someone took my photo in front of the sign, forgot to actually go inside, and then was off. Next destination: Fairbanks.
The ride was pretty difficult. There was an incredibly strong headwind in the beginning, and it only slightly died down as the day went on. The road was wet, sticky, and covered in gravel and rocks. The truckers all passed with a ton of room and slowed down as they passed me so they wouldn't kick up too much dirt or rocks. One truck was spraying water on the road and as soon as he saw me he turned down the power of the spray so I had a dry area that I could ride over. All the truckers up here are incredibly friendly, and are quick to return a smile and wave. It seems like they really enjoy seeing different types of people up here. I think seeing people up here who chose to be here for fun and pleasure instead of work gives them a different perspective on being up here, and spices up their day a bit.
There was wildlife all over the road. I saw musk oxen for the first time. Musk oxen were hunted out of existence on the North Slope, and were reintroduced a few decades ago. There were a few different herds, all with baby musk oxen, and a few musk oxen alone. Apparently the lone musk oxen are males who lose fights for a mate, and have to leave the herd for a few weeks. They were smaller than I expected them to be, but beautiful animals. I wanted to get a closer look, but they charge, and are incredibly protective mothers, so I stayed on the road and watched them for about 10 minutes. Musk oxen have one baby at a time, and it takes 4-7 years for them to mature, so the mom does everything in her power to make sure the babies are safe. The fact that they are around shows how successful a species they are - they don’t have many natural predators, and do a pretty good job of defending themselves from those they do have. Apparently there were some population issues for a while because grizzlies had learned how to hunt the young, but from what I saw they were doing pretty well. And from what I was told, they get through winter like it’s a breeze. Every animal has a critical temperature when they have to start actively doing something to warm themselves up. Musk oxen are good until -60F before they have to start huddling up. A ranger told me that she had seen musk oxen perfectly comfortably sitting through a -125F wind chill. They just walked around eating what they could find.
I ended up bringing some food with me from the hotel, and ate it on the side of the road. Eventually I got super tired and had to find a place to pitch a tent. I saw two guys with float planes at a small lake on the side of the road, and pulled over to ask them if they knew where to camp. When I asked how they were, they said "probably better than you!" to which I responded "I'm tired, but super happy." They laughed and jokingly asked "where are ya going, Tierra del Fuego??". I confidently told them “Yep!”. They responded ”you motherfucker, best of luck.” They told me about 4 miles away there was a pipeline access road that I could camp at as long as I was off to the side. I thanked them and left. I got to the site tired and hungry, found some protein powder exploded in my bear box and my water supply short. I ended up not being able to use enough water for my dinner, so I had some chewy and crunchy Mexican Mountain House, gagged, brushed my teeth, and went to bed.
I woke up a bunch to pee. I guess that's a good thing. I woke up again to the sound of a car pulling into where I was sleeping. I didn't care. I was exhausted. I went back to sleep until about 11. I packed up everything and was ready to hit the road at about 12:30. It turned out I was in the middle of a construction zone. The truck that nicely left a dry patch for me to ride on was actually wetting the ground the night before to lay calcium the next day. I didn't think about it at all when I picked my campsite. The pilot car drove by me, stopped, and a lady got out shouting "do you want to get out of there??" I shouted "yes! But I need 30 seconds!" She told me to hurry and I tossed everything on the bike to run up to the road, past the side of construction, over a huge mud pile, and behind the pilot car so she could get me to the other side of the construction. When I got to the other side, a guy waved me down, telling me to stop and come to him. He gave me a token that a cycle tourist from Switzerland gave to him, and told me to pass it on to the next cyclist I see. It said something about love on it. It was a cute gesture.
His name was Jonathan, and we talked for a while longer. He was a really nice guy. I then thanked him, said goodbye, and took off. I decided I wanted a picture with him, so I turned around and tried to unclip my right foot, and realized that the cleat was stuck in the pedal. Fuck. I almost fell trying to get off. I unclipped my left foot, took my right foot out of my right shoe, and put my bike on the side of the road. It turned out that my cleats weren't tightened to my shoes well enough and I lost a bolt and the cleat started swiveling in the pedal. That's why I couldn't kick it out. I pulled out my tool and tried to loosen the pedal, but the angle was too small. A trucker pulled over and asked if I needed help. I said "I'm just looking for the right tool to use, my shoe is stuck in my pedal." He responded "well let me help you, I have a tool kit" and hopped out of his truck. When he got out and saw me struggling with my shoe he said "I knew you needed some sort of help. Who the hell walks around the Arctic tundra without shoes?" His selection was limited, but he had a big screw driver and an even bigger wrench. I took the screwdriver to pry out the clip, and the wrench to hammer on the screwdriver. When I finally unclipped the shoe, the momentum slammed my hand against the pedal and I gashed open my pinky. I bled for the next half hour. When I got the clip out we got to talking. His name was Joseph, he was from Anchorage, lived in Chicago for some time, and had a daughter going to boarding school in Indiana. I said, "oh cool" to which he responded "not for me, it's expensive." He then looked at my shoe, saw the missing screw, asked me to take out the other one, and walked around his truck taking pieces apart looking for a matching screw. “Taking out one small screw won’t make my truck fall apart, but clearly it can make a big difference for you” he said. He couldn't find one so he tightened the clip with the single screw really well (he was a strong dude). Needless to say, I stopped clipping my right pedal because the last thing I wanted was for that to happen again. We grabbed a picture, said goodbye and I continued on my way.
The day was nice. I hit a section of asphalt (G-d bless), and hit my first climb. It was about a mile long, probably 8% grade. It was a really good preview of what was to come.
On the bus up to Deadhorse, we stopped at a place called Happy Valley Camp to take a bathroom break and deliver cookies to a guy named Sean who was a pilot for Happy Valley Camp and the boyfriend of a friend of our driver/tour guide. There we met Jim, the owner of the place and an organizer of caribou hunts. I told him I'd be riding back through on my way south, so he invited me to stop for a cup of coffee on my way south.
I took him up on the offer. When I rode in, he was chilling on a camping chair in front of what I was to learn was the dining area, and I stopped and said hi. He invited me in, offered me water and hot coffee inside, and then offered me a cake. "You surely need the sugars" he said. We started talking. He told me about a few other cyclists who had come through his camp that he had helped. One had started riding from Anchorage with her dad, but once her dad got to Fairbanks, decided that the Dalton was too much for him. She wanted to finish badly enough that she continued alone. When she got 20 miles south of the camp, she was chased on her bike by a giant grizzly. She sped off, and was lucky enough that an 18 wheeler was close by. He drove by the grizzly and scared him off. When she saw some type of civilization at the camp, she pulled in. She was terrified, completely out of it, and needed some help. She was too scared to continue, so Jim housed her for the night and then drove her to Deadhorse the next day to catch a plane home.
He was out there from August 4-September 4 (caribou season), and organized an air taxi to the landing strip on camp and then to the backcountry for guided hunts. He dropped people off in the middle of nowhere with a tour guide, Mountain House, Whisperlite stoves, and gear. When he mentioned the stoves, I asked him if he had ever used a Whisperlite universal with both liquid and canister fuel capabilities. He replied no. I explained to him that I had a Whisperlite stove and my primary fuel source was liquid, and I had a small backup canister in case anything happened, but I couldn’t figure out how to switch the adapter (I stupidly didn’t do enough research before leaving). I had the small canister, but told him I was nervous that I wouldn’t have enough fuel. I had three different options for cleaning water, but was more nervous about being able to cook all my food. That morning I didn't cook out of conservancy, but instead had a bar for breakfast. Jim then offered to take me to his tool shed, and when I couldn't get the adapter off, he offered me a canister. I said "are you sure?? Do you have enough??" he responded "clearly you need it, and I’m more than happy to help.” Time and again I can't get over how incredible the people up here are. There's a mutual survival feeling in the Arctic. It makes being up here a whole lot easier.
It started raining, so I quickly used the bathroom and then said goodbye and pulled out. It was raining lightly enough to not have to put on rain gear, but long enough that it got annoying. There were lots of climbs, and lots of wildlife. At one point I saw a caribou on the side of the road, pulled up, and watched it and took some photos. It started running so I rode off. As I was pulling away, I noticed a guy on the other side of the road in camouflage with a crossbow. I think I might have helped ruin his hunt. Whoops. He said he already got one so I felt even better about saving the caribou. Turns out they have absolutely incredible coats for insulation, and really tasty meat. Their hair is hollow tubes that are incredible insulators. The critical temperature for caribou is -50F before they have to start moving around. People will make clothing out of two different pelts with the hairs in the middle and the tanned smooth skin on the inside and outside. Caribou also have no defense against mosquitoes, so a swarm of mosquitoes can actually kill a caribou. They have short hair in the summer and short tails that can’t hit them away, so they move a lot in the summer to higher elevations and cooler places to avoid the mosquitoes.
I also saw a bunch of geese and ducks. I grew up across the street from a church that had a beautiful front lawn where we used to play sports and run the dogs. Whenever the geese came through Philly they’d poop all over the church lawn and then we couldn’t use it anymore. I hated them. Here, though, they’re magnificent.
The rain ended up stopping and I rode for another 25 miles until I saw a big rain cloud approaching. I was hungry and tired so I decided to call it a day. The only problem was that every possible pull off was really close to the road, next to a downward slope, and already a bit wet and muddy. If I were to camp there I would be soaked and muddy by the next day. I decided to kick it into the next gear to quickly find a spot. I found a pull off that extended further away from the road. It was slightly muddy, but I wasn't going to find anything better before the storm hit. As I was unpacking my bike, I looked up and saw a little mound of dirt. I was curious so I ran up and realized that there was a huge grass campsite on the other side. Fucking JACKPOT. Not only was it going to be soft and secluded from the street, but I'd be able to actually peg the tent properly unlike at all the gravel pull offs.
There's an AT saying that the trail always gives. Well the Dalton seems to be the same way.
I set up camp, cooked dinner, hid my bear box, and went to bed with about 5 mins to spare before the rain started. What. A. Day.
I've been waking up late to start when the day is warmer. The sun sets so late that starting late doesn't even really matter. Today, I woke up at 8am and it was really cold so I went back to bed. I woke up at about 10:45 and it was even colder. I should've just started early. Maybe as I get used to this cold I'll wake up early and finish early so I can enjoy more time to myself at night. Or just bike further in the day if I have it in me. When I got outside I realized I was in the clouds. It was damp, cold, and dark. My favorite. I packed up my stuff and made breakfast. As I was packing up a guy pulled into where I was camping, saw me, and then pulled out. I didn't think I was that ugly. I guess that's what the Arctic does to you.
Although I was in the clouds, visibility was solid enough that with lights on my bike I'd be perfectly safe. The road was super sticky mud from the rain the night before. I was probably averaging 7 mph on flat road. A few minutes into my ride I saw a figure move off the right side of the road. Grizzly. HUGE. Not even 40 feet away. Jim had just yesterday told me about a bike tourist who he took care of after she was chased by a big grizzly about 20 miles south of Happy Valley camp. I was 25 miles south of Happy Valley camp. Was this the same bear?? Was it my turn next?? We held eye contact while I fumbled nervously for my whistle. He then quickly turned and started running. Phew. I finally got my hand on my whistle and blew it for good measures. He stopped and turned back around. FUCK ME. Did I aggravate it?? Did I challenge it? When the girl was chased, she ended up getting saved by an 18 wheeler that drove by and scared the bear off. I had just seen a truck 2 minutes ago. You're lucky if you see 50 vehicles in a day on the Dalton. When would the next truck come? How long did I have to sprint for? But wait. I was averaging about 7 mph on this sticky road, and my top speed for the entirety of the Dalton was 33 mph. Downhill. A grizzly's top speed is 40 mph. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK. I always have bear spray at an arms reach away. It's strong stuff. But strong enough to stop a bear that I've actively agitated? My mind went running. Then the bear did. PHEW. Luckily I was safe. But for the the next while I was shoulder checking every 10 seconds. Once I got a safe distance away, I snapped a photo. He really was a magnificent creature. I just only noticed once the adrenaline wore off.
I kept on creeping along at my snail pace. Until I came up to a hill after about 11 miles that was completely whited out. I pulled over. No way in hell was I riding through that at my pace with trucks barreling by. I pulled over and tried to hitch. I was unsuccessful the first time. And then the second. And the third and fourth and fifth. It seemed like everyone I flagged down either had too small of a car, was an Alyeska pipeline employee (by company policy they can’t take hitchhikers, but they gave me some water in case I’d have to stay for a while), was a hunter who was southbound to return home with a pickup truck full of supplies and gear and a bed full of dead caribou, or was a hunter staying in the area. I heard multiple times that the clouds were supposed to stay like this for the next two or three days. I was not interested in camping in a muddy truck pull off on the top of a whited out mountain for three days. One hunter named Carl pulled over. He told me he was out in the country until Friday, but if I was stuck up here until then he'd be happy to drive me wherever I needed south up to Wasilla. He then told me he had an extra candy bar that he wasn’t going to eat. "Want it?" he said. "Can't refuse a candy bar offer" I responded. He took me to his truck bed and opened a big box. He started piling stuff up telling me he wasn't gonna eat it and I could take it. I had to start saying no because I didn't have the space, but I took some goodies with me. I also found out that the car that pulled into my campground that morning was Carl, and he thought I had just gotten there so he left. Apparently I was in the best spot of the North Slope to go bow Caribou hunting. If only I could see the view through the clouds.
It was getting colder and damper and whiter. I put on almost all my layers.
Finally, Kim and Brent stopped for me and agreed to take me south. I told them I needed to get out of whiteout conditions. They told me they were going to Toolik Lake and could take me that far (about a 10 mile drive from where I was). I took them up on the offer and thanked them profusely. They were from Colorado and were in Alaska doing health and safety work at the pump stations. They had been to Antarctica for their jobs too. SO COOL. Brent was actually from New Zealand originally, but met his American wife in Antarctica so he came here. They were incredibly nice, and the back of their pickup was a good break from the frigid and damp roadside. I got out of the car and the road was wider, in better condition (so I could go faster) , and the visibility was a bit higher and the sky a bit brighter. So I rode on. I quickly realized I had lost track of time and had forgotten to eat or drink while shivering away waiting for a lift. I was deep into a bonk. I tried to recover, but there were no pull offs and conditions were worsening. I finally found one and thought about camping, but it was incredibly windy and the area was all gravel so I wouldn't even be able to peg my tent down. It was also wet. No shot. From the ride up I remembered the road being relatively easy and downhill until Galbraith Lake (another 10 miles from Toolik) but couldn't get my bearings with the bad visibility. I also remembered there was a good tenting spot by the lake. I decided to make a run for it. The riding was rough and I couldn't get food out because I didn't want to stop, but I was losing energy quickly. 8 miles in I hit a downhill. It didn't stop until I got out of the clouds. It was smooth sailing from there to Galbraith. Finally I was going to have a warm hearty dinner and an early night. When I pulled over, I realized the spot that I remembered was actually also all gravel, and the wind was even worse at the valley floor. Improper tent pegging meant my tent would either fly away or get soaked. I moved on. Maybe I can photosynthesize, but after I saw the sun, I got a crazy second wind and crushed another 10 miles easily. I found a dirt spot at the side of the road. It wasn’t ideal positioning (right next to the road), and it was super windy, but it looked like a rain cloud was coming and I didn't want to miss an opportunity for good tent peg ground. I stayed. There was also a creek nearby so I was able to boil some of that water and save the water in my backpack for tomorrow. I’m now 90 miles away from an all you can eat dinner buffet for $20. I’m gonna try to get there in one day (my longest day by 45 miles). It probably won’t happen, but here’s some motivation:
First day: headwinds; second day: rain; third day: whiteout; fourth day: ALL YOU CAN EAT BUFFET
I was convinced I was waking up at 7am and getting to Coldfoot today. I was wrong. I snoozed again until 8:30 or 9, and then was going to get out by 10:30. I was wrong again. I looked outside and saw the weather was shitty and windy and foggy now. There was no way I was easily making it up the pass. So I decided to boil water from the nearby creek for breakfast and the next two days of riding until I got to Coldfoot. It took me way longer than expected (the creek was freezing and I needed a lot of water, there was some hauling time from the creek, and my ADD mind kept on getting distracted). I was finally on the road by about 12:30pm. Conditions were rough. The winds died down the night before, so I slept well and my tent was safe, but they picked right up in the morning. And it was raining on and off. At like 35-40 degrees F. The roads were muddy and sticky. I saw a ranger on the side of the road so I stopped by to say hi and he was telling me all about the current conditions and about the weather this summer and he was in the middle of a sentence when an 18 wheeler sped by. "SLOW DOWN" he screamed, waving his hands at the driver. "I gotta go" he said to me, and ran to his car. I shouted to him "pulling him over??" he screamed "of course!!” and sped off.
The day got harder. At one point I was averaging 6 mph downhill. DOWNHILL. I got crazy wind burnt and kept on bonking from the cold and the headwind. At one point, a motorcyclist pulled up next to me and started chatting while riding. I decided it would be easier to pull over and stop so we did. His name was Michael, and he was riding from Ottawa to Deadhorse to Tierra del Fuego. We exchanged info with the hopes of meeting up in Central or South America (he was taking his time to get down there). We exchanged stories about the North Slope, and I began telling him about my grizzly story when 5 seconds in I spotted one in the distance behind him along the creek. Weird timing. We said our goodbyes because I was getting cold.
Conditions were worsening even further. When I got to the pull off before the pass I took a break, ate, put on layers, and contemplated what to do. There was a whiteout at the summit, and the weather sucked down here, so I could only imagine what it was like up there in the whiteout. I ate a lot and decided to go for it, but when I pulled out, I had some problems with my rear brake and pulled over to fix them. A guy in a pickup saw me, gave me a thumbs up to question if I was OK, and I responded by shaking my hand to tell him not completely. He looked at me and then pointed to the bed of his truck and I gave him the OK sign. He pulled over so I could put my bike in the bed and hop in the back. His name was Sean and he was with his son Stone. Sean worked for the laborers union along the Dalton. He and Stone were just coming back from the son’s first sheep hunt (they're considered one of the hardest animals to hunt in North America because they have incredible sense of smell and eyesight and are really skittish). They didn't catch anything but had some stories and videos for me. They managed to get within 10 feet of one, but it wasn't old enough to kill, so they just watched it. As we drove I became happier and happier with my decision to ride with them. There was rain at the bottom, then freezing rain, then a whiteout with a bunch of snow. The whole route was super muddy. It would not have been safe for me to ride it. As soon as we crossed the pass the landscape went from tundra to boreal forest. It was such a stark change. He dropped me off at the other side where I was expecting beautiful weather (it was just as cold and drizzling) and then helped me with my bike and opened up his bear box. He had a bunch of extra food and unloaded a bunch on me. It seems like I'm the human garbage disposal. I felt like I had a sign on me like the Statue of Liberty: Give me your old, your poor, your crunched up snacks, yearning to be eaten. The wretched refuse of your leftover food. Send this, the remaining fuel from your adventure, to me. I’ll open my mouth and it will all disappear.
I started riding and then remembered that there was a pit toilet right there. Tundra dumps become very old very quickly. Between the openness and visibility, the cold, and the wet, I was happy to finally use a pit toilet over trying to not be seen by cars and trucks on the road. I used it and stayed in it for a bit to wait out the rain, and then started riding again. The road was much better, I was feeling great, and the views were gorgeous. I kept riding until I saw a sign that said "road work next 15 miles" and then one that said "motorcycles use extra caution." Nothing about bicycles. I wonder what that sign would say. Maybe “cyclists don’t even try.” I stopped by two ladies on the side of the road at about 9 miles into the construction. They were from BLM and were doing land checks. Sheri and I spoke for a while, exchanged info, and her partner went off to do work. Not only do I get distracted easily, but I distract others easily. Oh well, she was happy to talk and have a break from work anyway. She gave me some Fairbanks recommendations (she was a local, and worked up to mile 300 of the Dalton) and then we said goodbye. About 10 miles in there was a section that used a pilot car. I had to take a ride. I tossed my stuff into the pilot car and rode with Jesse. When I got out on the other side, the Flagger, Dan started chatting off my ear. At one point he said "let me give you a piece of advice." I try to never shy away from advice, so I was alert, but a car came up and seemed to try to run by his stop sign. He ran to the car shouting "if you run this I'll have a state trooper on your ass in 2 mins." They apologized and explained there was a misunderstanding. He then came back and said “2 words: Marine Corps". He thought joining the Marines was the best thing you could do for your career. I told him I'd think about it, but it's definitely not the right choice for me. He then talked and talked about motorcycles and this and that until I said I have to run to get away from the rain and find a campsite before dark.
The rain caught me. I then raced away from it successfully. It was getting darker and I was getting nervous that I wouldn't find anything before dark, until I spotted a beautiful open spot hidden away in the forest off the left side of mile 207. I built the tent, made a big dinner, then got cold and brushed my teeth, put the bear box away, and ran to set up my sleeping pad and sleeping bag. As I was on my way I saw a few big bones and a crow carcass in the bush. "well," I thought, "I'm already set up so screw that." I'm tired, sore everywhere (it feels almost febrile), crazy wind burnt on my cheeks and lips. There are rabbits thumping around outside my tent, but I’m tired enough that even if it persists all night, I’ll sleep right through it.
This morning I woke up sore and tired and my eyes were crazy inflamed and I just wanted to get to Coldfoot. I broke down camp in record time, had a cold breakfast, and was off by 10:30. I was cruising, but my back and shoulder were aching. Half way to Coldfoot I remembered that I had been running my tires low for the gravel, and now I was on asphalt. I pulled over to pump them up expecting it to make a big difference. It didn’t really. About 5 miles out a crazy headwind hit. "Not again" I thought. I just wanted to stretch in a warm building. I hadn't in 5 days and I was SORE. I finally got to Coldfoot and did some bike maintenance, then took a faucet shower, and then chilled for a while and charged some devices. I met a cool couple heading south in their car. Anna lived in Wiseman, and Aaron lived in Phoenix. They were eventually driving back there. After chatting for a while they said "happy trails! That's what we say up here." I’m going to start using that.
Then the all you can eat dinner buffet started and my focus completely shifted. I ate my heart out. And it was delicious. There’s a cyclist challenge to eat 5 plates of food. I easily ate 6 and regretted not taking more dessert with me to go. At one point a guy who was sitting behind me, Charlie, started talking to me. We were chatting about bike touring and bike packing and my set up and then he mentioned he wasn't originally from here. "Where are you from?" I asked. "King of Prussia" he responded. I started cracking up and he thought I was crazy until I told him I was from Lower Merion. He laughed and told me he went to Upper Merion High School. What are the chances??
After my huge dinner I went over to the visitor center for the parks where ranger Bob was giving a talk on the Gateway to The Arctic park. I was a bit late (because FOOD), but no one else showed up, so we had a really good back and forth one on one talk. This man was absolutely incredible. He was a backcountry ranger in the park for 15 years, and then an instructional ranger for the past five. As a backcountry ranger he went on regular backcountry patrols to different native communities, with researchers, with other rangers, etc. He often went out on patrols in the winter time. Many of those were alone. Most patrols lasted about 10-14 days. A few lasted him 30 days. Alone. In the Arctic tundra. This guy was doing stuff that world famous mountaineers probably couldn't/wouldn't do. At one point a few others came in. By the end we were in awe. "do you have a book??" we asked inquisitively. He responded no, so we encouraged him to write one but he said he had successfully done the job in anonymity for 20 years and wanted to keep it that way. He lived in Wiseman, a self sufficient town of 12 people just off of the Dalton. When he heard of my trip he said he wasn't much of a traveler - he didn't like all different kinds of people, and just liked staying in one place. He grew up in Minnesota, and used to camp in the backcountry in the dead of winter just because he loved it. None of his 9 other siblings would ever join him. But I guess this job was his destiny. When I asked to take a photo with him, explaining that I was taking pics of cool people along the way, he said "well you won't be taking one of me". I expected that. Curious about life in Wiseman, I asked if he had a car. "I have a truck that I drive when I need to." Without skipping a beat, he said "do you need a ride somewhere?" Have I mentioned people up here are incredible?? I responded "no no, I have my bike, I was just curious. Thank you though."
I came back to the campsite, set up my tent, and now I'm excited for my much needed day off tomorrow.
I'm starting to feel like a local. Hunter Carl came into the restaurant saw me, shouted my name, and started chatting with me. He offered a ride again but I said no thank you. Then later ranger Bob walked in. Then I saw some Russians that I saw on the road and they joked with me about how I should already be in Fairbanks. Then Dan the Flagger came in. Then, Sheri came in. She rocks. We ended up spending a fair amount of time talking again. The community life here is great. Everyone knows everyone, everyone cares for everyone, everyone jokes around with everyone. Laughs are loud, smiles are big, and the happiness is real.
I went to the bathroom, walked into the stall, and found a cane. How does someone forget their cane? Then I remembered the guy who walked into the place with it. I was going to take it to him, but he came into the bathroom before I left. He saw me, and asked how I was doing. I told him I was great, and asked how he was. “If I was 100 pounds lighter I’d be damn near perfect!" I liked his confidence.
Someone walked in and the lady at the counter screamed up to the second floor. "someone's here from the post office! … What’s your name? … Erin's here from the post office!!" The girl upstairs screamed "oh my God, congratulations Erin!" I don't know what they were congratulating her for, but she walked out on a dopamine high, with the biggest smile and the peppiest walk. Congratulations Erin. Whatever it was, it must have been incredible.
I hung around for more time. I read a bunch, I got some food, I kept charging my stuff. People came up to talk to me about my trip and their touring and the bikes they have and what bike I had and my setup, etc. It was fun. However, I wasn't feeling great and just wanted some time to read and relax.
Yesterday, all my joints hurt. I was sore, walking sucked, my knee hurt, and stretching wasn't helping. I really, really beat myself up on the North Slope. Fun fact: I didn't train at all for this trip. I rode over 3 times more miles in the first 5 days of my trip than in total since January. Between shoulder surgery in February that kept me out from most things for months and being abroad for 2.5 months, I didn't have much time to bike at all. I could have run. However, to keep myself sane while I was in a sling for 2.5 months and PT for longer, I kept telling myself - and others - that pretty much the only way to properly train for cycle touring is to just get out there and do it. I ended up internalizing this a little bit too much, so exercise while I was abroad was not a high enough priority. I danced a lot, but could have run and lifted too.
As a result of my injury and being abroad, I also started this trip 2 months later than I should have. I decided to ride the Dalton in late August. Most do it in June. I am reminded of this every day when I wake up in the freezing cold.
The Dalton isn’t cycle touring. The Dalton in August is a whole different ball game. It's like a game of weather roulette. Choose: snow, cold, rain, crazy headwinds, dense fog, or any combination of the list and you've got a regular day on the Dalton. Your tires either sink into the sticky mud and hold you back like a fully packed sled with one sled dog, or slide and skid all over the road from the loose chunky gravel, or bounce and jump up and down on the washboard surface. Oh, and make sure to avoid the potholes. But the potholes are in dirt. Because the road has significantly more dirt and gravel than asphalt (maybe 35 miles of asphalt north of Coldfoot, maybe five - if that - north of the Brooks range). Oh, and make sure to protect yourself from the projectile rocks and mud and dust shot up by passing cars. Oh, and definitely keep your eyes out for wildlife trying to a) eat you, or b) run in front of you. Oh, and there are only 2 places between Fairbanks and Deadhorse where you can actually find food. Cooked food. There’s barely any packaged food (candy bars and chips, not enough to sustain). So make sure to bring enough food for crazy calorie burning for 10 days. This is not cycle touring. This is no highway. This is glorified (if I can even use that word) backcountry bike packing. That, on the other hand, deserves a little bit of training and physical preparation, and perhaps a bit better timing on departure.
As I sat at my table contemplating all the times I should've exercised for just 10 minutes here, or 20 minutes there, a couple started talking to me. They asked me where I had gotten in from today. I told them I was taking a day off because I was a wreck from the North Slope. "Do you guys ever get joint or bone pains before a fever sets in?". “No, never" they responded. "Well, before I get a fever all of my joints hurt and my bones ache and my lower back is stiff and I can't really move comfortably. That's what the physical exertion on the North Slope did to me the past 5 days." Stupid me. I should've heeded the warning signs. I had a fever by early afternoon. Maybe the exertion helped bring on the fever, but the symptoms were not from straining my muscles. They were from the fever itself coming on. I'm learning to trust my body and intuition more through this trip, I guess. After hanging around the restaurant all day, I went to another ranger talk at 8pm. At the end of the talk, I went to speak to the ranger. She said she was from Wiseman, but looked awfully familiar. I said "did you have someone visit you a little while ago that worked in Wiseman for a year and you hadn't seen in a while?" she said "no not that I can recall." I offered more details and she said "oh yes! Caren!"
On the drive up, there were two women that got off the bus at Wiseman to see someone that they hadn’t seen in 30 years. That someone was Ranger Heidi. How cool. I came back to the restaurant expecting to have a quick snack (of my own, I can't afford to buy prepared food all the time), and use the bathroom to brush my teeth. However, there Sheri was, talking to Clutch (a Wiseman native) and Carl (a long islander who drove out in his rigged up dodge caravan). Clutch had some incredibly interesting stories, and Carl told me all about his journey. We got to talking about getting too comfortable with good fortune, and I told him I still have yet to use anything from my repair or emergency kits. He told me he made it 5000 miles in his car with no problems until he got 4 flats and broke his power steering in the course of 5 miles. He had an extensive tool kit, and used damned near all of it to fix his ride. He had two spare full wheels, one spare tire, and a patch kit. He shredded one tire, so he replaced that rubber, then used the spare wheels on two other flats, then had to patch the last one. The affair took him 20 hours and he was up all night. The next day, someone less prepared got a flat and asked him for help. "I haven't slept in a while" he answered "but I'll do the best I can." When Sheri heard about my fever, she ran to grab zinc lozenges and cough drops for me, insisting that it would help and she didn't need them because she was heading home. Carl, as I was saying goodbye, told me if there’s anything I can think of that I would need on the way down to let him know. I told him I'd be good, but he brought me a goodie bag of snacks anyway. SUCH. INCREDIBLE. PEOPLE. The extra weight will suck, but seeing as I ran myself at a caloric deficit for the first 5 days and bonked everyday, an extra few pounds of food is manageable.
Bonking, by the way, is what happens when you don’t fuel yourself enough or properly while cycling. Other sports call it crashing or hitting the wall, but those terms mean completely different, and more literally possible, things to a cyclist.
I'm excited to be able to afford the space and weight and cleanup of peanut butter once I’m off the Dalton. I'll eat that shit by the spoonful. Now I'm off to bed way later than I wanted (midnight) but talking to those people was awesome. I'm in a rush to run away from winter, but I'd like to take enough time to catch the small things and meet communities along the way. If I have to start a few hours later tomorrow, or take another day off from the fever, so be it. Snow and rain in the future, but true travel and adventure for now. Thats the biggest reason why I'm on my bike.
Today I left late again. I slept in because of the fever, but woke up feeling great. The tent was soaked and a ton of bugs were hiding in the fly from the rain. I went to quickly get prepared inside, figuring that having warmth and a bathroom would speed me up. As I walked up to the cafe, I noticed a bag on my bike. It was full of Alka-Seltzer and tea and had Sheri’s business card in it. I really love that woman. She’s something else. Then I got distracted by people. What??? Couldn’t be. They warned me about Mexico. One guy’s friend was murdered in the 90’s because he was captured and his family didn't pay the ransom. Another lady told me about executive buses, which are safe and affordable buses that I can use if I needed. I finally got ready and left, said goodbye to Clutch one last time, and then hit the road. No longer having a fever and having taken a day off worked wonders. I felt like I got my mojo back. The rain kept on missing me. I only got hit by rain twice. Otherwise it cleared in front of me and chased me from behind until the last climb. At mile 20 I saw Carl the road tripper. He stopped and we chatted for a bit. 10 miles later I met Germans who saw a Black Bear and let me use their binoculars to see him. I also saw the state trooper who I didn't recognize through the window so he honked a bunch and briefly put on his lights to say hello.
I’ve been chasing autumn from the North Slope - apparently the leaves change at 7 miles south/day. Today I caught up to that change. The colors are way more green than up north.
Gobbler’s Knob is one of the most famous climbs on the route, and was killer. I thought I’d have to walk a climb for the first time but I ended up getting to the end. Then I had one more big climb at mile 52. At mile 54 I bonked and all I wished for was a downhill. Then I got a crazy 2 mile downhill. Think and the route gives. Sometimes. It led to another uphill but was worth hitting over 30 mph again. There was a huge oversized truck that was going up the hill that I was coming down. It was really sketchy.
There has been gravel at the end of most of the biggest descents. I originally thought that this was to slow down the trucks (it’s terrifying on a bike) but I later learned that it’s actually to protect the permafrost.
When I got to the Arctic Circle sign, I saw a tour guide and tourists feeding the birds. Not cool… don’t feed wildlife guys. It’s not good for them or the people that end up having to deal with them. I was starving, so I had a big dinner of beef stroganoff and miso soup before even building my tent (always build shelter first, it’s your safest bet).
I got my GPS tracker mostly for my parents to track me (this made it a slight bit easier to get their support for this trip). At the start and end of every ride, I message them, and again sometime mid ride just to let them know I'm okay. Tonight though, I forgot to message Mom and Dad. I had an “are you ok?” message from my dad within 30 minutes of stopping. Love you Dad.
I still wasn’t feeling super hot, so I had some meds. I made the tent while getting more and more drowsy from the meds. When I got into the tent, I sat on my water bladder nozzle and soaked the floor. I used some warm weather clothes to dry it up, but it sucked. This ended up being a massive preview of the next day.
Type 1 fun: fun in the moment. You're laughing, smiling, having a great time.
Type 2 fun: the fun that you realize in the future that you had during what seemed to be a miserable present.
This type of trip is bound to have a whole lot of type 2 fun. A pretty good indicator of the amount of type 2 fun you'll have on a trip is the ratio of people who question or worry about your trip to the people who are really excited about your trip. The higher this ratio, the higher the probability of occurrence for type 2 fun. Solid ranges for guaranteed type 1 fun are 0-1.5. My type 2 fun factor for this trip has been pretty high. With my most accurate guess, it has ranged between 5-5.5 in the early days of planning, 2.5-3 as people saw me getting serious, and about a 1-1.5 since I've gotten to the Dalton - where pretty much everything seems to have some aspect of type 2 fun. People up here seem to get stoked about misery. I love it.
Nearly all the sports and activities I do have high type 2 fun factors. Maybe I'm a masochist. I like to say that I just like pushing myself to try to find - and then increase - my limits. I really like challenges.
This trip will definitely have - and already has had - plenty of type 2 fun. However, I don't want to waste time waiting for the future happiness caused by current misery to actualize. That seems like a waste of a trip. So, I've tried to switch my mindset as much as possible so that no matter what goes on around me, I'm happy, enjoying where I am, and having fun. Call it type 1.5 fun if you will. Here are some examples:
Day 1: headwinds? Sweet no flies! Cold? At least I got out here early enough to still do the trip this year instead of waiting until next year.
Day 2: gray skies? At least it's not raining! Raining? At least it's not pouring! Mosquitos at night? At least I have a sweet campsite and it's not frigid or windy!
Day 3: gray? Not raining while I'm riding! Woo-hoo! Scared half to death by a grizzly? That thing was a beautiful sight to see. White out? Freezing cold? Wet? I'm meeting great people who are pulling over for me.
Day 4: headwinds? No bugs! Cold? But look at all these beautiful autumn colors that I get to see. And I can layer up easily to combat it. White out on the pass? Can't ride every mile! Plus these people driving me rock. No better weather on the other side of the Brooks? One step closer to all you can eat!
Day 5: muscle soreness? I'm growing stronger, sweet! Plus I have a short ride today.
Day 6: fever? Forces me to take a break and get to know the people of Coldfoot better. They're really cool.
Day 7: hills? That means DOWNHILLS!
Day 8: NOPE. Today was just a whole different day. No matter where I looked or what mental path I took to try to enjoy the day, I simply couldn't after the first hour of riding.
It started off slow, and only got slower. The beginning offered some gorgeous views. I saw some beautiful lenticular clouds all over while taking a food break at a creek. They'd form quickly and then quickly turn into big grey rain clouds. It was beautiful, but I left to try to run away from the rain. It was hilly, and I had a crazy headwind. Then all of a sudden it started to pour. There were a few incredibly steep hills. On one I was in so much pain but didn't want to get off my bike. I ended up just putting my head down and pushing myself to reach the next reflector, and then the next one, and then the next one. When I finally felt like I really couldn't do it anymore, it got easier. I looked up and realized I was at the top. Breaking things up into sections (especially for distance sports) makes tasks so much easier. You trick your brain into thinking you’re doing less.
I got to Beaver Slide (another famous climb), and couldn't believe the steepness. I was screwed. I ended up have to walk the bike. In the rain. At like a 15% grade. I wasn’t getting anywhere. I'd walk 50 steps, then take a break. And repeat. Until I finished. Then I started cycling again. I was struggling on everything. I really needed to take a break and eat, but because of the crazy hills there was nowhere to pull off and the rain made it awful to stop. Then it started raining really hard. My gear was starting to wet out from the outside. I saw a big hill with a path on it from a distance, and hoped that it was just the route for the pipeline to go underground over the hill, and the road would follow an easier path (it was so damn steep I figured no one would make that the road). The road got windy so I stopped seeing it. Then I took a sharp turn and there it was! I was going to have to climb this. No energy, no food, no shelter. Rain was getting harder and harder. Headwind was getting harder and harder. I was screwed. I ended up having to walk the second half. I took my time, miserably pushing my bike to the top. I started soaking my gear with sweat from the inside out. I was getting wetter, outside was getting colder, and the winds started howling harder. I was freaking cold. The climb was beginning to white out, and I could barely see anything. About 100 meters from the top, I saw a sign, but it was too foggy to read the text. Finally I saw. FINGER MOUNTAIN! THERE'S A PIT TOILET HERE THAT I CAN TAKE SHELTER IN. I NEEDED THIS 5 MILES AGO. AND I WAS WASTING TIME WALKING. WHAT AN IDIOT. I hopped on my bike and shouted through the pain to the top so I would get to shelter sooner.
I pulled into the parking lot and saw a van. It was empty so I went to hide in the toilet. At this point I was shivering - a first sign of hypothermia (most people don't know that, or care, because in civilization you can run somewhere warm and combat it almost instantly. Not on the top of Finger Mountain. I put on a coat and started eating. This was the first time I’ve ever eaten in the bathroom. It was well needed. I then heard voices outside. I ran out and there was a tour bus that was heading north to the Arctic Circle and then returning south to Fairbanks. I asked for a ride to the Yukon camp. The driver, Ken, said yes. They said that getting me on the way back south would be more convenient but then they would need to make sure to remember me. I agreed to that and waited in the pit toilet.
I’d like to ride every mile ideally, but I have to travel every mile safely. My goal is to get to Ushuaia. Alive. My rule: if the weather’s too much of a bitch, just hitch.
After about 1.5 hours I started thinking about sleeping in the toilet. How would I do it? At this point, the storm was so bad the the horizontal rains were coming in under the door and flooding the pit toilet. Unprepared? No. Under prepared? Clearly. I would've survived just fine, but I would have been incredibly uncomfortable. The tour van ended up coming back and taking me down, giving me a bit of food and lots of warmth. When I got to camp, I met a guy named Jeffery. I asked him if he knew of a good camp site to go to, and he told me he gave the one I knew of to paddlers. BUT, he had room in a canvas tent with a wood burning stove and an extra mattress for me. I’d take that happily over camping in the rain. He then came back while I was eating and said he had something better. He told me he was just cleaning a room in the inn, and that I could take it once it was clean. I made a money gesture to him with my hands, letting him know I couldn’t afford it. He told me no worries, it’s all on him. I thanked him profusely and told him to not even worry about cleaning the room at that point. He gave me access to the showers and the washing machines. He then brought me a piece of pie and a hottie toddie, and we then spent most of the night hanging out and having great conversations. We talked about religion, politics, hunting, travel, books, and easily lost track of time. After a while we realized it was 1:40am, and he had to wake up at 5am for his shift. I felt bad for keeping him up, but he was happy to have gotten to talk and spend time together. I agreed.
Despite going to sleep late, today I managed to wake up early because I wasn’t freezing and wet and didn’t feel the need or desire to go back to sleep. I went to meet Jeffrey in the dining area, and he was working in the kitchen. He made me a delicious veggie omelet, and then I hung around for a little longer. I took my time calling people using wifi, relaxing, and talking to Jeffrey whenever he got free time.
As I was sitting, someone walked in and said “wow, it’s such a shame that this wind and sunshine’s going to dry up the road.” Someone else responded to him, “wait what’s the sun?? Is that the yellow thing in the sky right now?” This interaction perfectly summed up my experience in Northern Alaska. Sunshine felt foreign. Dry roads were forgotten. Spending the morning in, I hoped, would dry out the incredibly muddy road.
I hung out longer, and at one point someone shouted “Jeffery! Someone just drove off with the gas nozzle still in their car and did a lot of damage!” I’ve never seen someone run as fast out the door as Jeffery did to check on the gas tank. In that moment, I was convinced that he was an Olympic runner. He came back in level headed and calm, telling the guy it was no worries and that everyone makes mistakes. His ability to stay calm, compassionate, and understanding in the midst of such a massive mess up - there’s only one pump at the Yukon River Crossing, and it’s the only one between Fairbanks and Coldfoot, so breaking it has the potential to screw over a lot of people - was truly inspiring.
Right after the nozzle was broken, a big group of motorcycles came through needing gas. They huffed and puffed, complained, tried to get around the problem, and then decided that they’d angrily stay. It wasn’t a fun energy to add to the relaxing morning. My recommendation to them? Take the motor out, put some pedals on, and ride the bike how it’s meant to be ridden. Maybe it will also teach you how to roll with the punches and accept issues out of your control more too.
Jeffery didn’t get off of his shift until about 2:30 or 3, so he asked me to stay a bit longer. An extra day on the road for some extra time hanging out with this saint? That’s an easy yes for me.
When he got off of work, we exchanged some parting gifts, and then he took me to the river to show me a raft. Each year, a dad and son duo build a raft by hand out of logs, and live on the raft as they travel down the Yukon, hunting and fishing for food as they go. It’s a long time tradition, and there’s now a show about them on Nat Geo called Yukon River Run. Jeffery gave me a tour of the boat, told me stories, and then when we got back we said our goodbyes. It was a hard goodbye, but I had to keep moving and he had to sleep and then work again that night.
If you couldn’t tell from the stories about him, Jeffery is an absolutely incredible person. He’s down to earth, compassionate, caring, generous, level headed, wise, easy to talk to, and just all around fun. If you ever get the chance to get up to the Yukon River Camp, find that man, and give him a giant hug. He deserves it. And you do too.
I ended up leaving the camp at 3:30pm. Every few miles, a rainbow appeared in the clouds. I was convinced Jeffery was putting them there. The road out was a decently hilly stretch, but I made it about 30 miles in before the sun started setting. I was looking for a pullout to camp at when I found I small road. I turned onto it looking for tenting options, and there didn’t seem to be enough room to fit a tent next to the clearly active road (there were fresh tire marks in the mud). I hadn’t seen any other roads on the Dalton except for pipeline roads and roads to pump/research stations. This didn’t seem to be either, so I decided to investigate. About a quarter mile in I saw an awesome campsite to the right, but the road continued further, so I followed it.
The road ended at a big pond. The pond was quiet, serene, and full of wildlife. I saw little creatures swimming around and stayed longer to find out what they were. As they got closer, I realized they were beavers. They were going from one side of the pond where their dam was, to the other side to pick up branches. There was one group that I watched for a long time. A mom was swimming around with her two babies, probably trying to teach them the ways of life up in Alaska. One was right next to the mom, but the other just kept on falling behind. I watched him for a while. He was really curious, and kept on looking around and diving under the water. When he saw me, he started swimming in circles, and then he would turn to watch me. This went on for about 5 minutes. I think he was trying to entertain or impress me. I really liked him because he reminded me of myself. He was free, curious, adventurous, did what he wanted, and enjoyed the relatively dull moment.
After my date with the beavers, I went back to the campsite, checked for bears, cooked, and then passed out instantly because my food has been making me sick.
I think my body isn't processing water properly. I drink a lot, wake up to pee 3 or 4 times at night, pee maybe 20 times a day, but still get really dry mouth and really yellow pee. My food also isn’t sitting well. I can’t really stomach any of the meals I have anymore, and I’m low on snacks. I think Mountain House for a week destroys your digestive system.
All morning there were bugs buzzing around my tent. They got me out of bed pretty quickly.
As I was breaking down camp, a guy wearing a hood started walking eerily towards me holding a giant machete. As he got closer to my site, I got more concerned, but he ended up announcing himself as Demir from Atlanta, and ended up being really friendly. He was super interested in my setup, but I ended up having to say goodbye so I could finish breakfast and get on the road. I had a hilly day ahead of me, and wanted to get to Fairbanks ASAP.
The ride started off beautifully. The road was really muddy, but the views were fantastic. There were a lot of climbs, but the grades started becoming more and more normal as I got closer to Fairbanks.
On one of my longer climbs, I saw figures coming down the street. My first thought was wolves, but then I realized wolves would stay as far away from the road and people as possible. Then I thought dogs, but who the hell would let their dogs off their leashes on the Dalton??? I shouted, but they kept on coming. “They’re not wolves,” I thought, “wolves would run away.” Maybe they’re wolverines? They got closer and closer. Nope. Wolves. Fuck. I started shouting and blowing my whistle as loudly as I could. They kept coming at me.
I’m not afraid of wolves. But I’m damn terrified of wolves that aren’t afraid of cars or people. Walking down the hill was a big gray wolf with her two black pups. They came within about 50 feet of me, and then stopped and watched me. I held my ground, but I pulled out my bear spray and cocked my knife. If they came after me, I’d have a downhill at my back to escape on, but if I really need to fight back, I wanted to be ready. I figured I’d stay put facing them until a car came, and then I’d hitch over the hill. No car came. About 10 minutes into the face off, the mother pulled into the woods. She thought I didn’t know she was there, but her pups kept playing near the road, so I knew she had to be nearby. I pulled up to the right side of the road and looked down in the woods. There I saw her. Crouched in the thick grass. Watching. Stalking. Waiting for me to make one wrong move so she could have dinner for her pups. I kept yelling and whistling and growling. Finally, the mother left her hiding spot and they went over the road and into the woods to the left. These were even more dense. And there were still no cars. I maintained my position, making noise the whole time. Finally, two cars started descending the hill so I decided to start climbing again. If the wolves came after me, I thought, I could turn around, race downhill, and the cars would be there to help me by the time I needed. I passed the section of woods that they were hiding in as the first car passed. Success. I was shoulder checking every 5 seconds. Then, the wolves came onto the road again, but the second car was coming by with perfect timing. The driver ended up stopping (I’m guessing to take pictures since she had the protection of her car) and distracting the wolves, so I was able to finish the climb safely. I raced down the other side of that hill.
After escaping, I bonked. I think the adrenaline wore off and all my energy left with it. I pulled over on the top of the climb I was on to eat lunch. I then left, and realized that I was only 2 miles away from the Dalton Highway sign, which was my original goal for lunch.
There ended up being three completely different parties going Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. What are the chances?? I was going by bike, there was a retired man going by van turned camper, and there were two Australian guys who were driving a completely solar powered van. They predicted they’d be doing about 10-100 miles a day. That’s my pace. I’m hoping to see them again soon.
I left after chilling for way too long (like an hour). It was cold but I got to the Elliott quickly and it was paved and I was happy. I was again just behind a massive rain cloud. I took a few breaks, but then it got later than I wanted to be out and I hadn't hit my camp spot. I almost camped in a parking lot because I thought I was 5 miles out but I decided to have more food for more energy and race over to the spot I wanted. It ended up being about a 10 min ride to the site, because it was mostly downhill.
The place used to be a family from Minnesota’s home. They tried moving from Minnesota to Homer, but had trouble on their drive up and didn’t have a way to contact the guy selling the property in Homer, so when they didn’t show up on time, he ended up selling to someone else. They were here from 1983-2016. The dad had originally opened a tire shop on the side of the road for people who came to drive the Dalton with bad tires, or were coming back and needed replacements. When asked what the best tires up here were, his answer used to be “30 damn miles per hour, those are the best tires.” To interact with all the traffic coming through, the kids ended up opening a lemonade stand. The dad saw their success, and thought he could do better, so he started a General Store. The old general store is now owned by a tour company, but I knew it was there and wanted some extra shelter.
When I got there, I starting setting up my tent on the patio. Then I heard music. I checked my phone, my speakers, and my bag. I couldn’t find the source. Then I went to the door. The music was coming from inside. I did a loop around the building to see if anyone was there. All the doors were locked, and all the lights were off. I yelled hello a few times. No one responded. It has been quite a creepy day.
After scouting for a while, I decided someone must have left a radio on inside, but it was incredibly annoying so I moved my tent to a wet patch of grass. An Aurora viewing tour ended up coming at night and hanging out on the porch, so I’m glad I decided to move when I did.
Dinner again made me sick. I don’t know if it’s my stomach or the food. But I passed out quickly.
In the morning it was raining, so I took my time getting out of bed. The replica bus from Into the Wild is on this property, so I went to see it. As I was pulling out, I met some people from a tour bus rolling through. I mentioned my stomach issues and so they gave me carrots and some snack bars. When I finally got on the road, I had a really tough time. I felt really, really sick. Finally, after lots of climbing, I got to Wickersham Dome, which is the first place south of Deadhorse that you can get cell phone service. It cuts out again for another 5 miles, and then is back until Fairbanks. I called my Dad to discuss my stomach and hydration issues, and he recommended I just hitchhike back to Fairbanks for a rest day. I had spent at least 2 hours climbing, and felt like I deserved the downhill, so I told him I’d get to the bottom and see how I was feeling.
I hung up and started descending, when 1500 feet from the summit I hit a super small crack in the road, heard a big pop, and looked down and my right pannier had fallen off. I slammed on my brakes. This was all of my water purification and cooking gear. I was screwed without it. I hopped off my bike and walked along the road. It was nowhere. I pushed through the tall grass. It was nowhere. I bush crashed through the small, densely packed bushes and trees. It was nowhere. I pushed through the bigger trees and walked up and down and up and down the hill, pushing through vines, weeds, bushes, and shrubs. It was nowhere. Up and down. Left and right. Around. Over. Under. In between. On top of. Through. Over. And Over. And over again. I started screaming at the trees, screaming at the road, questioning how the hell could this possibly happen. I looked at my watch. I had been searching for an hour and a half.
I went back to the road and realized I still had service. I called my Mom and absolutely lost my mind. Not only was it really expensive, but it was absolutely crucial gear. My Mom calmed me down, as she always does. We discussed options, and then once I was calm again, I said goodbye and searched again.
After 2.5 hours total of searching, I decided it was a lost cause, descended the mountain, pulled over in a parking lot, and tried to hitch. I decided I wasn’t making it back to Fairbanks tonight, and I wouldn’t be able to cook or have enough water anymore to stay out another night. I didn’t see a car for about 15 minutes, and then two came by. The first one didn’t even stop. The second one pulled over and asked how he could help. I explained my situation, and though he wasn’t supposed to take hitchhikers in his car, he wanted to help. I tossed my bike in the bed of the truck.
His name was Rocky, and saying he rocked would be an understatement. He was a major traveller, a beautiful artist, and an all around incredible guy. He drove me to REI, and we talked the whole way, plus some once we got to the store. He gave me his number and told me to call if I needed anything, or if housing ended up falling through, and then we parted ways. I went into REI to figure out what I had to do, and then when I got home to my Couchsurf, I had a message waiting for me from Rocky telling me if I wanted some home cooked food or a place to sleep, I should reach out. He really meant it. I told him I had all my stuff where I was, but would be honored to eat with them. The following night, he and his wife picked me up and hosted me with their family for a really nice dinner. Rocky’s family was incredible. Every kid was incredible, mature, nice, thoughtful, and really interesting. Rocky showed me his art (WOW), his family told stories, and we talked for hours and hours. Finally, at about 10:45pm, Rocky took me back to my Couchsurf. The next day I spent figuring out my gear, and then the next day I was gone from Fairbanks. What an experience that section was.
If you’ve ever considered coming up to ride or drive the Dalton, do it. If you haven’t considered it, you should look into it. EVERYTHING about the Dalton is difficult. But EVERYTHING about the Dalton is absolutely beautiful. And all the beauty is earned just by putting the effort in to get there, whether by car or bike. Northern Alaska is unforgiving, but you won’t regret coming up here.