Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Been There, Done That, Never Again - By Larry

Kevin and I have just returned to our host’s home in North Pole, Alaska from our epic journey to the Arctic Circle, Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean. It took us two days to get there from here, stopping halfway, both up and back at Coldfoot, Alaska. We had gorgeous weather on the way up, and completely opposite on the first day of the return trip. All the predictions of doom and gloom about the road itself did not materialize, but we did have some “complications” with both motorcycles.

Where to start? To refresh my own memory I just went online and re-read the last posting, so I will take it from the North Pole and go north from there. It was quite exciting, starting up a road that has had an aura and mystique built up around it. We had been told (by many experts who had never been on this road before) everything from ‘we would have to have 22 ply tires’ to ‘we would be eaten by grizzly bears.’ Thankfully, none of that came true, but caution is the norm for all travelers who make this journey as bad decisions this far north could be a life changing experience.

This road is partially paved, I would guess about 40% of it. The rest is some kind of dirt. To be honest, where the dirt is hard packed it is a much better surface than many asphalt roads I could name in the lower 48 states. The state maintains this road (Alaska Highway 11) year round and is constantly working on it, even to the point of long hours for these workers, 7 days a week. I suppose if the road job is 200 miles away from their homes the state must have work camps along the way to eliminate any commuting hassles.

Anyway, back to my tale. The speed limit on the Dalton Highway is 50 miles per hour. For the most part we moseyed along at 40 to 45, just enjoying the beautiful scenery along the way. Boreal forests, rushing rivers, grand vistas, vibrant plants in bloom all to see, and then here comes a giant truck raising a veritable storm of dust behind it making visibility and safe driving impossible. What we did was just slow down, try to remember what the road looked like just before the truck came even with us so we could make an intelligent guess of where we were driving and go for it. I even held my breath so I would not have to breathe in so much dirt. Question: Would this dust still be “terra firma”, or “terra dusta”? Any answer you may come up with will do, no wrong ones here.

It is 400+ miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, at Prudhoe Bay. I don’t want anyone to think it was all dust, but it was a constant condition over much of it. We did not encounter any rain going northward, but the state workers are issued toys called road graders, and they seem to be more enjoyable to play with if LOTS of water is applied to the road just before digging it up with the giant graders. Not only is this a recipe for MUD, but now the road surface is also dug up to mix in the water making it quite soft and pliable. “Apply-able” is also a word I will use, as this concrete goop got applied much to every surface of the motorcycles as well to some of ourselves. I think they got a new recipe for making adobe bricks here, just use Dalton Highway mud!

Coming back south was a completely different experience. It was warm and clear on the way up, but it was 38 degrees and had been raining for 24 hours already when we started south. Winds were blowing from every direction of the compass at an average of 25 miles per hour. Sweet! This area is call the Northern Slope as for over 100 miles south from the Arctic Ocean and there is very little to stop the wind, and it didn’t (stop, that is). Travel by motorcycle is exciting, but we decided to heighten our enjoyment a little by have some mechanical difficulties along the way. Kevin’s bike must have gotten some water or mud where it did not belong and kept stalling and using gas at Hummer levels, so much so that after 150 miles or so he had to stop and beg 6 more gallons of gas from some caribou hunters just to complete the days’ ride to Coldfoot, AK. We think it must have been water related since once we had traveled over the infamous Atigun Pass, his bike seemed to perk up. The weather cleared up to blue skies south of the mountains and we had no further trouble with it after that point.

My problem came at a section of the road near Happy Valley (don’t look, it’s not on the map) where we had to stop at a road construction site. The man with the stop sign directed us to the side of the “road” where I promptly fell over, bike and all. This must have knocked a safety switch to the no-no position, since once we were cleared to go, my bike wouldn’t. It took me a little while to diagnose what had happened, but with the aid of the multitool my grandson, Jacob, had given me for Christmas I was able to do a patch job and get going again. Many prayers were pleaded, and answered on that day. Thank You, God!

One more note about Atigun Pass. This has to be one of the most enjoyable pieces of road to a motorcyclist. I could spend a week camped here and just continuously ride up one side and down the other. Not only is the road curvy and good surfaced, but, the scenery in both directions (even up to the tops of the rugged mountains) is nothing short of spectacular. What you see on the TV about all the trucks with their problems may be true, but I found beauty and enjoyment here.

OK, that is all I will say about the Dalton Highway…now on to Prudhoe Bay.

The first thing, and certainly the most favorable thing that happened was that we stopped to get gassed up - the bikes that is, not us since no alcohol of any kind is allowed at Prudhoe Bay. When we were in the gas station office paying, there were some people standing around just talking and “shooting the bull” as workers always do. Kevin asked if there was anywhere we could pitch a tent, hoping to avoid a $200 per night hotel stay . One of the office fellows offered us a slice of graveled area near one of his buildings and assured us that we need only mention their names if we were questioned. This building turned out to be an aircraft hangar where this man and his company were hosting a fun-run and cookout for the workers that night. We continued talking, joking, etc. and, as things always seem to happen on this trip, our accommodations got moved from NEXT to the hangar to INSIDE it if we could wait until 9pm once the party was over. By this time the rain and wind had started in earnest and a decision had to be made. Who are we to say no? NOT US!!!

A short time later before scoffing at the $22 dinner buffet, we run into the men again. “Come on over early and join us for the cookout!” As it turns out, we had been talking with two of the “headsheds” of Carlile Trucking who were hosting the party. And just to sweeten the pot, this is the same company that the TV reality show “Ice Road Truckers” uses for their popular show – and the stars of the show were there signing t-shirts and posing for photos.

So not only did we not sleep in a rain soaked environment, but curled up in a heated hangar big enough to hold corporate jets, and got to hob-knob with all kinds of personalities and just nice people whether they were featured on TV or not. When this ride is over and done with we will not remember the lousy ride in the snow and rain as much as the good people and the greater time we enjoyed with them at Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay. A special and mighty big “THANK YOU” goes to Tom Hendrix and Jeff Allen, who by showing us their kindness, changed our visit to Prudhoe Bay from a dull, soggy and miserable trip to a pleasant and very memorable one.

The last thing we did before departing the area was to take a guided tour of the area, with all intentions of going swimming in the Arctic Ocean itself. Yeah, riiiigghhhttt!! We did the tour, but when it came to swimming, if going in to at least the ankles is good enough, then we did go “swimming”. Let’s just say that 30 something degree water and a 25 mile per hour wind blowing straight from the north pole was enough for us to change what the dictionary says swimming really is. There was one Canadian man on the tour that did take the complete plunge, however. Brrrrrrrrrr!!

I’ll add one last note about Prudhoe Bay. I have started describing it to others as a gigantic helium balloon with a very long string. Lots of activity at the top, yet the string is the Dalton Highway (the Haul Road) where you find very little except God’s beauty. But even a plain string can be beautiful.

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