Riding out of the Brooks Range into blue skies, dry roads and lush, green forests.
My first 9 days on the road can be characterized by one word: HARD! I tend to relish the occasional challenge, and was welcoming of those I anticipated encountering on the Haul Road, but ran headfirst into a host of other unforeseen hurdles. Compounded by one hell of a knee injury (suffered on Day 2 from an ever-so-slightly higher saddle height–I think) I can safely say the 9 days from Deadhorse to Fairbanks were the hardest of my life.
After 3 full days of rest, recuperation and an eating binge of A.T.-sized proportions, my spirits are on the up and up and I’m excited to skip town for Denali National Park and the Alaska Range beyond.
With promises of smoother sailing as the Brooks Range faded behind me, I was quickly reminded that a lack of tall peaks doesn't always equate to easy riding; think Vermont-sized "hills," with the grades to boot, on rough dirt roads. This lovely stretch of fresh blacktop just north of Coldfoot gave brief relief to my now nauseatingly painful knee. A steady diet of Vitamin I was soon to follow.
With mud-clogged brakes and a gritty drive train it was time for some maintenance as I rolled into Marion Creek Campground. My motivation for spending any amount of time off of a moving bicycle or out of an enclosed tent was quickly zapped as I was introduced to the interior's mosquitoes.
Typical view at either end of the tent, all throughout the night. Just a few of the billions...
To celebrate the passing of Horace Mountain the previous day--thanks Horace! (There's a photo of the mountain somewhere, shrouded in clouds) Eating proved to be the most difficult challenge when it came to the mozzies; for fear of spilling food in the tent and attracting bears I was forced to don the mosquito net and start walking. I'd scoop a bite of food, pause long enough to eat and leave the cloud of bugs floating just behind.
Impromptu burger and fries in Coldfoot, merely 5 miles after downing the bacon and eggs with oats breakfast-of-champions.
Pumping crude oil 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay south to Valdez, the Alyeska Pipeline is always within site on the Dalton Highway. Zigzagging across the landscape to allow flexibility for expansion and contraction with temperatures swinging from 80* to -80*F, the line is mostly elevated to prevent the hot oil from melting the permafrost.
Clearly it wasn't all pain and suffering. I caught back up with the Swiss crew a couple nights later along the North Fork of Bonanza Creek.
We celebrated Xavier's birthday in style, his last one with a '5' in the front. The bug canopy made for a more pleasant, stationary meal.
The beginning of a brutal day on the road. I'd be seeing my first sunset later that night.
Carved into the landscape in just 154 days, the Dalton has no regard for gently graded climbs. Most longer climbs checked in around 8-9% while the shorter ones, like the Roller Coaster--Alaska's steepest grade at 14%--take the form of a straight line. It's a wonder dirt sticks to the hillside on some of them.
King of the Road. Trucks own the right of way on the Haul Road. With the exception of one buzzing (my fault for not hearing it approach from behind), the truckers were quite respectful, often slowing down to lighten the dusting and always passing wide to the left. My Ibuprofen stash was also restocked by a female trucker--in her 20s--at the Hot Spot Cafe.
Snacks from a passing team of researchers. With the exception of the Swiss couples, I saw 1 other rider over 500 miles--and he was asleep in his tent...
Mostly it was me and the wildlife. Thousands of Monarch butterflies, 3 grizzlies (2 of which were feeding on a caribou carcass directly downwind from my first planned campsite), moose, foxes, caribou, Dall sheep, Trumpeter Swans, geese, ravens, marmots and one large, unsuspecting wolf that ran across the road 50 yards ahead of me.
End of the road. A left on Route 2 and 80 miles to Fairbanks.
A common scene in the summer, forest fires dot the Alaska interior's horizon. In 2004, fires scorched an area of land equal in size to the state of Massachusetts.
Motivation for a 90-mile push on my final day. Beer, green salad, burger, fries and a massive pants-tightening piece of bread pudding!
A night in an eclectic neighborhood in Goldstream with Emily and the dogs, a solstice cookout with friends Jennifer and Pete from the Dalton Highway, a couple nights at Billie's Backpacker Hostel, lots of coffee, vegetables and Ben & Jerry's and I'm ready to hit the road again.
With months of “planning,” fiddling with gear and futile attempts of wrapping my mind around this bicycle ride, I invariably came into the final days of prep with errands un-run, gear scattered about, transportation unplanned. Procrastination perhaps a way of pushing back a mounting anxiety.
Travel to Alaska from anywhere in the lower 48, however, provides plenty of time for reflection. After two full days of rental cars, taxis, vans and planes I landed in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, nerves frayed, exhausted but optimistically excited by the unknown. Such is travel.
It didn’t take long for two days of thoughtful anticipation to be swept away as an icy 15-degree wind snapped me into my new reality when I stepped off the plane. With a bike to build and gear to organize before the terminal closed for the night, the trip was under way.
Prudhoe Bay lies roughly 500 miles north of Fairbanks, AK accessible by the mostly unpaved Dalton Highway (a.k.a. The North Slope Haul Road). Built in 1974 after black gold was struck on the North Slope, the road functions as a supply line to both the oil fields on the Arctic Ocean and the Alyeska Pipeline which it parallels for the 414 miles from it’s northern terminus in Deadhorse (the “commercial” area of Prudhoe Bay) south to the junction with Route 2.
As the northern most road in North America, the Dalton Highway also boasts the longest stretch of road without services. I was starting with 10 days of food and on a fairly fixed schedule of 50 miles a day, completely self-supported until reaching Fairbanks.
The post-flight purge. Thankfully everything made it intact (well, mostly everything; my front disc brake rotor was bent out of true on the flight and took some icy-fingered finagling to get it up and running).
Oil production rules supreme here, architecture and ambiance be damned. Deadhorse is all aluminum, heavy machinery, 4wd trucks, dirt and dust.
My bear-proof, snugly sandwiched home for the first night. The Slope being exceptionally flat and just miles from the ocean, a relentless Arctic wind pounds the landscape from Deadhorse to the Brooks Range 100 miles inland.
A fitting first night. Seems the start of most of my long journeys feature the obligatory overnight dusting. Ambient temperature hovered around 20 degrees while I was in town.
No turning back here.
Morning snow gave way to windswept blue skies and my first taste of the dusty tailwind that helped push my load up the gentle slope towards the Brooks. The North Slope landscape is dominated by tundra, a treeless pancake-flat patchwork of streams and pools forming a quilt-like boggy layer above the permafrost. (A lack of photos is a testament to the Slope's flatness--and my entranced staring w/o camera from my window seat on the plane)
After a couple days of clear skies and warm sun, the clouds gathered at the base of the mountains and dumped another overnight snow. Morning 3 at Galbraith Lake campground was motivation enough to send me over Atigun Pass in anticipation of warmer interior temps.
Marking the Continental Divide between Arctic and Pacific Oceans, Atigun Pass sits at over 4,700 feet and presents one of more serious challenges to truckers and cyclists alike (all you Ice Road Trucker fans know what I'm talking about). This was my clearest view from the north side and I've been told on more than one occasion that I missed some spectacular scenery as the snow continued to fall.
Still climbing. Still snowing. The north side of the pass was all snow, slush and mud. At over 8% grade the additional challenge of grinding through the muck kept my speed well below 3mph and the tiny gearing on my Rohloff hub was just enough to keep me from walking.
After a screaming, muddy, disc brake pad-wearing descent to the south the skies parted and I was treated to my first panoramic mountainous views.
The mud was phenomenal! And with each additional descent the snow quickly faded to lush green forest.
Taking stock of the mud and worn disc pads at Farthest North Spruce Wayside, literally the first tree of the trip. After sipping hot tea offered by some friendly Swiss, I waded through the inches of mud on the road to stretch my legs and noticed a few sets of "dog" prints, without the accompanying owner's prints. Who would let their dog wander off leash with semis whizzing by at 60mph? Not until I saw the freshest of prints (merely minutes old?) did I realize what I was looking at. The thing was the size of my face, trailing off into the woods just feet from my bike. Pardon me for not snapping any photographic evidence...
With a pack of starving wolves on my tail (don't laugh, you'd be paranoid, too) I wasted no time catching the Swiss couple riding up the road. Barbara and Edi Brand were traveling with lifelong friends Doris and Xavier Fust, each with a truck and camper, two riding, two leap-frogging with the trucks, as they make their way south to San Diego this summer and fall--retirement done right! They were kind enough to share a camp along the banks of Nutlrwik Creek and invite me in for dinner, replete with wine and my childhood favorite, Chips Ahoy!
Aside from being as friendly and welcoming as can be, these Swiss know how to tour! No day is done without a whiskey nightcap. Proscht, to the North Slope, Atigun Pass and new friends!
Wise words, for travelers and non-travelers alike
Minus food, a pair of walking/hiking shoes, sleeping bag, a few odds and ends, the gear carrying bags, and, obviously, the bike itself, this is roughly everything that will board the plane with me Wednesday afternoon.
Armed with a scale accurate to 5 grams, I’ve done my best to pick apart this list and narrow it down to what, in my mind, constitutes the essentials. A few things may be redundant, unnecessary even. So as the miles add up and my legs begin to tire it’ll be back to the drawing board–in an effort to travel as richly as possible.
From left to right, top to bottom:
Waterproof ditty sacks (3), 18-liter daypack, rain jacket, rain pants, bike shorts, nylon hiking pants, board shorts, underwear, wool tights, lightweight wool socks, puffy jacket, hooded fleece, arm warmers, short-sleeve tech shirt
Netbook w/ 2 external hard drives & cords, electronics stuff sack, iPod & earbuds, headlamp, SPOT Tracker, tail & head lights, watch, cell phone, camera bag, Cliffshots & electrolyte tablets, heavy wool socks, Buff, knit hat, fingered gloves, riding gloves, sunglasses, helmet, riding hat
Mtb shoes, flips, bike lock, shoe covers, nylon string, compass, first aid kit, zippered stuff sack, Steripen water purifier, contacts w/ case and solution, eyeglasses, Chamois Butter, bug hat, sunscreen, Climb On, toiletry kit, bandana, pack towel, maps, 6-liter hydration bladder, water bottle, 2.5-liter CamelBak, 2.5-liter Platypus
Tent, ground pad & ground cover, pump, tire gauge, spare tires (2), tire levers, patch kit, electrical tape, spare spokes (3) & nipples, chain tool, spoke tool, spare brake pads, chain lube, sewing kit, spare brake & shifter cables, spare parts/tool kit bag (w/ bolts, wrenches, etc.), zip ties, Leatherman w/ bit kit & driver, shop rag, hose clamps (2), book (James Y El Melocoton Gigante), pen & pad, wallet, cook pot and cozy, stove
After a hectic final few days of work and a steamy move from the house lasting a day longer than scheduled, I was able to skip town for an overnight shakedown.
Leaving behind the quiet, wooded neighborhood I’ve called home since December, I found my way to the American Tobacco Trail and headed south to Holly Springs for the night. A sticky night of stealth camping and I was ready for a full day in the saddle. Even riding with a slimmed down “bikepacking” version of my full setup, the 80 miles to my four-wheeled rendezvous was enough to give my legs a sense of loaded riding. I also had plenty of time to play with a few new toys.
The highlight of the first afternoon was the American Tobacco Trail. With nearly 10 paved miles, the northern section connects the urban reaches of southern Durham County with downtown Durham. Split by shopping malls and interstate highways, the southern section sees much less traffic but is every bit as charming.
The majority of the 15 miles south of I-40 follow old rail line through beautiful, shaded forest. A mix of dirt, crushed gravel and the occasional paved stretch cut through rural Durham, Chatham and Wake counties, ending just outside of Holly Springs.
In addition to tempering the 97-degree heat radiating off the blacktop, the Tobacco trail's wooded path made for quite the wildlife viewing. Copperheads, black snakes, deer, rabbits, owls, hawks and the most massive box turtle I've seen--easily as big as my 26" wheel!
The Luna Moth goes well with the new "Agent Orange" Surly Troll
The Troll was great, on road and off! With an updated Porcelain Rocket framebag, stuffed with tools and the ever-necessary CamelBak, getting comfortable with the load was a breeze. I'll be adding rear panniers and a set of Salsa Everything cages when I land above the Arctic Circle next week.
Mornings offer a narrow window for cool riding in eastern North Carolina this time of year and I was drenched and craving the next Gatorade by 9am. The open country roads funneled a nice breeze and I was happy to be on the bike for some self-made A/C. A surprise to me, my route took me off road for a few miles through tobacco and turkey farms. The Sandhills lived up to the name, though, and had me off the bike and walking.
Post-ride cramp proofing.
I have a few days at the folks’ house on the coast, relaxing, finalizing trip plans, saying goodbyes. This time next week I’ll be heading south from the northernmost road in North America.