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Alaska

Up on the Slope: Getting Underway

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!

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Discussion

8 thoughts on “Up on the Slope: Getting Underway

  1. Greg –

    I’m really enjoying your pictures and commentary. I can feel your joy and your pain! ! What a thrill that you are experiencing on your journey. Be careful and enjoy your ride!

    Judi Costa
    (Your mom’s “Rails to Trails” buddy!)

    Posted by Judi Costa | June 21, 2011, 8:53 pm
  2. Great to read your of your travels and experiences, hopefully the weather will improve as you continue south, best of luck and continued safe travels.

    Posted by Bob Newsham | June 21, 2011, 8:59 pm
  3. Glad to hear from you – we were starting to wonder where you were! Bill-man is super impressed (he’s afraid of wolves too, and having his own battle with the local skunk) and we are too. Your writing is amazing and your get-after-it sense of adventure is inspiring. Sending you much love and tailwinds. Z & L

    Posted by Leighton & Zpora | June 21, 2011, 9:58 pm
  4. Proscht indeed! That mud looks ridiculous! I’m so proud of you. I also have to say I’m really impressed with your writing here. You’ve painted a wonderful and terrible picture for us. Please steer clear of hungry wolves (and skunks for that matter. Oh, Bill…) in the future!

    Posted by Erin | June 22, 2011, 8:22 am
  5. Fantastic! Maybe not the mud but the scenery and the effort! Happy to see all is going quite well. Really would like to see a wolf or bear photo but one that you zoom in on from a long distance! šŸ™‚

    Posted by Chris Wagoner | June 22, 2011, 9:02 am
  6. That first night’s campsite is the the shittiest campsite I’ve ever seen. Can’t imagine you got much sleep there.

    Posted by Matt Moody | June 22, 2011, 4:48 pm

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