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The Two Faced Dalton Highway

IMG_2037Considered one of the most isolated roads in the USA due to its extremely limited services and the lack of real towns, the Dalton Highway is one of the holy grail roads for adventure riders in North America. I have to admit that it was not at all what I expected – the sordid tales of extreme road covered in fist size rocks, foot deep mud, extreme drops, and horrid corrugation were all true… but only in very small sections of the road. I expected 414 miles of some of the worst road on earth and instead encountered maybe a grand total of 20 miles of not-great road in total – and at least a hundred miles in total of some of the most pristine tarmac I’ve ever seen.

IMG_2156As such, I went into the Dalton expecting an extreme riding experience and a severe challenge of my skills and discipline – and on the way up, I got it, but only due to the weather. It was absolutely horrible, with temperatures hovering just barely above freezing, rain and mist a constant companion, and fog massively reducing visibility. When riding on a gravel or muddy road on a bike, visibility is critical – picking the smoothest line through the debris or the hardest looking earth is what allows you to avoid destruction. I rode onward, resting my mind on the paved sections, destroying myself on the rest.

IMG_2261It’s the mud that’s the worst, you see.  When you have a rear wheel pushing a front wheel, traction loss in mud or gravel allows you to experience uncomfortable Newtonian reality as the rear wheel slides out of line constantly trying to become the front wheel.  This effect is aggravated by the very small scooter wheels, which result in massive bump steer and a much smaller gyro effect to keep the scooter stable. A light touch and constant vigilance is required to keep Red on track, in spite of all my skill and experience there were many times when I rode slightly sideways, cocked at a twenty degree angle just slowly modulating the throttle to allow the rear to slide back into line, without losing momentum and forward motion in the mud and getting stuck.  Exhilarating misery.

IMG_2167As I crossed into the Arctic Tundra, I found a new problem – where would I stop? What looks like fields of flowers and grass is actually a bog, with water soaked soil only a few inches deep resting directly on the permafrost. The only option would be to stop at one of the gravel pullouts used to check the pipeline, but in the tundra these were all occupied by the many hunters who flock to this area to hunt caribou (with bows!).  After many more hours in the mist, mud, and misery I finally found a pullout that wasn’t very ideal for a permanent camp due to its extreme angle and set up my tent for a few hours of warmth and rest.

IMG_2273The next morning was slightly better, and within a few miles I encountered one of the final sections of tarmac – a relaxed, breezy ride for awhile before the final push on to Deadhorse. The end of the Dalton Highway was mostly packed dirt and the rain had stopped, providing me fair conditions to arrive in this little camp on the top of the world. Perhaps the strangest bit was being able to see the buildings of the town in the distance from nearly thirty miles away! I thought the distance was wrong but as I rode on and on and on I realized it was just the chilling effect of the empty flat tundra plain the camp is built on.

When I arrived in Deadhorse, I picked one of the two hotels at random and purchased the most expensive room of my journey – for $190 I would have a warm shower and a few hours of precious warmth to prepare myself for the grueling ride back down. I was able to sneak onto the Arctic Ocean tour without the normal 24 hour security check, though I admit I was a bit bummed that everyone I asked made it clear there was a zero chance of getting Red inside the private compound.  I was still unwinding from the trip up when I got to the Arctic Ocean and only had a quick dip – it was simply too cold, muddy, and shallow to do anything else. Alas.

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IMG_2323The next morning, I woke up to find something quite unexpected – a great ball of fire and a huge blue expanse spread out above me. My spirits soaring, I jumped on Red and tore down the Dalton Highway.  In the warm sun, the road had baked nicely and with the temperatures in the upper 40’s all was well with me.  By the time I got down to the Brooks Range where the sun was blotted out again by clouds I had crossed the Arctic Tundra in nearly a third of the time it took me on the way up.

Even with spots of mud and rain in the Brooks Range, I continued to make exceptional time, tearing down the road at nearly full throttle, often sliding around over gravel, mud, rocks, or bumps at well over 40MPH. I had to keep reminding myself to be careful, the mental and physical high was raging and risks were taken perhaps a bit too much.

IMG_2354The highlight of my entire journey came just north of Coldfoot on an especially bad and bumpy section of dirt road, where my small tires and forward visibility allowed me to weave a careful line through the majority of the horrible holes at nearly full speed. In this section I tore past not one but two different vehicles, a pickup truck and a station wagon towing a trailer, both of which were weaving all over the road at 35MPH trying to avoid the potholes – and both of which had ripped past me earlier on a paved section.  That may have been the only time I’ve actually passed anyone on a highway this entire trip of 8,000+ miles!

IMG_2393After dinner I continued to push on out of fear that rain might start again at any time and wanting to get as much road behind me as possible.  Finally, shortly after midnight I stopped for the night just north of the Arctic Circle, after traveling nearly 300 miles on the Dalton Highway in barely nine hours on the road.  The night sky was fairly clear for my first time in Alaska, so I set my alarm for 2:30AM in hopes to see the Northern Lights, but when I awoke the sky was still tinged with orange from the sun and no lights were to be seen.

The last couple hundred miles to Fairbanks were easy the next morning in spite of the cold and mostly overcast sky thanks to another dry road. I was prepared for the last twenty or so miles of the Dalton, which (also being the first northbound) are interestingly the worst the highway had to offer from a rocks/gravel perspective – I often wondered if this was deliberate to encourage people to give up early and turn around.

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In all, the hardest part of the return journey was the pristine paved Elliot Highway leading back to Fairbanks, with many long uphill sections limiting me to 25MPH and wondering if the road would never end. After the Dalton, just sitting back with the throttle open and letting my scooter drive itself back to civilization felt like the longest 90 miles I’ve ridden in a long time.

Based on the amount of road construction they are doing on the Dalton Highway, I expect within a couple years you’ll be able to drive a Ferrari up to Deadhorse in a couple of hours. The road itself is not a worthy lure, though the scenery and wildlife is amazing – and it’s one of the only roads in the world where you can experience the Arctic Tundra in such a fashion. If pure road adventure is the order of the day, it may be the Dempster Highway is the last crazy journey into the Arctic Circle… but if you want to have an amazing view and experience something different, ride the Dalton.

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