75 miles outside Fairbanks the Dalton Highway starts and the tarmac immediately turns to mud with warning of 'heavy industrial traffic' next 500 miles – they’re not wrong
. The road surface meant at times we were down to 5mph and still felt like the tyres were sliding. That first day we averaged about 25mph. Set off at 10am and by early afternoon we crossed the Arctic Circle heading north. There is absolutely nothing out here – the fuel is from basic pumps about 150 miles apart, shops non existent – just a couple of places where you’ll find a cafe and some shelter from the rain. The rest of the time it’s just you and some big scenery. It was drizzly and under 10c so cold too – and getting colder. Both bikes have got 33litre tanks so a range of 350-400miles is normal – exceptional for a motorcycle really – most will only do 150 odd so that was on our side. They are also capable of off roading although we haven’t got proper off road tyres fitted so grip is not marvellous and they also weigh about 300kg loaded up – I’m more used to a 100kg dirt bike. If you drop a GS you’re not going to pick it up on your own. We ploughed on – some of the stretches were gravel covered tarmac but generally it was getting worse – bumps, craters, gravel, mud and rain. Oh, and even more mud. The big rigs don’t slow one little bit so there’s a bow wave of orange mud that sprays all over you as they pass. We got to Coldfoot camp which is 239 miles from Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) and stopped for some food. The reality of where we are is now sinking in so we decide to at least take some emergency food with us
. Two $12 packed lunches later and a refuel and we’re off again. We reach the famous Atigun Pass – Ice Road truckers fear this part of the road the most – and slither up letting even the trucks pass us in their crawler gear trying to keep momentum going as they go over the Brooks range. Dropping down the other side you’re on the north slope – the slow drop to the Beaufort sea. It’s polar tundra with permafrost underfoot. The pipeline is still there alongside. Apart from that in the winter the only thing up here would be polar bears and the trucks and some brave Alaskans out hunting. You’re only allowed bows though, not rifles. I coudn’t work out why until I realised you wouldn’t be too popular if you holed the Alaskan pipeline with a stray bullet !
12 hours afer starting we were tired, wet and cold and hungry so decided just to pull into an access track to the pipeline and pitch camp. With tents we’d never erected before. On gravel over stone so the pegs don’t go in. On land we shouldn’t be on. Oh well. Desperate times call for desperate measures so we agreed just to put the one tent up as quickly as possible which meant sharing a tent. They are 4 man ones thankfully so it wasn’t too ‘cosy’. We also managed to get our bike gear inside although it was caked with mud head to toe. At this point I think reality began to hit home
. We’re hundreds of miles from anywhere with no food or water and who’s to say the bikes will be reliable. What’s the back up plan ? You can’t call the AA and retire to the nearest Happy Eater while you wait for them to turn up. From sheer exhaustion we managed a short sleep. 4am after about an hour of darkness we were up and trying to repack the wet tent, wet sleeping bags and putting on our wet bike gear. Still – washing my hands in a gritty puddle before putting in contact lenses was a novelty ! Rejuvenated from a bit of sleep and the thought of reaching Deadhorse we covered the remaining 150 miles by 10am and after locating and working out how the ‘petrol station’ worked got the bikes refuelled. Prudhoe is a tough place full of tough people. You’ve got to be when it’s 40 below for 6 months and dark for 24hrs a day through the winter. Mud is everywhere in the summer – we called into The Prudhoe Bay hotel for directions and there is a box of covers for your boots so you don’t trudge it through the hotel. Happy that we’d made it we bimbled around for a quick look. No sign of Lisa from Ice Road Truckers unfortunately so we then found our way back to the Dalton Highway and for the first time on this trip started heading in the correct direction – south !
South through Ice Cut, past Galbraith Lake, past pumping station number 3 and past Happy Valley and the ice clearing depots
. Everywhere has a name but there’s nothing there but wilderness and the placenames are 25 miles apart. As we got about 30 miles south of Prudhoe we started standing up on the pegs motocross style which seemed to help a lot on the really slippery stuff. Still averaging 25mph so we are looking at 10 hours non stop to Coldfoot camp – the next place with beds, coffee and food (and fuel). All of a sudden JB pulls alongside – ‘I’ve got a puncture’. If you’ve ever felt your heart sink you’ll know the feeling. I hadn’t before but I can now vouch for it being an actual physical sensation ! We both had puncture repair kits but I know from previous experience they aren’t always reliable. Fortunately JB also had a compressor and it seemed to be a slow puncture so we got a few psi in the tyre and limped on. 15 miles later we had to do the same again – it soon became a routine - ride 10 miles or so, spend 5mins with the compressor. I was praying we’d make Coldfoot. It’s still well inside the Arctic Circle but it seemed like home ! Civilisation and food ! Heating ! Telephones (possibly) – a motel if we need it. Unfortunately the riding to pumping ratio was getting worse and was clearly becoming unsustainable. We agreed to try the puncture repair kits which would potentially leave us stranded once we pulled out the offending nail. Pulling into a small gravel area by the Kuparuk river we tried JB’s system – which he’d never used. The instructions weren’t the clearest (are they ever?) but plug after plug failed until we ran out. We then tried mine – no luck. We now haven’t eaten for 24 hours, have no food with us and one bike is stranded. Leaving one of us here is out of the question. Even if one bike did make it it would be 3 day round trip riding 12/14 hour days non stop to get help. I say get help – but there isn’t any help. Up here you sort out your own problems
. One of us would need to get to Fairbanks rent a truck to recover the bike, buy a new tyre and tools to fit it or some other scheme we hadn’t yet thought of. And does one of us stay at Coldfoot or both go ? What if one goes and they break down ? We hope we can get out of here but it could mean 4 days at least wasted. Desperate now we flag down a pipeline truck – she can’t give us a lift. Speak to another pick up – pipeline security so they can’t either. Wave at a passing GS but he just waves back. We’ve been stuck for hours now and it’s about 6pm. The big rigs don’t slow or stop – hitching with them is the last option. We then decide to leave the bike and a lot of our kit and try and ride out two up on mine. But will the extra weight cause mine to puncture ? Will the road conditions break the frame or suspension ? We set off – if only we can make Coldfoot. I'm now feeling distinctly concerned - last time I was this frightened was whilst trying to avoid being run over by a piste basher ! We get about 3 miles at about 15mph gingerly dodging the potholes – this is going to take all night – and that’s if we make it back over the Atigun Pass which is treacherous. Suddenly I see lights behind and a GS pulls alongside. ‘Heh guys – you got a puncture?’. ‘Yes, but the hole’s too big to fix we’re trying to make Coldfoot’. ‘No worries I’ve got a good kit and some inner tubes too we can get that fixed up real quick’
. Thank you God ! We head back to the creek and introduce ourselves to Zak. He was the rider I’d waved at but he didn’t realise we had a problem. Maybe I need to perfect the frantic wave. He’d got a bit further then the pipeline people told him about us and he’d headed back to help. What a top bloke !
Zak set to work in the pouring rain. The kits didn’t work so we had to get the back wheel off and break the bead on the tyre with the bike standstand. I was kind of familiar with this but had never done it myself. While he worked he told us he was on a 5 week trip from his home in Glendale, California. He had all the bits we needed – he was clearly prepared for this, we clearly weren’t. Lesson well and truly learned!! After a few hours we had a new tube fitted and we all set off reaching Coldfoot at 10pm. JB covered Zak’s dinner – the least we could do, and we managed to get a room for the night. Warm and full of a hot drink and food the world was a better place. Next morning we made another (sorry – the only other) stop about 100 miles south for a coffee at The Hotstop. Signs on the toilets saying use at own risk due to bears –and they’re not joking, this is real wilderness and people survive on their wits. We’ve got to learn from this one because we’ve got lots more wilderness along the way
. About an hour out of Fairbanks the new tube gives up again and needs 3hrs of work and 3 patches to limp us into town while all the while we're being attacked by mossies.
Zak takes us to see Dan Armstrong who runs a 24/7 garage from home helping out adventure bikers. We all make use of his jet wash to try and remove some of the Dalton and JB fits a new pair of Heidenau’s. Should be better off road, more puncture resistant and have stiff sidewalls which can run almost flat allegedly. Quite fancy some myself but mine are too new to justify it. Also there is a german on a KTM who has ridden across from Halifax, Nova Scotia and is aiming for Argentina and then Cape Town. He tells us about a puncture he got 60miles from a town in Canada which left him stranded for several days. Dan tells us various stories about tyre destroying roads and people dying on the Haul Rd because they aren’t properly prepared (in winter mainly to be fair – but then that’s September to June up here). I am now developing puncture paranoia ! We say our goodbyes to Dan and Zak and swap mobile numbers as he offers to sort us out parts or help if we get stuck in the US (Zak if you ever happen to read this then again – thank you !!) and head away from Dan’s house (Adventure Cycleworks) and head for The Marriott in downtown Fairbanks. Got a room on Expedia for less than the b+b. On arrival decide we need to stock up on tools, tyre levers, puncture repair kits as recommended by Dan and to have our first day off. Next stop Canada and the Yukon.
Arriving in Fairbanks we got ourselves in a little B+B for the night and wandered around the corner for some fresh Alaskan salmon and a couple of bottles of the local brew. Got asked for ID before being served alcohol which was a bit of a novelty for a 43 year old. Apparently they need to check your driving licence as well as it may have a court endorsement banning sale of alcohol. Next morning knowing we were going up the Haul Rd and possibly camping we got some bear spray which is a very powerful type of pepper spray. The shopkeeper told JB he sold some to a family recently and the mother started ushering her kids outside so she could start spraying them with it like mosquito repellant – the shop keeper had to sprint after them to stop her and explain that you actually spray it at the bear ! We now considered ourselves prepared – big mistake !