Saturday, July 27, 2013

Alaska (Part 3)

If you have read our previous two posts about Alaska, you should have noticed that we had an amazing time and absolutely loved it! And we hadn't even been to Fairbanks yet! We still had the Dalton and the Top of the World Highway on our list. As we went further north, the good times just kept on coming. The remoteness, the ruggedness and the amazing natural beauty is something that was with us every day. Alaska is a truly amazing place!

Leaving Delta Junction we headed for the North Pole… No, I'm not exaggerating here; that's what they called it! Of course we are in the USA, so anything seems to be possible, but calling a town that's not even above the Arctic Circle, North Pole was news for me too. I couldn't help wondering if it might have something to do with the touristy Santa Claus centre being there… In true American style it's hard to miss. But even if you somehow manage to miss the giant Santa Claus statue, there is no need to worry; you can also reach him on Facebook, Twitter, Google and Tumblr or even his own website at We stopped there as well of course, but found it all just a little bit too tacky. Still, we had a burger at the only McDonalds at North Pole… :-)

Bryan and Diana, from PanAmericanLandy, had told us about Sven's base camp in Fairbanks as a good place to stay. Who are we to argue with a couple of South Africans who had just finished Argentina to Alaska as well as Africa to Norway while being in their 70s. Hats off! They were right too. Sven is a great guy! He's from Switzerland and operates a hostel and campground in Fairbanks during the summer months. I kind of assumed he would move south during winter… but no, he moves up further north(!) to run sledge dogs for a resort in the middle of the Alaskan winter. Alaska is the land of the midnight sun, in summer that is. As long as it's light Sven is awake too. No kidding; he is a bundle of energy and… 24 hrs a day. We camped at Sven's volleyball field as our tents wouldn't fit anywhere else. The plan was to stay a night and then head for the Dalton Highway, but as it was such a great place to be and as Sven creates such an amazing atmosphere, we ended up staying a couple of days and had a great time. These breaks are, in my view, essential if you plan to stay on the road for a longer period of time. 

While we were at Sven's we heard conflicting stories on how bad the road north from Fairbanks was. A motorcyclist had just been airlifted to the hospital with broken ribs and collarbone, the roadworks were apparently very very bad… Hmmm. The same night a cyclist arrived. He had just returned from Deadhorse, and said it was fine, nothing to worry about… but he looked like the Quaker you'll find on the Muesli packaging… could I possibly regard him as a serious source of information? We tried to get a new chain and sprocket set for Mike's Yamaha, but found the local Yamaha dealer not interested, which was unfortunately the beginning of a trend… I made a wheel nut spanner from a cheap wrench bought at a local hardware store. The store itself is worth mentioning too, if only for the Alaskan winter gear they sell there!

Having heard all the horror stories about the Dalton Highway and some of the recent accidents, I must say we were a bit apprehensive. Being not medically insured at the time didn't help. I had asked about the costs of a medical helicopter ride, and the reply was 'how big is your house?' Before you ask, we weren't insured because we couldn't get it organised in Australia. The length of the trip we were about to undertake was over the maximum the insurance companies would accept… Having been in Australia for 9 years before coming up here, we weren't afraid of big trucks on dirt roads. Anyone who has encountered a Roadtrain on a dirt road in the Australian Outback, knows they don't come much bigger than that. The thing to do is quite simple; realise they are bigger, that they have a job to do and just let them go on doing that job. Give them room, don't expect them to stop and do realise you cannot 'win'. When we went up the Dalton highway we were told by two fellow motorcyclists that they had been in 'an argument' with a truck already. The idiots. They were in for a long hard ride as the truckers are in contact with each other via their radios, letting their fellow truckers know there were a couple of %$# coming on motorbikes…! we stayed well clear to make sure they didn't mistake us for them.

The thing to do is be courteous. Do no fly past and bombard them with stones coming off your tyre. If it's a particularly dry section, and a lot of dust coming from the truck's tyres blocks your vision; stop! Just stop the bike on the side of the road. Don't ride on blind thinking it will all be okay. Do not switch it off by turning the key, but stop it with the 'emergency kill' switch to stop the engine sucking in the dust and clogging the air filter. Stopping the engine with the 'kill' switch, means the lights are still on, to keep you visible to others. Use hazard lights too if you have them. (Bonnevilles don't have them… Grmbl). We used that technique the whole Dalton Highway and back and had no problem at all with any of the truckers. Quite the opposite. One of the trucks didn't see us coming, due to a blind corner and covered us in dust due to his speed (and dry weather). He must have been on the radio straight away as the trucks behind him had already slowed down for us. The other thing to remember, is that simply because you think you are on the perfect adventure weapon, the 25 mph speed limit at roadworks isn't for you. Yes, 25 mph isn't exactly exciting, neither is being in plaster… or worse and there are other road users to consider too, it is a public road after all. We took it as it came, kept our distance in roadworks, both from each other and the traffic in front of us, so that we had good vision.

So, what was the Dalton like? I hear you asking. Well, if you've never been on a dirt road and/or terrified of a sliding wheel or a bike that's weaving over muddy roads, then it might be a bit unpleasant. If you are on a bike you can handle… and have good tyres like Distanzias then you should be fine, as long as you keep it sensible. The bad sections? We found the worst sections were the asphalted ones…! Big potholes and frost damage. The gravel bit was fine. The only 'problem' we had was going up into the Brooks range, which was wet and muddy, where my rear tyre (which at that stage was a Michelin Anakee 3) was struggling for grip. Even the road based Avon RoadRider on Jeanette's Bonnie had far more grip than the Dual Sport Michelin… Grmbl. 

We actually enjoyed the whole trip. The feeling of being out there, way up north, was great! We were on our little motorcycles, which we had been told by the experts would not be up to this, on the same road as the Ice Truckers. Looking around, I realised there was no-one living for hundreds of miles to the left, the right and the north. The further north we went the better the feeling became. It's not just the distance, as there are roads that are longer. The Nullarbor in Australia for instance is a lot longer than the Dalton. It's the feeling of being so remote, riding away from civilisation to… the end of the road. There isn't a town at the other end either. The road simply ends. I wasn't sure what to expect, scenery wise. From trips we had done to the top of Norway, which is further north than Deadhorse or Prudhoe Bay, we didn't expect much. Trees gradually disappear when you get above the tree-line to make way for scrubs, which will make way for tundra. If you come here with expectations of finding Utah like landscapes then you'll be disappointed. Or are you? 

The first mug-shot we took was at the beginning of the Dalton highway at the sign telling us we had arrived. Getting there had been quite a trip already. We couldn't have been further away from it when we started. Just simply being there, at the Dalton Highway sign, was the result of leaving Tasmania, riding the Great Ocean Road in Melbourne, shipping to New Zealand, riding around both the South and the North islands of New Zealand, shipping to Vancouver and riding up through British Columbia, the Yukon and most of Alaska. We had covered almost 20.000 km just to get here! Looking at the wooden Dalton Highway sign made me realise how lucky we were to be here; and how lucky we were with all we had seen and experienced.

For me crossing the mighty Yukon river was a special event too. Most will probably say it's just a river… to them I'd like to say: just read Dorian Amos's 'The Good Life' to understand how special it is. Just over the bridge we met Dottie. Dottie works at the tiny Tourism Information Centre on the right hand side and is a bundle of joy. We stopped to have lunch and simply rode up to the picnic table. Dottie came running outside 'please don't ride over my orchids!' Orchids? What orchids? They turned out to be miniature Orchids, which considering the climate is understandable. Dottie told us, full of passion, about her orchids and all the beautiful things there are to see from where we were to further north. She was somewhat positive about everything… including the weather…! She told us it was going to be fine for the next 14 days… Dottie must have had her own forecast :-) A lovely person.

At the Arctic Circle we met a couple we had seen before. They greeted us enthusiastically as if we were old friends. I was struggling, yes they looked familiar but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't remember where we had met. It turned out to be just a couple of weeks before in Anchorage. They had hauled their 5th wheeler, with their shiny Harley Davidson tucked inside, over the Arctic Circle. Unloaded the Harley, rode a couple of kilometres on (asphalt!) either side of the Arctic Circle and slapped the sticker 'I've crossed the arctic circle' on it… We camped just around the corner and called it a day. Arriving at the campspot I noticed everyone was wearing a mosquito mask… We have them but had never really needed them… we did there! Nature calls were postponed that night :-)

The next morning we continued further north and stopped at the Coldfoot Roadhouse, for fuel (the last fuel before Deadhorse) and had a superb hamburger at the truckers cafe. The tourism information opposite told us the weather was about to turn for the worst. Heavy rain was expected for the next couple of days at least, which made us ride into the Brooks Range right away, before the rain would set in.
I wrote before that this high up north you can't really expect beautiful landscapes… how wrong I was! I simply hadn't seen the Brooks Range before. It's magically impressive, if that makes any sense. The range itself is impressive enough and the permafrost just underneath it gave it something magical. We made lots of photographs, photographs that despite our best efforts just can't express the feeling it gave us. It's also difficult to explain in words; the magical feeling of being so remote and in a world so untouched. I love landscapes like this!
After the Brooks Range the landscape changes into flat tundra. You can't ride the last 10 miles to Prudhoe Bay either, from Deadhorse you have to go by bus. Having already been further north in Norway (and thus no 'need' to be at the most northern point here) plus the already visible incoming bad weather and the boring tundra landscape made us turn around after the Brooks Range. We went to the end of the range, looked at the tundra and rode back, arriving back in Coldfoot around midnight and had a great day.
The next morning we saw mud covered cars 'telling' us how bad the weather had turned. According to one of the truck drivers the road wasn't the problem for motorcyclists, it was the people speeding throwing mud all over the place.

We went back south after a big breakfast at the truckers cafe in Coldfoot. The plan was to stay at a campground halfway, but found it was nothing but a dustbowl and rode on towards Fairbanks. The smoke from the bush fires that were burning all around us covered parts of the roads. A massive oil pipeline runs through that area… We arrived at Sven's base camp at 11.30 at night, tired and hungry. Sven was open, he is always open! We had another couple of days at Sven's, staying up until well after midnight every night as we were in great company!
Riding away from Sven felt like leaving home somehow. Maybe because I knew that I was no longer going further and further into this land that I liked so much, but riding out of it. I wanted to go further north again… stay for winter (which is weird because I do not like cold and dark!). Apparently I had fallen in love with the place…?
We rode east, back towards Delta Junction and Tok, the most boring road in the whole of Alaska. Just to give an idea on how boringly straight that road is; the bush fires we could see in the distance turned out to be 160 km away. We took a mugshot at the sign that says 'The Alaskan Highway stops here' and had lunch at an outside diner, where the waitresses rolled around on roller-skates! Ordering was a complex process; first there were dozens of choices for the hamburger part, and then we had to specify the shape of the fries and how we wanted them cooked…!

Our good friend Travis had told us that Tok has a motorcycle campground. It's called Thompson's Eagle's Claw Motorcycle Park. A very simple and basic campground operated by a lady who loves motorcycles… well, she mostly loves Harleys but we won't hold that against her. It's the first campground I've seen anywhere in the world that not only allows you to work on your bike but even has it's own workshop you can use free of charge! It's also the first campground I've see where a cast iron frying pan closes the toilet door…!

The plan for the next day was the Top of the World Highway, but a nasty accident put a hold on that. Just before we went up the road a motorcyclist was killed and the road thus closed off, pending an investigation. As far as we know the accident happened because a rider lost part of his luggage, over which the second rider fell, skidded and ended up under a 40ft RV… We stayed at Fast Eddy for a while, heard they would not open the road that day and returned to Thompson's Eagle's Claw.

The Top of the World Highway is, to me, the most dangerous road we encountered up north. The road itself is fine. Take it sensible and anyone can get through it fine… when it's dry! When it becomes wet it's a totally different story. It's compacted dirt most of the way. To keep the dust down they spray oil over it, so when it rains the top layer is oil and water… We had it dry, just! The day after it started to rain in the mountains! How lucky was that? 
Still we could smell the oil on the road and any dirt that hit the exhaust started smoking! It's an amazing road non-the-less. It literally takes
you over the top of the mountains.

The views are breathtaking. The little town of Chicken, the only fuel stop, is a very tacky tourist trap. That's my view. Jeanette thought it was good. As the story goes, the miners wanted to name the town 'Ptarmigan' after the bird which is common in the area. Unfortunately, people couldn't agree on how to spell it! Finally they settled with the easier name of Chicken! It's an old gold mining town, meaning it's full of junk now called 'history'.
With the benefit of hindsight I'm happy Chicken was what it was as that made me leave and ride on. Had we liked it and stayed; we would have been riding the slippery oil road in the rain! The border crossing was easy as the Canadian border guard was somewhat more human than it's American counterpart at the Alaskan highway border. We stopped at the mighty Yukon River and camped along it's banks in a State Park campground. That night I sat next to the mighty Yukon River, looking to Dawson City at the other side. I had made it to the place I wanted to see for myself after reading Dorian Amos's book. It is indeed a mighty river!