Deadhorse is a dry town
The ice fog made riding past about 50 miles from Deadhorse too dangerous last night. I made camp in a gravel pit way side and was lucky to find rocks large enough to anchor my tent. Waking this morning to find my tent still standing despite the mild wind and creative tandem rock anchors is a good sight. It seems that this gravel pit is just for small rocks. Anything larger than a quarter is kicked out.
I peek my head out the door flap to see if today’s an early day or a late day. Like a ground hog sees its shadow, I see fog, mist, wind, and a reason to go back to sleep!
It’s 1 o’clock as I roll my tent and stuff it into the dry sack, wet. Then, I see Ben and Matty ride by. Those guys had a very early day hitting the 8:30am oilfield tour after a night camped outside of town. Thirty minutes later, I’m all packed and ready to eat the miles of Dalton before me. Around or just after Happy Valley camp, I catch up to Ben and Matty, and we play leap frog all the way to Atigun Pass, each pausing to capture pictures of this beautiful scenery. The fog was just isolated over my camp it seems, and the clear blue skies over the Brooks Range make today the perfect day to ride the Dalton.
I’m counting down the miles to the Pass and realize that I’m riding the section of road that nearly made me eat soup on the way north. But with the sun out today, the death trap from before barely shakes the handle bars. Pleased with my good fortune, I pass Ben and Matty again and climb the switchback to the top.
All three of us are stopped at the crest by a flagger. Though not the epic green man from before, this man in orange says we have a ten minute wait. I didn’t get a picture at the top before and do so now after refueling the bike. Mountain passes aren’t new to me. My brother and I climb peaks in the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains a thousand feet taller than Atigun Pass. But there’s something about standing here that is special and unique. To the north lies an arctic desert with thousands of miles of the same green, squishy tundra and water bogs. To the south, the ground rises sharply from the earth in what starts the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness. Where I stand now is far from the desert of yesterday and the day before, despite only being separated by a few miles. The trees have returned, and a swift river follows the road into the valley below. In two days’ time, fall has dipped its brush in yellow and painted splotches from here to as far as I can see.
And suddenly, I see reasons three and four to be here so late in the riding season: the fall colors and miles upon miles of ripe blueberries stretching up and down hillsides. John Denver was on to something when he sang there are two things money can’t buy — true love and home grown tomatoes. But I think he must have missed trying wild Alaskan blueberries for sure.
The flagger waves us through and we descend upon the valley. I pass epic green man holding traffic on the other side and wave, no doubt interrupting his telling of the lady who was just here riding a 250cc Vespa scooter loaded to the hilt! I think he’s told that story for weeks, and she must be in Panama by now. I signal to Ben and Matty for the last time and crank on the RPMs to Coldfoot. This road is better than Main Street in downtown Wasilla!
It’s not far from Coldfoot that I run into the road construction. A snarly flagger all but threatens me to try passing the pilot car. He says a lot of the bikers will try to pass, and I assure him I’m in no hurry. As if saying anything else would have landed me in some Dalton Highway remote wilderness prison camp for speed happy adventure riders, he squints and waves me past. A few miles up the road, it’s a trucker who breaks formation and speeds past the front of the line, past the pilot car, and beyond the next curve.
I pull into Coldfoot and see three of the cleanest bikes I’ve ever seen. Three men are unloading in front of the hotel off two Kawasaki enduro bikes and one not-available-in-the-USA Honda dual sport. I don’t even have to ask about the road from Fairbanks by the look of their rides. I can see sky reflected in wheels. At this point in my ride, there’s more road on my bike than there is of my bike on the road! I smile and say the road ahead is the best it could ever be. They glance at my bike, and I don’t think they believe a word I say. Chuckling, I laugh at the fact that my bike earned this mud on the same ride north that seems to have left their bikes spotless.
At the fuel pump, I watch a herd of tourists migrate from the hotel to the cafe. They were cajoled into an epic road trip to Prudhoe Bay by Princess Tours. What a way to end a trip to Alaska: two ten hour days aboard a coach at 40-mph doing the Dalton washboard massage.
My first impression of the tourist demographic is sadly a bit crass. Complaining that the Coldfoot Camp hotel accommodations don’t quite stack up to those of the Denali Princess Lodge seems obtuse. Doing it in the buffet line is just rude. I take my $20 all I can eat meal outside in search of better company. I find what I’m looking for in the cigar smoking, alcohol drinking, party section of the deck and sit down for the second best meal I’ve eaten in days.
The cigar smoking, drinking, partying group from the bus have the right idea. Skip the complaining and talk about the greatness of this place. Coldfoot Camp is a collection of modular buildings making a cafe and hotel, separated by a brief bit of history. Too bad the righteous visitors aren’t put up in the drafty log cabin that started this camp decades ago. Behind the hotel, travel campers seem to be home to the locals who work the camp. Truckers park their rigs just anywhere and wander to the cafe for a hot meal.
Across the Dalton from the camp is a visitor center so out of place I think builders must have mistakenly swapped plans with the hotel. Mood lighting, nature sounds, and beautiful displays tell a story of Alaska and what it means to endure every season of wilderness. A natural stone fireplace and comfy chairs make me want to set camp right in the lobby.
I parked my bike right in front of the cigar smoking, drinking, and party section of the cafe’s deck before it became such. While I gear up to leave, the group turns their attention to me and we talk about my adventure. I retell stories of growing up in Florida, moving to Alaska, finishing college, and learning to ride. I happily talk about the custom features of my bike and even blush when they all agree that I’m definitely not roughing it.
The two couples fill me in on what brings them to Coldfoot, Alaska. As ridiculous as it may sound, they insist on not having known what entailed a trip to Deadhorse. Princess Tours sells its passengers Alaska packages. This one starts in the North West aboard a cruise ship and sails the Inside Passage before porting in Whittier. Everyone is ushered from the boat and piled into Alaska Railroad passenger cars for a full day’s ride around Turnagain Arm, through the Anchorage and Mat-Su Boroughs, and stopping at Denali Lodge. After catching the mountain in its full glory on what must be the only clear day of the year, Princess wisps the passengers away again aboard a bus to start the two day trip up the Dalton Highway.
They interrupt my shocked look to exclaim that an Arctic Ocean certificate awaits them on the very beach I visited yesterday with Jim and Mary. I’m all of a sudden very pleased to be touring on a motorbike and not a motorbus owned by Princess. Begging to get on the road, I insist they visit my blog to follow my travels. I catch a cigar from the air they throw to me, shake hands, and say farewell. With a big smile hidden inside my helmet, I can’t help but wonder if Princess told this group that Deadhorse is a dry town.
I’m adding mosquitos to my pro August list, and not because I like them. They made the list because I haven’t seen a single one. Even as I pull into Finger Mountain to set up camp this evening, I realize that my windshield is only covered in dust. The mosquito coils I packed sit unused in a pannier. Even my face shield is free of bug guts. Not being swarmed by flesh piercing blood drillers is certainly a highlight of the trip, and it’s while I pitch my tent near the spot from the first night of the Dalton that I reflect on the lack of bugs and other aspects of the ride so far.
While August is statistically the wettest month of the year for Deadhorse, the weather and roads treated me well and were just wet enough to keep the dust down. Though the road construction was a bit of a nuisance, road traffic kept light and tolerable. In fact, every truck I approached slowed its speed and gave me a very wide margin. Most of the drivers waved without prompt. Not once did I feel endangered by flying debris or passing vehicles. Also, I am surprised by the lack of bike traffic having only seen six other riders in 700 miles.
The people I’ve met are down right friendly and generous. And if not generous too, they are at least more than willing to talk. I stopped at the Arctic Circle not 20 miles ago looking for a place to camp and watched the sun set with a stranger. We talked bikes and about the road, but we mostly just sat and took in the beauty of the closing day.
Still full from my dinner at Coldfoot, it’s with these pleasant memories of my journey that I fall fast asleep, thankful that Tom and his generator from my first night here are long gone.