The start of the Dalton Highway
I wish I could say today has started well and I’m on the road to Fairbanks as happy as could be. No, quite the opposite actually. I’m standing over my bike, which is fully loaded and packed to ride because I dumped it on its side while trying to ride off the center stand.
Now, I’m undoing everything that took twenty minutes to ready, removing riding gear, cases, bags, jugs, and more just so I can lift this dang monster of a pig. I learned or heard somewhere that locking the front fork turned to the ground makes this job easier, and it does. A few grunts get the bike up and ready to re-pack. From now on, I’ll only use the side stand. Lesson learned.
I arrive to Fairbanks in that sweet Tom Tom GPS voice that my Garmin Oregon doesn’t support in time for lunch. I haven’t been able to get in touch with a friend in town, so I grab a seven dollar $5 foot long from Subway and begin my ride up the Elliot Highway which will take me to the start of the 414 mile long treacherous Dalton.
Just past the sign marking the forever awayness of Deadhorse, I stop and lose 12 pounds from each tire. Stores say that the first 70 miles of this road can be a mess in the rain, which it just happens to be doing. With the bike upright and ready to ride the road its meant to ride, I click into first and begin with a roar. Deadhorse, here I come.
The first part of the Dalton diverges from the pipeline, following the rolling hills and twisting through timber and valleys in much the same way as the Elliot, but without tarmac. The grades are steep and the turns sharp. I’m fairly new to riding and much newer to riding unpaved roads. I quickly feel tense and tired in my shoulders. Shrugging helps, but I knew I need to train myself to loosen the arms, sit upright, and not fight the road. This is going to take some practice.
Fifty six miles in, the Yukon River is a welcome sight and the first sign of civilization. It’s a steady downhill from one side of the river to the other across a wood plank bridge that must rise a hundred or more feet above the water. I pull to the left after the bridge and find steeply sloped boat launches jetting from a parking lot full of empty trailers into a river devoid of all boat traffic. The only boats I find look anything but river worthy. I could just be a wuss when it comes to wanting a boat not pieced together with scrap aluminum, wood, and engine parts. Well, the river does look pretty slow and tame for a river.
With a short break and a bit of fuel, I ride off with an unknown camp ahead of me just waiting for my tent. The skies look promising ahead. I see blue and patches without cloud, motivation to crank the heated grips to high and head for the sun.
I don’t know if it’s the way I grip my bars, but my throttle hand always seems much warmer than the other. All this means is that I’m constantly switching the heat from high to low and back, never comfortable with one or the other and pissed at BMW for not giving me a rheostat or three choices. After all, the gear box has six choices for forward momentum and the throttle really is a rheostat. A four way toggle for the grips isn’t too much to ask. Not five minutes out of Yukon, my hands ablaze, I end the rant at BMW, admit defeat, and cut the heat to low.
It’s at Finger Mountain that I find sun and make my camp. Behind me and to the south, the sun makes an amazing arch of color across the gray sky I just left. I’m sharing the parking lot tonight with a lone caribou hunter named Tom. He’s on his way home with a beautiful set of horns and a freezer full of meat. We chat about the road ahead and I do my best to take his fear mongering ways with a polite smile. In his defense, the trailer IS covered in three inches of mud from top to bottom. With warnings said, Tom switches to a lighter subject and we talk about his hunt, my journey, and what it means to have real bear protection. We laugh at the rediculousness of bear spray, shake hands, and I promise to be careful on the road ahead before wishing a goodnight and retreating to the warmth of my tent, still aglow in the setting sun with Finger Mountain and the rolling hills as a backdrop to end day two.