July 11, 2009
We woke to a cool misty morning. We began packing up and decided to go to the Tesoro gas station next to our empty lot for breakfast.
When leaving the lot, Jim had selected a poor route over some larger rocks hidden by the tall grass that caused his bike to topple without fully landing on its side; however he still had difficulty getting the bike into a position to get over the obstruction. With a little effort he rode out of the area and was at the Tesoro while I finished packing up my gear.
We ate at Granny’s, a small log shed that an old woman and her husband operated in the summer. They spent the rest of the year in Florida. Granny whipped up a fine breakfast of scrambled eggs, coffee and a big warm cinnamon bun. After eating I walked to the gas station and purchased some wine for later when we reached the Arctic and stores were scarce.
We spoke to two Harley Davidson riders who had stayed at a motel behind the Howling Dog and drove over to Granny’s for breakfast. It was amazing how much crap they had packed onto their bikes. They were very heavily laden and admitted they would not be going up the Dalton Highway because of this and the more obvious reason of being on heavy cruisers. They both admitted to having brought way too much gear on this trip. They had too many clothes and shoes. We agreed that even on very long rides it makes no sense to carry more clothing than you could wear in 2 or 3 days.
We parted ways and Jim and I headed northward toward the Arctic Circle and Coldfoot. The route towards the Brooks Range was filled with fun sweepers and excellent views of distant mountains. We were making very good time all the way to a way station called Wildwood General Store.
It was apparently a popular stop for tour buses on the way north. They had some rather uninteresting souvenirs and clothing. The interesting stuff was actually outside. They had a 50 year old limo for sale and a barn with one side covered in orphaned hubcaps found along the highway.
Down the hill on the right side of the store was a sign stating “Magnificent Bathrooms This Way.” These really were beauties. They were standard outhouses but inside they had hung local artists’ landscape paintings, Glade air freshener cans, small bouquets of flowers, magazines and each toilet had a fancy toilet seat. These were more inviting to use than many dirty restrooms I have encountered in countless service stations across the world. They even smelled much better than many indoor toilets. They freeze up in the winter though and have to be steam thawed.
We were about 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle now. We were becoming much more confident riding on the unpaved roads which actually were very nice as long as they were not wet. Some areas of the road between hills were built up in the valleys and were easily 75 or 100 feet above the valley floors. If you were to run off the road there was no guard rail to stop you from flying down a very steep embankment to the bottom. Fortunately the road was wide enough and had a fairly wide shoulder that we felt certain we could keep on the road. There were a few dicey curves that made you want to cheat toward the middle of the road. The lack of traffic on the road made this easy to do without worrying about meeting someone.
We had a view of the pipeline most of the way north. We stopped at a rest area that included a display about the pipeline and how it was built. It was over 800 miles long. It was built in about 18 months using crews that worked day and night year-round in all types of weather. The Dalton Highway we were travelling was called the Haul Road because it was built to bring in crews to build the pipeline. They had to build about 8 pumping stations to keep the oil flowing. The oil goes in a Prudhoe at about 90 degrees and 2 weeks later arrives at Valdez at 75 degrees. The pipeline has two walls. The outer wall acts to protect the inner wall just like the dual hulls on a submarine.
Engineers had to come up with new technologies to build the pipeline. They used a new way to weld the pipes together on the inside with a robotic welder. They used heat exchangers to protect the permafrost from melting due to the hot oil travelling down the pipe. They ran the pipeline with frequent zigzags to allow for ground movement during earthquakes. One recent quake caused the pipe to shift side to side by over 27 feet and there was no break in the line.
I remember back in the late 70’s when they were trying to build the pipeline; the environmentalists were all up in arms over how it was going to destroy the permafrost and disrupt the caribou migrations. All of those concerns were addressed and eliminated. The pipeline stands as a modern engineering feat and has allowed this area of Alaska to be opened up to people hardy enough to endure the rigors and relative dangers of traveling on such an unimproved road into a wild area with little support in the event of a breakdown or accident.
We traveled on until we crossed the mighty Yukon River. This huge river was navigated by Russian ships as they explored the interior of Alaska. It is amazing how far into the interior of Alaska and Canada this river will allow ships to travel. Shortly after crossing the Yukon we stopped for coffee at the Hotspot Café. As we passed recently burned out forests the fireweed flowers gave the air a sweet smell. The purple color of the massive fields of flowers covered whole mountains. We had to stop to get pictures of this beautiful flower.
We reached latitude 66°33’, the Arctic Circle. Naturally we had to stop at the famous sign for photos. The photo op was hurried since the mosquitoes were out in huge numbers here.
A few minutes later we were back on the gravel road north. We stopped at Finger Mountain for a while to see if we could spot any wildlife. This area overlooks a large part of southern end of the Brooks Range and the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge. The native people used the area to spot for big game. Unfortunately we did not see any big game even though you could see for a hundred miles in any direction. I even got out my binoculars to search the distant hills. Finger Mountain was about a half mile from the parking area. It is named for the large solitary rock formation that looks like a finger pointing the way toward Fairbanks for the bush pilots.
We cranked up the bikes for the thousandth time and headed north, ever north. Coldfoot was only about 35 miles away and we were looking forward to stopping for the day and eating dinner. When I am riding my bike, it becomes second nature for me to compute distances and gas mileage. I know that I have a 5.8 gallon tank. I know that I can get at least 45 miles per gallon under the worse circumstances, unless I have been riding around in 3rd gear without knowing it for over 100 miles. Then my mileage could suffer. Anyhow, I like to know how far I can go before I need to stop or before I will run dry. I have the map on my tank bag or my GPS showing distances to the next stop. I will watch for sign posts that tell how far the next gas stop is. I am constantly updating my info and reassuring myself that I have the fuel to make it. So far there have been very few surprises. I have computed that I have plenty of gas to make it to Coldfoot. It has been about 270 miles since we refueled just south of Fox. I figure I can go about 280 to 290 miles if I get my usual 50 miles per gallon.
I slow down to “max cruise speed” at around 50-60mph. Finally the signs for Coldfoot appear. The gas stop and restaurant are on a side road that is poorly marked so I end up taking the turn farther to the north. I pull into the area and see a single story motel area, a small old log structure and to the west of the complex are a couple of old gas pumps standing alone in the dirt about 50 yards from a newer building that is the restaurant and bar.
You are required to pay before pumping. I walk in and hand the man behind the counter my American Express card. “Sorry, we don’t take that one.” No problem I have more where that one came from. I go out and begin pumping gas. By now I have that familiar feeling that Jim is either lost or more likely out of gas again. He may have missed the poorly marked turn. In that case, he will run out of gas, put his one gallon reserve in the bike and continue on north only to run out of gas about 40 miles farther north. Or he may be putting his gas in the tank and will soon be in the area. Hopefully he has not crashed in the gravel.
I have time to collect my credit card, wash up and check out the evening dinner buffet as he drives up. He leaves his American Express card at the counter and begins to pump gas. He had run out of gas. I am perplexed at this. We have the same bikes, the same gearing, approximately the same weight, why is he getting less mileage? I ask him if he is riding around in 4th or 5th gear instead of 6th.
It feels good to clean off the dirt and sweat. Dinner will be ready at 5PM and is all you can eat. You can get the salad bar and soup for $10.95 or go for the whole meat and veggie thing for $16. Since they give you hearty chicken soup and bread and the salad bar has about 40 items to put on it, I go for the soup and salad. I also find out desert is included with the soup and salad. After a couple of bowls of soup and a giant salad, a huge roll and 3 cookies, I knew I had made the correct choice. I just saved $5.50. There is no way I could have eaten the whole buffet.
After dinner we talk to an older Texas gentleman on a Suzuki Vstrom 1000 who is making his way to Deadhorse solo. He doesn’t have knobby tires like we do. The truckers we meet at the café tell us how nasty the weather has been the past few days. The road is wet and they “have laid down 3 inches of pea gravel”. They indicate it will not be pretty for motorcycles. Jim stiffens and visibly breaks out in a sweat. Is there any question of not proceeding north after going this far?
Jim and I briefly consider where to camp for the night. The truck stop at Coldfoot allows camping at an out of the way spot near the compound but I am not thrilled about listening to trucks coming and going all night, especially when “night time” is as bright as 4PM in San Diego. We drive north in search of a BLM campground a few miles north of Coldfoot.
Approximately 5 miles north of Coldfoot we find the turn into the campground. It is halfway between Coldfoot and the turnoff to Wiseman. Wiseman is an old community of hardy folks who live there year round. They are descendants of the gold rush era and now make money from tourists wanting to see their isolated town. They sell crafts and live off the land. There is also a hotel there for people who want to experience austere accommodations or if they are afraid of bears.
We found the campground to our liking. It was open, clean and had magnificent views of the nearby mountains and all the mosquitoes you could handle. There were large flat areas to pitch a tent and clean pit toilets. We talked with a group of folks who were from Fairbanks while we swatted mosquitoes. Finally by midnight we are tired and will try to sleep.