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Seattle to Alaska - Part 2

Text and photos by Colleen First

...continued from part 1

Day 5 � 480 miles

After a rather uncomfortable night's sleep (for me) we got up, had a bite to eat and headed for the Alaska border. The weather had turned on us again and had become cloudy and cool. We ran into a lot of construction, which in the Yukon means miles of gravel and either mud or dust, depending on the weather. It also means flinging rocks from passing vehicles. Doug's headlight cover was soundly cracked by a rock tossed up by a car we were passing; not a pretty sight. I recall saying "ouch!" a few times as rocks smacked my legs, or being thankful that I was wearing a full faced helmet as they pummeled my head and visor. My headlight guard eventually cracked as well. The clear guards were a worthy investment!

We did see two white swans in a small lake, and a moose cow and calf crossed the road in front of us, but there wasn't much activity in the wild life department that day. I can't say that I blame them; I was glad to get to Beaver Creek, YK and have a good hot meal. The Alaska border isn't too far from Beaver Creek and we reached it in no time. Doug and I pulled up together (no line � surprise!) and the patrol officer looked like he was ready to exhibit all of the Power of the Border Patrol Rightfully Bestowed Upon Him. He immediately motioned for us to take our helmets off and produce our papers. As we were complying another patrol officer came out and said "Hey John � you've got a phone call." "John" looked at Doug and I, then at the phone and you could see that he was deeply disappointed. He took the phone and retreated to his booth. The new patrol officer looked at our papers, asked a couple of basic questions, then asked what our destination was. When Doug said that we hoped to ride to Prudhoe Bay, the officer smiled and replied "You're sick". He then mused about a Canadian and an American traveling together and asked "What's your association?" Doug said that we were friends � I think that the border patrol doesn't see a lot of mixed country traveling companions and it caught him off guard. I thought it was funny.

The border itself is interesting in the fact that they mowed a wide swath of forest for the entire length of it.

The road was fairly interesting for the first hour or two into Alaska, with wide sweeping vistas and distant mountains. I enjoyed the numerous streams and watching the trees and vegetation change with the increased distance as we headed north.

Unfortunately, the road once again straightened out and the views became less spectacular the more miles we covered. We stopped in Tok, Alaska for a short break and then continued on to Fairbanks. We apparently made a bad judgment call here. We both figured that with Fairbanks being a town of over 30,000 people there would be plenty of choices in places to stay. This wasn't so. Even on a Tuesday night we found motel after motel booked. We did find one place, but they wanted so much money for the room (sans bathroom) that we passed. We finally got desperate and took a room at the Klondike Inn. It was expensive, and to give you an idea of what kind of place it was, Pizza Hut wouldn't deliver after 11pm (and it was, indeed, after 11pm). We called Dominos, who brought us hot pizza shortly after.

Day 6 � 0 miles

We had decided to remain in Fairbanks the next day. The goal was to find a nicer place to stay, a place to leave some of our gear while we trekked north, find some rear tires to put on the bikes when we got back and pick up some last minute supplies. We called around and found what we thought was a really nice Bed & Breakfast. The thought was that a B&B would be more likely to store our gear for a few days while we went traipsing through the northern country. The problem with this B&B was that it was truly a business, not some cute and charming home that someone had opened up to visitors. Oh well, I digress� We ran our errands and took no pictures.

Day 7 � 260 miles

Of course it's raining for the beginning of our big journey to the Arctic. We have breakfast at the B&B and pack our minimal bags onto the KLRs. It's rather urban (well, for Alaska) through Fox and up to the beginning of the Elliot Highway. The Elliot Highway, I was to find out later, is a wonderfully fun road! But this morning it was miserable. It was raining, heavy fog and cool. I seriously started asking myself why I was doing this, and considered going back to Fairbanks. I figured that I could see other parts of Alaska and the Yukon. But I stuck it out, following Doug through the clouds for a while longer. Then we were rewarded.

The roads started to dry up a bit, and the clouds weren't quite as thick as previously. We came to the junction where the Elliot Highway continues west and the Dalton Highway starts north. The road sign says "ALL VEHICLES DRIVE WITH LIGHTS ON NEXT 425 MILES" That's a lot of miles.

The Dalton Highway is also known as the haul road, as it is and was the primary way of getting supplies in and out of the Prudhoe Bay area. It was built to bring materials and workers in who were building the Alaska Pipeline and it follows the pipeline closely for its 425 miles.

The road conditions on the Dalton Highway are about as varied as the views. We started out the first few miles in a quagmire of muck inches thick that grabbed our tires and pulled our bikes willy-nilly along the road. Doug and I stopped and looked at each other, the thought of 425 miles of this seemed a daunting challenge indeed! But we kept on going and soon found the road drying out a bit more, so that we were able to practically fly down the hard packed dirt/gravel surface.

We ran into light rain occasionally, which was a mixed blessing as it made the roads a little trickier, it also kept the dust down from the semis that barreled down the road towards us. Most of them moved over considerably and some of them slowed down. Doug and I would also slow down and move over as far as possible to give them as much room on the narrow road. There are a surprising number of trucks on this road!

We saw two lynx on our way up the Dalton. It was very exciting � they crossed the road right in front of us and even paused to give us a baleful eye that only a cat can muster. Of course they were also too quick to hang around for photos, so you'll have to take my word for it.

We were surprised to find gas, food and lodging just past the Yukon River, as The Milepost (a Godsend of a book to have for a trip like this) stated that there was no gas until Coldfoot. I found out later that this stop isn't always "open" and therefore not a reliable source. We filled up "just in case" even though we each were toting 2 extra gallons on the backs of our bikes. Mind you, we paid for this peace of mind with the most expensive gas I had ever seen: $2.99/gallon for 87 octane. We had a hot sandwich and soup here before heading on to Coldfoot and then Wiseman, where we had made arrangements to stay for the night.

We stopped at the obligatory sign for the Arctic Circle, but were chased away quickly (by our own choice) by a busload of tourists. I can't imagine how cheated I'd feel if someone else drove me to the Arctic. This is something that's best experienced on your own, of your own doing and your own determination and will.

Just as we were approaching Coldfoot it started to rain hard, but luckily for us we were on one of those rare stretches of pavement that someone snuck in and the water poured over the pavement instead of creating a mud bath. Coldfoot, and all "towns" after Fairbanks, is nothing more than a building or two that houses those all-important three basics: food, shelter and gas. Coldfoot was unimpressive in its appearance, but it served tasty hot food and had gas readily available. There was also the impressive-sounding "Slate Creek Inn" which was nothing more than an ancient ATCO building stuck in a field across from the gravel parking lot. Fortunately for us, our sleeping arrangements were taken care of 13 miles up the road in Wiseman, which is an actual town from the gold mining days. The town is much more than anything else I had seen along the Dalton and actually contained real log cabins dating from a hundred years ago. It appears that quite a few people live here, making do with what they can find, and in the case of our host and hostess, lodging people for the night. The Boreal Lodge is made from ATCO buildings, but the owners did a fine job of hiding that fact and even provided a "common area" where a clean and modern kitchen/sitting area was available for all guests. Pots, pans, dishes, utensils, coffee maker (and coffee!) were all provided for guests' use. Of course the only caveat is that there are no food stores after Fairbanks, so you have to be prepared. We weren't, which is why we ate in Coldfoot. It was another restful night's sleep.

Day 8 � 240 miles

The day's journey would be relatively short � just long enough to not make it there and back in one day and just short enough to allow for a lazy morning. We packed the bikes up again and headed north. The weather was cooperating for the moment � so fickle � and gave us sunny skies so that we could appreciate the passage through the Brooks Range and our approach to the end of the road: Deadhorse.

The geology was amazing to see: entire mountains thrust up at impossible angles and layers of erosion that have taken their toll. The rivers coursed through the valleys and the grasses smoothed out the edges of the hard stone. The Dalton Highway is fairly level for a good distance, but then climbs quickly up the south slope of the Brooks Range. The haul road crests the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass, which was a dirty, muddy, gravely mess � and we hadn't even hit the construction zone yet. It's a steep, narrow pass and I'm glad to say that we didn't meet any semis coming down while we were coming up. Descending the north side there was construction, with speeds limited to 10 mph. My bike can't even go that slow, so we just coasted down as best as we could without attracting attention to ourselves. It was muddy (really muddy; the kind of mud we encountered when we first started on the Dalton Highway the previous day) so I was in no hurry to come down the other side of the Pass anyway.

The mountains in the Brooks Range are amazing; I have never seen anything like them before. They are massive, closely packed together and look like they were just created last week. And they go forever. I'm used to mountain passes where you say "ooo" and "awwww" for ten minutes and then you're back in the foothills. Not here. These mountains went on for hours. Absolutely amazing. It's things like this that come to mind when people ask "How was your trip?" It's something that I can tell them about, but it's never anything that they'll understand unless they see it for themselves.

Eventually the mountains started to move off into the distance and the space between them grew. The lowlands held bogs and marshes and grasses as far as the eye could see. It took a long time, but eventually we left the mountain range behind completely and we were surrounded by � flatness. I almost felt like I was in Nebraska. Well, not really.

Finally, after about five hours of riding we arrived in Deadhorse, Alaska: the end of the Dalton Highway and as far as you can ride north in the United States (and all of North America, I believe). We had reserved an outrageously expensive room in the not-so-elegant Arctic Caribou Inn and still had the privilege of paying for dinner on top of that. I will confess that it was a very good dinner, and an all-you-care-to-eat buffet, so I could have really taken advantage of that if I'd had the appetite.

...continue to part 3


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