Alaskan Intermezzo >

Prudhoe Bay, AK

June 19, 2007

Amazing. After a full day in Fairbanks to recover, the pain of the climbs and the never ending harassment by mosquitoes is a rapidly fading memory, and I find myself eager for more. But for now it is a week and a half of luxury living to see Alaska with my parents.

On June 19th I flew to Deadhorse, Alaska. It is the northern-most road-accessible town in the world, and it exists to support the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Since a lot of the gear for my bike came together at the very last minute, I used the first day to ride around town and practice riding with a full load. I was a bit wobbly on the gravel, but everything checked out just fine.

The next day I took the tour of the Arctic Ocean and decided to go for a bit of a swim. At 34 degrees, the water is just perfect for vigorous exercise. I got lost around town trying to find a public gas station where I could fill my fuel bottles, and also where I could find some bear spray. But after about 10 miles of detours, I was all set and ready to take off down the Dalton Highway.

On my first day of riding, the road was flat, full of grazing caribou, and one grizzly bear which made himself scarce when I rode by. Fueled by dried pineapple and trail mix I rode until 10pm and felt great. The next day I discovered that my legs hadn’t fully recovered, and also that it was hot! Here I was wearing a sweater like a sucker. I got my first taste of sweet paved road that day which lasted for a good fifteen miles. And I found out that I was very popular with the mosquitoes. I got my first taste of steep grades with a loaded touring bike, and apparently 60lbs of gear makes a difference on my uphill performance. I ended the day camped under the pipeline with hundreds of new friends.

The following day brought cooler temperatures and rain. And rain brought mud, and mud fouled up my gears. Still I couldn’t be bothered by that, because I was riding through some of the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen, and I’d also met some incredibly nice people who offered me food and fresh water. With Galbraith Lake capping off the entrance to a glacial valley whose walls were the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east and Gates of the Arctic National Park to the West, I thought I was in a Byronian paradise. I ended the day camped about 10 miles north of the Atigun Pass, which at 4800 feet is the highest pass in Alaska (I suspect that is only the case because they haven’t been very gung-ho on building roads up here). That evening, or maybe early morning I awoke to hear a wolf whining around my tent. Too tired to be bothered, I just lied in my tent and gave it a good yelling-at. Some of my choicest salvos were: “No wolf! No!” and “You better stay away from my food or I’m gonna make me a new coat outta you!” I went back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that my sass-mouth handled that wolf right proper. It did.

So the next day, I climbed the Atigun Pass, crossed the Chandalar Shelf and after descending the other side I was welcomed by the incredibly sweet and invigorating smell of spruce trees. I didn’t realize how much I missed the smell of the forest until I’d come down that pass. I also discovered a public toilet, and even more marvelous than that was a man named James with a pressure washer. He let me borrow it to blast Clementine clean and get the caked mud off her chain, gears, derailleurs and brakes. I would later use my water bottles and face cloth to achieve a far inferior result down the road.

Anyhow, back to the scene at the public toilet. After monopolizing the toilet for 20+ minutes singing praises to its inventor, I was greeted by a tour van full of people who were curious as to why exactly I would be bicycling here in this foul weather. After talking with them for a while, it became generally known that I was a man who enjoyed delicious snacks upon occasion, and through a generosity that propelled me 85 miles that day they loaded me up with all manner of food. I scarfed it down, and felt reborn.

I ended the day just sort of Coldfoot after riding until a quarter till midnight, and darkness being nowhere in evidence. In Coldfoot, I stopped by the world-class visitors center and learned a lot about the various arctic habitats. I was also overjoyed to make use of facilities featuring automatically flushing toilets. Also in Coldfoot I found my first restaurant and decided that I would maybe take the day off to tank up on food. It was glorious.

When I continued riding, the terrain changed from generally downhill away from the Brooks Range and became a series of hard climbs and knuckle-whitening descents through valley after valley. Coming into one valley, I saw a black bear foraging on the side of the road. I screeched my bike to a halt and called out to it to see if it wanted to maybe let me ride it. Rudely, it bounded off into the trees before I had my chance.

I finally made my goal of the Arctic Circle past 9 at night, having run out of water an hour before. I met some people intending only to ask them for water, but they invited me to stay and eat dinner with them. It turns out they were all young Army officers newly stationed at Fort Wainwright. We spent the evening telling jokes, hunting one very vocal squirrel, and drinking a variety of wines. I had a great time.

Thanking god for not having a hangover, I began bicycling the next day around noon, and reached the Yukon river after a long day of crossing still more valleys. I crossed the Yukon River that evening, and finally made camp somewhere near Pump Station #7 (for the pipeline). The following day I cursed and sweat through dry burnt-out forest, and up and down some of the longest climbs of the trip. When I finally reached the end of the Dalton Highway, and the beginning of the paved Elliot Highway, I kissed the ground. I rode a few miles along the Elliot, and made my camp in a bed of moss off the road convinced that it was all sweet-living to Fairbanks. A few more climbs made brutal by my absolutely dead legs, and 75 miles later I arrived in Fairbanks.

The end of this portion of my journey saw me racing faster and faster as the sweet sweet promise of a shower and laundry became ever more real…

Alaskan Intermezzo >