Saturday, June 11, 2005

 

Some Very Cool People


When I awoke later that morning a strong wind had started up. It was enough to keep the little buggers in check and I was able to make some coffee and have something to eat. I was tending to my mosquito bites and drinking coffee when a red pick-up truck rolled into the pull-off.

Enter Andreas Kieling; German native/Alaskan transplant, wildlife photographer specializing in photographing the various and regional bears of Alaska and author of several books on the same subject as well as a documentary film maker. He approached me with a big smile and a glad handshake and we immediately hit it off.

Andreas is traveling up and down the Dalton doing research for an upcoming documentary on the Highway and its users. We stood around basking in the windy, mosquito free sunshine and talked about everything Alaska. After hours of sharing experiences and relating stories, we each took a few snap shots and headed south in our separate vehicles. It was inevitable that we would see each other again so no goodbyes were exchanged.

Along the ride towards the Arctic Circle that day I met several other travelers; Steve Greene, a mechanic and gold miner who gave me some cold drinks and food while I was stopped taking some pix, and an interesting couple living in Wiseman AK as well. Eric and Tara had been picking morel mushrooms in the Yukon River Valley when they came across Tim Campion who told them to be expecting me along their way back to Wiseman.

We hung out along side the road and talked for a while about the tour and life in the small town of Wiseman (population 15). When it was time to depart Eric awarded me with a big hunk of dried caribou meat, then they sped off, up north towards Cold Foot and Wiseman, and I continued inching towards the Arctic Circle and the Yukon River.

At the Arctic Circle I stopped for dinner. The wind was still high and I took advantage of its effect to break and filter water before pushing on 60 more miles to the Yukon. I set out for the River at 7 p.m. and was determined to make it there by early morning. A lot of terrain and elevation changes stood in my way on the road down to the Yukon, as well as the pavement stopped shortly after/during a long ascent of ‘Beaver Slide Hill’; however it wasn’t until the wind quit that the ride got really difficult.

At the climb up to where the Finger Mountains are, and with no more wind to hold them at bay, the mosquitoes attacked with a vengeance. Just like the climb up Gobblers Knob the night before they harassed me all the way; biting my legs and arms, buzzing in and out of my ears, nesting in my hair, flying behind my glasses! I cursed and swatted at them all the way up the climb but there were too many of them to keep from making it miserable. I finally reached the top after 20 minutes of misery and in an effort to escape them, I grabbed a bunch of gears and I tore off down the other side. I was 40 miles from the Yukon and I rode like hell to get there with mosquitoes knocking at my backdoor the entire way.

It was around one in the morning when I got to the ‘Hot Spot’, a café/tourist destination about 5 miles above the Yukon River, and stopped for the remainder of the evening. Again the mosquitoes were everywhere. I wasted no time and made camp, climbed inside the shelter and in minutes fell asleep.



Friday, June 10, 2005

 

The Mosquitoes Attack!


It was 2 p.m. when I woke up. I lingered around Cold Foot resting, stretching, and drinking water until the early evening.

At 9 p.m., feeling properly rested and after the sun lost most of its strength, I decided to hit the road. I bought some more food to guarantee that I would have plenty to make it to the Yukon River, over a hundred miles away.

I thanked the nice folks at Cold Foot for their kind hospitality and turned the bike south bound for the Yukon. The air was cool and the road was paved. The wind blew slightly from the north and everything was going great. I was excited to be on the road, refreshed and ready to push on with a goal to make it below the Arctic Circle that evening.

I made great time after leaving Cold Foot. The pavement made the climbs tolerable and the descents fast. I rolled along for well over 40 miles before needing a rest break. After passing pump station 5, I stopped to eat some food and stretch my legs before starting the mile long climb up to Gobblers Knob.

Immediately after I got off the bike they came from out of nowhere: mosquitoes by the hundreds crowded the air and swarmed my body. They were the size of flies and with a voracious appetite for blood. I put on what little bug protection I had as quickly as I could but it was of no use. The head net helped keep them off my face but they found places on my ankles and hands and probed right through my fleece to feed. I showered myself in ‘bug dope’ and tried to eat something to energize myself for the upcoming climb but the mosquitoes were too much.

I put away the food and started the climb, thinking that some elevation would help knock back their strength. A cloud of them gathered and chased me all the way up the climb to Gobblers Knob. When I reached the top their numbers multiplied and I was in the same predicament that I was in before. By now I had had enough and decided to stop for the night. Instead of pushing on to the Arctic Circle, I was just going to stay there. (Note: The picture on the left is the view from Gobblers Knob at 2 a..m.)

Without delay I set up my shelter, packed away all the food then dove in the tent. Over 15 mosquitoes made it inside the shelter with me. I reveled in smashing each of them as a mosquito army buzzed and danced atop my tent outside trying to get in. At times, after I fell asleep and with my hand lying out-stretched and close to the bug netting, I would awake to find dozens of them clinging to the screen, close to my hand, trying to get inside. It was maddening and, needless to say, I got little sleep that night.



Thursday, June 09, 2005

 

114 Mile Day


I awoke to the sound of rain drops Thursday morning. I got everything packed inside the tent so when it stopped raining I’d be ready to ride. After some time the rain subsided. The sky turned blue again and I got on the road shortly after breaking camp.

I made it down to Toolik Lake where the two biologists that I met on the flight to Dead Horse were at work. I met Chad, the camp manager, upon arriving at the Toolik Lake Field Station and he showed me around. After a brief tour of the camp we walked over to where David Huber was working. Jeff Welker, biology professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage and one of the other people that I met on the flight had left earlier that morning for Dead Horse. Because David was busy at work the visit was kept brief, just long enough to say hello and wish each other good luck.

Chad then showed me the kitchen and encouraged me to help myself to whatever I needed to make it to Cold Foot. I made a sandwich, said thanks and farewell and set out towards the climb up Atigun Pass.

The weather changed back into rain about 10 miles into the ride. When I reached pump station 4 I geared up for the long wet climb up Atigun. The wind was at my back so the riding wasn’t terribly difficult -- just soggy -- and by 8:00 p.m. I reached the beginning of the climb. I started the long, relentless ascent of Atigun after a short rest break. It’s about a 12-15% continual grade that climbs for over 2-3 miles, gaining maybe 1500-2000 feet of elevation with very little relief through out the entire climb. It took an hour-and-a-half and a lot of work to reach the top of the pass.

At the top of the pass, I met Tim Campion. Tim was touring the Dalton on his BMW enduro motorcycle and was heading south to Cold Foot. He had some beef jerky that he generously shared with me and then told me of his decision to tour the Americas after losing his job in the wine industry down in California. He sold everything that he owned, bought a motorcycle and gear, and set out on an adventure of a lifetime! We hung out atop the pass, ate jerky and swapped stories until it was too cold to hang around any longer. We wished each other a great adventure and took off down the other side of the pass.

It was a fun descent down the other side of Atigun and it continued to roll out for several miles after the real meat of the descent was over. I stopped 7 miles from the top of Atigun atop of another nice 1 mile descent to survey the land and tend to my bikes drive train. The muddy roads and wet conditions did horrible things to my bikes performance, so I took some time to clean and lube it. Even though I had put in a pretty tough day I wasn’t tired. At that point I had logged over 50 miles. I debated staying the night where I was or pushing on towards Cold Foot another 65 miles away. “I could always stop somewhere else if I get tired,” I thought, and at 12:00 a.m. I took off for Cold Foot.

The roads to Cold Foot were smooth and fast and seemed to consistently roll slightly downhill with only some modest climbs mixed in. For the most part it was a fun and easy 65 mile ride and at 5:15 a.m. I made it to Cold Foot just in time for the breakfast buffet to start!

I ate, took a shower and washed my clothes. After completing my chores I began to hunt for a place to sleep. It was hot in Cold Foot! 84 degrees F and the sun beat down on the town with seemingly all of its strength. With the sky being so clear and the sun so strong finding a place to nap comfortably wasn’t going to be easy. I asked my waitress if they rented bunks, they didn’t but she offered up her spare bunk and said that I could sleep there while she was working. An offer too good to refuse! I slept for a little more than four hours.



Wednesday, June 08, 2005

 

Happy Valley to Toolik Lake


I slept in until 8 a.m. I got up just in time to say farewell to both crews as they headed out into the bush for a full day's work.

I hung out with Dale, listening to his reggae collection, drinking coffee, and talking about Alaska until 11 a.m. then geared up and hit the road.

The ride that morning started off great. Road conditions were similar to the previous day; some gravelly sections but a prominent smooth path always existed. It was around pump station 3 that conditions changed. The smooth road gave way to chatter bumps and washboard-like surfaces with loads of deep gravel. I slowed to a crawl.

My average speed fell from 11-12 mph to 2-5 almost instantly upon hitting that section. I cut through the gravel at a snail's pace for well over 20 miles, not to mention the climbs where getting sleeper and longer and a mild head wind was growing more persistent. Whenever a truck passed by the gravel dust from its wake would blow straight into my direction, leaving me temporarily blind.

A generous trucker stopped at the top of “Oil Spill Hill” and had a cold bottle of water waiting for me when I finally reached the top. “You look like you could use it after all of that work,” he said.

Originally I had planned on doing at least 70 miles that day but after almost 4 hours of riding in those conditions and covering just over 20 miles I decided to find a place to camp.

I found a nice spot on the tundra close to Toolik Lake and set up camp. Shortly after finishing dinner, sunburnt, dirty, and exhausted I climbed into my tent and fell asleep.

I awoke some time later to a strange noise outside the tent. It was close by so I sat up and tried to figure out what it was. It took a few minutes and some stealthy looking around and after a few minutes I could see that it was just a couple of ground squirrels. Relieved, I fell back asleep.



Tuesday, June 07, 2005

 

Day 2 on the Dalton



It was a beautiful clear and sunny day when I awoke Tuesday morning. I filtered water from a nearby water source and after breaking camp I set out to tackle a bunch of miles. With my body properly caffeinated and some vicious metal on the mini-disk player I headed out to see what there was to be seen.

The day was fantastic! The road was smooth, flat, and somewhat fast, with a big section of pavement mixed in. The scenery was incredible; rolling tundra and a deep blue sky dotted with clouds made for a nice backdrop for the abundance of wildlife roaming the land. I saw lots of birds-including Canadian geese, Northern Pintail and Surf Scoter Ducks-as well as arctic ground squirrels, red fox, and many different small groups of caribou along the 50 mile ride to Happy Valley.

It was 6:00 p.m. when I rolled into Happy Valley and quickly met up with Tim and Dale. Tim, a helicopter mechanic, was busy fixing a problem with one of the camp's two choppers while Dale was preparing the camp's evening meal. I was only there only 5 minutes and an invitation for dinner and a bunk to stay in for the evening was extended to me. It was an offer that I couldn’t refuse, especially after seeing and smelling the BBQ pork chops that Dale was fixing, and I decided to stay the evening in Happy Valley.

I had great time socializing and relating stories with Ken, Dan, Chuck and the rest of the crew. After dinner I washed up and with a full belly I hit the sack.



Monday, June 06, 2005

 

Finally On Tour!


...awoke at 7:21 a.m.

Later that morning it was still overcast and blowing snow as it was several hours earlier, just the sun was a different position in the sky. I broke camp, ate, and took a tour of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields up to the Arctic Ocean. While at the Arctic Caribou Inn, where the tour originates, I met a couple of guys-Tim & Dale-who were working at a land survey camp in Happy Valley which is about 80 miles south of Deadhorse.

“Stop by on your way down the road,” Dale the camp cook said. I told them that I would see them there.

After the Arctic Ocean tour was over I took a ride around town and then made my way, against the wind and through deep gravel, out of Deadhorse. It was slow going for the first 10 miles but the wind changed direction, the road smoothed out, and soon enough I began rolling along quite nicely.

This was it! After 4 plus years of planning I was finally on tour! The bike felt great, the wind was at my back and I was on my way! I felt good; cold, but good. The weight of the bike took some getting used to but after 20 miles or so I forgot all about it and just focused on the fun!

I stopped at the Franklin Bluffs that night and set up camp close to the Sagvanirktok River. I made some of the freeze dried food that I had and watched Long-Tailed ducks dive for food in a close by small semi-ice covered tundra pond.

The sun had burnt through the clouds and at 12:45 a.m. it was still as bright as if it were 12:45 p.m. I could see the road from where I was camped, but nobody was driving on it. I packed up my garbage along with the remainder of my food supply and hid it away from camp so as not to attract any animals. At 1:30 a.m. I fell asleep.



Sunday, June 05, 2005

 

The Adventure Begins



After a 7 hour delay and a re-routed flight up north I finally made it to Deadhorse. The flight was a bit longer than had originally been scheduled. Instead of just one quick stop in Fairbanks we also touched down in Barrow, then over to Deadhorse. It was a bit long but it wasn’t a bad flight and on the plane I met some interesting people; an engineer, a couple of field biologists, some of the flight crew.

After arriving in Deadhorse I wasted no time and immediately claimed my gear and began assembling the bike. The friendly and very accommodating staff at Alaska Airlines let me put the bike together in a cold bay as well as filled my water bottles and gave me fuel for my camp stove. It was about 12:30 a.m. when I headed out in search of a place to bed down for the night.
The word night only describes the time of day there is no darkness at this time of year in much of Alaska, especially this far north! I pedaled around the small town of Dead Horse briefly before picking a spot close to the airport. It was 25-30 degrees, windy, and snowing slightly.

The attendant at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel had warned me of two brown bears-a sow with a cub-that had been seen wandering around town earlier that day.

“They are familiar with people” she said. Bears that have spent time around people aren’t shy about getting close and seeing what you're up to, or if you have any food that they might like to eat, or if you are food that they might like to eat!

Too tired to worry about bears but too realistic to dismiss I slept on pins and needles that night and awoke at 7:21 a.m.