DAY NINE: SATURDAY, JUNE 20
2:30 AM comes around really early when you venture off to sleep at 11 PM the evening before. Here’s the parking lot at about 2:45 as the I hauled all my gear back to the bike; we would not be coming back to this hotel since we could not extend into a second night as they were now booked solid:
The ride out of Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle is by heading north on the Steese Highway. This road is in great condition near the city but starts falling apart the further out you get. We passed the small town of Fox and realized that the road was secretly trying to kill us. The straightaways had good riding surface but nearly every curve with a blind exit was full of gravel, potholes, or torn up pavement. We heard stories about the Dalton Highway being bad…well, it had nothing on the Steese.
The Dalton Highway sign was a welcome sight; located about eighty miles from our hotel, it is one of those signs that just beg you take a photo of it. It meant that I was getting very close to completing a bucket list I have had ever since I started riding more than thirty years ago. It was also very exciting to start seeing things that were very familiar from reading dozens of ride reports, watching countless TV shows and YouTube videos, and from chatting with those that made the journey before I did.
We had encountered little to no traffic coming the other direction as we headed north. We took our time capturing photos of the sign…where we encountered the first mosquitoes of the trip. And yes, they could be the state bird as they are large, voluminous, and constantly looking for a weak spot in one’s chemical protection. I had sprayed my clothes at home with Sawyer Permethrin which did a good job repelling the buggers. Note: Spray your camping gear with it as well, and allow it to dry. It’s not harmful after it dries…and it instantly kills all bugs that touch it like biting flies and ticks. The first time you camp and see all the dead gnats under your rain-cover, you’ll be sold on it.
I got out the Sawyer 20% Picaridin spray, a great alternative to any harmful to the body Deet product. Both of the Sawyer products worked very well to keep all the flying bugs away. I gladly shared the Picaridin spray so we would be both enjoy the time off the bikes. And no, I don’t have Sawyer stock but I should. They make amazing “kill the buggers” sprays.
The Dalton Highway, also known as the North Slope Haul Road, is mostly hard-packed dirt on its surface. Intermix lots of frost heaves, washboard riding surface, and hidden potholes that if hit would fling you off the bike, and you have one great adventure road. I have heard horror stories about this road, but in this early morning’s beautiful riding conditions, it was a blast to ride.
This road is infamous for two things…potholes and slickness. The potholes were usually the width of a motorcycle tire…and were deep enough that a full sized orange safety cone fit inside it well hidden. Hit one, and you would go over your handlebars instantly. Unfortunately, it happens too often from the stories I’ve heard from fellow travelers.
As for the slickness, they spray calcium chloride on the roads to keep the dust down from all the heavy truck traffic. Problem is when calcium chloride mixes with rain water, it makes the surface “slicker than snot”. There are many factual stories of riders going down trying to ride on a wet Dalton Highway. A online acquaintance of mine went down in May returning on the Dalton from Prudhoe Bay and totaled his motorcycle. He got home on a bike he purchased in Alaska to replace the broken one. I had no interest in chancing doing this ride under any type of adverse conditions; however, if that was the only way to do the ride while up here, I would have just backed off the speed a little and chanced it like many others have had to do in the past.
This is why when the weather forecast looked so great for the day, I jumped at the first chance to make my run to the Arctic Circle, which is about 5 hours north of Fairbanks according to Google Maps.
We came across this sign on the way up:
Coldfoot is the last town before the Brooks Mountain Range, which once navigated, takes you to the famous Arctic tundra of absolutely nothing but permafrost, marsh lands, and even more ravenous infamous mosquitoes. Deadhorse is another name for Prudhoe Bay, the final “town” that is really an oil refinery location several miles from Prudhoe Bay that connects with the Arctic Ocean. Many riders go all the way north as far as they can to Deadhorse, only to realize that they must then get on a chartered bus to go the last several miles for a chance to step foot in the Bay. Seeing a oil refinery was never my interest even though others love the additional challenge. I’d rather spend the extra day of riding that far north and back somewhere down south in the state that offered incredible mountain scenery. My choice…others may disagree.
The famous oil pipeline comes into view immediately on the Dalton Highway and you ride right next to it for much of the journey north. There are all kinds of points to stop, get off the bike, and take photos of it:
Those large vents on the top of the columns are actually radiators. Without it, the heat of the oil going through the large pipes would melt the permafrost and collapse the pipeline to the ground. In pictures of the pipeline, you will notice that it’s not straight…it zigs and zags to help accommodate future earthquake tremors and the entire pipe system is installed on massive shock absorbers.
Coming upon the Yukon River bridge is an exciting moment. The bridge, with bottom planks of wood, can be very slippery when wet due to the volume of mud on the planks. If you look at the first light post in the picture below, you will see a camera at the top of the pole. It is prohibited to stop on the bridge. Do such, and you’ll be sternly warned to move your vehicle immediately by somebody watching you on the surveillance system.
On the other side of the bridge, to the left, is the famous Yukon River Camp. It’s a must stop for fuel for the bikes and the stomach…and they actually have some decently priced snacks and souvenirs there as well.
As usual, you go inside, leave a credit card at the register, and go back out and pump your fuel a hundred yards away. Only two choices here….Diesel and Unleaded. If your bike requires premium unleaded, you’ll want to bring some bottles of octane booster with you to Alaska…only about 40% of the stations we stopped at seemed to offer premium. Luckily the Vstrom can run on unleaded or anything that may be similar in appearance.
Before I forget, incorrect Alaskan fact number whatever: I had heard reports that some places do not take credit cards. No matter how remote we got, everybody took credit cards…sometimes it took 2-3 minutes for them to establish a connection to wherever…but everybody took credit cards no matter how small or remote they were. It still doesn’t hurt to have a stash of Canadian and American money with you though, just in case. I kept the currency I wasn’t actively using in the map stash pocket of the Latitude jacket behind the outside left breast pocket. Nobody was the wiser that lots of currency hid out there. Don’t bother robbing me in the future…I’m broke again after this trip.
Back to the Camp. Damn, I’m bad with names, and my notebook was too big to carry in my riding suit pockets so it stayed in my tank bag most of the time. We started chatting with the cashier/order taker/room clerk/jack of all trades guy (I want to say his name was Steven but not 100% sure and my apologies if I am way off) and had a great conversation as our breakfast order was being made. He had traveled the entire country and ended up working here at the camp for the summer; his last state to visit. He told us stories, made sure we had plenty of coffee refills, and gave out the sarcasm as well as he received it. Nice guy, I wish him the best of luck in his own journeys in the future.
Rooms were available here for rent; very expensive at $209 a night (according to the website) for something a shade smaller than a typical dorm size room…mostly for the truck driver or construction crews that would be working in the area:
One thing about Alaska meals…you never leave hungry…and I’m one of those guys that can EAT. They feed you an ungodly amount of food everywhere and the quality seemed to always be top notch. This diner’s food was extraordinarily good and definitely recommended:
After blowing an hour here and not seeing a single soul come through the doors, we bid farewell to our host with the understanding we’d be back in a few hours to refuel the bike on the way south and to pick up some souvenirs. And YES…they have oval stickers!!!
If you ever watched Ice Road Truckers, a TV show, you were probably fascinated with one part of the Dalton where Rollercoaster Hill was shown. This is a humongous hill that requires semi drivers to fly down it as fast as possible, taking up the entire road, so that they could make the ascent up the other side. This hill is impressive. Very impressive. Since there was no traffic at all, I had to get a shot as best as possible to show it:
Believe me, this picture does no justice as to the scale of this hill nor the angles on each side of it.
The road curved through the mountains, hill, and tundra.
To keep you on your toes, the asphalt would disappear for miles at a time, usually with a nice frost heave up or down onto gravel:
You may not be able to see it above, but there’s a speed limit sign showing 50 MPH. There are sections of this road you can’t go faster than 20 MPH…and there are sections you could easily do 80 MPH plus if you wanted. The problem was that the road changed consistency and quality within feet…so one needs to stay alert on this road.
Exactly 60 miles north of the Yukon River Camp appears a sign:
Eighty yards further, another one appears:
And two hundred yards up the access road is the one sign that had been on my bucket list for many, many years:
Yes, the mandatory motorcycle in front of the sign pic…and the proof that I made it there as well.
Jeffrey and I were the only two at this sign for the entire time we were there, probably around thirty minutes or longer. Of course, we each took numerous photos of bike each other, and self here. This sign was something I had talked to my mother about for some time before she passed and I took some time alone to take care of something personal I had promised to her. It’s amazing how seeing a simple sign affixed to wood pole took all of my stresses away and provided a feeling of accomplishment I had not felt in my soul for many years. It was an emotional, spiritual, and fulfilling experience that I never will forget. It has brought many smiles to me as I think back to it and know it will for the rest of my life. Yeah, yeah, yeah…cry me a river.
Okay, enough with the sappy reflection. Mileage from my driveway to the sign was 4,723. In some ways it felt like a million…and in other ways it felt like I had just left home the day before.
The ride back south seemed to go much faster. Of course, we had an idea what to expect, had an idea where the stops would be, how the roads would change, and it was actually getting a little warmer out. The view was awesome going the other way as well:
About five miles north of the Yukon River Camp, we had passed another trading post on the way up that had signage along the road about souvenirs and such. I believe this was the Hot Spot Cafe and Arctic Circle Gifts. So I made it a point to stop in on the way back south. I captured a few photos, but this one really stands out:
This was a old converted commercial walk-in freezer, re-purposed out here in the middle of nowhere into a customized restroom. The inside of the door:
Sometimes it releases, sometimes it doesn’t. At least you’ll be protected from the bears that frequent the site, according to the onsite owner.
As usual, we had a great conversation with the owner…a forty-something woman, attractive but with the standard hard Alaskan look to her. She was a pilot truck driver who decided this is where she wanted to life to be lived at. We bought a cold drink to quench our thirst, talked for thirty minutes, and moved on. Their souvenirs seemed to be more for the motorcycle gang crowd than the Arctic Circle visitor (you know, the hard-core types of shirts with raunchy cartoons and such on them) so I did not add anything to my presents I would send home in a few days.
Five miles later, we jumped off at the Yukon River Camp and refueled as we had in the morning and bought a few items that eventually got sent home as a surprise for the wife through the postal service a few days later (the oval stickers staying in my tank bag). Traffic going north was picking up and we actually had to wait in line for fuel. There were a number of people inside the building getting food and shopping the merchandise. It pays to leave the hotel at 3 AM to start riding sometimes.
Across the road from the Camp is a small wooded building:
This is a Dept of the Interior building with BLM employees located inside. Not only do you learn all about the Dalton Highway and the Alaskan Pipeline, you can self-complete a childish certificate acknowledging your success at making it to the Arctic Circle. Yes, I filled one out…stuck it in the side of my left pannier, and now it sits on my work bench. Pretty cheesy, but hey..do you have one? Didn’t think so. Am I going to hang it? Don’t think so.
Our return into Fairbanks happened at approximately 1PM I believe. Our entire journey to the Arctic Circle and back took about ten hours, including all the lengthy stops we made. On our way out of town, we had passed the Walmart Supercenter in the retail district so I led the two of us to the automotive area and parked the bikes near the oil change lanes.
Rumor had it that if you buy your oil at Walmart to do a change in the parking lot, that they will lend you a oil drain pan, take your old oil and filter and dispose of it for you, and do it all gladly and with a smile. It was my goal to try this out. Walking up to the open bay doors, I got the attention of one of the attendants. Ten seconds later, I had two oil pans and a couple of paper towels in my hand….all given over with a smile and encouragement to take our time in the parking lot and to bring our waste products back to him when we were finished.
My bike uses Shell Rotella T6 synthetic; a one gallon jug sells for $21.74 including tax. Walmart carries it, so I bought it there. I had packed a oil filter for the trip so I dug that out along with my tools. Jeffrey and I then spent the next hour doing our oil changes (we both have skid plates that have to come off to access the oil filter which adds a considerable amount of time to the process). By 2:15 PM, we were done. Handed the oil over to the attendant, who invited us to feel free to stop by and do it again whenever we wanted. Not sure that will ever happen, but I told him I would make sure others knew about it in my upcoming ride report.
On this day, I alone shot over 400 photos. Only 25 made it here due to the space issues of doing these reports and hosting one’s own images (sorry, have had photos disappear on Photobucket, Flickr, etc). Prefer to host them myself, which requires limiting size, resolution, and number. After I get the entire ride report done, I look to work on changing the shown images to a bigger size. One thing at a time; everybody wants the next installment of the report so that’s the current focus.
We ended up finding a room at the first play we tried…the Hampton down the street from Walmart. Very expensive though at $236.52 for a room with two beds…the only room type they had left. But I was needing the comfort that only a motel room could provide and I would put up with Jeffrey’s all night Facebook stalking another night.
We were welcomed to the hotel by a different type of bear:
We got completely into the room around 3 PM, which allowed much needed laundry to be completed before dinner time. We received a good reference for a restaurant on the other side of Walmart, had a good meal, and returned to the hotel to veg for the remainder of the evening.
Tomorrow would find us visiting a very evil Santa Claus at his place of residence; encountering live and very close forest fires; working our way southwest through the state towards the famous Hatcher Pass; and a horrific motorcycle crash that changes everything for the rest of the adventure. Same bat time, same bat channel.
Mileage: 390 miles (around that amount)
Areas traversed: Fairbanks, Arctic Circle, Fairbanks
Maintenance: $21.74 (oil)