Bad Stretch of Road
As soon as I dismounted Valeria in Coldfoot, I ran into a friendly gentleman in work clothes who was impressed with my ride. Kevin works on tractor equipment, and from what I could tell, he was the only resident of Coldfoot who didn’t work at the truck stop. He immediately offered use of his laptop during the day while he was at work. I wound up spending at least an hour on journals and photos. Helpful!
Most of the folks at Coldfoot are college students who spend the summer up there, working in the restaurant, maintaining the small motel, or taking tourists on trips on the nearby river. Since it's late May, most of them had just arrived, and a few asked if I was a new guy. Word eventually got around the camp what I was up to, and just about everybody had to ask about it. I probably sounded repetitive, and like the kind of guy who only talks about himself. I suppose that's going to be the case for a while. I hope that doesn't become a permanent change.
I pitched my tent over by a pond, spent an hour or two reading a book, hung out with the other workers and Kevin when he finished up. Kevin even took me inside to buy me dinner! I was introduced to a sharp young lady who had worked there through a winter, along with her fiancé. The two of them had also hiked the AT, and when I heard that, we wound up talking about backpacking for at least ten minutes before I even looked at the menu. And once I did, holy smokes! Everything sounded so good! I wound up getting a dinner salad, a plate of French toast with eggs and bacon, and a side of reindeer sausage. Oh, and the northernmost beer in Alaska. I ate every last bit with no trouble. All of it was good.
The sun never went down for my first three nights, including the one spent in Coldfoot. About 7:30 PM, the sun started working its way down in the west. Then I noticed it was just barely dimmer and checked the time, thinking it was probably about 8:30 now.
Holy crap! I looked to the west to see how much lower the sun had gotten. and it wasn’t there. Flabbergasted, I looked around in all directions, and there it was, near the horizon, to the north! I’m not bad at keeping my bearings, so seeing the sun in the north freaked me out. I will probably never see that again.
So I hung out with the other workers until it was later than I realized. They even offered me a beer! Good guys, all of 'em. I could see myself doing this, even now as an adult. Work all summer, free room and board, not a bad situation to be in.
I'd expected to be able to resupply on food in Coldfoot, but they don't have a store, only a restaurant. I probably didn't quite have enough to make it to Fairbanks. I went to the restaurant and bought a loaf of sourdough off 'em. Just as I finished loading up Valeria, I turned around and went inside.
"I changed my mind. I'm having breakfast."
The trucker's special has gotta be the heartiest breakfast I've ever eaten. Biscuits 'n gravy, eggs, and hash browns, all in enormous portions. The white gravy even had hunks of sausage floating in it! Again, I ate it all, and it wasn't difficult. I set off for a long day of riding, rather satisfied.
Only 20 km down the road, I heard a couple friendly honks behind me, followed by the sight of a very familiar little gray motor home passing me. Bernd and Sabine pulled over 50 meters ahead of me. I caught up.
"Hey, you made it! We were worried about you!" Bernd exclaimed, leaning his shoulders out the window.
"Yeah, it was rough for a while, but I did it!"
"Yes, we just asked about you in Coldfoot, and they said you had left this morning. We're glad you made it OK! Where are you staying tonight?"
"I'm trying to make it to the Yukon River. Or actually, some campground eight km north of there."
"Us too! I hope we see you there! If you make it we'll make dinner for you!"
Now that's motivation!
Making it to the campsite at the Yukon River would mean 185 km in one day. I've ridden that far on a tour, but only through very flat areas. But I was out of the Brooks Range, the Yukon River would have to be in some sort of basin, and I'd heard that at least half of today would be paved. Sounds OK, right?
While Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range was tough, it was only one hill, mostly just a long build-up, and finally one killer at the end. Today...ho-ly crap.
On a previous tour, with a heavier bike, I only used its lowest gear once. Valeria's fourth gear is roughly the equivalent of that bike's lowest gear; she has three even lower than that. On a practice ride, I had trouble moving fast enough to even stay upright in her lowest gear!
I used Valeria's lowest gear at least half a dozen times today. I used gears 2 and 3 at least half a dozen times more.
The Dalton Highway exists essentially for two reasons: run maintenance on the oil pipeline, and truck supplies to the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay. With that in mind, I'm guessing the state said, "It'll only be professional drivers, and we're on a budget. Go ahead and send it right up and over every hill, grade it as high as it has to go, just minimize the distance and keep the cost down."
Every time I crested a ridge, I'd see another one maybe another 12 km ahead. I'd coast to the bottom in only a couple minutes, then spend over an hour climbing again.
"Oh, come ON!!!"
-me, at least 47 times in one day.
It wasn't until almost 5:00 PM that I made it to the Arctic Circle, only about halfway to the Yukon River. From here on out, pavement would be rare. The hills weren't going away, either.
I decided to hang out at the Arctic Circle for a while and have a snack. I wound up talking to three groups while I was there: a bunch of friends who were on their way to a surprise birthday party (and offered me a place to stay in Fairbanks!), a group of old folks in a tour van, and a couple that gave me a beer to take with me for tonight.
I summed up the courage and headed out for the inevitable: more hills and worse pavement. By the end of the day, the only thing keeping me going was the thought of a gigantic dinner with Bernd and Sabine. The roads deteriorated to the point of slop. The hills got slightly shorter, but stayed just as steep.
I finally arrived at the campground at 10:30 PM (still light out, of course), worried that Bernd and Sabine had gone to sleep already and I wouldn't get that dinner after all. I found their van and pulled up alongside to applause from the camping group next door. I guess they'd been talking about me.
Bernd and Sabine poked their heads out a side window.
"At 8:00, we thought you weren't going to make it, so we already had our steaks! Come inside though, we'll make you something!"
Couldn't get inside fast enough.
Sabine whipped up an enormous bowl of spaghetti, which I promptly devoured. I felt like I should do a favor in return for once, so I gave them the beer I'd received earlier at the Arctic Circle. Bernd poured us each a glass of wine and we drank with a hearty Prosit!
As it turned out, Bernd and Sabine didn't quite make it to the Arctic Ocean.
"You have to sign up for a guided tour ahead of time, they won't let you go see the ocean without security," Bernd explained. "And the town, well, you saw it, and we thought, 'This is not a place worth staying two nights.' So we turned around." After a year and a half, they were stopped 10 km short of the ocean because of a quick decision made by some guy in a suit thousands of miles away. What a shame.
We lost track of time (that happens a lot when it never gets dark), and we wound up staying awake talking until past 2:00 AM. The sun was rising. I happily set up a cowboy camp (no tent), slipped my cap over my eyes, and went right to sleep.
Bernd and Sabine left before I did in the morning. Today was...more of the same. Hills. Lots of them. Steep ones. And the pavement was worse!
It turns out they hose down the road once a year so it re-muds itself. This keeps it from getting too dusty and helps fill in the potholes and smooth out the washboards. But when muddy slop is an improvement to your road, it might be time to think about resurfacing it altogether.
The only thing keeping me going today was "I'm getting off the Dalton Highway today." Many hours later, I finally did. Pavement had returned for good! The hills started behaving more reasonably! I was pleased.
Towards the end of the day, I met a group of folks from Michigan who gave me a couple paper maps (I didn't have any, and they've already come in handy). I pressed on until late again, hoping to make my day into Fairbanks an easy day.
Days four and five both had nearly identical amounts of climbing, 2,780 and 2,772 meters, respectively. And day five was much shorter, and included non-Dalton roads! To put those numbers in perspective, neither Texas 4,000 route has a single day of over 2,000 meters of climbing. I think it's the most I've ever done! And to think I did it on the worst surface I've ever ridden on, and with a loaded bike!
I found a spot to camp near a creek and pulled in. Two young men were all camo-d up, face paint and everything, and were heading out to hunt bear. One had a rifle and the other had a bow. They planned to stay out all night, only returning roughly when I'd be waking up.
I walked over to my neighbors to introduce myself. They were a middle-aged couple, one retired Army, the other active, with their middle school-aged son Matthew. They would up offering me a beer and even made me a sandwich! A little later, Matthew and I made s'mores together. It had been a long time since I'd made one. It had been longer since I'd made one without burning the marshmallow.
My day into Fairbanks started with a hill. A long hill. A 25-km-long hill. It wasn't nearly as steep as anything I'd seen in the last two days, but c'mon. By now, I was sick of hills. Besides, I was trying to get into Fairbanks early. That went right out the window...
Now that I was permanently on pavement, the compass I attached to my handlebars stayed stable enough to be useful. It always seemed to be off though, pointing about 45 degrees off from what I expected based on the map. It wasn't until late in the day when I deduced that I might be at a high enough latitude for magnetic north and true north to be noticeably different.
As I was heading up one of the less-steep slopes on the 15-mile hill that started the day, a car pulled up alongside me and rolled down the window. I looked to my left and recognized two of the guys from Michigan I'd met last night.
"He-heyy!" I exclaimed, all smiles.
The guy in the passenger's seat was holding a smartphone sideways. "We got you, man, we got you!" They followed me for a minute and got me talking, then headed off.
On the recommendation of two different people, I took the long way into Fairbanks, encircling the whole thing, both to avoid traffic and to check out what was apparently a really cool bike shop. The road had...hills, and a couple breaks in pavement. Yeah...
For the first time, I saw other people on bikes!
OK, so it was a pretty cool bike shop, and they trued my front wheel for free. They said it was awfully close anyway, only had to work on it for about a minute. For the front wheel to be in that kind of shape after that kind of road, Valeria, you're a champ.
Patrick, the guy I met at the Arctic Circle, eventually had a friend come pick me up and take me to his place while he was out. Took a hot shower and felt much better. Patrick brought home a pizza and some company, and both of them went pretty well with a beer.
Patrick also did a long-distance bike tour years ago, from Alaska to Wisconsin. This was back in the day before clip-in pedals, and he even still has the shoes he wore! Amusing to look at now.