Alaska – The Last Frontier Starting The Long Haul South
Alaska, the Last Frontier as they like to be known, with a state capital that can only be accessed by boat, a state full of gold – both the yellow and the black varieties, correspondingly expensive, and with a seemingly republican American population with a casually racist, though often reasoned, attitude across the majority. But step aside from the imposed and inherent flaws of the immigrant residents and immerse yourself in the natural beauty, the wilderness, and the Alaskan Natives – it’s one incredible place. The summer, whilst tourist season, is almost downtime in terms of traditional Alaskan life with the winter ice roads having disappeared, the mushing dogs taking their well earned rest and access restricted to the scant road and sea networks across the state.
Landing in Alaska on midsummer day was surreal, a delayed transfer due to a storm in Seattle meant an arrival of 1am became 3am – so another unsociable flight time but why break the habit of a lifetime! But as we took off from a dark and blustery runway just south of Canada, as we climbed above the weather and headed north ticking off the degrees of latitude, and as we were being served a complimentary nightcap, the darkness turned to twilight and the sun soon rose above the horizon – more in the northern sky than the east – and that was the last sunrise of Alaska, because from there on in the sun never set!
From Fairbanks in central Alaska, the plan was to make my way North along the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse, the most northerly accessible point on the continent and from there start pedalling South. Only the first 400mi was certain, the rest would fall into place. Despite a lack of route plan for the short term options quickly came up, Alaska is a friendly place and chatting to various people – locals, travellers and holiday makers alike – a worthwhile plan started to fall into place.
A day after landing, having assembled my bike, built two wheels in the frame and fork with zip ties for guides, eaten a lot and theoretically purchased supplies for a week or two away from civilisation I set out for a pedal, jetlagged but keen to get the legs turning after a hectic week of travelling. The plan was to take a short day ride to the start of the Haul Road, the James Dalton Highway as it is officially known, and from there, being that it’s dead-end road and with little desire to ride it twice, hitch North. Here I met two hunters, Ryan and Jeremiah, sweetened with the offer of dinner at the only service station on the highway, I’d found a ride all the way to Deadhorse and the Arctic Ocean. We got along well and with 24h sunlight time of day ceased to matter. Arriving at a camping spot at some time in the afternoon, setting up camp, building a fire and shooting some arrows alongside a little liquid refreshment, the only realisation of the hour was in noting that the sun had started to climb across the sky again – so much for trying to sort the jetlag out!
After finally a good night’s sleep at Prudhoe Bay it was time to set out, hardly refreshed nor ready for some 500 gruelling miles back to civilisation but keen to get rolling and start the journey south. A weather front that had rolled in the first day turned into a leisurely start, a chance meeting with a group from Juneau on a canoeing expedition some chat over breakfast sparked a little mutual jealousy of each others plans but concluded with the offer of a bed in the Alaskan capital and the agreement to swap stories when we next met.
By 2pm the weather had brightened up and the pedal down the Haul Road was underway. Once only a winter ice road, still feared by many and one with no lack of horror stories attached. So here I was, pedalling away from very little, towards basically nothing, into a wilderness further in distance than anywhere achievable back home in the UK.
To describe the Dalton Highway, though interspersed with short-lived asphalt sections in peculiar locations, for the most part it’s a dirt road. Imagine easy mountain biking along green routes at the local trail centre, dirt roads of varying quality – largely flat to start with, following the Sagavanirktok river South – but with the addition of 40t trucks flying, albeit courteously, past and on a bike laden with 4 panniers, bar bag, food and water, camping equipment.
A late start led to a late finish, owing in part to the roadworks and one way traffic requirements for about 15mi, but a good day none the less. At around 10pm, with the sun having returned, I rolled back into the spot where I’d camped with my hunter friends two nights previously. Presumably with the weather of the previous 24h they’d struck camp and moved back South but thoughtfully leaving a note attached to an unopened beer awaiting my arrival.
Built as a service road to support northern oil fields the road follows the Trans Alaskan oil pipeline for the first half its route across the state. The Dalton can be divided into three sections, to the north you have the baron tundra roamed by caribou herds, moose, grizzlies and, occasionally towards the north end, wandering polar bears, and mosquitos – thousands and thousands of mosquitos! As the road follows the adjacent oil pipeline South the tundra turns to mountains and one climbs across the Brooks Range which forms the Alaskan portion of the continental divide. Then to the South of the Brooks mountains, though the wildlife is similar, the scenery changes. Crossing the tree line leads to the rolling – if colossal – hills back towards civilisation!
Of all the large aggressive animals that could easily ruin your day it turns out the tiny mosquito is the greatest pain. These little critters rule the tundra, they cause caribou herds to stampede and they necessitate a slightly different approach to life. Spinning away on the bike was generally safe. Stopping for more than about three and a half seconds however, was risky business! Any patch of your body not lathered in DEET was at risk, lycra was certainly not mosquito proof and a head net became one of my most valued possessions. What turned out the better approach was to keep trousers and jacket strapped to the bike and therefore ready to pull on over everything at a moments notice. Collecting water, filtered off the tundra, called for thick gloves too; and in the evenings, thick socks covering ones ankles – safe from mosquitos but then sweating buckets in the heat!
Three days across the tundra made way for the Atigun Pass at 1,444m in the Brooks Range. Perhaps more just two long days cycling but with the weather leading to another lie in and a later start on day three the pass made for a fitting target. With an interest in aviation I’d been keen to understand the navigation challenge of flying this route through the mountains. Even with a visible road to follow I could appreciate the difficulty – from the air the pass is one minor side valley following a series of turns none of which the obvious and where the wrong option would likely leave you approaching at speed a vertical cliff face!
Thankfully the road was easier to follow on the ground and the maze of turns made for some incredible scenery. Beginning the ascent around the first switch back an oversize lorry carrying quarry equipment was making its way slowly up the Pass – the race was on! I pondered whether our power to weight ratios were much different but needless to say his was better, or at least more consistent, and eventually I was overtaken. Then the final turn revealed another climb, tiring now, and with a late start meaning it was already part way through the evening, the mountains revealed a gem of a camping spot – flat ground, an incredible view, a clear flowing stream and a convenient pole to hang the food cache out of the way of curious grizzly bears.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that bears were a problem but their presence necessitates a level of caution and good practice with camping. If a bear catches the scent of your food then it is likely to investigate. If it gets that food, then that’s that; if it’s you that smells of food, then that’s you! Presented with the options on researching this it seemed that you either carried everything scented in a bear-resistant barrel or you hang your food cache out of harms way. Though I met a few cyclists with barrels strapped to their racks I’d previously concluded that this would be inconvenient and a needless extra weight so I opted for the latter option. Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the barrel option instead, the choice to hang a pannier full of food wasn’t always the best choice! A suitable hanging location became the defining point of a wild camping spot and on the tundra, well there are no trees fortunately the adjacent oil pipeline proved worthwhile for throwing a line over!
Turns out my tiredness in trying to calculate food requirements meant a severe lack of worthwhile snacks, plenty of carbs for dinner but not enough snacks! Setting out on Day 4 it was another 200m climbing to the Pass then mostly a roll downhill to Coldfoot Camp, the half way point and hopefully a chance to refuel. Coldfoot brought back memories of visiting Florida as a teenager. Less so for the glitzy surroundings, rather more for the all-you-can-eat buffet dinner and breakfast! As a skinny teenager I could certainly make the most of this. But as a hungry cyclist I feel I put my former self to shame!
Half way in four days, people had been saying the Haul Road could take anything from 10 to 16. So far so good. The temptation to take a day off half way was quite overwhelming – complimentary camping, great food and a licenced bar was all too appealing! In hindsight a days rest would have made the southern section a little less tiring but as I supped the third half pint of coffee Mohan, an Indian cyclist who was to become a good friend, appeared and introduced himself. Refreshed from a day off he’d struck camp and rolled a few miles down the hill for breakfast. An hour and two more coffees later we rolled out and back onto the highway.
Mohan had a differing approach to food, whereas I and a lean ration taking up one small pannier and the three remaining panniers lightly packed with other equipment; Mohan had 3 panniers full of food and a single pannier plus a rucksack strapped to the bike for everything else! I think the ideal is somewhere in between! But for the remaining days we joined forces – Mohan had curry, I had rice; Mohan had sweets, I had coffee – it worked well.
In the south the character changes. After the Brooks Range most of the rivers parallel the general direction of the Yukon. With an East-West course this means that with a southerly direction of the highway, the road must cut across them; and correspondingly the road climbs up and over every line of hills in between – and in Alaska the hills are big! In the UK we have long climbs, we have short climbs, we have steep climbs and gradual climbs. In Alaska they have steep and gradual climbs, but they only seem to have the long, and longer, lengths of these – a feeling perhaps not helped by a general lethargy from the previous days, nor the addition of some 30kg to the bike! But for every up, there’s a down and the distant sight of a yellow diamond warning sign became a sight of overwhelming joy in knowing that, though perhaps short-lived, there was some relief.
All in all the highway itself took 7 days, plus an extra day from its South terminus back to the city of Fairbanks and 3 days at the start to cycle and hitch to the top. Two of the seven could have been ridden in a long day but were thwarted by weather conditions.
Things break on the Dalton too, it’ll put your kit through its paces.