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Tue Aug 28 2012: Getting ColdFoot on the Dalton Highway

Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay.

The name is whispered in revered tones as one of the Holy Grails of adventure motorcycling - the most northern point in North America that you can travel by overland vehicle. The treacherous road leading up there has been featured in Ice Road Truckers and World's Most Dangerous Roads.

So, since we were in the neighbourhood, we decided to see what all the fuss was about...

In 1968, North America's largest oil field was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Then the oil crisis hit, so the US Government thought what a great idea it would be to build America's most dangerous road in the northern tundra of Alaska, and then stealth-market it on ADVRider to attract motorcyclists from all over the world to brave 414 miles of dirt, mud, potholes, washboard, gravel and pay over $5 a gallon along the way for the privilege! And the motorcyclists came, and together they all subsidized the construction of the Alaska Pipeline!

South section of the Dalton Highway, the Alaska Pipeline a constant fixture

We left Fairbanks the morning after arriving. So many people along the way had warned us of the impending cold weather that we were feeling a little rushed. The rains in the area had not let up for the last couple of days and the forecast didn't leave us with any window for dry weather for another week. So we decided if we were going to do this, it would be now. I think we suffered a bit for our lack of preparation. More on that a bit later...

The Dalton Highway begins about 70 miles north of Fairbanks. Almost immediately we are confronted by construction, and we are told to wait for a pilot vehicle to escort us through a single lane of freshly-laid dirt. The pilot vehicle eventually showed up after 15 minutes, but it led us all the way through while tailing a watering truck! The construction crews water the dirt to keep down the dust, so we were basically riding fresh mud created just a hundred feet ahead of us. Great.

We slowly slipped and slid over the muck, a lineup of impatient truckers behind us shaking their heads at these two bikes from Ontario with street tires barely keeping their rides upright. If we dropped the bikes at this point, they probably would have just run us over to keep their delivery schedules!

Our first break at Yukon Crossing

Two muddy construction zones later, we had our first break at Yukon Crossing. We gassed up our tanks for the next leg, ate a brief lunch and then talked to two bikers coming from the north. We were curious about the road ahead and since the weather and construction changes daily, the only fresh information are from travelers that have just come off the road. They told us we had endured the most toughest section and that it was just hard-packed gravel ahead of us. Neda and I breathed a collective sigh of relief until we found out that they had only ridden to the Arctic Circle marker and back, not all the way to the end of the Dalton. They had turned back at mile 115 of 414 and had no information on what was ahead further north - what many have said was the most treacherous part of the Dalton Highway. :(

Nice pavement on the Dalton is the exception, not the rule.
Beautiful scenery on the Dalton is the rule, not the exception.

We've officially crossed the Arctic Circle!

Anything north of the Arctic Circle gets to experience the midnight sun in the summertime, but is also plunged into 24 hours of darkness in the winter. Most tourists and motorcycle travelers end their Dalton Highway trek at the Arctic Circle marker, taking a picture of the sign for posterity and then turning back south to Fairbanks, but we're after much larger game!

There are only three towns on the Dalton Highway. No other services exist on the road, no McDonalds, no gas stations, no convenience stores, nothing but cold Alaska wilderness, 18-wheelers and the constant companionship of the Alaska Pipeline running parallel to the highway. I'm told that the Automobile Associations refuse to service the Dalton, not considering it a proper road. Any catastrophic breakdowns/crashes along the way will involve you hiring a private towing company to come out and fetch you at $5/mile back to Fairbanks. My mental calculator was working out how high the financial stakes were the further north we headed.

The "town" of Coldfoot came upon us at mile marker 175. "Town" in quotes because it looked to be a collection of trailers strewn across a muddy, gravelly lot just behind the trees off the highway. This was the last place we could get gas before Deadhorse, and a large sign reminded us, "Last gas for 240 miles". 240 miles was stretching the limits of our tanks, so we both made sure to fill up our 4L jerry cans just in case. I thought how ironic it would be to run out of gas on the Dalton, while not a hundred feet away, the Alaska Pipeline pumped 2.1 million barrels of oil a day past us...

Boreal Lodge in Wiseman

The second town is Wiseman, only 14 miles north of Coldfoot. It is an original gold mining community, but now houses historical log cabins and a few lodges and BnBs for travelers on the Dalton. Most of the population of 20 people practice a subsistence lifestyle, only hunting and gathering what they need to survive, nothing more. We stayed at the Boreal Lodge, which was quite a step up from the trailer/hotel in Coldfoot. That night, I pondered over all the travel advisories I'd read about the road to Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay. I felt like I had read just enough to scare me, but not enough to prepare me, given that our route to this point was already difficult and yet, from what I read, the worse was yet to come.

Neda didn't seem to be worried at all. Either we weren't surfing the same websites, or she's got balls of steel.

Well, tomorrow we find out.

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