Prudhoe Bay and the Infamous Dalton Highway
According to Dalton Highway lore, rogue truckers have outfitted their wheels with spikes and run motorcyclists off the road for sport. The highway is constantly being resurfaced with gravel, sand, and, in some areas, nails and spikes of varying sizes specially designed to shred tires. And on rainy days, the mud is so deep that it’s rumored to swallow rider and motorcycle whole. But let’s say you manage to overcome these obstacles; you’re certain to fall prey to the mosquitos, which are often compared to piranhas in their size and ferocity. Stranded riders have waited so long for assistance that never came, and finally formed tribes to live off the land, hunting caribou for food and skins, and huddling together in nearby caves. Motorcycle carcasses litter the surrounding tundra; a reminder of what could happen to those who dare take a ride on the haul road. At the entrance of the highway, just outside of Fairbanks, women and children cling to framed photographs of loved ones who entered the Dalton Highway, and accost outbound riders with questions. “Have you seen this man? Is he alive? He’s been gone since 2012! Please, tell me if you’ve seen this man!” They clamor.
The Dalton highway, it seems, was made for the fool, the crazy, and the suicidal.
I’ve always had a penchant for daredevilry, but never had the discipline to train and develop any special skills, such as skydiving or motocross. Also, I was never blessed with any grace and coordination, so my risk-taking has been relegated to the absurd and nonsensical. I might not have the skills, strength, and coordination to, say, climb El Capitán, but I am daring enough to shove a butter knife into an electrical socket to see if I can do it five times really fast. Upon waking up from the subsequent electric shock, I might commemorate my feat with a thumbs up selfie; my hair smoldering with the shape and texture of that of a troll doll. So it stands to reason that after reading about the Dalton Highway, I’d pack up my motorcycle and head north. My butter knife safely stowed in my toolbox.
We arrived in Fairbanks and allowed a couple of days to plan and prepare. I outfitted my motorcycle with a new set of off-road tires, and that was pretty much the extent of my preparations. Russ caught me watching cartoons on my iPad one morning and asked how my planning was coming along. “Swimmingly,” I replied, “just swimmingly.” Caught off guard I had to quickly think of something, and what with the constant rain we had been getting, that was the first word that came to mind. I couldn’t tell him that my idea of planning had been to open the Weather App and wiggle my fingers at the phone while muttering, “please be sunny, please be sunny, please be sunny.” It’s what I had done before my rides while living in Phoenix, and that seemed to work. Alaska, however, proved to be less cooperative. For the three days leading to my departure the route along northern Alaska was pounded with heavy rains. Unable to justify any further delays, I departed under light rain on the fourth day.
On my way out of Fairbanks I traveled northwest for about 15 minutes and merged into the Elliot Highway, falling in line with four other motorcyclists who happened to be traveling along the same route. For weeks I had searched online for riding partners to take on the Dalton Highway. There’s safety in numbers, I’ve heard people say, and that’s a comforting thought when you know that it’s almost certain that you'd be the one who’d need help. You’d be the one with the flat tire, or the fallen bike, or the faulty equipment. You'd be the one relying on people whose planning involves more than wiggling their fingers at their phones. So when I saw these four riders in front of me, I decided to fall in line, pretending I was part of their team. Eventually they noticed my presence and the group slowed down. When I slowed down with them, the rider in front waved for me to pass, but rather than accelerating I gave him a thumbs up. “I’ll stay right here if that’s OK with you,” I said. I could tell they were having a little powwow through their bluetooth radio, most likely trying to figure out what to do about this weirdo who was now intent on following them.
An hour later we reached the turn to the Dalton Highway and pulled over to take the customary Dalton Highway sign photo. The rain had stopped, but that didn’t make road conditions much better, as we now had the mud to contend with. I learned that the group of bikers were from Illinois and were bound for Prudhoe Bay, but what with the weather and their tight schedule, their leader decided it was time to turn back to Fairbanks. They couldn’t wait for road conditions to improve and couldn’t risk any major mishaps on the road. This sounded like a ploy to get rid of me. Instill enough fear on the weirdo that’s following and he’s bound to turn around as well. They asked about my plans and I said that I’d just keep going. “Well, you’re a damn fool, is what you are,” their leader said. “Roads like these… there ain’t no way one can keep the bike up right. You get stranded in the middle of the Dalton, between the mosquitos and the bears, you’re bound to be eaten alive one way or another. Is that what you want?” I guessed that I didn’t, but that wasn’t enough. “Do you have all the tools needed to replace a wheel? Do you have any spare tubes? How you gonna upright that monster if you fall in the mud?” He was now laying it on thick, so I told him that I did have all the tools, but left out the part about not really knowing what to do with said tools. My contingency plan remains pretty much the same regardless of the situation — I’ll figure something out. Fallen bike? I’ll figure something out. Flat tire? I’ll figure something out. On and on. I’m not sure where this conversation would have gone had it not been interrupted by a pilot truck with a Wide Load sign on top. The driver of the truck pulled over next to the group and asked if we were ready to move. A couple of trucks carrying heavy equipment were approaching and if we wanted to reach our destination today, then we better get going or we’d be stuck behind them. We scrambled to our bikes. I turned right to continue north and saw the other four bikers turn left, toward Fairbanks, and never saw them again.
The road up to this point had been paved, except for a couple of miles of gravel patches. The Dalton Highway starts as packed gravel with interspersedly paved portions that get progressively longer until eventually you can average between 70 and 90 MPH. The last sixty miles leading to Coldfoot are completely paved. It’s about 255 miles from Fairbanks to Coldfoot and it took me about 6 hours to get there. I refueled in Coldfoot and continued north for another 5 miles toward the Marion Creek Campground, my lodging for the night. I took the first spot close to the entrance and started setting up my tent when the attendant came by on his bicycle. “Howdy!” He said, “How’s the road treating you?” He was wearing a mosquito net, which made his features indiscernible. I told him that the road was nice, and he said that I was crazy. “You have a mosquito net? Because you’re gonna need one. Oh, damn mosquitos can be maddening. I’ve never seen so many mosquitos. And big too! Not so much right now, but just you wait.” I don’t know if it was the wind, the rain, or the temperature, but there wasn’t a single mosquito that evening. “You know, you’re the only fellow here today. We had four riders last night, but they left for Prudhoe Bay this morning. That where you’re going? You people kill me with your trips to nowhere. There’s nothing to see there but oil fields. Anyway, you have the entire campground to yourself, so chose any spot you like.” I told him that any flat piece of ground would do for me. “Oh, number twenty two is a beaut!” He went on, “that’s probably one of the best spots. You can just walk over to the creek and go for a swim, if you’re into that sort of craziness. But you have to bring your own towel. A lot of people think that we keep a stack of fluffy towels right here for campers to use, but no sir. They come up to my door, trembling, their teeth chattering, asking for a towel. They expect me to come out with a stack of those thick towels that have been warmed for their comfort. Not here! I tell them, ‘you can swim if you like, but you have to bring your own damn towel.’ Did you bring a towel?” I told him that I had no plans to swim. Just wanted to setup my tent and go to sleep. “Well, if you’re into seeing wild life, then I’d say spot number seventeen is for you! Bears and whatnot.” I told him that I wanted to stay as far away from bears as possible, so I’d just stay right where I was. “Suit yourself,” he said and rode away.
The following morning I cleared my campsite and got back on the road. I considered riding the five miles back to Coldfoot for breakfast, but after sitting on my ass for weeks without doing so much as a single squat, I thought I could stand to miss a meal. Most of the highway north of Coldfoot is actually paved, with longer interspersed portions of gravel and, because of the recent rains, mud. Eventually the boreal forest gave way to arctic tundra; the subsoil in this area is permanently frozen so only vegetation with a very shallow root system can survive this far north. Within two hours I reached Antigun Pass, a very significant point of my journey as I was now crossing the Continental Divide. Rivers to the north empty into the Arctic Ocean, while rivers to the south empty into the Bering Sea. By this time fear was replaced by awe and my ride delays were caused less by road conditions and more by my constant desire to take a photo. About fifty miles from Prudhoe Bay the roads got decidedly more hazardous due to construction. Sections of the highway had been recently resurfaced with a thick layer of lose gravel that made riding a motorcycle akin to skating.
Despite what seemed like slow going I reached my destination much earlier than anticipated. Deadhorse Camp offers a tour that allows visitors the opportunity to visit the Arctic Ocean twice a day — 8:30 am and 3:30 pm. I was scheduled for the 8:30 am tour the following morning, but since I arrived so early, I asked whether they’d let me join the upcoming 3:30 pm tour. They were very accommodating and also let me store my luggage and equipment at their offices while I went on the afternoon tour.
After the tour I checked into the Prudhoe Bay hotel and found the accommodations to be much better than I had expected. While I was checking in a fellow rider shoved me aside and leaned on the counter to speak to Joree — the hotel clerk — and, apparently, to find out how many f-bombs he could cram into one rant. I wanted to say something like, “Hey, watch it baldy!” Or “Wait your turn, buddy!” But my reaction was too slow and by the time I had thought what to say, it was too late for it to have any effect. So I decided to stand back and let this play out. Turns out this guy was one of the riders heading north that the campground attendant had told me about the day before. That day there had been four separate motorcycle accidents along the highway. Two motorcycles were totaled and one of the riders suffered a broken leg and had to be medevaced. Joree later told me that this guy had been so traumatized by the ride that he refused to get back on his motorcycle. Instead he was shipping his bike and taking a flight home himself, and she was helping him make the arrangements.
After unloading my bike and settling into my room, I went back to the front desk to hear more about the rider’s misfortune. He had been rude to me and the hotel clerk and it gave me great pleasure to watch him buckle under pressure. He was at the front desk, just as I had expected, impatiently tapping his fingers on the counter. “You just get in?” He asked, apparently forgetting that he had shoved me aside earlier. “That road is brutal!” He offered without being asked. “There’s no way I’d get on the road. If I were you, I’d start packing my bike right now and get yourself a flight.” I told him that the road had actually been very pleasant and I was considering taking my bike for a ride of the surrounding areas. “Man,” he said, “you’re insane. But if you want to wreck your bike, be my guest. It’s your funeral. Me, I’m taking the first flight out of this dump.” Then he turned to Joree, “no offense.” Joree was nothing but professional and couldn’t care less. I’m not one to take pleasure from someone’s misfortune, unless that someone desperately deserves it. This guy deserved it in spades. His behavior was childlike, with no regard for others. I’ve behaved like that myself, but usually confine these shenanigans to the privacy of my own room. I might brood and pout and even throw a tantrum, but I wouldn’t rudely expect others to bend to my will just because I’ve been inconvenienced.
I wish I had a more harrowing story to tell, but the return ride was actually even better than the day before. Road conditions were better than expected despite the rain, and the truckers I encountered were nothing but courteous and professional. There were no bears stalking me at every stop, nor did I see the piranha-size mosquitos. Again I camped at the Marion Creek campgrounds and then continued on to Fairbanks. As soon as I entered the Fairbanks city limits I pulled over to send Karie a message letting her know that I had survived. Just then a fellow named Rick approached in a truck, he was looking for a laundry mat and wondered if I could help him. I told him that I didn’t know the area, but we could search for it together on my phone. We got to talking and found that we had many things in common, but it was our affinity for dogs that made us immediate best friends. We both have children and grandchildren, but it was photos of our dogs that we shared. It was such a wonderful way to cap my trip to Prudhoe Bay.