As we are loading the bikes, I notice the temperature is only 42 degrees so I get smart. I decide I won't be cold today, and add a pair of long johns, a second pair of socks and a short-sleeved t-shirt to my wardrobe. It pays off, as I'm toasty in the cool morning air.
We're only going 120 miles today, from Yukon River Bridge to Coldfoot, so we don't leave until 10 A.M. We would all like to go further, as Coldfoot leaves us 239 miles from Deadhorse, but there are no accommodations or services of any kind between Coldfoot and Deadhorse, and we have collectively nixed the idea of camping, for which we are minimally prepared, at best. This was simply not designed to be a camping trip.
As we gas up, the truck that services the Sani-Cans at several construction and point of interest sites along the Dalton Highway pulls up to the pump. As the driver views our mud-laden bikes he offers the use of a pressure washer he has on board. The intended use of this water is to clean toilets, but his route is done and he is on his way back to Fairbanks. We gladly accept his offer of assistance and in a few minutes all the critical parts (wheels, brakes, lights and radiators) of all four bikes are cleaned. We are most appreciative of such a random act of kindness.
My mind drifts to earlier years traveling the Alaska Highway before it was paved – in the late-1960s and early-1970s. The road was so brutal and lonely, and breakdowns so common, that if you stopped by the side of the road (for any reason) every vehicle that came by stopped to ask if you were OK or if they could help. They would all stop if you didn't wave them on or otherwise indicate that everything was fine. So while the straightening and paving of the Alaska Highway has made it more accessible to the masses, and certainly an easier trip, it has also removed the human kindness that made it such a memorable experience.
The Dalton Highway is a gravel road in name only. The surface changes significantly from place to place, but mostly it is dirt over a rock base. At times it is nearly like asphalt, with potholes and washboard here and there. At other times the rocks show through the dirt and it is like cobblestone. When it's dry the dust billows behind every moving vehicle. When it's real wet the surface turns to slush and quickly resembles a skating rink as much as a road. The absolute best conditions are an hour or two after a light rain shower; the dust is settled and the mud has set up. As we pass through rain, sunshine and wind, and the accompanying changes in road surface, our riding abilities are constantly challenged.
We leave Yukon River Bridge and quickly settle into our riding order. Eric leads, with Jan behind him. I'm next and Randy brings up the rear. There is some method to our madness. Eric travels the fastest and I want to keep an eye on Jan and the sidecar. Randy and I stop frequently to take pictures and admire the scenery, and are able to stop then catch back up without the others having to wait for us.
40 miles north we stop at Finger Rock, a landmark along the Dalton Highway. The BLM interpretive signs tell us that Finger Rock is a tor, a granite feature from 10 to 100 feet high that juts from the surrounding tundra, a unique result of erosion. Apparently Finger Rock has been used throughout the ages, first as a high point with great views of the valley below for indigenous hunters to sight animals, next as a landmark on the featureless tundra by the goldminers, and most recently by bush pilots finding their way home, as the finger is said to point directly to Fairbanks. The site is high on a pass and the views are spectacular, but the wind is fierce today and the air frigid, so after a couple of pictures we are back on the road.
As the road surface changes our speed generally fluctuates between 20 mph and 50 mph, although I only do 15 mph for a mile or two as the rocks are so large and so exposed I'm concerned about blowing a tire.
On our march north we climb Sand Hill and cross Gobbler's Knob, the views getting better as we cross each pass and the rugged terrain to the north begins to show glimpses of the Brooks Range foothills.
We limp into Coldfoot at 3 P.M. – five hours to drive 120 mph. That does not bode well for tomorrow, as we need to cover 240 miles to make Prudhoe Bay. After 120 miles I want off the bike. The cold weather and wind have worn me down; the road has sapped my strength. But the BMW isn't done with me yet. The acrylic windscreen has cracked about two-thirds the way across from the constant washboard of the road. Eric, Randy and I attempt repairs by adding mounting washers, Superglue and duct tape. I hope it will last back to Fairbanks, as Jan will be mighty cold without it, but secretly I have my doubts.
Each of us does our routine maintenance – we check fluid levels and look for looses nuts and bolts. A water hose is available at a pumphouse and we wash the bikes as well as we can. As Jan starts the BMW to ride to it, a full quart of oil gets blown back into her mid-section. It's like a shot from a cannon in its intensity, both physically and emotionally. She spends two hours cleaning up and washing her ruined clothes while I search for the problem; the externally mounted oil filter has obviously come loose from the constant pounding of the road, and the seal decided to use that time to give way. If there is a good point to this story, and I'm trying very hard to find one, it's that it happened in a parking lot where it was fairly easy to fix it, rather than on the road. It is little comfort.
The Dalton Highway is beginning to take its toll, both
physically and mentally. Uneasily, I'm reminded that we are only half way up the
gravel to Prudhoe Bay.
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