Cycling The Dalton Highway: Nothing Good Happens at Night

My Dad would be so proud of me. I've gone to bed before the sun sets for the last two weeks. Granted the sun never sets here, but details and semantics have never been my strong suit.

The day of departure saw temps in the low 20s with plenty of wind, and snow. I finally met my riding partners, Harry and Mike. We headed to the Deadhorse sign and picked up bear spray, and then there was nothing left to do but take a photo and head out. Knowing how important first impressions are, I started stripping clothing so that I could properly flex for my departure shot.

First impression nailed.

And then we rode our bikes out of the oil town of Deadhorse and onto the cold, blustery Dalton Highway. Next stop, Fairbanks! The first few moments were surreal. I couldn't believe that it was actually happening. Years of dreaming, months of stressing, weeks of fielding the same jokes, and assuring people that I had thought to bring warm clothes because "it will probably be cold there!" and here I was, setting off on the journey of a lifetime, and it was cold. If only I'd listened!

The first 60 miles are perfectly flat, wide open tundra. Riding in the snow seemed appropriate. It made the bleakness of the environment stand out. As we rode on, Mike and Harry scanned the horizon, excitedly pointing out birds, looking for bears, muskox, and other various fauna. Me? I was hunting a different kind of wild animal: the arctic piss jug. It didn't take long before I spotted one, and excitedly pointed off the side of the road. Mike and Harry were flabbergasted at my excitement, and likely more than a little concerned they had agreed to ride with me.

I came to a screeching halt, grabbed my camera and started shooting photos. I wasn't going to let this opportunity pass me by!

Second impression nailed.
Third impression? So nailed.
Frozen! Whoa, nice find!

These were all in the first few miles too! At this rate, my memory card was going to fill up just with photos of piss jugs, which I would be fine with. Every jug has it's story, I'm just here to tell them. Oh, and we did see some wildlife, of which I reluctantly took a few photos.

The rare, two wheeled drive off road vehicle, way out of it's element. A rare sight!
Caribou, guy on the left is cheesing it up, two on the right couldn't be more nonplussed.
Caribou, guy on the left is cheesing it up, two on the right couldn't be more nonplussed.
Chore the next morning, chipping through ice to filter water.

We made about 60 miles or so the first day, and rushed into warm tents and bags. We woke the next morning to more cold, frozen water, and snow. Pushing off, it wasn't long before we saw some muskoxen, which is fairly rare. Cool!

Muskoxen! A baby is feeding.

We got the first glimpse of the Brooks Range, which contains the high point of the Dalton Highway, Atigun Pass. The mountains are an imposing, impressive sight. Not to mention daunting. We made a quick lunch at Happy Valley, which I found to be a rather cold, uninviting place. However, I cut into the first few bites of my Log O' Beef, and all was good and right with the world.

Boo. A cold, heartless place.

The day actually took a turn for the pleasant, and the sun came out and warmed our bodies and souls. But not Happy Valley, no way. We made camp by the river, behind some shipping containers that showed signs of recent visitors.

Hmmm, what are these prints?!
I'm sure it's nothing to worry about.

The scenery on the ride is absolutely stunning, especially as we approached the Brooks Range. Each bend in the road brought a new view, more spectacular than the last. It was unreal. Rapid fire photo session! 

The ol' pipeline. The only reason the road exists.
The Brooks Range, looming from afar.

The next day, we continued our slow approach towards the Brooks Range. The day started gorgeous, blue skies, downhill and a small tailwind. Then we saw some more muskoxen, this time right by the road. Can't ask for much more than that!

Say "Cheeese!"

Then the climbs started. First gently enough, then with a few longer, steeper gradients. And we saw some cyclists! First up was Frank, a French fellow on a loaded down recumbent, who was struggling up the steep inclines. Then we met a few German fellows during a bout of sleet and rain. I hit them with my one phrase of German "We don't understand you very well", which was received with raucous laughter. Another first impression nailed. They told us of Galbraith Lake, which had a cabin we could use in "emergency". Onward and upward.

It was inspiring to meet other cyclists out on the road, from all over the world, with all different kinds of bikes and setups. We were all struggling and fighting for the same goal, and having a ball doing it. People can compare gear weights, frame materials, packing styles, etc until their eyes bleed, but at the end of the day, what works for one person may not work for another. I carry what I need and want, and it may be completely wrong for someone else, but as long as we are both outside on our bikes, that is all that matters.

Shortly after we met the Germans, the sleet intensified and a nasty headwind picked up. It looked like Galbraith Lake was going to be the destination. I'm not entirely sure what qualifies as "emergency" but this was going to count for me personally. And lest you think that the bad weather made me any less keen on spotting more wildlife, think again.

More nature
Artsy. This is gonna make me rich.

I was stoked to be out riding my bike on this trip, and even more stoked to see so many jugs in their natural habitat. The northern, colder portions of the Dalton are rife with PJ, whereas in the more temperate southern regions, it is much more difficult to spot a PJ in the wild. I have my theories as to why this is, but I cannot divulge at the moment. Expect a full, double blind, peer reviewed, scientific article on the subject before journey's end. Approaching Galbraith, the scenery was incredible, and before I knew it, I was actually in the Brooks Range, not just approaching. It felt like that scene from Monty Python, I'd been riding and riding towards them for days, then all of a sudden I was there.

The descent to Galbraith Lake.
The sky was angry.
The view at Galbraith.

We got to the cabin, and cyclists started showing up in droves! Frank rolled in, then another French cyclist, Matt. It was a real party. The next morning, we woke to a fresh blanketing of snow, serious wind, and near whiteout conditions. Our situationhad turned into a real emergency, we weren't going anywhere today. And so passed a long, boring day, but I was thankful for the cabin.

Matt, who has been riding for 16 months.
His ride.
Eating what used to be a smiley faced cookie.
The grisly scene the next morning.

The cabin was a government building, used by various agencies to fly in and out of the bush to conduct research. As luck would have it, a group from the Fish and Wildlife Services showed up that night to find 4 cyclists sprawled out in the cabin. It was a little uncomfortable to say the least. Once the shock wore off, they were very nice and understanding. Needless to say, we set off first thing the next morning.

Leaving bright and early the next morning. It was coooollllddd.
Approaching Atigun Pass, the weather started to clear up.
Heading up the pass.
Heading up the pass.
The top of the pass, just a shade below 5,000'
The top of the pass, just a shade below 5,000'
Randy was out taking photos with an old style wooden framed camera. Really neat.
Panorama from the back side of the pass. Incredible.

From there it was a nice, long descent, then gently rolling hills into the halfway point of Coldfoot. A pit stop for some coffee, a breakfast sandwich, and badly needed Chapstick and I set off with Matt, while Harry and Mike camped in Coldfoot for the night.

After Coldfoot came the real work, as the riding became much more difficult. The last 250 miles or so, there was very little flat or easy riding. It was up, then down, then up, then down. Lather, rinse, repeat. It was exhausting work riding, but Matt and I were pushing hard to get to Fairbanks. I didn't have very much extra food, so taking it slower wasn't much of an option. I got into Fairbanks with one Lipton Pasta Side and a little bit of protein powder left, so timed it perfectly.

The ride took 9 days, 8 days of riding, and was much more challenging than expected, but was also an incredible experience. There is absolutely nothing else up there other than the pipeline and haul road. Looking out over the tundra and mountains, you see what the landscape has looked like for thousands of years, and likely will look like thousands of years into the future. There is a certain camaraderie on the haul road, people look out for each other. I found the trucks to be extremely respectful, slowing down, moving way over and waving.

It feels good to get the first part of the ride under my belt, and I'm looking forward to heading out soon to ride to Denali. Thanks for reading, another quick photo dump below.


More nature. This was a good one, very dehydrated fella.
Riding down the road, feeling fine.
My old friend, the pipeline.
Coffee and Chapstick in Coldfoot.
Improvised work stand.
Improvised bike tool, aka axe handle.
The Arctic Circle!
Celebrating with a sweet skid.
The reality of touring, bathrooms make good kitchens when they're out of the wind.
Flying downhill, so excellent.
The end! No one told me there was still 80 miles of pavement to Fairbanks!
Every time you share, an angel gets his wings:

3 Comment

  1. Debbie says: Reply

    Sounds like quite an adventure so far! Love the pictures (all but the bear prints)! Glad you finally made it to Fairbanks and got a chance to rest and recharge. Be safe on your next leg of your trip and eat up:) Love you lots, mom and dad

  2. dennis odonnell says: Reply

    looks like a great adventure. the photos are great. looks like when we went there in the rough way in a tour bus. have fun and be safe your dads friend DENNIS

  3. “Riding down the road, feeling fine.” Helluva lot better than GDTRFB. Awesome stuff! Keep up the great work.

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