The Dalton Highway: A Look Back

There is a space between man's imagination and man's attainment that may only be traversed by his longing. 

Kahlil Gibran wrote that in his 1926 book "Sand and Foam," a collection of parables, poetry, aphorisms, and observations, but it suits my attachment to Alaska quite nicely. 

Perhaps the "Alaska" part doesn't matter so much, but the idea of a faraway place full of mountains and valleys and wild animals and big skies and Wilderness with a capital W is what holds resonance, and that idyllic world is where my thoughts drift to so often. 

The decision to start the bike journey in this continent's northernmost road-accessible settlement, then, wasn't a difficult one for Mark or me at all. In fact, it never felt like a "decision,ā€ in the same way that waking up in the morning doesn't feel like a decision, either. Why wouldn't we start in Alaska? Of course we'd start our journey at the Arctic Ocean! The poetic narrative - dipping our wheels nā€™ toes in the Arctic, riding into the midnight sun, eating campfire meals in the shadow of some of the world's sleepiest mountains - held too much gravity for any other option to even be seriously considered.

So, I've decided to revisit my time on one of this continent's most daunting and revered stretches of road as a sort of tribute to those memories. Perhaps this will serve as an inspiration to anyone looking to traverse that gap between imagination and attainment. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

7/24/13. Day 0. Chicago to Seattle to Anchorage.

There's a tough-to-swallow, overwhelming sort of sadness that comes from saying goodbye to loved ones before a long trip. The uneasiness that accompanies the uncertainty surrounding the departure - not knowing exactly when you'll see those people next - tends to act as an emotional lubricant, swelling the eyes and gripping the throat and stomach with more vigor than one is used to.

Goodbye for now, Chicago. See you when I see you.

From Chicago, we flew with our bikes (packed neatly and securely in our Air Caddies - generously gifted from the inventor himself, who works out of the space adjacent to the raddest bike shop of all time) to Seattle. After a brief layover, we were off to Anchorage for the night, where we'd do our best to sleep in the airport before connecting onward to Deadhorse the following morning.

Trying (and failing) to sleep in Anchorage's Ted Stevens International Airport.

Trying (and failing) to sleep in Anchorage's Ted Stevens International Airport.

7/25/13. Day 1. Anchorage to Deadhorse.

I have a habit of letting the anticipation for future adventures build to near-mythological levels, and I'd done that with Deadhorse. Daydreamers are wont to craft unrealistic fantasies, and the year+ of anticipation leading up to my arrival to Alaska's Arctic Coast had allowed for plenty of time to let my imagination enjoy itself. I was giddy.

After waving at Denali - which generously poked its peak above the clouds to wish us luck - we landed among a steady rain in a gray, flat, and chilly Deadhorse.

Deadhorse exists to serve the Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields. Although the permanent population is listed as somewhere between 25-50 people, there are often as many as 3,000 oil workers in the area at any given time. There are no restaurants or bars or shopping malls, either. Everything is flown or trucked in, making it (like much of the rest of Alaska) exorbitantly expensive. 

We stayed at the Deadhorse Camp Lodge, which, at ~$100/night/person (twin room with no bathroom - basically like living in a college dorm room) seemed like a steal. Aside from resting up before setting off the next day, Mark and I had to reassemble our bikes, buy camp fuel, and pack up our gear. It was to be a busy 24 hours. 

Oh. Right. We'd never leave without dipping our tires and then our bodies in the Arctic Ocean, either.

Unfortunately, access to the Arctic Ocean is restricted unless you pay for a "tour" of the oil facilities. The whole local coastline is owned by the several oil companies that operate up there. Oh well. We weren't going to leave without hopping in the Arctic.

7/26/13. Day 2. The Dalton Highway. 40 miles.

Yup. Mile 0.

Yup. Mile 0.

"Sometimes your handwriting is sloppy when you're laying in a tent - on your side, resting on one elbow - in northern Alaska. It's 10:30 at night and the sky is bright as midday. That is to say, the sun hasn't set yet, and it won't tonight anyway..."

We didn't leave Deadhorse til mid-afternoon, but fortunately daylight isn't an issue during the summer in this part of the world. After riding 40 miles in 4 hours along the flat-but-unpaved Dalton Highway (otherwise known as The Haul Road), Mark and I chose to set up camp on the gravel portion of a roadside turnoff, perpendicular to the southbound pipeline. We ate mac 'n' cheese and summer sausage as we sat in a light, misty rain, our faces covered with fine mesh netting to keep our unwanted dinner guests - the incessant mosquitoes we'd heard so much about - at bay. 

"It's flat and verdant in 3 of 4 directions, the landscape full of willow and grass and an overwhelming horizon supporting a blueberry sky. To the east,though, is a remarkable cliff-like formation that commands attention from miles away. Atop its southern half sits a buzzcut of green grass that looks like it is mowed daily. The cliff's feet dip into the dynamic river that snakes along the eastern side of the highway up here. It winds like a Garter Snake in some areas and like a Boa Constrictor in others; skinny here and fat and purposeful there."

7/27/13. Day 3. The Dalton Highway. 55 miles.

"Today was the hardest day of bike riding I've ever experienced. We woke up to rain, rode over steep grades on sloppy dirt roads in the rain, fought off insane mosquito clouds all day long in the rain, and set up camp in the rain."


Nearly 100 miles south of Deadhorse, we were finally beginning to approach the foothills of the Brooks Range. We'd heard that the north slope of the range was a regular host to constant rain, limited sunshine, and maddening mosquitoes, and we'd heard correctly. We were also beginning to realize how truly apt the term "Haul Road" was; as bikers, we were merely guests on a ribbon of unpaved road built for the massive machines - trucks and otherwise - that served the oil industry and its ever-present pipeline.

7/28/13. Day 4. Galbraith Lake, Dalton Highway. 55 miles total (40 on bike, 15 in a pilot car).

We woke up on the bank of the Saganvanirktok River this morning and finally put our water filter to good use. Pumping 15+ liters of water by hand is tiring! After a breakfast of oatmeal and berries we set off, but we only made it .3 miles before the mud from the previous day's rain clogged the space between Mark's fender and his tire to the point that we had to remove the fender altogether. My bike lasted just 1 mile further before I had to do the same. 

The problem, we realized, was not the mud itself, but the chemical compound used to control dust on the dirt and gravel road. The state sprays the road with calcium chloride to keep the dust under control when it's dry, but when it rains and the calcium chloride mixes with water and dirt, it turns into a thick paste that can wreak havoc on a bike. We'd have to ride the rest of the way without our front fenders, it seemed (the clearance on the rear fender was enough to manage).

After sorting out the fender situation, the day became even more eventful. We were truly among the Brooks Range now, and we ended up pushing our bikes through thick mosquito clouds up several unpaved, double-digit-graded hills. Along one of the flatter stretches of road, however, we stopped to speak to a father and son hunting duo. Leaning against the side of his pickup truck, the father pointed out to us a large caribou buck about 200 yards away. When the buck turned to the side, we saw an arrow protruding from what we were told was the animal's lung region. The tall man and his son were waiting for the animal to die before taking to the field with a sled and butcher's knives, where they'd dress the animal on the spot and then haul it back to their truck for many-a-meal's worth of meat.

The day ended after spending the final 15 miles in a pilot car. Pilot cars are used when construction equipment is active on the road ahead; it's a way for the construction crews to safely allow vehicle traffic to pass through while still being able to work on the road. As cyclists, we just threw our bikes in the flatbed of a pickup and were escorted through the construction zone in the cab. We found ourselves at Galbraith Lake by nearly 10pm, and were excited to discover that it was a real campsite! A gorgeous one, too, surrounded by towering mountains on 3 sides, with the lake a short walk away.

Cold, exhausted, and battered by the wind that so frequently accompanies a mountain approach, we inhaled a dinner of couscous, cheese, and sausage, and quickly fell asleep.

7/29/13. Day 5. Near the Dietrich River, Dalton Highway. 72 miles.

"We awoke to another rainy, cold morning at Galbraith Lake. Would nothing come easy or pleasant for us? These first few days have been soggy and arduous, full of muddy roads and chain-clogging calcium chloride..."

But how beautiful it was! And how I wish I was back there at Galbraith Lake once more, taking in the beauty of the world and its splendor yet again. I'll remember this day for the rest of my life. We left Galbraith Lake and hit the road, joined by a stupendous tailwind that felt like it was literally chasing us off the North Slope. Even in the constant rain, I remember feeling so light and happy to be on my bike in a spectacular theater of the world I'd never before witnessed firsthand.

"The first 25 miles of the ride zipped by. It was like riding through Scotland, if Scotland is anything like how I imagine it. Green mountains, lush valleys, and gray, misty clouds hovering just above our heads the whole time. By then, though, we had reached the foot of the Atigun Pass."

Ah yes, the Atigun Pass. Its reputation as the highest road pass in Alaska had long preceded our rainy arrival to its northern base. Mark and I stopped to rest for a few moments, contemplating the next few hours of climbing as we snacked on beef jerky and Snickers bars in the cool, drizzling rain. Before long, we were off, onto the muddy, steep slopes of that would take us away from the north slope into the rest of Alaska.

I lasted less than a mile on the steep, sleek road before unclipping from my pedals and resigning myself to the fact that I'd have to push my bike for a while. The road was to steep and slippery, and the rain was only making it worse. I couldn't get any traction despite my heavy load and burly tires. Mark settled on the same fate.

More than an hour later, we'd reached the summit. Stopping only briefly to catch our breath and take a few photos, we grit our teeth and steeled our resolve for the steepest downhill I had ever experienced up to that point in life. With wet, gritty brake pads and a serious downhill gradient, I did something I'd never done before on my bike, and I don't think I'll ever do again: I burned through a nearly new set of brake pads in the span of about 2 miles. Even still, I hit close to 50mph on the treacherous descent, but I think I could've topped 60 or 65mph if I wasn't clutching my brakes throughout the slippery, unpaved descent. It was horrifying and absolutely riveting.

Even more riveting, though, was the drastically different world to which we had descended. Sunny skies, evergreen trees, idyllic valleys, and mindblowing mountains. This was the Alaska I'd imagined. The road continued to carry us down off the northern slope, and after 70 miles on the day, Mark found a perfect roadside camp spot along the Dietrich River. We set up our tents, sparked a fire, threw on some tunes, and washed our clothes in the river while we waited for our bag meal to cook. Perfect.