Haul Road Primer - Part 1

Discussion in 'Alaska' started by Alcan Rider, Dec 28, 2013.

  1. Alcan Rider

    Alcan Rider Frozen Fossil

    Joined:
    Sep 29, 2003
    Oddometer:
    4,343
    Location:
    Over the rear wheel
    This is a re-write of an article written a few months ago, a somewhat edited version of which appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of the Ironbutt Magazine.

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    An e-mail arrived from the magazine editor asking if I would be interested in writing an article “...about the trials and tribulations of riding on the Haul Road?”

    Images that the query engendered in this rider's mind were not, however, of mud, deeply rutted ball-bearing gravel, rain, and snow, all of which have been encountered more than a few times. Instead, they were of the vast stretches of tundra stretching as far as the eye could see. The Dietrich River valley, winding between mountain ridges as it steadily climbs toward Chandalar Shelf. The Atigun River valley on the north side of Atigun Pass, curving through rugged peaks in a graceful arc before turning northeast through Atigun Gorge to join the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River in its eternal rush to the Arctic Ocean, many miles to the north. The hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that arrive every spring from all seven continents to settle on the lakes and ponds spread across the Arctic Coastal Plain. The serene Kanuti River that drains many square miles of swampland to the east of the highway and offers fishermen a great place to wet their lines..
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    It was more difficult to recall any of the trials and tribulations that had been a part of nearly every trip to the end of this northernmost contiguous highway on the continent. In order to do that, it became necessary to go back over the hundreds of photos taken on numerous trips north of Fairbanks, and the many ride reports posted here on the ADVrider forum (where I post disgusting amounts of mindless drivel each year) , to see what might have been mentioned while it was then fresh in my mind. Even doing that, the pleasure of the ride always overshadowed the trials which, with each successful passage, soon faded into obscurity.

    Although most of my rides to Deadhorse have been solo overall, the times those rides have been in company with Iron Butt riders have been most pleasurable. The first of those was with IBR veteran Brian R. in 2007. A heck of a rider, and a lot of fun to boot. That trip was a blast.
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    The following year I was privileged to make the trip with the late, legendary John Ryan. Getting to know John was the best part of that trip. An amazingly capable rider and a super nice person. Had to abort a second trip to Deadhorse with John the following year (2009) due to a delay caused by snow in Atigun Pass and important meetings in Anchorage two days later that demanded my attendance. John proved that my presence wasn't necessary as he demolished the previous record for making it to Key West. My suspicion is that after getting stuck in the snow part way up Atigun at 1:30 AM the 30th of May, he was just in a bigger hurry to get down to Florida to thaw out.
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    That year Lisa L. and Dean T. rode to Deadhorse together. Well... they left Fairbanks together, intending to make it to Deadhorse at the same time. Dean's SPOT track showed that he had made it just past Pump Station 2 before a broken drive chain put an end to that endeavor. The series of meetings in Anchorage conspired to prevent me from rendering assistance, leaving Dean to arrange his own rescue..

    The next year, 2010, Dean, determined to make it to Deadhorse on the seat of his motorcycle, invited me to accompany him, which I was most happy to do. The time spent with Dean was evidence of why Lisa enjoys traveling with him. A great sense of humor, one of the easiest people to get along with, and a man loaded with an amazing amount of talent - as well as being a very capable rider.
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    But now let's get into what an average rider can expect to encounter today in a ride from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay and return.


    ETIQUETTE - LITTLE YOU AND THEM BIG TRUCKS
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    Before I get into the meat of this little essay, I'd like to mention some facts that touring riders should be aware of anywhere in Alaska, but on the Haul Road/Dalton Highway, are critical to survival.

    A few years ago I spent some time driving big rigs from coast to coast and border to border in the South 48, after years of driving here in Alaska. One of the things that I noticed right away is the disrespect shown for the big rigs and their drivers Outside. Apparently those living Down Below don't realize that without all those 18-wheelers running up and down the highways they would have no groceries on the shelves, nothing inside any of the Walmarts, and most of them wouldn't have jobs. But up here we are well aware of the importance of the trucks and the drivers who pilot them over our less-than-perfect roads. So we respect our truck drivers, and want them to stay healthy. One of the biggest hazards to trucks on the highways - way ahead of moose and caribou - is a tourist, whether in a huge RV towing a trailer loaded down with more toys than can be used in one summer, or on a motorcycle. You see, a truck driver will do just about anything to avoid running over another vehicle, even if it means running his own into a ditch, over a guard rail, or into the side of a mountain.
    When the cause of one of our drivers getting injured or killed in a crash was some idiot who shouldn't have been on the road without a guardian, we tend to get a bit miffed. And you don't want a bunch of Alaskans getting p.o.'d at you when you might be in need of help yourself, trust me. So pay attention to what I'll be writing here. It's for your own good, as well as our drivers' - whom we need more than we need you.

    A short primer on large trucks and braking: One of the things you learn quickly when you start driving a semi in the mountains, if you want to live to an old age, that is - you save your brakes for when you really need to stop. A motorcycle or car can make repeated brake applications, slowing down for a curve, holding the speed on a descent, or coming to a complete stop, without overtaxing the brakes. But a loaded truck usually has one good stop and then the brakes will need to cool for a while. Therefore experienced drivers don't waste their brakes, they only use them when necessary. Consequently, when driving down the Dalton Highway they don't apply their brakes any more than necessary to keep the speed in a safe range when descending grades. When approaching another vehicle, it is usually sufficient to just release the throttle and let the truck slow of its own accord, especially with the highly efficient engine brakes that are on most tractors these days. The greater the distance to the oncoming vehicle, the slower the truck's speed will become by the time they meet. When you sight an oncoming truck in the distance, it behooves you to begin slowing down almost immediately, and get as far to the right side of the roadway as it is safe to do. By doing so, you have allowed the truck more distance to coast down before reaching your bike, and you will be glad you did. Every time I have done this, the oncoming truck has slowed down to a reasonable speed before it passes me, and I like that. The driver always gets a wave of thanks from me, because I know he did not have to give me any consideration, and I want him to know I appreciate the fact that he did.
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    If you hold your speed up until you are close to the truck, don't expect it to have slowed much, and if you get pelted with rocks and gravel, it's your own fault. Long ago, driving the Alcan while it was still all gravel, it was proven to me that my own forward speed determined the amount of damage done to my vehicle by gravel thrown up by another vehicle - and thereafter I slowed down when meeting another vehicle.

    The Haul Road is there for trucks to haul needed equipment and supplies to the oilfields around Deadhorse and other places between there and Fairbanks. It was not built to accommodate swivel-necked tourists in huge RV's who can't keep their vehicles in their own lane half the time. Nor was it built as an avenue for touring motorcyclists who can't keep their bikes upright when there is a two-inch deep layer of loose gravel under their wheels, or mud that will cover every inch of them and their bikes in less than half a mile.

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    You, as well as your bike, will get dirty on the Haul Road. If the weather is dry, you'll both be covered with dust. If it is raining, you will be covered with mud. Since the weather on the Haul Road is extremely variable, chances are you will be covered with a layer of mud over the dust, or vice versa. You need to make sure any other traffic in your vicinity can see you clearly, and that you can signal your intentions to other drivers. That means keeping your headlight(s), taillight(s) and turn signals - as well as your windshield and faceshield - clean enough to let light through. If you aren't carrying sufficient water with you to perform the task, (most riders will be more concerned with carrying gas than carrying water) at least have a sponge or small water container that you can use to get water from one of the numerous streams or ponds along the road to wash the mud or dust off. It is the law to have your headlight on at all times on the Dalton Hwy, making it easier for oncoming drivers to spot you in the distance.

    If you have a bike that is capable of elevated speeds on the gravel portions of the Haul Road, and you are comfortable riding that way, there will be times you may want to pass a big rig. This can be done safely, but there are rules to be followed. First, you need to make sure the driver knows you are back there, and that you want to get around him. Then you have to wait until he makes it plain that it is okay to do so. (Many of our Alaska trucks have “wheel-check” lights – spotlights aimed back along the sides of their trailers – and the driver will flash them when it is safe to pass.) Most will pull as far to the right as they can safely, and slow down to make it easier and safer for you. Be patient - you'll live longer. And always give a wave of thanks (with at least two fingers :D) when you get in front where the driver can see you.
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    There are a lot of scenic areas along the Haul Road, and most riders will be stopping periodically to take photos as they travel the route. This is great, and I do it frequently myself. But when you stop, be sure to get well off the traveled portion of the road, well out of the way of any traffic. It's good to get in the habit of taking your helmet off so you can hear trucks coming if you will be stopped for more than a minute or so. If necessary, get off the bike and stand on the shoulder far off to the side to let the driver know that you are safely out of his way. If you stop near a curve or just over a rise where a driver may not see you until the truck is within a short distance, get farther off the road. At times I have laid my KLR on its side well off the road when there was no shoulder to park on, and there was no way to leave it on the side stand. But usually you can find a spot to park the bike safely off the road, even if you have to walk a short distance from there to get the perfect photo. If you absolutely must stop where you will be partially blocking one lane, do it only where trucks coming from both directions can see you for at least a quarter mile, and at the same time being able to see each other. That will make it much easier for them to avoid hitting you and each other.

    In addition to the large semi's running up and down the Haul Road, there are also pickups, vans, and an occasional car. Riding along on my bike, sound deadened by helmet (and sometimes ear plugs) more than once it has been alarming to look in my mirror(s) and see a vehicle right behind me. That always makes me realize that I have not been paying enough attention to what might be back there, having become lulled into thinking mine was the only vehicle on the highway. So keep an eye on your mirrors, especially when approaching a steep grade for which a loaded truck might be trying to gain some momentum with a good run. It's best to keep a mile or so distance between yourself and a truck going the same direction, unless you have plans to pass it soon. If you're in front and there's a chance you will be stopping soon for a photo or whatever, if you can find a safe place to pull over (pipeline access roads are frequent, and you can spot them easily by the stop sign and mile marker signs) do so to let the truck get on by.

    Something we see all too frequently during the summer tourist season is people failing to stay on their own side of the road. Traffic in rural Alaska is so much more sparse than what most people from the South 48 are accustomed to that they seem to forget that they are not the only ones on the road. They will straddle the center line while taking a sharp curve, unaware that an oncoming driver may be doing the same thing. In Alaska tow truck operators make a lot of money during the summer.
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    But when you're on a bike, it might be an ambulance that comes to recover you, not a wrecker. Practice staying on your own side of the road, especially a road with no center stripe for most of its length, such as the Haul Road. The truckers all stay in touch via Channel 19 on their CB's and let each other know when they are approaching a narrow spot or an especially sharp, blind curve. Unless you have a CB on your bike, you will be on your own.

    To reiterate - there are places that a truck and a motorcycle cannot safely meet if both are moving at more than a walking pace, and others where the two can meet at well over the speed limit without getting near each other. A truck cannot stop on a dime, loaded or unloaded, and it even takes quite a distance to slow down for meeting another vehicle, without using the brakes. A motorcycle can slow down quickly by merely letting off on the throttle, and can stop in a much shorter distance, as the operator should be prepared to do at all times.
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    THE HIGHWAY TO WHERE?

    In this article you will find that the names "Prudhoe Bay" and "Deadhorse" are both used in reference to the industrial complex at the end of the road. This is because they are the same place. The oil field where the discovery well struck oil was named "Prudhoe Bay" after the inlet next to which that well is located. The airstrip around which the industrial support businesses later located was known as the Deadhorse strip, hence the complex adopted that name. But the two names can be used interchangeably as they refer to the same general location.

    The proper name for the 416-mile road leading off the Elliott Highway to the tee at Colleen Lake is the James W. Dalton Highway. However, it was known as the Haul Road prior to being given a proper name and that is what many of us who live here have always called it. So again, you may see it referred to by either name but it is still the same stretch of mixed gravel, pavement, mud, and potholes.
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    BIKE CHOICE

    Riders considering riding to Prudhoe Bay frequently ask "What kind of bike is best for the Dalton Highway?" The answer to that is, quite simply, any bike with which you are totally familiar and upon which you are comfortable riding for extended distances.

    An example of the above: This bike, a 1982 Suzuki GS1100G, was 22 years old when it was ridden from Key West to Prudhoe Bay in July of 2004. At that time there were over 100 more miles of gravel between Fairbanks and Deadhorse (each way) than there are now. The tires, Metzeler Tourances, had over 10,000 miles on them when the bike departed Fairbanks, headed north.
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    And yes, it was wet and miserable and muddy on that trip, just as many riders have experienced.
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    These two riders shipped their bikes from Colombia to Florida and started their trip there.
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    A far cry from the latest and greatest dualsport, but he made it to the Arctic Circle and was headed back home to California.
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    Three bikes being ridden from Key West to Deadhorse plus this writer's Suzuki - on its second (of an ultimate total of four) trip to Deadhorse.
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    A bike definitely not considered the ideal mount for such a road as this - a 1994 Kawasaki Concours. Top heavy, and loaded down for camping. Had Metzeler ME880 street tires on it at the time. Saw plenty of road maintenance, i.e. freshly graded mud, on that trip.
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    A Gold Wing from Florida, whose rider had never taken it onto gravel prior to this trip. He obviously adjusted quite quickly. :lol3
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    The collection of bikes belonging to a group that rode up together in August 2008.
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    These guys all rode up from Key West, Florida -
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    Prior to its receiving major realignments and being paved, the Alaska Highway was far worse to ride than the Dalton is today, or has been for over a decade. The Alcan (as we old-timers still call it) had not just one, but three major climbs/descents: Trutch, Steamboat, and Summit. Steamboat alone was the equal of Atigun, Roller Coaster, and Ice Cut combined. Compared to Trutch, Beaver Slide isn't even a hill. Not to mention all the steel grate bridges along the Alcan. To top it off, there were over four times the miles of gravel to cover back then that the Dalton has today. Known as "the best-maintained gravel road in the world", you were certain to meet graders and endure road maintenance operations and/or reconstruction on any trip over that highway. And yet, every year hundreds of riders, straddling machines that would be considered primitive by today's standards, traveled to Alaska and back home without serious mishap. Two of my high school classmates made the round trip from Michigan to Fairbanks and back in 1963 on their 50's something Harley Davidsons. The only get-off that occurred was when one decided to check his oil - while riding along near Teslin. The crash into the ditch required some frame welding when they got to Whitehorse, but you can't blame the bike or road conditions for such a mishap.

    For riders in or near Fairbanks and preparing to head on north, it might be a good idea to check weather forecasts to get an idea just how miserable, or if you're lucky, how delightful, the weather may be for your trip. It's probably not a bad idea to begin checking a week or more in advance to watch for trends that might affect your planned schedule. For that purpose I invariably go to Weatherunderground. With the abundance of small airstrips all over the state of Alaska, there is a similar abundance of weather stations, both public and private, to keep pilots informed of the weather wherever they might be flying. Here is a list of the ones that I have deemed most informative for a ride to Deadhorse:

    Livengood DOT camp (near Mile 0 of the Dalton Hwy)
    Bettles Field (32 miles northwest of the Arctic Circle sign)
    Coldfoot Airport
    Wiseman
    Galbraith Lake (actually Anaktuvuk Pass, but similar weather)
    Toolik Lake (not far from Galbraith Lake, but not manned year-round)
    Pump Station 3 - Mile 312
    Pump Station 2 - Mile 359
    Deadhorse

    Another method for accessing most of those stations is to go to the Galbraith Lake webpage first, then click on "Change Station" right below the station name. This will bring up a list of nearby weather stations, the locations of which will show up on the map to the right of the weather statistics. At least this is how it appears on my PC using Firefox as the browser. Smartphones, etc., or another browser may display the information differently. It might be a good idea to experiment at home a bit before heading for Alaska.

    Along with current weather and forecasts, it can also be helpful to get a look at just how bright or dark it is along the way. For that, the FAA weather cams come in handy. FAA Weather Cams.
    The ones I look at (hover over the round markers to bring up the name) are (from south to north): Livengood (West), Yukon River Bridge (Southeast & Northwest), Coldfoot (North & Northwest), Chandalar Shelf (Northeast, South, & Southeast), Deadhorse (all four).

    Being prepared can make the trip a bit easier.
    #1
    duncanmac, Elad, GDP65 and 1 other person like this.
  2. Alaskahack

    Alaskahack Adventurer

    Joined:
    Apr 27, 2009
    Oddometer:
    720
    Location:
    Wasilla
    Great write-up Jack.
    Love your photos you have a good eye. Met up with you and your Brazilian friend from Florida in Tok this last summer

    Waiting for part two
    #2
  3. Alcan Rider

    Alcan Rider Frozen Fossil

    Joined:
    Sep 29, 2003
    Oddometer:
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    Location:
    Over the rear wheel
    RIDER PREPARATION

    The two classmates mentioned above, a couple of farm boys from Michigan, no strangers to gravel roads and dirt trails through the woods, simply gave the road its proper level of respect (other than the get-off mentioned above), and had a most enjoyable trip. Their experience off paved roads undoubtedly helped to make that possible. For a person whose only riding experience has been city streets and freeways, a little practice close to home might be highly advisable. On loose surfaces certain riding techniques must be applied reflexively, and the place to begin learning and practicing those techniques is not on a road hundreds of miles from motorcycle mechanics and bone surgeons.

    Ideally, a rider will have taken an off-road riding course so as to feel more confident in the conditions likely to be encountered on the Dalton. But most will probably, like me, learn as they go. The Interior of Alaska has about a five-month construction season at most, thus road rebuilding must be done quickly and thoroughly. It is not unusual for a rider to find himself faced with a twenty to forty mile stretch of loose gravel, or at least that many miles of alternating gravel patches and pavement. To detour around it may add two or three hundred miles to the trip. My own indoctrination into the world of riding a street bike on gravel was due to such conditions.

    Riding south on the Alaska Highway from Fairbanks one summer afternoon I found ground-up asphalt and freshly graded crushed gravel. Slowing down to what seemed to be a compromise pace that was fast enough to see me home before the onset of winter, yet keep the risk of multiple fractures, contusions, and concussion to a minimum, the bike, of course, tried to pick its own path, without regard for my routing preference. Adhering to the philosophy that one learns more from one's mistakes than from doing things right, and recalling what more knowledgeable riders had written about keeping speed up, I threw caution to the wind and opened the throttle. It was hoped that if injuries were suffered a commensurate degree of wisdom would be an adjunct result.

    Sure enough, the bit of extra speed added stability to the bike, and since that day I have settled on 35 mph as being the slowest I will ride on loose gravel or steel grate bridge decks. Rutted mud is, however, an altogether different story and that requires a little more caution.

    Most Iron Butt'ers (and others who feel the need to make haste) are, by nature, somewhat aggressive in their riding. The Haul Road is a place where restraint pays dividends for a variety of reasons, one of which is tire life. One well-known rider told me that he had had two flats on the Haul Road in each of his trips to Key West. With over a dozen trips to Deadhorse, along with another dozen or so up and back to various mileposts on the Dalton, my bikes have yet (and I know I'm dooming myself with this statement) to suffer a flat tire. There are places along that road that a competent rider can take a bike to double the 50 mph speed limit. But the power being transmitted through the rear tire can wreak havoc with the tread if it happens to hit a sharp-edged rock while doing so. Another lesson learned decades ago on the Alcan: Wet rubber cuts much easier than dry rubber. And mud is a common surface condition on most trips. A flat tire up there will offer ample proof of the old adage that "haste makes waste".

    BIKE PREPARATION

    My first trip north of Fairbanks was during the '01 Ironbutt Rally in an attempt to get photos of the riders along the Haul Road. Back then the pavement ended at Mile 29 of the Elliott Hwy., giving 45 more miles of gravel before even reaching the start of the Dalton Hwy. There was no pavement to be found again until Mile 90 of the Dalton, but that lasted all the way to Coldfoot at Mile 175, providing a welcome respite before riders had to contend with the next gravel that challenged them all the way to Happy Valley, at Mile 334.

    After arriving at the Super 8 motel on Airport Way in Fairbanks around 2:00 AM, and seeing a rider on his way toward Key West, it was time to retire for some rest. On the way over to Denny's the next morning I had the pleasure of running into the late Dick Fish, so we sat down together and over breakfast he related his experience of the day before. He told me of the conditions he and other riders had just experienced on the Haul Road, none of which increased my confidence. But if at all possible I would continue on up the miserable gravel in order to get some photos of riders on this road. In the end, the only view I got of Iron Butt riders that day was of mud-covered bikes traveling the opposite direction. One Canadian rider's Honda was recognizable - barely - by the little patch of blue showing above the mud that coated virtually everything else, including the rider. Another rider's ST1100 was the same drab mud color from top to bottom and front to back. In fact, the rider himself was about that same color when we met around Mile 15, and he still had one more stretch of road grading to negotiate before reaching Fairbanks.

    The bike for that trip was my '94 Concours, shod at the time with Metzeler ME880's and loaded down for camping along the way. In other words, I made just about every mistake we warn riders against today: A bike too top-heavy for anything but paved highways. Street tires rather than knobbies. Far too heavily loaded. Piloted by a rider whose only exposure to riding this particular bike on gravel previous to this had been limited to a few miles of road construction along the Alcan Hwy and in Montana. In other words, I violated nearly every rule we cite today for safely navigating this remote "highway".


    Fear and trepidation serve a purpose. How did this novice manage to get to Mile 60 and back to Fairbanks unscathed? I was, quite honestly, too scared to take any chances, so took my time. That allowed me to get accustomed to the feel of the bike on loose gravel, mud, washboard bumps, deep potholes, and tight corners while slow enough that if I did go down, damage to either the bike or rider would, hopefully, be minimal.

    Lesson learned: If a rider is sufficiently determined, and sufficiently frightened by tales of the horrors to be encountered on this "highway" so that he rides cautiously, any bike can make the trip up the Haul Road.

    This does not mean that riding the Dalton Highway is something to be taken lightly. It is not. But neither is it a fearsome undertaking that requires years of preparation and a hefty mortgage on your abode. But like an insanely jealous woman, it can kill you if you begin to take it for granted.

    That trip only went as far as the Five Mile Airstrip, about Mile 60 on the Dalton. The next trip was all the way to Deadhorse, also on a motorcycle that was never intended to accept the abuse it would be given - the twenty-two year-old Suzuki GS1100G shown in Post #1 - with its large Pacifico fairing, a pair of fully-loaded Givi hard bags, and a 5-gallon fuel cell, also fully-loaded, on Tourances that had already traveled over 10,000 miles before starting up the Haul Road.
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    TECHNIQUES

    CAUTION, CAUTION, CAUTION - Perhaps the cardinal rule of riding the Haul Road is: Never out-ride your sight distance. Not only is that exceptionally good advice, in Alaska it is, to a degree, the law. Here, the law states that a vehicle operator "...must be able to stop within an assured clear distance." What is "an assured clear distance"? The distance ahead that you can see and be sure that there are no hazards. If you cannot see around a corner or over a hill that the road ahead is hazard free, you should assume there is some sort of hazard that you must be able to stop before reaching. On the Haul Road there are many humps that you cannot see over, brush-filled corners that you cannot see around, and soft mud holes that are not apparent until you are almost in them. Ride so that you can stop or detour around any of these while maintaining control of your bike at all times.

    It was about my third trip to Deadhorse that a method was developed for safely exploring available traction on muddy surfaces. Although the brown soupy mix on top indicated minimal adhesion between the tire and the gravel, feedback through the handlebars hinted that it was better than appeared. Slowing to a near-walking pace, feet down to catch the bike in case of a spill, the front brake was applied with a firm hand. As suspected, the tire grabbed and brought the bike to a rapid stop. This brought a measure of added confidence. But more trials were needed before any aggressive riding would be attempted on such surfaces.
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    Being that most of my trips up and down the Dalton Hwy have been at an unhurried pace, there is always time to investigate the different road conditions and how they affect traction. One time, with the bike parked at the edge of the gravel, I walked back and forth over the freshly graded surface. It was interesting to note that where gravel was exposed well above the muck, my boots would slip more readily than where the gravel was hidden beneath the smooth, slimy surface, the opposite of what one would expect from appearances.

    Most riders will approach freshly graded gravel with dread. Indeed, we immediately recall the adage that "A motorcycle's natural position is on its side". Rather than riding along, trembling in abject terror, a rider should stop in the worst of the conditions, get off the bike, and walk around, testing the mix for available traction and observing how the very top hides or reveals the actual characteristics of the road surface. Don't look at the water on the surface and imagine that there is slimy clay underneath. Stop and check it out. Chances are there is gravel, meaning acceptable traction, half an inch beneath the brown scum on top.

    Not everyone drops the air pressure in their tires for the Dalton Hwy. For the first three passes, I didn't either. But on the southbound leg of a trip in 2007 that changed. About ninety miles south of Deadhorse, at the bottom of Ice Cut, tired of the way the old Suzuki was handling and in a bit of a hurry to get home, I added 10 psi to the forks, and dropped both tires by about 15 psi. The change was remarkable. The tires felt much more at home on the loose gravel, and the front end had more authority in navigating turns and deep loose stuff. The difference allowed me to gain about 15 mph in cruising speed. From that time on, tires were aired down approximately 30% just before hitting the Dalton. A young lady to whom I recommended this practice, one of a small party I escorted up and back the following year, was extremely pleased with the change this made in the handling of her DR650.

    Those of us who live in areas where we humans are outnumbered by large mammals may find ourselves either predator or prey, depending upon the circumstances. So we develop the habit of watching for tracks and learning from what our observations tell us. This same habit pays dividends for riders who find themselves on less-than-perfect surfaces.

    If you have the good fortune to be following a bike shod with knobbies, look at the tracks it leaves. If they are relatively deep, and well defined, you more than likely will find traction is relatively good. When bits of gravel build up between the tread blocks, they mesh with the gravel just below the surface, giving your tires excellent bite. The corollary to that is - if the surface is hard, and tracks are barely visible on the surface, slow down. It could be like grease, and even a fresh pair of TKC80's can't get a grip, as this rider found out.

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    One thing to remember - when the force vector/downward pressure of the bike is precisely perpendicular to the surface, the tire will not slide sideways. So on a slick, high-crowned road, stay in the center of the crown where the surface is horizontal.

    MAKING MISTAKES - A METHOD FOR LEARNING

    While it is advantageous to learn from the mistakes of others rather than from our own, we cannot always depend upon others to do their part. Therefore we must, at times, commit a few errors for our own enlightenment. Due to a lack of space (that's my excuse) none of those embarrassing scenarios will be shared here, except for this little tidbit of advice: If you are going to make a U-turn halfway up Beaver Slide, be prepared to do it in a smooth arc, under power, with both feet on the pegs. That is, unless you are one of those rare people who was born with the downhill leg about six inches longer than the uphill one. Further details of that lesson will not be revealed.

    With over a dozen trips to Deadhorse and that many more just "playing" on the Haul Road, collecting photos, it might be expected that at least a few calamities have befallen this rider. It was while doing a BB1500, less than a hundred miles after the engine on my KLR seized due to burning oil faster than I was prepared to replenish it. Hurrying to make up for some of the time lost on the side of the road, an attempt was made to pass three much slower riders who had managed to space themselves across the entire roadwidth. My line through the deep, ball-bearing gravel ran out, and down I went, proving once again that the Haul Road is not a place to make haste.. Thankfully, one of the three was thoughtful enough to assist in putting the bike upright, and I was on my way before any of them could regain motion.
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    Lesson learned through painful application: Take it slow and easy. Leave the record setting to others.


    WEATHER

    A few months back, Rider magazine featured an article, captioned on the front cover "Conquering Alaska's Dalton Highway". Inside, the article was entitled "The Haul Road" with a subtitle that read "Taming Alaska's Dalton Highway". Those two brought a smile to my lips. You neither "conquer" nor "tame" the Dalton. In a benevolent mood, it may allow you to get from one end to the other without hindrance. But if it takes a whim, in concert with ol' Mother Nature, it will bring you to a dead halt, doesn't matter if you're on a dualsport or a D9.

    Weather changes rapidly along the Dalton Hwy. due to the topographical irregularities. The Brooks Range mountains provide a barrier between the Interior region that warms up much more rapidly and remains relatively dry in the spring, compared to the coastal plain with its own weather affected largely by its proximity to the Arctic Ocean. In fact, the North Slope (the area north of the Brooks Range "sloping" down to the ocean at the coastline) is about a month behind the Interior when it comes to seasonal changes, both spring and fall. But this difference in temperatures can create problems for vehicular traffic, especially motorcyclists, as it also creates ideal conditions for snowstorms much of the year, including summer months.

    This photo was taken a little after 1:00 AM May 30th. It had been hot in Fairbanks, but getting to the top of Atigun Pass was difficult for my KLR, impossible for the FJR accompanying me.
    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    Advice given to me by a good friend who spent several years as a DOT engineer in Fairbanks, working on the Haul Road, was that the last week of May and the first two weeks of June were traditionally the best weather for riding to Deadhorse. Naturally, whenever dealing with weather, there are no absolutes. But subsequent rides during that time of year have proven the validity of that advice. For the past several years a few of us who live close enough to make a simple weekend ride of the Haul Road have done so on Memorial Day weekend. The weather has varied from too hot in Fairbanks (into the low 90's) and as far north as Wiseman (making it difficult to get to sleep) to a bit on the chilly side, with frosted visors, for the last 50 or 60 miles into Deadhorse.

    The spring of 2012 was one exception to this, proving again that weather can never be counted upon. Watching the forecasts leading up to the holiday weekend convinced me that this would not be the best time to head way north. Events proved that to be more than a little true, with avalanches closing Atigun Pass and drivers reporting blizzard conditions and 3 foot snowdrifts north of the pass. By staying home that weekend my record of never having weather stop me from reaching the top of Atigun Pass was maintained . It has kept me from going down the north side, but at least I have been at the top when that decision was made.

    Pulling away from Coldfoot you pass a sign that states "240 Miles To Next Services". Those "Next Services" do not include gasoline. That is the distance to the first man camp on the south side of Deadhorse, before making the large horseshoe bend around the east end of the airport runway. From the gas pumps at Coldfoot to either the Chevron pumps at NANA or the Tesoro pumps of Colville, Inc. it is 250 miles as measured by GPS. My personal recommendation for the northbound rider is to have enough fuel aboard for around 320 miles of riding, just in case you get to the top of Ice Cut and find the weather too nasty to continue. It is now 150 miles back to Coldfoot, up and over Atigun Pass. Walking much of that distance in riding boots is not something most of us would contemplate with any enthusiasm.

    We who live in the Great Land say of our mountains "They're never the same twice". That same comment aptly describes the Haul Road. Regardless what I have seen and experienced in my many trips up and down that "highway", you will undoubtedly see and experience something that I have not. Feel free to add some of your own photos, as well as good, and bad, experiences so that others may learn from our successes and failures.

    There are also dozens of photos taken on the Haul Road, contributed by many riders, in this thread: The Lure of the Dalton.

    [​IMG]
    #3
    shuckinator and GDP65 like this.
  4. Alcan Rider

    Alcan Rider Frozen Fossil

    Joined:
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    4,343
    Location:
    Over the rear wheel
    Thank you! Yes, I recall that meeting in front of Fast Eddy's. You and your wife were en route back to Wasilla after a lengthy ride. We later had a great trip up the Dempster, although not all the way to Inuvik. That's on the list for some future date.
    #4
    RW66 likes this.
  5. AK650

    AK650 Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Jun 26, 2013
    Oddometer:
    778
    Location:
    Alaska
    Nice job, Jack! Great info, and beautiful photos. The first time I saw that trashed pickup, that was up above Ice Cut(if I remember right), I thought "surely someone died in that". Turns out I was wrong, fortunately. They must have been living right!

    Jeff
    #5
  6. crashmaster

    crashmaster ow, my balls!

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2007
    Oddometer:
    5,558
    Location:
    Alaska
    Out of all your incredible images, this one speaks to me. :lol3

    [​IMG]
    #6
    GDP65, pman13 and rbrhsv like this.
  7. mitch96

    mitch96 Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Nov 20, 2010
    Oddometer:
    139
    Location:
    Hollyweird Florida
    He is a brave man who lifts his visor in northern Alaska… In about 2 miliseconds you are inundated with 'skeeters……. big dumb 'skeeter.

    Met your friend Recardo on the road only to find out he lives two towns away from me in Florida!!! small world.

    mitch
    #7
  8. beamertwin

    beamertwin Paul

    Joined:
    Aug 1, 2005
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    1,085
    Location:
    the end of the rainbow
    Most excellent Jack!
    Wise, well written words for all of us.
    Thank you.
    #8
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  9. marbee40

    marbee40 Some Fear is Good

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    Jan 28, 2007
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    Owyhee County
    Jack,
    Thanks, yet again, for capturing in both words and photos all of the things I love and loath of the Haul Road. Breathtaking and memorable.

    Jim
    #9
  10. Mastery

    Mastery Mr. Funny Man

    Joined:
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    Hoosier Daddy?
    Enjoyed the write-up, thanks for taking the time to do this. Good info for my upcoming June trip up that way.

    ETA: Just found the above. Make that "June 2015".
    #10
  11. Phoenix101

    Phoenix101 Long timer

    Joined:
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    Right Side of WA
    planning the trip for 2014,,, thanks for the photos and info. Do you happen to know who at Deadhorse runs the tour shuttle to the ocean?
    #11
  12. Old-n-slo

    Old-n-slo Burnin' fossil fuels!

    Joined:
    Dec 25, 2005
    Oddometer:
    117
    Location:
    SE Michigan
    Thanks for the write-up...and the PM you sent me earlier about tires. Getting my beat to shit KLR ready for a 4th of July departure from Michigan. And will likely be hosting an Eastern European rider who will mount my K75RT. Hope to cross paths in Fairbanks.
    JohnD
    #12
  13. Rodknee

    Rodknee the post is mightier than the sword...

    Joined:
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    new friggin york
    thanks for the great writeup and words of advice. it is very much appreciated, as i will be trekking up to deadhorse from ny this coming august. :freaky
    #13
  14. Northstar Beemer

    Northstar Beemer Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2007
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    384
    Location:
    Frozen Prairies USA
    And doing it again in a few weeks. Excellent lessons and advice in this article - I'll be just a bit smarter this trip!:deal


    [​IMG]
    #14
  15. AlaskanMudder

    AlaskanMudder not AKMUD

    Joined:
    Apr 24, 2011
    Oddometer:
    115
    Thanks for this post, Alcan Rider! Now Im all motivated to do it again later this month. Who's with me?
    #15
  16. markbvt

    markbvt Long timer

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    Location:
    Georgia, Vermont (that's one town, not two states)
    This article should be required reading for anyone planning to ride the northern gravel roads. It applies equally well to the eastern ones such as the Trans-Labrador Highway.

    --mark
    #16
  17. Northstar Beemer

    Northstar Beemer Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2007
    Oddometer:
    384
    Location:
    Frozen Prairies USA
    We will be heading up the Dalton June 3, Deadhorse or Die trying. My second trip with two virgins . Wanna join the madness?
    #17
  18. Gingy

    Gingy b00b

    Joined:
    Apr 30, 2014
    Oddometer:
    28
    Location:
    Kodiak, AK
    as many have said, great write-up! I'm doing this trip in August starting from home in Kodiak. I can't wait for this trip!
    #18
  19. Titan1969

    Titan1969 Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Jan 1, 2011
    Oddometer:
    208
    Location:
    Newport Beach, CA
    Hell I made it to Deadhorse. 15 hours from Fairbanks to Purdhoe Bay. Road is really bad for a 15 miles stretch about 50 miles north of the Atigun. Graders tore it up and big rocks and soft surface.
    I slept for 10 hours in the Purdhoe Hotel, resting for May 24th then heading back Sunday May 25th.
    I'll admit this was tougher than I thought, Vstrom is holding up but taking a beating. Best speed north if the Pass was 35 mph, mostly 20 though.
    I got tons if video footage..stay tuned.

    Return trip update.....:wink:

    The Dalton made sure I didnt make it out with my bike. I left early morning May 25th, temps in the teens light snow.
    Had no trouble making it to milepost 50 then snow started accumulating, I didn't have studs. I tried staying to the right on the gravel that I could see poking thru and that got me to milepost 62, and thats all she wrote.
    Dropped it twice in a mile, hitched ride back to Deadhorse and flew out back to LA.
    Bike got help from Delta Leasing and Linden to get it shipped to Anchorage.
    The Motorcycle Shop in Anch. will crate it and Carlile will bring it back to LA ($600).
    Fortunately I didnt get hurt and the bikes mostly cosmetic.
    If things had been dicey when I left Deadhorse, would've saved the bike and just flown back, but it wasnt that bad when I left Deadhorse and forecast was upper 20's with flurries.
    Hell at least I made it up to Deadhorse:clap

    here was my trek via Delorme, 7 days from LA to Deadhorse (zoom out on the left side to see a wider view and my points)

    https://share.delorme.com/ThomasKehl
    #19
  20. Tom S

    Tom S Can I ride it?

    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2004
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    5,115
    Location:
    Anchorage Alaska
    Gee, that sounds like such great fun. :lol3
    #20