The Dalton Highway Again, or, From the First Day of Fall Into Winter

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by Alcan Rider, Sep 26, 2008.

  1. Alcan Rider

    Alcan Rider Frozen Fossil

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    Having watched the weather forecasts become ever more dismal for the northern half of the Dalton Hwy, there wasn't much confidence that I could make it all the way to Deadhorse. Being aware of my own lack of good sense, and realizing that pushing my luck too far could end up in disaster, I decided to take the easy way and have my food and lodging with me. To that end I loaded up the "work" van with its built-in, drop-down bunk, hooked the little snowmachine trailer on behind, and strapped the KLR down tight. This would enable me to drive the van and trailer to a spot to which I could retreat if the weather got too bad, or within hitchhiking distance if I went over the pass and it snowed behind me, trapping me on the north side.

    Leaving home shortly after noon on Sunday, September 21st, I took it easy driving north to Fairbanks. Swans were beginning to form flocks for their flight south, and a group of about 8 was relaxing in Meiers Lake.
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    They are a very picturesque bird when sitting in the water
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    After stopping in Fairbanks to do some grocery shopping at Wally World I hit the road north as the sun was sinking in the west - something different, now that the Autumnal Equinox was upon us. Rain in the valleys around me provided some interesting sights as the setting sun backlit the showers
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    Fall colors were still visible along the Elliott Hwy, although faded a bit from a few weeks earlier
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    At the Tatalina River I turned off to photograph the old bridge, used long before the Dalton Hwy was even thought of, when the Elliott Hwy was the primary connection with Livengood, Minto, and Manley Hot Springs.
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    Soon after that the sun was down over the surrounding mountains, and the rest of my drive to, and on up, the Dalton Hwy was in darkness, with rain, dense fog, cold wind... and had me glad I wasn't on the bike in that weather. Continuing on up to Mile 150 - the Grayling Lake Wayside - I parked broadside to the wind and pulled the bunk down, then climbed inside my down sleeping bag, again very glad I wasn't on the bike in that atmospheric mess.

    By the next morning the fog had lifted only slightly, and there was still the wind and the drizzle. After a nice breakfast of fried eggs and toast, it was time to hit the road again. A quick stop at Coldfoot, where the gas was still $5.599/gallon despite the drop in crude oil prices from last summer, a little over 15 gallons set the plastic back another $85, then it was on up the road to park and then ride. As I was preparing to leave, I asked a southbound trucker what the road was like to the north. "Like this", he said, pointing to the thick, sticky mud that covered the lot. "And it is freezing and much worse up north. It was snowing when I came down last night" he added, as if to make sure I wasn't taking his warning too lightly. Then he gave this final warning "If you don't go down in it, you'll be coated with the mud, just like my truck" pointing at the Haul Road-brown Carlile rig idling by the pumps. With that I set off to see for myself, as is my wont, being somewhat denser than a chunk of granite.

    Sure enough, the road was as muddy as I had ever seen it, with a layer of gray-brown slime half an inch deep lasting for mile after mile. When I stopped for these photos the muddy water literally dripped from the bike. My suit was the color of the calcium chloride-rich topping up to the knees, and the back of my helmet was completely covered with the drying slop.
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    But the mud notwithstanding, the ride was an enjoyable one, with fall colors still visible. This is the Chandalar Shelf, with the West Fork of the North Fork of the Chandalar River flowing eastward through the broad valley to join the main channel of the Chandalar River, which ultimately flows into the Yukon far to the south.
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    From the Chandalar Shelf a glance Atigun-ward revealed storm clouds over the Endicott Mountains, with clouds swirling down the leeward side, a harbinger of nasty weather at the top of the pass.
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    Moving a couple of miles closer didn't make the picture any rosier.
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    After crossing the West Fork at the bottom, the tight right hander at the beginning of the climb was chewed up... yep, mud again. But the temperature was a balmy 38 degrees yet, so what could I expect? Watching the temperature change as I climbed, I was confident it would be quite a bit cooler at the top and I could dispense with the tanning lotion. Sure enough, about halfway to the top the mud was replaced with frozen ground, now with a light coating of snow. Being a gravel road, traction was still great and I was able to keep a good pace in third gear. Then the flashing lights of a road grader appeared out of the white tempest, and the veiled view I had indicated that the white stuff was blowing around in earnest. As I passed the grader in ever deeper snow, my rear tire started to lose traction intermittently, and I'm sure the grader operator thought he'd seen an escapee from an insane asylum go riding by on a motorcycle.

    At the top, the snow blowing over the pass made it obvious that further travel would have to wait until next spring, as visibility was down to around 50 yards, the temperature down to 25 degrees, and traction virtually nil - with a steep three mile downgrade somewhere out there in the blizzard.
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    Even turning the bike around in the drifting snow was a bit of a hassle, as the snowfall appeared to be getting ahead of the grader.
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    Stopping about halfway down the south side for a photo -
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    - this truck crept past, the driver doing a double-take (and taking a photo himself, as he told me later).
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    The truck had to stop at the bottom so the driver and co-driver could remove the tire chains, so I pulled in to talk with them.
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    They drive for an outfit out of Brooklyn, Michigan, and this was the driver's first trip to Alaska. He reported that he loved it. But their experience with tire chains had been nil before climbing Atigun Pass. Another driver had stopped and helped them figure out how to put them on properly, but asked them where they had gotten the "tiny chains". The driver said "The ones he had looked like log chains". Yep, when you need them in Alaska, you need the real thing.

    After that interlude it was back to the van to cook up some dinnner next to the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk, then the trek homeward with the KLR on the trailer again. Really had me wishing I had parked the van a couple hundred miles farther south so I could have ridden more miles on the bike, but hindsight is 20/20. At least there was more pretty scenery along the Haul Road, with the sun setting once again over the hills to the west, casting a golden glow on the tundra east of the highway -
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    - and on Finger Mountain ahead of me
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    After getting back out to the paved Elliott Hwy, a short drive took me to a wayside next to the Tolovana River where I parked under a cloud-free sky sparkling with millions of stars. The clear night brought the expected chilly temperatures, and the down sleeping bag was appreciated as it dipped to 20 degrees in the morning.

    With the sun shining from a clear, cobalt sky in the Fairbanks area, the temperature warmed up to a summer-like 50 degrees, and as I rolled past Eielson AFB I was treated to the sight of AKANG KC135 tankers doing touch-and-goes.
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    So ends the season for riding the Haul Road - at least until I get the Wing set up for winter riding again.
    #1
  2. Wout67

    Wout67 Long timer

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    hard core, dude..

    Was that slop slippery when you were riding on it?
    #2
  3. Alcan Rider

    Alcan Rider Frozen Fossil

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    Oh... I could feel the bike twitching a little in it when I hit some shallow ruts, so I applied a little more throttle and everything was cool. :D
    #3
  4. D in the D

    D in the D discipulus adventum

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    Excellent Photos!

    :thumb
    #4
  5. White6Romeo

    White6Romeo Sectum Sempre

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    Jack my friend! Iam very pleased to see your KLR has made it up the Haul Road. I have been meaning to email you to get your address. I did get another set of Locking Lugs for my GIVI case. Please email me at travis-wento@hotmail.com so I can send you the one I owe you.

    Travis
    #5
  6. GB

    GB . Administrator

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    What a shocker!! Thanks for the great report and pics!! :thumb
    #6
  7. Mr Bowler Hat

    Mr Bowler Hat Adventurer

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    Fab pics AR.
    #7
  8. Csavargó

    Csavargó Industrialist-hippy

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    Outstanding report Jack!!!!

    What ever happened to the person who was going to go with you? or was that another trip.

    $85!!!!! to fill up a KLR!!!!! I shed a tear inside when i heard that.
    #8
  9. anomad

    anomad in storage

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    Great report Alcan Rider!:clap

    When I lived in Fairbanks, 02-05, it was a love/hate relationship for me. I was overjoyed and sad when I left. I think if my job had been more on the love side of the relationship up there I'd still be on Birch Lane.

    Your pictures remind me of all the things I loved. Thanks.

    Goldstream Vallley about this time of year:
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    #9
  10. kootenay kid

    kootenay kid Lets Ride

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    Holy shit thats beautiful stuff:thumb
    #10
  11. jasonJonas

    jasonJonas Adventurer

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    wuss! ;)

    sweet pics and nice report, jack. reminds me of running up atigun back in 03. at the tipitty top it started to sleet/snow, but just turned into rain on the descent, thankfully. sounds like you made the right move.
    #11
  12. Groomez

    Groomez Been here awhile

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    holy christ, awesome pics here:deal
    #12
  13. Alcan Rider

    Alcan Rider Frozen Fossil

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    E-mail is on its way.

    Yeah, the KLR seems to be working out quite well. Maybe I'll get to wring it out a bit more next summer with more trips to Deadhorse.
    #13
  14. Mooserack

    Mooserack Adventurer

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    Wonderful pictures and outstanding report. Thanks.
    Pat
    #14
  15. Alcan Rider

    Alcan Rider Frozen Fossil

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    The other fellow, Daren, was having trouble getting all the paperwork taken care of in time to make it up here before the weather went to h**l so he had to bail - for now. If he can, he'll be up in the spring and we'll make it then.

    And the $85 was for just over 15 gallons IN THE VAN. The KLR only holds 10.8 when empty - thank goodness.

    Hope you're getting rested up from your own travels, and BTW - congratulations on the 1000 mile day. Y'know, those witness forms are still sitting on my desk where you left them. :lol3
    #15
  16. Alcan Rider

    Alcan Rider Frozen Fossil

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    I know. Must be getting old... or will be some day. :wink:
    #16
  17. Alcan Rider

    Alcan Rider Frozen Fossil

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    To D in the D, Gadget Boy, Mr Bowler Hat, anomad, kootenay kid, Groomez, and Mooserack - Thank you all for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the photos - makes it all worthwhile.
    #17
  18. beamertwin

    beamertwin Paul

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    Very Nice Jack!
    #18
  19. Faustus

    Faustus Been here awhile

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    Great pics as always:clap
    #19
  20. Ironheadziggy76

    Ironheadziggy76 What the hell?

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    Excellent pictures! Oh man, will July ever get here?
    #20