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. * * * * * * * * * * 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.. 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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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 ) when you get in front where the driver can see you. 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. 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. 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. 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. And yes, it was wet and miserable and muddy on that trip, just as many riders have experienced. These two riders shipped their bikes from Colombia to Florida and started their trip there. A far cry from the latest and greatest dualsport, but he made it to the Arctic Circle and was headed back home to California. 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. 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. A Gold Wing from Florida, whose rider had never taken it onto gravel prior to this trip. He obviously adjusted quite quickly. The collection of bikes belonging to a group that rode up together in August 2008. These guys all rode up from Key West, Florida - 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.