Tag Archives: ALASKA

Sanctuary River Packraft August 2016

Sancutary River Packraft – August 2016

Twenty four hours, two bears, one lost hiker, two packrafts and one wrong turn

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We catch the Denali Park camper bus out to Sable Pass, with all gear ready to go into our  backpacks. People with varying amounts of gear get dropped off here and there along the meandering park road. About an hour and a half in (with multiple stops for animal sightings) the bus leaves us right at the top of the pass. There are no formal trails in Denali’s backcountry, but this is a popular destination and a hiker’s trail leads down from the steep slope where the road is. Making sure we have bear spray and the .357 ready, we make our way down the trail to our first river crossing. Looking up and downstream, we quickly realize avoiding this is futile. May as well get our boots wet in the first 10 minutes.

The first part of the trip takes us downhill from the Sable Pass through thick swampy muscag and bushes. All the while we maintain conversation, or at most make noises, wary of what bears we might accidentally catch unawares. We pass through multiple streams and ponds, trying to get into the main valley of the Teklanika River below. The wide braided and rocky stream bed is our destination. After a while the well defined hikers trail fades and we begin the first bushwacking of the trip through dense bush and forest.

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Arriving at the Teklanika, the clouds roll in and it begins to rain. We have been playing catch up with the weather all day and it finally hits us. We look at the map, about 5 miles to the next valley that we need to hike up into, down to the southwest of us. It makes sense to turn this stretch into our first bout of rafting! Inflating the rafts and securing our packs, we get into the river. It has been raining so the water is high and fast. We were here the year before battling shallow river beds and getting stuck. Making our way downstream it is a constant labyrinth of widening and narrowing river paths.

We pull out our rafts at the mouth of the next valley we must enter in order to get to the pass and the Sanctuary river beyond which will take us back to the park road. By now it is approaching evening. The sky never will get entirely dark today, but the light changes and the mountains change to an orange hue. We cross the river early on, in a spot where we can make it across without getting in the white water. The river is high here, and we sidestep our way across together, hands on shoulders.

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The first part of the walk we follow the river bed on the south side. At first I welcome the rocks after sinking and making slow progress through the muskag earlier. The rocks eventually give way to bigger boulders, and the hiking here is also slow, weighed down by the 50lb of gear and packrafts we both carry. About an hour into this hike, we spot tracks in the silt of the river bed. What appear to be wolf tracks head upstream, immediately followed by bear paw prints. Water is seeping into the cracks in the silt that were punctured by the bears claws. The grooves are deep and dark in the silt. After this I am looking up and down the valley sides more and more.

We head up the valley along grassy bluffs that follow the river below. After walking up the river channel on hard rocks, the grass feels great underfoot. As we follow the bluffs upstream, they begin to rise high above the river below. We now have a view of the entire valley. The bluffs are green and covered in mountain wild flowers. Bellow the river is grey and throthing. On either side of the valley, tall red-stained granite cliffs rise. The sky is grey-black filled with passing rain clouds. The dark clouds and red cliffs cast a dramatic contrast to the green pasture like slopes we tread on. Across the valley I see what looks like white dried trees. On closer inspection, a herd of caribou is grazing high up on the valley sides.

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We reach a junction where the river we have been following is being joined by a different river from another valley. This river comes from the mountains and is much clearer than the churning grey river we follow. They combine, in a swirling pattern downstream, until they blend, and are indistinguishable.

The grassy bluffs we follow now begin to steepen. We traverse the grassy slope across a fairly steep section. A fall here would take you one hundred feet into the valley which is has now become more of a gorge. After the traverse, the terrain flattens somewhat to rolling meadow above the gorge. We continue to follow this up to the mountain pass above. Grass and mountain flowers are slowly replaced by dirt, then rocks, until we are trudging up a pile of scree.

It is approaching midnight as we arrive at the pass. Up in the mountain col, the sky is dark and misty and it is hard to make out the distances that we see in the silhouette of mountain ahead of us. This is the first time I turn on my GPS to make sure we are heading for the correct pass that we had been planning to take. Sure enough, the pass is actually just 100 feet ahead, completely obscured by the darkness and mist!
The pass is easily climbed. From the top, an entirely new valley awaits us. We make our way down a very steep scree slope, where each step into the scree forces us to glissade down by two feet or so. This quickly transports us to the valley below. When we finally get to the bottom, it is about 2 in the morning. We decide to set up a tent for a quick 2 hour power nap. After we will descend this valley to reach the headwaters of the Sanctuary and rafting portion of our trip.

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After a very chilly sleep (we had not brought sleeping bags) we pack up the tent and again make our way down. We begin to walk down the river that carves a path between the valley sides. This valley is made out of dark slate and scree slopes. The slopes quickly begin to steepen around us, and the path alongside the river is narrowing. What was once a path is turning into boulders with rushing water that we must gingerly step down to make progress. We arrive at a section of waterfall where it is necessary to remove packs to place them around the corner so that we can climb down. My pack slips in the process and the river takes it with it, until it is caught in a pool at the base of the next waterfall.

At this time we realize we cannot continue without a rope. The best bet is trying to climb up the steep valley side, to the bluffs we know must be above. The slope is very steep, and it is necessary to do some scrambling at the top of the grass and scree to make it to the top of the cliff. I take my bag off for this so that I can push it up over the rocks first. After a bit of precarious rock scrambling, I make it over the cliffs and arrive at the gentle 25 degree slopes of the bluffs! We sit in the grass drying out under the sun. In contrast to the dark cliff lined valley we have just climbed out of, it feels like being in a garden! The sun comes out at this time to greet us and dry our clothes and packs that were drenched by the waterfall descent.

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After recuperating, we begin the easy walk down. I can see the headwaters of the Sanctuary ahead. A much wider, deeper and faster river than the Teklanika. I am grateful we decided to climb out of the gorge when we did. On our way down the waterfalls get taller and taller – likely unpassable without rope or injury.

We get down to the Sanctuary river and begin to unload the rafts. I am welcoming the change from walking to rafting as it has been already about ten hours on feet! Looking at the map we look for the features we need to recognize from the river which tells us we are entering the wolf enclosure and must put out. This leaves us with another 6 miles of walking to do after the river. Not particularly excited about that concept but at least there is a 15 miles interlude of river.

We begin downstream. It is not raining today, and being on the water feels amazing. Near the headwaters, the river is slow and easy with many sand bars and it is possible to float happily without too much concentration. The many peaks and valleys with their own tributaries coming to meet our river welcome us down stream. The peaks around us are green and punctuated by waterfalls pouring from river gorges that drain the glaciers and snow above. This portion of river is truly idyllic.

After floating for an hour we see something that gives us halt. A man is walking alone along the river, looking disheveled with all belongings in a plastic shopping bag he clutches at his waist. He waves and calls to us, but the river takes us fast away. Before having started our trip, we knew that someone was missing. This person is about 20 miles south of where the search party is, and fits the description extremely well. We decide the best course of action is to get back to the park road as quickly as possible so that we can report him.

Rafting now becomes our mission. As the river goes downstream and is joined by tributaries, the pace quickens. We also leave the sparsely vegetated open river valley that the headwaters were in, to an area filled with spruce pines. The occasional branch or tree in the river poses an important obstacle to avoid. A fallen tree in a river is called a strainer, and getting caught in one in a raft can be dangerous as the weight of the water rushing from behind you will pile up. It is very important to be paying attention in order to navigate these.

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After about two hours on the river I am getting cold and hungry. The river has slowed and is meandering, with many sand bars that appear to be tempting spots to stop for a lunch break. I see a bar around the corner ahead that appears a good candidate. Turning around, I call out to ask whether this is a good place to stop. Sean shouts something in a harsh voice that I don’t at first get. Then I understand he is saying ‘BEAR!’. Looking back at the sandbar that my packraft is now drifting into, I see that the perfect lunchbreak sand bar is already occupied – by two grizzlies devouring a caribou! The bears’ snouts and claws are covered in the blood of the half eaten creature, whose ribcage is fully exposed and stripped of meat.

Sean takes out his bear spray behind me, while I do my best to navigate my boat away from the current pulling me to the animals. One bear looks up when he hears us and begins to walk into the river, which is at most 2 feet deep here. At this point I am probably two car lengths from the animal. Much closer than I would like!

We make it around the corner and the bears seem to lose interest in us as they resume their bloody feast. I continue down river. No longer hungry. No longer feeling the cold. Heart pounding! After this I am excited to make it back to the park road. Regain composure. Report the lost hiker. We make a unanimous decision to take the closed portion of the river pack to the road, saving us probably 2 hours of travelling through the back country.

 

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A trip to the Don Sheldon Mountain House

DAY 0

In the midst of a busy semester during the middle of my PhD, I pack my bags for spring break. New York City has had an unusually mild winter, and so I do not mind that my plans are  taking me north to the cold of the Alaska Range. With anticipation I try to think of everything I will need for my week spent in the Mountain House. Although the cabin is comfortable and inviting compared to its stark surroundings, it is removed from Talkeetna, the closest town, by 150 miles of glacier, moraine, dense forest and meandering (now frozen) rivers.

The Don Sheldon Mountain House is a cabin which is described online as perhaps “the world’s most spectacularly-situated cabin”(1). True to this description, the Mountain House is precariously perched on a rocky outcrop lying in a sea of ice which feeds into the Ruth Glacier. Those who stay in the cabin are treated to a spectacular panorama with Denali looming to the north and the rest of the Ruth amphitheater extending in all directions. The cabin is only accessible by ski-plane and helicopter, which land on the adjacent glacier. A short hike up an exposed ridge takes guests to the Mountain House. In the summer months visitors are urged to be mindful of the crevasses forming in the vicinity of the house, a reminder of the active nature of the seemingly benign glacier underfoot.

We arrive in Talkeetna early Wednesday morning after a strenuous 275 mile drive from Fairbanks in a blizzard, progressing at a crawl of 30 mph. Descending a bend near Healy, we pass a car that has slipped into a ditch. A pickup truck on the scene is already assisting the unfortunate car and we crawl on. Perception of distance is oddly warped driving in Alaska’s interior. Healy lies over one hundred miles from Fairbanks, and after leaving Healy the next town, Cantwell, is another forty miles down the road. Save one or two small outposts, 127 miles later is our endpoint: Talkeetna. The sparsity of towns, lack of drivers in the early morning, and epic beauty of Denali Park shrink the five hour drive time hastening us to our destination.

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We pull into K2 aviation at around 10 a.m., and a light snow is falling in town. The expanse of Denali and the Alaska Range is hidden beneath a blanket of low cloud. Already anticipating the answer, we are told it is ‘no-fly’ weather and to try again in the afternoon. In the meantime we begin organizing our provisions to be weighed and checked for travel aboard the plane that will carry us up to the mountains: a 4-seater ski-equipped Cessna.

Things start to change and Denali appears looming tall and pink in the evening light. We meet our pilot – Chris – who has communicated with the Mountain House’s current guest a Mr. O. He is ready to come down after 6 days in the cabin. The weather forecasts are less optimistic indicating strong winds. This aside, we get prepared anyway to at least circle the cabin and attempt landing.

Not an easy flyer, I am apprehensive as I get into the front seat of the plane. I am shoulder to shoulder with our pilot, and the back of the aircraft is brimming with our skis, packs and other provisions for our stay. However, as soon as we take off the beauty and majesty of the scenery have an instant calming effect. Rising up over the tundra and spruce forests surrounding Talkeetna, the landscape is pristine. Braided rivers, frozen and snow-covered, meander across the land. Animal tracks are visible, and at one point we spot a moose.

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The view of Denali in the distance steals the show. Formed over 65 million years ago by the uplift of erosion-resistant granite, Denali, meaning the ‘high one’, dwarfs surrounding peaks with its behemoth proportions. Rising 18,000 feet from the plain, Denali can be considered taller than Mt Everest in terms of vertical relief (3). As we approach the mountain, clouds still clinging to its lower flanks produce temporary ‘bumpy air’. Our pilot then enters the gorge incised by the Ruth Glacier which runs 40 miles long and attains thicknesses of up to 4000 feet. As we fly over the moraine, a region in which the sediment carried by the glacier becomes exposed at the surface at its terminus, sunken areas the size of football feeds demonstrate collapse. Granite blocks the size of houses litter the terrain. Further into the gorge, the surface becomes heavily crevassed. Our pilot tells us these older crevasses can be 3000 to 4000 feet deep.

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As we gain altitude and approach the mountain house, granite cliffs rise on both sides of our Cessna, casting a shadow and blocking views of the valley below. The cliffs rise 5000 feet above the base of the glacier, 2000 feet taller than El Capitan. Smaller valleys emerge from breaks in this granite corridor, leading to ice falls and eroded peaks. Finally we emerge into the Don Sheldon (or Ruth) Amphitheater, in which ice flows from all sides to feed into the main stem of the Ruth glacier. The area resembles an outstretched hand, with each finger pointing to some distant granite peak or ice fall, separated by over 40 miles.

Circling back now in the plane, we get our first view of the Don Sheldon Mountain House. A small hexagonally shaped wooden cabin impossibly situated in the midst of this isolation and grandeur.The cabin was built by bush pilot and adventurer Don Sheldon in 1966. Don Sheldon was made famous for pioneering glacial landings in the Alaska Range, which now forms the basis of a thriving business in Talkeetna. From spring to fall, bush planes drop off both climbers and tourists high on the flanks of impossibly wild terrain. During World War II Don Sheldon lent his aviation skills to flying as a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress Crew over Europe where he received several military distinctions (2).

The Mountain House is located halfway up one of the valleys feeding into the Ruth amphitheater, flanked by two glaciers on either side of the rocky outcrop and shadowed by Mt. Barill which rises behind it. Glaciers are also known to generate their own wind systems which are in turn funneled by the sharp valleys. We experience this as Chris loops back for a test landing – and then reconsiders as the plane is jolted in the 20 knot winds. Below we see Mr. O outside the cabin. Sadly for both him and us, we will not be landing this time round. Making this decision, our adventure is delayed by one day. We return to Talkeetna and enjoy the sunset and the distant views of our hopeful mountain conquests.

 

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(1) http://www.alaska.org/detail/don-sheldon-mountain-house
(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Sheldon
(3) https://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/dena/

 

DAY 1

 

Thursday we wake up to a clear view of Denali, and eagerly head back to K2 aviation.We are introduced to Chip who is our pilot today. After a last minute check of our belongings, we are ready to go and clamber back into the Cessna. Yesterday’s short flight has wetted my appetite for bush planes and I am eager to be airborne again. The morning is clear and beautiful and Denali grows before with an orange hue. Through the headset, Chip describes how he began with flying hunters and fisherman out to remote locations, landing on lakes and open fields. Possibly not as lucrative as commercial flying, perks of this employ included generous shares in their kill. A single moose can yield upwards of 600 lbs of meat, which the hunters divided with Chip in payment.

Perhaps it is the unforgiving climate, nature, and inherent dangers faced by Alaskans venturing into the remote wild, but a strong culture of camaraderie is prevalent in this state. Chip relates how part of the share of meat he received from hunters he would give to the elderly living in the remote villages, who are now too senior to hunt for themselves. This tradition of provision and caring for the community although extant today, appears to be diminishing, laments Chip.

As we approach the Mountain House the view is just as stunning the second time around. The American flag visible from the plane, and mounted on a small shed near the house, hangs motionless. This is in direct contrast to yesterday’s flyby where the strong winds rippled through the flag as it strained to remain on its post. Chip fills us in on another piece of Mountain House history during the final reaches of the flight. Motivated by the Alaskan heritage of the gold rush, Don Sheldon originally envisioned the Mountain House as a site for mining of precious minerals. Although this ambition was not realized, in its stead the Mountain House became a great site for parties and entertaining, which Don Sheldon would hold on a regular basis.

This time we are able to land. Half a foot of snow has fallen since the last landing, and the Cessna makes a slight ‘thump’ as it gently lands on the freshly powdered glacier. Mr. O is ready to be finally picked up, and we happily exchange places with him. After unloading the plane, we begin one of multiple journeys hauling our gear up to the cabin using the trail Mr. O has just cut into the deep fresh snow. As we carry out our trips up and down the slope leading to the Mountain House, we hear the plane’s propeller below turn on. Looking back, the plane starts its take off on the glacier runway. After impossibly short contact with the ground, the plane glides off the slope of the mountain, dipping first toward the amphitheater below before rising up and disappearing down glacier into the gorge, leaving us alone with the silence of the mountains.

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Dalton Highway – Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks

DAY 0 – New York City I take a last minute inventory of my gear in my room in Manhattan before I leave to catch my flight for Fairbanks, Alaska. I will be taking my Bianchi Volpe cross bike with both rear and front panniers. I replace the 32CC tires that came with the bike for the larger 38CC variety, hopefully wide enough to give me a stable ride on the 400 mile unpaved Dalton Highway. A cyclists’ travel guide from the Bureau of Land Management informs me that the following conditions will be met on the roads: mud the consistency of wet cement, gravel so deep you need to pedal to go down hills, and grapefruit sized bits of rock. I also pack four extra inner tubes with my patch kit, anticipating at least one if not more flat tires on the way! The weather at Prudhoe Bay (the start of my journey) is hovering around freezing with forecasted snow. The end of my journey (Fairbanks) is much warmer, with temperatures in the 60 – 70 F range. I pack a variety of winter, rain and summer cycling clothes, ready for whatever I will meet. I also have my lightweight REI one person sized tent, air mattress, sleeping bag, other general camping gear. I also throw in my headlamp and batteries… although I will be enjoying twenty-four hours of daylight as I bike through the Arctic into the summer solstice. Force of habit I guess. ‘Boswell’s London Journal’, a chronicle of life in 18th century London also makes it into my gear. I am hoping to have at least some downtime. Altogether (including my bike, bags and bodyweight) I am traveling with 250 lbs!     IMG_4816

DAY 1 – Arrival at Prudhoe Bay (June 7th 2014) As the airplane begins its descent to Prudhoe Bay, I start to get second thoughts on the trip I am about to begin. The plane breaks through a thick fog, and a few snow flurries before reaching the wet and frozen airport tarmac below. All I can see outside is white, frozen ground as far as the eye can see, and broken up ice on the frigid Arctic Ocean. This flight from Fairbanks is making two stops: number one is Prudhoe Bay and the second is Barrow (only accessible by plane). As passengers whose final destination is Prudhoe Bay begin to disembark I suddenly envy the other passengers staying safely on board!

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In the small terminal of the Prudhoe Bay Airport, I wait with anticipation for my bike gear.  Did I remember everything? Do I have my tent? And my sleeping bag? And food?! Also did the bike that I packed three days ago in my New York apartment in the company of a friend from my graduate school program and under the influence of a few beers, make it in one piece? My fears are put to rest as everything arrives safe and sound!

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It takes about an hour to rebuild my bike, pump up my tires, pack my bags, and fill my water bottles. I leave the cardboard box I used to transport my bike in the airport, where the airport worker I give it to tells me that it will be used for hunters to transport antlers in. Glad to know recycling is going on.

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I head out into the charming Prudhoe Bay, the northernmost town on the Dalton Highway. The town exists to serve as a base for oil exploitation taking place in the Arctic. The Dalton Highway which reaches this far north, was built in a mere 154 days in 1974 to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which delivers oil from the Arctic down to Valdez. This is the 414-mile route I will be following, alongside the pipeline which crosses through Arctic Tundra, the Brooks Range and the White Mountains as it extends south towards the Pacific.

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I stop at a the Prudhoe Bay General Store, which sells tools, hardware, a few post cards as well as some snack foods. I am very glad that I carried all my food on the plane and did not rely on this store, as I would otherwise be eating overpriced and probably stale Snickers Bars for the rest of the journey. I purchase some Coleman Fuel for the stove. I do not intend to do much cooking, but there’s nothing like a cup of coffee before starting 80 mile days on a bike in the Arctic. At the general store, a man who has just been driving North informs me that there has been a grizzly bear sighting about 60 miles down the Dalton Highway. Welcome to Alaska I guess. For today I will keep my bear spray strapped to the outside of my Ortlieb biking bags!!

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As I roll out of Prudhoe Bay, I see this daunting sign above. Next Services 240  miles. I have a long way to go before I can buy my next cup of coffee, and purchase any emergency food should I need to. Or spend any money whatsoever for that matter!

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As I bike south I am surrounded by frozen arctic tundra, with a view of the pipeline in the distance carrying oil south. The roads are flat, but the mud is so deep it takes twice as much effort to travel as it would normally  though. I also realize very quickly that there is little point in trying to stop mud from getting just about everywhere: on my clothes, bike pedals, gears, cogs, face, the works. I also discover that it is necessary for me to maintain at least 5 km/ hour pace even in the thickest mud or my fork swings out of control and I would be propelled into the mud. This sounds simple enough, but trying it with a fully loaded (and hastily packed) touring bike and the situation becomes more difficult. I practice ’emergency’ unclipping from my bike pedals to prepare for any such falls.

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I run into a policeman (Charles) along the way who stops to see how I am doing. He also lets me know there are few other cyclists one to two days ahead of me en route to South America. And also a pack horse team traveling from Prudhoe Bay down to Mexico! It appears that I am undertaking the shortest trip of all. Anyway its comforting to speak to someone who is familiar with the area, and assures me others are doing this too. Officer Charles gives me lunch and a drink that he carries with him just in case. Its nice I don’t have to dip into my stock of peanut butter just yet.

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It’s hard to stop cycling when the sun never goes down, and each bend of road produces new stunning scenery. I see its 10:30 pm and I decide to finally make camp for the night. I have biked about 75 miles today and that is more than enough for me to complete the trip in good time. Just as I am about to set up camp however, I have my first encounter with wildlife! A grizzly bear (small-ish I suppose by average grizzly standards) is just off the side of the road. The bear does not even look up once as it is busy foraging for roots, food, whatever it wants out in that field. I bike past slowly and confidently…  At 11 with the sun shining fully I set up camp and make sure to put all my food FAR away in a bear proof sack, don’t want any unwanted attention from this little fellow.

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DAY 2 –

I wake up cold, but after a cup of coffee I am good to start the day. Plus I will be getting warm today since the hills start after around 90 miles from Prudhoe Bay. At the bottom of one particular hill, ‘Oil Spill Hill’ which is particularly steep, I notice my second bear of the trip. This one seems HUGE compared to the last, and I also feel disadvantaged going uphill at such a slow rate. IMG_5096 IMG_5105

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The beginning of mountains start to appear on the horizon as I make distance today. The foothills of Brooks Range are looming, and are beautiful, but also remind me of the Brooks Range ‘Atigun Pass’ – the highest elevation on this trip, I will have to go through. Sometime in the afternoon, I pass by a group of construction and pipeline workers who are helping out at the site of a crash where an 18-wheeler drove off the road the day before. In most areas, the Dalton Highway is built up about 15 feet off the surrounding area which means driving off it is a very dangerous risk. Each time I pass one of the enormous trucks I try to keep to the side to avoid a similar fate for me and my bike.

Later that afternoon, I have an encounter with a different type of arctic predator – a great white wolf! Unlike the bears I have seen, the wolf stops in its tracks as it is bounding across a field and watches me bike. Although it is far from me, I can tell it is enormous – much bigger than a dog. I wait for it to get to a safe distance away from the road before yanking out my camera for a shot.

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Further along the road, construction work is going on. A large truck is spraying the road with water, turning it into a thick, gloopy mud that makes pedaling much harder than it should be. The advantage of the wet surface is that dust clouds are not created with each passing truck, which cover me in dirt and leave me biking momentarily blinded. I am approaching the construction site fast, in fact my speedometer tells me I am going around 30 miles per hour down a hill with no chance of breaking due to the heavy load I am carrying. A construction worker yells at me to stop but I find I actually cannot do it. Further along when the road starts to bend uphill, I finally can control my bike where I meet another worker who pulls up to me in a pick-up. The worker – Michael- informs me that I am not actually allowed to bike through the work site by state law, and I agree (without too much resistance) to put my bike in the car to cross over to safety. Michael tells me about life in Alaska – how you stay awake all summer for the 3-4 months of perpetual day light and then join the animals in hibernation for the winter. We also talk about the Dalton Highway. He describes it to me perfectly as “Miles and miles of miles and miles” – a phrase that sums up how it feels being on this thin strip of mankind passing through wilderness.

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DAY 3 –

I end up camping just at the foot of the Brooks Range. After biking towards storm clouds and lightning flashes the previous afternoon, I decided to get a good rest before continuing on to the Atigun Pass. The Atigun Pass marks the highest elevation reached on the Dalton Highway at 4739 feet (1444 m) and when heading from the North, involves a gradual rise following the Dietrich River and eventually a few serpentine turns. The road reaches a grade of 12% which on a fully loaded touring bike makes for slow progress.

As I bike through toward the pass by the Dietrich River, the sides of the valley begin to move closer together. The weather also begins to change, as orographic precipitation is formed as air masses move up the mountain. I leave the sunny plains of the tundra behind me and head on into a light drizzle and black rain clouds. I also am not alone on this part of the route – as I bike steadily (and oh so slowly) uphill a large grizzly can be seen traversing over the valley. Bear number three of the trip – I am averaging one per day. As with the other two, I feel honored to see such a beautiful animal in the wild (although true, I may have felt differently had their been closer encounters).

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It is a relatively decent and gradual climb up to the start of the Atigun Pass. Just at the base, as I stop to take a photograph, a group of about 5 motorcycles pass me. I have seen many touring groups of motorcycles, and frankly think the journey looks scarier as they are still on the same unpaved and unruly road but going much faster! I wave off to the bikes, switch to my lowest gear and start the slow progress up the pass. A sign at the base warns me of avalanches and ‘not to stop’ – not sure if moving at 3 miles per hour constitutes ‘moving’ but I try to not loiter, particularly at the location of a previous avalanche!

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Finally I reach the top of the pass, after several photo and rest breaks. As soon as I arrive I am promptly greeted by a rain storm. The gravel road on the way down looks to me like a river filled with rocks, deep mud sections, and overall not ideal for biking. It is an easy choice to me – I walk my bike down the first especially steep section, a bit of an anticlimax after the grueling uphill, but I would rather live to bike more hills in better conditions! After the steepest part is over, I remount and begin a cautious descent, fully squeezing my breaks. On the way down I notice the smell of popcorn – can I really be that hungry to be making up odors all the way out here? I then realize it is the smell of my brake rubber which is burning with all the pressure I am putting on them! Right about now I am wondering if I should have brought spares…

After the Atigun Pass the scenery changes rapidly. The arctic tundra I had been biking through the previous two days is replaced by larger shrubs, and finally trees! In fact, a plaque marks the location of the northernmost spruce pine at mile post 235 – however when I get there I find that the tree has been cut down – I learn later as an act of vandalism. It seems like a strange, not to mention far, location for vandalism and I wonder at the motivation of such a crime. I do am happy to note that plenty more spruce pine appear to be even further north than this one though.

The rest of the afternoon is rainy, muddy and finally BUGGY! When preparing for the trip I had been warned that the mosquitoes are ferocious in Alaska in the summer, and no amount of bug spray, clothing and netting will keep them at bay. Each time I take a break in the forested area, a cloud of mosquitoes is conjured up out of nowhere, attracted to my body heat. Luckily – and this is my theory – the blanket of mud over my body keeps them relatively uninterested and I emerge from Day 3 unscathed.

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Day 4

I spend a night camping beneath the pipeline. There are pullouts for pipeline maintenance all the length of the Dalton Highway, which also serve as great and easy places to pitch a tent. I feel a trip following this highway, which was constructed for the sole purpose of reaching the oil fields in the North, would not be complete without sleeping beneath the pipeline. The pylons holding it up also make a great hideaway for my bear proof bag containing my life blood, a.k.a. peanut butter.

My campsite is only 15 miles away from Coldfoot, and 240 miles away from where I started in Prudhoe Bay. Coldfoot will be the first ‘town’ that I come across, although town might be a slight exaggeration as when I arrive I find there are a few buildings, a gas station for the truckers, a post office which is open 3 days a week and a restaurant. I order my first real food for the trip – since its breakfast I go for a plate of scrambled eggs and rye toast and LOTS of real coffee, which is a nice change from the instant I have been brewing outside my tent. At Coldfoot I also get reprimanded for biking by a trucker who must have passed me earlier. He tells me that what I am doing is very dangerous – and I guess on a road not used to tourists maybe it is. I also meet a group on motorbikes who are just finishing a journey up from Texas. As usual my journey seems to be the shortest!

Having biked through the Brooks Range the day before, I am feeling both cocky and confident that the worst is over. I could not be more wrong, and I quickly discover this as I begin to enter the White Mountains. I spend the rest of the afternoon biking up and down numerous mountain passes.

I eat lunch at the beautiful South Fork Koyukuk River. I can tell that many more moutains lie ahead. Looking through my food I realize that no matter how many hills I climb, I will necessitate another entire jar of peanut butter or 2 bags of walnuts, or 2 huge loaves of bread. In the interest of preserving my already aching knees, I leave a bag with my food on a car parked nearby, and a note explaining I am on a bike and am looking to ditch some extra weight. In retrospect, I realize this could have been an error and hope that no animals destroy the hood of this car eating my surplus goodies! I also regret telling them I am on a bike.. .better keep a low profile now.

After biking along for a few hours, I run into two more cyclists! Since there are so few of us on the road, the sight of others who are also sharing this experience, merits stopping. Again these two – brothers from Florida – are at the beginning of a much longer trip from Alaska to Argentina! We exchange stories about our ride thus far – yes we are all sore, yes the quality of the road is terrible but it is still the experience of a lifetime. After a chatting for a while, a white pick up truck pulls up and the driver informs us that a grizzly bear is slowly heading our way from a few miles north (incidentally . This provides a logical end to the conversation, I wish them luck with their journey and head on.

After a long and challenging afternoon, I arrive at the Arctic Circle for 9 pm. The Arctic Circle features a sign and a primitive campsite which I stay in. It is the first time on the trip I stay in an ‘official’ campsite, and although it is still very wild the difference is I share it with a few other travelers. It is somehow not as serene as the lonely pull out of the pipeline from the previous night, but I get a wonderful nights rest through a heavy rain storm.

 

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DAY  5

A heavy rain is falling on and off when I wake up at the Arctic Circle, making it difficult for me to leave the comfort of my dry, warm tent. During an interlude in the rain I finally decide to start packing up. The pause in rain also summons a cloud of mosquitoes that work on my skin as I work on packing away my things. Today will be a day for all my rain gear.

The roads are immediately unforgiving after leaving my campsite at the Arctic Circle. After a five minute ride I encounter the first of an impossibly steep, straight and  painfully long hill called ‘Beaver Slide’. As I begin my slow trajectory up this part of road, drenched in rain and sweat, several jeeps pass me and I receive a number of incredulous looks. Needless to say, I am still having fun!

After around forty minutes spent tackling Beaver Slide, I enjoy a few short downhill sections and then approach an even longer ascent – Finger Mountain. At this point it is raining even harder, and clouds cover the top the hill and my destination. I am biking on a combination of gravel, mud and sections of cement. Suddenly this firm combination makes way to deep, wet mud and my front fork swivels to the right. As I am already biking so slowly I have no control and I fall down on my side. This is my first crash of the trip, but luckily I am slowly and my panniers act as cushions to my fall. Picking my self up, I am forced to walk a section until the grade becomes gentle enough to remount. Finally I arrive at the top, and enjoy a rainy peanut butter sandwich along with views of the top.

The afternoon is filled with rolling hills in countryside that looks almost like an Alaskan version of Tuscany, if one was to pretend that the scattered spruce pines were cypress trees. At some point, the more or less hard packed and even gravel I have been cycling over is replaced by thick mud that gets trapped in my wheels, brakes, chain and pedals. I bike until I am forced to stop to clear up the mess forming on my bike. Progress is slow and it is still raining. It is beautiful however, with dramatic black skies contrasted against green pine trees and reddish-brown dirt.

Steep hills come one after another, and I finally approach the infamous ‘Roller Coaster Hill’ which is less thrilling on a bike than the name would suggest. Today the Dalton Highway has truly defeated me, and I am forced to walk up the final segments of several of these beasts.

An afternoon of pain brings me to the Yukon River, a wide body of water that begins in British Columbia and bisects the State of Alaska to its mouth in the Bering Sea.  The sun never goes down,  but I arrive at 9 pm when the light is coming at an angle and the river is illuminated by shades of pink, orange and yellow which are reflected in its rippling waters. It is beautiful to behold and a true prize for this long 60 mile day.

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