The formidable Dalton Highway of ‘Ice Road Truckers’ fame always promised to provide a bloody hard introduction to the trip. Leading from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean at 70 degrees North (that’s 4 degrees inside the Arctic Circle) it winds its way 500 miles through Alaskan wilderness back to the relatively warm bosom of Fairbanks. Considered a rite of passage among adventure cyclists it’s effectively a trip in itself and is a pretty tricky customer due to challenging road conditions (with the majority of it unpaved and seriously hilly) and the sheer remoteness. The latter means the plucky cyclist must be completely self-sufficient (food, water, shelter etc) for the majority of it, which, unless you’re Bear Grylls, means carrying a shed load of supplies! On top of all that there’s quite a tight weather window in order to avoid the big freeze, basically mid-june to mid-august, so I was pretty much at the end of it.
Not fancying riding there and back my plan was to hitch my way up to Prudhoe from Fairbanks. So I found myself a comfortable looking bit of roadside and settled in for the long haul. After the best part of a day, apart from the occasional well-wisher dropping off nectarines (thank you nectarine man!), things weren’t looking too promising… However, just as I was about to call it a day a friendly chap called Ron stopped and offered me a lift a good bit of the way towards Prudhoe – result! Ron was from (sweet home) Alabama and was going hunting for caribou. An absolute legend, he ended up driving me all the way there (a 150-mile detour!). In return I acted as ‘spotter’ and made a great job of identifying rocks and bushes as caribou. If we saw a good-sized bull he was going to jump out and ‘put a stalk on it’, then hopefully nail it with his bow and arrow. The agreement was I’d then help cart the meat back to the truck, but alas we never got one (possibly due to my lousy spotting….).
The ride itself started at the less than iconic cluster of industrial buildings servicing the oil field, collectively known as ‘Dead Horse’ (presumably because by the time you’ve ridden there on horseback your trusty steed is pretty much dead…). I said my farewells to Ron and put in the first pedal strokes towards Cape Horn, a mere 30,000km or so away!
After the first couple of days I’d settled into the rhythm of life on the road, which, as you can imagine, is a pretty simple affair. Long days grinding out hard fought miles before setting up camp, having a quick wash in a freezing river (if there was one), rustling up some pasta, and then collapsing into my tent. Not quite your all inclusive beach holiday!
In general the riding was tougher than I expected and each day was full of highs and lows, both in terms of mood and road elevation (with the two following an approximately inverse relationship!). There were certainly a couple of times when the Dalton came close to breaking me; on Day 4 I was faced with an absolutely brutal head wind and a very muddy road, coupled with various aches and pains (primarily knees and ankles). For the whole day I struggled to crank out more than 5mph and came pretty close to throwing a Bradley Wiggins tantrum and lobbing my bike in a bush (not that I could have actually lifted it!). In the end blasting some Van Halen through my headphones to drown out the howling wind and having a good old solo sing along did the trick and got me through it. Day 7 was another toughie, towards the end of which my ankles completely seized up (Achilles tendonitis I believe) and I was forced to stop for the day there and then. I had no choice but to pitch camp in a less than ideal location, with no water source in sight to replenish my dwindling supplies. I was pretty sure this signalled the end of my Dalton mission, but by the grace of god things recovered enough to allow me to continue the following day and kept improving all the way to Fairbanks.
These inevitable tough bits were definitely outweighed however by all the good stuff. The scenery for one completely surpassed my expectations, changing from vast expanses of Arctic tundra in the north, to the Brooks mountain range in the middle and then onto the forested hills of the south. It is complete wilderness on a scale that’s hard for those of us huddled in the UK to get our heads round. This made for some incredible wild camping with some stunning backdrops to gaze upon whilst sipping a cup of tea during the long evenings (weirdly it was almost 24-hour daylight at the start). There was also a fair bit of wildlife kicking about, although fortunately I didn’t have to employ my bear encounter advice, my favourite bit of which being:
If a grizzly bear makes physical contact, play dead. But, if he starts to eat you, fight back!
Although I quite enjoyed the solitude it was always good to meet people along the way. A lot of other travellers on the road were really interested in the trip, I even had people stopping by my tent in the morning looking for the ‘crazy English dude on a bike’. The support was a great morale boaster and I had food (and even monetary) donations coming at me left right and centre.
I also met a few other cyclists coming the other way and it was cool to exchange stories and route info (not that I had much to contribute at this stage!). There were a couple of Argentinian guys about to complete the reverse of my trip and whom I may join forces with for part of the next leg of the ride (as they’re rather bizarrely cycling back to Seattle). By chance I also ended up camping with another English cyclist, Steve, on my last night. We both pitched up outside a small store (Arctic Trading Post) owned by a really friendly couple that’d raised an incredible 23 children! Steve, a doctor from London, is on another level entirely and is three and half years into a pretty comprehensive round the world trip (www.cyclingthe6.blogspot.com). A really cool guy who was full of great advice for the route ahead.
I made my triumphant return to Fairbanks on Thursday, looking and smelling like a complete tramp and barely recognisable to the guys at the hostel. I’ve since showered, shaved and eaten continuously (having lost a fair bit of weight) and am feeling like a relatively civilized human again. In fact, as I type this I’m chilling out in the lounge watching ‘The Godfather‘ with a beer in hand. The plan is to chill here for a couple more days so as to give my ankles and knees a chance to recover and then push on towards Canada’s Yukon Territory early next week. Will keep you posted…