I was 50 miles into a trip I've dreamt of for years; the dream trip that was the original motivator, and now end product of everything I have worked towards. All day as I climbed the 1500 feet from Deadhorse to the foothills, I stared ahead across the North Slope, watching rain slamming the north side of the Brooks Range, Alaska's northernmost mountain range. It is a landscape so flat you can see the Earth curve.
196 miles from the next indoor shelter and hot food/resupply on the Dalton Highway, Alaska's only road in the northern half of the state, I was strangely comfortable, relaxed, and starting to realize this really was going to be an epic trip. I smiled. I was right where I wanted to be; Alone, in Alaska, and heading home, riding my Fargo across some of the wildest country in North America.
With five days of food in my frame bag, I had left a sunny and balmy 55-degree day in Deadhorse at noon and reached the foothills at 5 PM. After 60 miles of headwinds and seeing musk ox, caribou, and thousands of migrating birds, I was at Trans-Alaska Pipeline Pump Station 2, where I was met with sideways rain and temps in the low 40s. Heading uphill, my pace slowed. I stopped at the only outhouse rest stop on the road for the next 120 miles to get out of the rain and put some warmer layers on. As the rain turned to sleet and then back to rain, I was wishing for full-length rain pants instead of knickers, and warmer gloves. I headed back out into the rain.
About ten miles down the road, I decided putting up the shelter and getting dry and warm before dark was probably a good idea. I found a nice secluded spot out of the wind and I put up the tarp. I was sleeping by 7:45 PM, having decided warmth and sleep were more desired than hot food at the moment. I could eat later.
Something was wrong; nothing really bad like a bear in camp, but definitely something wasn’t right. I woke up; it was dark. Turning on my headlamp and opening my bag, I looked above me and realized the tarp was laying on me, but still suspended from the two end poles. It took me a second to realize heavy, wet snow was covering my entire shelter and about to snap the aluminum entry pole holding up the tarp. 'Things really escalated quickly,' I thought in Ron Burgundy's voice. Pushing off as much snow as I could from inside the tarp, I relieved the stress and made room for me to get out of my bag to assess the situation. Snow was coming down hard and there was already two inches covering everything I could see. I got back into the warmth of my sleeping bag. I’d need to get up repeatedly for more snow removal.
At about 10 AM, and after over 12 hours of frequently interrupted sleep, I decided I should fully clear all the snow off the edges of the tarp, even though the build up was sealing out the winds quite nicely. Five inches of snow had fallen, covering everything, and now it was turning back to sleet. I thought about staying put, not traveling, and just getting back in the bag to wait out this mess, but that sounded boring. I grabbed a snack, having totally missed out on dinner and now breakfast, and took a walk out to the road. Surprisingly, it wasn't snow covered, just muddy. I could do muddy. Time to keep heading south and out of the Arctic as soon as possible. I knew as soon as this storm was gone, it would get clear... and very cold.
As I stuffed my last pocket with the day's snacks, the sleet stopped and the wind calmed to just a breeze. It seemed so still and tranquil, the world now covered in a white blanket. Knowing today would probably be a shorter day with a noon departure and the dirt road turned to mush, I zipped up the collar on my rain jacket and dropped the single-ring drivetrain into an easier gear. As a gyrfalcon flew overhead, a quick self-assessment found me smiling, once again.
Rolling hills, cold wind, and dropping temps were my riding companions all day. Endless Arctic snow-covered panoramas filled my mind, along with where I should stop for the night in order to be able to make it over Atigun Pass the next day and into interior Alaska. The Interior would be warmer and not have snow on the ground. The latter part sounded really nice, as it was what I had really hoped for in a bike trip on the Dalton. Then again, that also sounded somewhat boring, and just a little too...un-Alaskan.
With the sun still in the sky, my water started to freeze. I needed to ride hard and overdress to keep warm blood going to my fingers so they wouldn't get numb again. I refilled just enough water to reliably get me to the Atigun River, at the start of the real mountains. The wind was getting stronger and the skies were clearing. This would be the end of the storm and the last "warm" day for a while. I needed to hurry.
Around 10 PM, at the end of a construction zone, I found a 4' x 8' plywood-enclosed shelter for the flagger to stand in during bad weather. It was not locked and looked a lot better than setting up a tarp in 20 mph winds at 25 degrees. 73 miles after I started, I was cooking up dinner inside as semi-trucks barreled by just 15 feet away. When I zipped up my bag, the window above my head gave me a clear view of the aurora slowly dancing above, as I analyzed the distance I had come and what I still had left to make it another 360 miles back home.
I woke up to a truck pulling up alongside the makeshift shelter. Voices. The construction crew was starting their day at 5:15 AM. As I opened the door to say hello and see if my presence was okay, the cold stung my face. The flagger said I could stay as long as I wanted and that I wasn't the first person to sleep in there. I packed up my stuff thirstily as I was out of water, and was given a free sandwich from the flagger, who seemingly felt sorry for me. The temperature was 23-degrees.
Out of water, I pedaled uphill and started entering the 30-mile long Atigun River valley, what I consider to be the most beautiful 30 miles on the Alaska road system. Gates of the Arctic National Park was to the west and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east. I filled up on enough Arctic Ocean-bound water to get me over the Continental Divide at Atigun Pass. Day three was filled with headwinds and cold temps, but the clearing sky let the sun work its magic and brighten my outlook. I wished I could stay put, but didn't want to experience a night in the mid-teens.
There were a lot more hills in the valley than I remembered from when I'd driven it in a car, but this is a theme I’ve begun to learn quite well - one experiences so much more on a bike than in a vehicle. Having driven the Dalton a handful of times, I remembered specific places and views. Being on a bike, however, was almost confusing to my mind, as there were so many more creeks, rivers, hills, mountains, valleys, etc. That “one big mountain with the cliff face” turned into tens of miles of big mountains with cliff faces. Pedaling along at a comfortable pace and being able to stop anywhere sure beat the disconnected experience of sitting inside a motor vehicle.
Nearing the base of Atigun Pass, it was time to start mentally preparing for the massive climb over the highest point on the Alaska road system, at 4738 feet. Crossing the Continental Divide in the highest mountain range in the world lying entirely north of the Arctic Circle seemed like a feat I wasn't sure I was ready for. Thinking back to the Oregon Outback in May, I had run the entire 360-mile route in the 42T chain ring and figured if I could do that, I could probably pedal up this one hill.
As I made my way up, the gears started falling off until there were no more. I was questioning the 1x drivetrain for the first time.
At the top, the pass didn't disappoint, with almost two inches of ice on the road. I made it and I felt like I was at the top of a mountain peak, in a bike touring sense. The water parted where I stood, going north to the Arctic Ocean and south to the Yukon River. It was miles of downhill from here, into the fall colors ahead, where snow was only in the high mountains. I felt like I was already back home, heading down into interior Alaska and the boreal forest.
Cruising down to the Chandalar Shelf, the headwaters of its namesake river, I realized it wasn't much warmer on the south side of the Brooks Range like I thought it would be, though it was snow-free. Nevertheless, I knew I would not have to endure another snowy, windy, Arctic night and I’d be camping in the forest that evening.
As I made my way to the Koyukuk River, the road smoothed and the temperatures, again, started dropping as the sun set behind the mountains. The scene before me was painted in with beautiful light. My progress slowed with the dying light, as I kept stopping for photos.
At 9 PM that evening, after three days of contemplating daily mileages and trying to figure out how I was going to make it back home in the time I had off, I took an offer for a ride back to Fairbanks. I’ve been stranded in this country before, trying to hitch back to Fairbanks, and knew it could be a while till another free ride might come along.
What still lay before me was 285 miles across what I thought to be the hardest part of the route - the hills surrounding the Yukon River – and I had three days to do it. I wasn't going to chance it, and sometimes you have to know when to say “When.”
I had ridden from the farthest north public access point eight miles from the Arctic Ocean, over 200 miles across Arctic Alaska, the North Slope, and up and over the Brooks Range, into Interior Alaska, in winter conditions. I had already experienced more trip than originally intended. It had been a rich solo touring experience.
When I woke up in Coldfoot the next morning, a 300-foot ceiling and more rain, sleet, and snow told me I’d made all the right decisions.
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Josh Spice bought his first real bike in 2010. A month in, still green and lustful, he rode a 100-mile route along a snowy mountain trail, solo and self-supported, in just over 24 hours. Then he got a fatbike and found himself wide-eyed with a new sense of vision; the giant map of Alaska was his canvas, and his art the expression of adventure by bike. joshspice.com