Getting the Worst Part Over
I peered out my window and looked down on the Alaskan wilderness. "I think that's the start of the Brooks Range..."
The guy in the aisle seat leaned over. "Yeah, I suppose you're right." The mountains were almost entirely white, but there were brown slivers in between them, and every so often you could see liquid water. I guess that was a good sign. Still, the mountains were endless, and there was no space in between them.
A little later, the mountains came to an abrupt halt, replaced by a solid sheet of white. The tundra had ended, and the polar arctic had begun. I kept staring out the window. The Dalton Highway should be down there somewhere. But if all I can see is white, what does that say about the road conditions?
An hour later, I still hadn't seen the highway. My heart had dropped. What was I getting myself into? I was confident about riding on an unpaved road, even a muddy one, but snow? I dunno about that...
Within eyesight of the Arctic Ocean, I finally saw it, a black streak cutting through the endless white. It had been on the other side of the plane this whole time. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath in, and let it out. What relief! I get to ride on gravel!
I stepped off the plane and walked across the tarmac to the terminal. It was below freezing, but didn't feel like it. The terminal only had one gate, and it was packed to the gills. About the only thing in there was middle-aged moustachioed men, and a lot of fleece, camo, and flannel.
I grabbed my boxes off the conveyer belt and started opening them. I must've been a sight, some guy in shorts and a T-shirt pulling bike parts out of a huge box in the middle of the terminal. By the time I'd made any progress on putting it together, most everyone had left. I stuck around and kept re-assembling Valeria.
More than one person struck up a conversation with me while I was putting her together. A security guard, a baggage handler, a janitor, a police officer, a woman named Lulu. I did my best to keep talking to them, though I was distracted by my work. Here I am putting my bike together to ride around the world, and I'm mostly concerned with whether or not I sound rude!
Apparently cyclists flying into Deadhorse to ride down to Cape Horn is not an unheard-of sight at this airport, but one person told me I was the first one they'd seen this year.
Most folks were more or less impressed, but the police officer was the only one that seemed concerned.
"You got enough food and water?"
"Enough for three days."
"Do you plan on camping?"
"Yep, got a tent and a sleeping bag."
"What are you doing about bears?"
"Anything scented goes inside a freezer bag, which goes inside an odor-proof bag, which goes inside a waterproof bag. I've backpacked in the high Sierras, so I've had to think about bears before."
He gave a satisfactory nod to that question and seemed less concerned after that. We kept talking.
It took over an hour to get everything ready, meaning it wasn't until after 11:00 AM that I got on the road. I was told I needed to go to the post office/general store (the same building, this is that kinda town) and take a picture at the sign. I managed to get lost on the way there. Day 1 of the ride, without even leaving the first town, and I already got lost.
At about noon, I finally left Deadhorse and started pedaling south on the Dalton Highway. Surprisingly, the surface was better out of town than in it! In town, the roads were reduced to a slushy mud, which had Valeria sliding all over the place. The Dalton Highway was packed firmer, with loose gravel strewn over the top. Washboard and potholes abound, but at least you can keep a good grip, and sometimes you can dodge the potholes (sometimes...there are that many)
I eventually warmed up enough to ditch a couple layers, even though it barely got above freezing all day. I wonder if it had something to do with the bad pavement - you have to work hard enough for your body to warm up, but you move slow enough to keep from getting a windchill. Either way, I was down to a jacket, base layer, and bike shorts for part of the day.
I was surprised to see birds all throughout the day. You mean something can live up here? These weren't exactly penguins either, they looked like something I might see back home. I'm guessing they migrate, because I can't imagine anything non-polar surviving when it gets to -40 C.
I'd been warned about the trucks on the highway, and yet not one of them passed within four meters of me. Every single truck made a significant effort to safely pass, even slowing down as they did. Some even gave a quick honk when they were a quarter-mile back just to let me know they were there! Just about every single one of them waved.
After I'd been riding for about 50 km, an SUV came up beside me, and slowed down so it was going to the same speed. It was a police car, with the window down, the same officer from the airport. He'd driven all this way just to check on me! He let me know there was a good spot to camp about 100 km south of Deadhorse, a big flat area with an outhouse and a bear-proof trash can. I'd intended to go farther, but still a good suggestion.
The guy drove about an hour - each way - just to make sure I was alright. Maybe there's not a lot to do when you're a police officer in Deadhorse, AK, but still, what a guy!
About 80 km into the day, I was surprised to find a stretch of pavement. I thought it was supposed to be unpaved the whole way! Not 30 seconds later, I looked to my left and saw a herd of caribou running alongside the road, just ahead of me and at about the same speed. After about a half km, the three largest, presumably the leaders of the pack, slowed down and walked across the road right in front of me. They walked off the road to the right side, with me in between them and the rest of the herd, and stared at me.
I took a picture. Then I kept going. The leaders stayed behind, and the rest ran with me for maybe one km.
The pavement held out for only about five km, and then it was back to pothole-filled washboard gravel, a little worse than before. The road started heading uphill, and the temperature dropped. I pulled over and added a layer of clothes. I felt incredibly weak, not tired, sore muscles, but weak. Like I needed to eat something. It was already getting late (but not getting dark).
I found the camping area the officer had mentioned. It was as he described, a flat area, an outhouse, a trash can, and that's the whole thing. There was a truck idling off to one side. Should I stay here tonight, or should I keep going? I intended to do another 30 km or so, but I got such a late start, maybe I could make that up tomorrow.
Suddenly, the wind kicked up and snow began to fall. Already wearing everything I had, I started shivering. OK, I better set up camp.
The ground wasn't merely rocky, it was composed entirely of rocks. I couldn't stake out the tent, so I set big rocks over the corners and hoped that would hold. Managed to get my tent erected in the lee of a big pile of rocks and dragged my stuff in. Valeria would have to stay outside.
With all my clothes still on, and also in my sleeping bag, I was still just a little cold, but not horribly uncomfortable. It was already late, and since the sun never goes down, it wouldn't be getting much colder. I'd be OK.
About half an hour later, I felt something wet. What is that? I looked down. There was a stream running through my tent.
I unzipped my tent and peeked outside. The snow was melting on contact with the ground, and since the ground was all rocks, it wasn't absorbing any of the water. There was no dry place around big enough for a tent. On top of that, the big rocks weren't doing a good job holding out the tent, and the sides kept brushing against my face. I looked across the lot at the outhouse. It was about 2.5 meters squared. I bet I could sleep in there...
At 11:00 at night, I packed up everything, including a few damp articles, and moved into the outhouse for the night. It had gotten even colder outside. I tried my best to lay everything out to dry, hoping that it would stay above freezing inside the outhouse. I locked the door. If someone knocked, I could always step outside for a minute while they used it. But there's no way I'm going to stay in my tent, cold and wet when it's below freezing outside. That’s a slam-dunk for hypothermia. Lucky me, the cold temperature meant the outhouse had no odor at all.
A trucker would later tell me I was far from the first to do this.
I woke up to a knock on the door at 9:00 AM.
"Uh, just a minute!" It took me more than one minute, but I put on some shoes, cleared a path to the toilet, and walked out. There was no one there. "Hello?" The truck was still idling on the other side of the lot. I guess he left the engine on to keep warm? I walked around to the other side of the outhouse and found a small RV parked behind it, only about the size of a van.
A friendly German woman opened the door. "Are you on a bicycle?"
"Yes. Sorry if I kept you from using the outhouse.”
“Did you sleep in there last night?”
"Would you like to come inside?"
Bernd and Sabine are a German couple from the Black Forest who had spent the last year and a half driving their small motor home from Cape Horn to Deadhorse, AK. I managed to run into them only 100 km before they finished! They put my wet shoes next to the heater vent inside their RV and fed me a muffin and hot tea. We talked for at least an hour about where they'd been and where I'd be going. To think I'm trying to go around the world in the time it took them to do two continents, and I'm on a bike!
"We zig-zagged the whole way," Bernd explained, "and we never travel far in one day. We want to see things, go hiking, ride bikes, so we spend most of the day not in the car. We probably drove 60,000 km on this trip so far."
I'm only doing 52,200 km to cover the entire planet. I might be underestimating, or maybe they get around! After this, they were going to their daughter's wedding, and then they planned to travel some more. The fact that they hadn't gotten sick of it - or each other! - says a lot about them, I think.
After I'd warmed up, they sent me on my way with a map of the Dalton Highway, complete with more places like this to camp. I thanked them and told them I hoped to see them again on their way back down (especially if there are more muffins involved). By the time I got Valeria loaded up, they were gone. Their voyage would be completed in only a couple hours. Congratulations to them!
The road was thankfully clear of snow, so I only had to deal with crappy pavement, not ice or slush. It wasn't much warmer than it had been the night before. I kept on every layer I had for most of the day. I was almost glad that today was almost all uphill, because otherwise, I might not have stayed warm enough.
The most intimidating thing about the Brooks Range is that I could see it 150 km away! Bernd and Sabine had told me that the road is never too steep, and I knew it creates a weather barrier. On the other side, it would be nearly 10 C warmer. I eagerly pedaled on.
For those that are into Game of Thrones, I was sure I was going to see wildlings out here. Atigun Pass was The Wall, and I was north of it. In my head, I started calling the Brooks Range "The Frostfangs."
Late in the day, just as I was approaching one of the last passes, the sun came out! The temperature must have risen almost 7 C in only about half an hour, and the sunshine added onto that turned the whole day around. I pulled over and set Valeria down to take off a layer. Almost immediately, a truck pulled over.
"You alright? You doin' OK?"
"Yeah, just stopped to take off a layer. Glad it's getting warmer!"
"OK, we just wanted to make sure you were OK. We look out for each other up here."
For all the perception you might have that Alaskan truckers would be tough guys who don't give a crap, that might well be true, but every encounter I've had with them so far shows me they're among the kindest people I've met.
Climbing over Atigun Pass was a moment. The sun was out. I'd crested the highest pass in the Brooks Range! And there was now a stiff tailwind. Shortly thereafter, I saw a warehouse-looking building on the side of the highway, with a garage door opened. I'd been thinking about refilling my water bottles from a just-now-melting river soon, but tap water might be even better. I pulled in and a pair of guys in overalls and camo gladly refilled them for me.
"You're gonna see trees here in a minute. And about 26 miles down the road, there's pavement."
"Yep, for a long while, too. And they've been re-surfacing the road south of Coldfoot the last few weeks, so the gravel should be smoother, no washboard."
That was the best news I'd heard all day.
I guess I hadn't noticed, but I hadn't seen a single tree yet! Most of the time, when you think "tree line," you're thinking altitude, not latitude. It finally sank in that ecosystem-wise, I had been at the equivalent of 10,000+ feet for two days.
Fortunately, I was able to make up for yesterday’s short distane by pressing on a little late. It was almost 10:00 PM when I finally stopped riding.
Shortly thereafter, the next morning, the road surface improved to the point that it might as well be paved! No loose gravel, smooth, hard-packed dirt. For the first time, I didn't have to pay attention to the road right in front of me at all times; I could look around!
I might add, Valeria is a champ. No matter what conditions, what surface, she handles everything easily and with grace. Even some of the unpaved sections made me think "Eh, I've seen worse," rather than "Holy crap, this road sucks so bad, I can't wait to get off of it." And that's something I often think on paved roads. She feels about the same whether I have a load on or not. Valeria is truly a bike for a lifetime.
Almost all downhill, smooth road, tailwind, I was flying through the southern half of the Brooks Range. And with my head up, the grin on my face only got bigger as I marveled at my surroundings. Ever felt like you were exactly where you're supposed to be?
When the pavement started, I was just about ready to start singing a song out of pure joy.
I cruised fast and easy into Coldfoot, the first city I'd seen since I began. Population: 18. At least there would be food here! Most importantly though, this was an enormous milestone: from here on out, I should no longer see freezing temperatures. In fact, if the timing works out perfectly, it's possible I won't see freezing temperatures for the entire rest of the tour!