Fairbanks! I made it this far!
And what an amazing, unforgettable, wild adventure that was. Now I struggle to put into words 16 days of fantastic moments and encounters. I will need more than one blog post!
Maybe I should start at the start, after a 2 day drive with Steve who kindly put his vehicle back onto this really rough road.
We arrived in Prudhoe the evening of May 29, stayed at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel and the next morning, Steve left while I waited a little bit for the light snow to stop. I could have stayed longer and enjoyed more warmth and food, but soon I couldn’t wait any longer, I had to go, packed Laf and before I even found someone to take a departure picture, I started pedaling.
But after my first hard earned kilometer, I realized that my short cut wasn’t going to take me to the start of the Dalton, and I had to go back to the hotel and use a different road… A pretty inauspicious start. I got lost at the end of the road…
But soon I was at Milepost 414, the end of the Dalton, and the start of my adventure.
It was about 0 degree Celsius, the wind was strong but at least it was coming from the side, and it was foggy. There was nobody in sight, only a flat, rough, wet gravel road and the first mile was so tough that I thought for a moment that I should have asked Steve to stay a bit longer in case I changed my mind. But now it was too late, he was gone, and I had to find the strength to do this.
Luckily, after the first mile, either I got used to this or the road got better, but I managed to move forward at a reasonable pace and stayed warm from the effort. I soon started smiling and realized that I was finally there! I was doing it!
I biked for a few hours, crashed once in slow motion while trying to get back onto my side of the road, when a pick up truck was coming the other way, and I had to stop to clean Laf’s derailleur because it was making worrisome noises from the gooey mud stuck into it. But otherwise all went well. The gravel was awful, but the road was flat and I was in no rush anyway! What a strange feeling.
After a few hours, I felt that my knees had had enough for the day. When I saw a place where the DOT (Department of Transportation) store big bags of calcium chloride, I realized that this was going to be as good as it gets and stopped there. The bags provided some shelter from the wind in this treeless environment, and with pieces of plywood and pallets, I was able to shelter my tent even more from the wind. I felt truly happy. (Sorry, no picture, my phone couldn’t handle the cold, but I took some with a camera so I may be able to add them when I get back to Whitehorse).
I had a brief visit from 2 Alyeska Pipeline workers, who had given me some water earlier in the day, and brought me some coffee. The sun helped clear the fog in the late afternoon, and kept me warm until I crawled into my sleeping bag and got a surprinsingly good night sleep.
I woke up in the fog, and a deep silence, feeling like I could be on the moon. I was in a very remote place. But slowly the fog lifted, the road started showing more diverse terrain, with short but steep hills, and I passed small groups if caribou and muskoxen. Laf was bragging that he is one of the few bicycles to have seen elephant and muskox… It was amazing, especially to see the baby muskox, probably born that day.
Early that afternoon, I reached a place called Happy Valley, an old abandoned outfitting camp. After I explored the site, I found an old motorhome that was open, and I decided to spend the night in it. I felt like a queen! Not only was I sheltered from the wind and potential rain, I had a bed, a table and a couch, and somehow I wasn’t worried about bears even if I knew they would have no trouble getting into the motorhome if they wanted to. I felt as happy as if I had been offered a room in a 5 star hotel!
As the days went by, the scenery just got better and better. I saw more caribou, more muskoxen and a fox. The biggest surprise was certainly to meet Daniel, a guy who was walking from Anchorage to Deadhorse! We chatted for a half hour and exchanged information about our “5 star hotels”. I was enjoying the ride so much that I felt like riding longer but had to be mindful of my knees and stopped when I could find a tiny little place sheltered from the wind and close to a creek for water.
Life down to the most basic elements. Food, water, shelter. Afternoons were a bit boring, with not much to do for many hours, but I was absorbing the fact that I was in a wild place and felt pretty lucky to experience that. The best part was that so far I hadn’t been cold at all. The sun was there almost 24 hours a day and was doing a good job at keeping me warm.
More and more hills were on the menu the next day, with more sun and more incredible views. I stopped briefly at the Toolik Research Station, thanks to a friend who knows one of the managers. I had the strongest coffee on the Dalton and a good chat with very nice people. When I went back to my bike, someone had left 3 Snickers bars in my helmet…
That day I didn’t want to ride too long because my knees felt very tired but I couldn’t find anywhere to camp out of the wind. I ended up riding almost to the base of Atigun Pass and stayed in an abandoned building that Daniel had told me about. It had an incredibly eerie feeling, certainly wasn’t bear proof but it had a roof and walls so it was perfect! Obviously I wasn’t the first person to find shelter there and a “bed” made of pallets and plywood was ready to be used! I later found out who had made this “bed”….
The next day, with very sore knees, I went up Atigun Pass. A big, long hill, on rough gravel but one pedal stroke at a time, I pushed all the way up and reached the summit with a huge smile and feeling of satisfaction. From there, it was a matter of miles before I would see trees and be able to find shelter more easily.
But it wasn’t all downhill, as they say, and I could feel it more and more in my knees. I could have stopped almost anywhere, but within 100 km of Codlfoot, the temptation was too big to continue to try to reach it the next day. One mile at a time, I kept going.
That day, I saw a fox and a grizzly bear with her two cubs. I patiently waited for a vehicle to go by, just in case!
I stopped regularly to give my knees a break and just when I thought this was it, my knees are done and I will have to get a ride back home, a truck driver saw me getting water from a creek, stopped his truck and without saying a word, handed me two bottles of water. That truck driver will never know how much that simple, pretty much anonymous offering meant to me at that moment. It was like the gods smiling and telling me to trust them. To keep going…
I traveled a little further, thinking that if this was going to be my last day of riding on the Dalton, I should enjoy it as much as possible. It wasn’t hard: the scenery was still amazing and soon I reached a super nice place to camp by a big river, where I felt totally relaxed and happy. I spent the rest of the afternoon resting, washing some clothes, taking care of Laf, and its owner…
I somehow recovered enough to ride the easy 50 km of flat pavement to Coldfoot the next day. Just before I arrived, I met two young American tour cyclists, and we rode the last bit together.
The rest of the day was spent chatting with motorcyclists from all over the place, eating, drinking beer and sharing stories from the road. I didn’t pay for any food or drinks, people were so kind to me, I was speechless.
I decided to stay two extra days in Coldfoot to give my knees a chance to recover. I knew I still had many, many big hills to climb…
To be continued (it only gets better!)…