Cycling the Dalton Highway- Beginning of the end
I stood on the still frozen Arctic Ocean contemplating the toughest energy sapping day that I have had in recent memory. Welcome to a day in the life of cycling the Dalton Highway. It started with -1 degrees Celsius temperatures and a strong Northerly wind of 40km/h and I cycled straight into that bad boy for several hours at a blistering pace of 9km/h, and that was on the downhill section! It wasn’t just cold it was stupid cold and I suffered, a lot. I was not able to generate enough body heat to radiate to my fingers which started to become so cold that they were hard to move and awfully painful.
On that last day I cycled for the first 2 hours till I reached a portable toilet in the middle of nowhere. It was unlocked. I went in and just sat down. My hands were cold and I was starting to get worried. I placed them under my armpits to get warmth into them. If a warm oil workers truck pulled up I would probably get in. I was done.
I was only about 20km from the town of Deadhorse, which promised unlimited food and heat. It that seemed way too far away at the slow pace I was making into the bitter cold headwind. But I forced myself to carry on. Lucile who traveled with me for the last month was a long way ahead. I think she too was struggling.
An hour after leaving the warmth of the portable toilet I saw what I thought were 2 Muskox about 200 meters to the right of Lucile, she was only about 200 meters ahead of me at this point. I thought she might stop to take a photo but she kept going. As I got closer I thought, holy crap that’s 2 Polar Bears. They were huge. They seemed to be playing with each other or fighting, I’m not sure. I didn’t think it was prudent to shout out and warn Lucile. She was too far away for any sound to penetrate the headwind. As I got closer I noticed that they were only Brown Bear. But they were quite big and only 8km from town.
It took me another hour to reach warmth and find out that the windchill pushed the temperature to -17 degrees. I struggled this day, but not all the trip was like this. Eventually we made it to Deadhorse Camp and a trip to the Arctic Ocean which was still frozen. But the end is only part of the journey….
The Dream to Cycle the Dalton Highway
Cycling the Dalton Highway had been a dream of mine for a couple of years. I read stories of other cyclists making this journey and decided to stop dreaming and make it happen. I set off from Fairbanks with Lucile and Tim with around 11 days food, which made the bikes rather heavy, specially on the hills. And there were many hills and interesting campsites in the first couple of days. In fact some parts of the first couple of days it felt like we were either going up a steep hill or down a steep hill.
Arctic Trading Post
We nearly ran into a Brown Bear near the Arctic Circle trading post. We were warned it was heading our way by a gun packing Nun and several road crew but no sightings. The hills were ruthless on these days with our way too loaded bikes and on the last hill before the descent to camp I completely ran out of energy.
After reaching the Yukon River and grabbing a large meal inside a large storm hit, which promised to make the road a sloppy mudfest. It didn’t disappoint. The road at this point turned to mud which had the consistency of wet concrete. It was getting stuck in everything. My brakes failed. My mudguards were so packed with mud I was unable to make any progress and had to clean out the mud regularly. To ensure the mud didn’t dry out it rained heavily on and off all day, including sleet at one point.
Luckily I use a Rohloff hub that works great in the mud. Lucile with her derailler gears got so clogged up she was forced to push up steep hills. The wet concrete like mud sets as hard as concrete when its left on the bike and not cleaned off. This section of road was not the place to get a flat tyre, but I managed to get one. Its easy to repair when conditions are good, but crap when everything is covered in mud.
At the end of the day we found a discarded toilet brush (I think it was covered in mud!) on the side of the road to clean out the mud from every place on the bike. But the damage had been done to my bike, one of my water bottle holders broke due to the weight of the mud and rough roads and my front fender broke due to the weight of the mud minutes after arriving at camp. Oh and it was damn cold that night, which was good, cause that meant no mosquitoes which had been active during the other nights. Well I cant really say night because it doesn’t get dark. Tim at this point went on ahead, he was a much stronger rider than myself and Lucile.
I had heard that there was quite a big section of sealed asphalt road and when it started it just kept going and going. As it turned out for around 160km or so. It initially went past the rolling hills that reminded of the Australian Alps or photos I’ve seen of Scotland till it reached the Arctic Circle.
We stopped for the photo shoot, like everybody else and stayed for lunch. I was somewhat surprised that the vast majority of people stayed less than 5 minutes, took photos, bitched about the mosquitoes then turned around and drove back. All that way for a photo and turn around and head back out. Each to their own.
We continued along some rolling hills to a vast valley near a hill called Gobblers Knob which was named by one of the truck drivers, your imagination may be needed to find reason in the name. So I camped on the Knob for the night. It overlooks the Prospect Creek Valley which was reported to have the coldest temperature in Alaska of -57 degrees Celsius. By now there was no sunset and from here on we had 24 hours of sunlight.
Coldfoot is just a village with a roadhouse and was the halfway point of the journey and I was looking forward to completing the 5 plate cyclist challenge. There is an all you can eat buffet and the challenge to cyclists is to eat 5 plates of food, which is quite easy when I’m burning between 5000-6000 calories a day. Mission complete. By now it was the end of day 6 so we planned to have a rest day in Coldfoot to eat, visit the information centre and then eat some more, another 5 plate challenge completed.
The sealed roads continued well past Coldfoot. It seemed to be about 160km of sealed roads till it finally ended. But the riding was great with the hot weather and string tailwind. Up to this point I saw no wildlife. Only mosquitoes. But on the side of the road was our first Moose.
By camp that night we were warned of a resident Bear in the area known as Chandlers Shelf, but other truck drivers thought that there were many more Wolves than Bears in that area. But we didn’t see any. At this point we were in the middle of the Brooks Range and at 777 meters above sea level is the tree line which means no trees grow above this point. There’s a place called the last Spruce Tree, with a sign that says ‘don’t cut down’. Well, you can’t tell an Alaskan what they can’t do. Somebody took to it with a chainsaw.
Once above the tree line we had to make it over Atigan Pass the highest road pass in Alaska at 1444m. It was said to be a challenge but with a strong tailwind I thought the several kilometers of steep climbing was ok. Lucile agreed. Once at the top a car stopped and out jumped Duncan, our warmshowers host from Anchorage. He was traveling the road with an old friend Art. They were in a rush so set off down the pass with us just behind them.
Only meters after starting the descent a truck was stopped. I thought it strange. I looked closer and seen white fluffy things moving all around the truck. It was a group of sheep. They weren’t worried about the truck but when us scary cyclist appeared they bolted across the road and up onto the scree slope to what they must have felt was safety. I hear they are not a common sighting from the Dalton Highway.
About 10 kilometers further down the North Slope I found a nice spot for lunch and started to get thing ready when I noticed a Brown Bear about 500 meters away on the side of a hill. Not a good lunch spot, time to find a safer one. There are no trees or cover here. Wonder how many other times I’ve had lunch near Bears but couldn’t see them through the trees!
Late that evening we caught up with Tim, he was cycling back from the end of the road after only getting a lift 100 miles. He said hitch hiking back was difficult, nobody would stop(he later got a lift the following day). We made camp under the Oil pipeline that was the reason the road was built in the first place and nearby there was a shipping container which made an ideal place to store our smelly bags so the bears couldn’t get them. After seeing bear earlier in the day I was a little more conscience about their presence at camp during sleeping ours. I woke after midnight and went for a walk around the tent admiring the vast landscape of the tundra. Magical place.
At this point it was now day 10 and Lucile and I had covered 692km. We were getting close to the Arctic Ocean and moved out of camp slowing and met Duncan and Art again on their return journey. Right at that moment the wind started to rage from the North and when we set off we only managed about 10km/h. During the morning we were averaging 20km/h on the now dusty roadwork sections. Wind can make a big difference.
After beating ourselves up we decided it best to pull over and eat some food and set up camp for a couple of hours then start cycling again near midnight when the wind had hopefully calmed down. A large storm was raging on the now distance Brooks Range and it seemed to suck the wind away.
So at 10.30pm we set off and didn’t stop until just near 1am. Cycling to the midnight sun. It was still light with the sun trying its best to make it through the clouds. . We made good time. During the ride the silence was amazing. When a truck approached us we could hear it from maybe 5-10km away. Amazing how sound carries. Our camp for the night was near the Sag river which was still frozen in parts. It was about 4 degrees when we made camp.
We were now close enough to the end that we could have made it in one day, but the late start from camp didn’t help. We continued across the expansive Arctic Tundra. Passing heards of Caribou, a distant Muskox and a Red Fox which was more of Blonde than Red.
I lost count of the number of Caribou during the day. Just near the place we saw the Muskox and Fox and family told of a sighting of a Wolf that was the size of a small pony. We must have just missed it. Apparently there were 2 of them. And I thought they were just like large dogs, I was assured they not. More like the size of bears but not as fat and solid. Maybe good not to cross paths on that day. By late evening the wind was increasing from the north and starting to get cold. We made camp with only 44km to go on the last day which was brutal.
Cycling the Dalton Highway – Reflections
My experiences cycling the Dalton Highway was one I will never forget. I will forever remember many moments, the animals, the wilderness, the mosquitoes, the heat, the cold the campsites and the emotion of the journey. Sure there were times that it was not too much fun cycling through soft mud in the rain with trucks, cars and motorbikes passing by spraying mud over me or the last day cycling into the string arctic headwind but in reflection it was a combination of the difficult times that seemed to make the amazing times exponentially better.
20 years from now the road will be paved all the way to the Arctic Ocean and bus tours will be cruising up and down the highway. That is the inevitable future of tourism in the area. So to be part of the cycling community that has completed the trip in its raw form now makes me rather chuffed.
Note to others cycling the Dalton Highway
In total I spent 12 days cycling the Dalton Highway. I covered 809km which is a longer time than most people. I was carrying food for 11-12 days which weighed about 15kg. At times I was carrying 12 litres of water, normally late in the day, not all pull out camp areas are near water. So at times my bike was heavy.
There always seemed to be a steep hill at the end of the day when I was loaded with food and water, damn. I rode from south to north and past about 15 cyclists over the 12 days, about half were traveling all the way to South America with quite a few going to Mexico, so I’m not the only one. There is about 100 cyclists that attempt the Dalton Highway every year but I spoke with workers along the road who advised that there were above average numbers this year even though its only early in the season.
The airport staff advised that about 30 cyclists had arrived at the airport by mid June. They had never seen that many so early. There are no supplies for cyclists for the 809km so we carried all our food, tools, spares etc. Some cyclists had a lot a problems and needed to catch a lift with trucks or passing cars part way along due to either mechanical problems or underestimating the trip.
Yukon River and Coldfoot had meals which we ate, they were reasonably priced but no food supplies other than bottles of coke and a couple of chocolate bars. I was treated with the utmost care and respect from Truckers, they were very considerate and slowed down when safe and appropriate. Unfortunately some cyclists are not so considerate of them, give them space, move to the side of the road when safe, use mirrors because when its a strong headwind you will not hear them approach, don’t sit on the middle of the road or have lunch on bridges (yes, cyclists on the road were doing this and nearly got cleaned up by the trucks), don’t give the rest of us a bad name.
Prior to heading off on the trip I gathered information from other cycling blogs and people who had first hand experience on the road like my warmshowers host Duncan who traveled the road many times and was a goldmine of information. He also had the knowledge of all the cyclists who had stayed with him over the years and hearing the information they reported back. This is not the place to do your first cycle tour.
If you want any further information or have any questions leave me a comment or contact me through my contact page and I will try and help if I can with information. Its a great adventure.
Cycling the Dalton Highway Stats
- Day 1 Fairbanks to Washington Creek – 56km – 2 hours 38 mins
- Day 2 Washington Creek to start of Dalton Highway – 83km – 2 hours 11 mins
- Day 3 Start of Dalton Highway to Yukon River Camp – 89km – 1 hour 36 min between sunset and sunrise
- Day 4 Yukon River Camp to Mud Camp – 55km – 47 minutes between sunset and sunrise
- Day 5 Mud Camp to Gobblers Knob (above the arctic circle)- 68km – 24 hours of sunlight
- Day 6 Gobblers Knob to Coldfoot – 70km – 24 hours of sunlight
- Day 7 Coldfoot to Marions Creek camp – 8km – 24 hours sunlight
- Day 8 Marions Creek to Chandler Shelf Rest area – 95km – 24 hours of sunlight
- Day 9 Chandler Shelf rest area to Green container camp – 95km – 24 hours of sunlight
- Day 10 Green container camp to Tundra Camp – 73km – 24 hours of sunlight
- Day 11 Tundra Camp to Windy Camp – 73km – 24 hours of sunlight
- Day 12 Windy Camp to Deadhorse – 44km – 24 hours of sunlight