Riding Dalton Highway Arctic Circle
Highway through the Danger Zone
SBS Mag contributor David Crampton and his mate Alastair Taylor wanted to tackle one of the world’s most notorious roads, by bike. So they shipped their BMW R1200GS Adventure machines to Alaska and pointed them at the Dalton Highway. Here is David’s story…
Our English-registered bikes were attracting attention. Everywhere we stopped people were asking: “Where are you from, where are you heading?” Our response – “north along the Dalton” – was invariably greeted with an alarmed expression.
Many people will have heard about the Dalton Highway. Made famous by the TV series Ice Road Truckers, it’s one of the most remote and dangerous roads in the world. Some websites say it is not recommended for travel by small car or motorcycle.
My friend Alastair and I wanted to know what it was really like and made the Dalton Highway the first part of a seven-week North American trip.
June 25, 2016. Fairbanks to Coldfoot. 250 miles
Once the sign proclaims “Welcome to the James Dalton Highway” the only constant companion is the pipeline taking oil south to the Valdez Marine Terminal.
The 414-mile Dalton Highway starts 60 miles north of Fairbanks at the small town of Livengood. It was laid in 1974 to provide access to the town of Deadhorse and the Prudhoe Bay oilfields in the Arctic Ocean.
After 56 miles we reached the Yukon River crossing. On the north side of the timber-decked bridge is a workers’ camp and visitor centre. The camp dates back to the time when the road and the bridge were constructed. There’s food, accommodation and a limited supply of fuel at this point.
A couple of miles before we entered the Arctic Circle my sat-nav screen went black
We continued to make good progress in warm sunshine on a dry gravel surface. The speed limit is 50mph, you need to have your headlights on all the time and give way to the very large trucks that deliver everything needed to run the oil town of Deadhorse.
Some websites suggest the lorry drivers have little regard for other road users, but I always felt they had regard for the vulnerability of a motorcyclist and would help if you were in trouble.
A couple of miles before we crossed latitude 66° 33’ and entered the Arctic Circle my sat-nav screen went black.
A few miles after entering the Arctic Circle the screen returned to normal. It would do the same on the way back and other riders reported the same issue. Despite carrying out some research, I have not been able to find an explanation for this phenomenon.
The scenery was becoming more remote and rugged the further north we went. In parts rivers ran beside the road, flowing rapidly over a shallow and rocky river bed.
We had covered 175 miles on the Dalton when we arrived in warm sunshine at Coldfoot Camp.
Coldfoot Camp was built for the oil pipeline construction and offers basic, but relatively expensive accommodation. The sign on the door advised visitors to keep the doors shut because in the past black bears had wandered in searching for food. I was pleased I wasn’t camping.
Outside the accommodation is a small grass area for those brave enough to camp, a lorry and helicopter park and one diesel and one petrol pump. Beyond this is a further block of relocatable buildings that contain a small shop and self-service restaurant that, very importantly, sells beer.
As well as the lorry drivers there were a few hardy motorcyclists, some on the way north and others heading back south.
As you would expect, the motorcyclists gathered together and swapped travel stories. Those of us heading north were keen to know what lay ahead of them.
June 26, 2016. Coldfoot to Deadhorse. 232 miles
The weather was kind again this morning, a little chilly with blue skies and a promise that the sun would soon warm things up. It is amazing to think that beneath our feet the ground is frozen – 84% of Alaska is covered by permafrost. As we go further north the freeze reaches deeper into the earth, at the Arctic Ocean the ground is frozen to a depth of 610 metres below the earth’s surface.
After Coldfoot a few miles of smooth tarmac lulled us into a false sense of security. As we travelled north the Brooks mountain range came into view, along with the road rising up the Atigun pass to an elevation of 1445m. The dry gravel road was fairly good although there was loose gravel torn from the surface by the wheels of other vehicles turning into the corners.
The lady with the stop board was wearing a mosquito head net. I was prepared for this
As we climbed the Atigun the weather changed, becoming overcast. More worryingly, ominous black clouds gathered to our left. On the northern side of the pass we descended into a valley with a several miles of low lying damp and spongy road.
We missed most of the rain as we sped across the valley in an attempt to get ahead of it. At the far side of the valley we stopped and looked back at the rain falling heavily on the Brooks Mountains, which form the Continental divide. Rivers to the north flow into the Arctic Ocean while those to the south head to the Bering Sea.
The fearsome reputation of the Dalton had faded into the back of my mind as we sailed along in warm sunshine, enjoying blue skies with isolated clouds looking like cotton wool. There were plenty of places to stop and take in the views across the vast tundra landscape.
Then, 36 miles short of Deadhorse, we arrived at a lady stood on the side of the road with a stop board. This was the first of a series of roadworks that would continue all the way to Deadhorse.
The lady with the stop board was wearing a mosquito head net. I was prepared for this – several people had told me the mosquito is the national bird of Alaska.
As soon as I stopped I took the mosquito head net out of my tank bag, pulled it straight over my helmet and tightened the drawstring around my neck. The mass of mosquitoes was remarkable – so many that my visibility was reduced.
Despite my best efforts some of the little bastards breached the seal between my gloves and jacket sleeve to give me itchy bites to contend with.
Over the next 36 miles we encountered a number of stop boards and a succession of convoy trucks to escort us and a few other drivers, mainly HGVs, through the numerous sections of roadworks.
The road had been washed away in floods and teams were raising the level of the road by as much as four metres in an attempt to prevent a recurrence.
This meant we faced a variety of road conditions and escort vehicle drivers with different approaches. On the worst part of the road there were 150mm rocks and, without fines to fill the voids between them, they rolled around under our tyres.
As soon as I slowed down the front wheel would dig in and the bike did its best to throw me off
Intense concentration was required to pick the best line and keep the bike upright. There were also long sections where the material had been spread but not compacted and they were wet, so the tyres sank in.
This presented no real problem when the bike was under power although as soon as I slowed down the front wheel would dig in and the bike did its best to throw me off.
On one of our numerous stops a HGV pulled up behind us and I approached the driver to ask if he would follow the pace car so I could ride in his wheel tracks. Up came a thumb at the same time as he raised the window to avoid the dreaded mosquitoes. I just about heard him reply: “OK bud.”
Our plan was thwarted when the pace car driver insisted we ride directly behind her so she could see if we were still shiny side up. I asked her not to slow down too much at the soft parts as it made our large adventure bikes difficult to keep upright. That was a waste of breath, as was my attempt to slow down and leave a larger gap behind the pace car.
Part way through the roadworks it started to rain, which made the journey even more ‘fun’.
By the time we reached our accommodation, Deadhorse camp on the approach to town, I was exhausted. Covering 232 miles with no place of rest coupled with the slow pace and extreme concentration of the last 36 miles had sapped my energy levels.
I wasn’t going to ride all this way and miss the opportunity to dip my toes in the ocean
June 27, 2016. Deadhorse to Coldfoot. 242 miles
I awoke feeling very tired. I hadn’t slept well, instead thinking about the roadworks for our return trip and listening to heavy rain lash against the window.
But I had something else in hand before heading back. I wasn’t going to ride all this way and miss the opportunity to dip my toes in the ocean – even though the shuttle bus ride on the restricted road that leads to the Arctic cost $65.
There were fewer than 10 people on the bus, all of them motorcyclists. One lady had sprained an ankle after several falls in the roadworks and was spending another night in Deadhorse to rest and recover. This may explain why one of the pace car drivers was so cautious on our journey out here.
Another fellow bus passenger said he’d met a rider who had rented a lorry and driver to take him and his bike to a point beyond the roadworks rather than ride through them again.
Back at Deadhorse camp we rode into the town to find fuel. We were on the site of an extremely large oil field and fuel was $4 a gallon, when elsewhere we were paying just over $2. But telling them where to shove their petrol is not an option when the next fuel station is 240 miles away.
It was still raining as we left Deadhorse, which made the surface conditions in the roadworks even worse than the previous evening. This time we were in the company of four other bikes and thankfully we all left the roadworks unscathed.
It rained for the next 180 miles, torrential on occasion, and the temperature dropped to 5ºC.
But just before the Atigun pass the clouds cleared and the sun came out – what a difference. A dry gravel road surface, better visibility, warm sunshine and an increase in speed made for a pleasant end to what had been a character-building day.
On the way back I stopped to change my gloves. I didn’t stop for long, but the one truck I saw stopped and asked: “OK bud?’. “Yes thanks, just changing gloves.” Thumb up, he drove off. As I said, the truck drivers weren’t anything like their reputation suggested.
Back at Coldfoot I was now one of those motorcyclists heading south who was facing questions about what to expect from those who were heading north.
June 28, 2016. Coldfoot to Fairbanks. 249 miles
This time my night’s sleep had been very restful. The ride to Fairbanks was in warm sunshine on dry gravel with a chance to enjoy the scenery, increase the speed and play around with the effects an open throttle has on rear wheel grip.
At the Yukon crossing we stopped to pick up a free certificate from the visitors centre to confirm what we had just done. We had ridden into the Arctic Circle.
The Dalton Highway: Is it worth it?
If you are comfortable riding on unpaved roads, this road is fun when it’s dry and sunny. The roadwork sections with variable surface were more challenging, so I would recommend gaining experience of riding on challenging unpaved roads before embarking on the journey.
I was reasonably content riding in the wet with poor visibility, even though it was cold and tyre grip was drastically reduced at some points.
What I found less comfortable was the incredible distance between shelter, food and fuel. It was less the actual distances and more the psychological effect of knowing there is nowhere to seek warmth and shelter for 240 miles.
Repairing a puncture or fixing a broken bike by the side of the road would be pretty scary in an area where you know there are bears around.
Also consider that mobile phones generally don’t have a signal and that in the event of injury help is a long way off.
For all of these reasons riding in company is a good idea and I would be a lot less confident without Alastair as a companion. Problems are so much easier to deal with when two of you are working on the solution.
Would I do it again? If I were to go to Alaska again I would like to ride to Coldfoot and onto the Atigun pass. I probably wouldn’t ride as far as Deadhorse again, but it was worth one visit.
Riding the Dalton Highway was part of a seven-week trip to North America. Alastair and I flew the bikes to Anchorage using UK shipping company Motofreight Ltd. Though air freight is more expensive than sea freight, it generally suffers less delays. Our bikes came back to the UK from Los Angeles by sea and arrived two weeks later than expected. If that had happened on the outward journey we would have spent two weeks in Anchorage waiting for the bikes, so it was worth the extra money. We planned our journey to Deadhorse and pre-booked the accommodation along the route. For the remainder of the trip we made it up as we went along. The only other plan we made was to arrive in Los Angeles in time to fly ourselves and ship the bikes home.