Friday, June 10, 2005

Prudhoe Bay Veteran

Left Prudhoe Bay after 4:00 p.m., again reluctant to face the challenges down the road. Cold, but not unbearably so. The road didn’t seem so bad now. I still had to keep focused, but allowed my eyes to scan the passing landscape a bit more.



Franklin Bluffs



Typical road surface north of Atigun Pass; a very hard surface that rattles the bones and shakes machinery to pieces.



As soon as I approached these two caribou, the one on the right turned his tail to me and began to urinate. A caribou greeting?


Finally I saw what the others were talking about: there were quite a few caribou; even had to slow for two standing in the middle of the road. And I paid more attention to the pump plants along the way – this after the workers seemed incredulous that I didn’t know which was Plant 3, Plant 4, etc. (“You don’t know if you saw Plant 3? How could you miss it?”)



Pipeline Pump Station (#3, I think). Note: there was actually a brief paved stretch not far from Prudhoe Bay.



A last look toward ANWR, before turning west toward Atigun Pass. One pro-drilling Congressman referred to ANWR, saying it looked like the "dark side of the moon."


In the distant haze, the Brooks Range was clouded over. Not a good sign. Road graders, and there are many along the Dalton, are not my friends. Whenever I came to a freshly-graded section of road, I’d tense up and hang on. These stretched for miles at a time, leaving furrows and soft mounds, which constantly shifted position in the roadway.



This stuff was a pain. For 3 or 4 hours straight, I had to ride standing up on the foot pegs, the only way to adequately control the bike on these surfaces, while carrying a heavy load (not just me!) But after hours of riding, confidence picks up, and what was at first terrifying becomes a mere annoyance. Only a few times on the return trip did it get truly challenging. After initial moments of panic, a calmer voice says "stick with it - hang on." That, and a little extra throttle seems to get one through.



Approaching Atigun Pass from the north. Storms closing in. The rain was just beginning at this point.


Approaching Atigun Pass, I started to race storm clouds, for once the rain hit, progress would slow considerably. The rain caught up near the UAF Research Station. Now the road was changing to a gravely mud, slick, but manageable. Again, the key was choosing the best path and keeping up the momentum, and just hanging on when things got squirrelly. At the worst moments found myself providing verbal self-counsel: “stay loose, hang on, keep with it, no problem - it will end soon, you’ve seen worse than this.” For 3 or 4 hours I rode standing up on the foot pegs, the best way to control the bike under the circumstances.

As far as the road being “hell”, far from it. It was exhilarating, if spiced with a few moments of terror.



A last glimpse of sunshine before heading up the pass. The shoulders are soft and steep. Fortunately, most truckers slow down when passing, to avoid kicking up rock. Only a couple times did I actually get pelted by road rock from a truck going excessively fast.


Climbing Atigun Pass I passed a bicyclist muscling forward in the rain. Earlier, I had seen his tire tracks snaking along the dry, dusty highway. I slowed and asked “everything okay?” I didn’t hear a response. Stopped at the top to rest and take a photo. Atigun Pass is only around 4,700 feet. No big deal for a Californian. But the dramatic changes from north to south make it quite unusual. The Brooks Range serves as a wall, shielding the south from the worst of the Arctic weather. So just sitting atop the pass, one feels a sense of relief. Slowly, the lone biker approached.

“Do you need anything?”

“Yeah. Some prime rib.”

“How about beef jerky?”

“Sure”

I handed my packet to the rider. He introduced himself as Jason Hill and handed me a card. He’s on a sponsored two-year ride from Prudhoe Bay to Tierra del Fuego, in support of Covenant House Alaska, a haven for homeless and runaway teens.



I met Jason Hill atop Atigun Pass. We shared some beef jerky and stories. He had flown into Deadhorse with his bike and is pedaling from there to Tierra del Fuego over the next two years. This project is in support of Covenant House Alaska, for homeless and runaway youth.


We stood in the cold wind, talking and comparing stories, gear and machines. Next to my overburdened bike, his looked like a statement in simplicity. Jason had many suggestions of places for me to stop as I head south to Anchorage, Seward, Homer and Valdez. Many have to do with beer, one of his passions. He was soaked in sweat, which is dangerous under cold conditions. “Time to head for warmth,” I said. “You wanna race?”

The list of names Jason gave me:

Midnight Sun Brewery
Humpy's
Bear's Tooth
Moose's Tooth
Simon Sieford's
Orso's
Double Musky in Girdwood for best steak

I intend to check out a few of these.

Coming down the south face of the pass, the temperature warmed immediately and the landscape changed from shades of brown, gray and sage to rich greens. The road seemed much more benign than it had just a few days earlier. “So what’s the big deal?” I was becoming comfortable. Only a few patches rekindled the anxiety that was so prevalent on the ride north. Out of habit now, I just remained standing for most of the remaining stretch into Coldfoot.

Arriving at Coldfoot Camp, I was now a “veteran”, with the worst (at least, of this leg) behind me. Karen’s familiar face greeted me. It was past the bar’s midnight closing, but she brought me a beer. Out on the deck, I found my Oregonian buddies. They had rolled in 45 minutes earlier (in their big diesel truck.) Ordered a fish sandwich and “kicked back” exchanging tales of the road. They finally headed off to camp, as it was past 1:00 a.m.

Backtracked a few miles to Marion Creek Campground, where I was met by a horde of mosquitoes. I was the only camper tonight. Chose a site with a wooden tent platform, a welcome refinement over the common crushed rock campsites. Raced the mosquitoes to my tent.

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