Secret Tips and Tricks
Adventurist motorcyclists know that reaching Deadhorse, Alaska, is an accomplishment on most of their personal check lists. It is the highest point on the North American continent to which they can pilot their motorcycle, sidecar, or three-wheeler. The Dalton Highway, the 414-mile road to reach Deadhorse, is through some of the wildest environment one can attempt. Not all make it to the top, the pumping stations at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. Crashes are common, as are flat tires, mechanical break downs, grizzly and polar bear tales, and snow in June and July.
The road is a mix of paved sections, about 50%. In between are gravel, mud, broken pavement, dust, construction works, wooden bridges, and on many days, snow and ice. A small mishap, slight loss of concentration, mechanical or electrical failure can easily cost $1,500 to get the broken vehicle back down to civilization (Fairbanks or possibly by air cargo to Anchorage) plus whatever deal the driver can arrange for themselves.
36-degrees at 4:00 PM, with a 20-mph wind, on June 21, meant it was 22-degrees on the first day of summer in Deadhorse.
For long sections there are no connections for cell phones and the 240-mile stretch between Coldfoot and Deadhorse has no services for anything: no gas, food, or sleeping facilities. In this same 240-mile section the temperature can easily be well below freezing in the middle of summer, and during the winter months minus 80-100 degrees Fahrenheit is not uncommon. On June 21st this year, when I checked the temperature at Deadhorse, it was just above freezing, but that evening it dipped down low enough to cover the road in a thin coating of frost and ice. The small pond by the hotel was still frozen from the winter. That morning motorcycle engines were slow to turn over if they were using their usual straight 50 weight engine oil.
After numerous trips to Deadhorse, I have picked up a few tips and tricks to make the round trip a little less difficult and expensive. Some I learned the hard, slow way, others I collected from fellow adventurists piloting nearly every kind of motorcycle from Harley-Davidsons, Kawasakis, Hondas, Suzukis, BMWs, with an odd Indian Chief or Gold Wing in the mix. Below are a few of our secrets to help your planning if you are dreaming of making the mighty ride of a lifetime. Some other secrets and more tips are in the book, ALASKA BY MOTORCYCLE ($19.95) or on the DVD MOTORCYCLING TO ALASKA ($24.95), both available from the Whole Earth Motorcycle Center with a Visa or MasterCard at 1-800-532-5557.
• Pull over to the right and stop when a truck is approaching from either direction, and duck your head as they pass. The Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road, was made to deliver everything from a hotel on wheels to gasoline from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. The trucks, as well as cars and buses, can toss baseball size stones at you or leave behind a thick brown cloud of dust through which you cannot see. It is a trucking road and a rock flipped up and flying at you at 50 mph (maximum speed limit) can feel like a Nolan Ryan fastball if you are moving in the opposite direction when it hits you.
• Wear the right motorcycle gear. It can be below freezing in Coldfoot when you arrive while it was 80-degrees when you left Fairbanks, and you might have to drive through some rain or snow. Waterproof breathable gear, with an electric liner, can make what could have been a miserable journey into a fun run.
• Be very tender on the front brakes because making even a slight angle change when crossing the 2,293 foot long Yukon River Bridge is sketchy. It is made of wood. When wet it can be slippery like warm oil on ice. Do not stop on the bridge. Instead park your motorcycle at either end of the bridge well off the main road and walk out towards the middle to do your Kodak memory clicking.
• Some of the gravel sections are composed with calcium chloride, nasty stuff for leather and motorcycle engine parts. I have some still fried onto my engine after 10 years and numerous washings because I waited until returning to the Lower 48 before seriously cleaning the motorcycle. To avoid a similar unwanted powder coating, stop in Fairbanks at a power car wash after coming off the Haul Road and blow off not only your motorcycle but also the clothes and boots you are wearing.
• For security reasons the oil pipeline pumping stations along the route are closed to the general public. Even with your passport and a good story it is unlikely you will gain entry.
• For motorcycles with radiators, stop at water crossings and use a water bottle or similar container to wash the fins and fan blades. Stay parked on the edge of the road to keep the grime in the road and not in the natural tundra or stream. The mud and calcium chloride thrown up by your front wheel can restrict the flow of air through the cooling fins or bring the fan blades to a stop, causing the engine to overheat. Once the mud is melted onto the radiator fins, high pressure water washing is about the only way to clean them, and the nearest high pressure car wash is back in Fairbanks.
• Worry less about bears and more about mosquitoes. Chances of seeing bears, which are generally shy of people, are slim. If camping, keep food and containers that held food, like a tank bag, well away from your tent. Bear pepper spray is expensive and to hit a bear with it you are often closer than you want to be. The locals jokingly call the little bells sold in sporting goods stores for hikers and campers to wear for scaring bears away “dinner bells,” meaning the tinkling tells the bear you are coming and it is their dinner time. Mosquitoes can be in clouds if the weather has been warm and wet. A head mosquito net and strong Deet repellent can provide welcome relief when stopped for construction, setting up your tent or making motorcycle repairs.
• The Marion Creek BLM Campground, four miles north of
Coldfoot, has three raised tent platforms to keep you from having to sleep on the ground, and thus above the permafrost just below the surface. Camping is less than $10 per night. If you can find the “unofficial and unauthorized” camping area behind the Inn At Coldfoot, pitching your tent is free, and you are walking distance to the Trucker’s Café, an All-You-Can-Eat dinner buffet in the evening and the last place for a beer on the road north. Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay is alcohol free, so while it may be raining and cold when you arrive, the town is on globe high but 100% dry.
• Tires are the most common failure on motorcycles. Carry a good repair kit with you and know how to use it. While you may not need it, you can earn some good karma when you find the traveler who did not heed this advice.
• If you can limp into Deadhorse there are some oil field service shops and workers that can be very creative with welding equipment and what spares they have on hand. At the General Store and Post Office there is a large auto parts selection.
• The Hot Spot Café, five miles north of the Yukon River Bridge, is a favorite stop for motorcycle travelers. They make a monster hamburger (biggest in Alaska) and “Dean the Dancing Machine,” (his wife’s nickname for him), one of the owners, is handy with tools. I once saw him make an aluminum pannier cover with a hammer and an aluminum road sign in about 20 minutes, something the motorcycle traveler had lost weeks before on the way to Alaska. They also have a tenting area and several sleeping rooms, sell gas, cold beer, showers, and offer a motorcyclist friendly atmosphere. I often change tires here, stripping off the front road tire and replacing it with a knobby, then reversing the process upon my return and leaving the slightly used knobby with Dean for a needy motorcycle traveler.
• If your motorcycle can not make the 240 miles from Coldfoot to Deadhorse on a tank of gas, stop in Fairbanks and buy a small plastic gas container for less than $10. Fill it in Coldfoot, drive for two to three gallons of gas, then stop and empty it into your gas tank. Reverse the process on the way back, and then give the plastic container away. That will save you $400-$1,200 for one of the aftermarket large gas tanks and this is the longest section of road in Alaska where there is no gas.
• To save money on a room in Coldfoot or Deadhorse, try to get one of the dorm or shared bath/toilet rooms. One hotel charged $190 plus $15 for breakfast and $20 for dinner. A dorm room at another hotel was $150 including their All-You-Can-Eat buffet breakfast and dinner.
• Some motorcyclists do the run up to Deadhorse and back in a single day. In mid to late June it is light nearly all 24 hours. A run up to Deadhorse from Fairbanks can take 10 hours if road construction is light and weather conditions right. After a meal at one of the hotels and a short nap, 10 hours later they can be back in Fairbanks. A one day run can save $600 in lodging costs.
Not all drivers come off the Dalton Highway alive. Be very careful and drive slowly. It is a dangerous road for the novice, inexperienced and experienced motorcyclist, as rapidly changing road conditions require 100% concentration.
• Traffic has been steadily increasing on the Dalton Highway, nearly 30% over last year according to the visitor center at Coldfoot.
• Purchase medical evacuation insurance (for your entire trip to Alaska). If you have to be plucked off the Dalton Highway by a helicopter and transported to Fairbanks, it can cost you up to $30,000.
• To see what fellow travelers have at least tagged the Arctic Circle, look on the back of the Arctic Circle sign, a favorite place to leave an autograph or personalized sticker.
If you are a serious adventurist wanting information on possibly hooking up with other like-minded Deadhorse bound motorcyclists, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. There might be something more than a dead horse on the horizon.