We agree to meet for breakfast at 7 A.M., all gassed and packed, to be ready to leave at 8 A.M. sharp. Even at this early hour Eric, Jan and I are there twenty minutes early, in anticipation of a long, hard day.
The push to Prudhoe Bay has taken on a life of it's own and has become the primary focus of the trip. We are down to our last day with 240 miles of mud and gravel and a climb over 4,800 foot Atigun Pass all that stand between us and the northernmost point of the North American road system.
But it's grim this morning. The temperature is warmer, in the mid-40s, but a hard drizzle falls perpetually. The mountains, even the closest, whose peaks can't be more than two miles distant, are shrouded in fog and mist. Although surrounded by natural beauty, the scene is depressing and clouded in mystery. Our spirits are as damp as our rain gear; but north we go, as we must.
The first hour is relatively easy. The drizzle continues but the road is fairly smooth although it is slick. We see several moose and look for bear, but without success.
Forty miles out we hit our first misfortune. Jan is stopped in the road and as I pull up it's obvious the windshield patch didn't work. It has broken off completely. However, even worse, the fairing has broken loose from it's mounting, and I quickly determine there is no way to jury-rig it in a manner that will keep it on the bike for the next 200 miles of gravel. Jan looks grim. She is 200 miles from our goal of Prudhoe Bay, but faced with completing the trip in 40-degree weather and rain without any supplemental protection from the elements. It's 300 miles back to Fairbanks, and even there only a minimal chance of replacing the fairing. She quickly determines she will press on.
We cross and re-cross the various tributaries of the Koyakuk River, each a roaring glacier-fed stream. set in a quarter-mile wide rock and gravel riverbed. I A.M. constantly reminded of the immense volume of water that must pour through these rivers at times, and of the danger that presents with hard rain.
Two hours north of Coldfoot we start the long climb over the Brooks Range, the sub-continental divide in northern Alaska. Here all water flows south to the Pacific Ocean, but over the divide, all water north flows to the Arctic Ocean. For the past hour the rain has turned the road to mud, and as it coats the cooling systems, the bikes start to overheat. Randy's radiator is virtually obscured; Eric's Triumph is covered. The exposed twin cylinders of the BMW have turned a dull red in color from the mud. Only my Cavalcade with it's large fairing is spared. Randy and Eric stop twice to wash off mud with water from one of the many near-by rivers.
We ascend a particularly long, steep section of the highway, and I assume we are on top of notorious Atigun Pass, at 4,800 feet the highest public road pass in Alaska. This far north, and at this high elevation, it can snow on Atigun any day of the year. I hope we are spared today. The rain continues unabated but we are overheating again in spite of the forty degree weather and we stop to remove more mud, a dreary job done mostly using screwdrivers.
I'm worried about Jan. She lost her waterproof gloves in Fairbanks and the replacements purchased at the local Harley Davidson dealer leak like a sieve. Her hands are soaking wet and frigid cold when she removes her gloves. She hardly answers when I ask her if she wants me to flag down the next vehicle southbound for a ride back to the relative warmth of Coldfoot. But she is resolute that she will make it to Prudhoe Bay. I ask the guys for a second opinion. Randy later describes her mood as totally focused determination. I give her my snowmobile mittens to wear over her gloves, and collectively we chip mud off the radiators and cooling fins for another fifteen minutes. We mount up to again head north. We have another 140 miles to go.
The clouds are down on the deck and the wind blows sharply as we pull out. I A.M. sure we are on Atigun Pass and expect the road to start down momentarily. Instead, two miles later I gasp in amazement as I see the road ascend to the right, up into the clouds at a 12% grade. I am shocked that a road this high and steep can accommodate the tractor-trailers for which it was built.
Mountain passes are one of Jan's great fears, whether on a motorcycle or in a car, and I can't fathom how she will cross this great divide. With Randy and Eric still a couple of mile back, we start up. Thankfully, the road is fairly wide, with a good guardrail and no traffic. We're both in second gear, doing about 20 mph as we crawl forward. As we near the summit the clouds part and I view high into the closest peaks, snow deep in the crevasses, slate-gray walls towering to the sky. Newly fallen snow is a mere few hundred feet above us. The remote beauty is terrible in its loneliness. I'm amazed this road exits. I feel like we're a million miles from human habitation.
The road consistency changes and the rain makes it as slick as a greased baking pan. I downshift twice to keep from locking my brakes but the back end of the Cavalcade swings first right, then left. As it swings right again I'm able to get my left foot down to keep the bike upright at 20 mph. Close, but still unscathed.
In another hour we've traveled thirty miles and pull off the road at a remote airstrip, close by the shores of Galbraith Lake. There is no public shelter of any type in the 239 miles from Coldfoot to Deadhorse, but a southbound traveler has told us of a heated outside restroom. We stop to take stock of our situation. We chip mud off our bikes, which has set up so badly I add a rubber mallet to the screwdriver as my tools of choice. We have a quick lunch from snacks we carry, use their heated facilities, and are back on the road, which slowly descends to the coastal plain of the North Slope. As the clouds partially clear, the views back to the towering peaks of the Brooks Range are spectacular.
As we descend Atigun Pass the temperature rises and the rain slows. Jan's hands are better with the mittens, and her spirit has risen. I think we might make Deadhorse; I wasn't too sure an hour ago. We have 140 miles to go.
We are carrying an extra seven gallons of gas as none is available between Coldfoot and Deadhorse, and we distribute five gallons among the three bikes (Randy has a big tank and gets good gas mileage, so is fine) but keep the last two gallons for an emergency. We view both caribou and musk oxen across the tundra, then again head north. We are 100 miles from Deadhorse.
The road immediately goes from bad to worse. For at least twenty-five miles, in an area we later name "the beach," the road is 4" – 6" of loose sand and rocks over a hardpan base. Stones range in size from an apricot to a grapefruit. With the sidecar for stability Jan is fine but the rest of us struggle. Eric and I are frequently down to 10 mph and 15 mph as we careen from spot to spot like drunken sailors. This makes the mud look like Heaven; "the beach" being nearly impassible on our two street bikes. Randy, with his dual-sport, fairs better, but it's still a tough go.
A caribou cow and calf amble down the middle of the road so we roll to a stop, turn off our bikes, and watch them trot off through the tundra. Now the BMW won't start. We get the frequent click of a bad cellanoid or dead battery. I am perplexed. The electrical system has not been a problem until now. After fighting off the ever-present mesquitoes for a few minutes to let it cool, we jump start it from Eric's battery. It starts, but the engine is knocking like a bad rod or bearing. I am fatigued from fighting the mud, rocks and the BMW as well as the mosquitoes Jan is in despair that she might not make it to Deadhorse. We are sixty eight miles from or goal.
The diagnosis of rods and bearings turns out to be ludicrous, but we are frustrated and dead tired. Randy correctly diagnoses it as a stuck starter, and after fiddling with the starter switch for a few minutes, the noise abates. We again head north. We are still on "the beach" but in a few minutes we pass the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Pump Station 2 and the road surface improves immensely. Spirits soar.
Our speed increases to 35 mph then 40 mph and we begin our sprint for Deadhorse. The rain is gone and the sun bathes the surrounding terrain in vivid relief, a phenomenon I've only seen in the high arctic, as the sun seems abnormally close up here. Just fifty miles south of the Arctic Ocean, the temperature has soared into the middle fifties. Eric and Randy take the lead as I keep a watchful eye on the BMW, literally willing it on to Deadhorse. We've been riding over nine hours now, and I can see the pain in Jan's face. She is exhausted from the ride, but I also see resolve and steely determination.
As we continue our mad dash over the last forty miles, I'm computing gas consumption in my head. The BMW has a five-gallon tank and I added one and a half gallons when we re-fueled. At 35 mpg I realize the fuel will run out twelve miles from Deadhorse, but if I stop to transfer gas, will it start again? I'm not sure, but with Randy and Eric well in front, I'm not willing to take the chance. I take the risk instead. I pull Jan over and instruct her to keep the bike running as I remove the jerry jug from the sidecar and pour in another gallon while the BMW runs, leaving a gallon in case we have misjudged with another bike. We don't blow ourselves up and are back on our way in less than two minutes.
The arctic coastal plain is so flat you can see the Earth's curvature, a phenomenon I've only seen at sea. At twenty miles the hazy outline of Prudhoe Bay oil operations buildings begins to appear, like a ship coming into view over the horizon. We are getting close.
Randy and Eric have slowed to allow us to catch up with them, and the four bikes roll triumphantly into Deadhorse at 6:30 P.M.. We have taken ten and one-half hours to cover 239 miles, and have finally reached the northern-most point in the North American road system.
In the Prudhoe Bay hotel parking lot we share hugs and high-fives and snap the obligatory pictures. For a moment we gaze at the BMW in anticipation, that like the "one horse shay" before it, it will simply collapse.
Jan gets the room key and is asleep by the time I bring in the bags. We have traveled 3,021 miles by motorcycle in thirteen days. We have reached Prudhoe Bay. Life is good.
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