by John Cooper
The late Frank Zappa said it best, “If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your s**t, then you deserve it”. Those words drive me to living a life full of adventure. I am always inspired by stories of people who challenge themselves, disprove the impossible, face their fears, do the unexpected, and turn dreams into realities. We all have many things going on in our lives. However, for me, there is no time like now to live your dream. With that motivation, I set the stage for an adventure with my good friend of 30 years, to go to the North Pole, through Alaska…on motorcycles. (OK, North Pole is not possible, so to the Artic Ocean. It’s not the destination, but the journey that matters.)
Alaska has always appealed to adventurers. With its statewide population of roughly 730,000, the majority of which are located in and around the city of Anchorage, and the balance of the population sparsely dispersed throughout the remainder of an enormously large state. To say that Alaska is “remote” is an understatement. This frontier was the backdrop we were seeking.
Eric and I devised our plan. We would fly into Fairbanks, AK, rent motorcycles and ride on a self-guided trip north through Alaska’s interior, over the Brooks Mountain Range, across the frozen tundra of the North Slope, and out to the Arctic Ocean to the small northernmost outpost, Deadhorse, Alaska.
There is only one road that reaches Alaska’s northern territories, the James Dalton Highway. The “Haul Road” as it is also known is a 414 mile long road which is largely unpaved and covered with loose gravel and potholes, and soft shoulders. Profiled on a History Channel’s television series, “Ice Road Truckers”, it is one of America’s most remote and challenging roads; not ideal for motorcyclists. This road runs parallel to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and acts as a conduit for semi-trucks delivering heavy equipment and supplies to the oil businesses at Prudhoe Bay.
We load our motorcycles with extra fuel, food and water, camping gear, tools and spare tires, and everything you might need for a self-sufficient tour. We set our sights for the town of Livengood, AK, population 13. The two of us represented a tourism boom for this community. Why, imagine their elation upon our arrival.
We didn’t realize just how remote of an area we were traveling in. When we arrived in Livengood, we found no sign of life, including 13 would-be elated welcoming residents. When the travel maps indicated “No Services Available”, who knew it really meant no services available?
There was no choice. We pulled off the road and made our home for the night behind a large pile of gravel. We arranged our bikes in front of us with the gravel behind, and constructed our small fort to protect us from hungry polar critters. Neither of us slept that night.
The following morning we glanced at the map (hint: there’s only one way to go, north). We saddled up the bikes and headed towards the Yukon River.
Alaska is breathtakingly beautiful with moss hanging over dense, heavy brush, and ponds and marsh-filled bogs all around. Serenity. Yet, I couldn’t shake the ever-present thought that at any moment a moose, grizzly bear or pack of wolves might jump out of the thick forest. I’m generally not one to have anxiety over a brush with a wild animal, but this is different. The stark reality was that we were really on our own, for such an incident. Fortunately, I was prepared for this, I had packed the flask.
The Yukon River is massive, like all things in Alaska, and an impressive sight to see. It’s one of the longest rivers in North America and runs nearly 2,000 miles out to the Bering Sea. Passing over the Dalton Highway Bridge, we stopped to gaze down at the mighty Yukon River as it rushed beneath us. It’s a captivating sight, but our travel goal for the day was to cross over the Arctic Circle to reach Coldfoot, so we decided to push forward.
The Arctic Circle at latitude 66° 33’ is a point where the sun is above the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year during the summer solstice. With a sign demarking its very position, we stopped for a photo shoot, because that’s the kind of photo opportunity one captures on a wild adventure.
Coldfoot is the only place on Dalton Highway with any basic services. It has an old hotel (with very rough accommodations), a small restaurant, a fuel station, and most importantly, some people. Coldfoot has not changed character since it was originally built as a truck stop for weary-eyed, long-haul truckers. One statistic worth noting about Coldfoot; it’s outright cold in the winter. In January 1971, Coldfoot recorded a temperature of -74 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s not the coldest temperature ever recorded up north, but darn close. Other statistics indicate there are more men than women in Alaska. However, in Coldfoot, you’d be hard-pressed to find any woman; perhaps they’re the ones who got coldfeet. Maybe that’s how it got its name.
The road running north of Coldfoot was harsh. Our pace slowed. Each mile got harder. The Alaska Department of Transportation routinely sprays a thick coat of calcium chloride over the road intending to cut down on the dust kicked up by the trucks. In all practicality though, it turns much of the road into a wet and slippery surface; it’s like riding on chocolate pudding, but doesn’t taste nearly as good. The chemical is also highly corrosive and wreaks havoc on any exposed mechanical and engine parts. To make matters worse, this stretch of road is the longest distance without services in North America. That’s 240 miles with no services…whatsoever.
Rested, fed and fueled up, we left Coldfoot and trekked toward the Brooks Mountain Range. We cut through the heart of the range at Atigun Pass, Alaska’s highest maintained pass (elevation 4,739 feet). We took the opportunity to stop and take in the views of the mountains and watch the Dall Sheep climb in the distance. Then we cautiously sauntered on our way. This highway is especially dangerous during the winter. The road is covered in ice for months at a time with threats of avalanches at every corner.
As we rode out of the mountains, the landscape gave way to tundra. Year-round, the ground is permanently frozen over the North Slope area with the exception of a thin top layer that thaws each summer to allow for small brush, grass and moss to quickly flourish before submitting again to the harsh winter. This land is protected from development leaving striking views in all directions as far as the eyes can see, simply mesmerizing.
There are large herds of caribou on the North Slope. I noticed a full-sized male caribou just a short distance off the road. I attempted to take its photo. As I searched my pockets for my camera, I noticed in my peripheral vision a hunter with his bow pulled back tight ready to strike the caribou. I sat silent, I froze… or maybe I was stunned; not at the sight of the hunter or of a caribou which may be taking its last breath, but because I was sitting in perfect line-of-site between the two. Suddenly, (I didn’t know I could move that fast), my bike lurched forward as I pulled on the throttle.
Out of harms way, I sat beside the road and really grasped the inadvertent danger I just escaped. The rules are different on the North Slope, where hunting is not only a way of life, but a rite of passage for many Alaskan’s. It is commonplace to see full-sized caribou being toted off in the back of pickups. And I, with a deer-in-the-headlight stare, was that close to being in one myself.
At the end of a long day, we reached the end of the Dalton Highway at our destination, Deadhorse, AK. There is little to see in Deadhorse. Only 1,200 miles south of the North Pole, it’s as far north as one can go in Alaska. With a full-time population of 25, Deadhorse exists primarily to support the oil businesses at Prudhoe Bay offering clothing and supplies to the transient workers who come and go with regularity; two weeks on and two weeks off.
The adventure to Deadhorse was a trip to be remembered, but it was only part of the experience, as we turned our bikes around and headed back south, some 1,100 miles down the entire state to the tiny fishing village of Homer, AK, located on the Kenai Peninsula, and affectionately known as the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World”; a spectacular place to call the finish line.
Was the trip worth the effort, the planning, and all the obstacles, I asked myself in hindsight? Yes, it was as I picture my friend riding down the long, muddy road, with a smile across his face, knowing that we exercised our dream, in a nine-day trek across Alaska, to the Artic Ocean, as close to the North Pole as one can get…on a motorcycle.