Pictures from my Baja trip in November 2009 can be found here. The first part of the trip was shared with an overland group before I headed south to the southern tip of Baja, Cabo San Lucas. The return journey was via ferry from La Paz to Topolobampo and across the border at Nogales. Interestingly my first attempt to cross was prevented by US Agriculture who stated that I had too much mud on my truck and that I might bring ‘foot and mouth’ or a similar disease into the US! I thought that cleaning ones car at 9.00PM in the evening in Nogales would be easier said than done but after pulling in to a gas station a man ran over with a dirty rag and offered to wipe my wind shield. I pointed at the car and suggested that my windshield was fine but he could help me with the whole car! A few minutes later we agreed a price and soon after I had ten or so people assisting me with the job. Given there was no water tap close by one person relayed buckets and I heated the water using the heat exchanger on my engine. An hour or so later and the truck was deemed passable and I proceeded back to the border where this time round I was fortunately granted permission to cross.
For the petrol heads out there click here for pictures of what served as my home for much of the summer in Alaska & North West Canada and carried me approximately 16000 miles with a damage report that consisted of only two broken windshields, two broken antennas, a couple of snapped struts on the swing-out rear tire carrier and a few minor bumps underneath suffered in the “Maze” at Canyonlands, Utah. The vehicle is currently resting while being fitted with a new front bumper, winch, suspension mods, front and rear lockers and anything else that comes to mind before the next trip! Click Slee Offroad for more information on all the upgrades that have been made.
The photo was taken at the historic Yukon river on the north side of the bridge and pipeline crossing.
Arriving in Fairbanks about 6.30AM the Land Cruiser was just in time for it’s second service that had become due along the Dalton. I followed Jay to a car wash and we hosed down our vehicles a few times to get as much of the calcium chloride off as possible. Originally I thought they only use this stuff during the winter but have since learned it is also used to keep the road bound together in dusty or gravel conditions. After the wash I wished Jay well on his way as he headed off to a Susuki garage before traveling south to Denali and I made my way to the Toyota garage.
After the service I made a stop at Radio Shack to get a replacement CB antenna and fixture and called Toyota in Anchorage to order a replacement windshield. Then I made my way to a motel to get some sleep! Later that afternoon I learned that the security system in my vehicle disables everything if one of the doors is not closed properly. After spending a couple of hours on the problem including calls to Toyota to discuss various options including resetting the system by disconnecting the batteries I noticed that a rear door was not shut properly. After opening and closing it, something they hadn’t suggested, everything worked again! It makes me wonder what you do if one of the door sensors breaks and you are in a remote location.
Excuse the cliched image but I couldn’t resist the temptation to show that the car might as well have been black and white except the tail lights! Just to be clear I masked out the car from the black and white conversion so that is its color thanks to the calcium chloride on the road.
In case you are wondering about the difference between Deadhorse and Prudhoe, Deadhorse is the town at the end of the Dalton Highway and Prudhoe Bay is where the oil fields are located. To reach the Arctic Ocean which is a couple of miles beyond the end of the highway, you must go through Prudhoe which is private land and you can’t drive your own vehicle there. Therefore you have to fork out $40 for the tour.
The tour was OK, nothing remarkable. I suppose it is what you expect in a place which is essentially there to extract oil from the ground. I was glad to see the Arctic Ocean as you imagine a typical ocean and not frozen. Of course I could have taken a swim like a few people who have that experience as one of their ‘life goals’. However, given that you don’t need to drive here to take the swim, you can fly (as most do), I passed! Had the only way to swim in the Arctic Ocean been to drive here it might have been a different matter!
Around 10.30AM I stopped at the hotel where Jay was staying and we headed south on the Dalton the 70 or so miles to where he had left his bike. Once his wheel was on I followed him down the highway but 10 or so miles later and his tire was once again flat. Another repair that included wrapping the tube with duct tape and a few more miles on, another flat. It looked like he was going to have to either go back to Prudhoe assuming we could flag a north bound traveler or ride with me to Coldfoot and find someone there to take him to Prudhoe. Either way, he would need to have a new tube and possibly tire shipped to Prudhoe. After many minutes of contemplating this, it was already around 4.30PM by this time, three more bikers arrived who turned out to be his guardian angels. One of them was carrying an additional tube to his spare that fitted Jay’s tire. Another of the three was also a bike guide who I got the impression had seen it all before many times over and the sort of person other riders are probably glad to see when they get stuck.
An hour or so later and the bike was ready. We headed south once more with Jay riding a few minutes ahead just in case the damaged rim caused more problems and I was able to stop along the way to take a few pictures at various points. When I pulled into Coldfoot we ate some food and took a break before making the final leg down to Fairbanks.
In terms of the actual surface, the Dalton is really not a terribly bad road and certainly not a technically difficult road but that isn’t really the main issue. Though I wouldn’t recommend driving it in a saloon car or minivan as a number of people do, it is certainly possible though you will increase your chance of underside damage without sufficient protection. The real issue with this road is it’s remoteness and the heavy trucks that use it. As I said, I have a cracked windshield from a rock thrown up by one of the trucks. Although most slow down some do not and most use the downward sections to gain speed for upwards sections of road. I saw a number that were traveling at 70 or 80 miles an hour on such sections!
Leaving Fairbanks mid-morning I drove the 80 or so miles to the start of the Dalton Highway where a woman who worked in Coldfoot was waiting for a lift to the Yukon River Crossing where she was meeting some other people. After re-arranging some of my gear to make room the journey began and I learned from her what it was like to work in a town of 13 people! She also told me I might see a group of Irish school or college students riding the highway to Prudhoe before beginning the long journey to South America (minus the Darien Gap of course for the well informed reading this) hoping to become the youngest to achieve the feat. This stretch of road was actually quite busy in the sense that there were plenty of other vehicles including a tour bus! I would discover later that most of the non-commercial vehicles generally traveled as far as the Yukon River, the Arctic Circle milepost or possibly Coldfoot. Less made the journey all the way to Deadhorse. Once at the Yukon River Crossing I met a group of bikers who were also making the journey to Deadhorse. Our paths would cross a number of times during the journey ahead. Crossing the Yukon river you begin to appreciate the effort involved in building the road and pipeline especially considering winter temperatures that can reach 60 degrees below zero Farenheit. Somewhere between Yukon Crossing and Coldfoot my CB antenna must have snapped off because I noticed it had disappeared! Of all the places! When traveling the Dalton highway a CB is extremely useful because you can use it to listen for trucks heading your way or ask whether you can pass or more likely if you should pull over to allow them to pass you! Trucks have the right of way and from my observations generally travel at higher speeds then most other vehicles.
Stopping in Coldfoot for fuel and a break I ran into the bikes again and we chatted some more about where everyone was planning to stop for the night. Originally I had intended to stop near Coldfoot but on examining the map discovered a camp ground about 150 miles south of Deadhorse and a few miles off the highway at Galbraith Lake. It looked like a good spot out on the arctic tundra and north of the last spruce. They thought they might ride through to Deadhorse as they had a reservation at one of the hotels there.They had started their respective journeys in Seattle (Rick/Steve), San Jose (Chris) and Chicago (Jay). Chris and Jay met and teamed up along the Alaska Highway and subsequently with Rick/Steve on the Dalton. With the number of bikes I had already seen riding both ways it was clear that more independent travelers along the highway were on bikes than in vehicles.
Traveling north of Coldfoot the spruce began to thin out. The further north you travel the shorter the trees become due to the shorter growing season eventually disappearing altogether. The Brooks range loomed ahead and I thought about the fact that I had traveled most of the length of the Rocky Mountains (the Brooks range is the northern most extension of the Rocky Mountain range) from Colorado through Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, British Columbia and Alaska. Climbing over Atigun Pass and once more I was on the Continental Divide (I wonder how many times I have crossed it during this trip? ) and the highest road pass in Alaska at about 4800ft. Although it isn’t high by Colorado standards the thing to realize is that timberline is at 2500ft or so in much of Alaska versus 11000ft or so in Colorado and once you cross the arctic circle and reach 66 degrees north as I said earlier, there is no timberline to speak of because there are virtually no trees! In fact the northern most spruce is at mile 235 on the Dalton, 120 miles or so north of the circle.
The scenery isn’t unlike what you will see on the central plateau in Colorado which is also designated as arctic in climatic terms. That said and not withstanding the fact that parts of Colorado can also be extremely remote if you get stuck on an unmaintained road somewhere it just feels more remote, somewhat detached, here.
Pulling into Galbraith campground a few miles off the Dalton, I noticed the bikes were also there and we spent a couple of hours chatting around the camp fire watching the sun make its way slowly around the edge of the horizon. Additionally, there were a few other people in the campground a few of whom had been there a few nights. Seemingly strange for somewhere so far north was the fact that the temperature was around 70F (at midnight), the air was still and the place was swarming with mosquitoes. In case you wonder why mosquitoes are so prevalent here, I believe it has something to do with the permafrost beneath the ground which traps any moisture on the surface. The combination of warm, still air and standing water brings the mosquitoes out in force.
Having arrived late at Grand Prairie I set off mid-morning the next day for Dawson Creek, mile 0 of the Alaska Highway, crossing into British Columbia along the way.
Side note: it seems that everyone rides around on ATVs and Quad bikes in these parts.
After driving through what seemed like days of forest I stopped at Fort Nelson for fuel and a well prepared piece of Halibut (surprising in a place like Ft Nelson!) Rather than stopping here for the night, I pushed on and the scenery soon reverted to the familiar Rocky Mountains as I passed into Stone Mountain Provincial Park. Its strange how you have to actually visit these places in order to discover their existence. Although it is covered reasonably well in Milepost I suppose my mind had been consumed with other preparatory matters until now. As I passed through Summt Lake I noticed a provincial campground nestled at the top of a pass between snow covered peaks and decided to stop for the night. That decision turned into a test of the Technitops wind resistance capabilities! Although you can’t tell from the picture which was taken late in the evening, the wind was already picking up which is why the fly sheet isn’t fully extended. During the night I learned a lot about the tents design for dealing with wind. Basically it moves around like a suspension bridge which while seemingly effective isn’t exactly quiet!
Although washed out by the high sun during the day, the drive across the North Western corner of Colorado and North Eastern corner of Utah was nevertheless spectacularly beautiful. Reminiscent of more famed parts of Utah and Arizona this part of the US is pretty remote. The Gates of Lodore at the north end of the Dinosaur National Monument were particularly impressive.