Alaska – Steve Church (Issue 13)

Alaska Overland magazineMy best ride ever…. 500 miles off-road standing up for most of the way. Just me and the wilderness on the infamous Dalton Highway in Alaska’s far north. It’s Ice-road trucker territory. Piece of cake. What’s all the fuss? Then suddenly a black/brown furry blur, a moose calf and cow are rushing across the road, spooked by something in the woods. Instinctive swerve and it’s wide-eye to wide-eye at speed. Who’s more scared, me or her? Adrenaline surge. Wrong side of the road now, deep gravel, brake, dab, lean, dab again, give in, lay it down and let it go. A sudden rush and I’m laying face down staring at blood. It’s all slow motion…ears ringing, the visor’s gone and I’m chewing grit. Then half a ton of GS Adventure flips and lands on me, pinning me down in the ditch.
I haven’t seen a car for 30 minutes, I’m in the middle of nowhere, and I’m struggling to move. It’s dusk and it’s bear country… The Dalton bites back. Piece of cake?
James. W. Dalton is not my favourite Engineer. In 1974, He was hired by the Alaskan Government to build a highway from a point on the Elliot highway, about 50 miles north of Fairbanks, to the lucrative oilfields on the Arctic Ocean coast at Prudhoe Bay, 414 miles away. The road first weaves its way through endless pine forests in the south, then to stunning vistas of granite spires when you pass through the Brookes Range, before the flat grassland tundra towards the coast. You also cross the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle. The road at best is degraded potholed tarmac and at worse, is loose gravel which has calcium chloride mixed in, because of its hygroscopic properties, to keep the summer dust down.

I set off from my Fairbanks hotel with suitable trepidation and head north. After an hour or so, a tall sign indicates the start and that it’s time to get my head down and get serious. It starts easily enough with the ever-present Trans Alaskan oil pipe making its presence known parallel to the road. There are 500 metre stretches of reasonable tarmac, interspersed with dry hard-packed mud patches which actually aren’t a bad surface to ride on. Then the tarmac fades away altogether. There’s quite a bit of deep gravel, especially on the edges so it’s best to stand up. This means you get an early warning for potholes and are ready to lean back and give the motor a squirt to scythe through the looser stuff. I’m on my BMW GSA so the throbbing low torque of the flat twin is perfect. There’s instant squirt on tap and with the GS, fuel isn’t a worry as I know I can easily cover 350-400 miles to a tank.

The fabulous Brookes Range Overland magazine
Three hours later, I stop for gas at the Yukon River crossing. It’s a huge gravel car park with a few sheds on the far perimeter, a roadhouse café and one fuel pump. It also has mosquitoes a plenty. I speak to the owner who announces that the hat net he’s just sold me isn’t to stop them biting me but to stop me swallowing them!
While I’m in there, having a cuppa, it rains. Not heavily, but just 10 minutes of precipitation makes the road surface lethal. It becomes a sticky clay-like soup of calcium chloride which means that even a slight deviation from upright or the slightest over throttle and the back lets go and you’ll hit the deck. What follows it is two hours of heart in mouth intense concentration.