If you haven’t read Part One to this story, you can catch up here.
As mentioned, everyone we talked to advised strongly against riding motorcycles on the Dalton if the weather was bad. Just like The Dempster Highway, the Dalton is covered with calcium chloride as well. This causes the road surface to harden up almost like concrete when dry and when wet it keeps ruts from being formed. However, when it rains, a thin layer of what people describe as ‘seagull shit’ forms as though nature has taken a giant knife and spread it like peanut butter on toast. This creates an unnerving surface only slightly better than black ice. Haul trucks lose traction in corners and slide off the road. Tourists driving vehicles usually just turn around. Dave and I? Well, we had already come this far…
Our only good night camping on the Dalton was the first night after leaving Fairbanks. We had ridden about 400 km (250 mi) when Dave spotted a road leading up to a gravel pit with what turned out to be a great view of the valley below. No sooner had we pulled in when a dark grey Volkswagen camper van pulled in with a couple inside. They made to leave but Dave motioned over for them to stay and share the view with us, which later turned into sharing whiskey and stories around a fire. Elvira and Ingo turned out to be friends we would see by chance again in our Alaskan travels and we hope to see them in Europe during the next leg of our trip.
The next morning was Aug. 18, 2016 and we woke up to our view from the night before. The trouble with vantage points is they also show bad weather coming your way. The skies looked a little moody to the north but we weren’t too concerned (read: ignorance is bliss) and packed up to get going.
When we stopped in Coldfoot at the visitor’s centre to warm up, dry out and use real toilets, another rider pulled up and told us he had come from the north. He said he’d wiped out on his bike and saw four other male riders eat it in this section as well. He told us the last 57 km (36 mi) to Deadhorse was terrible mud and construction. Bile sloshed around in my stomach as I visualized being pitched into the tundra off my bucking stallion of a bike. Despite this, I figured 57 km (36 mi) was a fraction of road compared to the 626 km (414 mi) we’d be riding to get there. Plus if we got scared off by everything people said about the road ahead, we’d never have made it much past our front door. Our theory, which is mostly Dave’s but I’ll call it ‘ours,’ is not to turn around until we see the situation for ourselves.
Tundra along the Dalton.
Atigun Pass was our largest obstacle this day. Under construction, we entered it in a whiteout with a fine drizzle of freezing rain. Here the Dalton crosses the Continental Divide and rises up and over the Brooks range at an elevation of 4,739 feet (1,444 m). It has been featured on the show Ice Road Truckers. I think this road is far worse in the winter, thus earning its name listed on the website dangerousroads.org, however it was certainly sporty enough just in the rain.
As it turned out, the last 48 km (30 mi) to Deadhorse was pretty bad and the remaining 9 km (6 mi) I’d call terrible. The Dalton is being raised in this section by eight feet in order to curb flooding that destroys the road. For some reason they have chosen the worst kind of rock rubble to use as the road’s base; river rock, rock shards, gravel and let’s throw some mud in there to adhere it all together.
Raising the Dalton.
If you can imagine what a remote dirt road looks like under construction in the rain, you’ll have an idea of what we and the bikes looked like. My bike was taking every mile of it in stride. It was turning out to be a great round-the-world bike, I thought, and even Dave started warming up to it, reluctantly giving it a pat now and then.
Mud and then some more mud.
When the first stop sign appeared from a high-vis clad arm in the midst, Dave and I pulled up to await the first of several pilot car leads along the road. The guy came over to tell us it’d be a good 20 minutes wait then invited us to hang out with him in the company van to warm up and dry out a little. Inside, with the heat blasting through the vents he told us a little about his life growing up in a small village nearby in the Brooks Range. He loved taking his grandkids fishing and hunting and only had to work half the year at this job in order to make enough for the rest of the year when he could play with them out in the mountains. He’d taught them how to live off the land. We could see the pride beaming from his eyes.
With great heaving sighs, we had to leave the warmth of the van and get back on the bikes. I plugged in my heated jacket and grabbed tight to the heated grips trying to feel the warmth through my thick gloves. We followed behind the pilot car, which ambled along way too slow to comfortably keep the bikes from tipping over. Note: if you drive a pilot car and you have motorcycles behind you, go at least 40 kmph (25 mph). We need speed baby!
Eventually the pilot pulled over to let us pass. This section we were ‘guided’ through was full of deep gravel and mud but so far so good. We rode along for another while and it started to get a little hairy. There were two short sections of river rock to get through. Dave was in front of me and lost control of his back tire a few times but kept the bike upright. I was in a wheel rut more off the side and wasn’t having as much trouble. When that part was over I breathed a sigh of relief and wondered why the hell they used big, slippery, round river rock to surface that part of the road. But whatever, at least it was over and surely there wouldn’t be anymore of that nonsense. Right?
The next pilot car led us through a very rough section that was covered in loose gravel and washboard. It felt like I had traded my bike in to ride a jackhammer. I had to work hard to keep my tongue out from between my teeth lest I bite it clean off. There was a semi behind me and Dave was in front. We were standing on our pegs for better balance and moving along at about 60 kmph (37 mph) when all of a sudden my bike’s engine cut out completely. Ever so conscious of the semi behind me, I quickly pulled in the clutch before it shuddered into a stall and drifted over to the right to roll to a stop on the shoulder, which was full of even deeper gravel. I lost my balance and the bike started going over on the left then… stopped? I looked down to see my side stand was down. Now it all made sense. These bikes have a sensor that cuts the engine when the side stand is down. The spring that holds the stand up had sprung clear off with all the vibration. I was relieved it wasn’t something severely wrong with the engine.
Dave hadn’t seen me pull off. You can’t keep an eye on your mirrors while standing on the pegs. A pick-up truck stopped and I asked them to go after Dave and tell him to ride back. After the line-up of cars had passed, Dave rode back to me and we got busy with the almost impossible task of finding grey metal strewn in the grey gravel on a grey day after dozens of cars and semis had driven over them. With the road to ourselves for the time being, we walked back a mile to where I guesstimated having lost the spring, with four eyes glued to the ground trying to find the two missing parts. A bike without a side stand is very hard to mount and dismount. All I could think of was what a princess I’d look like waiting for Dave to come over to my bike and help me on and off. Giving up, we began walking back. Trucks and other vehicles were coming at us now following the return pilot car. A few stopped to ask if we were OK. At one point, Dave looked down and miraculously found the spring. This was half the assembly. The other was a very thin plate and we never found it.
Once back at our bikes, Dave held my handlebars while I settled onto my seat. Once I had the bike balanced, he dug into the tool kit to find some bailing wire and jerry-rigged the side stand so it would stay up and not cut off the engine again. We rode on.
The next pilot car took us through the worst of it. And she did it at the unbalancing speed of about 20 kmph (12 mph). Before we took off, though, she made a point to drive up to Dave and I, the only motorcycles, and put the fear of death into us.
“It’s not good ahead,” she said. “The road is, like, really, really bad…” Then she waited a few beats as though expecting us to turn around and go back the way we came. We stared her down. She shrugged and turned the truck around to face Deadhorse, a mere 9 km (6 mi) in the distance.
In seconds, we got into it; a field as far as the eye could see of loose baby head-sized river rock. WTF was wrong with these people? Who uses rocks for the top of a road? Gravel yes but rocks? Motorcycle tires are much thinner than that of a vehicle, which means they will slice through anything yielding, like mud, snow, sand or in this case rocks. Behind the pilot car, we plowed into the rocks like swimmers diving into shallow water. The only way out was to grab throttle and speed up. Think of waterskiing; the faster the boat goes the more likely the skier will rise to the surface. Boat slows down, skier sinks. I really wish someone would instruct pilot car drivers how to lead motorcycles through this crap. We couldn’t go faster than the pilot though so exerted tons of energy plowing the road with our bikes. By some grace of god, both Dave and I made it into Deadhorse without falling off our bikes, despite our rear tires lashing violently like a fish trying to free itself from a hook.
Deadhorse, Alaska is not a pretty place even on the sunniest of days. You can tell that just by looking around. It’s a flat, charmless work camp stacked with Atco trailers at the end of the cold, northern earth and has hardly anything in the way of formalities for visitors. We pulled into a muddy parking lot and Dave came over to help me off my bike, then reefed it up on the centre stand. We asked a guy getting out of a truck where we could eat and he pointed at the door he was walking toward. Inside, we found the cafeteria and gorged ourselves on seafood chowder and chocolate pie. Dave went to the ‘lobby’ to ask how we paid for the food and also inquired about staying in the ‘hotel’, which was all inside this giant trailer. The price, brace yourself, was $155 CAN ($117 USD) per person, however that did include all your meals in the buffet-style cafeteria as well. Provided you would eat three meals a day, the price began to look less ridiculous. But still.
The only real proof we were ever there at all.
Although we’d just reached another one of our goals on our round-the-world trip, Dave and I ate mostly in silence, still a bit in shock about how tough the road was and that we’d have to do it twice. Dave asked if I would like to get a room for the night to rest after the cold, wet ride and spend a little time letting the realization sink in as to where we were. Our destination was unattractive. My answer was something like hell no. I wanted to get right back on that bitch of a road and get the hell out of there. For me, knowing there is impending doom lurking in the near future, I just want to get through it and put it behind me. I’d never felt so out of control of my bike while staying ‘in control.’ It was like climbing to the top of a sketchy mountain; you may have reached the summit but you’re not home free until you’ve done the decent. Spending the night chewing off my fingernails worrying about the ride out and that effing rocky road trying to keep 500 lbs of steal and plastic from taking me down with it… well let’s just say I wouldn’t get much sleep. It felt weird to get this far just to eat chocolate pie then turn tail but there’s not always a big prize when reaching your goal or destination.
On the way back, I had more nerves than riding in. Knowing what was coming added to the weariness of riding in the cold rain and I was shaky on my bike. To top it off, I’d lost my rear brakes. We both had. This was the result of the mud grinding like sandpaper through things like brake pads and god knew what else. Dave rode behind me recording. Below is a 3 min clip of what this was all like.
Clear of the worst and looking forward to getting back to our friends’ place in Fairbanks with hot showers and a warm, dry bed, Dave and I had a surge of energy and nailed down another 230 km (143 mi) at the end of our day getting all the way south to Galbraith campground, a beautiful spot that was overcast but dry and filled with golden fall colours. Here we took photos of our bikes covered in the calcium chloride plaster, thinking it hilarious and hard core. Later we toasted our success with whiskey at riding to the most northern settlement in North America, keeping the bikes upright and getting so many miles down the road to make for an easy ride back to Faribanks the next day. We slept soundly that night.
The next morning we woke and got ready to hit the road. It was Aug. 20. The night had been chilly but not freezing, and unfortunately it was raining again. We loaded our bikes. This normally takes about 20 minutes by the time we lash down the last piece of luggage, stick earplugs in our ears and finish buckling our helmets. It took that much longer this day because Dave had to hold my bike while I got on. He was going to fix the side stand in Fairbanks.
Seated in the saddle, Dave gave the thumbs up and I nodded—our cue to start the engines and get moving. Only my bike wouldn’t start. I tried again, making sure the side stand hadn’t dropped out of its bailing-wired harness. Nope. So WTF?
Dave’s shoulders visibly sank under his riding jacket. He got off his bike and opened his pannier to fish out the Micro-start charger we carry to charge things like phones but will also jump start a V12 diesel engine. We’d used it before to jump the Frakenbike and it worked just fine.
Not this time.
After several tries and rising panic, we accepted help from a guy who drove by in a truck and camper. His name was Taz Tally. He lived in Homer, Ak and was travelling around the state writing a book on off-roading in Alaska.
The dead Frankenbike.
The diesel truck was able to jump the Fraknebike after three tries. Some part of us was relieved but of course, we couldn’t help but wonder what the helllll was wrong with my bike now.
We thanked Taz and exchanged contact info because we hoped to get to Homer. On the road, I got the bike up to speed and we cooked along. For about a mile. The bike began to smell like it was on fire. I stopped beside a slimy pond where Dave sacrificed his water bottle to scoop out some sludge and throw it at my radiator. We were more concerned about getting ‘cool’ photos of our clay-covered bikes than using common sense to realize what that pottery was doing to our machines. In my case, it had clogged every fin in the rad and caused the bike to overheat. I got out my toothbrush and while Dave chucked water into the ridiculously small space that was my rad, I brushed away at the chloride trying to help the 650 vent itself.
We got about 50 km (30 mi) down the road when the warning light lit up on my dash as though to say, no seriously this time I’m freakin’ boiling! And it was. I looked down to see the rad had blown its top and covered my left leg and boot in scalding hot coolant. Lucky for protective riding gear. It smelled like a mix of burning hair and curry. I pulled over, anticipating Dave’s reaction, and planted both feet on the ground, waiting for him to help me off the Frakenbike.
Let’s do a wee tally. Within a week’s time, my bike had been on a trailer, and although the botched fuel wasn’t its fault, it still had some hang time in the shop. Now I had completely trashed the bike on the Dalton; no rear brakes, an overheating rad with a leak, a screwed up stater or charging unit, which is worse than needing just a new battery, and a malfunctioning side stand. I’d also blown one of the forks. Again. This bike was not made to travel anywhere but from home to work to Starbucks. It didn’t have the mettle. In Dave’s words it was like dragging around an ungrateful teenager whose parents were trying to give it worldly experiences, only all it wanted was to be at the mall.
To me it was like the worst boyfriend ever; it would act like an asshole and when you’d call it out and threaten to break up, suddenly its attitude would change and be all nice and accommodating. I was in an abusive relationship with my bike. So many times in the last year it had left me stranded, caused stress in my relationship and even broken one of my bones. It was like Stephen King’s Christine in motorcycle form. Dave was convinced the Frankebike was trying to kill me. He hated it with a new vengeance as it had recently even swayed him into its loyal-less spell.
Despite the abuse, I still took the bike’s side. I reasoned all I had to do was get it back in the shop and throw some money at it then all would be good. Dave gave me a look mixed with both pity and frustration and said, ”What about the next time it decides to act up and leave us stranded. And we’re in Africa…”
I had a shitty decision to make but for now we had to get the bike back to Fairbanks. It was an extremely long ride back. For over 400 km (250 mi), we had to stop every 50 km (30 mi) to top the rad up with water.
We spent some time that afternoon waiting on the side of the road flagging down pick-ups to see if they could take me and a G650GS to Fairbanks but we had little luck. Anyone heading south on the Dalton either had heavy equipment in the back from working up north or a dead caribou. One of our many problems was finding clean water en route to put in the rad. The Dalton didn’t have much in the way of running water but people who’d stop to ask if they could help often had water that could at least get us a few miles down the road. By this point, we’d left the fairing off that side of the bike to allow for easy access to the overflow cap. I’d strapped the piece of plastic to the back of my bike. We were quite the scene, my bike and I; covered head to toe in mud and a half put-together bike.
I did a 70 km (45 mi) stretch into Yukon Crossing alone as I’d gotten going after Dave did the last top up and was farkling with things on his bike. He had all the time in the world to catch me. Here we needed to get fuel for the bikes and find a place to camp. It was getting dark and we sure weren’t going to make it into Fairbanks at this pace, another 217 km (135 mi) away. I pulled up to the one pump attached to a giant drum of fuel then realized my conundrum; how to get off my bike without a side stand or a boyfriend. I repositioned the bike easing up ever so carefully to a concrete barrier where I gently leaned it to the right and hopped off the left. I heaved a big sigh then looked around and noticed a Jeep Cherokee full of four young guys watching me silent. One of them got out and asked where I’d come from and where I was going. I was caked in mud and had just taken off my helmet, hair awry. I must have looked like a crazy old lady to these guys but one came over to shake my hand and said I was “one badass woman.” That kind of made my day.
The fairing strapped onto the back of my bike.
Dave pulled in about ten minutes later worried he’d missed me somewhere along the way. He’d expected to see me pulled over awaiting another top up but the bike had coasted farther than usual. We asked inside where we could camp and although signs said no camping everywhere we looked, the young girl inside said we could camp over by the visitor centre, a small shack just off the highway. All night we heard the sound of haul trucks coming and going, their tires sloshing through the seagull-shit soup. It hadn’t stopped raining all day. We just wanted to get back to Fairbanks to our friends and a dry place to sleep. One more night and we would be there.
On Aug. 21, we got up early and packed away the soaking wet tent, put on our damp gear and after jump starting the Frakenbike, headed across the road for what turned into a two hour breakfast in the camp restaurant at Yukon Crossing. We were talking with a bunch of fine folks who took pity on us and our dripping wet gear that left huge mud puddles under our seats, (sorry Yukon Crossing staff). They lifted our spirits and around 9:30 a.m., we got our nerve up to ride the rest of the way into Fairbanks, knowing we’d be stopping four to six times along the way to top up the rad and flick clumps of clay out of the fins with a toothbrush and sticks.
I watched my dash for the light more than I watched the slick-as-snot road. It would always come on halfway up one of those famous steep hills of the Dalton, with a semi on my ass and no shoulder to pull over onto. No rear brakes added a sweet element as well. My back tire slid out a few times in corners but I was riding the bike rough and aggressively to get back to Fairbanks. It didn’t have my heart anymore although I felt very sad my G650GS didn’t seem to want to be the bike I’d take around the world. We’d already done so many miles together, through Mexico, Central and South America and all through the U.S. up into the Northwest Territories and now Deadhorse. But now I saw the irony; my bike, that I once nicknamed the black stallion, had now became the dead horse on this trip and sometimes the steed needs to be put out to pasture.
You’ll have to wait until the next post to see what happens next but it’s coming soon!
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