Beyond the Circle
Adventure Touring to Prudhoe Bay with Alaska Rider
By Brian Rathjen
If the thought of riding along on a deeply graveled road gives you the chills, then you might like to move onto another story. But, if you think being a rider is all about the adventure then follow me, McDuff…
Alaska Fun Facts: Alaska is larger than the four next largest states combined.
Skimming the water at an increasing rate of speed, Dustin, our far too young pilot pulled back on the yoke and the small single prop floatplane rose off Lake Hood and banked sharply to the left in an easterly direction towards the Chugach mountains. Tilting the plane close to the rocky spires, Dall Sheep looked up from their lazy grazing and then went back to feeding. It was as beautiful as I remembered, these peaks that surround the city of Anchorage, Alaska. I was back in our largest and most northerly state to keep a promise and fulfill a personal goal.
A few years back both Shira and I had the pleasure of meeting and riding with Phil Freeman, owner and improviser of Alaska Riders Motorcycle Tour Company. That time we did a tour of central Alaska on Harleys and were totally blown away with the sheer beauty, majesty, and might of this rugged land. Before we left Phil made me promise that I would return one day to ride with them to Prudhoe Bay, far beyond the Artic Circle and the furthest north we can go on a motorcycle in North America.I liked the idea and told him I would. Well, looking out the small floatplane I realized I was back. But, not alone.
Shira would not be joining me on this sojourn. 400+ miles of the hard graveled Dalton Highway was not her idea of a fun motorcycle trip. She would much prefer to head to the Honda Hoot in Tennessee on her own little adventure. No biggy, she’d go to the Hoot and I to Alaska.
But, then fate stepped in when one of the other riders on this expedition to the Artic Ocean bailed out and an open slot appeared just days before we were to meet in Anchorage. I dropped my friend Mike Wernick, from Rising Wolf Garage, an email and an hour later I got a phone call at Backroad’s famed Tiki Bar, Monkey With A Gun. Mike was in and, in a day, flights were booked and plans were set.
Looking up to the co-pilot’s seat a headsetted Mike smiled and laughed as our very young (did I mention this was a young pilot) banked hard to get close to the mountainside sheep. A short time later we skimmed back down onto Lake Hood. I did believe this Alaska adventure had begun.
We had checked in earlier that day to Alaska Riders Headquarters and picked up our rides for the trek, two Kawasaki KLR650s. With possession of the bikes we set off to explore Anchorage.
Anchorage is a small, yet bustling city and we spent a little time seeing what there was to see and then a bit of time watching hundreds of fishermen reeling in salmon after salmon, right in downtown Anchorage. This wasn’t New York City.
That evening we had dinner with the rest of our substantial group with riders from England and the U.S. Phil had put together quite the little group for our foray north.
Dalton Highway at Ice Cut
Alaska Fun Facts: Alaska contains 17 or the 20 highest peaks in the U.S.
We had grabbed our KLRs the previous day, but the rest of our group had plenty of paperwork and things to do before we actually got going.
Still, around 10 o’clock we started out, first through the city of Anchorage and then, bearing towards Fairbanks, we headed north on Highway 3.In Alaska the towns and cities are quickly left behind and in no time you’re riding through a vast wilderness.
With wilderness come critters, but in the land of the midnight sun these critters can be somewhat large. Not too far north of Anchorage traffic started to swerve ahead of us, brake lights coming on and cars and trucks jockeying for a safe lane position. I first thought we had an accident ahead of us and then I saw it, a huge moose lumbering across the highway.
The ride moved quickly northward and rounding one sweeping turn we got our first look at Mount McKinley—Denali “The Great One.” At this point Denali dominated the road ahead of us and it was still 160 miles away! Near Talkeetna we grabbed some lunch and, while some followed Phil into the backcountry dirt roads, I headed to the tiny town of Talkeetna.
I had been here once before and have really grown to enjoy this funky little town. This is where the idea for Northern Exposure started. If you ride through this region stop by and you will understand why. The ride in is dominated by Denali, which only seems to grow greater after each turn and every mile.Riding into town I parked, grabbed a seat and watched the laid back world of Talkeetna go by.
While there part of our group rode in and after walking around Talkeetna a few times Mike and I headed back out to the main highway and continued north to Trapper Creek where we headed towards our rooms for the night, halfway to Peters Creek at the Gate Creek Cabins.
Along the way we spotted another moose and were able to watch this huge and beautiful beast for about ten minutes before she decided to get a closer look at us and we scrammed on the bikes. Moose are gentle looking creature but kill many people each year. We didn’t want in on those statistics. The cabins were fairly new and comfortable and that night Alaska Riders did a seriously good job at steaks for us all.
Across the lake and now just 30 or so miles distant, mighty Denali and the mountains around her rose to the heavens, a magnificent place.
Our cabin became party central and on our first night out the group began to gel. Phil and his tour guides, Dan and Rob, made excellent hosts and a tour can be a winner or loser simply by who’s running it. Phil has no worries as his easy style and heartfelt charm is apparent and makes Alaska all that more inviting.
This was the day of the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year and hitting bed around midnight was like trying to go to sleep at noon. I awoke at four. Not able to sleep anymore I grabbed the book I was reading. I did not have to turn on the light to read.
Stream crossing Circle, Alaska
Alaska fun facts: Alaska is the only state to have coastlines on three different seas—the Arctic, Pacific and Bering.
That morning we found that Denali and her sisters were gone. Rain had moved in and we readied ourselves to a damp and chilly start. Knowing this was a distinct possibility I had brought an SAE pigtail and had equipped the KLR for my Gerbing electrics. They would be needed this day as we continued north.
Heading north the stone giants that rule this land wore dark clouds like a shroud. We dealt with an on and off, but continually chilly rain as we headed toward Denali National Park. Somewhere around mile 60 I realized that my waterproof gloves were anything but and my hands were quickly becoming numb. Stopping for coffee, more than fuel, many of us scrambled for warmer gear.
That accomplished, you know that the rain started to abate a touch and near the park entrance it seemed that Alaska’s weather was literally doing battle with itself! Stopping to handle nature’s call I had a hot burst of sunshine while being drenched in a cold down pour.
Stopping along one river the clouds floated low and long, like the clouds of New Zealand and continuing on I was more than happy to see shadows alongside my KLR.
I rode up into Denali National Park and to the Savage River valley. This is one of my favorite places on the planet. It hasn’t changes in thousands of years and is truly how the planet was when man first crossed over from Asia and the ancient land bridge.
The Alaska state motto is “North to the Future.” Truth is it should be north to the past, the ancient past. It can be an unforgiving yet stunning land. Reluctantly heading back out of the park I spotted the group finishing lunch and, as they headed to the park, I had some lunch at the famous Alaska Salmon Bake.
Leaving the Denali area I was hit by another squall, but rounding the peaks, I could see nothing but blue skies in front of me. Talk about having your spirits lifted. Continuing northward of the Parks Highway I spied left over devastation from recent forest fires and a few still burning, off in the distance.
Riding into the little town of Nenana I stopped to put in a wager on the Nenana Ice Flow Classic. Each year the folks in this town build a giant tripod on the Nenana River and, when the ice starts to warm and flow in the spring, it moves down the river with the ice. At a certain point a lanyard line pulls loose from a clock. If you pick the correct time, or closer to it than anyone else you win.
Hey, you gotta be in it to win it. By that time many of the group had found Nenana and Mike and I had a great sun filled ride into Fairbanks.
Dalton Highway on the North Slope
Alaska Fun Facts: Kodiak Island is the 2nd largest island in the U.S.
The plan from Fairbanks was to head east to a little town called Central. Each year, on the Saturday nearest the Summer Solstice, this town has one serious party. We wanted in.
We left Anchorage and got onto the Steese Highway. Along the way we got a chance to see the Alaska Pipeline and, since no one told me I couldn’t, I rode the KLR right under it for that digital moment.We would see much more of this great human endeavor.
We stopped at a funky roadhouse in Chatanika for lunch. On the way up, we all got passed by a woman in a small red Saturn. She was seriously moving. She ended up being our waitress and was an intense character herself.
Becky asked all sorts of questions with this wild way of talking, “Soooo, yoou’re goooing all the waaaay to Pruuuuuhdoe Bay!?” Too funny!
Heading up the Steese it was beautifully paved for a good number of miles, before giving way to a good graded gravel road. Wild rivers, roaring streams, high peaks and swooping valleys added to the canvas of Alaska.
Most everybody did a little trail riding whether with a group or individually. I chose the latter and found a few great stream roads and then spent some time on Eagle Summit. The way this mountain and surrounding valleys are configures it is on eof the few places that will actually see the sun for 24 hours at this time of the year. Most places south of the Arctic Circle, although they never get dark, do see the sun dip below the horizon, but not here.
Each year there are thousands of Caribou that migrate across the mountain and valley. It must be magnificent to see. But, not today, today it was just me here.I kept on going and soon enough rode into Central, Alaska and the Steese Roadhouse, where we would be staying for the next couple of days before heading back to Anchorage and then north towards land’s end.The Steese Roadhouse’s bar quickly filled that evening with locals who politely asked questions while I wrote these very words.
“You really writin’ fo a magazine? An outside magazine?”Outside, to these folks, means anywhere outside Alaska.The Alaskans are a very friendly people. That night they had a Pig Roast and Margarita Party.
Alaska Fun Facts: There are more than 3 million lakes in Alaska.
We had a scheduled free day for that Saturday and many of us took off early that morning for the tiny town of Circle, Alaska, about 30 miles further down the Steese Highway.
Sometime the day before I had the thought that Alaska Riders had a plan to get us ready for the Dalton. A day on the Steese, getting comfortable for those not too dirt savvy and allowing for some technical trail rides for those who were.
This day, with the heavy rains through the oh-so-bright night, the 30 miles to Circle was full of slick muck and gravel and a number of muddy stretches. It was a blast.We rode to the Yukon, and with not a thing open we turned around and rode back. It was well worth it as some in our group saw bobcat and bear.
We regrouped after breakfast and took off for a trail ride, which brought us high into the peaks surrounding the Steese Highway. Up here you could see for miles and the Brits in our group took off across the tundra to a stony cliff in the distance.It looked awesome!
On their trip back Danny (short for Danielle) got bogged down, her bike buried to the axle. It took a bit of manpower but we dragged her out. These folks, along with the couple from New Hampshire, were very talented trail riders.
Further on down the trail we came upon a number of deep streams, where we spend some time trying to get as wet as we could without falling down.Returning back to Central we got ready for their big Solstice Party held at the local museum.
Alaska Fun Facts: There are more private airplane pilots per capita in Alaska than in any other state.
Okay, enough fooling around in central Alaska, it was time to head north. It was time to ride to the end of the continent. First we had to backtrack on the Steese towards Fairbanks.
Along the way we added yet another animal to our Alaskan menu as we spied a lone wolf padding along a small river. We stopped and he stopped, each of us curious about the other.
At one point I followed Mike’s lead up a tall hill. From the top we had a magnificent view of the region. Dual-sport bikes make this sort of thing so easy.Outside Fox, Alaska we started north on the Elliot Highway and then onto the Dalton, also known as the Haul Road.
After oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1969 and the first oil crisis hit, this road was carved out of the Alaskan wilderness in just 154 days to facilitate the building of the Alaskan Oil Pipe Line, which runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.
The road is a combination of a bunch of surfaces from paved to graded dirt, gravel to rock. It is not a route to be taken lightly and preparation is a must.
The further north we went, the better the terrain and scenery became. Mountains and valleys flowed into each other and, all along the way, the Pipeline serpintined its way along the ridges. Along this part of the highway we rode through the Boreal Forest. This forest actually encircles the entire globe with a deep line of Spruce trees and is the largest eco-system in the world. This road is one of the few places on Earth where you can ride through this beauty.
Our first night on the Haul Road brought us to the Yukon River Camp, on the north side of the only bridge that crosses the mighty Yukon River. The Pipeline runs directly under the bridge and it is heavily watched and protected. The Yukon River Camp is basically a way station for truckers and the occasional traveler. It also had a large share of motorcyclists around that night as we ran into a number of other riders making the trek to Deadhorse.It seems Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay have become a Mecca for adventure riders from around the globe.
Oil Rig, Prudhoe Bay
Alaska Fun Facts: Alaska is as big as England, France, Italy, and Spain combined.
Today we would ride across the Arctic Circle, something I have been looking forward to for years. We grabbed breakfast and some bagged lunches at the River Camp and then headed north, alongside us the pipeline was a constant companion.
Following a sign off to the right, we rode up a dusty side road to the sign post designated for the Arctic Circle.It was a personal milestone for me, as this is just one of a couple of spots on the planet where you can actually ride a motorcycle to and across this line of demarcation.Excellent! We still had much further to go.
Rising up one peak we stopped at Finger Rock. Here, thousands of years ago, molten magma rose up to create the rocky outcroppings that you will find there today. One monolith stands some 40 feet, like a giant finger. Indeed pilots used this rock at one time because it points directly towards Fairbanks.
While we were there a helicopter came in low and fast and did a little waggle to say hello as he shot northwards into the distance.
This far north everybody waves at everybody else. Here I not only waved at other fides, but anybody else whom I happen to see on the road. They all wave back. People have to depend on each other up in northern Alaska and if the rest of the country took on a bit of this “Alaskan People Ethic” the United States would be a far better place.
Further on we took lunch atop a peak called Gobblers Knob. This height offered two great things—a wonderful view of the valley below and the Brooks Range in the distance and a brief respite from the mosquitoes that can drive you insane up here.
All along the Dalton this day you could see Fire Weed growing in its unique way. This purple flower blooms from the bottom to the top and, the closer it gets to the top, one knows the short Alaskan summer will be coming to an end and the darkness and winter will take hold once again. But today the sun would never really set.
The road conditions were not all that awful this day and we even had a few stretches of actual asphalt, although these were interspersed with patches of deep gravel, just to keep it interesting. Entering Coldfoot we spent some time at an excellent museum and then checked in the Slate Creek Inn, the only place to stay for miles. Although Michael is a good buddy, the option was there and I grabbed my own room. Mike said I snore, I claim he does as well. I wanted my own cage for at least a night.
As it was still a bit early, not that it matters when the sun never sets, but Phil told us about a tiny town called Wiseman, population of about 6 that, as he said, time forgot.Shooting up there we had to deal with a bit of roadwork as they were grading the road. When they do this they first soak it with water, which liquefies the dirt.Have you heard the phrase “Slick as shit?”You get the idea. Wiseman was interesting, and it amazes me that folks can live this far north all the time.
We tried to make it an early one that night, as the next day we would make a big 250 mile push ever north and on to Deadhorse, the top of North America. There was a continual stream of dirty BMW GSs, bringing more and more riders into the gather group at the saloon in Coldfoot. Even though these folks were not with our group there was an all for one, one for all attitude when you meet fellow riders in such an extreme location.
Alaska Fun Facts: More than half the world’s active glaciers are in Alaska.
We did get off early the next day and the ride north was continually slowed by worsening road conditions—mostly caused by the constant upkeep of the Dalton. Getting stuck behind a water truck spewing thousands of gallons of water onto the dirt road is no fun and the grader trucks make for interesting riding as well .As we continued on, the Dalton spun up further into the Brooks Range. Here the landscape is dominated by craggy dark cliffs and glacial-carved valleys.
The trees dwindled and eventually I cam upon a sign saying that this last spruce was it—the most northerly tree in America. Unfortunately, some idiot killed it a few years back, but it still stands. We rode up and over the Atigun Pass, the northern most mountain pass with a road in the world. This, at 4,739 feet, is also part of the continental Divide. South of here water flows to the Pacific—north into the Arctic Ocean.
Atop the pass I simply turned off the Kawasaki and let the quiet and stunning awe of it all permeate into my being.I have ridden many places but this part of the Brooks Range stole from me any description I may have to offer you. Goose bumps rose on my skin and I felt so, so small and insignificant. My god. Where am I? I was so moved by where I was and what I was seeing.
Over the pass I followed Michael’s lead onto a small dirt trail and, with Dall Sheep looking on, we did a little dirt riding here on top o the world. We even found a few water crossings along the way, as glacial waters stream down the mountains, eventually north to the Arctic Ocean.
We still had much further to go, so I sadly rode out of this rocky paradise and miles later the surroundings began to slowly change from the Brooks Mountains to the rolling hills of the North Slope. Here the sun never sets in the late spring and early summer. The ground is covered with low, ground hugging plants, the only thing that can survive this far north.
Once again I reminded myself just where I really was. Still, the KLR and I pushed on, sometimes riding with my partner Michael, other times by myself.
Coming over one rise I almost fell off the bike as I shot by a beautiful young lady—running! No, there was no bear behind her, but it seems she was on tour with her family in an RV a few miles further on and simply wanted to run in this surreal beauty. What a great place to do such a thing.
Riding off the Steese Highway, Alaska
The North Slope slowly morphs into the Great Coastal Plain. With only 5 inches of rain in this region yearly this is actually the wettest desert in the world. Held fast by the permafrost the ground has become a vast wetlands over thousands of years and is home to many species of animals including migratory bids, Musk Ox, and Caribou.
This land is flat and wide and it reminded me of the Great Plains of the lower 48, but for the biting cold that now forced me to turn on my Gerbings.
Again and again the road went from good to awful, and more than once I felt the KLR slide back and forth under me. At one point we rode for 20 or so miles on big chunks of wet rock and stone. By this time we were grimy with gray glacial silt. I wondered if I would ever be let back into my home coated from helmet to boot with a film of this crap.
Right about then I felt the KLR falter and I went to my reserve fuel. I was still about 40 miles out and it would be very, very close as we rode into Deadhorse. In the distance, I could see Prudhoe Bay, and I dialed it back a bit, hoping to get into this created town on fumes.
Now this entire area is only here for the oil, and we are only here courtesy of the oil companies. Although some cry about this situation, the truth is that both BP and ConocoPhillips do an excellent job in not only producing oil, but in protecting the environment here as well. The footprint they use is ever dwindling and new drilling is done during the winter, when any damage to the Coastal Plain is non-existent.
Herds of Caribou abound and happily live in and around Prudhoe Bay, as do many other arctic creatures. In fact, if not fo the oil, the Pipeline and the Haul road nobody would ever be up here, much less ride here. The need for oil has given us a great opportunity to see and experience the beauty and awesomeness that is the Arctic Region of Alaska. And, believe it or not, seeing all this just reinforces the need to protect this part of the planet.
And, that is what is going on here. Animal, the land and humans live and work in harmony. I don’t care what radical environmentalists say. I was there and they were not.
As for humans up here there are a number of buildings and units made to house the workers who work 12-hour shifts for two weeks at a time. It is almost military in style and function. Alcohol is forbidden in most places and there are no bars. There is really no town of Deadhorse, just what oil has brought in.
We stayed at a place called the Caribou Lodge, where the rooms were clean and warm and the food excellent indeed. That evening we all took a midnight stroll around the facility. It truly is an amazing place.
The next morning we were scheduled to fly out, but before we left a few of us did a tour of Prudhoe Bay and even got a chance to touch the Arctic Ocean. A few brave souls actually dove in! The most Northern Polar Bear Club. I filled a small water bottle up with the silty ocean water and stashed it into my Aerostitch jacket. It now sits on a shelf at Backroads Central, next to a bottle holding sand from the Sahara.
Flying out of Deadhorse I got a birds-eye view of the entire facility. Yes, were are there, but only in a small way, the region is immense. Heading south I could see the Dalton and Pipeline, mimicking each other as they lay their path to the north and south. In just a day or so I would be home, but part of this land will always be with me.
I have seen the stunning beauty of the far north. It is a hard, but magnificent place and it is waiting for you as well. Alaska Riders does a few tours up this way each year, as well as Harley Road Tours (all pavement) and some All-Women Tours as well. If a journey of this magnitude appeals to you then give Phil a call, he would love to show you his Alaska.
When booking tours look closely at the details, as some tours include meals, while others do not. You can find more information on the various tours and pricing at www.akrider.com