|2008-05-28, 06:38 AM||#1|
Join Date: Feb 2008
Alaska 2008: The Dalton Highway Write-Up (Long)
Alaska 2008: Unicycling the Haul Road
A Tale of Endurance, Luck, Alaskan Hospitality, One Wheel and a Humorous Pair of Balls
This trip has truly been the most epic adventure of my life thus far. Even with rigorous training, months of research and nights full of unsettled nerves before the trip, nothing could have prepared me for the gravity of this adventure.
About Me: My name is Mike Welch. At the time of this trip I was 25 years old. I was born in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, and moved to Pueblo, Colorado at the age of six. Growing up in Colorado was fantastic. My father had his mid-life-crisis in this phase of my life and instead of buying a Harley, he bought a mountain bike. I was only ten when this happened and quickly got caught up in his craze and I have some scars to prove it. Colorado was the perfect place to really get serious about outdoor life. My father took me on some great 11,000 foot plus climbs before I even turned ten.
Unfortunately when I was twelve the family packed up and moved to Northern Indiana. Flat ground for as long as the eye could see. I faked my way through high school, only being propelled through it by my obsession with music. Naturally, I went to college as far away as possible in Iowa. I stayed in Iowa only for a year. Then met a girl in Ohio, followed her there to Ohio Northern University. In my over romantic nature I broke up with her as soon as I got there. By nature of private school tuition I wound up broke in less than a year, and then ended up at Wright State University. I very quickly got sick of that scene, and planned to move back to Iowa, but then met another girl in Ohio. I got a quick admission to the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music, went broke again, and transferred to the University of Akron. Then I became really broke, and dropped out of school.
After my academic disaster of an undergraduate college tour I started working for Ohio Citizen Action, a non-profit environmental group, as a canvasser. I spent the next 9 months knocking on doors around Ohio, upstate New York, and Northern Florida. I learned how to talk to many different types of people, but I got sick of it pretty quick. Then following a girl again, I moved to Cincinnati in the fall of 2004, and worked a lot of strange jobs. First I was a telemarketer, an easy road to alcoholism and depression. From there I went even further down the labor food chain by working at an auto parts factory. After taking my Christmas bonus and free turkey in November, I quit. I ended up working as a music educator and child portrait photographer through the summer of 2005. Then I got lucky.
A Broadway show I have always been a fan of gave me a call and asked me to send in an audition video. Instead I drove to where the show is based in Bloomington, Indiana the next day and won the gig. Part of this gig was learning to unicycle and play trombone at the same time. The one wheel addiction began there.
On the tour after unicycling for about three months, I took the company owned unicycle out of the theater in Madison, Wisconsin and explored the college town streets. I loved riding on the street, and even began barhopping on the wheel. After a few nights of using the unicycle to pickup chicks I even got a DUI warning.
After a few more months of touring and using the wheel to barhop and pick up chicks (my friends dubbed the unicycle the pussy wheel) show management got wind of what I was doing with their unicycle. They wouldn’t let me take it home at night anymore. So I quickly bought a Torker DX from unicycle.com and hit the streets again. In February the tour ended up in Thousand Oaks, California, just at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. I went for a hike one day, and thought the terrain looked rideable, and the next day, my obsession with rough terrain unicycling began. I spent the next month in the Los Angeles area spending most of my free time exploring the Santa Monica Mountain’s many trails.
After that tour I taught music for the summer and got married in late August of 2005. Marriage put a serious damper on my adventure related activities. To escape I took employment on a cruise ship that ran up and down the West Coast of Mexico and through the Panama Canal. There were plenty of great off road unicycling opportunities in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and throughout the Caribbean. A month after my contract on the ship was up, I ended up on a Japanese tour with Blast! In Japan, unicycling was the only way for me to get anywhere. I commuted to work everyday, continued to barhop and started to gain interest in street style freestyle riding.
In September of 2007 I became the first person to unicycle the decent of Mt. Fuji. It felt great doing something more on the extreme side of riding. Heading home from Japan it became pretty clear that my marriage had fallen apart due to my constant nomadic existence. Shortly into rehearsals for the next North American tour, we separated and divorced. I was liberated and adventure planning began.
The Haul Road adventure originally started as a three week backpacking trip in Thailand. A month later it was very clear I didn’t have the funds to pull this off. From there the trip evolved into a motorcycle trek from Chicago to Invuik in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The flaw with this adventure was that I didn’t have a motorcycle. Change of plans. I thought I would unicycle from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Invuik. I only had a month between tours. Damn. Not enough time. A member in the cast had told me many times of his dream of driving the Dalton Highway in Alaska. I checked it out. It was a 1000 mile round trip from Fairbanks, Alaska to Deadhorse, the industrial camp that supports the oil fields at the end of the highway at the Arctic Ocean.
After a few weeks of research of weather, road conditions, finding locations to buy supplies along the way, etc… I decided this was the trip for me.
After telling my friends, family and internet unicycle message boards of my plans, the consensus was the same on all fronts: You’re crazy, You could die, It’s too cold: All words of encouragement for me.
I spent the last three months of tour buying up supplies and spending many late nights smoking and researching what else I could expect in Northern Alaska in May. Good news that I found in my research was always fine. But I honestly craved the bad news. Word of harsher conditions really started to get me off. Everyone I talked to at various outdoor stores where I was buying gear told me I was absolutely insane, and I loved it.
Tour ended April 27th in Newport News, Virginia. On April 28th I started heading north. Fly from Newport News to Chicago. Drive from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin. Fly from Madison to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fly from Minneapolis to Anchorage, Alaska. Fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Myself, a unicycle, and a fifty pound backpack.
I made the mistake of strapping my tent to the outside of my pack in Newport News at the airport. It fell off and was lost. Fuck. After a few hours on the phone it was located and would be delivered to me the night I spent in Chicago. It did not come until five in the morning and I was up at 8am the next day. I knew I could catch up on sleep during the flight north. The longest leg of the flight I spent sitting next to twin one year olds. No Sleep. I showed up in Fairbanks at 2am tired as hell and seriously irate from the yelling of the twins. I did a gear check, packed everything how I wanted it and at 3am, went to sleep in the airport. Security was kind enough to wait two hours before making me leave. Four hours of sleep in two days. A rough start already.
Day One: Only five minutes out of Fairbanks International Airport on Old Airport Road, a heavy wet snow started to fall. Five minutes later I had to stop and put my pack cover on. Ten minutes later, rain suit on. The rain suit I bought said it was breathable; however it was more of a sweat suit than a rain suit. I decided to wait the weather out at the Northern-most Denny’s in the world, only three miles from the airport.
After a fantastic “last meal” I headed out in the wet but slightly lighter snowfall. I made a stop at a sporting goods store on my way out of town to buy bear spray and fuel canisters, which I could not fly with. Everybody at the store told me not to go. It was dangerous and reckless. More encouragement for me.
There‘s a bike path that follows the first mile of the Steese Highway heading north from Fairbanks. After that first mile the bike path follows another road called Farmers Loop Road. In the snow I could not see the intersection, and followed Farmers Loop Road. Of course I did not know this until I saw a sign for the Fairbanks International Airport eight hours later. Fuck. My first emotion was disbelief, than acceptance and then fury. I was on fire! Quick. To the gas station. Forty ounces of beer. Gone. Pizza place. Fed. Feeling better. I decided to spend the night in Fairbanks and found a cute little backpacker’s hostel: Billie’s.
After settling down for the evening I became restless like I do, and headed down the way to a nice little bar with an open mic night I’d noticed on my way towards the hostel. Showing up to a bar on a unicycle will usually guarantee a free beer. In Alaska, you can drink for free off this fact. I’ve never gone to a bar by myself and had as much of a great time as I did that night. So after 4 hours of great conversation and about a dozen drinks, a lovely woman offered to give me a ride back to the hostel. Instead she took me home, and if she did have any intentions, she was disappointed. Thirsty seconds into the door, I was asleep.
Day Two: A fresh early start, and an enormous McDonald’s breakfast. A mile out of town I figured out where I made my error the day before and realized how stupid of a mistake it was. Snow and sleep deprivation cost me an entire day. About eight miles north of town I caught my first glimpse of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline at the visitor’s center and took a few photos.
Eleven miles North of Fairbanks at the junction of the Steese and Elliot Highways lays the little town of Fox, Alaska. I stopped in at the Silver Gulch Brewing Company for a bowl of hot soup. I of course sat at the bar and the three patrons who sat with me all insisted upon buying me a beer when they learned about what I was doing. The beer at the Silver Gulch brewing company is some of the best beer I have ever had; particularly their Porter and IPA. Over the soup and beers every other person in the restaurant said that I should not go north: lots of warnings of foul weather and bears. More words of encouragement.
About a hundred yards north of the beginning of the Elliot highway I was regretting those three beers. I was met in the face by a daunting five and a half mile climb. It was brutal with fresh beer sloshing around in my belly. However, from the top of the hill onward was nice easy down hill riding. At milepost ten a car stopped and asked me what the hell I was doing in the middle of nowhere on a unicycle. I told him of the trip and he suggested I make camp a mile ahead at an undeveloped campground at the Chatanika River. With the beer in my belly I took has advice, made camp and was just starting a fire when the man (I think his name was Ray) pulled up to my site with a hot meal, beers and some road flares for me to take on my journey. If there is any thing I can say about Alaskans it is that they are some of the warmest, most hospitable people in the world, and they know how to drink. Again, I went to sleep drunk. Total distance traveled: 22 miles.
|2008-05-28, 06:39 AM||#2|
Join Date: Feb 2008
Day Three: Woke up very early and cooked mashed potatoes for breakfast. I brought only three things for food: Easy Mac, instant mashed potatoes and Clif Bars. The road along this section was flatter than the previous day and made great time. I made it all the way to milepost 50 where there is an ancient looking souvenir shop called the Arctic Trading Post. It looked like it had been abandoned for quite some time. The good news was that there was a bus there that had been converted to an RV for a fairly large family. Soft bunks that were surprisingly clean. I even found a few cans of baked beans that had only expired two years before. I took advantage of the cans, as I was already sick of the limited diet I packed out. The camp provided about an hour of entertainment just going through the abandoned buildings. I took a few pictures of the grounds and called it a night. I woke around two thirty in the morning to relieve myself and was surprised for about fifteen seconds of pink-green glowing from the Northern Lights. That was also the last time I saw true darkness for the rest of the trip. Distance traveled: 39 miles.
Day Four: I woke early again eager to make up for lost time from my fuck up the first day. There were outhouses on the grounds of the Arctic Trading Post so was able to enjoy a dump on a toilet seat and not deplete my supply of toilet paper.
The day itself was filled with moderate climbs. The road was still paved, although it was rough pavement. I reached the head of the Dalton highway late in the afternoon and took the obligatory photos, dropped my sack and took an hour nap in the gravel. I awoke to a native man who had just pulled his truck over and he showed me a Newspaper article published about me in the Fairbanks newspaper. He confessed he thought it was a joke. We talked for a few minutes about the activity of the Northern Lights the night before. He was old, and made quite the effort to convince me that if you whistle at the Aurora Borealis, they will move faster.
I packed up and hit the road again around six in the evening. The first twenty miles of the Haul Road are the worst. I should mention that the Dalton Highway is still called the Haul Road by most in Alaska. Anyhow, the first twenty miles are constant half mile, to mile long stretches of uphill and downhill. Some grades reaching 12 percent. I was ok riding hills to 8 percent, but after that I had to walk anything steeper. After the first twenty miles I planned to make camp, but the road became paved, so I decided to push onward to the Yukon River.
With the road surface being gravel, speeding trucks can pick up rocks and throw them great distances. In the first few miles I took several large rocks to the chest at high speed. Around milepost 18 I took a rock to the head that hurt like all hell. I had to devise a system for every time a truck passed me on gravel. I would have to dismount, get at least ten feet off of the road, and when the truck passed, turn my back and let my pack take the blow of the rocks.
From milepost 20 to the Yukon River the road surface was good. Some sections looked like they had just been paved that season. The grades were still pretty hilly but nothing like the first twenty miles of the Haul Road. I arrived at the Yukon River Bridge at one in the morning and found that the visitor center, truck stop and café were still closed for the season and the river itself was still frozen solid. Distance traveled : 83 miles.
Day Five: Even at one in the morning there was still plenty of light so after some Easy Mac I decided to push through the night. Slightly exhausted and sluggish I moved at a slower pace. Coming out of the Yukon River valley involved a lot of extended climbs, and not much level ground or downhill runs. Sand Hill is about thirteen miles north of the Yukon River and was a brutal mile and a half ten percent grade. Shortly after that was what truckers on the Haul Road call Roller Coaster. Carved into the side of a really steep hill, it was about two miles long at a nine percent grade. But after that were lots of nice gentle downhill runs. Near Finger Mountain I was still high enough in elevation for there to be no tree growth and the snow was deep enough to still hide all ground growth. To my estimate there was four to five feet of snow on the ground.
At milepost 102 is an old settlement known as Old Man, Alaska. It is on no maps I saw. I finally ran into some company here: three kite skiers. Kite skiing is exactly what it sounds like. The rider is on cross country skis and is pulled by a twelve foot kite across the snow and ice. A lot of fun to watch. Their names were Jerry, Amy and Andrew. This trio was kind enough to cook me dinner and let me crash on the floor of this cute abandoned cabin they were sleeping in. And of course give me beer, whisky and something to smoke. Distance Traveled: 42 miles.
Day Six: Another early start. Plenty of flat riding, and at the most, gentle hills. However I did have my first downhill challenge: Beaver Slide. This downhill nightmare stretches straight out for two miles in front of you at a nine percent grade. I had to stop halfway down to give the backs of my legs a break.
I crossed the Arctic Circle still early in the day, but the sign and tourist area was full of snow, so I continued on. Early in the afternoon I had to climb Gobblers Knob: about two and a half miles of eight percent grade. My legs started giving out halfway up and I considered making an early camp, but once to the top, I saw miles and miles of downhill ahead into the Koyukuk river valley. So once again I rode on. The valley was very pleasant, just very gentle hills and lots of flat riding. I arrived in the truck stop in Coldfoot, Alaska. I treated myself to grilled cheese and fries for supper. It was an amazing meal.
I called my parents shortly later and my mother, being the gracious woman she is, insisted that she paid for a hotel room in the camp for me. I couldn’t refuse. After settling down, I modified my gear for the trip north. Throughout my day in Coldfoot I had been hearing horror stories from the weather near Prudhoe Bay. I made an enormous windscreen for my stove for cold, windy cooking conditions, repacked my gear for easier access to layers of clothing, and modified my extra hat to make a ski mask. After a short nap and exploration of the grounds and playing with the sled dogs I went to the bar for a late snack. The owner bought me a beer and I ordered I side of tater-tots, which turned out to be about three pounds worth; other people bought me beer again.
On my way back to the room a woman with a television crew stopped me to ask if I had a pipe. I of course didn’t but said I could make one. So we smoked. In my altered state of mind I decided to rummage through the hotel lost and found. I found a heavy duty pair of gloves, a heavy parka and snow pants. These would later save my ass up north. Distance Traveled: 73 miles.
Day Seven and Eight: Woke up early again and my mom treated me to massive breakfast in Coldfoot. The ride through the rest of the Koyukuk River Valley was not hilly at all. But the scenery was fantastic. Massive peaks and steep cliffs lined both sides of the valley. From here on out the road is entirely gravel with patches of sharp rock. Fifteen miles North of Coldfoot I ventured into a small Gold Rush town called Wiseman, Alaska. The town was dead, nothing open. I was taking photos when a woman poked her head out of her door and asked who I was. I told her my story of the trip and she invited me in for lunch. A big ass tuna salad sandwich, plenty of nuts, fresh strawberries, a good conversation, a tour of the town and about two pounds of chocolate for the road, she was one of the warmest people I’ve ever met. Her name is Louise Hall.
The visit was a short delay in the trip, but worth it. I continued North through the scenic valley and arrived at the foot of the Chandalar Shelf and the last tree I would see at milepost 235. The climb up the shelf was brutal. A ten percent grade for two miles. The shelf itself is hardly a shelf at all. It continues climbing for miles to Atigun Pass. One neat fact about the Alaska Department of Transportation camp on the Chandalar Shelf is that they fire artillery shells into Atigun Pass from there to trigger avalanches and then clear the road.
At the base of Atigun Pass I met a group of four wildlife photographers who driving up to Deadhorse for fun. They gave me some warm coffee and some food and a short conversation and called me crazy. More inspiration. Atigun Pass was a real mother fucker of a climb. I reached the foot of the pass around ten in the evening. There was a light snow falling, it was twenty degrees and a group of caribou was making its way up the pass just off the road. The road simply disappeared into the clouds. The road up Atigun pass is a twelve percent grade. Riding was not an option I had to walk it up to the top. I didn’t get up to the top until two in the morning. The prospect of setting up camp in high altitude cold was too much to bear so I continued on down the pass, a challengingly steep downhill grade nearing fifteen percent at the steepest segment. I kept going and cooked some Mac and Cheese near milepost 281. After a chilly nap in the dirt I continued on at four in the morning.
I decided to not make camp until the following evening, a decision I later regretted. The North Slope was an easy ride, mostly gentle tundra hills with a great view of the Brooks Range behind me and thousands of Caribou to keep me company. I ran into the photographers I met the evening before near the Toolik Arctic Research Station. I saw their truck, caked in ice and mud screech to a halt. They said that what they saw north was the scariest weather they had ever seen. I saw a video they took of one of them leaning almost forty-five degrees forward into the wind. They begged me not to go any further. More encouragement.
I tried to cook some hot food at the foot of Slope Mountain. As soon as I unpacked my pot and stove I realized I was sitting in a large patch of blood soaked gravel, and then noticed off in the snow was the spine of a caribou, a relatively fresh kill. I made a quick walk over to the edge of the hill at the end of the access road I was on. Less than 100 yards away was a grizzly sow with two young cubs. She started walking my way. I threw my shit into my pack and backed out slowly and she stopped her approach. I was slightly shaken, but continued north.
Near Happy Valley, milepost 333, I finally cooked some warm food for supper. Shortly after leaving I got caught in very dense ice fog. In the fog I climbed two very steep but short grades, Ice Cut, and Oil Spill Hill. After crossing over Oil Spill Hill the wind began to blow and I knew there was no way to set up camp in it. Then the snow came in. The sky was blue overhead, but the blowing snow created a really nasty ground blizzard. It was now fifteen degrees. I kept riding through the blow and at one in the morning the temperature plummeted to five above zero, and the wind picked up to about 30-40 miles an hour--A wind chill of almost thirty below zero. I was fucked. There’s no other way to put it. I was maxed out in layers. I had on two t-shirts, two thermal shirts, a fleece layer, a fleece vest, down insulation, a heavy duty shell, thermal underwear, cargo pants, ski pants, 4 pairs of socks, inadequate boots, a ski mask, a hat, sunglasses, 2 pairs of glove liners, heavy expedition gloves and insulated mittens, and I’d still start freezing if I stopped moving. I went through twenty miles of this shit. Then it started to get bad.
I was still forty miles out of Prudhoe Bay and the wind started picking up the snow so bad I couldn’t see from one delineator to the next--a distance of only ten yards. I went to drink some water to only find my water bottle frozen solid despite how bumpy the ride was. This brief stop almost killed me. My ski mask had nearly an inch of ice on it. My nose was cold and firm to the touch, I couldn’t bend my toes, and my right eye started to freeze shut. I pushed another twenty miles north and things were only getting worse. A truck passed me and he wasn’t even on the road. He was on the wrong side of the delineators. Pure whiteout. I would learn the next day that the roads were closed in what they call a phase three blizzard.
The truck I saw may not have been real. I had been hearing voices in my head for several hours and even thought I was hearing trucks. These were definite auditory hallucinations. However I did not have any visual hallucinations at this point in the trip.
Delirium and exhaustion really started to set in and my entire body was turning numb. I figured I had a choice to make: get a ride, or die. I popped out one of the flares given to me and kept moving but was ready to flag down a truck. At this point I was climbing through snow drifts on the road that were taller than me. Then I got lucky. I heard a truck, lit the flare and flagged down a tanker driver. This driver probably saved my life. He dropped me off at the Arctic Oilfield Motel. When I arrived I was exhausted, delirious, dehydrated, hypothermic and frostbitten. I had been awake and moving for 56 hours with little more than a small serving of Mac and Cheese, chocolate and cigarettes in my system.
I charged the snack cooler and in a matter of minutes I had taken down six sandwiches, a dozen or so things of string cheese, two bags of chips and about a gallon of Gatorade. It was still five in the morning. I wandered into the television lounge of the camp, fell on the sofa and slept. Distance traveled: 240 miles.
|2008-05-28, 06:40 AM||#3|
Join Date: Feb 2008
Day Nine: Recovery. I woke up after four hours of sleep. I forgot to take off any of my clothing so I had been sweating profusely for several hours in my sleep. My head was throbbing so bad from dehydration that I vomited all the food I had just taken down. I smelled awful. Even the oil rig workers looked at me strangely. I ended up at the wrong hotel. The hotel I intended to stay at was four miles away. When I was walking out the door some people asked me where I was going. I told them the Prudhoe Bay Hotel and they wouldn’t let me leave. Nobody was allowed outside except for emergencies. They insisted I have a hot meal then somebody would give me a lift across town. I tore through half of a cheese pizza, a bowl of soup, and a few pieces of pie.
I caught a lift and arrived at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel early in the afternoon. I was able to negotiate a cheaper room there by doing the dishes at the end of dinner. So I took a much needed shower, and a nap. I ate dinner early. I took down nearly three pounds of salmon steak, two baked potatoes, and a huge salad. Then a huge bowl of ice cream for desert. I felt awful from this over-indulgence, but did the dishes to earn my keep.
After super I ran into some awesome folks that worked for the airport at Alaska Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration. They had gotten wind of my story and insist that I drink with them. Note: The North Slope Borough is a dry borough. Booze is extremely frowned upon here. But we kept the noise down and got drunk. Good times. Distances traveled: 0 miles.
Day Ten: Leaving town. It was still a phase two blizzard. I tried to test things out by riding to the post office three miles away, without my pack. I made it one mile and had to turn around. This was not my day to leave town. I’d spent the rest of the day eating like an animal and watching movies on HBO. Started to get stir-crazy being pent up. Luckily one the girls I met from the TSA let me crash in her room, so I didn’t have to pay for another over priced room. Distance traveled: 0 miles.
Day Eleven: Making a break for it. I made it almost five miles out before I decided it was still too much to get out of town. I sadly and furiously turned around back towards Prudhoe Bay. I had to hitch twenty miles out of town, just to get out of the blow. It was a cold but easy ride from there. My thermometer held steady most of the day at twenty degrees not too bad. I made a late camp at the Happy Valley Camp. The Camp itself is a house, five or six small hunting lodges, an airstrip, and a few abandoned trailers. I sought shelter in an abandoned trailer. It is sort of a custom in the North the leave cabins and trailers unlocked for travelers. There is almost always a note welcoming you and asking you to cleanup when you leave. It is always a treat to find such shelter. Distance Traveled: 80 miles
Day Twelve: I woke to find that the air had cooled down to ten degrees with a real stiff wind. After dragging my shit through three feet of snow from the trailer to the road, I had just put my pack on when I noticed a curious grizzly strolling my way from one hundred yards out. I backed slowly up the road, and pulled out my bear spray. He still followed. Fifty yards, he slowed up, but still came toward me. I turned on my Spot device (to send out a distress call.) Forty Yards, ready to pull my knife. Thirty yards. I managed to snap a picture with my camera phone. Twenty yards. Picking up the pace. Ten Yards. Stopped and backed off. Twenty yards. The charge. From a distance of five yards or so I unleashed a hellish orange cloud of bear spray that sent the animal off the road into the snow, face down in the snow. The bear groaned and walked in circles, head down while I made it over then next hill and out site. Fuck.
The rest of the day was haunted by thoughts of bear attack, and unbearable cold. I made it back to Slope Mountain around nine in the evening and set up camp across the road from the Alaska DOT station. It was five degrees above zero. My sleeping bag in this kind of cold is very crowded: myself at six foot one, two water bottles, a water filter, fuel canisters, camera, batteries, boots, socks, and gloves. No room to move. My sleeping bag is rated down to zero degrees. Bullshit. It was the coldest night of relative sleep I ever had. Distance traveled: 44 miles
Day Thirteen: I slept until about seven, when it got above freezing and the sun was out. Much better. I made tea and breakfast, and got a great start feeling better. A mile down the road the DOT was grading and treating the road with Calcium Chloride. Wish left the road covered in muck that resembled wet cement. This went on for fifteen miles. I got very muddy. And it slowed me down, a lot.
Climbing Atigun Pass from the North was even worse than the south. The grade leading up climbs 900 feet in three miles, then another 900 feet in two miles. From there it’s all twelve percent grades or steeper. I reached the high point around eight in the evening. Downhill was great. I made great time down off the pass and off the Chandalar Shelf. The River Valley was a slight downhill grade almost all the way to Coldfoot. I got into town late, but not too late for a few beers.
A reality TV show had been filming “America’s toughest Jobs” up in Prudhoe Bay saw me up there when they were filming, and again earlier that day near milepost 235. They were drinking like Alaskans. I think there were twelve of them on the crew. Each one of them bought me a beer, and one of them even bought me a meal, and one of them gave me something to smoke. I felt like I was in college. Again my way with the ladies got me lucky, and I passed out on their room floor. Distance traveled: 105 miles.
Day Fourteen: Hangover. Luckily I couldn’t leave town until at least after one thirty in the afternoon, because that’s when the post office opens in Coldfoot. My awesome mother sent me a relief package of energy bars and new pants. When I got back to Coldfoot after about 740 miles of riding, there was no crotch left in my pants.
Post service above the Arctic Circle is unreliable at best. My package wasn’t there yet. So I set my tent back up in the same place. Early in the afternoon two Swiss bikers I met in Deadhorse pulled into Coldfoot. These guys were riding the entire length of the Pan-American Highway, from Deadhorse to the southern tip of Argentina. They are raising awareness for Cystic Fibrosis. Great dudes riding for a great cause. Their website is www.muco-velo.ch
So I hung out with them for the rest of the day and was able to communicate pretty well through their broken English and my broken French. Another night in Coldfoot. Distance traveled: 0 miles.
Day Fifteen: The post office in Coldfoot, Alaska is only open in the afternoons on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Since I had nothing to do this day I decided to climb a nearby peak. It was quite the adventure in itself. To get to the foot of the mountain I had to cross the Haul Road, go through the Alaska DOT camp, across the Coyote Air Services runway, and through some tundra. Once through the tundra I stripped naked and waded through 3 feet of icy snow melt. Once dressed and warmed it took me eight hours to make summit. Although the snow was deep the wind had blown most of the ridge clear. Five hours of decent lead me back to the icy river, and I was back in camp. I snuck into the public shower at the hotel and took a scalding hot shower. There were no guests there anyways.
At the only bar in Coldfoot that night there was a small celebration. Some Eskimos from a nearby village were celebrating the birth of a baby. These were great people and like all Alaskans, they knew how to throw back. They even bought me, the only white in the bar a few drinks before I headed back to my tent. Luckily I was exhausted that night and sleep came easy. It was getting quite bright, even at the darkest point in the night. Distance traveled: 0 miles.
Day Sixteen: I slept in again with the knowledge that the post office didn’t open until the afternoon. I broke camp, and was ready to go as soon as my package arrived. I was waiting at the door when the post office opened and the woman working smiled and said there was no mail. The mail truck flipped the night before. I was furious. I spent most of the rest of the day kicking rocks and yelling in the junk yard. I calmed down in the evening. I watched a few movies on the satellite television and when into the bar to see what was going on.
Tonight’s party was due to gold miners. I was almost in disbelief that there are still gold mines in Alaska. Gold miners are an interesting breed. They are dirty, bearded, smelling men who enjoy drinking when they can. I fit right in. The reason for the celebration was the discovery of an eighteen ounce gold nugget that would bring in more than twenty thousand dollars to the mine. Definitely reason to celebrate. I went back to the dog yard to find the dogs howling like all hell.
There was a moose cow and an older calf about ten yards away from the length of the sled dogs chains. The dogs were going ape-shit. I grabbed my camera and went to work. I spend about twenty minutes taking pictures of the cow and calf duo. Then I went closer. Perhaps it was the beer. Or maybe it was just the first time I saw a moose and I didn’t know how dangerous they were.
I went straight through the sled dogs’ houses and they were jumping all over me smearing dog shit all over my clothes with their paws. I was getting great photos of the moose from only fifteen yards out. I started to remember something that someone told me about the dangers of a Moose cow with a calf. With this in mind I positioned myself atop a fifteen foot embankment for easy escape if necessary.
I was now within ten yards of the cow, making sure not to come between her and her calf. I got some great close up moose pictures. I was sweet talking to them the entire time to try and keep them calm, and to keep myself calm. Then the cow flattened her ears in disapproval and walked my way. I jumped down the embankment, slid down the dirt and luckily the cow was reluctant to follow. I went to sleep knowing I got some great shots. Distance traveled: 0 miles.
Day Seventeen: I slept in. Why? Because the god damned post office wasn’t open that day. When I woke I just kind of aimlessly walked around the sled dog yard. I did a lot exploring in the Coldfoot junk yard. It is filled with all kinds of treasures like oversized dump trucks and bulldozers abandoned by gold miners. Old trucks, new trucks, dozens of trashed trailers, and various prefabricated abandoned buildings. I watched a few movies, ate some food, and played hackey-sack for most of the day.
Around one in the morning I saw a truck back up to the post office. I was watching a movie in the hotel lobby and I ran like a gang buster to the post office and I was able to sweet talk my way into getting my package then. I got my energy bars, new pants and some cash from my generous mother and retired for the night. Distance traveled: 0 miles. Again.
|2008-05-28, 06:41 AM||#4|
Join Date: Feb 2008
Day Eighteen: I was so excited to leave Coldfoot I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. I ate a great breakfast and hit the road. Only a mile out of town all hell broke loose. I got caught in a serious downpour. Even in the sixty seconds I had to put on my wetsuit and pack cover I got completely soaked. Luckily it was up to about sixty degrees, even though I was still considerably north of the Arctic Circle.
I was slowed greatly and I was miserable. My legs had a chance two soften up a bit as I was off the wheel for four consecutive days in Coldfoot. Then rain let up around five PM and I made camp before the rain started again. A shitty first day back on the trail. But I had a great site to camp, right next to Grayling Lake. I even had an outhouse to throw my bear-proof-bag on top of on take comfortable bowel movements in. Early to bed. Distance traveled: 25 miles.
Day Nineteen: I had the pleasure of a wake up call provided by the Alaska Department of Highway Transportation. A semi full of dirt rolled in every five minutes or so for over an hour, dumped their load and a bulldozer was pushing dirt around ferociously. I awoke sluggishly, and earlier than I would have liked to. I cooked the usually Mac and Cheese for breakfast when a blue pickup truck slammed on their brakes on the highway.
He pulled into the rest area and asked if I was seriously unicycling the Haul Road. I of course said yes. It turned out that he is a photographer and he was working on a photo-book project of the Haul Road and the people that travel its length. He asked if I minded doing a few photos and I didn’t mind.
After a photo shoot and a short chat I packed up camp and hit the road. The hills here were not bad at all. Late in the afternoon I arrived at the Arctic Circle camp area. When I rode in a immediately went to the outhouse their and was startled by what I saw—blood in my urine. I was slightly concerned.
I rolled up to the tourist Arctic Circle sign to find a group of tourists piling out of a fifteen passenger van with a guide in tow. They of course asked what I was doing up there on a unicycle. I told them my tale and they were in near disbelief. They asked how I felt and I was slightly delirious so I was honest. I said that I was exhausted, had been hearing voices, and that I was pissing blood. Curious smiles turned to looks of disgust and the promptly left. Must have been something I said… I took the obligatory Arctic Circle photos and headed south.
As I turned out of the parking area I realized that I forgot about riding down Beaver Slide on my trip north. A mile later I found myself looking up a straight shot two mile nine percent uphill grade. I managed to ride maybe half a mile of it and then spent the next hour and a half slowly trudging up that hill. I started to hear trucks that didn’t exist come up from behind me. I was having full out auditory hallucinations.
I made it to the top and had smooth downhill riding all the way back down to Old Man, Alaska. The not-so-smooth part of this leg of day was when I looked over my shoulder to see a string of trucks hauling ass toward me. Whenever I saw this I dismounted, got ten feet off the road and waited for them to pass. Only at this point in the day, sometimes the trucks never passed, they disappeared. I was now having visual hallucinations.
I pulled into Old Man around nine in the evening to a nice cabin to spend the evening in. Upon arrival I went to the outhouse not to find blood in my urine, but urine in my flood. I was freaked out. Unfortunately I found an ancient bottle of whisky inside the cabin. I drank myself silly, but was still careful to eat a decent meal and drink plenty of water. There really is a certain comfort to be found in booze when you’re troubled about something. This night, I found that comfort and drifted to sleep in the cozy cabin. Distance traveled: 73 miles.
Days Twenty and Twenty One: Despite my drunkenness the night before I woke up fairly early an refreshed and was relived to find to blood in my urine at all. So I hit the road with high spirits. I had smooth sailings down several steep downhill grades and through gentler grades down into the Yukon River Valley. I arrived at the Yukon River Camp just before noon. The camp was now open but I declined the opportunity to get a decent meal because it was so early in the day and I was feeling great.
I called my parents collect and let them know my location, slammed a giant cup of coffee and took pictures of the massive Yukon River bridge and the river, which had almost no ice now.
Riding over the bridge itself was a real bitch. A half mile long wooden bridge at a seven percent grade. Very strange riding, for a bridge. Once over the river the climb out of the Yukon River Valley was not nearly as bad going southbound as it was on the other side to the north, and it was paved. Much more agreeable riding. I made fantastic time.
The Boreal Forrest was now void of snow and every mile I rode, the greener she became. Around six in the evening I started to become haunted by visual and auditory hallucinations again. This time it was on the final twenty mile stretch of the Dalton Highway—the toughest section of the 415 mile road.
At the top of one of the higher hills I ran into some bear hunters. They could probably tell I was a wreck from a long day of riding. The tried to get me to make camp, but I wanted to make it back to the head of the Haul Road before retiring for the night. When I told them this the tempted me to stay with something to smoke. I could not turn down the offer.
Alaskan pot is unlike any other strain I have smoked. It is fruitful, sticky, and colorful. It does not make you tired, delirious, or make you eat. Upon smoking this tasty herb I felt immensely better and decided to hit the road around ten that evening.
And so I road through the steep hills of the Dalton Highway through the Boreal Forrest. Stoned. I didn’t care.
I hit the head of the Dalton Highway at two in the morning. I thought to myself, “Why Stop Now?” I did eat three packets of Mac and Cheese and a few energy bars underneath the sign that marks the beginning of the highway.
At three in the morning, with a full belly, I moved south on the Elliot Highway. I was making great time back on paved road. The sun was rising shortly after I left. The hills that murdered my legs three weeks before now barely slowed me down as my legs pumped like the pistons of an engine of a train on its way to hell. I passed the Colorado Dome Trailhead at six in the morning, and took advantage of the outhouse there. I was out of toilet paper at this point.
Shortly after that I passed the bus at the Arctic Circle trading Post that I had slept in many nights before. I briefly stopped to filter some fresh water and relive myself. I found more blood in my urine. I was starting to get worried. Nevertheless, I continued on. At ten that morning I arrived at the Wickersham Dome Trailhead and made a decent sized meal of Mac and Cheese and energy bars.
I hastily hit the trail again. Although I was hearing things again, the visual hallucinations I had earlier in the week had not come back. I reached Fox at four in the afternoon and did not even dismount, despite the fact that I promised several people at the bar there that I would check in on my way back. I hauled ass the last eleven miles into town. When Fairbanks came into view I dumped my excess drinking water to save weight.
The last two miles into town were all downhill. I was so happy to see the town. The first restraint on the north side of town is a McDonald’s. I didn’t care. It was real food to me. I chocked down four fish sandwiches, two large fires, a giant shake, and two apple pies. Then I puked.
I still had six miles back to the hostel. I rode slower than normal. Sort of dizzy. The newspaper article about me three weeks before had generated a little bit of attention and truckers and tourists on the Haul Road had spread rumors of my progress while I was gone. People were hollering and honking at me more than normal. It was kind of neat. But I just wanted to get my ass off of my saddle.
I stumbled into Billie’s Backpacker Hostel around six that evening. She was surprised to see me back so early. I was surprised to finish so early. I was 10 days ahead of schedule. She promptly had pizza in my hands and despite her strict no drinking rule at the hostel, we all had beers. Distance traveled: 186 miles.
Total distance traveled: about 1010 miles
Despite my looming health problems and lack of sleep, I took no nap that evening. I told my tale to the residents of Billie’s Backpacker Hostel to a group of people from the States, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, Hong Kong, Bulgaria and Argentina. Most of them didn’t know what the hell I said.
Either way we ended up at the same bar I started at three weeks prior: The Marlin. We spent the night drinking good beer, smoking great hash, and talked bullshit in half a dozen languages. Drunk and stoned we made our way back to the hostel. I climbed into my tent in the backyard and slept.
I spent a few days in Fairbanks with a girl I met in Deadhorse who worked for the Transportation Security Administration. I had to change three flights and that took some time. I finally made it back to Chicago to stay with my parents until my next tour begins in Japan this summer. I no longer hallucinate or have blood in my urine.
The Dalton Highway is a lofty, but highly achievable goal for a unicyclist or any cyclist. I may have gone too early in the season, and it came closer to claiming my life than I would like to admit. But seriously, if you have the chance, ride this road. It is one hell of an adventure. If nothing else, drive it just for the scenery. It is worth it.
A special thanks to:
Unicycle.com for giving me equipment that held up very well.
Kris Holm Unicycles for upgraded parts that improved my time in the north.
Phiten Corporation for the free base layers.
Sheryl at the Woolly Rhino for encouraging words right at the begging.
The 2007-2008 cast of Blast! For your awesome support and not committing me when I thought this trip up.
Terry Kadel, for the beers and shots.
Ben, for the smoke.
Darcy, for the bed.
Sam for the food and beer.
Chad, for the beer.
Kary, for the smoke and good company.
Louise Hall, for the food and tour of Wiseman.
Tim Slater, for the soda and food. T
ammy Winland, for some finaincail support.
Jon for the booze.
Michelle for the booze and always giving a strange unicyclist a place to sleep. Deb Bernard, for the postage stamps.
Viola and Jen, for the many, many beers, great meal and a place to sleep and a smoke.
Ben, for the photographs.
The many truckers who drive the Haul Road that encouraged me and through soda and sandwiches in the road for me.
And of course Mom and Dad for their amazing support and financial help along the way.
Until the next ride…
One Wheel, One Love.
Last edited by captainwelch; 2008-05-28 at 06:42 AM.
|2008-05-28, 08:45 AM||#6|
Join Date: Jan 2008
Location: sydney australia
Amazing you not only survived an incredible feat of human endurance but also managed to party on,hats off.
once I was young and stupid....that was some time ago
my videos http://www.youtube.com/user/betterforks
|2008-05-28, 12:12 PM||#7|
...feeding the machine...
Join Date: Jul 2004
Location: Albany NY, US
Amazing trip and great writeup! Thanks.
|2008-05-28, 03:35 PM||#8|
Join Date: Mar 2004
Location: Southern California, USA
1) You're insane.
2) Thanks for vicariously taking the rest of us along on the wild ride. Excellent, excellent writeup and great photos!
Hands down, one of the most risky, ballsy and downright ridiculous unicycle adventures I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I would expect nothing less from a unicycling broadway trombonist. Particularly enjoyed the descriptions of people pleading with you not to ride to your death.
Hats off to you, sir!
Less talking, more riding
|2008-05-28, 04:01 PM||#9|
Join Date: Sep 2007
Location: Summit County Coloradical
Way to not die!
Grizzly story is crazy.
Was that, by chance, Kite-skier Andrew McClain you met? He is a world class skier (See STEEP the movie) and a mtn Unicyclist.
Great write up. You should be very proud for doing that.
Into the Wild...by unicycle!
|2008-05-28, 04:42 PM||#10|
likes to debate things :D
An awesome write-up. An epic adventure, no doubt. I hope to do something like this after college!
One question: Why did you choose to ride a 24" wheel?
Nimbus 29 with Pi bar
Nimbus 36 with T7
Koxx-One Domina II
Live with intention. Walk to the edge.
|2008-05-28, 06:02 PM||#11|
Join Date: Feb 2008
I originally intended to buy a KH 29. Funds were looking low so I put it off til the last minute, and then I couldn't afford it. I wish I had a larger wheel for the trip, but I managed alright on the 24
|2008-05-28, 07:39 PM||#12|
BIG rides: 24"/36" on/off road
Join Date: Aug 2001
Location: Los Gatos, California
Wow, fantastic read. What an adventure! THANKS so much for the write-up. I hope we get to meet someday.
|2008-05-28, 10:52 PM||#13|
Join Date: Apr 2003
Location: Aspen, Co.
captainwelch, magnificent story. thank you for taking us along for the ride. you are crazy, but that is what it takes to survive that adventure you were just another piece of the wildlife up there. peace
|2008-05-28, 11:21 PM||#14|
Wow Mike, thoroughly enjoyable write-up! Glad to see you were still able to unwind every night, and for free to boot. Also glad to see you didn't actually have to use the SPOT (its emergency function at least), but I bet you were glad you had it.
This ride will serve as great inspiration for long distance unitourists to come.
Unicycle Dot Com Canada
Last edited by lpounds; 2008-05-28 at 11:22 PM.
|2008-05-29, 12:42 AM||#15|
You are a gloriously defiant nutter.
Well done mate.
|2008, alaska, dalton, highway, long, writeup|
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