THE LAST ROAD NORTH

A BMW R1200GS in Alaska

Cycle World - - Contents - By Zack Courts

Y“You cheated!” John shouted at me. Now, nor­mally I don’t take kindly to this kind of rhetoric. The thing is, John rode his BMW R1200GS from New Or­leans to Fair­banks just for the priv­i­lege of tak­ing on the fi­nal 500 miles to the top of Alaska. And I re­vealed that I had just flown in from Cal­i­for­nia, to take a bor­rowed GS along the last glo­ri­ous stretch. He was right about me.

Then he told me the first of many daunt­ing sto­ries I would hear about the Dal­ton High­way. There was a thun­der­shower, he said, lash­ing him with rain and hail so vi­o­lently that he pulled over. When he tried to go again, the sur­face of the road had be­come so slip­pery that his bike wouldn’t move. “These will be bet­ter,” he said, ges­tur­ing to the Con­ti­nen­tal TKC80 knobs on my bor­rowed R1200GS Ad­ven­ture. John shook my hand and wished me well, but the sto­ries from the leg­endary road kept com­ing—fore­most, the no­to­ri­ous train of semitrucks that call the Haul Road home.

I’d heard tales of holes punched in wind­shields and side mir­rors taken off by the wake of rocks kicked up be­hind tens of thou­sands of pounds. “If you don’t move over for the truck­ers,” one fel­low said be­tween puffs of a Marl­boro Red, “they’ll just run you over.” An­other lo­cal, af­ter learn­ing I was headed north, of­fered me in­for­ma­tion on our Lord and Sav­ior Je­sus Christ. It was all pretty omi­nous.

Orig­i­nally built to sup­port the con­struc­tion of the trans-alaska pipe­line in the mid-1970s, the James Dal­ton High­way is in­fa­mous, and it seems like ev­ery­one likes it that way. If you’ve watched Ice Road Truck­ers or World’s

Most Dan­ger­ous Roads, you’ve been re­galed with the bru­tal na­ture of the Dal­ton High­way, and you might rather drive off a pier than on the Dal­ton. I thought lo­cals would roll their eyes, but to my sur­prise, most peo­ple I met in Alaska kept my fear alive.

At least the ma­chine I was on seemed up for the task. BMW’S R1200GS Ad­ven­ture is the flag­ship of the brand and one of the most well-known mo­tor­cy­cles in the world. When the 7.9-gal­lon fuel tank is full, it weighs around 600 pounds. That’s be­fore clamp­ing on two alu­minum sad­dle­bags and a match­ing top case, and fill­ing them with my be­long­ings. The cherry on top: 200 pounds of my city-slicker self, ten­der in the mid­dle but wrapped in Gore-tex to show the world I meant busi­ness. All in all, un­likely to get blown off the road, I thought.

In the seat of an R1200GS, I feel at home. In part be­cause I was raised along­side many Bmws—most of them pre-1980, mind you, no ABS or fuel in­jec­tion in our house­hold. Still, the sin­gle-sided swingarm and the cylin­ders stick­ing out ei­ther side al­ways take me back to my time on a sim­pler GS. The other rea­son I felt at ease set­ting out on this BMW is the same rea­son ev­ery­one else does: It is a tremen­dously nice ma­chine. The rid­ing po­si­tion is neu­tral, the seat is cushy, and the wind­screen is ad­justable—mo­tor­cy­cling’s busi­ness class.

Ready, I hoped, for any­thing the road would throw at me. For­tu­nately, the first part of the jour­ney is con­fi­dence in­spir­ing—a gen­tle, paved strip of two-lane that me­an­ders out of Fair­banks and quickly into ru­ral Alaska. Or, what would be con­sid­ered ru­ral any­where else. An un­nat­u­ral bulge in the road now and again is the only clue of the earth dol­ing out pun­ish­ing cold. Be­ing a self-re­spect­ing New Eng­lan­der, I fear not a frost heave or two. Sun shin­ing and thick for­est stretching to the hori­zon, you could al­most be fooled into think­ing you were be­tween towns some­where in the great West or even the North­east of the lower 48.

Around 80 miles out­side Fair­banks, the road turns to gravel in what feels like a per­ma­nent way, and a speed-limit sign ca­su­ally blan­kets the next 416 miles. It marks the begin­ning of the Dal­ton High­way proper, and it is truly R1200GS ter­ri­tory. Pot­holes, wash­board, and ev­ery other im­per­fec­tion in the road dis­ap­peared un­der­neath the GS’S 19-inch front wheel. If you were to imag­ine float­ing along on decades of re­fine­ment the ma­chine has un­der­gone, it feels some­thing like that. Just in front of the mam­moth tank, you can see down to the Telelever front sus­pen­sion with its A-arm brace reach­ing out to the spindly, 37mm fork fran­ti­cally fol­low­ing the sur­face at 60 mph.

The sheer size of the jour­ney set in slowly for me. As the miles rolled past, the vis­i­ble land and sky seemed to grow. Cross­ing the Yukon River is the first ma­jor land­mark head­ing north on the Haul Road. The bridge is huge in a modern way, nearly half a mile long and 15 or 20 sto­ries above the wa­ter, topped with a ripped-up wooden deck that’s re­placed ev­ery decade or so. The river is broad, and al­most 2,000 miles long. Cruis­ing over it on what feels like the deck of a 200-year-old ship

turned out to be a good char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of how epic and an­cient Alaska feels in per­son.

I stopped at the Arc­tic Cir­cle and met an East­ern Euro­pean man with his shirt off. His English was bro­ken, but I gath­ered he was amazed that it was nearly 70 de­grees. For con­text, about 20 miles north I passed Prospect Camp, where once upon a time in 1971 it was 150 de­grees colder—that’s 80 be­low, a U.S. record that still stands. Granted, not in mid-june. I set the cruise for some of the straight sec­tions and the GS gal­loped along like a sled dog with its tongue hang­ing out. Work­ing it­self, dron­ing across the tun­dra with rocks in­ter­mit­tently ping­ing off the skid plate, in the most in­nate way.

The bike loped past 275 miles on its first tank of 91, and I trun­dled into Cold­foot. What started as a min­ing out­post, Cold­foot Camp was one of 29 con­struc­tion camps set up to build the Dal­ton High­way in the early ’70s. It then boomed to a town of hun­dreds of work­ers cy­cling through end­less 12-hour shifts. When the road was fin­ished, the build­ings were re­pur­posed or re­moved, and by the early ’80s, Cold­foot was all but empty again. Only about a dozen peo­ple call it home, but there are bunks to rent, hot food, and most cru­cially, gas pumps.

The next leg felt, as the kids might say, more real. As a road, the Dal­ton was still mar­velous, but the ter­rain started to show signs of true noth­ing­ness. Fewer rolling hills and more go­liath shards of rock stick­ing up like com­pound frac­tures in the green­ery. A sign put a finer point on it: 240 miles with no re­sources. Hardly any signs of modern life at all, it turned out. Even the thin forests of conifers look like they strug­gle for life. I was re­minded of POW images from a his­tory text­book—the trees look like ema­ci­ated pris­on­ers, with a spe­cial re­solve in their pose, scrag­gly but strong. Just be­fore carv­ing through the loom­ing, snow-sheathed Brooks Range I passed the “Farthest North Spruce.” No ex­pla­na­tion needed.

Tem­per­a­tures fi­nally dropped, from the high 50s to mid-40s, as I rose into low clouds and my first taste of rain through the Ati­gun Pass. The pass is se­vere and ma­jes­tic—jagged moun­tains tower over the road. It’s twisty but gen­tle enough for truck af­ter truck, tow­ing ev­ery­thing from mas­sive lengths of drill bit to a mo­bile Hal­libur­ton com­mand cen­ter. Down out of the pass and I was on to the North Slope, mov­ing the same di­rec­tion as the snowmelt. From the side of the road, the melt com­ing from the moun­tains is au­di­ble. Steep cliffs dump stag­ger­ing amounts of wa­ter, flow­ing through the nooks and crags of the hills and into drainage ditches, through cul­verts, and into the rivers. It mixed with the wind, en­velop­ing me in the sound of seren­ity, and told me to be quiet.

The sun broke out again, and I basked in the odd beauty of the ze­bra-striped peaks shed­ding snow. It felt like the last beau­ti­ful thing I would see, and I was right. From there it was out onto 100-and-some­thing miles of frozen tun­dra. Some mo­tor­cy­cle rides have a glim­mer of hope that the weather will change, but the jour­ney from Cold­foot to Dead­horse is not one of those rides. The tem­per­a­ture dropped. I bumped the heated grips from low to high and tried to re­lax my shoul­ders. Grass­lands stretched out flatter and flatter. The one con­stant in the en­vi­ron­ment be­comes more no­tice­able: the seem­ingly end­less 4-foot-di­am­e­ter pipe that fol­lows the road. It bur­rows un­der­ground and snakes across rivers. Al­ways there, al­most mock­ing my ex­pe­di­tion.

I stopped to do pushups to get a rush of blood into my fin­gers. As I stood up pant­ing, I saw waves of heat shim­mer­ing off the tun­dra, and my jaw mus­cles chewed a gra­nola bar like they had for­got­ten how. The ther­mome­ter on the bike re­ported it was around 37 de­grees. Even­tu­ally the grass gave way to brit­tle, ivory empti­ness.

The road sur­face was coarse but still largely per­fect. It is straight and flat and drifts into the hori­zon with a glassy mi­rage, an irony of a hot desert. There was fog and over­cast clouds, and the road merged with the sky in an eerie, hyp­notic way. Mark­ers along the roadside—pre­sum­ably to mark the road for snow when the drifts are many feet high—made it feel like a run­way to the un­known.

The mo­tor­cy­cle, for its part, was flaw­less. Frankly, this class of bike is stel­lar, and other big ADVS could, would, and do travel this route with the same suc­cess. Hours of com­fort and all of the tune­ablity an ad­ven­turer could want. But the GS is spe­cial. Its com­peti­tors are so good be­cause the GS ex­ists. The next bike will al­most al­ways be bet­ter than the last, but there will only ever be one that was first. And this bike is bet­ter than the last. Throt­tle maps, ABS, and even seat height, all avail­able to tweak. This up-spec GS now has a self-lev­el­ing trick, where it judges how much static sag the ma­chine has and ad­justs the shock preload to match.

The quirky front end and the boxer en­gine are brochure fod­der, sure, but they work. It’s un­de­ni­ably

unique. There’s also an up/down quick­shifter, a TFT dash, and ter­rific linked brakes. Nifty as the tech is, it’s the lit­tle ana­log re­minders that al­ways melt my heart. Romp­ing around off the beaten path, I re­mem­bered the lit­tle spring-loaded tab on the rear brake that hinges, with­out tools, into place and raises the pedal to the right height for stand­ing. Then there’s the key, mounted at han­dle­bar height in­stead of buried be­low the bar ris­ers on the triple clamp. It all seems sim­ple, but oth­ers don’t do it as well. There are only a few ma­chines in the con­ver­sa­tion for the best mo­tor­cy­cle in the world, and this is one of them.

Then there were the heated grips, which I would have hated to do with­out. A KLR650 rider I met near Dead­horse asked me if my hands were cold. Yes, I said, but how could I pos­si­bly com­plain? The road kept dis­ap­pear­ing into the north, and it kept get­ting colder. The sur­vivor in all of us pushes on in these sit­u­a­tions be­cause when there’s a moun­tain of a chal­lenge, we want to get to the sum­mit. I didn’t ex­pect much ac­com­mo­da­tions, but I fig­ured I could at least look for­ward to not be­ing in the wind blast. When I fi­nally saw build­ings, the bike was show­ing 32 de­grees.

Ar­riv­ing in Dead­horse at Prud­hoe Bay was sur­real. No­body who does this trip gets any fan­fare. There are no flash­bulbs or cham­pagne. Only an over­whelm­ing sense that if it weren’t for the few steel build­ings in this vast and vi­cious place, you would be ut­terly screwed. And be­cause of that, there’s a sense of ca­ma­raderie for those you’re with. I leapfrogged with a hand­ful of mo­tor­cy­clists on Haul Road, all of whom de­serve more credit

than I can claim—johns of var­i­ous ilk who had earned their Dal­ton prize.

Matt, from Idaho, solo on a new KTM twin, who got snowed and rained on for six days across Canada and was still smil­ing. A father on a Kawasaki KLR tak­ing his 14-year-old son, rid­ing a Suzuki DR-Z400, on his first trip up the Dal­ton from Wasilla. Pe­dro, who had flown from Ecuador to Los An­ge­les, bought a Yamaha Su­per Ténéré, and rid­den it to Alaska. I was im­pressed, and put in my place. Hud­dled to­gether on the crusty northern edge of our con­ti­nent, it’s also hard not to have a deep re­spect for the peo­ple who call Prud­hoe Bay home. “If you like the food, great,” smiled the mousy, aproned gal in the Dead­horse Camp can­teen, “and if you don’t, lie to me.”

It’s more out­post than town, re­ally, like a colony on an alien planet or Earth af­ter nu­clear win­ter. I kept think­ing this is what it will feel like to be one of the first peo­ple on Mars. It’s un­nat­u­rally aus­tere and bla­tantly un­for­giv­ing. Racks of diesel block heaters dan­gle in ev­ery park­ing lot. Ev­ery truck is ei­ther dirty or frozen. If noth­ing else, it’s an in­tense il­lus­tra­tion of how des­per­ate we are, as hu­mans, for pe­tro­leum. Be­cause shabby as it is, there’s a fan­tas­tic amount of money in Prud­hoe Bay. Enough to make it worth it for BP and Cono­cophillips to fly in and out three 737s a day, five days a week. That, in turn, throws into fo­cus the bril­liance of the road. The only way a gravel trail through such enor­mous noth­ing­ness can ex­ist so flaw­lessly is when the liq­uid bub­bling out of the earth can sup­port not only life, but also mas­sive profit, in such a ruth­less and de­mand­ing place.

In the morn­ing, I brushed the dust­ing of snow off the seat, and the GS puffed fumes into the 27-de­gree air. In­ter­est­ingly, there is very lit­tle gas. The crude comes up from 9,000 feet be­low and goes straight down the pipe­line. There are no re­finer­ies. It was one last dream­like feel­ing—to be sur­rounded by a king­dom’s worth of oil rigs and drilling equip­ment, and still stum­ble around look­ing for gas. The anal­ogy of sum­mit­ing a moun­tain is a good one for the ride to Prud­hoe Bay be­cause the only way back is the very same route. The same tem­per­a­tures, the same rain show­ers and, un­less you’re feel­ing frisky, the same BLT. Af­ter buy­ing a T-shirt and crunch­ing my way out onto the still-frozen Arc­tic Ocean for a photo, I hap­pily paid $35 for 6.75 gal­lons of fuel and pointed the bike south.

ABOVE: The sum­mer sky in Alaska means sched­ul­ing by the clock is key, oth­er­wise you keep rid­ing and for­get to eat. This cock­pit shot was snapped at about 10:30 p.m. OP­PO­SITE: Climb­ing the south slope of the Brooks Range. It’s brief but dra­matic.

LEFT: Gen­eral avi­a­tion is as much a part of Alaskan lore as bears and ice. The far­ther north, the more run­ways take the place of roads—if the pilots are lucky.BE­LOW LEFT: Iron­i­cally, some­times the only splash of color on a stark and cold road is a me­mo­rial to the dan­gers of the Dal­ton. BE­LOW RIGHT: Dead­horse Camp is ap­prox­i­mately as scenic as it sounds but a mile­stone none­the­less. OP­PO­SITE: The style of BMW’S flag­ship GS has al­ways been po­lar­iz­ing, never more so than now. It’s large, util­i­tar­ian, and com­fort­able.

TOP: The high­way and the pipe­line are etched across the land­scape for hun­dreds of miles. One wouldn’t ex­ist with­out the other. ABOVE LEFT: You can squeeze 300 miles out of a Gs-ad­ven­ture’s tank, if you don’t mind the bright and color­ful warn­ing on the TFT dash. ABOVE RIGHT: A mo­ment of in­tro­spec­tion on the road.

As epic as your ad­ven­ture feels, you’re un­likely to be the cra­zi­est trav­eler on the Dal­ton. Ex­hibit A: edi­tors from Road &Track mag­a­zine rough­ing it in an open-air Jeep.

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