Despite how exhausted I was the day before, I got up early and was fairly well rested. I had learned my lesson. Earplugs. Unfortunately for those in the other rooms, I didn't hear the alarm for some time because the earplugs I use are so good.
I got up, grabbed a shower and put on my gear. I wanted to get to Fairbanks early and grab a motel with WIFI so I could get to writing about this section of the trip. I knew it would take me some time to say everything I wanted to.
I checked out and grabbed breakfast at the breakfast buffet. Breakfast consisted of too many eggs, some bacon and sausages. They did have fresh fruit. I don't want to think about what my blood work will look like after this trip. Chloresterol of 1000, at least.
I sat quietly outside for quite some time. A couple hours I think. It was cool, not cold. There was a slight breeze. There was some commotion inside. I couldn't hear exactly what was going on but a pilot was having some trouble finding a way to approach the camp. I heard rumor of a forest fire not far away.
I pulled my bike around to get gas. Travelling the previous day across all that muck had certainly taken a toll on my bikes good looks. "I'll need to get it power washed before the salt starts corroding everything.", I thought as I surveyed the muck.
I went back to the cafe for another cup of coffee. It didn't feel like time to leave yet.
"I like this place.", I thought as I sipped bad trucker cafe coffee which was served from an endless pot. I could hear something that I thought was coming from inside the cafe, sounds from some kind of nature show.
But somethihng didn't sound right about it. The sound of diesel trucks ceased for a moment and I could tell the sound was coming from distant hills ... I pondered what it could be when I heard that distinctive howl.
A pack of wolves was not far off. I could hear them howling to one another. I have never heard wolves in the wild. My sum total experience with wolves was with one that a friend of Gesa's was keeping as a pet. She had visited Fort Lamers and brought the wolf. She said I was the only man the wolf ever liked. Strange critter.
I tried to get the camera in movie mode to capture the sound but a diesel van rolled up making too much noise. By the time all the senior citizens got out to go to the bathroom and stopped making noise, the wolves had gone quiet.
There's something about wolves, about forest covered trees, about this landscape that invokes the shadow of a memory; a memory I've never had. But there was something strangely familiar about it. It's just a feeling, but it was a very powerful one.
In the parking lot you could see a trucker trying to get his rig started. It sounds like starter motor trouble. Overall it was a quiet morning, with little going on.
I like it here. It's got kind of a spaceport feel to it. People are always travelling through. Some come and go, others just pass through once not to return. There are stories. Reports of goings on. Tales of things that went wrong. People come up and talk to you to tell you what has happened or to ask you about your experiences.
"How's the road", is a frequent question.
I went into the cafe to get yet another cup of coffee. At this point I had had Too Much but kept going.
In the bar, they had a little souvenier stand, but nothing that I really liked. I had wanted a little Camp Coldfoot metal pin to attach to my bike, but they had no such thing. They did have cheesy thermometers listing Coldfoot as the coldest recorded spot in North America or some such. So I got one to hang up in my house somewhere.
There was a collage of photos on the wall which seemed to capture more realistically the kinds of mishaps that can happen up here.
I didn't want to post it too much larger. Some of that really invokes "ouch".
The "motel" I spent the night in .. strangely I'm going to miss this place.
I enjoyed hanging out and listening to the truckers stories and seeing into the lives of people who did Real Work.
I passed one of the rigs. The previous night one of the truckers mentioned the hazards of gravel that gets stuck in truck tires. "It can be a problem", one said. "Not really, I've got a full faced helmet and good leathers.", I replied. "Yea, but for these guys riding up here without a face shield or leather they can be lethal.". That I can see.
Clouds were still pervasive and hung low over the cafe.
I sat there, outside on the porch, for quite some time hoping I would hear the wolves again. I think they had moved off further away. Every now and again I could just barely hear them, but the ambient noise from diesel engines and the goings on in the cafe prevented me from hearing clearly.
I saw a couple of tourists walk off into the woods in the direction of the wolves. "I don't know if that's such a good idea.", I found myself wondering. But I would have really liked to see a pack of wolves, from a distance, a very safe distance.
The time came when I got that sense of "Goodbye". It was time to leave. I was making time. The road was wet. It was raining in places. I was going faster than I had at any time before on this road. And I was leaving a wide margin for error. I had gotten comfortable with how the bike felt on the dirt, over the ruts, the gravel and the other conditions.
I was even catching a little lean in corners, on gravel, a thing I would never have imagined possible.
The rumor of a forest fire turned out to be true. I started to smell smoke and saw a haze hanging down over the tree shrub things.
The excess coffee that I consumed made itself known as I had to stop and take a leak several times on the way down. I really did have way too much coffee.
In the little access roads that lead to the pipeline every so and so many miles, you see these kinds of security signs.
I tried to capture some of the hills and the steep grades you encounter on the road. I was thinking of Rick, the bicyclist, when I took this photo.
It doesn't do it justice. The far side is wicked steep. Doing down this road on the wet muck was a bit unnerving, but too bad.
I was still on my dream-catcher quest. I saw a sign for a gift shop and stopped in. No native art, but they did have coffee. I continued my efforts to over-caffeinate myself to death.
It was a funky improvisational camp style little outpost. A generator could be heard running in the back. And this is what I enjoy about having requests. It causes me, like my arbitrary destinations, to see things I would not have seen. Had it not been for the request, I would not have stopped here and seen this.
"Cool.", I thought. I talked to the proprietor for a while. She had this an array of "no bitching, no moaning, no complaining" signs pasted up everywhere while she complained about the weather and how cold and rainy it's been. She said the previous day had winds so strong it blew all of her stuff around.
I continued on down the road to Yukon River Camp to get gas. Since I had no reason to see it before, I failed to notice the little "Local Crafts" stand out in front of the camp. A rough outdoorsy looking woman, missing a few teeth, ran the stand. Unfortunately for my quest, everything she sold she made herself. She trapped furs of various critters such as wolverine, muskrat, lynx, etc. She had a disturbing wolverine purse, where the skin of the head of the thing made the flap that closed the purse.
She also made little canoes about of bark and other items.
She started showing me photos of her house, which she and her family had built off in the woods. I did not know you could mill your own lumber, to pretty exacting standards, using a chain saw. She showed me how her stand had been made using the trees they felled on their property.
She had photos of a forest fire, of clearing the lot and how they built the support stand to raise the structure off the ground. They built the entire thing in just a few months bringing in little more than tools. Aside from electricals and some modest plumbing, if I understood her correctly they manufactured everything right there to build the house.
I listened to her for a good 30 minutes and suggested she make a little book with her photos. "That's a story I think people would be willing to buy.", I suggested to her.
It was cool. Another life, very different from my own, all because of a quest. Cool.
I got gas at the Yukon River Camp and picked up a post card and an arctic circle pin for the bike. I was off again.
I happened upon this long sloping hill that turned into a right hander that I recognized. I slammed on the brakes just beofre I hit the deep irregular gravel. This was the spot that that tractor trailer had slid into my lane on the way up. I had asked James if that happens and he said it happened all the time, so I guess I wasn't imagining things.
It was in worse condition than the last time I was here. The photo doesn't do it justice, but this 100 yards was the only "bad" part of the Dalton I experience. It's a 15mph section.
(The phone just rang. I got called by a friend I haven't talked to in nearly 10 years. It's crazy how life and obligations gets in the way ... but now I have a new task. After coming back from Valdez I've been instructed, rather forcefully, that I should go see an Ice Castle at a hot springs resort ... hmmm, but checking google I'm not seeing it immediately. I'll have to look again later. There are a few other friends I haven't seen in 10 years I would like to hear from.)
This was just a 100 yard section. The gravel was several inches deep and confused. Hitting this in the condition it was in at too high a speed will likely result in a crash. It was around 30 mile or so.
I liked this shot.
This section of the Dalton highway is also built up crazy high. I walked down to the base and tried to capture it.
But it looks too flat. The bike, as you can see in the other photo, is on the edge of the road. So it's uphill from the point of the camera basically to the wheels of the bike.
Not long after the gravel spot I came upon the end of the road. As soon as I hit pavement, contrary to what I would have thought, I missed the dirt almost immediately. "That had been fun.", I thought as I stopped a the Dalton Highway sign.
"I wonder if this bike and I will ever be in this spot again?", I thought.
I kind of doubt it. This is not the kind of place you visit more than once. Maybe I would ride up here if I got some kind of contract to work at the oil field, but as a tourist I don't think it makes sense to come back. There are other places to see.
This road was fun though. I thought it was a lot of fun, but my sense of "fun" may be a little disturbed.
I hit the road down towards Fairbanks. It's a windy albeit frost heaved bouncy road. Coming off the Dalton riding on pavement seemed almost too easy. I was going at a good clip leaning into corners more than I had at any point on the trip before. The bike felt good.
Eventually I came upon another "gift shop" advertising "native art". "Maybe I can find something appropriate there.", I thought as I pulled in.
It was an odd place.
It looked like something you might see at Dancing Rabbit. The inside was clean and well organized though. They did have some dream catchers, but they were too large, made out of elk horn. The smaller ones they had looked like plastic. Ok, that won't work. I asked about bathrooms and they directed me to the outhouses outside.
They looked like something out of Tolkien, a common comment I make. I figured, "No problem. I've gotten used to pit toilets by this point.".
OMG. That was the foulest, vilest, most disgusting outhouse I have ever seen. I still cannot get the memory of that smell to leave my consciousness. I am forever scarred.
Chris, the R1200GS yoga stretching photographer guy I had met at Coldfoot Camp had given me the card for AdvCycleWorks and repeatedly suggested that I go by there to have my bike pressure washed to get all the muck off it. Given how hard it was caked on I was curious how well that was going to work out.
They run the shop out of their house. It's off a dirt road a ways out of the way, but well worth the trip. They specialize in tires for adventure bikes that are in the area to run up and down the Dalton and other "challenging" roads.
I arrived and hung out for a while. I wanted to let the bike cool before putting water on it. The exhaust system on 16valve K100RS's has a propensity for cracking badly. We chatted for a bit. Dan, the proprietor, suggested that I visit Valdez on the coast. There are a number of tour boats that go out to a glacier. He highly recommended the one called Lulubelle. He said it was the Switzerland of Alaska and worth a look-see. A number of other people I've talked to concurred, so I'm going. I'll leave for Valdez tomorrow, assuming I feel better. I'll probably hang out there for a day and then start the return trip. I'll check out this Ice Castle, assuming I can find it, and then travel on to Prince George then Victoria. From there I'll probably just do the top route across the US. I want to go through Glacier, the Badlands and take a look-see at Sturgis, even though I'll be there a week early.
Dan suggested I stay at the University of Alaska. They open up the dorm rooms to travellers in the off-season, but I looked and it appeared to be more trouble than it was worth. I wanted something closer to food.
At this point I was hungry. I was absolutely starving, so riding around town I stopped at a bar and grill and sat down at the bar. The characters there were, how should I say this politely, colorful. Political correctness was nowhere to be found. A friend of mine, Micro, would have felt right at home.
A guy sat down next to me, I think his name was Brian. He worked on oil rigs up on the North Slope and Prudhoe Bay. He was too lit to really have a conversation about it. All he said was he seemed to get assigned all the highest profile drills.
The food in the place was really good. I had ordered a steak with a salad and the salad was monstrous, and good. Guys at the bar were making off color comments about the bartender, as guys at bars seem to do when there's a cute bartender. It's something that I've never liked. She's working. Let her work. If you like her, just give her a good tip and leave it at that.
I guess there in lies the problem. They saw a cute blonde. Just some thing. I saw a person who was trying to work, and was doing a reasonably good job at it.
Some ages ago I sat at the Outback when Rachel K was working. It was a similar scene, but not nearly as bad as this. Guys at the bar were professing their undying love for Rachel, which happens. "So how often do your customers profess their undying love for you?", I asked. "All the time", she replied. "It gets creepy when it's the really old guys. You know, the ones over 40.". Laugh. Ouch. "Ok, then I'll be the one that never does that.", I promised. So it's become kind of a game. I sit at the bar and she's always takes especially good care of me, especially on those days during the Nightmare when I just wanted someone to look out for me for a change. I would say, "I'm thinking it, but I can't say it.". That always got a smile.
So I asked this bartender the same question. "I've lost count.", she said giggling. Good answer. The guy next to me starts saying rather loudly which body parts of her he liked the most, then turned his attention to the TV and started doing the same about the women he saw there. "Not good.", I thought. Oh well. It's just that I always hate that kind of thing. I just keep thinking about all the horror stories women have told me ... maybe I spend too much time remembering them.
I finished my steak and went to find a motel.
After stopping at some ridiculously overpriced hotels, I happened upon a relatively cheap one, at least for this area, across from a BMW, Harley, etc dealer. As I rode down the street to the motel I saw a clear sign of the forest fire in the distance.
I got a room. I was going to write but was too tired, so I headed out and asked where I could find a local bar. They directed me to the Boatel Bar, a dive down the street in walking distance.
It was serious local scene. You could tell everyone there had known everyone else for years. Customers who were also friends traded gossip with the bartender. She had a persistent uncomfortable laugh. Coincidently after a short while, the guy that sat next to me at the grill from before, came in from outside. He saw me, remembered my name and invited me to join him and his friends outside. The sun was extremely low and bright on the horizon bathing the back of the deck in an erry intensely orange light.
If I understood correctly, his two friends were in from out of town. California somewhere, I think. They mostly ignored me at first just talking about local antics. I hung out for a few hours with them. The one friends name was Nora, but I can't remember her boyfriends name. At some point they asked me why I was out here. So I gave the standard answer, "out here getting my head screwed on straight". After some more indirect questions, I think they concluded I had been through some kind of divorce. Later they asked me directly to tell them what happened. So I gave a quick executive summary of the Nightmare, obligations, lack of choice.
Nora's boyfriend, whose name I forget, suddenly became serious. He was not the serious type, constantly joking, but he was very serious and asked some more questions. After a while he said something interesting that I had not considered, which is the point of telling this part of the story in the first place.
"It sounds like you were playing the martyr.", he said.
That one comment has stuck with me these last couple of days. I've looked back over everything that happened over all these years and I've wondered if I had not stepped up, if I had not tried to do everything I did, how bad would things have gotten? Was all this effort in vain? Did I, through all that I did for everyone else, only make things worse?
I struggle with these questions. I struggled with them while I was going through it all. Could I have walked away? Everyone kept asking me that. "It's only money.", they would say. But it's more than that. It's security. It's about my mom being able to sleep at night.
"Martyr.", I would think. But if I look at it honestly, I just don't know. I don't /think/ so. But maybe it's possible.
If I look at the kinds of problems I get pulled into, they all seem to involve a great deal of self-sacrifice. I seem to be really good at that and am able to do it with ease. I am very rarely the kind of person who puts his foot down to impose my will on someone else.
Hmmm. Martyr. He might be on to something.
It's something that I'll have to think about some more.
I spent the next two days at the hotel. I haven't been feeling well, so I've holed up here. I've had some interesting conversations with one of the women that runs the hotel. She said at one point, about running the Dalton, "Maybe it was so easy for you because you're a better rider. We hear of guys not making it all the time. Many have to turn around. Some crash.".
That's another thing I'll have to think about for a while.
So I've spent the whole day writing. I'm going to go off in search of some food and will try to get some rest. Maybe I'll stop by that dive bar again for a bit.
I'm not feeling well today. I had trouble sleeping again last and woke up feeling very off and unmotivated. I had another episode of my guts letting loose yesterday. To top things off, while I didn't notice the smoke myself, the forest fire on the horizon has apparently been sending some smoke this way. I had noticed I was starting to get tired yesterday, a common allergic symptom for me, and today I was already completely wiped out.
So I've decided to stay at the hotel here in Fairbanks another day and see if I feel any better. I hope to catch up on all my writing and then get under way to Valdez tomorrow. I've been told it's the Switzerland of Alaska. There are boat tours that go out to a glacier which I would like to do.
I've been invited to join a ride in early August up to Nova Scotia with Phil who I met in Deal's Gap. I am sorely tempted to go, but I am feeling the pressure to make it back when I said I would, namely in early August. I have dear friends who miss me, problems that my mom needs help with and I need to get back to the business.
My business partner, Anatoly, has been extremely understanding and patient with me as I mess around out here trying to get my head screwed on straight. He's been extremely patient through the six years of the hardcore Nightmare that kept taking so much of my time. There wasn't much of me left to help. I am behind on so many internal projects, some of them by an embarrasing number of years. Can you say the new ecommerce system?
You can't imagine a better partner. But things with our little huge multinational corporation of two people are not going well. I was hoping to get some brilliant insights into what we need to do to turn things around, but so far I've just come up with simple ideas that may or may not help. It's not a good time to be trying to sell stock market investment software for the Windows PC. Websites and brokerages have gotten so good of late that our bread and butter target demographic, beginning and intermediate investors, no longer have a compelling need to buy our software. Most who do use it rip it off. Add to that the ascendance of the Mac along with a whole spectrum of varied hand held devices from the iPhone to the Android, and we have a near perfect storm of forces making our lives difficult. The investors we do reach these days tend to be more advanced portfolio management types, but we don't reach enough of them. In addition, we are competing against mega million dollar companies for their attention.
Despite the fact that our products are very highly regarded, investors who use it love us and that we've gotten all kinds of positive press and reviews, the bottom has dropped out of our business and we need to find a new and creative way to reposition what we do to survive.
I confess I feel very guilty about how badly things are going. I haven't been able to find any new relationships that are producing; just a series of small attempts that have brought exactly zero. Anatoly could easily make bank anywhere. A couple of phone calls and he'd be involved in the next big project making six figures along with equity, easily. He's the best applications software developer/engineer I've ever met. What he is able to accomplish with the level of professionalism and engineering discipline he brings to his work is simply unparalleled.
It's strange. The blog has helped me see what I do, motorcycling and this trip, through other peoples eyes. It helps me point out things I would never have thought to mention; things I would never have thought were interesting. This may turn out to be the one of the most important lessons from the trip.
We have an excellent product. It rivals Quicken in it's polish and professionalism and completeness. As a matter of fact, being out here and talking to so many people has made me realize, the best way to describe what Anatoly has built is probably "Personal Stock Monitor is for investors what Quicken is for personal finance.".
For our business, I need to see through other people eyes. I need to get out and talk to people. I need to listen. I need to write. I need to give people a personal insight into what we do. I need to show them that we are much more than just a couple of guys with a little product. We've tried before but everything we've written has been too technical, too matter of fact, too dry. There's an interesting story to tell about what we've done, who we are, if only we can get the courage to tell it.
I think this trip and the blog I am compelled to write is helping me see that. Maybe I can learn how to do this for the business. Maybe I can find a marketing partner or even a buyer.
I simply write about what I think about. I've been loathe to write about the business and about some other topics. Too personal. Too revealing. Too many reasons not to. But I spend alot of time thinking about the business.
I also spend alot of time thinking about the Nightmare, wondering how much I should reveal. I feel compelled to. I want to, but I fear to as well. There are illusions about my family that would be shattered if they knew. There are so many reasons not to.
So for the moment, sitting here feeling rather ill in my hotel room, I'll continue on with my motorcycling story. Sorry for rambling off topic.
When I arrived it was really cold. The tour guide would say later on that it had reached 25defF but I don't think it was quite that cold. Maybe 32. Having not slept the night before and having done 240 miles of mixed dirt, gravel and paved road requiring constant concentration I had no energy to go out and walk around. So I stayed in my little military style room in the Arctic Caribou Inn and wrote. I should have gone to bed after I finished but I ended up chatting with a few friends on Facebook until after midnight. This would have consequences later.
It was still light out when I went to bed. I bet I could have seen the sun if it weren't for the thick layer of clouds.
The Prudhoe Bay oil field operation is simply massive. It resembles a massive construction site. There are temporary buildings raised up off the ground to house workers. There are oil rigs in various states of readiness waiting to be deployed, others in operation. There are vast rows of construction equipment. Backhoes, graders, and other strange vehicles whose purpose I do not know.
It feels like a temporary camp. The temporal nature of this operation is evident everywhere. Moving through this place you can just feel how, once the oil and gas runs out, it'll all be abandoned. In fact, it was supposed to have been abandoned 10 years ago as the original estimate for the field was that it could only be operated for 20 years. It's now past 30.
I was told this operation supplies something between 20% and 30% of the oil in the US. It is in decline however. It used to produce 2,000,000 barrels a day but now produces less than 1,000,000, if I remember correctly. I'll have to look up and verify that I have my stats correct.
I had to get up early. Wicked early. At 6AM, which rolled around much too soon, I was up. By 6:30 I was at breakfast. I had a few cups of coffee after breakfast and went to the tour assembly room.
To go on a guided tour of the Prudhoe Bay operation you have to call 24 hours in advance. Each hotel can hook you up with a tour, but you have to provide them with your identity information, either a passport number or drivers license number. They do a simple background check on you before letting you enter the field.
The German tourists I had met in Coldfoot camp were there and sat down next to me. I continued to enjoy seeing the same faces as I travelled.
We were shown a short 17 minute movie about the history and operation of the oil field. In the movie, through the apparent rules and during the subsequent tour, they really attempt to do a good PR job about how they limit the environmental impact of their operations. While much of it is clearly a PR effort, some of it is very real. For instance, what I did not understand was how they set up the wells. As drilling techniques have improved they are able to place the well heads closer and closer together thereby allowing them to create a smaller gravel pad on which to place said well heads. From there they drill out in all directions for miles.
(I'll have to remember to ask Robyn from Prince George, BC about the realities of the environmental impact when I meet her for coffee on the return trip.)
After the movie we were herded out of the room and onto a bus. Each person had to show ID before being allowed on the bus. It had been raining for some time.
I should have taken notes or maybe they should have produced a flyer with relevant facts to hand out on the tour because I've forgotten too many of the details of what was discussed. The tour consisted of a several mile long drive around the center of the operation.
Oil rigs could be seen everywhere.
It's a muddy dirty place. As I mentioned, it feels like a massive construction site.
To the left an oil rig. To the right one of the "hotels".
Construction materials are stacked everywhere.
It doesn't feel or look like a "town". Imagine a flat space of dirt several square miles wide. Roll a trailer in here. Put a huge piece of equipment over there. Set up a tent in some other place. Pile up a bunch of wood and supplies in some other place. Now start driving around between the various places where you've put stuff. Eventually you decide to put down some gravel so the mud doesn't get too deep, and after a while you start thinking of it as a "town", but really it's just piles of equipment and temporary housing haphazardly dropped where ever it ended up when you first delivered it. At least, this is what it feels like.
Another thing that can be seen are seemingly endless arrays of pipes running from the various rigs, some miles and miles away, to the separation plants. I forget what the correct term is, but when crude is pumped out of the ground it contains impurities such as water, natural gas, bacteria, and sand. This has to be separated out before the crude oil can be sent down the Alaska pipeline.
Some of the stranger vehicles we were shown were these low impact crawlers designed to ride out on the permafrost and tundra without sinking in, and thus without impacting the ground too much. The tour guide told a story about how the pressure these exert on the ground as they roll is so low they could roll over a human being lying on the ground without injuring the person. The tall tale is that this is how these machines were originally demonstrated to the oil field operators. The tires are never inflated. They roll as the are seen here.
It is my understanding that the structures here are all built up off the ground to protect the permafrost. If too much heat escapes below a structure the ground can melt causing it to become unstable. Here's is yet another improvisational looking motel.
There are very interesting contrasts on this trip. I spent time with people at Dancing Rabbit whose very mission in life is to have the smallest environmental impacts possible. I now stand in the midst of what I believe is probably the single largest environmental impacts in existence, the oil and gas industry. "A necessary evil.", Robyn said and I agree with her. Without this industry, at this time, it is unlikely that even Dancing Rabbit could exist. They may not see it that way, but I think I could make a pretty compelling case for it.
Our modern lives are so dependent upon this industry that we are, to a large degree, held hostage by it. The very reason that I, a single middle class guy, have the economic muscle to, by myself, mount a machine and travel on it across many thousands of miles all the while staying in contact with everyone, being able to write this blog, is because of this industry. I imagine much of the gasoline, that magic substance that makes my bike Go, came from oil pumped out of the ground here.
As we toured the facilities, one thing that became very apparent to me are the tremendous risks involved in an operation like this. They deal with simply huge quantities of the highest energy transportation fuels we know of. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of pipe. Seemingly millions of pieces of interconnected equipment.
On the one hand we know what can happen when things go terribly wrong. There is always the business desire to reduce costs to increase profits. Infrastructure upgrades are always painful and with publically traded companies, such upgrades reduce quarterly earnings and thus affect stock prices. Often times, with lax regulation, safety protocols are ignored and Bad Things Happen as we are seeing in the gulf.
This is apparently similar to the device that failed in the Gulf.
But I imagined being an engineer, or a safety guy or an operations guy, who was responsible for designing this place. Imagine the magnitude of that task. Imagine coming up with the information systems, the mechanical systems and the human systems policies and procedures to make an operation like this run.
From what I see here, it's amazing this place runs. It's seems like such a hazardous line of work. Tens of thousands of individuals. Millions of pieces of equipment. And it all works, more of less, most of the time.
Everywhere around you can see small buildings dotting the horizon which cover the well heads themselves. Safety valves such as the one above are contained in each small building.
The tourguide, a native Alaskan who has done a tremendous amount of hunting, had this uncanny ability to see wildlife all around the operation I would never have noticed. I would strain to see the critters he was pointing out to the left and right. It's an excellent PR move on their part to have someone so versed in wildlife conducting the tour.
When a given critter crosses the road traffic stops. I watched as other vehicles also stopped, not just tour busses.
I was impressed by the number of critters seemingly living out their lives in the fields between the rigs unbothered by the presence of all this construction equipment. The tour guide pointed out a number of red foxes.
One of the scarier aspects of this operation is "natural gas injection". In the case of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, the oil isn't actually pumped out of the ground. It hadn't dawned on me but one doesn't see of the Texas style pumps out here anywhere.
What they do is take a portion of the natural gas that's separated from the oil and the reinject it into the ground pressurizing the entire field which forces more oil out of the pores of the rock.
The pressure use to reinject the gas into the ground is astronomical. Apparently a single uncontrolled spark at the injection site could cause the entire site and surrounding buildings to explode. The blast radius would be miles wide. If memory serves, there are several such injection sites at Prudhoe Bay. If any one of them were to go, the entire operation could be shut down for years.
The furthest point of the tour was on Prudhoe Bay, which is part of the Arctic Ocean. We were allowed out for the obligatory "walk around and dip toe into water" part.
The tour guide and I talked for a while about the operation. He was kind enough to shoot this photo of me.
There are a few islands in the distance across the water on which are oil well heads.
So I opted for the "boots in the arctic ocean" shot. I wasn't about to take my boots off out in this cold.The waterproofing goo I applied to my boots seems to work.
I talked to the German tourists a bit. They offered to snap a photo of me too.
We returned to the bus and having dallied at the water too long attempted to get back to the hotel quickly. Our progress was thwarted by caribou in the road. Traffic on both sides came to a halt. The tour guide explained that across the Prudhoe Bay operation wildlife has the right of way.
While we were at the water he had explained that grizzly and polar bears can be quite a problem. The grizzlies hibernate in the sand dunes in the field. Polar bears come back on land at some point. Taking photos of polar bears in forbidden. This is apparently due to it changing the behavior of the polar bear. They do hunt humans after all. Anyone caught taking a photo of a polar bear will be fined. For workers there, the tour guide said they could lose their contract. If a polar bear starts changing it's behavior and pursues humans it has to be destroyed.
We passed the Alaskan Clean Seas operation. These guys are experts in oil spill cleanup. I noticed the OSHA VPP Star certification and thought of my buddy Bruce, whose family I joined camping in Ouray, Colorado. Bruce is a safety specialist so I've heard alot of stories of what's involved in that line of work. Looking around the Prudhoe Bay operation I think Bruce would have a field day here. He has this incredible insight into how truly large operations are organized, both from a physical perspective and a human management policies and procedures one. I used to rent a room from him ages ago in College Park, before I bought my house. I learned alot about business from listening to him. I don't think he actually realizes how much I learned from him then and continue to learn from him now.
Signs of construction and construction equipment everywhere.
We got back from the tour. I was pretty tired at this point, not having slept the night before and having only gotten about 5 hours of sleep. I thought about taking a nap but I was told I had to vacate my room immediately.
So I got my stuff packed on the bike and had a couple huge cups of coffee. The KLR riders had reported massive mosquitoes. The tour guide had said the day before I arrived was the worst he had ever seen the mosquitoes in all the years he had been up there.
I walked out to my bike to leave when the sun came out and the wind died down. Within seconds of this, literally seconds, the mosquitoes were everywhere. One landed next to my keys.
Sorry it's blurry. THe mosquito is the huge thing in the upper right of the photo. It's was about half as long as the key. The wind would come and they would disappear for a few moments. Then they would be back with a vengeance. I put my helment and gloves on. The evil blood suckers attacked my transit suit. The bug spray I bought at Camp Coldfoot was working like a champ.
Then I noticed the first kamikazee of the day. This one seemed to be enjoying life for the moment.
During the tour the guide spent a great deal of time talking about cold weather conditions. All the roads around the operation had tall reflectors set up on the shoulders spaced evenly apart. Blizzards are a common occurance on the North Slope, what the larger area around Prudhoe Bay is called. Blizzards are measured in "Phases". Each phase is measured by the number of reflectors one can see from the cab of a truck. I forget, but Phase I is something like 4 reflectors. By phase III all traffic is forbidden except specialized emergency equipment.
Making sure engines can start in the extreme cold, which can reach -50degF or colder is a constant task. There are banks of extension cord racks in each parking lot. All the vehicles up here are equiped with block heaters, which you can tell from what look like extension cords hanging out of the front grills on these vehicles. Once it gets too cold engine oil gels and prevents engines from being started. A block heater keeps the engine oil warm enough to allow the engine to start in even the coldest conditions.
I wanted to find something I could attach to my bike to attest to the fact that I was up here. Ever since the very understated Deals' Gap Dragon sticker I put on my bike I've been looking for understated ways of marking my bike. Most guys just plaster their saddle bags with huge stickers. I hate the way that looks, so I wanted to find something small and understated.
For Pikes Peak and Yellowstone I picked up metal pins, like you would put on a shirt. I'll just file down the pin part and epoxy it on the bike. They are really small, like 1/2" wide, so only someone who looks really closely will notice them.
I headed over to the one "General Store", which had kind of a hard core construction and trucking feel to it. Upstairs they had some stuff to cater to the tourist crowd, of which I was firmly a member at this point. Outside the general store I snapped this photo. It's just another rig.
I looked around a bit. They had some native Alaskan art. I had wanted to bring some things back and had asked a friend what I could bring back for her. She mentioned liking "Dream Catchers", so I looked around the shop. They had some but none that I liked or would feel good about giving. "Too commercial.", I thought.
I did pick up a post card for a friend who asked me to send her one. Then I found a pin that would work. I paid for my items and headed back outside into the mosquito infested outdoors and headed out of town to points South. As I left I saw rain on the horizon.
Maybe I would experience how "truly 'orrible" the Dalton Highway can be. I was pretty seriously tired but awake enough to ride. As I headed out of town, I ran through swarms of mosquitoes. These things are so large you can actually feel them as they impact the helmet. You can hear them as well. Huge blood suckers. Even the caribou try to avoid them.
The road turned away from the looming rain storms on the horizon. I thought maybe my incredible luck streak would continue until ...
I've heard from people who live up here that the Dalton can become a real mess if it rains for too long. I guess I was going to find out.
It rained pretty hard for a while. It was long enough for the road surface to become good and wet. To top that off, for quite a stretch they found it necessary to wet the road even more using the water trucks. In addition, I found myself in a section where they were putting down new surface material, calcium chloride. There was a good wind from the right, for which I was grateful, since trucks coming from the opposite direction would throw up quite a spray of muck.
But even this road surface wasn't too bad. Yes, it was slippery. Yes, it was muddy. Muck got all over everything. But in the end, it really wasn't too bad. I was able to easily do 40mph on this stuff, slip sliding away.
In the intervals where it didn't rain they seemed to think it was necessary to water the road down some more. I had moved to the extreme right as I was sure I was about to get sprayed but this trucker turned off the water right before he passed. In contrast to what I had expected, truckers were very courteous on the road. They would move over if it was dusty. They would turn the water off as they passed. They would wave.
I was stopped at one of those pilot car required construction sites. I got to talking to the stop/slow guy for some time. It was a 20 minute wait until the pilot car came. He asked about the bike and told me stories of locals. There was some guy who had gotten very familiar with some black and brown bears in the area. He had semi-tamed them and would fly out to his shack somewhere out on the tundra. Eventually, wildlife and game or some other agency got wind of this. They fined him and took away his pilots license. Feeding bears is illegal because it makes them associate human activity with food which can be very dangerous. The construction guy seemed to think the guy knew what he was doing and should not have been fined like that.
Then he mentioned the naturalist who was eaten by grizzlies not too long ago, it was a famous case. And a woman who was attacked and killed by wolves who had been fed by humans.
There's alot of anecdotal evidence to say feeding wildlife is a Bad Thing.
The mosquitoes here were just harsh. It's strange. If you're moving they seem to disappear quickly but once you stop they swarm. It's as if they lie in wait for hours until some critter approaches then they pounce. I had to keep my visor down they were so thick. Some would get up in the visor and start buzzing around the helmet in terror. I had the bug spray on. Disgusting stuff but the mosquitoes seemed to hate it more than I did.
The pilot truck arrived and I was able to get underway. Within seconds I no longer heard the smack of terminating bloodsuckers. The road was good and wet and slippery for a while. Muck continued to accumulate on the bike. I was extremely tired and as I had shot photos of this area before I just rode on. Every now and again I would stop to take a picture.
This is not too far from Atigen Pass. As I approach the pass I noticed these low clouds that blanketed the tops of the mountains. I wondered what it would be like through the pass.
As had been the case for hours, the rain wasn't bad. It was just an on again off again drizzle that was just enough to wet the road surface in places. Most of the time the road was only damp.
As I approach Atigen Pass I noticed fog reaching to the ground.
"This could get interesting.", I thought as I wondered if I would run into anything difficult on this road. By now riding on this surface seemed entirely normal and I was able to do it without too much thinking. I was making really good time. At this rate I would be at Camp Coldfoot ini under 5.5 hours. I was really tired by this point, however.
I made my way to the area which had fog in it and just as I arrived and headed up the pass a breeze started and the fog was pushed out. The sun poked through and it got noticably warmer. I was making my way up the North side of the pass when I stopped in a pulloff to take a picture. I went to reposition the bike for a better view and let out the clutch lever out to go.
As had happened before, Nothing Happened.
I also knew, immediately, that this was not due to a piece of gravel stuck under the lower clutch lever arm.
"This could get really interesting.", I said aloud as I pondered being stuck here for an extended period. It was sunny here and warm with a strong breeze. Trucks passed by every now and again.
I stood there for a while taking in the moment. I took off my helmet and gloves and pulled out my earplugs. I surveyed the bike. It was covered in calcium chloride. It had caked on pretty thick, just like you would imagine cement does if you lob it at your bike for hours.
"Yea, I bet I know what happened.", I thought. I peered back to the lower clutch lever and sure enough, calcium chloride muck had accumulated under the arm and hardened layer after layer eventually preventing the clutch lever from dropping all the way. Hence the reason the motorcycle Would Not Go.
At this point, I was grateful for the gravel incident before. If it had not been for that, I don't know that I would have recognized that the lever was not all the way down.
I know this photo is a bit confusing. It was the best I could do. The band on the right is actually the rear tire. The camera is over the exhaust pipe, which is covered in calcium chloride and is lit by sunlight in the lower left of the photo. Directly in the lower middle of the photo is a muck covered catalytic converter. It's made of shiny stainless steel. As you can see, everything looks like it's covered in cement.
Above the catalytic coverter, in pretty much the exact center of the photo is a bar extending from right to left. That's the lower clutch lever arm. If you look, there's a little bit of space between the catalytic converter and the arm.
There should be alot of space there. You should be able to see clearly through to the engine. I hope that gives some indication to just how caked up this is.
So I got out my trusty victorinox and patiently attempted to contort my hand and arm in such a way to allow me to chip away at this stuff. This stuff is HARD. It's not quite as hard as cement, but almost. You chip at it with a blade and all that happens is a bit of dust comes off. You drill with the knife to cut a little hole into it and sometimes larger chunks come off. I worked on this for half an hour after which time I had made virtually no progress. I simply couldn't put enough force on the knife from that angle to get through the muck.
"Damn.", I thought, "I'm going to have to unpack everything, pull out the tools, and see if I can remove the rear wheel.". I was tired. Really tired. I took a break, had my remaining water and then thought, "Time to man up."
I pulled off all the gear and got under the seat to pull out my tool roll. "I have never used this toolset before to remove a wheel. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever need to make a repair on my bike using it before", I mused as I looked at my tools. The extension for the tire wrench had not been removed since the day I put it in the roll, 18 years ago. It had become fused with the roll.
It took 20 minutes to get the damn tire wrench extension out of the tool roll. It was glued in there pretty good. Without the extension there was no way to remove the tire.
Next, and I was starting to really hurt from fatigue, was removing the saddle bags. This was an operation that I had performed so often, it's like taking off shoes. It's something you don't think about or consider. Calcium chloride had built up to such a degree it took me over 20 minutes just to get the damned bags off.
I was really hurting now. It was all easy work but I was so tired.
I pulled off the little cover over the rear wheel bolts, dirt and dust getting all over me. I thought about how someone who was squeemish about their new $1400 leathers might be much more frustrated. "I bought this Transit Suit to wear to protect me, not to look good in.", I reminded myself as I get more and more covered in dirt, dust and calcium chloride. It got all over everything. Me, my hands, my gear, my clothes.
Using the extension and the tire wrench went to loosen the wheel bolts.
"Ummm, duh.", I thought. What problem could I possibly have encountered?
Wheel bolts are on pretty tightly. There's alot of torque on those bolts so when you go to remove them the wheel spins.
I put the engine in gear and thus the engine spins.
I put the bike on the sidestand. The whole bike moves.
What I usually do is have someone step on the rear brake, but inconveniently no one was around and the little Kamikazees were no help, being too occupied trying to achieve their warriors dream of ritual suicide.
"Ok, this could be interesting. Thwarted.", I thought as I imagined how long I could be stuck here. "How to push the rear brake pedal down?", I pondered. I couldn't tie it to anything. Maybe I could use a rock. Then it hit me.
Gas can! I hung the two gallon gas can full of fuel off the rear brake lever and it worked like a champ.
I got the rear wheel removed, but I had forgotten that you had to loosen the rear brake caliper to get the wheel completely out. Looking at how encrusted it was, it would take me hours to clean up enough to a point where I'd be comfortable taking it off. I pulled the wheel aside to see if I could get a better angle on the lower clutch lever.
Using the trusty victorinox swisstool and contorting myself from the right side of the bike, I started slowly chipping away at the rock hard muck. Pick, scratch, hit, pry, drill, scrape, scrape scrape to clear way the chips and dust. Repeat process.
I don't know how long this took. Probably three quarters of an hour before I got enough of the muck scraped away to let the lower enough to engage the clutch. I cleaned it out a bit further for good measure figuring I had more of the muck to travel through and I didn't really want to do this again.
At least it wasn't raining and it wasn't cold. I was out in the blazing sun but with the breeze it didn't get too hot.
As I re-mounted the rear wheel I wondered about torque settings. I could just hear Duncan asking "So Yermo, what's the torque spec on those bolts?". Defiantly, I tightened them tigher, probably tighter than spec but not too tight. The rear tire will need to be switched out in Washington State anyways so I'll address the torque setting then.
I packed some of the gear back on the bike and took a photo. No trucks had come by for some time.
And this was the photo I stopped to take originally. Over two hours had passed. I was really tired and what I had failed to notice was how dry the air was and the toll the sun had taken on me.
The shot wasn't that good. But it was good that I had the problem here at a pulloff rather than going up the middle of the pass at speed shifting between gears. That could have sucked.
I went over the pass, tired out of my mind and continued on. There weren't any shots I hadn't already taken. Atigen Pass was not quite as impressive the second time through. "It's just another beautiful pass.", I thought as I struggled to stay awake.
The road wore on but I was making good time. The clutch continued to work. The Dalton was not the road everyone said it was, but the risks were there. They were mundane risks. Fatigue. Dehydration. Mechanical failure. They were the usual risks.
But it's a good road. And by this point, despite being crazy tired, I was enjoying it. It felt right to be on this road.
The last 50 miles were hell. I started getting so tired I could no longer see straight. Innuits are said to have 200 words describing snow. I probably have as many to describe pain and fatigue.
I was horizontal hold lost hurting tired. I get so tired sometimes all my joints ache and my eyes lose horizontal hold. It's like they oscillate turning everything into a blur. Every once of my being wants to shut down. My body screams to let it sleep. I get to so I can't even form sentences any more and short term memory goes out the door. I shake my head violently trying not to close my eyes. Vision restored for another few moments. I tried to stretch, tense my muscles. I thought about stopping, I really wanted to stop, but I was concerned about bears. Grizzlies to be specific. I knew I would just fall asleep right on my bike and I would be easy pickings for the beasts. I soldiered on. It was a risk either way.
But it sucked, only because I was beyond the point of exhaustion.
I arrived at Camp Coldfoot about 3 hours later than I had expected. It was evening now. I parked my bike, got my room key, carried my gear into the room and promptly passed out, muck covered and boots still on. I don't know how long I was out, but it was a while.
After some time I woke out of one of those feverish sleep you get after you've overexerted yourself and every muscle and joint in your body just aches. Your hands and feet swell up. A callous had split open on my right hand and in general my right hand hurt like crazy. It ached just moving my fingers. My feet had swollen in my boots so they hurt. My back was in agony and every joint creaked.
So I got up and dragged my hurtin' worthless sorry carcass across the parking lot. There were no motorcycles. No busses. Just trucks. All the tourists were gone. I continued the slog to drag my carcass into the cafe and sat down at the bar still semi asleep and having trouble thinking. After quite a while, a different bartender than the one from the one the other night showed up, a hurried man with a curled mustache. I ordered a wine. He looked at me as if I was crazy and I said "man, if I could have a beer I would. I so want a beer but I'm sick so I can't, but I can drink wine and you don't have whiskey". "Fair enough", he replied.
I sipped my bad merlot and contemplated the ride down here when a man sat down next to me. He was watching the bartender. Some kid worker type playing cards at a table behind us shouted at the bartender rudely for another round of beers and the bartender jumped, leaving us, to bring the kid out his beers.
"Punk kid. That's just rude.", the guy next to me said. "He should get up and get his own fucking beer from the bar. He's just a punk kid. It's disrespectful." We got to talking about respect, courtesy and good manners. He was a bitter man, I would guess in his 50's. We talked about this work. He was a trucker working for one of the companies involved with the Alaska Pipeline.
"Maintenance. These fuckers aren't doing the maintenance that needs to be done.", he complained as I thought about the tour and impressions I had. "So much isn't being done that needs to be. As the oilfield is depleted, more and more sand is sent down the pipeline causing it to corrode. There's also this bacteria", he went on. "Like idiots we bought all the steel from Japan and it's cheap grade. I guarantee you it's not 3/4" any more. It's corroded. It'll bite them in the ass eventually. We just had a couple hundred thousand barrel spill up here not long ago, and that was just a small one."
Then he asked about where I was from and I told him about me being on a cross country trip. "Then I need to chide you about riding. You riders never pay attention. Make sure when you pass a trucker, to first be visible in his rear views. I had some idiot just blow by me and you know, we use the whole road as we're driving. I went to dodge a big hole and nearly ran the fucker off the road.".
I told him about my riding style, "Yea, if it had been me you would have seen me in your rearviews until we made eye contact, and I would have waved as I passed by. I'm the kind of guy when I see a trucker in the right side of a left hand turn lane I stop behind his tailer and prevent traffic from bunching next to him. Then after he's made the corner, because we know they have to cut the inside lane and would normally have to wait for all these cars to pass probably causing him to miss the light, then I go. I always enjoy the four way blinker thank you I get."
"Well, that makes you more considerate and more aware than about 99% of people out there", he replied.
"The way I see it, I'm a tourist out here just screwing around, you guys are the ones working, so I try to give extra consideration", I said. "That's smart", he said "you never know how many hours the guy has been working. After about 9 hours you get really tired". We talked for a while longer. He mentioned he was in his pickup truck and had given a guy who was broken down a ride. "15 miles out of my way and then 15 miles back!", he exclaimed. "I went out of my way. Gave him a ride. Dropped him off and the rude fucker didn't even say thank you! That just gets to me!". I told him one of the things I had been thinking about on my trip was how kind words, courtesy, nice gestures seem to have much less of a lasting effect than one rude event. "Yea, I know. When someone does something you expect, when they are courteous it's what you expect, so you think for a moment, 'that was nice', and move on. But when someone is an asshole, it sticks with you like a thorn in your back. That's probably why I'm still angry about this rude fucker three years later". Uncomfortably he got up and left.
I found myself thinking about the things I cannot let go. They are of a much greater magnitude. In some cases they are things people did with malice to hurt the ones I care about. They put real effort behind it, in some cases decades, in other cases years. I keep thinking about whether or not to write about it.
One spent a year and half going after my mother and me to do us harm after my sister was killed in an auto-accident. She got the absolute cheapest rental car imaginable because he complained so much about the money. He didn't want her to get a rental car at all. He wanted her to rely on my mom, my 70+ year old semi-disabled mom, to drive her around. I had offered her my car, a solid Mercedes. They had a combined income in excess of $250K/year and lived as if they made $40K.
After Gesa was killed in the horrific half on halk head on collision and her daughter in the rear child safety seat suffered a broken neck and other traumas, he filed a legal action against my mom. When that didn't work, he would call and threaten her, "You will never see your granddaughter again.". He wanted to be paid. He wanted part of my fathers estate, money from my mom, money from me. He was the one that left us h