Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

Cantwell, AK to Burwash Landing, YK

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Date: Wed, 4 Sep 96 01:50:00 GMT

Copyright (c) 1996 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Chapter 25 - July 7 to July 20 Cantwell, AK to Burwash Landing, YK - 9340 miles cumulative

Extending 135 miles east from the crossroads town of Cantwell is the Denali Highway, a 4 lane super highway of bumper-to-bumper trucks, RVs, and cars all spewing forth noxious fumes while waiting that last 2 hours to get into Denali National Park. Welllllll, not quite. Denali highway, if it can really be called a highway, is a 1 1/2 lane generally quiet dirt road connecting the Richardson Highway at Paxson with the Parks highway at Cantwell. Before the construction of the Parks highway it was the only route to the park. Now, since there is an easy, paved route to the park the Denali highway makes for a good alternative for those looking for a little less crowding and a bit more adventure.

Of 135 miles, the first 2 1/2 and last 20 are paved, the next 15 and last 36 are smooth dirt, and the remaining 60 or so is rough, washboarded, potholed, and rocky. All the unpaved sections were built on the remains of old glacier moraines and valleys. Consequently the dirt was a fine, face powder dust that jelled into a solid, glue like substance when it rained. And did it rain. Of the three days we spend riding the unpaved highway, it poured for two. As the mountain obscuring sheet of gray rain approached we donned our brand new rain gear and continued on. But the riding, which was tough enough on just the dry dirt, became a monumental chore. The wheels stuck to the dirt like we were riding along an enormous strip of sticky fly paper. Each stroke of the pedals took more energy than the last. The rain stung as it pelted against our faces and sticky, gooey mud coated everything. Most of the no more than 20 cars coming the other way slowed to a crawl as they approached, probably more to stare at us in total disbelief rather than trying to not splash us. But the occasional jerk roared past splashing brown muddy water all over.

We had been told that the views of the Alaska Range from the Denali Highay were well worth the investment of time and effort. But, for us most of our views were glimpses of mountains between black clouds and curtains of rain. Occasionally, though, the glacier covered mountains shone through in all their splendor. We had to settle for closer views of the surrounding hills next to the road. Most of the road is above the 2300 ft tree line and has short tundra bushes. Flowers were in bloom everywhere, yellow daisies, purple lupine, and Alaska's state flower, the forget-me-not. Ponds, thousands of tiny, stillwater ponds dot the valleys and provide a pleasant surprise after almost each hill climb. Wildlife seemed strangly absent, but I suppose in the rain the caribou and bear find shelter like us humans. Just the little ground squirrels came running up to beg for food. Their short bushy tails stick straight in the air and shake back and forth with each step looking either both comical and cute. They didn't have any luck with us, though. We've learned the hard lesson that a human fed squirrel becomes a real problem later.

Facilities along the highway barely exist. There are three official campgrounds, two 20 miles from Paxson and one 30 miles from Cantwell. A small roadside turnout with just a pit toilet located 54 miles from Paxson serves as a third campground. But, roadside turnouts, dirt tracks and offshoots, and even some hiking trails provide ample spots for impromptu camping. There are even 4 roadhouses providing small restaurants, gas, and some lodging. They were generally quaint, small houses with nice rooms with sofas and chairs to get out of the rain for a few moments. One, the Gracious house, has been in operation since 1957. They provided much needed respite from the rain, but prices were out of this world. $8 for a hamburger, no chips, no fries, no drinks. Just a plain ole hamburger. A skinny slice of pie for $3.50, $1.75 for a small muffin, $1.50 for a can of soda, and *gasp* $4 for a shower, $5 if you use their towel and soap. Needless to say we did not spend too much time at these places.

As we sat in front of the Gracious house watching the gray sheet of rain approaching from the north, a somewhat pudgy man with wavey black hair, wearing a black nylon jacket plastered with pilot and Emergency Medical Technician badges came roaring up on a 3 wheel ORV. This was our opportunity to meet one of those most famous Alaskan bush pilots. He told us he's been flying from the Gracious house since 1977, summers only. In winter he heads south to his house in Arizona. He gives sightseeing tours and takes backpackers out for real wilderness experiences. But his real money comes during the fall hunting season. It's not uncommon for him to shuttle hunters, one at a time due to their numerous gear, to some backwoods spot for an 8 day hunting trip. At some $200 per person each way he can easily make $1000 or more in a day simply shuttling them and their load. But we do get the impression some of these hunters must have an incredible amount of money to burn. As we sat one man in one of those large RVs that really shouldn't have been on this road in the first place, came up to inquire about the cost of a fully supported hunting trip. After the preliminary questions, such as whether he wanted a plain ordinary caribou or a trophy caribou (I guess one is harder to find than the other) the pilot rattled off a price of $3000 per person for 8 days. The RV man accepted that price without even blinking an eye, which tells me he's heard and paid these prices before. Boy, for $3000 the two of us could live quite well for close to 3 months. Hunting, the "sportsman way, is one expensive sport.

Reaching the pavement and 20 miles later the crossroad of Paxson after 4 days on the Denali highway felt like hitting civilization again. The small Paxson hotel offered some of the best food prices we'd seen in days. Or at least we felt that their 8" diameter homemade chocolate chip cookies for $1.25 were a reasonable value. It really felt good to be back on a smooth road once again.

We had a decision to make, turn left to go to Delta Junction or right to Glenallen. If we went to Glenallen we'd be able to make a short trip into the Wrangell St. Elias park. But that direction happened to mean a horrendous headwind, added about 20 miles, and would end up with a campground that was 5 miles out of town. Turning toward Delta Junction, we already knew there was a large grocery store, we stopped there while on the bus, it was downhill most of the way, happened to have a tailwind, and camping was no more than 1/2 mile out of town. Turning left was too appealing to resist.

Paralleling the Richardson is the most famous Alaska Pipeline, a 20 year old 20th century engineering marvel. Approved for construction in 1973, the first oil flowed through on May 22, 1977. However, one long time Alaska resident told us it almost didn't happen at all. He said, "The oil companies were going to build the pipeline like any other pipeline. After all they've been building pipelines for decades and they know what they're doing. But the citizens of Alaska said no way. We've got permafrost up here. You can't build a pipeline like it's done in Ohio." So the oil companies called in the engineers, let's hear it for the engineers, who designed this interestingly complex 800 mile pipe reaching from Prudhoe Bay at the Artic Ocean to the port town of Valdez.

Now the first thing to understand about permafrost is it is permenantly frozen ground, mixture of water and dirt, just a few ft below the surface. Next, the oil entering the pipe is about 140 deg. F at Prudhoe and cools to about 90 at Valdez. What happens when you have a hot pipe next to frozen ground, the ground melts and the pipe sinks. Not a good thing to do to a relatively inflexible pipe. To avoid this, the engineers raised the 48 inch diameter pipe about 5 ft in the air on large steel cylinders. The cylinders are sunk into the ground up to 40 feet to provide a thermal path for heat to escape the ground. The pipe itself is supported on huge steel I beams located about 20 ft apart. These I beams rest on huge steel box beams that are mounted to the cylinders stuck in the ground. The bottoms of the I beams are coated with teflon to allow the pipe to move laterally due to thermal contraction or expansion. This above ground support method was required only in areas where the permafrost was particularly unstable (pron to melting). Otherwise standard underground pipline methods were used. About 1/2 the pipe is above ground.

Movement of the pipeline is a major concern, both due to thermal expansion and those nasty little earthquakes. Alaska was the scene of the largest earthquake recorded in North America, 8.5 on the Rictor scale. For thermal expansion they've put lots of zig-zags along the pipeline. It's not straight by any means. This will translate longitudinal expansion to lateral movement which is handled by the I-beam "shoes" as they call them. The pipeline also crosses 3 earthquake faults. Here, the pipeline is laid directly on huge 22 ft long box beams resting right on the ground. The teflon coating on the I-beam shoes were lengthened as well. The engineers estimate they can withstand a 22 ft lateral motion and 5 ft longitudinal motion, one pretty nasty earthquake. However, I happened to notice that in the initial thermal expansion caused when the hot oil started flowing, one of the I-beam shoes seems to be within inches of coming off the box beam. So I wonder how much margin there really is. I think that particular shoe should be relocated.

All of these devices to account for motion and permafrost melt seem to have worked quite effectively. I haven't heard of any pipeline disasters. I'd say those engineers did a purty durn good job, wouldn't you? Who would have thought the weak link in the system would be the cargo vessels used to ship the oil south, remember the Exxon fiasco. As we rode along I couldn't help but notice how nice the path under and over the pipe looks. I wonder what they'll do with the right-of-way once the pipeline is taken out of service. I assume, at least hope, they'll remove it. But what happens to this 800 mile strip. Hmmm, imagine an 800 mile bike path from Prudhoe to Valdez. Perhaps Rails-to-trails should start working on a minor donation from the oil companies sometime in the future.

Cruising into Delta Junction was a breeze, another couple of those near perfect riding days. A roaring tailwind gave us a big push as we decended 2000 ft overall. At one point I looked ahead to a nice gradually descending straight 5 miles of road. With hardly any need to pedal I just sat back and reveled in the easy riding. We'd descended back into the trees. Aspen and pine lined the road making everything look like a lushly forested wilderness. Except for Ft. Greely. Out in the middle of this wilderness, about 5 miles from Delta Junction is the Army Artic training facility, Ft. Greeley. It's presense isn't very noticible except for one area with carefully manicured lawn and a camoflage painted tank. The tank just seemed so out of place.

The booming megalopolis of Delta Junction, about 700 inhabitants, provided ample opportunity to replenish our food supply, get showers, wash clothes, clean all that sticky gooey mud off the bikes, and just get a rest. We'd been riding for over 10 days with no breaks and it was high time to take 2 days off. We stayed in the state park just outside of town and spent our time watching the various travelers heading up and down the AlCan come and go. People in every imaginable form of conveinence pass this way. Pick-up trucks with cab campers, cargo vans doubling as living quarters, cars and trucks towing trailers, motorcycles with camping gear piled on back, lots of bicyclists all headed south before the fall weather hits, and the monster of them all, huge semi tractor trailers pulling those enormous 5th wheels. What a contrast, our little 2 person yellow Marmot tent next to a huge 40 ft RV. Yet we find the folks in RVs tend to go inside and stay, only exposing themselves to the elements for a short, short walk around the campground. We tenters and the folks in the vans stay outside all evening. Somehow I think we're getting the better Alaska experience.

The famous AlCan highway begins, or ends deepending on your frame of reference, in Delta Junction at the intersection with the Richardson Highway. This is where folks heading north breath a sigh of relief as they now have those hundreds of miles of construction behind. Those of us headed south look down the road with trepidation. We've seen this road from the back of that van/bus one month ago and it was ugly indeed. With only 100 miles to Tok and miles of construction soon thereafter, we expect riding to be tough for the next 2 weeks, at least until we reach Whitehorse. But, our van ride was a while ago, so maybe, just maybe some of it has been finished. That may just be wishful thinking, though. So after two days of preparation and rest we loaded the bikes, turned to the southeast, checked our willpower, and rode on.

The sky was gray, the continual drizzle tried to dampen our spirits, and it was actually quite cold. We've learned that in Alaska it's either comfortable warm, when the sun decides to grace us with its presense, or it's cool to cold, when it rains. Weather changes rapidly, go to bed to a clear blue sky, awake to the sound of rain drops pelting the tent. One quickly learns to accept nature's fickle attitude when on bike tour, but for this particular day I happened to have caught a head cold. I was in no mood for more rain. Coughing, hacking, wheezing, gasping down the road I felt as though I could hardly turn those blasted pedals another single time. OK I exagerate but I did feel quite under the weather and any kind of change in health is quickly felt in one's level of strength and endurance. With two 50 mile coughing, hacking days between Delta Junction and Tok we decided it was best to take another day off so I could recover.

As we rode into Tok we passed another bike tourist couple, there seems to be a zillion bike touring folks up in Alaska this year. The number of folks in the large RVs is actually down by about 15%, so we've been told. It's a combination of the recent large increase in gas prices and the miles upon miles of road construction we were to suffer through soon. So I guess, it's the year of the bike tourist instead.

This particular couple had left from Anchorage about 2 weeks earlier and had another week left of their vacation. We stood by the side of the road and talked for a few minutes. Before long we learned than the man was one of our keypals, Bert. We were stunned. This was the second person in no more than 2 weeks whose heard of us and read some of our newsletters. About a year ago Bert finished a one year, 18,000 mile tour of all 50 states, computer in tow. I had started emailing to him just as he was finishing. How incredible to meet up in the middle of the road betwen Tok and Delta Junction. Once again the strange coincidence magic of Alaska strikes.

Tok is the first good sized town one reaches after driving, or riding, up the Alaska highway from Whitehorse. Originally it was one of the U.S. Army camps used during the creation of the highway way back in 1942. The Alaska highway was built as a very primitive, pioneer road in the summer of 1942 in response to Japanese movements on the Alutian islands. The Japanese actually invaded and occupied two of the islands until the U.S. Marines drove them off, the only WWII battle fought in North America. Fearing further aggression and an inability to supply troops, Roosevelt authorized the construction of the road. The first road was a hilly, bumpy, muddy, track that had virtually no grading, makeshift pontoon bridges, curdory roads made with parallel logs. Pictures in the Tok museum and in a book about the highway were just incredible. Unfamiliar with how to construct on permafrost, the engineers first stripped off the topsoil and built the road. Consequence, the permafrost quickly melted creating a muddy bog that swallowed cars, trucks, and horses. So they started building the road high, on top of the top soil, to provide insulation. It worked. This is essentially the same practice they use today.

The road was built from both ends, starting in Fairbanks on one side and the Canadian town of Dawson Creek on the other. Dawson Creek was selected simply because it was th end of the train route. Fairbanks was home to a military installation. The opposing forces joined the ends at a place called Soldier Summit near the southeast end of Kluane Lake. Fortunately the very next year a second crew came out to improve the road, put in more permenant log bridges instead of the pontoons, do some grading, straighten some curves, etc. They've been improving the road almost constantly ever since. We understand in just the most recent reconstruction projects they've eliminated so many curves they actually reduced the road length from Dawson Creek to Delta Junction by 50 miles. And they're still at it.

Back to Tok. Today the town is simply a stop over point where people breath a sigh of relief for having gotten past all that construction, load up on supplies, and make the decision of whether to go to Fairbanks or Anchorage. It's a town of two reasonably well stocked grocery stores, several RV parks, hotels, trinket shops, restaurants, gas station, and auto and RV repair shops. A favorite activity seemed to be washing off that caked on mud from the previous 150 miles of construction. Cars and RVs all looking the identical lumpy shade of dirt brown pull up to any available hose and uncover white siding underneath all that brown. And we're about to ride through all that?

The AlCan highway south of Tok takes you over undulating rollers, as our bike touring book likes to call them, past those really strange black spruce forests. The incredible Wrangle-St. Elias mountains graced the distant horizon with their pale blue slopes and white crested peaks. The weather started out overcast and gray, but the clouds finally parted and the sun shone through. As the weather cleared, so did my head making the day seem all that much brighter and sunnier. Our first night since leaving Tok was spent in a National Wilderness Refuge campground on a roadside lake. We pulled in early, having plenty of time to talk to and watch a couple of women from Saskatuan paint the incredible lake. But, even paintings and photos could never truly recreate the vast range of blues, grays, whites, pinks, oranges, and roses of the sunset reflected in the lake. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful lakeside evenings we've seen in a long, long time. I could understand our resident campground painters' desires to capture it both on canvass and film.

Roads on the Alaska side of the border were actually in extremely good condition. Areas with construction were usually very hard packed dirt, smooth and easy to ride. However, on the Canadian side, life got much more difficult. Areas where the road has been torn up, but not repaved are covered with marble sized gravel. Riding on this surface, the rocks roll out from under the tire making for a very unstable feeling. You really got the impression the entire bike as going to slide sideways out from under your legs. We cringed each time an Rv, pick-up, or semi came by as they were always trailed by hundrds of yards of dust clouds, getting dust in our eyes, up our nostrils, in our mouth, sticking to our sunscreen covered faces. The semi drivers tried so hard to go as slow as possible, but there was nothing they could do to prevent that dust cloud. Most of the RVs were nice enough to drive slow also. But, as always there were the ever present jerks who just drove through as if they were on a nicely paved superhighway. These stirred up huge, impenetrible dust screens that forced us to come to a halt and cover our faces. We just cannot understand why the RV folks drive so fast. As Brian says, "They drive like crazy so they can get to Alaska to relax." Why not make the entire drive a relaxing exprience.

Construction on the Canadian side extended from the border to about 60 miles south of the border, but about 30 miles of it were paved, another 15 was finished but not paved, and the rest under current construction. We learned a little about how the road is being rebuilt during one of our two pilot car rides. By agreement between the U.S. and Canada, the U.S. is responsible for maintaining the Haines Highway from Haines to Haines Junction and the Alaska Highway from Haines Junction to the border. During the last two decades both highways, Haines and the entire Alaska Highway, have been undergoing a complete rebuild and improvement. Haines highway was improved in the late 70s, early 80s. Money ran out until the late 80s when Congress appropriated another bunch to start improving the 260 miles from Haines Junction to the border. At this point they've completed about 30 miles north of the junction, another 35 around Bever Creek, and have about another 40 ready for the final chip seal.

"Why," we had to ask, "has it taken so long?" The government tightly controls how and when each section gets done. Only 3 KM sections can be "opened", actively worked at a time. But there is enough flexibility in the contracts that, depending upon the current state of a section, another adjacent 3 KM can be opened before one is completed. The construction seems to be a multi year process due in part to the super short summers and problems associated with the permafrost. In the first year the surveyers come through and decide where the new road will be, straightening out most of the sharp curves. Next, they come through and cut a wide swath in the trees, probably the same year they do the surveying. It also appears that some preliminary test grading is done in areas of potentially unstable ground. They then wait one or several years for the funding for that section to become available and for the test grades to move or do whatever they will after exposure.

Next, they move in some heavy equipment to place all the culverts. Some of these are huge 20 ft diameter steel cylinders. After more surveying and planning of grades and slopes the next year they finally come in with the huge earth movers, blasters, graders, dozers and build the road bed. Mountains are blasted if they happen to be in the way and dirt and rock is piled as high as 10 to 15 ft thick in permafrost areas. A smooh, wide, rock covered road surface is created, 3 KM at a time, and left to sit for 2 years. They've discovered if they try to pave it too soon the road will simply deterioate within a few short years. They need to let the general traffic pack down the road bed for a couple years before adding pavement. Finallly, about 5 years after they started they lay the chip seal creating a huge, wide, and smooth road. Is the result good? The road will be wide, flat, straight, smooth, and have huge shoulders for bikers. But, gone is the skinny, twisty, 2 lane country road. Gone is the adventure of driving the Alaska Highway and surviving. Gone is the wild experience. You tell me. But, after hearing the story of construction we now understand why it's taking so long. If you go to Alaska via the AlCan anytime in the next decade, expect construction between Haines Junction and the border.

Appendix A - Route

Denali Hwy to Paxson Richardson Hwy to Delta Jct. Alaska Highway to

Appendix B - Camp sites


Brushkana BLM campground, Clearwater wayside, Tangle Lakes BLM campground, Delta State Recreation Site 3 nights, Dot Lake Lodge ($), Golden Bear Motel and RV Park in Toks 2 nights ($), Lakeview NWR campground


Westmark RV park in Beaver Creek ($), Pine Valley Lodge ($) Burwash Landing RV park

($) indicates fee camping


Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.



We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.


Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site,

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