I’m not quite sure what the hell has just happened.
I’m cold and saturated lying on my side in the boggy tundra, a strange whirring noise filling the air, my elbow hurts and there is a dog on my head. It takes me a moment or two to comprehend…
Ah yes, of course, the dog is Frankie, the noise is a fridge, and I’m in Peroy Jones, the VW bus from Detroit owned by Pete Novak the American guy who is groaning and hanging from his seatbelt above me. Hmmmm… yes, all starting to make sense now.
It’ll take a bit to explain exactly how we found ourselves here, so if you don’t mind, I might just begin from a few days earlier. I’ll try to keep things brief.
5 days ago I decided I was going to hitch-hike 1600 kilometres from Fairbanks, Alaska to the Arctic Ocean and back – to the top of the world. Why hitchhike when I already have a bike? Well, essentially I didn’t want to shake my highly modified bike to bits on what I knew to be an infamous road, namely, the Dalton Highway. I’m just not good enough at fixing things yet to justify inevitable issues with my bike afterwards…
Rather fortunately I met a cool German girl, Maren, who was thinking about doing a bus tour up to the Arctic circle before she flies back to Germany in a few days. Didn’t take me long to convince her that hitchhiking, and going all the way to Prudhoe Bay instead would be way more interesting…
So we made a sign.
We quickly got two different rides, one from a nice Fairbanks lady, and another from a friendly father and daughter duo who were out to hunt some grizzly bears as a celebration for the daughter (Katie) having graduated high school.
After hours of driving we arrived at the Yukon River, where we saw an old VW van putting into the gravel lot. This is where we met Pete, a friendly guy from Detroit who didn’t hesitate to offer a lift when we approached.
Turns out he’s already picked up another traveller, Norah, a wilderness guide from Finland with big hiking boots and a great smile.
Pete also has another friend – Frankie, a super sweet staffy-cross, who loves people, but not other dogs or rabbits.
So we all pile in to the 1966 VW bus and head north for a few more hours.
and a few hours more…
Was great cruising and chatting with new friends in such a classic old bus…
At one point in a somewhat featureless landscape a rather phallic rock jutted from the earth. We needed a break, so we sat on it for a bit.
After a good many more miles of potholes we eventually arrived at the Arctic circle – the latitude on Earth where the sun will not set on the summer solstice, nor rise on the winter solstice. From here on up we were heading into an intriguing landscape…
But it was a short stop – we had miles to cover, onwards and northwards we trundled for a few more hours, until we reached a break in the spruce forests that looked to be a good place to camp. We cooked some delicious salmon and pasta – Norah and Pete had the caught the salmon the day before.
It never got dark that night. The next morning I cooked pancakes, we broke camp and pointed to the Arctic Ocean again. We entered the Brooks – a majestic and revered mountain range. I fell in love.
We stopped every now and again to put more gas in the van – ain’t no gas stations out here – but there’s more mosquitoes than I have ever seen in my life.
And then it was time to say goodbye to Norah, but please let me digress for a moment.
Consider this - carefully if you don’t mind.
Norah quietly smoked one of her 6 milestone cigars as she packed the last of her 40kg backpack. We all hugged – I kind of wanted to go with her. Follow her on the 1 month, 300 mile, solo hike across incredibly remote Alaskan wilderness. She modestly told us that she’d be fine, because if anything went wrong she’d only be a 3-day hike from the road. Right.
And then she was off on her way, to where no trail lies, completely alone, except for the healthy grizzly bear populations and mosquitoes.
In fact right now, as you sit in comfort reading this, Norah is out there – by this stage she’d be in the Brooks Range – those gigantic mountains you see in the background below. Imagine.
So yeah, hats off to Norah, because I don’t even have one bloke mate who’s done anything like that – and she’s doing it quietly and like a boss.
Perhaps next time you think something is a little challenging, think of this chick, and then just go do it.
Good luck Norah.
Ok, I’m going to speed things up a bit. We trundled through the rest of repetitive tundra until we arrived at Prudhoe Bay. It’s basically just a camp for the oil company workers – felt like a rather depressing place to me to be honest. Although was great to see some Caribou. We also saw a big wolf the day before.
We did however score a free dinner and camped in my tent under the industrial architecture (?). Next morning we swam in the Arctic ocean, on what was probably the most grim beach I’ve ever been to.
Then it was time to say goodbye to Maren, she jumped on a little plane on her way back to Germany, we all hugged again then split, Maren into the air, Pete and I back onto the Dalton highway, but this time, heading South.
Felt so good to start heading south – felt like a beginning of sorts…
As we drove along for the remainder of the morning, I fell into a content sleep, happy in the knowledge we’d made it to the top, and excited for what lay ahead.
But I was quickly woken by a sudden change in the driving. Somehow we were now on the soft shoulder of gravel travelling at about 40mph/75kmh. Next we were tipping, we were flipping. Everything was crashing. On the side, on the roof, on the other side, on the wheels, then on the side again. Smashing, crashing, holding onto anything to survive. What the hell is going on?! Funny thing is, it happened so slowly, I remember clearly thinking, is this actually real? Is this some gnarly dream I am in?
Real it was – the ditch monster had got us. Reached up, grabbed us and rolled us 1 and ¼ times.
There we lay in the swampy tundra, on the permafrost, everything seemed to be heaped on me, even the poor dog who didn’t have a seat belt on.
Turned out two big oncoming semi's had forced us to give way more than usual, and compounded by the effects of a wayward mosquito in Pete's eye, lead to one wheel in the ditch, then two, then…
Luckily the when we were rolling on the roof, the racks had taken the brunt of the weight and probably stopped the roof itself from crushing in on us. Lucky.
Poor old Frankie had been thrown around inside the bus (along with the fridge and everything else), she was shaking and trying to find a way out amongst the mess inside. Gave me a lick as I pulled her out, such a great dog.
I thought we were finished with the bus, was ready to catch the next lift we could hitch back down to Fairbanks.
Here’s a VIDEO below to better show the state we were in.
Thankfully a truck came after a while…
Dan (left) and Paul (right) were awesome. Pulled us up and out in no time.
That was everything the truckers could do, so we said goodbye. And thank you very much.
Next, 4 compound-bow hunters showed up, and helped us get the rack and gear back on. They had hunted 5 Caribou in 3 days.
Pete got to work on fixing the engine, did a stellar job. The distributor was buggered (smashed by the battery) but he had a spare to swap into it. Played with the timing a little, then vroom vroom...
But while we worked, so too did the mozzies.
Inside was destroyed, the interior panelling smashed. All of the exterior body panels were dented. The roof was the worst. But the whole van faired surprisingly well considering. Only one of the doors worked, we strapped the other 3 closed, same with the rack – all done with tie downs.
Really glad the girls weren’t in the van, no seatbelts in the back, things would’ve been bad. Scary to think.
Somehow Pete got her started and to my disbelief we drove the thing out of there.
Soon though we had to drive over the Atigan Pass – the highest road pass in the whole of Alaska – it was a tense crossing, but the rainbow omen proved solid and we made it through safely.
Ironically it was a beautiful 2 day drive back, albeit one beset with a feeling of disbelief and generally not-so-stoked-ness.
We camped for the night and straightened out the van – not an easy task.
Next morning was a bit scary going down some of the big hills – hoping the rig would hold together.
But everything was sweet – we were gonna make it!
Once we put out the engine fire of course..
But Pete fixed it again and we kept on truckin’
Stopping only for the other 2 breakdowns.
Eventually, 2 days after the roll over, we made it back to Fairbanks, and gave Peroy a well deserved wash.
Then some random guy pulled up outside the car wash in a VW of his own, and after a brief chat told us to follow him to his mate’s place… So we did.
Turned out his mate was Mike, a VW fanatic and owner of many models and spare parts. He had some doors that could replace the trashed ones on the passenger side of Pete’s VW. Super nice guy who offered to help fix up the wounded bus.
Now I am back Fairbanks. It’s been quite the few days. I’m a little tired and my elbow’s a little sore, but overall I’m stoked - I had a sleep-in in the tent this morning.
Everything’s turned out great in the end and a new chapter is beginning. Pete’s got some great plans to fix the van up in Alaska with Mike before he takes her back to Detroit. He's already fixed the doors yesterday afternoon.
Frankie still hates rabbits.
I need to go surfing. Canada is calling.
But to get there I’ve got the longest journey ahead of me I’ve done yet, so I’ll be going slowly and carefully. I’m hoping this rain will clear.
Thanks for reading.