Undergrad Mark Smithgall's adventure on his Alaskan internship

Mark Smithgall stood caked in mud at the airport in Deadhorse, Alaska. The only clean clothing he had was what he was wearing: a black polypropylene t-shirt, swimming trunks, and hiking boots. A motorcycle helmet was his carry-on.

For a guy who's 6-foot-6, Smithgall didn't need help standing out in a crowd. But then again, he didn't expect to be at the airport in faraway Deadhorse, Alaska, after the Fourth of July weekend, let alone be fashionable.

Smithgall, 22, was planning to ride his motorcycle 850 miles from Anchorage to Deadhorse, a town on Alaska's Arctic Ocean coast that owes its livelihood to offshore oil fields in Prudhoe Bay, and back. In all, it'd be 1,700 miles roundtrip over four days.

But Mother Nature and Murphy's Law had other plans: Smithgall's riding for hours in rain and fog on the Dalton Highway, a gravel road through the mountainous tundra of north-central Alaska, spelled doom for the bike. Smithgall was forced to find MacGyver-like fixes when the bike broke down a couple times far from a mechanic's shop. Smithgall also remembers the trip as a baptism-by-fire initiation into adventure motorcycling in which he crossed paths with complete strangers who automatically took an interest in his life.

Nevertheless, Smithgall did return to Anchorage and Pennsylvania in one piece. And now, having graduate from Penn State on Dec. 19, he remembers that experience as one of the capstones of his college career.

"It's really amazing how I remember all the details," he says. "I remember two or three songs that were on my iPod playing that weren't my favorites, but when I hear them, I think of my motorcycle trip."

Smithgall, the son of Montoursville's Gary and Arlene Smithgall, interned with Alaska's Department of Natural Resources over the summer. Smithgall, a geography major, was going to work as cartographer, and he was excited to apply on the job what he learned in his classes.

The impetus for the internship was a reprieve from a semester during which he'd study until 4 or 5 in the morning. And, more importantly, it got him away from what he was all too familiar with, central Pennsylvania.

"That was the most stressful semester," he says. "I was applying for internships. I had four 400-level GIS classes and I was working very hard. I was basically starting over."

In the spring, Smithgall says he was procrastinating from doing classwork and watched a few online video clips of people riding motorcycles on the Dalton Highway. An impetuous Smithgall thought he'd give it a shot, too, while he'd be in Alaska.

For Smithgall, an avid outdoorsman, the idea made perfect sense.

"Riding your motorcycle in the Arctic Circle - how often can you do that?" he says.

Well, it almost didn't happen.

Smithgall used the long weekend around the Fourth of July to plan his trip. He'd take two days off work to make the drive north, and he made sure he had the important rations: new tires on his motorcycle, a tent to sleep in, and a gun and ammunition for protection against bears. And, he booked in advance a room in one of Deadhorse's two hotels.

For the first leg of the trip, Smithgall took Alaska Route 3 north as it snaked its way along the Denali state and national parks.

Smithgall spent the first night of the trip north of Fairbanks and set off for Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway, about 250 miles from Fairbanks, the next day.

There's not much there, save for a restaurant, a truck stop and a visitors center for the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. More importantly, a sign warns travelers to stock up on supplies like gas, food and water, because will be were no services until Deadhorse, some 240 miles of muddy, gravel road away. Smithgall wasn't worried, he says.

"I felt as though I was prepared," he says. "I was getting what I came to Alaska for."

Heading toward Deadhorse, Smithgall came upon two 18-wheel tractor-trailers, which he stayed with until Atigun Pass, a 4,600-foot-high pass in the Brooks Range. By then, the mud on the road was causing the motorcycle to fishtail on his ascent, and the rain and fog combined to limit his vision to less than 100 feet in front of him.

Atigun Pass might have been one of those fight-or-flight moments for Smithgall. He chose to fight, but looking back, he concedes it might have been the wrong decision to continue the rest of the way to Deadhorse.

"I stood at the top of the pass, and I thought, 'You're in the middle of nowhere and any number of mechanical issues could come up,' but I was stuck on going up there," he says. "If I knew then what I know now, I would have turned around."

Smithgall followed the two 18-wheelers down the mountain and put on his raingear. At that point, the weather was raining, and he says the fog was so thick that if he had been driving in Pennsylvania, he'd have pulled over.

A few seconds later, Smithgall saw two motorcyclists heading south. They told him that the road conditions were bad but not terrible. So he kept going.

Soon after, Smithgall started to experience the motorcycle malfunctions that hampered his trip. He was crossing a bridge when he had to downshift to fourth gear and only could maintain 40 mph. He pulled over, inspected the bike and discovered a damaged spark plug, which he thought was the problem.

Then, another group of people happened upon him: A group of researchers from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks saw him and offered him a dry spot to work on his bike. He says he was thankful for their offer but declined and continued to chip away at troubleshooting why the bike's engine wasn't running at full throttle.

Another fight or flight moment ensued: The researchers left, it was still raining and foggy, and despite the damaged spark plug, the bike still worked, though not well. He could turn back to Coldfoot, but he doubted his motorcycle had the gas efficiency to make it back through the rain and fog.

"I had just driven through hours of muck, and I knew exactly what I'd be going info if I turned around, but I didn't know what was going on to the north," he says. "I was trying to be optimistic."

So he kept going.

Smithgall still only could muster 40 mph on the motorcycle, and another 50 miles later, the engine quit. He tinkered with the bike and scraped off mud, all to no avail.

Then, he says, it came to him. He remembered when he and his brother used to ride their four-wheeler, which they'd have to push-start. So, he tried push-starting it.

Wearing his raingear and clopping around in mud, he ran for 30 feet and hopped on.

It worked.

"Even though I was in a bad situation, I wish someone was there to see me," he says. "I wish I could have seen me."

But his relief was short-lived, as the engine quit again a few moments later.

Smithgall had another idea: the battery. He remembered the setup of his van's electric system, and he tightened the motorcycle's battery terminals, which had vibrated loose.

Sure enough, tightening them worked. A push-start later, he was pressing on for the last 50 miles to Deadhorse.

For the last leg, Smithgall tried to play it safe - he did his best to avoid the largest potholes on road that might rattle the motorcycle, he says. The rain let up with about 10 miles to go, and Smithgall arrived in Deadhorse unscathed.

The bike, not so much. The next morning, Smithgall took it to Peak Oilfield Services for someone there to figure out why it was working correctly. (First, they invited him in for coffee, a donut and a chat about the previous two-day trek that put him and his bike in their shop.)

"I am very gracious for the guys up there at Peak," he says. "They showed me the utmost hospitality and generosity. They also only charged me a fraction of what I should have paid."

The workers at Peak found that the bike had a faulty ignition coil and let Smithgall call other Kawasaki parts suppliers in Alaska to find one. It probably wasn't a shock he couldn't find one - the coil he needed had been discontinued.

"I was glad to finally be around people again," he says. "I knew I was going to get out of there. It was a matter of how much it was going to cost."

Smithgall says he doubted the motorcycle had the fuel efficiency to drive to Coldfoot, and so he chose Plan B, the more expensive route. He booked a one-way flight to Anchorage and made arrangements to have his motorcycle flown back, too.

In all, Smithgall paid $450 for his flight, $250 for the air freight for his bike, and $100 for a case to stow that gun he bought for protection against bears - a lot of money for a college student, he says.

Riding around Deadhorse making arrangements for Plan B, Smithgall got muddied up again. Roads there aren't paved, and in the summer, the permafrost melts but won't seep into the ground because it's frozen beneath the surface. Smithgall says he cleaned up and put on the only clean clothes he had - that polypropylene shirt, the swimming trunks, and his hiking boots.

Apparently Smithgall was a sight for sore eyes, he says of a BP-Alaska executive who chided him on his appearance at the airport.

"He said, 'You're kind of dirty, don't you think?' " says Smithgall, who's sure that's what the exec said. "That's one of those things that's engrained in my memory forever."

Smithgall says could have unleashed a verbal assault, but, instead, he chose keep quiet. He waited for his flight, and as people filtering into the airport started to notice the motorcycle helmet that was his carry-on, he began explaining his trip and his troubles.

The conversation continued onto the plane, where Smithgall befriended a couple from Bethlehem, Pa., and told them his story. Meanwhile, the BP executive - who sat in the row behind Smithgall - probably was discovering that his comment to Smithgall minutes earlier might have been a little too presumptuous, Smithgall says.

"I've been accused of biting off more than I can chew in some situations, and this one definitely proved to be one of them," he says. But, "I've been blessed with a pretty level head in precarious situations, and it came in handy in this one."

Smithgall's epic Anchorage-to-Deadhorse trip came about two months into his stay in Alaska. To get there from Pennsylvania, he drove his family's 1990 Chevrolet conversion van, which recorded 200,000 miles along the way, west on Interstate 90. After two days he reached Great Falls, Mont., turned north on Interstate 15 and headed into Canada. He arrived three days later.

The internship consisted of custom mapmaking for projects in the state DNR's Division of Oil and Gas. Maps are eye candy for Smithgall, who can't explain his draw to them but knows they fascinate him, as evidenced by his spending hours reading the DeLorme "Alaska Atlas and Gazetteer."

Smithgall is proudest of a map he made that blends cities and towns of Alaska with one that includes oil reserves, national parks, and places where drilling is permitted. It started out as a request from a manager, and it ended up being entered into a student poster competition in the fall.

"I really like maps," he says. "I had the most fun with that because it was sheer cartography."