North To Alaska

North to Alaska

OR

THE RIDE GOES ON FOREVER

I have wanted to ride to Alaska for just about as long as I have been riding. However, as things do, it never came to be. When the next to last daughter graduated from High School the plans had already been laid for the trip. However, she decided she would rather do the Smithsonian, so again, the trip was put off. 

That turned out to have been a good thing. First, the Smithsonian and that trip in general was great. Also, her bike had a small gas tank and would only do a little over 100 miles between fill ups and, as we found out, frequently, that would not have been enough. Then, my son moved to Anchorage, and there it was, a sign that could not be ignored. Not only did I need to go see the son and his family, there were also had cousins living in Eagle River, a suburb of Anchorage, whom I had not seen since who knew how long.

So, the trip was on. The date was set and the plans laid. The bike got new tires and brake pads all around, fresh air cleaner, spark plugs, oil change, and generally a going over.  In addition to my regular tire repair kit, as we have all heard stories about the roads, I threw in a spark pump and the bike was ready.

My sister Bobbe lives in Denver and is an outstanding passenger, as long as she is dry and warm and she wanted to go to Alaska. 

All through June, Oklahoma was trying to float away. I was originally planning on leaving about 3 AM Saturday. However, storms were moving through and promised to be doing so all night. I decided to leave early and deal with the storms in the light. I left about 8:00 on Friday evening and made it to Pampa TX. I ran out of the rain about the Texas Oklahoma border and finished the night in full moonlight.

The next day was cool until I got to Colorado. With the head start from Pampa I arrived in Denver about 2:00 PM. Bobbe was ready to roll and we quickly loaded the bike and headed north. Towards the end of the day, after looking at the map, we decided to stop at Wheatland WY. That turned out to be a good idea for as we found out the next day, there was a lot of nothing for quite a ways after Wheatland.

After Wheatland we were heading for Devil’s Tower. It was an interesting ride. That is an empty part of the country with trees being in very short supply. There is however coal, and a whole bunch of it. The coal companies are busy sending Wyoming to other parts of the country.

Devil’s Tower is a very much worth a visit. It is the remains of a volcanic plug that never made it to the surface. It just sets out there by itself in a very pretty location. You ride along on a nice road, top a hill, and there it is. We rode up to the visitor’s center and took a look. It was crowded so we didn’t stay long.

A note to the older riders: The National Park Service has what they call a lifetime pass. You have to be 62 to get one and when I got mine it cost $10. It gets you and one other into any National Park for free. It expires when you do and is very definitely worth purchasing.

After Devil’s Tower we fueled up in Hulet WY., and hunted down (literally) the road across the mountains to Montana. It turned out to be a nice scenic two lane. We picked up next road in a much warmer Montana and headed to Custer’s last stand.

This part of the ride was fairly warm and the scenery was somewhat lacking. There was a very definite shortage of trees. If you were not on a creek or river, there are no trees. That is how it was at the Custer Battlefield. I confess I was not that impressed. There is a national cemetery there as well as a visitor’s center. The visitor’s center was interesting, but the site itself was not, at least to me. The site is a series of grassed ridges with a road down the top of the main ridge. There are markers where a trooper fell and a bunch of them where the majority fell, and that is about it.

It had thankfully cooled by the time we headed north for White Sulfur Springs. There we found a nice motel and a good bar/restaurant. We also found some other riders heading south from Glacier. The word was that in the winter avalanches had closed the “Going to the Sun” road but it was scheduled to open the next day, the day we would be there. It was nice of them to open the road for us.

Bright and early the next morning, Monday, we headed to Glacier. The road headed into the mountains and the scenery was great. We stopped for a nice breakfast at Ovando which has grown quite a bit since the last time I was there.

Highway 83 north towards Kalispell is one of the most scenic roads I have been on. For starters, it is two lanes and does not carry a bunch of traffic. On the east side, is the Lolo National Forest and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. On the west is another range of mountains and eventually Flathead Lake. This is not a place to hurry, enjoy the view, there are few like it.

There was a line getting into Glacier, but, once that was done, we rode along Lake McDonald and then up the “Going to the Sun” road. Highway 83 is a scenic ride and one of my favorites, in the top 15 for sure. On the other hand Going to the Sun is in the top two.

The park is called Glacier for a reason. Glaciers carved the valley and the highway climbs the valley side. It is paved, but narrow, steep, slow and the views are like nothing you have ever seen. For the rider the main problem is keeping one eye on the road and one on the scenery, but there are numerous pull outs. Take advantage of the pull outs, again, this is no place to hurry.

Logan Pass is at the top of the Going to the Sun. There is a visitor’s center which is worth a look plus there is more of the magnificent scenery that needs looking at. We looked around for awhile and then headed out.

The crossing into Canada was not a problem. I was a little disappointed; they did not even stamp the passports. I think they profiled us and figured we were not likely to be drug runners.

We headed north towards Calgary and ran into a traffic jam due to an accident. We hadn't eaten, so we went back into town to eat hoping the wreck would be cleared up by the time we were done. After a forgettable meal we discovered it wasn’t cleared up but we did get through it and rode on to Calgary.

This was our first run in with the Canadian’s idea of road signs. We were looking for Highway 1, the main east west highway. I have seen better signage in the middle of nowhere. We dutifully followed the signs which lead us through residential areas and finally gave up and ask for directions. We finally found the highway and a motel and called it a day.

The previous morning had been a little cool: when we pulled out of Calgary it was seriously cool. As we were heading into Banff and the mountains it was into the jackets and liners and warm gloves in the AM. Be watchful for animals on any of the roads in this area, there are a lot of animals, some large, and they are not especially watchful of vehicles. The highway department has cleared trees and brush for a good distance from the highway and installed crossing tunnels. This all helps, but still, watch out.

We started off with Lake Louise which was just as spectacular as I remembered, and it got better from there. There was quite a bit more snow than when I was last there. You can see in the glaciers where the snow turned to ice. The ice has a blue green color while this years snow is white. Speaking of blue green color, that is the color of the lakes and streams, it is caused by finally ground rock dust, called glacial flour, in the water.

It was a slow cruise along the road with me trying to see the scenery, miss the animals and not run off of the road. Jasper is the park north of Banff. At last visit, we had turned back and not done Jasper. This time, we did. Jasper is every bit as spectacular as Banff with less snow and far fewer glaciers.

We pulled out of the park at the town of Jasper, and headed to Grand Prairie. Talk about a different world. We took what was billed as the scenic route, and it was, but it sure was different from Banff and Jasper. It was nothing but trees from just past Jasper until we got to Grand Prairie which is over 220 miles.  It doesn't take long to get all of the views of trees you need.

We stopped in Grand Cache and had a nice Italian meal in the Best Western and called ahead to Grand Prairie to reserve a room. With that done we rode on and made it to Grand Prairie around 8:30 PM. Not to worry, we still had plenty of daylight left. The nights were getting shorter the further north we went.

The first stop the next day was at a little motel/cafe which we had discovered in the Mile Post magazine. It was after a bit of road construction and we wanted to get out of our jacket liners. The second stop was in Dawson Creek, the start of the Alcan Highway.

Once again, we were bitten by the Canadians fear of directional signs, but we did find the milepost sign and had the required photos taken. There was also an interesting little visitor’s center.

We rode on to Ft.Nelson and there we faced a decision that would become familiar. Did we stop early, or go on? If we went on, were we going to have a place to stay that we didn’t have to share with a bear? The distances in that part of the world are long, and gas and lodging questionable, expensive, and often, shall we say, picturesque.

We stopped at the Ft.Nelson visitor’s center to see what we could find. The Lake Muncho Lodge sounded good, but it was full so we called ahead and made a reservation at Toad River.

It was just past Ft.Nelson that we saw our first, of many, black bears grazing along the highway. That stretch was an interesting ride. Not only did we see the bear, we saw some Stone Mountain Sheep and some Caribou. As advertised, the road went over, around and through the Stone Mountains. It was a very nice ride, but, I would not want to do that stretch in the dark or in the winter.

We made it into Toad River and checked into our expensive and picturesque motel. As a note, bring a ball cap and figure on leaving it. They have a world class collection nailed to the ceiling and walls.

It was just past Toad River where we saw Bullwinkle, complete with a full rack of Antlers. He was standing in a pool of water alongside the road eating grass. When we stopped, he looked up and when he figured we were no threat, he went back to eating. We went without coffee about 100 miles until we got to Muncho Lake which has a nice motel with a good restaurant. Then, it was on down the road. The MP3 player was getting a work out. There was no radio reception to worry about.

We made it to Whitehorse and decided to call it an early day. We needed to do some laundry and the next leg was going to be a long one. We checked into an old hotel in downtown Whitehorse and got domestic.

Bobbe had read about a museum called Beringia Interpretive Center which has to do with the Yukon area during the last Ice Age. In true Canadian form, we saw no signs or directions along the road. When I ask the hotel clerk we found it is in Whitehorse and it was, according to the brochure, open until 7:00 in the summer.

We decided that after the laundry we would check it out. When we got there we were informed that the director had decided to close at 6:00. It looked interesting and, as we were coming back through Whitehorse, we decided to check it out then.

After much discussion between ourselves, two customers and the clerk in the laundry we were directed to what was described as the best Mexican food in Whitehorse. Now, you might wonder, as I did, how good does it have to be to be the best Mexican food in Whitehorse? Whitehorse did not appear to be a hotbed of immigration from Mexico. However, we gave it a shot and it turned out great, sort of. It seems that a Quesadia in Whitehorse is not the same thing as a Quesadia in Denver or Oklahoma City.  But, when in Rome, we plunged ahead, and it was quite tasty.

The next morning, in clean clothes, it was into the jackets as we headed towards Fairbanks. Initially, I had not figured on Fairbanks, but the more I thought about it the more I wanted to go. I have been as far south as Acapulco and Fairbanks would be the furthest north, so far.

In the Milepost magazine it had mentioned a First Nation (Canadian for Native American), person a little outside of Haines Junction who made bowls out of Birch burls. Foolish us, again, we were expecting some sort of sign directing us to the place. Well, we did get a sign. It was cobbled together from busted lumber, spray painted and directed us down a dirt road to a house that would have to be cleaned up to make poor white trash level. We woke Art up, he said he had been sick and hasn't worked this year, also no one is bringing him any burls, but he did have a few and he also had some white fireweed that was pretty. Personally I think he was into another type of weed.

Bobbe did buy three bowls. That done, we rode on to a good breakfast in Haines Jct. which included a fantastic view of the St. Elias range. It was also in Haines Jct. that I paid over $28 to put 22 liters of gas in the bike. Twenty two liters is somewhat over 5 gallons. 

It was a little past Haines Jct. that we hit the serious road construction and started hitting the frost heaves. The road is laid primarily across a bog and the road base is wet. When water freezes it expands and that pushes the road into something like a roller coaster. There was no setting the cruise and getting on down the road. When you see a road sign saying slow down, do so. Getting a loaded Goldwing, or anything similar, airborne is not a good idea. Trust me on that.

We stopped at a very nice First Nation exhibit on the wildlife in the area. Did you know that a moose can dive as deep as 20’ to get to the grass on the bottom of a pond? Well, we all know that now.

Just after Beaver Creek we crossed into Alaska. Again the crossing was not a problem, just the few basic questions.  When you are in Yukon, you realize there are not many people living there. There is no farming, ranching, or anything else that I could figure out. After you pass TOK (rhymes with coke) Alaska it looks somewhat more like we are used to. People seem to actually be using some of the land.

We had dinner in Delta Junction. While there, we received a lesson in Alaskans idea of carrying weapons. In short, if they want to, they strap in on. At least one person came into the restaurant carrying a pistol in plain view. No one even blinked. You never can tell when you might get jumped by a bear or whatever.

We pulled into Fairbanks after 9:00 at night and the sun was looking about like 6:00. The original idea was that we make it to Fairbanks in time to go for a ride on a riverboat. However, it was late and it had been a long day, so we hit the sack and probably turned once before we were asleep.

The next morning dawned overcast, cool and raining.

When you decide to go on a long motorcycle ride, especially to someplace where it rains a lot, you had better be prepared to ride in the rain. To do that with any degree of comfort, you need good gear, not leather, which we had. So, we suited up, got on the bike and headed for Anchorage. It really wasn’t raining all that hard so it wasn’t bad, actually, with the good gear, it was a nice ride. We didn't get to see Denali as it was fogged in. However, we rode through some interesting areas. As the elevation increased, the temperature went down. At one point, it was down in the mid 40's. We were dry and reasonably warm in our suits and boots. Nothing leaked. I do love my waterproof over-gloves from New Zealand. For over 40 years I have been searching without success for a pair of actual waterproof gloves. With the over-gloves (http://www.rain-off.com/) no matter how much it rains my hands are dry and warm.

After arriving in Anchorage and looking up the relatives, one of the things we wanted to do was get some good fresh seafood. Gwinnie’s is a local favorite, and it is easy to see why. Talk about fresh seafood. The salmon I ate had been flopping around not too long before.  We got done eating about 9:30. The salmon were just starting to run in the local river and we went over for a look. Those fish are large, easily 3-4’ long. But, they were turning red which, we were told, makes them not good to eat. That is, unless you are a bear.

The weather, view and company were good. It was an enjoyable but too short visit and eventually the time came to head home. 

We had to hit the road early. We wanted to make Haines Jct. and that was over 600 miles with quite a bit of it being worked on. It was misting when we left Anchorage, and before we had cleared town it was raining, and doing a good job, it was back into all of the rain gear. Our road was up and over some mountains to TOK. At one point, we were actually looking down on a glacier then we were up in the clouds. Again, it was down in the mid to lower 40's. We stopped for a needed cup of coffee, but mostly just rode on. In good rain gear, which we had, and not cold enough to worry about icing, riding in the rain can be pleasant. 

We ran out of the rain just before TOK which was good. From TOK, it was road we had already been on. We cleared the border about 5:00 and from there it was about 200 miles to Haines Jct. Due to the late hour, the road was not crowded and the construction not too bad. The construction was only about 40 or so miles plus a few lesser sections.

By the time we circled Lake Kulane a strong wind was blowing and it was cooling off. We arrived in Haines Jct. about 9-9:30, checked into the motel (reservation) and hit the bar for a bite and a drink. They have good beer in Canada. When we left the bar it was after 10:30 and the sun was still up.

This had been one our hardest days. We did about 6-7 hours in the rain, a bunch of road construction and 642 miles. We slept very well that night.

We didn't hurry to get on the road in the morning. It was about 100 or so miles to Whitehorse and we didn’t want to get there before the Beringia Center opened. We didn’t, and the Beringia Center is worth a visit. It seems that Yukon and parts of Alaska were not covered with glaciers during the last ice age. It was part of the land route for people and other animals that migrated across the Bering land bridge to Siberia. They had some interesting exhibits.

That done, it was on down the road to fall over in Watson Lake. We were out of the construction; we had been this way, so we were just covering the miles. We stopped for gas and a drink in one place and talked with an English bicycle rider who had come up the Cassier Highway. He was on a more or less world tour on a bicycle.  The vacation time in England must be great.

We got to Watson Lake with no trouble. We were looking for a motel and turning around on the road and we fell over. A loaded Gold Wing is a handful at slow speeds, I knew that. I don’t know for sure what happened; I think we were going so slowly, on the slopping road the bike just fell over. Nothing but pride was hurt, and a couple of men helped us pick it up. 

We went on and checked into the motel and did the laundry again. While gassing up the bike three other bikes pulled up. They had come up the Cassier Highway and looked like rolling mud balls. They said they had been through about 30 miles of construction. On the plus side, they said it was a great ride. 

The next morning we got into the rain gear in anticipation of the muddy road and headed out. We missed breakfast as the cafe did not open early but we didn’t miss the rain. Indeed the Cassier Highway is a great ride. It is like a decent two lane in the lower 48, not as good as Texas two lane, but ok. The scenery was great. We stopped at Jade Mountain for some free coffee, which considering it was raining and it was still a bunch of miles to anywhere, was very welcome. The place is an operating Jade mine and they will be very happy to sell you all sorts of things made out of local Jade.

There was plenty of construction and it was muddy in places, but not really all that bad. We were stopped by a flag man at one place. After we pulled up a woman pulled up in a van and headed for the woods to walk her dog. The flag man said she should not do that as a grizzly had been watching them all morning.

This part, in fact all parts of British Columbia that we had seen was very beautiful. Even in July, there was snow you could ski on, right down at our level. However, there was very little if any development. We saw only one ski lodge. It was into helicopter skiing and the lodge was very small. They were not ready for a crowd.

After an all days ride we turned left on the road linking Prince Rupert and Prince George. We were back in the settled area with people, farms and the whole bit. It was also quite a bit warmer. We stopped for the night in Smithers. We had covered 569 miles for the day. Not all that far, but considering the road conditions that was a bunch. Like the three bikes from the other day, mine now looked like a rolling mudball. The folks at the motel let me use their hose and some old towels to give it a much needed bath. 

The next day, it really warmed up. We made it to Prince George and turned right and headed for Cache Creek. The scenery really wasn’t bad it was just vastly overshadowed by what we had seen. Plus, south BC is where all of the people live. By the time we pulled into Cache Creek, it was as hot as we had seen it and we were ready to stop. We stayed in a real nice log cabin style motel. It was cool and the food good.

The ride from Cache Creek to the border was mostly very interesting and a very good ride. The road runs down the Fraser River canyon and it is worth the trip. We went through in the morning so it was still cool. However, I’ll bet it warmed up later in the day. We eventually hit the four lane and headed for the border where, I am sure we picked the most trafficked place to cross. Other that the line and a little rain crossing the border was not a problem.

The part of the trip around Seattle I want to forget. We were on I-5 heading south, the traffic started building up a little north of Seattle and we were in a 4-5 lane traffic jam until about 25 miles south of Tacoma. This included the HOV lane. We stopped for gas and ask what the problem was and were told it was always like that. If I ever go back there, it will be at night.

Eventually, we got out of it and headed for St. Helen's. The road up was a good ride. This time it was not snowing so we had a good view. St. Helen's is still an active volcano. The mountain is still smoking and building a lava dome. It could pop off at any time. You can look on the slopes around the area and see all of the trees that were blown down by the eruption. They are all laying the same direction. The trip down was nice, same road, a little cooler and it was on to Morton for a nice dinner and a nice night’s sleep.

From Morton we headed through SE Washington. SE Washington has wheat fields that would be impressive anywhere. They are more so because they are on hill sides, and the hills are not small ones. These hills are piles of loess from the glaciers, and they are fertile. It was a nice ride, but it was getting warm. When we went through Lewiston it was past warm and into hot. As we were going up the canyon towards Lolo it was 108 degrees according to the bike thermometer. We called a stop and went into a restaurant for lots of water and a cool down. After that, we started climbing and it cooled off. The road going to Lolo is a great bike ride, a nice two lane road without a lot of traffic and great scenery. Lolo Lodge is at the top of Lolo Pass and is a nice place. It is made out of logs, the rooms are nice, there is no phone service or TV in the room and your cell for sure doesn't work. The motel also has a large hot tub for relaxing. The food was ok, the beer cold, the hot tub relaxing, and the night very peaceful.

Anyone who travels anywhere, especially so on a motorcycle had better be the type of person who looks on the good side. No trip is 100% great. There will always be downsides to any trip. The traffic in Seattle, balanced out by the view of St. Helen's: the 108 degrees in Lewiston against the ride to Lolo Pass. So it was with the ride into Salt Lake City. The morning was crispy, the scenery beautiful, the road through the mountains, great. Then came the afternoon, the road flattened out and then turned to 4 lane and the heat went up. That day set heat records in Salt Lake City, and the cooling system in an otherwise very nice hotel was not working well. Again, on the plus side, the seafood enchiladas at the Blue Iguana were very much worth the heat.

We wanted to not do the heat again, so it was up and out of Salt Lake City by 4:30 AM. We stopped to put the jacket liners in as we got up over 8000’ in the Wasatch Range. Then, like the end of every trip, it is just make the miles. We picked up 1-70 south of Rifle and rode it into Denver.

After a good nights sleep in Denver I headed SE to Oklahoma City. Over the years I have done every possible road between there and Denver. So, it was mostly set the cruise, turn up the tunes and make the miles.  

So, what can you say about a great trip. It was truly great.

Everywhere we went, the people were friendly. The Canadians could use a bunch of help with road signs and measurements. The Alcan Highway is not a problem. I had heard all of the horror stories, but that is all it turned out to be, stories. For sure, there was some road construction, but you can hit that anywhere. Just like always, use your brain and it can be handled. Garage to garage, it was a little over 9800 miles. No problems to speak of other than finding out that my camera had died and most of the photos were junk. The rear tire is about gone, the oil needed changing and a light bulb burned out. We got to see a lot of great country, visit with folks we don’t’ get to see much and had some adventures and are already planning the next ride. 

Not All Who Wander Are Lost