Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Up the Alcan (Part 2)

Yikes...where has the summer gone? Ahem, where was I?...

We rode out of camp at 8am on the morning of June 23rd but only made it a half mile before the promise of hot breakfast lured us to a roadside diner. Our bellies full, we continued up the Alcan, passing a huge herd of bison in the first few miles. We had seen another large herd - or perhaps the same one? - a few miles outside of camp the previous night, as well as a large Grizzly sitting alongside the road, eating berries and paying very little attention to the continuous stream of gawkers.

We crossed into Yukon Territory, pausing to take a photo of the welcome sign with our bikes. Some of our biker friends from the campground stopped, and we took their pictures for them. It was like this throughout the day and week, continuously running into folks we'd seen elsewhere on the road. Everyone was more or less headed to the same place, and everyone on roughly the same pace. It was nice to see familiar faces out in the wilderness.

We passed through Watson Lake with its signpost forest and settled in for a long slog of straight, flat road with little to see other than a few bears we glimpsed as we rode by. This was what I had thought the Yukon would be like. But it was, in fact, a small sampling, for the Yukon would prove to be much more diverse and beautiful than I'd imagined. After an hour of flat cruising, we ascended into the Cassiar Mountains, the road meandering high above the Rancheria River. These are not tall mountains, persay, but their low treelines and bald ridges give them a wild look. Dark clouds leered over the peeks and spit out menacing rain shafts, but the road always turned before we got to them. Once, three fat raindrops slapped onto my visor. It was the only rain we encountered between Portland and Alaska, which is truly astounding if you know something of the region's climate.

In Swift River we stopped for gas and lunch; the roadhouse proprietor happened to be an avowed Minnesota Twins fan. Near Swan Lake, where the Alcan briefly dips back down into British Columbia, we saw three apparently wild mustangs. At Teslin, we crossed the scariest steel-grated bridge I've ever had the displeasure of riding across, which also happened to be the longest bridge on the Alcan. I rode onto it at around 40 mph and was instantly weaving like a madman. This is fairly normal when riding on steel grating, and while it feels uncomfortable, the best thing is to stay loose, not lock up the handlebars, and accept the unstable feeling. This one, though, wanted to throw the BMW into the guardrails. About halfway across I got it under control and dared to look in my mirrors at Dawn. She looked steady as a rock on her FZ6.

Past Teslin Lake, we passed through a beautiful valley in the White Range that reminded me of the majestic VĂ„ltedalen we'd driven through in Norway. It was now late afternoon, and surprisingly hot. Whitehorse was a welcome sight, and a much cuter, nicer town than one would think. All the other northern towns to this point had been fairly ugly, functional and industrial. Whitehorse has the advantage of some quaint architecture from the gold rush days, and has obviously been prettied up for the tourists. It occupies a nice spot on the Yukon River, has a great number of scenic, historical, and sporting destinations within reasonable driving distance, and is easily reached with airline service from Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. It would, I think, make a very good vacation destination in it's own right.

After doing some shopping, we set up camp at the Robert Service Campground on the edge of the city, headed back downtown for a few brews, and returned to cook dinner at nearly 10pm. It felt like 6PM in the warm evening sunlight. In camp, we talked to our neighbor, an old-timer who, we later learned, was returning home from a doctor's appointment at which he learned he only had a few months left to live. He regaled us with stories of life in the logging camps back in the 50's and driving heavy trucks down the Alcan in the 60's. While we ate, he wandered across the campground and chatted with other campers, then returned to crack ribald jokes and expound on his favorite pasttime, gold panning. He had just spent a few days panning on a friend's claim, and he showed us a vial containing 10 or 15 grams of gold - at today's prices, a pretty good payoff for a guy in his 80s panning recreationally. Finally, after midnight, we had to excuse ourselves to get some sleep. In the still-light tent we could hear him shuffling across the campground, stopping to greet anyone still awake. I felt bad for the guy; he struck me as a lonely man who wanted nothing more than to have someone to talk to for his last few months.

Friday morning we left Whitehorse with a little bit of trepidation, for we were to finally ride on the stretch of road that everyone had warned us about. Thus far, the Alcan had been in better shape than the average country road in Minnesota. Past Destruction Bay, we were warned, it was far worse - potholes, frost heaves, and a hundred miles of perpetual construction consisting of teeth-jarring washboards alternating with thick, loose gravel, all of it obscured by thick, choking dust. As it turned out, we didn't need to wait for Destruction Bay: there was a 10-mile stretch just outside of Whitehorse, and it was tough riding. Brad, of course, was delighted to be off pavement. He tore off ahead on his KLR650 at top speed, soon came flying the opposite direction, and then passed us a second time. I was happy to be done with the construction zone but worried about what awaited us past Destruction Bay.

Shortly after, we passed a huge Grizzly, and a bit after that, a sow with two cubs. Wisely, none of us slowed down or turned around for that. We afterward learned that a sow with two cubs had charged a motorcyclist in that area only the day prior. Approaching Haines Junction, the pavement got rollier and more potholed, making it necessary to pay attention to the road rather than staring at the majestic wall of jagged ice appearing on the horizon. With each bend, the St. Elias Mountains became more massive and beautiful. I got a sudden sense of just how far north we were; just on the other side of those mountains was Alaska!

We filled up in Haines Junction and continued northwest to Kluane Lake, passing a few more bears along the way (ho, hum!). The lake was strikingly gorgeous, ringed as it was by the peaks it reflected in the still morning. A gravel ATV trail ran between the road and lake, and Brad couldn't resist the urge to dive off the pavement and onto the gravel for a mile or two. Along the southwest portion of the lake, the pavement was new and the road was curvy. It was superbly enjoyable riding, carving through the turns between glassy water and boulder-strewn mountainside. We were joined by another rider on a mid-90s BMW R100GS; he had camped near us at Whitehorse and I had briefly talked to him the night before.

At Destruction Bay we stopped for gas and lunch. As we fueled up, a couple of restored early-30s Model A Coupes pulled up behind us. Suddenly my decision to take a 26-year old motorcycle with 90,000 miles on it far into the North Country didn't seem so ballsy! I talked to the rider of the other BMW, a middle aged Alaskan named John, and invited him to have lunch with us at the diner. He accepted, and we soon found out quite a bit about him. He'd been living in Alaska for 30 years and riding for most of that time, making the trek down the Alcan and back at least once every year. He works in the schools, and therefore has the summers off to travel on his motorcycle. He is also a pilot, and owns a Super Cub on bush tires. The lunch stretched on as we chatted about motorcycles, traveling, flying, and Alaska. Finally we decided we could put off the ride ahead no longer.

The frost heaves started almost immediately after Destruction Bay. They were dramatic, but not terribly hard to ride. You'd just stand up a bit in the pegs, knees bent, and let the bike roll over the heave. It looked much more uncomfortable for those driving RVs, particularly since many of them neglected to slow down much. The potholes were frequent and sometimes spanned the entire lane, but these too were fairly easy to negotiate on a bike. Only once or twice did I fail to swerve when I should've, and was rewarded with a bone-crushing blow to my backside. The key, we found, was spreading out rather than riding together, with each rider choosing his or her line. We stopped for a break after forty or fifty miles of heaves, and Dawn was all smiles; "this is fun riding!" she exclaimed.

Shortly after that we passed an orange sign reporting road construction for the next 150 km. In fact, it wasn't all under construction, but a lot of it was. The road alternated periodically between smooth and grooved pavement, short gravel breaks, and long stretches of gravel. After a while we got used to the thin, compacted gravel, and were riding at nearly freeway speeds when we barreled full-bore into a thick layer of deep, loose rock that sent me skidding every which way. After that I was more careful, at least when beginning a new stretch of gravel.

A few times we were stopped by flaggers and had to wait fifteen or twenty minutes for a pilot car, which gave us time to get off the bikes briefly and talk with the road crew or with John, who was still riding with us. By late afternoon, we were in Beaver Creek, the end of the notorious stretch of road and our original destination for the day. We decided to press on to Tok, Alaska, which would put us one easy dayride from Anchorage. We spent a few minutes at the border taking triumphant photos with the welcome sign, and then marveled at the fabulously smooth road that began as soon as we crossed into Alaska. It was in fact a bit of Potemkin one-upmanship on the Alaskans' part, for the "normal" highway began a few miles down the road. It was still quite a bit better than what we'd been riding on in the western Yukon; it seems the Alaskans have figured out a better way to build roads on permafrost.

It was an enjoyable 90 miles from the border to Tok through what I later learned was prime moose habitat; we didn't see any. Tok itself is a fairly nondescript little town strung out alongside the Alaskan Highway. John had gone ahead of us from Beaver Creek, but had given us the name of the RV park he'd be staying at; we readily found it, set up camp, met up with John, and all headed to dinner at Fast Eddy's. We took our time eating, talking, and laughing, until I realized all the other patrons had left and the waitresses were casting anxious glances our way. It was after 11pm. We paid the bill and ambled back to camp under a bright sun clinging tenaciously to the sky.

The next morning John stopped in to say goodbye during our breakfast, and that was the last we saw of our latest road friend, although he later called to make sure we made it to Anchorage alright. We took our time packing, knowing we had "only" 300 miles to cover. We rolled out of town at the scandalously late hour of 10am. The "Tok Cutoff" proved to be a nice ride from the start, and it only got more scenic as it crossed the eastern remnants of the Alaska Range and skirted the eye-popping majesty of 18,000 ft Mt. Sanford in the Wrangell Mountains. We choked on the fumes of dozens of RVs through one last stretch of road construction, then took a late lunch in Glenallen. We also discovered that Brad's chain had stretched so much that he could no longer tighten it, and it had become dangerously loose. With no motorsports stores in town, we had little choice but to proceed - carefully! - to Anchorage.

West of Glennallen on the Glenn Highway, the weather turned ugly and we got rained on for 15 minutes, our first honest rain of the trip. I wasn't about to complain, and in any case it settled down to only occasional light showers by the time we got to the Palmer Glacier. From here to Palmer, the road tightened and twisted and became rather slow for being one of the main thoroughfares in Alaska. I'd become rather used to the wide, fast Alaska Highway. Dawn had fun with it, leading us through hairpins and chicanes with gusto. We happened upon Palmer rather suddenly and incongruously; after 2500 miles of mostly rural and wilderness riding, we were suddenly thrust into the middle of American urban sprawl with all its usual trappings.

The last few miles into Anchorage took place on a four-lane divided highway, something we hadn't seen much of since leaving I-5 near the Washington-BC border. My first impressions of Anchorage were unremarkable. Normal houses, normal strip malls, normal chain stores, normal freeway traffic. There were "Beware of Moose" signs on the highway but we didn't see any. Low clouds obscured the Chugach Mountains. My first indication that I was somewhere special came when the highway passed by Merrill Field, Anchorage's main GA airport. I was astounded to see row after row after row of small airplanes of every make, color, and condition, for nearly a mile straight! And then I recalled that many GA aircraft are based at the international airport, and a great deal more on floats at Lakes Hood and Spenard. All this, for a lowly borough of less than 300,000 people! I was clearly in pilot heaven.

And so we arrived in Anchorage after six unforgettable days and 2530 miles under our wheels. Yet, our trip was just beginning, for Dawn and I had eighteen more days to explore the north country and work our way home in a leisurely fashion. The Alcan was an adventure but we had more of that in store, plus a great deal of scenery, wildlife, and good riding ahead of us - all that, and one incredible flight that confirmed Alaska really is pilot heaven.


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Sophie said...

Wow, wow, wow... and wow. Long time reader.

Was captivated by both posts detailing the ride. In fact, I used Google Street View to peek at the various areas you talked about for myself. Makes me very envious of the ride, and makes me want to put it on my bucket list.

I looked at the bridges (and some of the potholes) that you skidded across. Hard to imagine that Dawn had only the California rides, then struck out on this one. But sounds like she handled it well, and happy that both of you got to do this adventure together.

Always enjoy the aviation posts, but also enjoy the travel posts. Something to be said when a Pilot/Captain tours the U.S. (including Alaska) on the ground.

What a great read. Thanks again for posting it.

Ted Newkirk
Senior Editor

voip services said...

Always enjoy the aviation posts, but also enjoy the travel posts. Something to be said when a Pilot/Captain tours the U.S. (including Alaska) on the ground