Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Latitude 62

Here's the last installment in a rather delayed series of posts about this summer's motorcycle trip to Alaska and back. There are a fair number of photos so I'll try to keep the text to a minimum.

We stayed in Anchorage for two nights. Brad sold his KLR650 almost immediately upon arrival - getting $1000 more for it than he paid in Portland! - and his wife Amber joined us for few days. I was struck by just how aviation-centric a city Anchorage is, from busy Merrill Field to the seaplanes on Lake Hood to PANC, where a steady stream of cargo 747s take off and land. Everywhere we went, there were airplanes of every description flying overhead.
The ride to Seward was beautiful, as were the surroundings of the city itself. Weather prevented us from doing the full hike up to the Harding Icefield, but we did spend some time at Exit Glacier.
We spent an afternoon watching red salmon running and the bald eagles hunting them.



Brad and Amber had to fly home after one night in Seward. The next day, Dawn and I hiked out to Tonsina Point on Resurrection Bay. The initially rainy day gave way to sunshine that lit up the surrounding snow-covered peaks. We lingered on the beach, enjoying the moment. This was literally the end of the road; everything from here on in would be homeward bound.

We rode up to Denali National Park on June 29, pausing in Anchorage for lunch with an old friend from Horizon. We spent the night outside the park in a wall tent at a busy, cheery hostel. Early the next morning we rode to Park Headquarters and boarded a camper bus for the 85-mile trip to Wonder Lake. The day was mostly cloudy, preventing any viewing of Mt. McKinley or surrounding peaks, which was a little disappointing but not at all unexpected. There was a ton of wildlife to see, including grizzleys, caribou, dall sheep, moose, and fox. Just before we arrived at Wonder Lake, the clouds unexpectedly parted and the top of the mountain came out, remarkably imposing even from 30 miles away. After we made camp and ate lunch, we went for a hike to the McKinley River bar - and scurried back just ahead of a wall of rain that lasted into the next day. Friday's bus ride out of the park was a soggy, foggy affair with no wildlife viewing - until the bus driver abruptly braked and gasped in exclamation. A large Lynx eyed the bus suspiciously, tentatively steeped out of the brush not ten feet ahead of us, and trotted across the road. The bus driver said it was her first time seeing a Lynx up close in 32 years of driving.
The next stage of our trip involved rejoining the Alaska Highway for an 800 mile backtrack to Haines Junction, Yukon. After leaving Denali on Friday, July 1, we rode 200 miles through rain showers to Delta Junction, AK. The next day threatened rain but it mercifully held off through our transit of the road construction and frost heaves in Yukon Territory. We stopped for the night at a cozy little cabin on the shores of beautiful, storm-whipped Kluane Lake.
We left the Alcan for good the next morning in Haines Junction, YT. We had heard from many people how beautiful the 170 mile Haines Highway is, but even after everything we'd seen so far it left us slack-jawed. We arrived in Haines later than planned because we kept stopping to admire the scenery and snap photos. We also saw five bears (2 black, 3 griz) in as many miles. It ended up being our favorite stretch of road of the entire trip.
You don't come to Alaska for the civilization, but Haines turned out to be my favorite town/city of the trip. It is far less touristy than the other towns of the Southeast, thanks to little cruise ship traffic, and the surroundings are stunning. I could've spent a few more days there, but we had a ferry to catch on the morning of July 4.
I'd been looking forward to spending Independence Day in Alaska, but as it turned out we left Haines too late for the afternoon festivities there and arrived at Juneau too late for their events, which took place at midnight! The five hour trip on the M/V Malaspina made up for it with great scenery and whale-watching. Juneau itself was unimpressive at first due to six docked cruise ships that had spewed their buffet-grazing inhabitants all over downtown...and I may have been inordinately influenced by some jackass who shouted "get a Harley!" at me as I rode by. Once the cruisers waddled back to their ships, Juneau made a much better impression with its cute, compact downtown and the impressive Mendenhall Glacier a few miles away in the 'burbs.

The next day, we rented a 1959 Cessna 172 on bush tires with Alaskan Boyce Bingham along as flight instructor and tour guide. Our route took us 80 nm northwest to Glacier Bay. We skirted mountain edges for an eye-to-eye with mountain goats. We flew up a glacier, wheeled round at its head and followed it all the way down to its terminus at a hundred feet off the deck. It was honestly about the coolest thing I've ever done in an airplane, and it moved Dawn to tears. Boyce and I talked a lot about flying in Alaska, and I'll admit I was tempted to call NewCo then and there to quit airline flying in favor of an Alaskan bush job. Kids, if you want to build some quality flight time in an adventurous, beautiful locale and don't mind hard work and challenging conditions, Alaska's your place.

That afternoon we boarded the M/V Taku for the 30-hour trip down the inside passage to Prince Rupert, BC. We went to sleep in a steady grey drizzle and woke up to fog-shrouded Petersburg and the spectacular Wrangell Narrows. The weather improved as we droned our way south to Ketchikan, where heavy seaplane and bald eagle activity kept the shutters whirring as we docked. That night we were rocked to sleep by heavy swells in the open waters of the Dixon Entrance, and awoke at 2am to be unceremoniously dumped in the sleeping hamlet of Prince Rupert. Thankfully beautiful weather afforded us a few more hours of sleep while surreptitiously camped out behind the visitor's centre.
It took two days on to make our way across British Columbia on Highway 16. The first was beautiful weather and we camped just past Prince George. We awoke early the next morning to heavy rain and an utterly soaked tent. We unhappily packed up and hit the road already soaked to the skin. Our short 220 mile day in cold pouring rain was the most miserable of the trip. We'd been planning on camping in Jasper but jettisoned that plan despite the very cheapest hotel room being $165. We covered the entire room with drying gear and headed out to explore the pretty town. The next day, the weather was much better for our 170 mile ride of the spectacular Icefields Parkway. Our frequent stops included a hike on the famous Athabasca Glacier. In Banff we camped just outside of town; a soak in the nearby hot springs was a great end to the day.

The ride out of Banff the next morning featured the last bit of noteworthy scenery for a while, as the next 1000 miles involved droning across the Great Plains on the Trans-Canadian Highway. We knocked it out in two long days to Winnipeg, then dropped down into the states on I-29, stopping to visit a college friend in Grand Forks. It was my first visit since graduating in 2002, and I'd forgotten what a nice town it is in the summer. We spent a night with Dawn's parents in South Dakota, and finally pulled into our driveway on the afternoon of July 13, nearly four weeks after we set out. I'd put over 8000 miles on my BMW, and Dawn rode her FZ6 for 6500 miles on her second trip as a new rider. It was a fantastic trip we'll remember our whole lives. Next up? Dawn wants to do the Dragon, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive next spring. What can I say but "yes, Dear"?

8 comments:

G. F. McDowell said...

Don't have your expectations too high for Deal's Gap & the BRP. Nice, but definitely not Alaska. I wonder what I would have said to "get a harley"? Perhaps, "Wouldn't have made it this far, too many parts would have vibrated off." or, "But I'm not a poseur". When I went for my m/c license test, even the DMV employee proctoring the test singled out the harleys as being the "only real bikes" there. I wish our country made motorcycles for riding, and not for posing on the boulevard.

Michael said...

Sam,

Excellent, excellent write up... and the pics! Icing on the cake. We almost crossed paths again in Alaska, my wife and I were some of those "cruisers" waddling to and from the ships... though it sounds like we missed you by a day or so. We celebrated 4th of July in Skagway, having spent the previous day in Juneau. I've had my motorcycle to the track only once this year, my "honey-do" list before the baby arrives just seems to get longer and longer!

Thanks again for taking us along on your trip :D

Sam said...

GFMcDowell-- I've already done the Gap / BRP / Skyline Dr on my round-the-country ride last year (look for the posts in spring/summer 2010), and Dawn was on the back of my bike over the Cherohala Skyway and some other neat roads in the area. You're right, the scenery isn't nearly as grand as Alaska or even much of the west coast, but the riding is pretty hard to beat. It probably helped that I did the BRP in early April, when there were few motorists...or cops.

Regarding Harley's, I don't have anything against em. They've improved their product quality a lot the last 15 yrs, they've got some seriously sharp bikes in their lineup, and face it, they're an American icon. They just happen to be meant for a different kind of riding than I do, and that's just fine. What I dislike are ignorant people who take brand loyalty to extremes. The majority of Harley riders I've run into aren't that way at all, but I will say I've encountered more such people among cruisers than long distance tourers, sport riders, dirt riders, racers, etc.

Sam said...

Michael - way cool! Our paths literally crossed in the night. Sorry for lumping you in with some of your less attractive shipmates /grin/. I've never done a track day but would love to sometime. The BMW isn't quite the right bike for it, wonder if Dawn would let me borrow her FZ6? ;-)

What kind of bike do you have?

Redfeather said...

Sam,

I really enjoyed reading these last posts about the alcan trip and the photos. I did something similar - flew to Alaska and back in my Mooney about a month after your trip. All I can say is that I hope you get to repeat your adventure in the C170 you bought in on.

I'm slowly transcribing my notes to a blog to document it. Flying to Alaska was a life-changing experience and I imagine that riding the trip would be as well. Here's my little blog.. slowly adding more to it:
redfeatherpilot.blogspot.com

PS if you don't mind I have some flying questions, but I don't see a way to email you through blogger. If you contact the above blog addr (redfeatherpilot) at gmail you'll find me.

Jesse

Karlene Petitt said...

A very nice blog. Drop me an email so I can contact you. Thanks! You'll find my email address at Http://KarlenePetitt.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Voted best vacation read of the summer 2011

Cruise by Alex Stofa
When retired airline pilot Mac Knight and counselor Lynn Baker plan their three month summer cruise to the Bahamas, Both Lynn's and Mac's past bring a new dimension into their plans and into their cruise.
Their passion keeps their romance together.
But is their passion enough as Mac succumbs to keeping his past alive and as Lynn tries to avoid the advances of her past love?
http://www.wix.com/alexsofacruise/cruise

Anonymous said...

I'm an airline pilot based in the uk flying 777's. Just a quick note saying how much i loved reading about your adventures in the air and on your bike.
Nicely written - motivated me to buy a bike again after a 20 year break !

Keep blogging . Thanks