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.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Up the Alcan

It was an idea forged over a campfire on a freezing spring night in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania. It was the last night of last year’s ride up the east coast with my friend Brad, and so we talked about future trips as we huddled around the fire and drank cheap beer. “Why not ride to Alaska?” Brad suggested, and I loved the idea. Alaska would be the only state I had not visited. The trip was ambitious and adventurous. In 1978, my dad drove up the Alaska Highway in a beat-up $200 station wagon – it was his pot-smoking hippy phase – and as a child his tales of a lonely gravel road threaded through the vast, untamed wilderness sparked my imagination and my developing wanderlust. By the time the embers were dying down, Brad and I agreed that we would ride our motorcycles to Alaska in 2011.

I wasn’t quite sure how Dawn would react to the plan. She didn’t fret about cost or safety or how long I’d be gone. She asked to come along. After all, she had already logged nearly 5000 miles on the back of my BMW. When I mentioned it would be tough to fit everything needed for an extended trip on my bike with the two of us, she concluded she would simply get her motorcycle license and buy her own bike to ride. It was ambitious, even daring, but I didn’t doubt that she could hack it. Dawn is a quick learner with a very good head on her shoulders; she’s also tough and stubborn and refuses to quit when things get rough.

And so, on the morning of June 20th, 2011, three heavily loaded motorcycles accelerated onto Interstate 5, beginning the long journey northward from Portland, Oregon. Brad was on a Kawasaki KLR-650 he had bought specifically for the trip; he was planning on selling it in Anchorage, as he couldn’t get enough time off work for the return trip. I was riding my trusty 26-year old BMW K100RS, which I had repositioned from Minneapolis the previous weekend (1050 miles on Saturday, 750 on Sunday). And Dawn was astride a sexy, purring black-and-silver 2005 Yamaha FZ6 that we had bought in Portland in February. This was Dawn’s seventh day of street riding, her previous experience being a six-day trip down the coast a few months earlier.

Leaving our house on my 1050 mile day while repositioning my BMW from Minneapolis to Portland; camping in Three Forks, Montana; our bikes meet at last.

The stretch of Interstate from Portland to Bellingham, WA, was thankfully the last we would encounter for the next three weeks. We stopped for gas in Tacoma – our bikes’ range is 190-220 miles, but we generally fueled up at 120-160 miles, or sooner in areas where gas was scarce – and had lunch at the Skagit River Brewing Co in Mount Vernon. After lunch we took a little time to troubleshoot Dawn’s electrical system, which was acting up again after I thought I’d fixed it on the previous trip. The culprit turned out to be aftermarket lighting installed by the previous owner, which could be deactivated simply by riding with the headlights on “dim” (still blindingly bright). That solved, we crossed into Canada at Sumas and joined Trans-Canada Hwy 1 northward into the Cascades.

Group photo in Vancouver, WA; lunch at Skagit River Brewing Co.

Through the Frasier Canyon, we let Dawn lead so she could go as slow as she liked, which turned out to be fairly fast, and she gave Brad and I a few tense moments when she entered sharp turns awkwardly or with the brakes still on. After a while, she seemed to get the hang of it again, and her entries became clean and her lines rock-solid. Brad and several other riders we encountered would later marvel at how well she rode, considering her new-rider status. After ten hours and 450 miles of riding, we stopped to make camp at a sunny spot in Cache Creek, BC. We spent an enjoyable night chatting, cooking Jambalaya, enjoying a sundowner or two, and visiting with other travelers around the campground.

Camping in Cache Creek, BC.

The next morning we struck camp, ate a quick breakfast at the world’s worst Subway, and headed north on BC Hwy 97. This stretch is known as the “Cariboo Highway,” and I had imagined that from here northward it would be fairly desolate. Not so, for the highway was heavily traveled, there were frequent towns, and I saw no “Cariboo” or other wildlife. Nevertheless, it was a pretty stretch through rolling grasslands ringed by distant mountains. By lunchtime we were at Quesnel, and having noticed the profusion of A&W’s in Canada, we stopped for Spicy Mama Burgers and Root Beer Floats. Further along in Prince George, we made a quick food-shopping stop and then pressed onward up Highway 97.

If we were looking for wilderness, we certainly found it north of Prince George. The road straightened through miles of stunted forest and marshland, towns and homesteads thinned rapidly, and traffic became almost nil. I glimpsed a moose in a reedy pond. The 100 miles through McLeod Lake was as lonely a stretch of road as any we encountered on this trip. Past the turnoff for Mackinzie, we shimmied through a low pass and were suddenly enveloped in an alpine wonderland. The Canadian Rockies aren’t as high here as the more famous stretches further south around Jasper and Banff, but for my money the vistas from Hwy 97 are every bit as scenic. They are certainly less crowded.

Perhaps we were paying too much attention to the views, for we missed the turnoff for the provincial park we were planning to camp at. I didn’t realize the mistake until we had grinded our way through 10 miles of bumpy, sloppy road construction; we decided to press on. The town of Lemoray did not have gasoline as depicted in the Milepost guide, and I kept a very close eye on the kilometers remaining to the next town of Chetwynd. As it happened, all of our bikes got exceptionally good gas mileage this entire trip, and even at the 190 mile mark we were nowhere close to running out of gas. Just prior to Chetwynd we saw a nearly deserted RV park advertising Wifi and hot showers, and pulled in for the night. Normally when tent camping I despise RV parks and other highly developed campgrounds (ie KOAs), but on this trip I discovered that a few creature comforts really aren’t all that bad when you’ve spent 12 hours in the saddle.

While Dawn pitched our tent and I made dinner, Brad looked at the Milepost to plan the next day. When he mentioned that a 500-mile push would get us to Liard Hot Springs, I was sold. Liard has been a favorite stopping point on the Alcan since the early days, and a hot soak in the springs sounded like a soothing reward for a long couple of days of riding. We had covered 450 and 460 miles respectively in the first two days, so 500 didn’t sound that bad. I didn’t know what condition the Alcan was in, though. I knew it was all paved except for areas under construction, but I assumed that the farther north we went, the more conditions would deteriorate. Admittedly, the roads had been excellent so far.

Grassy pasture for our faithful steeds; Brad plans our next day's ride.

The next morning we pulled out of the RV park at 7am, ate breakfast, and headed north on the Hudson’s Hope Loop. This would put us on the Alcan 55 miles north of the official start at Dawson Creek. The bypass turned out to be a scenic route and an enjoyably curvy road. We stopped at a roadside rest high above the Peace River and enjoyed the expansive views to the Rockies.

Having skipped Dawson Creek’s “Mile 0” post and associated hubbub, our introduction to the Alaska-Canadian Highway was an unceremonious intersection with a busy road. It took a bit to find a break in the traffic long enough for us to accelerate onto the highway. Once up to speed, I thought for a minute or two about all the planning, the saving, the preparation, the 2800 miles of riding from Minneapolis that it took just to get here, riding the famed Alcan. Then the novelty wore off as I realized I was riding a pretty normal smooth, straight, and heavily traveled highway, four lanes in many areas and two lanes in others with frequent passing sections. The trees were cut back 100-200 feet from the road on each side. There were frequent crossroads that were heavily used by logging and chemical trucks, as well as the swarms of white fleet pickups that made up a good portion of the traffic on the highway. Recreational Vehicles of every size and vintage were also present in large numbers. These basic facts about the highway stayed mostly unchanged for the next 1300 km to Whitehorse, except that RVs increasingly supplanted semis and utility trucks. The days of a lonely gravel track threaded through the wilderness are long, long gone.

The kilometres flew by at freeway speeds. The long stretch northward to Fort Nelson wasn’t particularly exciting, but it wasn’t entirely unenjoyable either. The road is flung across wooded hill country without too much regard for the terrain, which combined with the roadside clearcuts makes for frequent vistas from the crests of each hill. It was a clear, sunny day – our third straight – and the Rockies were still visible to the west. We stopped for gas at Pink Mountain and then rode straight through to Fort Nelson. I dropped behind Dawn for a bit to admire her riding, then lay down on my large tank bag and listened to the BMW’s purr. It’s a very reassuring sound on a long trip, knowing that a crankshaft turning 5000 times every minute and cylinders containing 150,000 violent explosions every hour are perfectly content to do it for mile after mile after mile.

Like many of the northern towns we encountered, Fort Nelson was rather industrial and ugly, but we found good food and friendly service at Dan’s Neighborhood Pub. After lunch we set out on the 300 km push to Liard Hot Springs, on a westerly heading that brought us back across the Canadian Rockies. Here the Milepost cautions of deteriorated road conditions and narrow, winding passages, but in reality most of it still compared quite favorably to mountain roads in the Lower 48.

Eighty kilometers from Fort Nelson, the road climbed to an overlook in the foothills that provided us with our first bruin sighting of the trip, a healthy-sized black bear snacking on berries alongside the road. Dawn and I accelerated smartly past him, while Brad predictably pulled over for a closer look. Past Steamboat, the highway dropped to follow the Tesla River into the Rockies proper. At Summit Pass we pulled over to watch Dall Sheep scampering up the opposite ridge.

Alongside the Macdonald and Toad Rivers, the Milepost’s dire predictions proved a little closer to the mark as the road narrowed, twisted, and heaved its way through a narrow slot in the Rockies. I led the way, and a few decreasing-radius turns on crumbling asphalt had me glancing in my mirrors at Dawn. She never missed a beat. In the middle of one turn, two Dall Sheep hopped onto the road directly in front of me, leading to an interesting few seconds of evasive maneuvering. Shortly thereafter, we came across a female Caribou standing stock still on the centerline, paying no heed to traffic in both directions. These were the only uncomfortably close encounters we had on the trip; although we saw a great deal of wildlife on the Alcan, all of it except this section was wide and straight enough to see animals on or near the road well before we got to them.

The Toad River valley widened before we got to breathtakingly green Muncho Lake, and we could finally enjoy some wide-open vistas of the Rockies as the road became straighter and wider. Shortly after passing the lake, though, we encountered the first examples of a phenomenon well known to Alcan travelers: gravel breaks. Because the Alcan is such a vital link, it is never closed down for construction, and drivers will encounter roadway in various stages of completion, including lengths of gravel that can vary from 100 feet to several miles. These breaks are generally well marked, but they vary widely from well-packed dirt you barely need to slow down for to fresh, deep, and loose gravel that can be rather frightening to the uninitiated rider. Not knowing the difference, Dawn and I slowed way down for this stretch, leading other vehicles to pass us and choke us in billowing clouds of dust. Brad, on the other hand, was delighted to finally have a use for his KLR’s off-road capabilities, and sprinted ahead at high speed, his rear tire spitting out a rooster-tail of flying rock. Throughout our trip, Dawn and I would get a lot more experience riding on gravel, and by the end of the trip were nearly as comfortable on loosy-goosy pearock as on fresh blacktop.

Muncho Lake.

It was 6pm when we pulled into Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park, only to find that the campground was already full. Fortunately, the park rangers allowed all the latecomers to camp in the day-use area. It turned out that virtually everyone without reservations was a motorcyclist, and in short order the day-use area turned into a biker’s party. There were old duffers on Harley full-dressers headed to Fairbanks, a couple middle-aged guys riding to Inuvik on a KLR and an uncommon Moto Guzzi Stelvio, a Gore-Tex-clad BMW R1200GS nerd on his way up to Prudhoe Bay by himself, and even a freelance motorcycle journalist test-riding a Victory Cross Roads one-way to Anchorage.

We had just come back from a dip in the hot springs when a young couple pulled up on a big old muddy Yamaha Venture towing a trailer. They had an incredible story to tell. They were riding home from Alaska, and had chosen to ride across the border via the “Top of the World Highway” from Chicken AK to Dawson YT. This is a dirt road that is known to be pretty marginal on the Alaska side under the best of conditions. This couple, however, did it in a torrential downpour. The road washed out in multiple places and was a river of mud everywhere else. A big bus-type RV overturned on a soft shoulder, and traffic came to a standstill. The wife recorded a clip of her husband standing up their 800 lb full dresser on a steep hill with a cascade coming down the middle of the road, covering his ankles in a torrent of muddy water. Despite this, they both assured everyone that the Top of the World was an incredible road not to be missed, and that Dawson was also an absolute must-do.

Brad was sold. A bit disappointed over the civility of the Alaska Highway and itching for adventure, he was soon poring over maps with the others, planning an alternate route to Dawson and over the Top of the World Highway. When I gently reminded him that we had a new rider with less than ten days experience under her belt, he told me he was 100% confident that Dawn could handle any conditions we might encounter. Actually, I figured she could, too; it was carnage of the marital kind I was worried about if I put her in that situation. Brad allowed that point but then noted that if he split up from us the next morning, he could take the gravel Campbell Highway up to Dawson, then go over the Top of the World the following day and meet us in Tok, Alaska on Saturday morning. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of us splitting up – we’d originally planned to do this ride together – but understood his need for some adventure. After everything it took to get this far north, there wasn’t a big chance he’d be coming this way again soon, so why not make the most of it? Brad told me he’d sleep on it.

It was after 11pm and still light out. Nobody was anywhere close to going to sleep. Dawn and I went back down to the hot springs for a bit, then came back to camp and chatted some more. Finally we forced ourselves to go to bed, utilizing eye masks to shut out the lingering twilight. There was no electricity in the camp, no cell phone service, and no noise except for our new friends happily chatting outside. We were only now getting into the North Country, but thus far I liked it very, very much.

To be continued....