Monthly Archives: July 2014

Alaska 2014 Trip – Post #6

Just before reaching Watson Lake, we arrived at the turnoff for the Stewart-Cassair Highway, and this is where we found an establishment for fuel, food, lodging and alcohol. Now before you come to the conclusion that we drank our way across Alaska, the Yukon and British Columbia, I should explain that the alcohol as a frequent coping mechanism — why after a drink that 8 foot wide room with no bathroom and full of mosquitoes looked quite adequate for a night’s lodging. The community bathroom full of mosquitoes look OK too!

Now a little about mosquitoes. We went prepared for the great mosquito invasion, and therefore, when we arrived at this lodging we were prepared. A friend had told me to purchase a fly and mosquito spray that is used in commercial spray machines located in restaurants and food preparation establishments. Now this stuff is not your ordinary home owner bug spray, it is kind of like calling in a nuclear strike for a bug problem. We liberally sprayed our room and went to dinner, but not before also giving the communal bathroom a healthy dosing of the spray. I am sure the owners are still wondering why there are no mosquitoes in the bathroom and one of the rooms.

One humorous digression about this particular lodging establishment. When we asked for water at dinner, we had to buy a $2.50 bottle of water. The showers were pay showers that used Loonies (Canadian dollars) and I believe by now, Bill and I had come to the conclusion the establishment had a water supply/quality problem or both. This became quite clear at breakfast as the owner and his mechanic, sitting at the neighboring table, discussed what appeared to be a water testing kit and how to use it. We lingered no longer and were quickly on our way.

The ride down the Cassiar (usual reference to the route) is quite scenic as the road weaves its way amongst the mountains, many of which were snow covered. We thoroughly enjoyed the ride down the Cassiar and stopped at a lodging primarily for a winter helicopter-ski operation called Bell 2. This and the Talbot Arm had been recommended by Bill’s friend Peggy. Let’s suffice to say, the lodging here, although pricy, was a much better return for lodging quality than the previous evening. We stayed in a chalet with excellent amenities. The food was good and the water did not cost extra. This lodging along with much better weather, turned out to be the right place at the right time and raised our spirits considerably.

We rode off towards Prince George, for another overnight stay. Prince George is a large regional center for this portion of British Columbia. This portion of British Columbia and north appear to be resource based economies whether it be energy, forest products or mining. From Prince George we rode on to Vernon, BC for the evening. Vernon is a very pleasant town just north of Kelowna, BC. We were taking this route since it afforded us the opportunity to ride down to the border on highway 33. This route has few if any amenities, is heavily forested, and runs along a river. It is a much more pleasant route than traffic filled highway 97. At the end of the route as we neared the border, we climbed up over the mountains and seemingly dropped into Osoyoos. BC, the Canadian border town with its twin, Oroville, WA.

The reminder of the ride was “home” turf and thankfully uneventful. We were thankful for having made a 6,000 mile ride relatively safely, had met some wonderful people who lent us a hand when we were in need, and saw some of the most beautiful country anywhere on this earth.

Alaska 2014 Trip – Post #5

The day following the clean-up of the bikes, we headed to Soldotna, a very nice town in the Kenai Peninsula where Bill had a high school classmate named Peggy whom we were going to stay with for a couple of days. As many Alaskans will tell you, and we immediately came to the same conclusion, the best place to photograph Mt. McKinley is about 85 miles south of the National Park entrance from one of the many turnouts along the George Parks Highway. The Gods favored us this day and the mountain showed itself in all of its glory. It was a great site to look at the tallest mountain on the continent while standing along a highway in Alaska.

The day proved to be a beautiful day for a ride from Fairbanks to Soldotna. To get there we needed to take the George Parks Highway from Fairbanks o Anchorage which took us through Wasilla, AK. You may have heard of Wasilla as the place where Sarah Palin hails from, but more importantly, the town sits in a beautiful setting. We then navigated through the city of Anchorage and were soon working our way around Turnagain Arm a part of Cook Inlet on the Seward Highway. The drive on this day was just a series of gorgeous sights of the mountains that surrounded the arm. We slowly made our way round the arm and through much road construction to Soldotna and into a two car garage for a much needed rest for us and maintenance for the bikes (we maintained our chains religiously), and a thorough checking out of various items bent, broken or missing. The stop and visit with Bill’s friend Peggy and her husband Randy was a great way to mark the beginning of the ride home which would complete the part of the ALCAN we missed from Whitehorse, YT to Tok, AK. We would though, just north of Watson Lake, turn off the ALCAN and head down the Stewart-Cassair Highway to the turn off to Prince George. This alternate route is reputed to be much more scenic than the ALCAN, and we wanted to have a different riding experience on the way back home.

Part of traveling is developing a sense of humor about the unexpected and sometimes extraordinary experiences. As we made our way back to Tok to then turn south toward Whitehorse, we were able to enjoy one grand vista after another. We encountered as always road construction, which gives veracity to the Alaskan saying there are two season in Alaska, winter and construction. It is best to just say, “Amen”. We spent our last evening at Fast Eddy’s in Tok and said goodbye to Alaska at Beaver Creek.

Our way back was much more scenic beginning with a stay at the Talbot Arm hotel on Lake Kluane in the Yukon. The hotel had a fuel food and nice rooms. The surrounding area is quite scenic, but there are frequent winds accompanied by storm cells that cross the lake. We made our way to Haines Junction, which is a crossroad for those coming up from Haines, Alaska (many of the travelers having been passengers on the Alaska State Ferry that services communities throughout coastal Alaska including being a link to the lower 48 states with a route from Bellingham, WA through Southeast Alaska which terminates in Skagway, AK.) At this juncture we headed, still on the Alcan, over to Whitehorse and south towards Watson Lake, YT.

Alaska 2014 Trip – Post #4

Now, that part about not being over prepared, make sure your first aid kit has wound closure strips and other items to use instead of stitches and an antibiotic shot. Also handy were the various zip-ties that secured the controls for the clutch in place for the next three thousand miles of travel in Alaska, Yukon Territory and British Columbia on the way back home. Many thanks goes to the group of motorcyclists from Georgia that did the yeoman’s job of putting the bike back together and of course to Bill who knew where everything was and supervised the reconstruction. I do not know about the Amex card and not leaving home without it, but definitely do not leave home without duct tape and zip-ties.

This event pretty much sealed the decision of whether to go forward towards Deadhorse or turn back. My vote made with gestures as I was drinking a beer with a straw, was to not chance having the field repairs fail further out on the Dalton. The other riders at Coldfoot over breakfast were ruminating on the conditions and the wisdom of heading on to Deadhorse. To me, any decision on riding the Dalton Highway or the Haul Road (original name) comes down to confidence, skill level and conditions all aligning themselves. The road has witnessed many serious accidents in all conditions, and therefore overconfidence often leads to an unpleasant situation.

The day following my crater parking job, we returned towards Fairbanks, and the conditions were much improved. I was starting to feel comfortable when I arrived at the sign to the entrance to the Dalton Highway for a memento picture in front of the sign and slowed down to turn left and waited for a car approaching from the opposite direction to turn into the sign turnout. Another motorcyclist passed me on the left at the same time as I started to turn left. Fortunately the other rider stayed upright on their bike whereas I found myself in the road with a dumped bike with a bit more damage (relatively minor compared to the crater parking). My Lumix camera though did not fare well nor my riding pants, but the good news is that I had also brought another camera and was able to download all the pictures taken up to the point of impact on to my laptop. By now I had to wonder whether I was going to survive and truly exit the Dalton Highway alive. Wow, what a ride and adventure – I will be back.

One of the pearls of advice that I finally came to the conclusion was ridiculous was to use PAM on your motorcycle to help get the wet Calcium Chloride off the bike before it dried on and became a part of the bike never to be able to be removed in the future. That advice was a bunch of crap. Where was I going to spray PAM on the motorcycle where it would not be burnt onto a hot engine/exhaust part or get on my riding suit etc.? Calcium Chloride should be removed timely, but this idea that when it dries it will be difficult or down right impossible to remove is just sheer nonsense. The day after we arrived back from Coldfoot, we went to a regular car wash bay where you do it yourself and easily power washed the Dalton Road off the bikes. Now granted there are numerous orifices and other nooks and crannies that will forever have a piece of the Dalton in them, but I did not go to ride the Dalton Highway and other various roads of ill repute to improve my bike’s resale value.

Alaska 2014 Trip – Post #3

Two roads lead out of Tok, the road to Glennallen and further on to Anchorage. We took the ALCAN and headed for Fairbanks and following the last portion of the ALCAN to its terminus in Delta Junction., AK. Just north of Delta Junction, one gets their first look at the famous Alyeska pipeline that runs 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, AK. We finished the day at the Best Western Hotel in Fairbanks, our jumping off point (and that term began to take on another meaning the following day on the Dalton Highway) for a try to make it to Deadhorse, the terminus of the Dalton Highway. The Dalton Highway services the oil fields and should never be confused with a road built for public convenience and safe travel. The Dalton Highway is an oil field service road, and it is best not to forget this fact. The road has 8% to 12% grades and when wet is treacherous. The road’s primary users, as far as we could tell, were trucks, really big trucks, servicing Prudhoe Bay and the ever present graders and water trucks maintaining the road, and, of course, some deranged motorcyclists.

Before you get the impression that riding the Dalton Highway or Haul Road is tantamount to a full scale assault on Everest, it is not. The road is quite doable depending on weather and road conditions and the cyclist’s skill level. It is best not to be on a schedule and to visit the other parts of Alaska while you wait for the conditions and your skill level to reach a point of equilibrium. We, of course, did not follow that advice and inquired as to weather and conditions on the road. We got the standard fifteen different answers from death defying to no big deal. As it turned out, our ride was somewhere in-between. When we left Fairbanks for the North Slope, the weather was fine, but one must remember the Dalton is 500 miles long and crosses mountain ranges and spans more than one climatic zone.

When we got to Yukon Crossing and had lunch, we were becoming fairly comfortable with the road and had not yet experienced anything similar to the Top of the World Highway experience with the fresh crushed rock. Foolish boys we were, and if I could have only imagined what lay ahead, we would have felt like those who participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade or Pickett’s Last Charge at Gettysburg. There was a conversation I had had with a hotel manager in Deadhorse and her warnings of problems on the road, bad weather systems, and slides at Atigun Pass with rivers flooding over the road in the back of my mind, soon to rush to the forefront of my mind. You might also find this link interesting www.dangerousroads.org/north-america/usa/879-atigun-pass-usa.html

It began to rain, and rain heavily it did. As we went along the graders were constantly trying to keep pace with the rutting of the road caused by weather conditions and the truck traffic continued unabated. The riding in some spots was what one would expect on a good gravel road that is treated frequently with Calcium Chloride to bind and keep the dust down. In other spots the road was more than a bit interesting. We made it to the famous Arctic Circle sign, took pictures, did the trophy strutting around and got back on the bikes to head to our night’s destination, Coldfoot. Not far from the Arctic Circle sign two things happened in succession, one that caused us to scream in our helmets like little scared children and the other a blessed relief. The first was a ride down a very slick and muddy hill 8+% plus grade where we exited onto pavement at the bottom at about 60 mph. After the screaming subsided, we gave thanks for the 60-70 miles of pavement to Coldfoot (actually goes all the way to Wiseman) that lay before us.

A couple of hours of relatively anxious free hours put us at the entrance to the Coldfoot facilities, and so with much relief I raised my modular helmet’s chin bar so that my breathing would no longer fog the face shield, and after all, we had “made it”, right? Wrong, the parking lot was a quagmire of mud and puddles of various sizes. After negotiating countless puddles, I turn around and at slow speed drove into a faux puddle but real crater that stopped all forward movement except for me, the rider, who exited through the windshield face first with my shoulder and other body parts taking out the clutch controls along with the windshield. The event also bent my very stout metal luggage box and its mounting frame on the left side.

Alaska 2014 Trip – Post #2

Once we were in Watson Lake, our hotel was the Big Horn Hotel, which was clean but somewhat dated and eclectic in its furnishings, best described as vintage yard sale. In Watson Lake, the must see is the “Sign Post Forest”. The Sign Post Forest, a collection of signs and other memorabilia is one of the most famous of the landmarks along the Alcan, and came to be when a GI in 1942 was ordered to repair a sign post. Not only did he repair it but also took the opportunity to personalize the sign post with one giving the distance to his hometown. Visitors may add their own signs to the 100,000 already present.

From Watson Lake, we headed north to Whitehorse, the provincial capital of the Yukon Territories. At this juncture, the traveler has the option to either proceed further north to Dawson City or follow the ALCAN to Haines Junction, Beaver Creek, YT and Tok, AK. We, instead of following the ALCAN, decided to leave the other portion for our return trip. We headed north to Carmacks, YT for the evening’s stay at what else but, Hotel Carmacks. As we headed north we began to have the Yukon River as a companion and stopped to see and photograph the Five Finger Rapids, a natural navigation hazard and challenge for the gold rush crowd who had climbed the Chilkoot Pass from Skagway, AK, with a 1,000 lbs. of supplies and built rafts to float themselves and their supplies down the Yukon River to Dawson City.

At Dawson City we boarded the “free” ferry, the Black George, for a ride across the Yukon River. This appeared to be the same vessel I rode across the Yukon River on in 1985. Apparently they take great care of the vessel or since it appears to be primarily for tourists, some degree of care. All kidding aside, the boat operated flawlessly and was much appreciated for being free.

Once on the other side of the Yukon, one is still in the Yukon Territory and travels on 60 miles or so of partial pavement and gravel road to the US border near a place called Boundary, AK. From this point to Tok, AK, we would ride the Top of the World Highway. Although there are substantial portions of pavement, the day we crossed the border, the very helpful woman customs officer at the US Border crossing told us to be careful of the fresh layer of arrowhead rock (sharp edged rock that has been freshly blasted and has gone through minimal crushing) for the next 10-14 miles. The long and short of it was that the 6-8 inches of this freshly laid down and not compacted arrowhead rock just kicked our asses. Fortunately, other than being worn out from the ride across the rock, we and our bikes were unharmed.

Our day ended in TOK, AK, a personification of the term, “crossroad.” We checked into Young’s Motel at Fast Eddy’s restaurant at the same time as we were seated for a good dinner – redefines the term “one stop shopping” , and for us a real oasis after the last six hours of riding. Another very welcome relief was that it was next to a liquor store. It does not get much better than this!!!! Bill and I were truly getting down to the basics: fuel, food and alcohol.

Alaska 2014 Trip Post #1

Humbling, that is a one word description of the north country of British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska especially if one is riding a motorcycle. Even though there have been significant improvements since the building of the ALCAN Hwy, it still has the ambiance of a military supply or a service road with notable exceptions in places such as Muncho Lake, BC.

The ALCAN was built in less than a year in 1942 in response to the fear of a Japanese invasion of Alaska and/or the West Coast, and indeed the Japanese did invade the two most western Aleutian Islands in June 1942. Originally an unpaved military supply road, the road was 1422 miles at a cost of $115 million dollars.

The ALCAN’s original length of 1,422 miles running from Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction, AK. The highway has slowly been straightened and paved to the point where the highway is totally paved, and in the lower portions in British Columbia the sides of the road have been cleared for over 100 feet and planted in grass which is mowed. This serves to make the highway much safer by not having cover for wildlife near the road. One sees numerous “yard bears” during a ride on the ALCAN and should expect to see a large variety of wildlife, and hopefully not on the road.

Currently, the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta are well immersed in an energy boom that has transformed several communities including the town of Fort St. John to a boom town with all the retail support one would expect such as Walmart and fast food establishments sprouting throughout the once sleepy town.

To put things into perspective, we, Bill and I, left Central Washington on day one and rode through one storm cell after another until we arrived in Merritt, BC. Here we stayed at a small hotel, Merritt Lodge Motel, which had a restaurant, for a very reasonable price. The following day we rode to Prince George, BC through more storm cells. Here we stayed at the Carmel Lodge/hotel, again for a reasonable price, and again this hotel had a restaurant immediately adjacent to the motel itself. The following day, day three, we finally, after riding almost 930 miles, arrived at the beginning of the ALCAN at Dawson Creek, BC. British Columbia is quite a large section of real estate as it would take us from Fort St. John a 500 plus mile day on the bikes to reach the border of British Columbia with the Yukon at Watson Lake, YT.

As we moved north, from Fort St. John, the costs for fuel, lodging and food escalated significantly while, in most cases, the amenities de-escalated. One’s need for a sense of humor also needed to improve, as filling station (fuel stops, not really stations) proprietors became confused between our two motorcycles and the Winnebago crowd trying to give us their bill for 140 liter of fuel and them our 15 liter bill for two bikes (3.6 liter equals approximately 1 US gallon). After much animation and explanation, we had the situation resolved.

Referring to fuel, each of us was riding a Suzuki V-Strom 1000 that has a fuel capacity of approximately 5.8 gallons and uses regular 87 octane fuel. Not only did the bikes have a good range (about 40 miles per gallon or 230 miles per tank full), but also used regular fuel, which was always available, whereas premium fuel was not. In addition, for the more remote portions of the trip Bill carried two and I carried three gallons in fuel packs/cannisters.

The scenery on the ALCAN from Fort St. John north to Watson Lake is generally forested expanses of a size that one has rarely ever seen, and as mentioned above the views become very scenic in and around Lake Muncho and the nearby popular Liard River Hot Springs. The lack of civilization (towns and homes) and traffic starts to impact you, and the “bring what you need” philosophy begins to take on a survival of the well prepared tone. This country is not the place for one to discover that their Swedish coffee maker needs a new filter, or more germane, their Moto Guzzi needs a new oil filter – you had better have brought what you need. Life takes on a very basic and generic tone and items are no longer referred to by brand name. This even is apparent when ordering food and the first three items you asked for ran out a week ago. Often the conversation goes like this, “what do you have?”