Thursday, June 19, 2003

Ultimate Coast to Coast

After the Hyder Seek festivities I hooked up with Jim Reese for the ride into the Alaskan interior. I met Jim in Hyder. He appeared to be a happy rider that flows with the go and who has a desire to challenge himself yet prudent enough to make rational decisions. Basically, Jim passed the idiot test. We discussed our mutual desire to ride up the Haul road to Prudhoe Bay. For me, getting to Prudhoe would be the first step in completing the IBA's Ultimate Coast to Coast ride. For Jim and his short schedule, the accomplishment was about experiencing the Haul road firsthand and getting in and out of Prudhoe Bay safely and in good health. I don't have a picture of Jim, but here's his bike.

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We left Hyder early the morning of Sunday, June 1. The plan was to enjoy the ride up the Cassiar and, possibly, ride out to Telegraph Creek from Dease Lake. I wasn't able to ride to Telegraph last year because of bad weather and the fact I was on the Gold Wing. The clerk at the hotel told me the road was treachorous enough for a motorcycle when the road is dry, much less for an 800 pound Goldwing. I didn't know if Jim was keen on riding out to Telegraph, but at one point I thought I had him convinced. The weather was typical for the region at that time of year - generally cloudy, cool, damp with periodic rainfall. All in all, it was a perfect day.

For those people who choose the Cassiar over the Alcan, the reward is an abundance of wildlife, especially bear, and sparsely populated country. North of Meziadin Junction the Cassiar has a few long stretches of dirt/gravel road. We weren't too concerned about it and Jim lead a nice, eager pace over these areas and through the occassional pavement break. There's really no need to slow down unless you spot more gravel than road. Still, I found myself on the pegs when entering a dirt/gravel section. And just because the road is one way today doesn't mean it will be like that tomorrow. If you ever go up, my advice would be to slow down until you're able to safely and accurately judge the road conditions. Riders go down quite a bit throughout BC, Yukon and Alaska due to the gravel, dirt and mud encountered on many of the roads - especially at pavement breaks. There's absolutely no way to avoid these sections either.

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When we approached the bear pictured above, he darted back into the bush like every bear I've seen both this year and last. We stopped a little farther up the road and waited for him to make another appearance. We took a few shots while he raised his snout in our direction making an obvious attempt to smell us and our bikes. All my food was fermenting in my bowels, but I thought I saw Jim take a piece of jerked beef from his tank bag earlier in the day. Now Jim's probably more fleet of foot than yours truly so I made an executive decision to stay a little closer to the bikes just in case a pursuit broke out. Which is highly unlikely unless it's mama bear with her cubs.

We arrived in Dease Lake and it was decision time about the ride to Telegraph Creek. For a fleeting moment I thought about blowing Telegraph off, but I couldn't justify the sacrifice. Unfortunately, Jim wanted to continue heading north and get as far as he could before nightfall. We exchanged phone numbers in hopes of hooking up somewhere in Fairbanks for the ride up to Prudhoe. In the end, we played voice-tag for a couple of days, but were never able to find each other on the road. That was the last time I saw my new friend, Jim.

The Telegraph Creek area is known as British Columbia's Grand Canyon and the ride in from Dease Lake is peculiar. As you get closer and closer to Telegraph the terrain changes from a cool, lush, green, wet northwestern rainforest to a warmer, drier climate that cannot support the lush vegetation found only miles back. The road from Dease Lake to Telegraph is all dirt and covers roughly 75 miles. There are a couple of tricky switchbacks along the way that make the trip a little touch-n-go for a novice dirt rider such as myself. The wind was howling through the canyons which added an interesting dimension to the ride.

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After Telegraph I decided to spend the night in Dease Lake rather than trudge ahead to Watson Lake. I reckon it was the motel I stayed in last year that beckoned me. Or maybe it was the room I stayed in last year because the ol' boy at the front desk gave me the same, exact room this time around.

When I looked out my window sometime that evening I noticed a 650 GS had pulled in next to me. I went outside to look at the license plate to see from whence he/she hailed. Hmmm... Washington state. I didn't recognize the bike from Hyder and had no clue as to the owner. Oh well, if we're traveling in the same direction, we'll probably cross paths tomorrow. If not, I bid the rider and the bike a safe journey to wherever.

The next morning I awoke to what appeared to be another spectacular day of riding in the area. It was cold with cloudy skies that produced off and on drizzle like the day before, but no torrential downpours. Before I hopped in the shower, I looked outside and noticed that the 650 rider got a head start on me that morning. Damn it! I reckon it's the endurance-rider blood in me, but I felt like I was behind even though I didn't truly need to be anywhere at anytime other than in Wasilla, Alaska on the 8th. But it's how I felt and I went with it.

North of Dease Lake the Cassiar is more like a glorified tar road - actually, it's like that all the way from Kitwanga to Watson Lake. There are stretches of dirt/gravel, but not as much as the stretch from Meziadin Junction to Dease Lake. I felt extremely comfortable on the dirt/gravel at this point and as long as I didn't notice more gravel than dirt, I kept my speed up and just zoomed through. No worries. Life is good.

Coming over a hill I noticed the ol' boy on the 650 GS ahead of me and I twisted the throttle a bit more so I could catch up with him. As I approached from behind I was able to verify that it was the same bike that took up residence next to my GS in Dease Lake the night before, but I still didn't know who the rider was, so I just waved as I passed and knew that we'll likely cross paths again.

The Alcan wasn't too far ahead and I decided to gas up at the junction. About mid fillup I noticed the 650 rider pull in and I walked over to say hello. It turns out to be Marty Hamilton - a person with whom I've had a cyber-relationship on the Motorcycle Tourer's Forum, but have never met in person. I remembered Marty indicating he was coming north to ride the Haul road, but I didn't remember he had a 650. We decided to have a little breakfast at a place just up the road from the junction. We sat there for a while and enjoyed a good meal and each other's company. We talked about the ride up the Haul road, our strategies, our fuel ranges, the BBQ in Wasilla and various other things that would motivate us over the next few weeks. Marty wanted to experience the Haul road and make Prudhoe, but we decided that our ranges were different enough to make the trek alone. In retrospect we should have exchanged numbers and tried to hook up in Fairbanks. After all, we were there about the same time. After a few miles from breakfast Marty's headlight got further and further back and at some point, I lost track of him altogether. That would be the last time I saw Marty, but I was happy to have finally met the man in person and for the short time we spent talking and breaking bread together. We were going to meet in Wasilla for the party on June 8th, but as I would find out later Marty had to get home before reaching Prudhoe due to some pressing family issues.

I wanted to make Tok that evening and call Jim to see if we could hook up for the ride to Prudhoe. Just north of Kluane Lake in Destruction Bay I came upon a good stretch of construction. It was raining cats and dogs when I stopped to await the pilot vehicle. The lady at the stop indicated it would likely take 30 minutes before the pilot vehicle returned so I dismounted the bike and walked around in the rain. More cars began piling up behind me and they all had a familiar look to them. That's right. I passed practically every one of them on the way up from Haines Junction and, hey, there's one I passed just outside of Whitehorse and there's one I passed outside of Teslin and... Well, you get the picture.

A couple from Idaho saw me playing in the rain and offered me a dry, warm seat in their camper, but I walked over and declined with a reply of, "If my gear can't keep me dry, I haven't any business riding a motorcycle up here." They both smiled and seemed friendly enough so I knelt down in front of the driver's side window and asked where they were headed, for how long, etc. We laughed and talked about the Cassiar and all the bear we saw and the majesty and ruggedness of the land. The wife asked me about visibility in the rain and I flipped my visor down and demonstrated how the wiper blade on the glove worked. They both laughed and we all had smiles on our faces as the pilot car approached and it was time to say goodbye and bid each other a safe journey.

You know... It's road acquaintances like this that make being on the road so special. There's no need to exchange names because the connection between you is not the name and the face, but the place, time and circumstance where genuine laughter and a kind heart are shared.

The ride through the construction zone was spotty with huge ruts filled with water, mud everywhere and not much of a path to follow or wheel ruts to keep in. So I just got up on the pegs and kept behind the pilot car while the GS zigged this way and zagged another. As life would have it, the hard rain stopped soon after the construction zone and what lay before me was an Alcan full of frost heaves and/or quake damage - especially around Tok.

At the border crossing into Alaska I had a little trouble determining which lane to ride through. Each lane had a red light above it, but the commercial lane looked wide open. I didn't think this was right, but I started slowly down the commerical lane until I noticed the border guard waving me over to the far left lane. When I got there and removed my helmet I told her that all of the lights were red and I didn't know which one to go through. I was thinking the lanes worked like a bank, but apparently they don't. Just follow the cones and the signs and don't pay attention to the lights. Crossing wasn't an issue. They took my license and ran a check while another border guard kept me busy with the standard set of questions that typically require a "no" answer.

A few miles outside of Tok I saw a large plume of what looked like smoke to the south. The wind was shearing the top half off and blowing it to the north. I didn't think much of it until I got a little closer and smelled the unmistakeable smell of burning wood/forest. Firefighters had been battling a fire for the last week or so, but had it contained enough so it didn't pose a threat to town. No worries. I check into a hotel to chill for the evening. The bike was filthy, but it looked content with the day's ride.

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The next morning had nothing else to offer but warmer temperatures and a sky that couldn't be a deeper shade of blue with big cotton balls for clouds chasing each other across the sky and offering brief moments of shade to those who rode in their shadow.

I didn't see any moose when I toured British Columbia last year, but that all changed this year. I saw quite a few moose, but it wasn't until this morning that I was able to get photographic evidence.

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OK. OK. The pictures aren't that great, but the moose is there.

When I arrived in Fairbanks I decided to stop at a Kinko's, check email and try to catch up with Jim. I checked my messages and found out that I had actually passed Jim because he made a trek from Whitehorse up to Dawson and then down the Top of the World through Chicken, Alaska. He indicated he ran into a group of KLR riders that recently ran the Haul road and "barely got out of Prudhoe before the snow hit." That's comforting. I left Jim a message to let him know that I was planning on spending the night in Fairbanks and would attempt to get as far north on the Haul road as I could the next morning.

Weather reports from Fairbanks to Prudhoe are practically worthless. I remember telling Dick Fish in Hyder that I planned to make it to Coldfoot, wait for a weather window and haul ass. He said something to the effect, "Don't do that. Just get to Fairbanks, prepare for the worst and ride the damn thing!" Needless to say, Dick was right on. Prepare and ride the damn thing. You can't get a reliable forecast until you get to Coldfoot anyway and by then you're half way there.

The next morning in Fairbanks was spectacular - nice and cool, sunny skies and you could tell the temperature would rise well into the high 70's like it had been for the past week or so. If the weather was going to be like this for the ride up the Haul road, I'd have it made in the shade - so to speak. But the weather didn't hold out the entire way, nor did I expect good weather the entire way up. I left the hotel in Fairbanks at 9:30am.

From all accounts I heard, or at least remember, when I left Fairbanks I thought the dirt road would begin almost immediately. It didn't. I was geared and ready for the 1000 miles of dirt road, but found the highway paved the first 80 miles from Fairbanks to Livengood where the Haul road - or the James Dalton Highway - truly begins. Not too far from from Livengood I saw a motorcycle parked along side of the road. The rider appeared to be rifling through some gear. As usual, I stop to ensure everything is OK.

"Is everything OK, pardner?", I asked.

"Oh yea. Everything's fine. I'm just fishing for my rain gear because it's getting a little cold up here and I need another layer", he replied.

"Cool. Are you heading all the way to Prudhoe?", I asked.

"Nope. I'm just heading to Manley Hot Springs", he replied.

"Well, I need to get moving. Enjoy your trip and ride safely."

At the time I chalked up this meeting as another road acquaintance, but I would get to know this person over the next week. How it all happened is a testament to the kind hearts of riders and to how small the world can be at times - especially in Alaska.

When I reached the end of the pavement in Livengood, I performed a mental nut-check. My intentions were clear - ride north attaining one goal at a time and turn around when the weather and resulting road conditions eclipse my ability to ride safely.

First Goal - Yukon River

It's fifty-five miles to the Yukon River from Livengood. The road is all dirt, but the overall conditions were excellent and cruising at 60-65 MPH was comfortable. Slowing down for the turns and where a little extra gravel piled up was crucial, however. After the first turn and first time through some thick gravel, I got a little reminder from the road gods and I kept that in mind when approaching corners and kept an eye out for changes in the road conditions.

While in Hyder I spoke to Paul Baird about riding the Haul road. There are a few things that I remember from the conversation. When Paul talked about the water trucks and why I should watch out for them I didn't think much of it. Then I saw one in front of me and realized the enormity of what Paul was telling me. You see, these water trucks team up with a grader and really screw up large sections of the Haul road. First, a water truck filled to the rim begins to drench a stretch of road with gallons and gallons of water. The dry road then absorbs all of the water and becomes greasy, slimey, muddy and treachorous. After the water truck does its deed, in comes the grader to smooth the top layer and leave a nice pile of greasy, slimey muck to its left or right. I made the mistake of falling in directly behind the grader. Don't do this. Choose a side - typically the right, but watch the grader operator because sometimes they will direct you to the left. Sometimes they won't direct you at all. The first time I saw a grader I didn't know the protocol. Then a few cars and trucks passed the grader and I followed suit. However, since I was directly behind the grader I was forced to traverse the large pile of muck left in its wake. I just stood on the pegs, took an appropriate angle and got the bike over in good shape, but I had learned a very important lesson. Don't fall in directly behind the grader. Choose a side and get around it as soon as possible. Life is much easier that way.

When I reached the Yukon I wanted to gas up. I had plenty of gas to reach Coldfoot - another 200 miles to the north - but I wanted to take a small break too. Unfortunately, the gas station just across the river was closed. I didn't think much of it and carried on. About a mile up the road is Rosie's Hot Spot Cafe. I think it was Paul who told me about this place and the good-lookin' blonde that runs the show. I didn't see a good-lookin' blonde or even a bad-lookin' blonde, but I did see a charming brunette. I didn't get any grub this time, but I did get some gas. There was a bus-load of tourists there at the time and, of course, I got the requisite number of "Where you from?"'s and "Damn! You're a long way from home!"'s. Please, no need to state the obvious.

Second Goal - Arctic Circle

About 10-20 miles south of the Arctic Circle the Haul road is paved. I wasn't sure how long the pavement would last, but it sure felt good. And not only is it paved, but it's striped too!! On the way up from the Yukon, the tourist traffic was high. I passed several slow-moving truck-campers and RVs. When I stopped at the Arctic Circle I saw all of the folks I didn't get a chance to pass yet. I reckon this is the goal for most who trek up the Haul road. There are a few that continue on northward, but most everyone wants to get to the Circle. And that's OK by me.

I stopped in, took a picture and hauled ass.

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Third Goal - Coldfoot

Everything was going extremely well up to this point. The weather was excellent and the pavement continued all the way to Coldfoot. One bad thing about getting gas in Coldfoot is that you have to walk inside first and give them a credit card and your driver's license. I jokingly asked the attendent if they had a problem with drive aways and she replied, "Used to." One road, two directions and people still have the balls to drive off? Amazing.

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Walk-in here and gas up there

Fourth Goal - Atigun Pass

The pavement ended right after Coldfoot and there wouldn't be any, not even a teaser strip of pavement, for a long time to come. For now, the dirt was excellent and cruising along at 60-65 was safe and fun. About 20 miles north of Coldfoot trees no longer line the highway. Actually, they don't line anything any longer because they don't grow this far north. As I look back on it all, the trees got smaller and smaller as I rode north. At this point, the terrain is rocky and the only things growing are shrubs of some sort and a little grass. Not quite the tundra yet.

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Soon after the trees stop growing the ascent into Atigun Pass and the North Slope begins. I half expected the weather to change at this point and it did. Clouds covered the mountains ahead and a slow, steady drizzle began to fall. The rain increased the farther north I went and I continually performed on the road nut-checks to determine if I reached the turn-around point. The road conditions deteriorated quickly. The nice, smooth hard-packed dirt turned into a nice layer of slime and mud. During the climb up Atigun the drizzle turned into snow, but I was almost at the summit and I wasn't about to turn around. I told myself that once I got to Prudhoe I didn't care how long I had to wait out a storm. I was hell-bent on taking up residence, if need be.

After reaching the summit and beginning the descent onto the north slope, the snow returned to rain, but now the raindrops were bigger and there was more of them. I thought, "Fucking fantastic. It's going to get real nasty now!" And it did. The road north of Atigun was littered with little ripple bumps for about 30-40 miles. As far as I could tell it was because the dirt that would normally cover the larger dirt/boulder layer was gone. Along with the rain, this made for a slow ride. So slow it was like riding through a 20 MPH school zone for 40 miles. That was cool, though. My gear kept me dry and warm and since there wasn't enough dirt on the road, the mud was at a minimum.

Fifth Goal - Prudhoe Bay

When I left Coldfoot, I decided to set an intermediate goal of half a tank of gas - enough to get me back to Coldfoot if conditions worsened. Well, the conditions were relatively bad at this point, but after riding through the 40-mile school zone, I wasn't about to turn around. Not now. The rain kept getting harder and I kept praying to whoever would listen that I would break through the rain sometime soon.

About 100 miles from Prudhoe pavement begins again. Good pavement too. The rain was coming down hard at this point, but I twisted the throttle and hoped the pavement would last all the way to Prudhoe. I made good time along this stretch of road. Real good time, but I never broke through the rain until after I was back on the all too familiar dirt/gravel road. The gravel was a lot thicker now and maintaining a good clip just wasn't possible. Still, I was happy with the 30-40 mph speed and standing up on the pegs in a good rain while out in the middle of nowhere on my way to Prudhoe was invigorating. Rain, snow, sleet. Bring it on! Nothing would stop me from reaching Prudhoe now except a wall of water or mechanical failure or a horrific wreck requiring hospitalization or a heart attack or a stroke or... Jesus! How do I sleep at night?

About 50 miles south of Prudhoe I notice three or four extremely thin tire tracks in the mud. I kept thinking what the hell is this? Tundra Snails? After rounding a bend I notice three slow moving 'things' in the distance when it dawned on me. These are bicycle tire tracks and that's three zagnuts riding their bikes to Prudhoe in a cold, steady rain. I'm sorry, but I never want to be called a lunatic again for doing what I love to do. More power to the folks that challenge themselves like that, but these guys are the real lunatics. I wonder if I could get Rocky to make a saddle for my ten-speed? Ouch!

There was light at the end of the tunnel - literally. About 20 miles south of Prudhoe the rain tapered off, the sky began to clear and if you have a big nose like I do, the faint smell of salt water can be detected. I didn't know which way the crappy weather was moving, but it didn't matter. I was home free. I wicked up the speed, but hit some thick gravel and the bike got jiggy with it. Just a little reminder from the road gods that I'm not home yet and there's still plenty of time to screw things up. Reluctantly, I backed off the throttle and enjoyed the rest of the ride into Prudhoe.

Along the way, the tundra turns into a marshy tundra-like landscape. The tundra is still there, but there's a lot more water and ice that create this marshy, boggy tundra. The salt in the air gets stronger and before you know it, the Prudhoe skyline can be seen in the distance. Of course, you're only one, maybe two, miles away at this point, but the skyline is there and it's a welcome sight for sure.

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When I reached Prudhoe-proper, I followed the signs to the gas station. The area surrounding the gas pumps was covered in mud and water - not unlike what I just finished riding through. I pulled up to the pump and asked one of the locals if I was in the right spot for gas. You see, the gas station isn't manned at all and there's very little to no signage. There are just some pumps you hope dispense gas. You have to go inside, insert a credit card, select the pump and then pump your gas. If you want a receipt, you have to walk back inside, insert your credit card and press a button. The ol' boy I talked to showed me what was up. He didn't ask any questions, but he was laughing his ass off at me. I wouldn't know why until after I checked into the Arctic Caribou Inn. Everything on the bike and on me that wasn't covered had a nice layer of Haul road covering it. The only clean things were the bike seat and my ass. Everything else was covered.

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I found the Arctic Caribou Inn and checked in. I thought about turning around immediately, but two things made me reconsider. First, the weather seemed to be clearing and I wanted to give it a chance to do it's thing. Second, I didn't know if services would be available in Coldfoot after midnight and I didn't want to chance it. So I took the opportunity to check in and see if the cell phone worked. It did. I called Jim to let him know that I made it to Prudhoe and I didn't see him anywhere around.

It was 7pm, the room was warm and I made it to Prudhoe Bay in roughly 9.5 hours. Ahhh Nirvana. Of course, I still had to get back to Fairbanks.

Back to Civilization

I woke up the next morning to the bluest of blue skies and the sunniest of suns. It was 3:30am. I was going to chill for a while, but I didn't know how long this weather would last and wanted to get the hell out of dodge. This was my first time to Prudhoe and the intended goal was to get in and out as quickly and as safely as possible. In retrospect, the weather window was large enough for me to have taken the tour of Prudhoe Bay, but I know I'll be back - probably next year.

I took a shower, put my gear on and looked for witnesses. As luck would have it Clyde, the front desk attendent, was more than willing to be a witness and he gladly talked his co-worker, Monica, in the other building into doing the same. So I scratched together a witness form in my journal and had Clyde and Monica sign me out at 4:45am.

I didn't read the UCC rules before riding the ride. Actually, I still haven't read them even though I sent in the paperwork for certification. I reckon the IBA will let me know if I screwed up somewhere along the way. I thought I had 14 days to complete the trip and there was a party in Wasilla on the 8th - 3 days from now. Sure there was plenty of time to make Wasilla and still get to Key West, but when the clock's ticking my brain goes into LD-mode with a single purpose - ride now! Should I haul ass to Key West and miss seeing some friends in Wasilla or try my best to take it easy and take my time? My mind wrestled through this all the way back to Fairbanks.

Leaving Prudhoe I missed a turn to get back to the Haul road and wound up at the ARCO security station. Any further north and I would need a badge or be a tourist on a bus. I didn't have a badge and I despise busses. The guard was kind enough to direct me back to the Arctic Caribou Inn and the road back to civilization.

When I reached the outskirts of Prudhoe Bay and looked to the south all I saw were blue skies with nary a cloud and a bright, yellow sun. I didn't know how long the good weather would last. The ride back proved to be nothing short of amazing. Surprisingly, that 40-mile stretch of school zone was a little nicer after all the rain. The ripples were still there, but they seemed a little smaller. I really enjoyed the ride up the north slope to Atigun Pass. Blue skies on top of snow-capped mountains above a flat, barren landscape. And a few musk ox and caribou.

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I started the ascent up Atigun Pass knowing that when I reached the top I didn't know what to expect. For all I knew, it could be raining or snowing on the other side. But when I reached the summit all I saw was the same crystal blue skies and bright, yellow, warm sun that covered me all the way from Prudhoe. And while I knew it wasn't the end of the ride, there was such a release of emotion at that point. The feeling I had was one of triumph, victory, achievement, of conquering the unknown, of knowing that I make the rules that govern my life. I was so emotionally stimulated that I spontaneously broke into a Native-American victory chant that lasted all the way to Coldfoot. Life is power. Life is good.

I stopped in Coldfoot, walked in, surrendered my license and a credit card and walked back outside to gas up. After paying for the gas the waitress asked me if I made it Prudhoe and I promptly replied, "Hell yes!" She smiled and went back to work. I smiled and walked out the door thinking, "What's a pretty girl like that doing in a place like this?"

Just before the Yukon River crossing I saw the sign for Rosie's Hot Spot Cafe and realized that I was hungry enough to eat. I stopped in and had an awesome burger while talking to a few folks who were passing through. Most were headed up to the Arctic Circle. When they asked if I had been there yet I replied, "Yep. Been there. Done that." Mentally, I added a smart-assed "Twice."

I was on the last little bit of Haul road before Livengood when I see a rider approaching and slowing down to chat. I obliged him and realized it was the ol' boy on the Goldwing I saw the day before. You remember, the one that was "just going to Manley Hot Springs." We got off the bikes smiling at each other and he asked if I made it all the way to Prudhoe. I told him the weather was excellent when I left this morning and if he was going to make a go of it, he should stop talking and start riding. He was looking for a 2-gallon tank to carry a little spare gas. Gas he would need to make the 260-mile journey from Coldfoot to Prudhoe. I wish I could have helped him. We chatted for a few minutes and he eventually said with a big smile, "Hey! I'm from Ohio and I'm too damn close to Prudhoe to not ride up and have a look around." We parted ways. I still didn't know his name, but again, chalked it up to a freak road acquaintance.

I reckon I was on a roll down the Haul road because when I reached the pavement at Livengood I felt a little ripped off. Dejected even. Was that it? Then I realized just how fortunate I was to have the weather I had over the entire trip. Sure, the weather through Atigun Pass and beyond was crappy, but it could have been so much worse. I know the Haul road has the potential of being real nasty in the rainy season and was glad that I ran it when I did. I felt extremely fortunate. Hell, I didn't even drop the bike once!

I stopped at the Kinko's in Fairbanks to log on and let everyone on the Motorcycle Tourer's Forum know I made it back to civilization in good shape. I still had thoughts about blowing off Alaska and high-tailing it to Key West, but then I got an email from Mike Kneebone about the IBR. In my reply I asked Mike how much time I have to complete the ride. I was thinking it was 14 days for some reason. Then I started freaking out and thinking it may only be 12 or 10 or AHHHHH!!!! I'm going insane!! Mike replied quickly and told me I have 30 days to complete the ride. Phew! What a load off my shoulders. I now have time to chill in Alaska, make the BBQ in Wasilla and roam around for a while before heading back to the states. The clock's still ticking and I'm a little antsy, but I have the ammunition to make a rational, logical decision to chill out and take it easy.

I spent the night in Fairbanks that evening. On the way to spray wash the bike I saw a cop behind me. I remembered a sign before entering Fairbanks that read something like, "Tail lights and license plates must be visible at all times." Great. I'm going to get a ticket, but when I turned into the car-wash the cop didn't pull in behind me. I'm almost positive he would have pulled me over had I passed it up. Who could blame him? I looked like I needed to get pulled over. So much dirt came off the bike. It was incredible. I even spray-washed my CorTech pants, but it didn't help all that much. Even after a good washing in NikWax (four weeks after the fact), Haul road dirt is still in the crevices in the legs. I reckon it gives the pants a little character.

The next morning I headed south toward Wasilla to find some friends. The ride down was wet most of the way and cold near Cantwell where I decided to stop and have a cup of hot chocolate. As it turned out, the ol' girl running the shop was from Lewisville, TX. She and her husband moved up a couple of years ago. We chatted for a spell while I waited for the rain to at least calm down to a drizzle, but it didn't and it was time to leave.

When I got to Trapper Creek, I decided that enough was enough and got a room at the Trapper Creek Inn. While I was at the counter taking care of business who walks in, but Jack Gustafson - Alaska Jack himself. I thought I'd see someone I knew, but Jack lives on the other end of the state. We talked for a while and went out and looked at his new Silver Goldwing. Man, the memories that brought back. Jack had already added a few goodies to the bike and it sure looked good. Jack was headed toward Fairbanks to see some friends and take a ride on a Hyabusa. I was headed to the room to change and then to the bar to get hammered.

If you're in the area, stop in at the Cache Creek Lodge. Plenty of locals and the bartender, Mary, is arguably the prettiest woman in Trapper Creek. Long, flowing red hair, full lips, nice figure, legs to die for and a warm, inviting smile. After the first couple of beers I told Mary to just keep 'em coming until I either fall off the stool or stand up to pay the bill. I met a couple of other locals while soaking the noggin' in alcohol. Paul was an older gentleman who retired to the area back in 1988. He likes it in Alaska and especially Trapper Creek. "These are my kind of people," I remember him saying. Another local, Clay, came over and chatted for a short minute. I had been eye-balling his lady friend since I got there and I reckon he decided it was time to chat. He stumbled over, put out his hand and asked who I was. I grabbed his hand, shook it and said, "My name is Jason. What's yours?" Now Clay was as drunk as I was getting and he started rambling on about something and I squeezed his hand until I got his attention. "What's your name?" I figured he'd either tell me his name or yell out in pain. "Clay," he said finally with a grimace. We talked about whatnot for about a minute when one of his friends asked a question and he got up and left. No 'nice to meet ya' or anything. Just got up and left mid-sentance. I don't know if he was trying to intimidate me, but I'm not intimidated easily - especially by some drunk, punk-ass who can't appreciate another guy admiring his woman.

I sucked down quite a few more beers until I was toasted. Mission accomplished. Surprisingly, I was able to stand up and Mary, the prettiest woman in Trapper Creek, settled my tab. I stumbled back to the room and watched the boob-tube until I quietly passed out on the couch. Life is good.

I arrived in Wasilla the next day and after roaming around for a while, I was able to find Roger and Mary Ellen's place. They were playing host to a few of us who would be roaming the Alaskan interior after Hyder and opened up there home and put on a spread to die for. I was glad to finally be there and knowing that I had a full 30 days to reach Key West meant that I could relax, let my hair down and enjoy the time with good friends. Had I been in LD-mode I would have been antsy and ready to haul ass - had I been there at all. Don, his wife Barbara and their dog Mattie arrived a day or two earlier from the states and set up shop in the front yard. I took up residence in the truck camper where Roger set me up with a heater. I reckon he didn't want this ol' boy from Texas freezing at night. The heater was needed and it worked perfectly.

The next day found us all sitting and chatting on the front porch waiting for folks to arrive. All the sudden this Goldwing starts coming down the driveway. I'm thinking, "Hey! Wait just a damn second. That guy looks familiar!!" And he did look familiar. This was the ol' boy who was "just heading to Manley Hot Springs" and who was from Ohio and "too damn close to Prudhoe to not ride up and have a look around." Seeing him was awesome and I realized this goes beyond road acquaintance and into the realm of road friend. It was time to shake a hand, learn each other's name and share a story and a laugh.

Apparently, Frank had met another rider from Trapper Creek, Joe May, a couple of weeks before at the local Wally World. Joe invited Frank to stay at his home and told him about the get-together in Wasilla. When I saw Frank on the Haul road he had already met Joe and planned to attend the BBQ. It's a small world. Riders rule. Life is good.

Over the course of the day Frank and I talked about his trek north to Prudhoe and what inspired him to ride to this area. Frank was on a mission to ride as many roads in Alaska and Canada as he could before heading back home to Ohio. I don't think he missed a single road and over the next few days, Frank and I would share a few of them together.

The BBQ was an excellent time. Quite a few folks showed up, there was plenty of food, plenty of drink and loads of good stories about motorcycling, life in Alaska and whatnot. Many thanks go to our hosts - Roger and Mary Ellen - for opening their home to us all and for putting up with everyone for as long as they did.

Before Jack left the party, he asked if anyone was up for a tour to Valdez. I was ready to hit the road and Frank was heading that way too. We decided to meet Jack in Glennallen the next morning and follow him to Valdez. The day was amazing. Only a few drops fell from the sky and I remember Jack saying that days like this are highly uncommon in Valdez. After Valdez, we rode to Glennallen and I bid farewell to both Jack and Frank. I rode back to Anchorage because I needed to get some new skins on the bike and change the oil and other fluids. The Motorcycle Shop was more than willing to accomodate me by offering a drain pan and tools to get the job done. Life is good.

A few shots from the road to Valdez...

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Jack Leading the Way


Worthington Glacier


Jack and Frank


Your's Truly, Frank and Jack trying to look smarter than he really is


Worthington Glacier Wash


Our bikes at the top of Thompson Pass


Bridal Veil and Horse Tail Falls


Valdez Harbor


Liberty Falls


Some Dall Ewes


The Copper River


A Rainbow and Mountains on the Lake

I wanted to ride the Top of the World and stop in Chicken, Alaska on the way back to the lower 48. I left Tok early one morning and made my way east to the TOW. The sun was shining with partly cloudy skies. It was a perfect day to ride the TOW which, from what I understand, is not unlike the Haul road when it gets a little wet. The TOW is an amazing road. I found myself thinking that if the road was paved, it would be the Talimena of Alaska. The road winds up and down the mountains, following the crest at times and the scenery is awesome.

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Chicken Facts and Downtown Chicken


Somewhere on the TOW

At the border crossing into the Yukon I had to wait for a spell for a border guard to show up. I got off the bike, de-robed, walked around a bit and took a pic or two. Then I hear this sultry, soft voice say, "hello." I turn around and there she was... the prettiest woman in Canada. What makes a person 'pretty' isn't looks alone. Actually, looks play only a minor, almost insignificant role. It was the way she walked, the smile on her face, the pinkish hue of her cheeks, the way her head was tilted as she approached, the tone of her voice, the smell of her body and a million other things that my mind processed in milliseconds to provide me with a first impression.

When I first scanned her body I noticed she was wearing rubber gloves. I couldn't tell if she was putting them on or off, but the thought that raced through my mind was, "Here we go. My first cavity search." But after realizing who's hands would be probing the depths of my, -er-a-, cavity I thought, "Cool. I'm down with that. Probe on."

She asked me all the expected questions and I had a difficult time not interjecting a few flirtatious responses, but I just smiled and said no or yes ma'm as appropriate until she asked, "Have you ever been arrested?" and I replied, "Uuuuhhhh, no." Now I was a kid at one time and a teenager at another. I'd be lieing my ass off if I said I was never arrested, but only once and it was when I was 16. She said, "Uh, no, eh? Have you been arrested since turning 18?" To that question I could answer without hesitation, "No ma'm." She took my license inside and ran a check. In two minutes she came out and told me to have a good trip. I so wanted to stay and bathe myself in her glow, but left with a smile on my face knowing I had crossed paths with an angel.

The ferry at Dawson was pretty cool for one reason - practically no one travelling south. There were loads of RV's and other folks traveling north and I was happy I was going the other way. I went up to the top of Dome Mountain in Dawson and got some really good pics of the city and the Yukon river. I saw another tour bus at the dome and the usual suspects sauntered over for a chat. One older woman in particular came over. She had a strong German accent, but lived in Ohio. We chatted for a while about her trip, my trip and various other things. Before she left, she said, "You're doing it the right way. The only way to see this country is on a motorcycle." I couldn't agree more. I put my hand out and asked her if she wanted to go for a ride. She smiled, the bus engine fired up and we knew it was time to say goodbye.


If You Have to Wait In Line...


Dawson City and a look downstream from atop Dome Mountain

My favorite part of the Alcan is from Watson Lake to Fort Nelson. There's a stretch that gets narrow and the road winds through some remote areas around Liard Hot Springs. I spent the night in Watson Lake to wait for a good weather window through the area, but didn't get it. The cold rain began in Muncho Lake and continued to the summit before Fort Nelson. The temps were a nice and cool 38 and combined with the rain it made the day a real bummer. The best part of the Alcan was spent being cold and wet. Next time.

I spotted a heard of Buffalo around Liard Hot Springs and decided to turn around and take a few pictures as the rain let up enough to make it worth my while. When I got off the bike and walked toward them they were all laying down, chillin' out and not paying much attention to me.

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Chillin' and Relaxin'

As I got closer and closer to get a better picture, three big bulls rose to all fours and stared me down. At the time I thought, "OK. I get it. I'm leaving."

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Gettin' Pissed Off

It wasn't until after getting back to Texas that I realized why they got up and stared me down. If you look at the pictures closely, you'll notice at least three calves sitting in and around the center of the herd. I'm glad I didn't try to get any closer after that because I'm sure they would have had something to say about it.

A little after Liard I spotted some mountain sheep on a steep, rocky mountain side.

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The rain was intense after Liard Hot Springs and falling behind a couple of 18-wheelers didn't help matters. The spray was outrageous, but I didn't feel like backing off. Instead, I waited for a passing opportunity and took advantage of it when it was safe. The rain relented on the descent from the summit just north of Fort Nelson. I stopped in Fort Nelson for the evening and was a little bummed out about riding the best part of the Alcan in the cold rain.

I stopped in Chetwynd a day later. The ride in along highway 29 from Fort St. John is a wonderfully winding road that cuts through farm country nestled in the Peace River valley. Chetwynd is the chainsaw sculpture capital of the world and the restaurant at the Stagecoach Inn serves the best Chinese food in British Columbia. How could I pass that up?

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Long before this, I decided to just take my time in getting to Key West. I had plenty of time. The original plan was to ride up the east coast and into Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland after Key West, but I decided to head back home for a week or two after Key West so I could have the bike serviced by my own dealership and to prepare for the IBR. Because of this, I took my time crossing the plains of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I found a few good, long dirt roads that went straight through farm country and a couple of odd-looking orthodox church buildings to go along with it.

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The terrain changes right at the Ontario/Manitoba border. There is lake after lake and hill after hill and trees! The ride through Ontario was amazing and I look forward to riding through that region again sometime in the future.

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Thunder Bay and the North Shore of Lake Superior

At the border in Sault St. Marie the border guard, another woman but definitely not an angel, told me to head over to a building where some officers "wanted to ask me a few more questions." They weren't questions at all. It was more like, "Park here. Get off the bike. Take everything off the bike and put it on the table. Open up the saddlebags and step away from the bike." All in all it went well. The ol' boy spearheading the search saw my Ted Nugent book, "God, Guns and Rock n Roll", and asked me if I read it yet. I hadn't had time to read it yet, but we still talked about Ted and his politics. How one of the guards missed my 'camping/hiking knife' I'll never know, but soon after our discussion was over I was told to pack up the bike and enjoy my trip.

The Mackinac Bridge crossing was interesting. While the weather was incredibly gorgeous there was construction on the bridge that closed the right lane in both directions. The Mackinac is a 4-lane bridge. The middle two lanes is a metal grate and the outside lanes are paved or concrete or something. I've been on a lot of metal grate bridges so it wasn't that bad, but I can see where the crossing would be a little touch and go with higher winds and rain. Life is good.

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Mackinac Lighthouse and The Mackinac Bridge

From Michigan I rode over to Pittsburg to have a hot dog at "The Original Hot Dog Shop" in downtown. This was my first time in Pittsburg and I liked it a lot. The city has attitude and exudes confidence. I felt right at home there. The O-Dog is a fantastic dog. I had mustard, onions and cheese on mine. I should have had two more and packed several more for dinner, but I didn't. The plan was to head down to Anderson, SC for a couple of dogs at Skin Thrashers and then head to Key West.

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Skin Thrashers is a real pain in the ass to find, but I found some good scenery and roads along the way.

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When you get there, you'll find good dogs and cheap beer. Two beer limit. I had a couple of dogs and a beer and paid $4.25. Not too shabby. The dogs were good, but the O-dogs were better. After Skin Thrashers I started making my way south and decided to stop in Lavonia, GA for the evening. There was still plenty of time to make Key West and the only other committment I had was the Motorcycle Tourer's Forum lunch in Jacksonville on the 28th - a week away. It didn't take me long to talk myself into sticking around the southern Appalachian area and riding around for a few days.

It doesn't take long to find good roads in the southern Appalachians. This area is becoming one of my favorite areas to enjoy the twisty roads. I believe it to be a little better than the Ozarks from a pure twisties standpoint, but give the edge to the Ozarks overall because the road surfaces are a little better overall and there's less traffic in the Ozarks. Of course, I haven't spent a lot of time scouring the southern Appalachians like I've done in the Ozarks so this is not a well-formed opinion. Just my current opinion. Being from Texas, I'm compelled to give the edge to the Ozarks anyway - it's closer.

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Carolina Welcome Sign


Sea of Lilly Pads


Along the Blue Ridge Parkway


Bridal Veil Falls


Fontana Dam

Riding the gap or dragon's tail was on the itinerary because it's a road that you have to do at least once. I rode it twice (almost - more in a second) and probably won't ride it again unless I'm just passing through to any of the other magnificent and just as enjoyable roads in the region. Essentially, the ol' boy that runs the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort has done a good job of marketing that particular stretch of road and he's taking it all the way to the bank. More power to him as well. While I was waiting in line to buy a 59 cent popsicle the people ahead of me were scarfing up shirts, shot glasses, patches, stickers and other trinkets left and right. It was incredible and I had a big smile on my face just thinking about how how much the owners must be banking. You gotta love capitalism and the feeble minds of most consumers.


Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort

The GS let me down on my return trip through the gap. About two miles from the motorcycle resort I began feeling a thumpity, thump from the rear end. I just went through a debris field from a rider who went down earlier and thought I picked up something in the rear tire. I didn't think much of it because tire issues are relatively easy to resolve. So I pull over and inspect the rear tire and final drive and couldn't find a thing wrong. So I got back on the bike and carried on down the road. The thumpity-thump was still there and it got worse another mile down the road and even worse the last quarter mile into the resort parking lot. I put the bike on the center stand so I could inspect the rear end more thoroughly. I spun the tire and saw nothing but perfect rubber and didn't hear any thumps. Then I looked at the final drive area and noticed oil leaking from the final drive and pooling under the rear tire. Son-of-a... The final drive was toast and well beyond any roadside fix I was capable of performing. The only option at that point was a call to BMW Roadside Assistance. The odomoter read 34,204 miles while it stood there on the center stand - stranded.

Waiting for the tow truck was excruciatingly painful. I was powerless and it sucked. I didn't think it would get any worse until we loaded the GS onto the wrecker and drove back to Greenville. Looking back from the cabin at the GS strapped down to the flatbed was one of the most dreadful feelings I've had. It was unnatural, totally out of line and not anywhere close to acceptable. There wasn't much for me to do, but get over it. And I did.

Touring Sport BMW in Greenville, North Carolina took care of me. Under warranty they replaced the entire final drive and rear ABS sensor and overnighted the parts so I could get on the road quickly. When the service manager, Frank, talked to the BMW area rep, the decision to replace the entire setup and overnight the parts was immediate. Overall, the experience wasn't as bad as I had anticipated. BMW Roadside only covers the first $100 of towing expense and allows $500 for expenses when a break down occurs away from home. I was $260 out of pocket for the tow job.

When I left Greenville a couple of days later, I made a b-line for Key West. It was time to end this journey, get home for a week or two, drop the bike off at my dealer and prepare for the IBR. To make your trip to Key West more enjoyable, keep these two things in mind. First, if you're heading through Miami, take the turnpike and get on it as soon as possible - in Fort Pierce. I didn't do this and wound up going through the gut. Not good at all. There were numerous construction zones, a lot of traffic and, worst of all, the interstate ends south of downtown and turns into a 6-lane street with lights. I rolled through the area in the afternoon and it was extremely hot, humid and almost unbearable in the heavy stop and go traffic. I really screwed up not getting on the turnpike. Second, don't be in a big hurry to get to Key West. From Key Largo to Key West highway 1 is mostly a two-lane road with slow-moving traffic and very few opportunities to pass.

I arrived in Key West on Thursday June 26th - roughly 23 days and 9000 miles after leaving Prudhoe Bay. There were scads of people in Key West and I knew I was only going to hang around long enough to find some witnesses and get a picture of my bike near the bouy. There was construction all around the bouy, but I got a picture.


As Close I Could Get, But it's Back There!

I stopped at an Internet Cafe near the beach to log in and update the good folks on the Motorcycle Tourer's Forum and check email. I also talked to a couple of locals who were willing to witness the end of my ride. I got gas on my way out of Key West. I didn't know where I would spend the night, but I knew it wasn't going to be anywhere behind me. The Ultimate Coast to Coast was done. Life is good.

2 comments:

Wheeew said...

12Jason,

Thanks for sharing your amazing journey. You make it sound so easy! A most enjoyable read! I can only hope to be so lucky and complete this once in a lifetime trip! God willing......

Best,

Gail Lowe (aka BikerHiker)

Anonymous said...

Jason,

What an awesome read and inspiring. Good luck to you mate and thanks for sharing.

Bear
Juba, South Sudan