Alaska Sojourn!
Tom's Updates, Day 9-12

by Tom Bowman

The morning of our tenth day on the road began in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, with an itinerary to make Tok, Alaska by nightfall. However, in the grand scheme of things, there are always "housekeeping" details to see to, and today would be our best and most timely opportunity to see to some routine maintenance on the machines -oil and filter change and valve clearance check. At minimum. It turned out that a local shop cheerfully accomodated the need for a place to change the oil and disposal of it (one must be ecology conscious, don't you know?), in conjunction with the oil purchase. In the back parking lot of the hotel I pulled the head covers and adjusted valve clearances to the great amusement of some of the early-rising guests. More than one stopped to remark on my antics, among them an older gentleman with a thick accent who mentioned that he had owned a BMW once - a 500cc machine which his son still has and rides - in Hungary. He said it doesn't have many miles on it because "Hungary is a small country". Another fellow who came by had once been a motorcycle shop owner, and was envious of the bike and the trip. Several guests entering their cars for their day's voyage remarked on the Georgia license tags, and asked how far that was: for all the geographic knowledge people seem to have, we could have been from Mars and it wouldn't have baffled them more. Then when we were packed and ready to leave from the front of the hotel, a mustachioed gent in what I'd judge to be Campbell tartan came up and chatted (I'm not serious….I couldn't tell a Campbell tartan from Campbell's soup, but he was definitely dressed in a full Scottish kilt and outfit); he was on his way to the YT championship bagpipe finals, hubbahubba, but just had to remark on the two loaded machines. It's amazing how much notice we have gotten from people who are simply amazed that motorcycles are actually used for travelling.

From Whitehorse, the highway runs westward through rolling hills. And runs, and runs, and … get the idea. Compared to earlier sections, I don't remember much about it except that it felt long. Perhaps some of that distraction was due to having firmly in my mind that at the end of the day I would be in Alaska for the first time. As the sign posts read off the miles in increments, my anticipation grew and grew until finally we gassed for the last time in Canada and then crossed a river and saw the sign: "Welcome to Alaska!" Holy Cow! After the usual brief but intense scrutiny by a steely-eyed agent at the U.S. Customs station, we'd done it. The Forty-Ninth State!

Just a short distance up the road lies Tok, a crossroads at which has sprung up numerous businesses and conveniences, among them the Gateway Salmon Bake, a place I had seen in the Alaska Milepost guide, and had been anticipating for months. Indeed, it was a cool place, with an outdoor grill and an eclectic menu of salmon, reindeer sausage, ribs, buffalo burgers, and the like. It was a good feed, and when they informed us that we could camp there for free with dinner, it was a lock. Our neighbor for the night was a gentleman from Nebraska in a huge motor home. He was interested in where we were from and what mileage we got on our bikes; his big diesel land barge gets 9 on average (that's miles per gallon, Sparky), but as low as 6.5 with a headwind and towing a car. He's been about everywhere in it I'd reckon. The big Cat engine in the back was bigger than both our bikes together; carry everything and the kitchen sink! Later a young fellow came by to look and said he really envied us; he'd been working on a fishing boat and said he'd sell everything he had to do a trip like this. I retired at about 11:30 P.M. with the sun not yet set, and slept soundly.

In the morning, camp was broken down and packed quickly, the drill becoming easier as the routine sets in. It had rained earlier, perhaps only a few minutes earlier, as we turned onto the Glenn Highway; and I could smell the fresh scent of it rising up from the road. Riding down through a corridor of trees on a ribbon of two-lane blacktop, crossing occasional streams and bridges, we are back into the mountains again. This land is one gigantic mountainous area, and where ever we've been there are mountains and more mountains. Our intention is to make it down the Glenn to the Richardson Highway, then turn north to Paxson and west on the Denali Highway as far as mile 82: Gracious House, an outpost in the middle of the Nowhere. Now here's a paradox: in all the reading we've done, again and again the Alaska Highway is described as "paved and all-weather". Brother, don't believe everything you read! Not many miles down the Glenn, we came upon construction: actually it seemed what was being done was that the road department was digging up the old highway with a big machine, then coming behind it and rebuilding the road by means of scrapers, graders, rollers, and tar sprayers. I've figured out that the roads up here are mostly of a "macadam" construction in which gravel is spread out, smoothed, and rolled firm, then a coating of tar is sprayed over the surface to bind it all together. It works fine except that in the harsh freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw conditions here, the surface continually heaves and breaks, making for a roller-coaster ride. I guess that when the motor homes start complaining about broken springs and shocks, the Highway Dept. has to do something. I grew certain that my choice of a BMW GS was the ideal one about five miles into this mess, when the size of the rocks and the roughness of the road bed got to where I was using all of the eight inches of wheel travel, and wishing for more. At one point, passing an oncoming gravel truck, I was hit on the wrist by a stone kicked up hard enough to make me wince. At another point where we had to stop for a flagman, Ian showed me his glasses, cracked though by a stone thrown up by another truck. Friends, if any of you are planning to come this way after the MOA rally, be warned: it's rough.

The construction finally ended near the turn for the Richardson Highway, and we had some smooth sailing for a while. We simply had to stop for a photo opportunity when confronted with snow-covered mountains so big I was sure that we were seeing Denali. Wrong: it turned out to be Mount Kimball, in the Wrangell mountains, hundreds of miles away from Denali. Yet, the vista was amazing, with these giant peaks jutting out of the forest everywhere you could see. Later, the St.Elias mountains would loom even higher and craggier. When we finally turned westward at Paxson onto the Denali Highway, I was expecting a road rougher than any so far from the descriptions I'd read. Here's the paradox: of all the roads described in the Milepost, the Denali was written about everywhere as "gravel", "remote", and "rough". It actually turned out to be one of the smoothest and most fun roads yet, with speeds of 70 miles per hour possible on the big GS machines. Gracious House turned out to be, well…..quaint, with a good restaurant, but only primitive camping. The view of Mount McKinley is awesome, though, and there is a pretty steady flow of characters through there. If you get the chance, check out the Sluice Box Bar: unique.

At the other end of the Denali Highway lies Cantwell, Alaska, another crossroads that mainly serves gasoline to thirsty machines. Turning north, we decided to try to make the Denali area and wound up at the Grizzly Bear Campground and Lodges on the Nenana River. There I met Peter and Ulricka, a German couple touring on an F650; they had already made a large circle of the state, and were heading off to the shuttle ride to Kantishna, at the foot of Mount McKinley in the morning.

After a pleasant, dry night, I awoke to face a reality that has been plaguing us since the beginning of the trip: tires. I've been carefully watching the wear of my tires, and have seen the rough road surfaces chew away what should have lasted seven or eight thousand miles or more in a little over five thousand. There remains over 1500 miles to get to the rally in Missoula, and my mental tire-life calculator says "No way are you going to make it!" So here is the reality: either I get tires in Anchorage, or I nurse it all the way to Seattle and detour to get them there, but no way is this set going to make it to Missoula. After visiting the center at Denali National Park, it was decided to head for Anchorage and the BMW dealer. Once in town, a phone call confirmed that tires were available, so there we went. While at the dealer, we were treated to a demonstration of just how far some people will go to ride: four people rode up on a motley collection of machinery, the most unusual of which was a 1948 Vincent ridden by an Englishman, the cobbiest an early-seventies-vintage BMW twin with half a plastic canteen glued to the valve cover to keep oil from leaking our where the cover had been broken in a fall, and the other two consisting of an early-eighties Honda CX500 twin with a home-made fuel tank "extension" consisting of a formed sheet metal bulge welded to the top of the tank to contain more fuel, and the final machine a Gilera single not sold here in the U.S. These machines had just completed the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, renowned as the roughest, tire-eating highway in North America. Somehow, as I look at my machine and gear, with its computer-controlled fuel injection and anti-lock brakes, heated vest and integrated luggage system, and compare it to what those guys rode in on, all I can say is…."We're not worthy!"

The rest of the day was spent in riding down to Seward, where we plan to rest a bit and visit the Kenai Fjords National Park. Five thousand seven hundred miles, give or take, to Homer and the End Of The Road. One last thing: I've heard from Ted Wasserman (our third member, put off the trip by an equipment failure in Montana) by voice mail message, and he's back on the road somewhere on the Alaska Highway. I'm sure there must be an interesting story behind that, and he expects to meet us at the ferry in Haines on the sixth. I'm happy for him!

Tom Bowman, from the road, Seward, Alaska.

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