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Gene Dalton’s Alaska Adventure

by Gene Dalton

On August 1, 1997, I completed a 14,000 mile round trip to Alaska. I was accompanied much of the way by Ken Bates, my long time riding buddy from Nankin, Ohio. The primary, but by no means sole, method of transportation was my 1990 K75RT and Ken’s 1996 R1100RT. A summary of the methods of transportation and miles logged on each is as follows:

     Method               Miles
     motorcycle           9,500
     rental cars(2)       3,000
     ferry                1,000
     train                  200
     borrowed car           300

Ken and I agree to meet at the Super 8 Motel in Minot, North Dakota on June 30. I leave my home in Shelbyville, Tennessee on June 25th, a few days early, to attend a reunion at Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota with some fellows I worked with in the 1960’s when I was a part-time park ranger, part-time student, and full time goof-off. The following is a detailed, long-winded, probably boring account of our trip.

June 25 – Leave Shelbyville, Tn. home and spend night with friend in Hillsboro,IL.

June 26 – On the road. Spend night with friends in Winner,SD

June 27 – Arrive Hot Springs,SD(near Wind Cave) and spend 3 nights with friend.

June 28 – Attend reunion and have great time. Man, those guys I worked with in the 60’s are really starting to show their age.

June 29 – Lounge around friend’s house and quickly wear-out my welcome.

June 30 – Arrive Minot,ND 5:30pm and Ken is waiting for me in the Super 8 parking lot. He got in 30 minutes earlier and has already checked us into a room.

July1 – Canada Day! We cross border at North Portal, Saskatchewan and are promptly greeted by heavy rain, temps in the mid 40’s, and occasional lighting strikes much to close for my comfort. Stop at road-side cafe for coffee and to warm-up. Fellow coffee drinker wearing fecal matter splattered rubber boots, well-worn bib overalls, and cap with “Nothing Runs Like A Deere” decal, tells us he has watched Weather Channel all morning and assures us “you’ll be out of it in 15 or 20 miles”. We leave. 250 miles later between Moose Jaw and Saskatoon clouds start to break-up and rain stops. We spend the night in Saskatoon.

July 2 – A glorious riding day.The skies are a brilliant blue and the Prairie Provinces are lush and green as only an abundance of rain can make them. We spend the night in Whitecourt, Alberta.

July 3 – A young couple that has just come down the Alaska Highway takes our picture at “0” mile marker at Dawson Creek. They say the Highway is in good shape. Just “a little construction at Steamboat Mountain”. We start up the highway and arrive at Fort Nelson about 4:30pm. Its early but we decide to spend the night here as its been hot for the last 150 or so miles. We’ve been wearing to many clothes and are exhausted. We should have ridden further.

July 4 – An eventful day. We leave Fort Nelson under cloudless skies and 50 miles later arrive at Steamboat Mountain. It’s raining as we enter the construction zone and start the climb up. Near the summit the road starts to level off. We have not had any problems yet. Pull in behind line of vechicles stopped behind pick-up truck with “Follow Me” sign on tailgate. Lady driver of truck motions us to the head of line and says “Fellas, I’ve got some bad news and good news for you. The bad news is the road crew spread a layer of clay and gravel on the next 200 yards and with this rain its really, really, slick. The good news is the decent on the west side is in better shape and its only real slick. If you had come across yesterday afternoon you would not have had any problems as this rain only started last night.” We startout and it immediately becomes apparent we are not going to keep up with her even though shes only driving at a snails pace. We pull over on the shoulder and motion for her to go ahead. The only way we know to get thru this mess in one piece is to sit on the bikes and walk them thru one step at a time. I open my visor as its fogging up from heavy breathing and am attacked by a swarm of black flies. I can’t take my hands off the handlebars as I’m on the ground if I do. Who the hell’s idea was this trip anyway? We finally arrive at the west slope and look down a mile long, 6 or 7 percent gooey mess grade, that’s suppose to pass for a road surface. There’s a 90 degree turn to the left at the bottom. We start down still walking the bikes one step at a time and break every rule taught by motorcycle safety instructors regarding the use of the front brake on slick surfaces. 30 minutes later we are at the bottom. The road surface improves and we ride in a more or less normal manner for the next three miles when Hurray! Hallelujah! and Praise the Lord! we get out of this horrid construction zone and back on a paved road. Pull over on shoulder of road and, using soup spoons from our mess kit, scrape mud from under fenders, spokes and rims of wheels, brake calipers, boots, pants, and virtually any other surface exposed to daylight. Continue on to Watson Lake and while having lunch Ken says”The clutch on my bike is slipping. Whenever I’m running at about 4,000 rpm and roll hard on the trottle, the motor revs up and I lose power.” Big Time trouble in River City. It starts with an “s” and it rhymes with “bad deal” and it stands for “leaking seal”. We both know that replacing transmission or engine seals is not a job to be undertaken along the side of the road with the BMW supplied toolkit. The nearest BMW dealers are about a 1000 miles back in Edmonton and about the same distance ahead in Anchorage or Fairbanks. We have little choice but to continue on, hoping the clutch will hold together. We spend the night in Whitehorse.

July 5 – Cross border into Alaska about 1pm. Stop at Tok Visitor Center and obtain copies of all flyers, maps, advertisements, etc., etc.,available for pilgrims to The Last Frontier. Take Tok Cut-off and arrive at GlennAllen, AK where we spend night in barracks type hotel originally constructed for Alaska pipeline workers. Call BMW dealer in Anchorage and get recording advising they will be open next Monday between 3pm and 6pm.

July 6 – Take side trip to Valdez and back thru GlennAllen, arriving in Anchorage about 5pm. Check into modest, but exorbitantly priced, motel and make mental note to locate campground in Anchorage area first thing next morning.

July 7 – Check into City of Anchorage owned Centenial Park Campground. (Off and on, it will be our home for the next 12 days.) Arrive at BMW dealer at 3:pm. Ken describes problem to service manager and mechanic. Eyes roll back in their heads and they tell us replacing transmission seal is a major, major, repair and that this is the busiest time of year.(Note: Over the course of the next several days, after observing the number of bikes parked in their parking lot awaiting service and repairs and getting a first hand look at the number of parts removed from Ken’s bike laying around the mechanics work area-the transmission even has to be disassembled to replace the seal-it becomes obvious they are not blowing smoke in our direction.)

” How long will it take?”
“6 or 7 days-if your lucky.”

We weren’t.

Check out rental car No. 1.

July 8 thru 14 – Take trip to Seward(best chili I ever ate was served at the Main Street Cafe in Seward); ride train from Anchorage to Whittier and then take cruise ship into Glacier Bay(spectacular scenery): drive to Fairbanks and on up to Arctic Circle, with stops along the way at the Last Frontier Rally( saw John from Mississippi and Lyle and J.C. from Louisiana-it was good to hear some southern drawls that far away from home) and Denali Park(disappointment).

July 14 – Back in Anchorage at BMW dealers. Bike is not ready. We say “When will it be ready?” They say”Dunno. It’ii be ready when its ready”.

July 15 & 16 – Visit every museum, tourist attraction, geographical point of interest, and Wal-Mart–K-Mart in Anchorage area.(highly recommend visiting City of Anchorage Museum and Lake Hood float plane base with museum located nearby.) 5pm- Back at BMW dealers. “When will it be ready?” Small ray of light breaks thru long dark tunnel.

“Maby tomorrow afternoon by 6:pm.”
July 16 – Take trip down to Kenai and Russian Rivers to see salmon run. 5pm-Back at BMW dealers. Bike not ready. “When?” “Tomorrow, at Noon–maybe”

July 17 – Noon. Bike not ready. “When?” “This afternoon by 6:00.” 6pm. Bike not ready. “Will be done by 8pm.” Leave Ken at BMW dealers and return to campground. If he is not back at campground on his bike by 10pm , will go back to dealer and pick him up. 9:30pm-Ken rides into campground.

July 18 – After logging 2,400 miles, return rental car to agency. On the Road Again! Headed for Haines, AK to catch ferry that leaves for Prince Rupert, BC at 8pm Saturday(7/19). Spend night at Kluane Wilderness Village, Yukon Terr. Good accommodations and food( at modest prices), run by friendly folks.

July 19 – Fate takes a hand. Stop at Haines Junction, Yukon Terr. for gas and breakfast. Harley rider named Bill Perkins pulls in behind us. Strike-up conversation and he says he is leaving on the 8pm ferry tonight and has a cabin booked. Offers to share cabin with us. We quickly accept. 1pm-Arrive Haines and go to ferry terminal to buy tickets. Ride back into Haines to see largest eagles nest on planet(slight exaggeration) and visit museum. 4:30pm- Ride back to ferry terminal and go inside waiting room. Ticket agent comes out and says British Columbia salmon fisherman have blockaded harbor at Prince Rupert(have ferry trapped inside) and our ferry is going to Bellingham, Washington, instead of Prince Rupert. We are disappointed as we had planned to ride from Prince Rupert, down the Canadian Rockies, to Vancouver and Seattle. On the otherhand, a real good deal for us as we get a $444 ride for $216.

I wouldn’t know it until the following Wednesday (7/23), but the God’s of Fate had smiled in my direction. I mean smiled like in a big “ear to ear grin”.

8:30pm – Leave Haines on the ferry headed for Bellingham with interrmediate stops in Juneau, Petersburg,Wrangell, and Ketchikan.

July 20 – 1:30am Stay up to see Juneau. Can’t see anything as its pitch-black and ferry terminal is 3 or 4 miles from downtown. Have fitful nights sleep in cabin. To stuffy. No ventilation. Stop at Petersburg and then Wrangell. Short stops. Get off ferry for about 30 minutes at Wrangell. 8pm-Arrive Ketchikan. 3 hour stop. Bill, Ken and I get off ferry and walk around. Ketchikan averages 155 inches of rain per annum(yep, thats right). For some unknown reason the stars and moon are out when we arrive and remain so during our visit. 11pm. Leave Ketchikan for non-stop 38 hour ride to Bellingham, Washington. Take sleeping bag and Thermarest to open-air solarium on top deck and sleep in fold-down deck chair. Have wonderful nights rest with plenty of cool ocean air.

July 21 – 6am. Awakened by cries and shouts from German tour group who were also sleeping under solarium. A group, herd, flock, school,covey, whatever, of whales are passing alongside the ferry. To hell with the whales. Nothing disturbes my sleep. Rollover and awake at 9am.

July 22 – 8am-Awaken after another restful nights sleep under solarium. 1:30pm arrive Bellingham. The TV stations are on hand to tape our arrival. Apparently the blockade has made the news in the “lower 48”.Bill Perkins splits away from us for a ride across across northern Washington, Idaho and Montana, where he will pick-up his wife, continue on to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the Fly-In, and then return to Sturgis for bike week. He has been a very congenial companion during our 3 day ferry ride. Ken and I leave Bellingham headed for my cousins home in Bay View, Washington. We stop at a convenience store were Ken calls Cascade BMW in Kirkland(Seattle area), Washington, to schedule a back tire change the next morning. 3pm-Arrive at my cousins unannounced and uninvited. He and his wife are shocked to see me ride up on a motorcycle and speechless when I tell them were we have been. They quickly recover, roll out the red carpet, and invite us to spend the night. We don’t hesitate in accepting and have a very pleasant visit.

July 23 – Another eventful day. We leave my cousins at 8am. At 8:45am shortly after turning on to I-405 and,100 miles from the ferry terminal at Bellingham and 10 miles from what proves to be a top-notch, “A” No. 1, BMW dealer, I roll off the throttle, roll back on and hear a “clink”. A second roll-off/on results in another “clink”, and a third results in a “Clank”, “Bam”, “Thud”,”Grrrr”with the motor reving up as if the transmission is in neutral. I coast over to the side of I-405, and say to Ken, “I think my driveshaft just failed. Call AMA’s Mo-Tow service when you get to the dealers.” I while away the time eating blackberries which are growing in abundance along the I-405 right-of-way and am sitting on the shoulder of the road, picking blackberry seeds from my teeth and silently pledging to eat lots of salmon caught by British Columbia fishermen, when the tow truck arrives. We load the bike and head for the BMW dealer. My tummy is a little upset, probably from eating to many blackberries. We arrive and almost before my bike is unloaded the owner, service manager, and a mechanic are looking over the bike and diagnosing the problem. The mechanic rolls it in the shop and returns in a few minutes. He says ” Your driveshaft didn’t fail. Your final-drive disintegrated, however the back spline on your drive shaft is so worn the driveshaft needs to be replaced too.” Upset feeling in tummy turns into a sinking feeling. “We will have a cost estimate by 5pm” 5pm-Eyes glaze over and lower jaw drops to chest high level upon glancing at cost estimate. “Do you want us to fix it.” I nod my head in the affirmative as my vocal cords and throat muscles are now paralyzed and I can make no sound. “If the parts come in by late Friday or early Saturday, we can have you out of here by Saturday afternoon.” I nod my head again and walk away. Ken and I decide to split-up. We’re already running behind schedule and he is going to start running short of medicine he must take for various medical problems if he doesn’t start back to Ohio home tomorrow. We part company early the next morning, still the best of friends after 10,000 miles and 25 days on the road together. Riding buddies like that are hard to find.

July 24 – Bikeless in Seattle. Check out rental car No.2. Look at map and decide to drive around Olympic Peninsula.

July 25 – Complete drive around Olympic Peninsula and return to Cascade BMW at 5pm. ” The parts have arrived. We should have you out of here tomorrow afternoon.”

July 26 -11am-Return rental car after logging 800 miles and walk over to BMW dealers. 1pm-Pay bill. Walk to phone and call Allan Greenspan at Federal Reserve. Tell him to expect an up-tick in Total Consumer Credit Card Debt when he recieves his July report. Advise him not to raise interest rates based on July report as,hopefully, credit card debt will level-off in subsequent months.(pure fabrication-but you knew that-didn’t you?) 2pm-Rolling on I-90 crossing the Cascades. Spend night in Spokane.

July 27 – Leave I-90 at Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho and take side trip across Going-To-The Sun-Road in Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park. Spectacular scenery. Can’t remember seeing anything comparable in Canada or Alaska. Spend night in Great Falls, Montana.

July28 – Boogieing across Montana on US 87 at speeds in the 80 to 90 mph range. Driver of aging, well used, pick-up truck waves as she passes. Boy, what a beautiful day! Blue skies and knee-high lush green grass, dotted with dark green pine trees on hillsides with no buildings to mar view as far as the eye can see. White-haired couple in Ford Taurus wave as they pass. Hummmm, this Montana country was made for 1100/1200 series BMWs,not K75s. Spend night in Hot Springs, South Dakota with friend. Next day plan to ride diagonally across Nebraska on State Hwy. 2, spending the night in St. Jo/Kansas City area.

July 29 – 6am- Its raining hard. Turn on TV and Weather Channel forecaster says this storm system has resulted in the deaths of 4 or 5 persons in the Fort Collins area and will continue to move across Colorado, Nebraska, and western South Dakota. Have sudden, uncontrollabe, urge to take tour of Black hills. Borrow friends 1967 Ranchero and take leisurely, all day drive around Hills.

July 30 – 9am – Leave Hot Springs under cloudy but rainless skies. Arrive Winner, SD and spend night with friends. Go to bed early as have highly ambitious plan to leave Winner at 4am and ride straight-thru to Shelbyville, TN home.

July 31 – 3:30am – Its raining. Go back to sleep. 8am-Leave Winner under cloudy skies which turn into cloudless skies at Spencer,Neb. and remain so the rest of my trip. 6pm-Arrive Chillicothe, Missouri and spend night.

August 1 – 7am – Leave Chillicothe. 5:30 pm – Arrive Shelbyville, TN home. Step off bike, kneel down and say prayer for having great, accident free, trip and arriving home safe and sound.

Well, if you are still reading this and will spare me a little more band width, I’ll answer a few questions you didn’t ask but I’ll answer anyway. (Caveat- All answers are subjective and opinionated.)

1. How was riding on the Alaska Highway?
Not bad. Not bad at all. Except for the construction zone at Steamboat Mountain, which, unfortunately, we went across during a rain, the constuction zones were not diffcult at all, and there were sections of the Highway, especially in the Yukon, were we could run 75 to 80 mph for mile after mile with no fear of damage. Ken made this trip in 1984 with his wife and another couple in a van, and he couldn’t believe(for better or worse-depending on your perspective) the straightening, road improvements, and ROW widing that had taken place.

2. Would you make this trip a second time?
Well, Errr, Hummmm, maby, but not anytime real soon. A lot of the “newness” and sense of adventure would be missing from a second trip and its a long way to Alaska. Once you get there the roads are limited, at least for a touring bike, and are by and large heavily traveled in the summer. Its a fantastic one-time trip, however.

3. What was the most welcome/unwelcome sight you experienced?
The most unwelcome sight–the signs that said “Road Construction Ahead”.
The most welcome “End Construction”. Well almost. Some time “End Construction” signs up there just mean you gotten out of the worst construction and a have few miles to go to get back on a paved surface.

4. What was the biggest surprise(s)? Here are a few

Encountering very few flies and mosquitoes in Alaska and the Yukon. We didn’t have to use the bug spray, deet, or mosquito coil a single time in these areas. I don’t know if it was just a good year or where we camped or stayed or what but insects weren’t a problem for us.(In British Columbia, however they almost carried us off a night or two.)
The green landscape and mild temps at the Arctic Circle. The landscape at the Circle almost reminded me of the Tennessee hills in the spring and I was comfortable having my picture taken at the Circle in a “T”shirt.
The number of RVs in Alaska for the summer. Ken and I agreed that when we got back to the “lower 48” we wouldn’t have to worry about getting behind any RVs because they were all up in Alaska. To illustrate, the newest Wal-Mart in Anchorage has a huge parking lot and they just turn over about half of it to RVs for overnight parking and it seemed to be full when we were at the Wal-Mart.
5. What was the biggest disappointment?
Probably Denali Park. The 8 hour round trip ride we took into the park was in a “Blue Bird” school bus; the scenery wasn’t any better than what can be seen from many of the public roads in Alaska and the mountain was fogged-in when we got to the Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles back into the park traveling primarily on a one lane gravel road. All this was compounded by the fact that we hadn’t eaten since 6:30am; didn’t have any food or drink with us when we got to the Eielson VC at 11:45am as Ken had assured me there were snack and pop machines at the VC but we were lucky to get a drink of water; and faced a 4 hour ride back-out on the “Blue Bird” before we could eat. I was about to tell the bus driver to call “911” when a couple sitting next to us realized our predicament and gave us some peanut butter sandwiches, cookies, and pop from a cooler they had been lugging around. We got to talking to them and found out they had been in Alaska since May traveling in a 30+ foot motor home pulling a car. I remembered those peanut butter sandwiches everytime after that when I pulled in behind a line of RVs traveling about 35 miles an hour on a curvy road, and said to myself, before mumbling dirty words under my breath, “There’s probably some pretty nice people in those RVs”.

6. What was the most timely purchase you made before starting this trip?
Membership in AMA’s Mo-Tow service. My Cross Country membership lapsed last year. I was talking to Vonnie Glaves at the Branson Blitz about towing services and she said she had Mo-tow and was satisfied with it. A week or two before I left for Alaska, I remembered that conversation, called Mo-Tow and signed up. Little was I to realize at the time how quickly I would recover the $25 membership fee.

7. What piece of gear did you buy for this trip that you found the most useful?
A “Jo’s U-Pac”. Great for carrying lots of gear on long distant rides. Seems you can always stuff just one more “on the road” purchase into it.

8. Did you see any Harleys?
You bet your sweet life we did and none of them were broken down and very few were being hauled. Many came thru Centennial Campground in Anchorage while we were staying there and it was obvious from talking to the owners they held up well on the Alaska highway. The only apprehension was getting a rock in the drivebelt system going thru the construction zones, although none we talked to had this experience. I’m ashamed of myself for making all those little snide, cutesy, remarks about Harleys and will refrain from doing so in the future.

9. Can any biker make this trip? I think so. All you need is (a) a dash of determination (b)an iota of ingenuity and (c) a credit card(s) with lots of available credit.

Well, thats my story and I’m sticking to it. I’ve been a member of this list for about 18 months and feel a little guilty because l’ve been a lurker and haven’t contributed much in the way of trip reports or other posts. I can say with certainty, after attending a few IBMWR gatherings that there are more riders in this club than any other I know of. Hope you enjoyed this report and I plan to see some of you at future events.