by Tom Bowman
Follow Tom Bowman and Ian Schmeisser as they work their way from Georgia to Alaska, to the BMW MOA Rally in Montana, then back to Georgia.
Days 1 & 2: The Passing of the Gate
“The longest part of the journey is said to be the passing of the gate.”
– Marcus Terentius Varro
It has taken by my reckoning either one and one-half years or thirty-three years for me to reach this gate, so what Marcus Terentius said may be true.
I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I suppose, when the idea of taking a long trip by motorcycle came into my mind. I was in love with the photos in Surfer magazine of the green water and shimmering waves of California, and the shapely blonde girls and the hot rods and the prospect of adventure made me dream every day of climbing on my motorcycle and riding across the country to get there. Route 66 had not yet completely died, the Summer of Love had not yet happened, and everything stretched out before me. There was just one problem: my mother. I guess I need say no more for you to get the idea.
This is Ian Schmeisser’s `96 R1100GS “C-5” and my `97 R1100GS “Crow Jane”
(two hundred points to the guy who knows that name)
Fast forward to late 1996. I got the idea of an Alaska trip somewhere between Fredericksburg and Atlanta on my way home from the MOA National in Texas. “Hey!” I said to myself: “Missoula is almost halfway to Alaska, why not go up and hit the next National rally on the way back?” And so the seed was sown. I proposed a trip by posting a query to the IBMWR List and got a few eager replies, but the eagerness turned in the space of a week or two as reality set in. After most folks “do the math” on such a trip, the saddle time, costs, and time away from work and family are daunting. Yet, in what would be a strange twist, my close friend Ian Schmeisser from nearby in Atlanta spoke up and said he’d been waiting all his life to do that trip, and if I was serious, he was in. Alaska Sojourn! Was born. In another of those strange twists, I received a phone call from an old friend in New Jersey who was just “checking in”, and when he asked me “What’s new?” I told him of the Big Trip. He had been planning to do a trip out west on his K1100RS anyway, he said, and after a day or so mulling it over and getting the necessary Domestic Clearances, Ted was in. He plans to join us at the foot of Glacier National Park in Montana in a few days.
This is Tom
What has followed has been nearly a year of planning, with maps, books, phone calls, meetings, and messages exchanged across the Internet. When I had the chance to step up to a new GS last fall, Ian followed suit. Equipment was bought, itineraries planned, and options considered. From the early “minimalist” ideas I had for equipment, we’ve evolved into something of an “electronic travelling gypsy caravan” of camcorders, portable PC’s, cell phones, mapping programs, and camping gear. There are stories buried in some of the gear and how it came to be in our inventory, and more tales of how things came together at the end of the preparation, but those will wait awhile.
This is Ian
And so after either thirty-three years or one and a-half years, this morning early, Ian and I convened at my house for coffee and a photo opportunity prior to the launch. Since “a picture is worth a thousand words”, here you go:
Our plan is to alternate trip reports from the road between the three of us, documenting interesting features with a Kodak DC210 digital camera, peppering it with droll wit and philosophical ramblings, and uploading the whole mess to Ted Verrill’s capable Web-Mastering hands at the IBMWR web site, where you’re reading this now, I expect. We’ll have a limited capacity to receive and answer e-mail, so if there are any burning questions or suggestions for the Best Cheeseburger in Whereever as this thing unfolds, feel free to beam a message out to us. Just don’t be offended if we can’t answer everything you can send: after all, this is a vacation, and we’re going to have plenty to do. Hey: we’re not even all that sure that we can find data ports in Left Snowshoe, Yukon Terrortree, donchaknow?
I’ve thought a lot about what I look forward to the most. There’s a lot of it, and I expect we won’t be able to see it all, but here are some things I’m personally looking forward to:
- Mount Rushmore
- The Crazy Horse Memorial
- Devil’s Tower
- Beartooth Pass
- Yellowstone National Park
- The Icefields Parkway in Alberta
- The Cassiar Highway
- Kenai peninsula
- Homer, Alaska, as far as the road goes
- Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
- The Inside Ferry, via the Alaska Maritime Ferry
- The MOA National in Missoula
- Teton National Park
- Riding though the Rockies again
For maximum enjoyment, get yourself a copy of The Alaska Milepost at your local bookstore, and follow along. Today’s itinerary takes us from Atlanta to Jonesburg, MO, where we’ll camp at a KOA Kampground. We’ll soon be passing the gate….
Tune in later; film at eleven.
Day 3: Into the Heartland
The Heartland, that big middle part of the country that includes Missouri and Iowa, are behind us, as is the most of South Dakota as I write this. I’m sitting in the Lazy J Campground in Rapid City, and a wicked thunderstorm has just come over the Black Hills to crack and boom and rain fat drops on the tent fly, making big “splats” as each lands. I’ve got John Lee Hooker on the Walkman and Jim Beam in the cup. There are nearly 1500 miles underneath Crow Jane’s wheels, and the Travel Gods have been good to us this far.
When we reached the end of our first day in Jonesburg, MO, we had broken out from under the clouds that had been hounding us for most of the first day, culminating in thick showers around St. Louis, but by the time we got to our destination, we appeared to have run out from under it all and were treated to a nice, clear sunset. Only some distant clouds to the west broke the vista, but as we turned in around 11:00 P.M., those turned into another thunderstorm that went on most of the night. Morning broke soggy but calm, and as we set off for our ride across The Show-Me State, the skies were merely unsettled. Around Kansas City we hit more rain, but nothing serious and by the time we turned north on I-29, we were once again out of it. North of St. Joseph, the winds came up and we tacked easterly into a stiff breeze until reaching the Iowa state line. There’s not much one can say about Iowa that doesn’t have either “corn” or “green” in it, but as we paralleled the Big Muddy river there were scenes of flooding; perhaps you’ve seen something of it on the tube?
I guess I have to admit to occasionally having moments of delirium on the road – fits of duncedom in which I look right at something and don’t recognize it. Yesterday it happened to me as we were approaching Omaha on I-29 northbound; I kept seeing road signs that read “Council Bluffs”, and found myself wondering “When do we get to Omaha?” See, one of the little pain-in-the-ass problems I have is that I can’t read anything up close with my glasses on, and I’ve never gotten around to going the bifocals route – too vain, concerned about distortion, etc. Anyway, I couldn’t read the map on the tankbag, and just figured “Well…..Omaha must be north of Council Bluffs.” Those of you looking at a map, or who are familiar with that area have already figured it out and are probably laughing your asses off: Omaha is on the other side of the river from Council Bluffs. Duh. Well, after passing through, we made Sioux City in jig time, where we decided on a motel instead of camping, as Ian is laboring away under the notion that he can successfully run his business from the road and needed a handy phone jack and power supply.
I took the opportunity to seal up a seam or two on the tent that had sprung leaks in the showers in Missouri, to the great puzzlement of the other guests. I’m quite sure some of them thought that I was simply going to drive tent stakes into the asphalt parking lot and camp out. Sioux City happens to be the home of Gateway Computers, which is housed in perhaps the ugliest statement to gonzo marketing on the face of the planet: a huge, sprawling white industrial-ugly building just off the Interstate, painted with black “cow” spots on the white building sides. You can see it a mile. The other things Sioux City is home to is a thriving casino business: just like in Lost Wages, you can plunk your butt down in a neon-illuminated barroom and watch drunken, cigarette-puffing people shove money into electronic gaming machines while you eat a $4.95 “Prime Rib Dinner With All The Trimmings”. Mmmmmm, good !
Monday morning dawned with high clouds in the sky and dire reports on The Weather Channel about more severe thunderstorms in Missouri and Nebraska: seems we just made it north in time. The day promised a mind-numbing grind across South Dakota, and I admit to having not much stomach for that, so I had scoped a route using the state highways and paralleling the Missouri River – routes 50 and 44. Let me tell you, folks, if you ever have to cross South Dakota, that’s perhaps the best route on which to do it. As we turned off I-29 for the last time and headed west, we found ourselves in rolling land so green you couldn’t believe it. The road was anything but straight and flat, and picturesque farms dotted a land of frequent vistas. Out through Vermilion and Yankton, and on to Winner, the route was anything but boring. I guess I just didn’t have much appreciation for the farming industry, or for the scale of the state, but somewhere about a hundred miles into the middle of SD, I began to ask myself “Who is going to eat all this corn??” I think I’ve got it figured out: the cows are going to eat it, along with an unimaginable quantity of hay, either growing, being cut, lying in fields drying, or stacked in bales or rolled up in ricks. What the cows don’t eat, ADM (“Supermarket to the world” they proclaim) is going to make into corn syrup with which to sweeten our soft drinks and candy bars, and about a zillion other things. there’s so much corn in South Dakota, they even have a Corn Palace. We didn’t get to go there, having to choose between Wall Drug and the Badlands, but I imagine its quite a place. Another thing that I began to ask myself as we rolled along was “Why would anyone want to be a pig farmer??” The smell must destroy all the sense organs in the nose after a short time, rendering the pig farmers incapable of identifying anything more subtle than skunk, which now that I think about it is about on the same plane as Pig Farm. You could smell them literally a half-mile away.
The corn and hogs transition to alfalfa, sunflowers, wheat, and milo (don’t ask me what that is – a convenience store clerk told me that name as we stopped for coffee and gas in Winner), and thence to grasslands after crossing the Missouri, after which most of the land is given up to herds of cattle and giant tractors hauling plows twenty feet wide as they turn the black soil for more of whatever. There was a point in the morning when I looked up into the sky and saw two long, narrow clouds keeping exact seventy-mile-an-hour pace with us while above them another layer of clouds raced the other way, noticeably changing position at a high rate. At another point, in a huge field of tall grass, an all-white horse ran all alone, his tail held high and straight out behind him, running perhaps for the joy of it, like us, simply to see what the other side looks like. The cows even seemed to have something going: at one place, a herd of black cows faced a similar herd of brown cows across the road; each herd was jammed shoulder-to-shoulder into the corner of its’ pasture staring like “Hey: let’s rumble!” Another macabre thing unique to the state is the practice of “X Marks the Spot” signs denoting where there have been highway fatalities; they’re quite common. I have no idea what to do with that knowledge, but the state seems to want me to know. Something else that struck me along the way: South Dakota must have one Hell of a winter judging by the size of the snowplows seen in the highway department yards: huge, double-sided monsters fifteen feet wide and six feet high. Houses seem to be built with banks of trees thick on the west side, telling me that there’s not a goddamned thing to stop the wind but fence posts between there and Wyoming. Not my kinda place, I reckon.
There is a place – I can’t tell you where without a map – where the Badlands begins, only you’re not yet in the park. There are wide erosion features where the grass has been carried off into white and pinkish gullies and washes by the periodic rains. As you run on west, one comes to the Badlands themselves, a spectacular place, and eerie – an unearthly place of exposed coral pink sand and white chalky earth. Route 240 winds across the top of the park from vista point to vista point; the nearest thing to it I’ve ever seen would be in Utah – Cedar Breaks, or perhaps Bryce Canyon. Definitely worth a trip. While at the visitor center we met a couple on custom-painted Honda cruisers, his a Valkyrie, hers a twin. He was taping his trip with a helmet-mounted video camera he got from a sky diver!
From the Badlands, we hiked to I-90, almost an indignity after such good, scenic roads, and schlepped on to Rapid City. We forswore a visit to Wall Drug, that mighty tourist trap in the town of the same name. Interstate 90 is surely the reason why South Dakota has such a dreadful reputation with motorcyclists: there is no more sense-depriving slab of concrete (oh, I know, there are lots of others near as bad). The high point of that leg was watching a B-1 bomber climb out from Ellsworth Air Force base near Rapid City. We’d include a photo, but then we’d have to kill you.
Tomorrow, Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Devil’s Tower, and thence to Cody, Wyoming.
“Think twice `fore you go, if we ever meet again,
Think twice before you go, we may never meet again;
If you ever left before, you may leave me again.”
John Lee Hooker
Days 4 & 5: Twenty Miles of Bad Road
The thunder had died away sometime in the wee hours, and we rose to a fine sky and sun in Rapid City on the fourth morning of our Sojourn. The Lazy J Kampground lies on a hill overlooking the plains to the east and Ellsworth Air Force Base away out on the plain. On the other side of the hill lay the Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore, our first destination of the day. In the morning “upload” from the office’s fax line, we learned that there were severe weather warnings for the day in the northeast corner of Wyoming and the Black Hills, and that would make a lot of difference.
Gutzon Borglum carved and blasted and shaped the faces on Mt. Rushmore as a commemorative to famous presidents (no, Virginia, not IBMWR Prezzidents, but a little more on that later), and today it lies as one of the most famous places in America, if not the world, drawing thousands of visitors (many of whom were up early and crowding the parking lot even at 0900). After paying the obscene $8.00 parking charge, we trooped up the promenade and took the obligatory photos, and then got Passports stamped. Back in the parking lot, the first thing I saw was an enormous thundercloud building over the Hills right where we were planning to go, the Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer, SD. After quick consultation, and realizing that this is a long trip and its success won’t rise or fall based on a single place, the decision was made to detour. That is where the twenty miles of “bad road” comes in.
The State of South Dakota must have a different “operating system” when it comes to deciding how to do road construction. For some reason, they have decided to grind up nearly the entire road surface from just north of route 44 to Lead, leaving what must be the spookiest surface I’ve ever ridden on. Imagine that a drunk has taken a giant garden tiller and run it up and down the road, weaving side to side and grinding the asphalt into what resembles the interior of a egg carton – large knobs alternating with holes. When riding on it, one’s bike bobs and weaves like and NFL tailback: not much fun. To add insult to injury, the DOT also stationed flagmen at strategic points with instructions to hold traffic until at least forty or more vehicles were waiting. I imagine that the instructions also include waiting until all the engines have been turned off in frustration. Yeesh.
It’s a long way from Spearfish to Cody. I-90 is a grind, endless concrete out through the plains. Thankfully, we didn’t have to do the whole thing that way, as we detoured up north to Devil’s Tower, where Ian had a “close encounter” with coincidence. Devil’s Tower is one impressive place, and the sun shone on it as we rolled in. It’s the remains of an ancient volcano’s lava flow, and the material around it eroded away until nothing is left but a vertical mass of granite. It’s been climbed something like 30,000 times since 1937, but I have absolutely no idea why. Neither did the tourists, but they were making a career out of peering hopefully at the thing, hoping for a glimpse of someone blithely climbing.
From Devil’s Tower, on to Cody, jumping off point to Yellowstone. After an overnite there, we rode the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway over Dead Indian Pass. As we climbed, the temperatures dropped until we were in heavier stuff and at one point it actually looked like snow. The Nez Perce Indians led the U.S. Cavalry on a merry chase up this canyon along the Yellowstone River in 1877, after which Chief Joseph uttered his famous statement “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” A great bike road! We entered Yellowstone at the Northeast Entrance at a station manned by perhaps the gruffest ranger I’ve ever encountered. The road from there to Roosevelt Lodge is gnarly, broken up by potholes and sections under construction. I wouldn’t recommend it for anything but GS’es. After a quick stop at Mammoth Hot Springs and brunch in Gardiner, MT, it was on to Kalispell/Whitefish for the nite, via Montana 83 through the Lolo and Flathead National Forests. Why were the Indians of the area called “Flatheads”? I’ve always wondered about that.
Oddities and obscurities for the ride:
- Two huge elk were crossing the road as we turned onto the Chief Joseph; they acted like they owned it, and only rolled their eyes when horns were blown.
- The mere hint of a grizzly bear to be seen draws tourists faster in Yellowstone than an announcement of free beer at a rally.
- Lots of ‘range stock’ in the area, and they frequently are out in the road, doing their thing (which can be slippery)
- The big brown horse in Toston, MT, was scratching the place between his eyes on the top of a fence post, head almost horizontal to the ground, his tail going around in big windmill circles.
- Some strange devices in the fields around Clearwater Crossing, MT; like a cross between a seesaw and a catapult, thirty feet high and somehow associated with hay. Twenty points to anyone who can tell me what the hell they are?
Today’s ride: Whitefish, MT, to Banff, Alberta. Tune in later, film at eleven.
Tom Bowman, from the road…..
Day 6 to 8: Mountains, Valleys and Rivers
One rides through land like this and the size of the mountains, the valleys, the rivers, everything is too big. One can’t get one’s mind around it…I don’t have the right words to describe it.
We rolled out of Kicking Horse Lodge in Field, BC, near Lake Louise this morning amid clouds and what feels like high-forty-degree temperatures. I had to do a reality check that it was truly late June; I hear the temperatures back home are near a hundred. Up Route 93 between the high peaks and jutting crags, we rolled into the mist and murk. The Icefields Parkway lay ahead of us like an aperitif – an appetizer for the day. I’ve been through the Rockies in the lower 48, but after today it won’t be the same; it’s all built on a larger scale.
The photo you’ll see above is just one of endless views like it. Near the center take notice of the triangular pinnacle from which the snow and mist is blowing to the left for a sense of it. The Icefields Parkway is forbidding even in summer, something harsh. There are still glaciers here, actively carving away at the mountains. The mountain peaks stick straight up into the air for what seems like a mile, the snow and ice a barrier to any human presence. It may have been like this for 30,000 years. As I’ve thought over what to tell you about this part of the ride, it seems almost pedestrian to talk about carving corners or fuel mileage or what the bike’s doing…..who cares about that in the midst of a place like this?
There are miles and miles between the Icefields Parkway and where I am tonite; many, many miles. In that lies another part of the scale of this place; it’s big. Tonight we’re camped on the shore of Francois Lake in British Columbia, near the town of Fraser Lake. Find it on the map, please. The little waves roll in to the shore, and there is a nice fire in the firepit. There are about forty fishermen waiting to get into their boats and go out onto the lake to try to outwit the fish tomorrow morning. It’s nearly 10:30 P.M., and still light; we’re getting far enough north for the effect of latitude to make the days loooooong. All for now, must turn in. Tomorrow – the Cassiar Highway to Iskut Lake, BC.
Tom Bowman, Francois Lake, BC, June 26th, 1998
Kodak Moments & Kharma
There are times when I am in total possession of my thoughts and words; at other times, I’m at a loss for something adequate to say.
Do you believe in karma? Kismet? Fate? Destiny? Signs and omens? I do. I saw a demonstration as clear as any I’ve ever seen this morning. Unfortunately, it put an end to Ted Wasserman’s trip. When we came down to the bikes this morning, his normally-reliable K1100RS wouldn’t start. He instantly recognized the same symptoms as an earlier Hall Effect Sensor failure, and expected the worst. I ran mentally through all the things I could think of that might cause a no-start condition, and after playing with the ignition switch a few times, I heard the fuel pump run, after which the engine started. Ted went to get fuel, after which he drove about a hundred yards and signalled me that there was something wrong. Thinking that the engine had died again, I rode over only to find that the clutch had failed on his bike. Seriously, no forward motion, none at all. What can one think? A K1100, normally one of the most reliable machines on the planet, suddenly beset with not one but two maladies in the space of a few minutes. I’ve had such things happen in my life: relationships that didn’t work, business deals that went sour, jobs and bosses that went screwy, and even an avocation that changed because of signs. This was a signal so obvious that it could not be ignored. Ted, being the kind of guy he is, quickly accepted it as “Life’s like that” and made plans to rent-a-truck back to Coeur d’Alene. There’s a loose plan in his head to trade for something with which to salvage the trip. So there we were, Ian and I, waving Ted’s U-Haul goodbye. Nothing to do but head up the road, which we did. I have a hunch that things like this happen for the best. I also have a hunch there will be a Palmetto Green K1100RS for sale very soon.
I’ve visited the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, camped in and prospected in the Sierras of California, and crossed the Cascades of Washington, all with utmost respect for those wonders of nature. I’ve also been through the Zion and Bryce and Dixie areas of Utah and cruised many of the best back roads of the southeast nd southwest, and I can tell you there is nothing I’ve seen to compare to the Canadian Rockies. Nothing. We rode route 93 up to the border, where the only things the crossing guard seemed interested in were whether we had firearms, and how much liquor we were carrying. He seemed unconvinced when I told him I had no handguns – don’t believe in `em – and had only a pint of whisky for medicinal purposes. “Welcome to Canada, eh?” Did you bring enough money??
As one rides north into the Canadian Rockies, the scenery gets better and better, until one crosses into Kootenai and Yoho Provincial Parks. If one were to compare mountains to cathedrals, comparing the Canadian Rockies to most others would be like comparing the cathedral at Notre Dame or the Haghia Sofia in Istanbul to Saint John the Unfinished in New York: don’t bother. As one rides up the middle of valley after valley, they become more and more beautiful, as do the rivers. I’ve never seen such colors in water – a fluorescent green that I’m told is due to microscopic granite particles suspended in the water as it moves downstream from the high mountains to the valleys. Fast-moving and cold, the rivers feed lush valleys of wheat and barley and many other crops. From Fountain Valley’s condos and golf courses to Radium and the entrance to the park, it just gets better and better. By the time one is in the park, it seems almost an anti-climax…..until one goes through Sinclair Canyon, a narrow passage between sheer walls of granite ….and until one gets into the midst of the tall spires and green, glacial valleys that run more than fifty miles up to Lake Louise. Trust me: you can’t put enough film in your camera to capture it all. The air is crisp, the water clean and cold, and the vistas large and unspoiled. Like I said…..sometimes words run away from me.
We’re here in Field, BC, at the Kicking Horse Lodge, a fine place in the midst of a deep valley. The sun is setting to my left, the sky now clear after a day of intermittent rain and cloud. The temperature is only in the fifties (Fahrenheit). The lakes so clear and green earlier, have turned through blue to black. The crags behind me are deep in shadow now, preparing for another night alone. This cold place, so forbidding and huge, prepares for the night. The remnants of the glaciers high above are what is left of a time thirty thousand years ago, and perhaps an omen as to what may come once again. Man is perhaps not the master of all he surveys here. All is right with this part of the world, at least for a little while longer.
If you haven’t been here, don’t wait much longer….it may not be the same, and that would be a crime.
Tom Bowman, from Field, BC.
This morning from the campground of the Red Goat Lodge in Iskut, BC, I’m beginning to feel just a tiny bit like Edward R. Murrow, or Charles Kuralt, writing and broadcasting “from the road.” I have a different perspective about their work now that I’ve attempted to do something like it.
This trip is now eight days old. There are more than four thousand miles under the wheels, and we are perhaps two-thirds of the way to our destination. To express even a small portion of what lies on the route even this far is hard. There is so much to see, so many things of interest that one could write about, that one would need a recorder just to put down notes about it all, and a helmet camera to show you the sights. Indeed, there are many. Yesterday we rode through an incongruous mix of civilization and back country on our way from Francois Lake to here. I must confess that my “picture” of what would be found was not much like the reality. For one thing, there are more people up here than I thought there would be. For another, I never realized the appetite the world has for lumber: logging has been a main industry up here for a long time, and the results are highly visible in the form of huge swaths where the cedar, pine, and hardwoods have been clear-cut. Much of the old-growth forest remains, so thick and dark that one can only see a few yards into the great swarm of trees. Yet, at places like Houston and Smithers, golf courses attract duffers in what is for this place hordes of thirty or forty at a time.
We crossed the Skeena Mountains at Smithers, a town dominated by a huge massif upon which lies a large glacier which can be seen from the road. Shortly afterwards, the road divides, the Yellowhead Highway continuing westward to Prince Rupert on the ocean, and the Cassiar heading north to the Yukon Territory. Of all the roads so far, this was the one I have anticipated the most. The Cassiar! Don’t let the description in the Alaska Milepost fool you: this is not some sanitized, homogenized, antiseptic, lowest-common-denominator road. This is serious. The Cassiar is several hundred miles of gravel, smooth in places, rough as a cob in others. Huge tractor-trailer rigs hauling ore fly down it enveloped in thick clouds of dust. It begins relatively benign until one reaches Meziadin Junction, where the road again splits, with one side going to Stewart, BC, and Hyder, Alaska, (southernmost point of Alaska), and the other going north through the mountains to the Yukon. After the Junction, the gravel begins. Our GS machines handled it well, allowing reasonable speeds, but I felt sorry for the group of four riders we passed on sport bikes and cruisers; they were dust-covered and looked tired. The highway crews were working in a couple places spreading new gravel that made the short sections a real adventure. There are one-lane bridges over many creeks and rivers, most wooden-planked and one lane, some made of that steel grate that we hate. All span picturesque waters racing and cutting their way westward to the ocean.
After Meziadin Junction I saw the bears. The first was crossing the road and going into the trees less than a mile from the Junction. The second was coming out into the road as I approached and I got a good, close look as I was braking down, before he went back into the woods. A bit later, a large coyote or fox (couldn’t tell from the road, and I’m not a wildlife expert) stood in a small clearing off to the side of the road and watched our passage. We saw eagles and other birds as well. No moose, but it’s only a matter of time, I suspect.
Today we will finish the Cassiar and reach the Alaska Highway for the first time at Watson Lake, home of the famous “Signpost Forest”, and head west for Whitehorse, in the Yukon for first time. We expect to be back on more populated roads (the Cassiar is nothing if not remote), and may get ahead of schedule for the first time as well. Eight days, four thousand miles, and the experience of a motorcycling lifetime. In a few minutes, we’ll go knock on the door of the campground hosts, the Cunninghams, and ask to use their fax line to send off this batch of reports and photos. Everyone has seemed interested and amazed at this thing of communicating to the Internet from the road, and everyone just shakes their head at two middle-aged guys off away from work for a month, doing something like this trip on motorcycles. Now, if I could just figure out how to do this more often……
Tom Bowman, from Iskut Lake, BC. June 28th, 1998.
Day 9 to 12: Alaska!
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 …..you 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.
Day 13 to 16: Heading South
The long day before ended in Haines Junction with a late evening moon three-quarters full setting over the mountains to the west of our motel, making for a fine period to the end of the day’s sentence, and I rose refreshed in the morning after a night of nearly ten hours’ sleep. The accumulated fatigue of the days on the road and the anticipation of each day’s new wonders has built until despite my eagerness and preparation I am weary. Thankfully, I’m not weary of the riding: no, not that – that would be a curse indeed. No, just tired in a way that steady, long attention to a task gradually draws one’s energy down. Today’s ride would be mercifully short, just over the mountains and through Kluane National Park down to Haines and the ferry terminal, only a hundred-fifty miles.
As we were starting off at near noon, we chanced to try for lunch at the local version of the “Tastee-Freez”, a small place that advertised pizza, burgers, and ice cream. Now there’s a bit of a queer thing: ice cream seems incredibly popular up here, and that’s one of the last things I’d have expected given the cold of most of the year. Maybe it’s not the locals eating it, though; maybe it’s the tourists…. Anyway, a small group of bikers (Milwaukee-Twin type) were already there, and the light banter and curiosity that ensued was one of those little interludes that punctuates the different tastes and focus of the riding community: the thing they found most odd about our machines was the way we parked them up on the center stands instead of on the side stands. I never cease to be amazed at the different things people see. After eating, we pointed ourselves down the Haines Highway toward the mountains in a fine, warm mid-day air, stopping just to take a photo of the sign marking the fact that we were no longer on the Alaskan Highway.
Within only a few miles the air began to turn cooler, and by fifty miles, we were stopping to dig out fleece jackets and heavier gloves, reinforcing the point that one must be prepared for anything in the way of conditions up here. Soon we were up in the clouds, and the temperatures were down in the mid fifties, the rain spitting intermittently. These mountains border the coast, and the moist cold air drives right up into the valleys in a kind of micro-climate much different from that of the valley we had just departed. After Haines Summit (not very high at only 1,029 meters, about 3,100 feet) it was downright cold and I was glad of the warm gloves and heated grips. One comes down off the mountain range at the U.S. border station about forty miles from Haines where we were quickly passed through and on our way. Only a little while later, we were paralleling the Chilkat River, home to the National Bald Eagle Nesting Preserve. The water looked high and fast and had the gray silty color of a river cutting the mountainsides steadily, bringing the debris down to the ocean. The eagles must have been on break or something, because they were nowhere to be seen as we came past, but it is a dramatic place nevertheless, with the fast-flowing water and the islands and the high water.
The town of Haines was originally home to Fort Seward, named for the Secretary of the Interior who executed the Alaska Purchase from the Russians. The fort was erected in 1904 during a period of disagreement between the Canadian government and the U.S. over exactly where the borders should be drawn, and the establishment of the fort saw to it that intentions were made clear. There’s a large parade ground on the hill overlooking the Lynn Canal channel, and many of the original buildings still stand. The fort served later in its life as an Arctic training post for soldiers in the far north, and was decommissioned and sold as surplus property in 1942. Several families of soldiers who had served there bought it sight unseen, and moved there to live, beginning the modern era of the town which today is mostly a cruise ship port, fishing center, and home of a fairgrounds for the region. It’s a quaint little berg, with a friendly, colorful set of inhabitants, and in one of those rare twists of fate, I enjoyed one of the best Mexican breakfast burritos I’ve ever had in the Chilkat Bakery and Restaurant, and had a nice chat with the proprietors of the Pair-A-Dice Tattoo Parlor, where they assured me I had more than enough time to collect some nice ink should I desire to. J I didn’t.
We stood nearly a day ahead of our original schedule at this point, and stayed late in the Hotel Halsingland which occupies one of the original Fort buildings. It’s a pleasant older hotel with a nice watering hole and modest prices, and a little more “color” than the other more pedestrian places in town. A load of laundry, a little time in the book store (where I acquired a copy of Robert W. Service poems for the boat ride), a little in the gift shops, some time putting the back streets, and then it was off to the ferry terminal. There we met two young men from the S.F. bay area who had ridden their sport bikes to Prudhoe, away up on the north slope, as far as one can go, and on a dirt road to boot. Their bikes looked ridden hard and put up wet, pieces hanging, pieces missing and broken, but they had gone as far as they could and were now heading home. We also met a lanky fellow on a Harley who had ridden up from Florida alone, and we passed some pleasant hours exchanging stories and chatting with the other folks. Finally around eight P.M., we were allowed to board, a frenzy of parking, tying down machines, and transferring gear up to the cabins and decks. The Alaska Marine Highway system’s boats cater to a rather “free-lance” set of travelers, and it was amazing to see the small army of tents quickly erected on the “solarium” deck aft, their guy lines held down with duct tape (the all-purpose attachment device), and sleeping bags spread out on deck chairs and chaise lounges. What a bohemian crowd! Many appeared to be hikers and young people out for the summer, chasing the next “buzz” and just moseying from place to place up in the Last Frontier.
As we found our way into the Purser’s area to claim our cabin keys, I was utterly amazed to find Ted Wasserman, our long-lost third party. You’ll remember that his bike broke down in Whitefish, Montana, just as we had linked up two weeks ago (he coming from New Jersey across the country by a different route), and the last we had seen of him had been the back of a sturdy U-Haul rent-a-truck disappearing toward Coeur d’Alene. After days of suspense as to how things had come out, here he was, on the boat ahead of us, his new Honda Ace Touring lashed down right next to us on the lower car deck. There’s quite a story there, and I trust he’ll tell it at some later time, but it must stand as testimony to the motto “Never give up!” He’d been to Skagway, flight-seen Denali and several spots of interest, fished for salmon with Dyea Dave (pronounced ‘Die-yEE’ – a Skagway local of some interesting background), and schlepped himself onto the damn boat ahead of us! I was impressed by his inventiveness and vigor, and relieved that things had worked out for him.
As I write this piece, we’re just exiting the protected part of the Inside Passage south of Ketchikan and are venturing out into open water for the first time since departure. The good ship Columbia is swaying side to side, and many eyes up on the decks are scanning for whale sign like the lookouts on one of Herman Melville’s whaling ships. While in Ketchikan we were dwarfed by three enormous cruise ships of the luxury sort in port to disgorge their thousands of tourists into Creek Alley to take photos of Dolly’s (the bordello that made the Alley famous in earlier days), and to the legion of shops to buy carvings and gold, Rolexes and local art work. We’ve another full day and a half before we reach Bellingham and point our machines east toward Missoula, and the rest is doing me good. I was glad to get on the boat, and I expect to be glad to get off the boat, and in-between I’m making an effort to catch up on all the thoughts I have running around in my head. Frankly, it’s all begun to run together, there’s so much of it, but it’s a simple, hearty confusion borne of much pleasant and educational experience, from the first days on the Cassiar to the Bald Eagle Foundation museum in Haines, and everything in-between. A part of me has already begun planning out the return legs in my mind…..
“There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons,
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land – oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back – and I will.”
— Robert W. Service, from The Spell of the Yukon
Tom Bowman, from the Merchant Vessel Columbia, July 8th, 1998. Alaska Sojourn rolls on….