One night, while in the RV working on SETT, Todd suggested a trip to Alaska. I said I'd be interested in it, forgetting that in our group of friends, this low level of commitment basically always results in a trip happening. A couple weeks later I bought a really decked out 2001 KLR 650 motorcycle specifically to drive from San Francisco to Alaska, bought a knife, and stopped shaving my beard. That was about all I could think of doing to prepare for the trip.
Our departure date came a month later, and five of us met in downtown San Francisco with our bikes ready to go. Without much fanfare, we headed North, towards Canada.
By the time we stopped for gas for the first time, I had decided to turn back. At the high speeds we prefer to travel at, my bike was a little bit wobbly, probably due to the knobby tires and panniers. This could be fixed with a $100 fork brace, but there was nowhere to buy one and no time to ship it. Beyond that, though, I realized that I don't really enjoy long distance motorcycle trips. You can't talk to anyone, your seat is about as comfortable as a bar stool, you can't have snacks or water, and you can't change the music or podcasts on your ipod. Besides that, I wasn't feeling great about the sharply reduced hours that I'd be able to work on SETT. So I turned back.
Initially after turning back, I didn't plan on going to Alaska at all, but I had already bought my return ticket from Anchorage, so the cost of flying up for a few days was cut in half. I called around a couple motorcycle rental shops, and Nancy from Alaska Motorcycle Adventures offered me a great deal on a BMW, along with a really great route that she suggested. I bought my one-way plane ticket minutes later.
Over the next ten days, while my friends pushed forward on the road towards Alaska, I got a lot of good work done, won a bunch of money in poker, and managed to sell my KLR. Christophe, who had to turn back at the Canadian border due to his ongoing immigration process, and I flew to Vegas for a couple days, and then from there to Alaska to join our friends.
We had anticipated that they would get to Alaska before us, but a high speed spill on gravel, broken petcock, and a few other minor problems delayed them so that their arrival perfectly coincided with ours. On July 17th, we met in Anchorage, ready to do an 800 mile three-day tour of Alaskan wilderness.
Our first stop was Cantwell, Alaska, a tiny town outside of Denali national park. On the way up we stopped a bunch of times for pictures, and had an amazing view of Denali (photo at the top of this post), which is the third highest mountain in the world, and the tallest when measured base-to-peak. Apparently it's almost always too cloudy to see it, but we got lucky and had beautiful weather. In fact, it was always sunny while we were riding, the three days of sun amidst a really rainy summer.
The first small disaster I witnessed was Todd's. He decided to take an ATV trail next to the road to avoid traffic, and he decided to take it fast. Wiithin about a hundred feet he fell off the high side of his bike. His F800gs is decked out with crash bars, so it was unscathed, as was he. Shortly after that, Aaron's bike died. Todd stayed back with him to help fix it, but they never figured out what was wrong with it. Christophe, Anderson, and I pressed on, only to have Anderson's chain fall off half an hour later and get caught up next to the sprocket. We pulled over and were quite proud of ourselves when we managed to dislodge it and reattach it with the correct tension.
These delays meant that we arrived at Cantwell around midnight. We hadn't made any sort of reservation, and hadn't really considered that it would be hard to find a place to sleep so late. The fact that it's sunny 24 hours a day tricks your brain into never believing that it's later than seven pm. Cantwell has four small inns. The first said it was open, but it was locked and the phone number on the door went to voicemail. The next was totally closed with no lights on. The third door we knocked on was answered by a really friendly lady who said that she was fully booked, but would have liked to rent us a cabin. At this point, with only one inn left, and not enough gas to get to the next city, I was preparing myself for the worst. I found a woodshed that I was thinking about sleeping in. I would get a bunch of brush from the side of the road to make a bed and sleep in all of my clothes, I thought.
The fourth door was also locked and had no signs of life. Woodshed time. As we were about to leave, Christophe noticed a hand drawn sign that showed the location of the "new office". We knocked on that door, which was answered by a really friendly man who looked somewhat homeless. He quoted us a price 25% higher than it said on the sign, and we gladly agreed to pay it. We were freezing and exhausted, and all privately agreed that we would have paid about four times the asking price.
Todd, after helping Aaron for a few hours, had split off and drove extremely fast to catch up with us. Around 1am he found our room and set up his air mattress on the floor.
The next day was probably the best motorcycle ride of my life. We took the Denali highway east to Paxson. The Denali highway is about 110 miles of rough gravel road. You can't go much faster than sixty without it being scary, and even at that speed you have to become accustomed to your bike drifting around. When the gravel gets really deep, you have to slow down to forty. The views from the road were nothing short of breathtaking, ranging from tall pine forests to open plains dotted with lakes and fenced in by tall mountain ranges. At once point I was riding in front and had lost my friends (it turned out they stopped to take photos), so I pulled over, left my bike near the road as a marker, and hiked towards the mountains a bit. I was struck by just how silent it was there, dozens of miles from even medium sized roads and hundreds from major roads. I remember thinking that I'd probably be happy to sit on a rock there for five or six hours and just enjoy the view and the fresh air.
We continued on with no real issues, surprising considering the twisty gravel roads. We arrived at Tangle River Inn, which was specifically recommended by Nancy, the motorcycle rental lady. The Inn was small and basic, but perched on top of a hill overlooking a beautiful lake. At dinner all four of us sat on the same side of the table because none of us wanted to miss the view. The food was basic and average, with the exception of the grilled salmon, which was very good.
The next day was the first day that we actually woke up early and were ready to go around 9:30. My server had gone down the night before (the one time I don't have good internet access), but I managed to fix it before we left. From Paxson we rode up Isabell pass, which was particularly scenic. We stopped to take pictures a few times and got to see the trans-Alaska pipeline, which we somehow forgot to photograph entirely. From Isabell pass we headed South on a four hour ride back to Anchorage.
On the way, we stopped at Matanuska glacier (which isn't actually in Matanuska, for those of you who try to go there). Matanuska glacier is the largest road-accessible glacier in the world. I'd been particularly eager to see a glacier ever since we tried to get to one in Iceland for about an hour, but couldn't figure out how to cross a raging icy cold river that separated us from it. The glacier was really stunning, maybe the highlight of the trip. We climbed and slid all over it, finally stopping at a small glacial pond formed by the runoff. I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants, but I couldn't get past my ankles because the water was so cold. I'd run into the pond, take some photos from the improved vantage point, and then run back in pain.
After hiking under the sun all over the glacier, we were hot and tired and eager to get back to Alaska. We were only an hour and a half away, which meant that the roads were really good, nice and wide with not too much traffic. We increased our average speed from around 75-80 to over 100mph, as fast as the motorcycles could go. This sounds dangerous if you're not used to riding motorcycles, but with nice wide roads and good visibility, it's not scary at all on a bike.
At one point I moved into the empty oncoming traffic lane to pass a car and a bike. Before I knew it, the biker was to my left, staring at me, revving his Harley to make noise. He was pissed at me for passing him. After a brief staredown he accelerated past me, giving me a chance to read "Hell's Angels" on the back of his leather vest. I was glad all I got was a dirty look and some engine revving.
When you ride a motorcyle fast, you don't really look in the rear view mirror much. What's in front of you requires all of your attention, and there's just not much behind you that could catch up. After maybe thirty seconds or a minute of not looking behind me I glanced in my vibrating mirrors to see a mess of red and blue lights. I was being pulled over, and there was a pretty good chance he'd been tailing me at over 100 for quite a while.
I pulled to the shoulder and began my whole avoid-getting-a-ticket routine. It didn't seem likely that I'd get out of a 100+ in a 65, but maybe I could at least get it reduced. I turned off my engine, took off my helmet and gloves, and put my hands in plain sight where the officer could see them. He asked me if there was some reason I was going so fast. The officer was my age and not angry, which made me think that I was probably going to get away with no ticket, as improbable as it sounded.
"Sorry, sir, I'm just exhausted from riding all day and lookning forward to getting back to Anchorage to rest."
He took my license and registration and headed back to his car. Using a Todd-pioneered technique, I sat sideways on the bike so that he could see my face as I wistfully looked at the ground and sky, trying to appear as though I was really regritting my actions. In reality, I was pretty happy because I didn't think I was going to get a ticket. When he came back from his car holding only my license and registration, I knew I was home-free.
"I'm going to give you a break today, because the ticket would have been $420 and I have the feeling you can spend that money better than the state of Alaska. But you have to be reasonable, you can't be driving over a hundred like that."
"I really appreciate that, thank you. I promise that I will slow down."
And I did, driving with the flow of traffic for the last forty minutes to Alaska. Before he left I managed to chat with him about biking. It turns out he rides, too, and once got a ticket for going 120 in a 65.
We reconvened in Anchorage, glad to have warm showers and soft beds. We stayed in a little motel where the staff was overtly hostile to us because Anderson had negotiated them down to a really cheap rate. When delivering a rollaway bed, the staff member opened the door shoved the bed in so that it rolled and hit the other bed and then turned around with no words. When we tried to eat at the sushi restaurant downstairs we were told that they were about to close so we would have to take it to go. As we waited for them to make our dinner, they sat a family at a table. All in all, it was a pretty funny reaction to being negotiated down.
The trip only lasted three days, but we covered 800 miles or so and saw a lot of beautiful scenery and even some animals like Caribou. Taking a trip like that via motorcycle is definitely different than any other mode of transportation, with its strengths and weaknesses. I was uncomfortable pretty much all the time, but it was worth it to be able to ride through the open air and feel like I was part of the environment, rather than just passing through it in a bubble.