Alaska – Gravel, Grandeur & Goofy Grins (Final Chapter)
Seward’s spectacular ocean beauty and sea life had left us slack jawed with amazement. It seemed that each time we went to a new location in Alaska, there was another gorgeous scene ready to unfold directly in front of us. But this day, there was another reason for our slack jaws and now droopy pouts. Today, we were to head back to Anchorage to end our Alaskan and Canadian Yukon adventure.
We had seen so much and met so many wonderful people, that we were indeed quite sad to be beginning the end of our journey. So with really heavy hearts and quite furrowed brows, we packed the bikes and headed northwest towards Anchorage. I can honestly say that the pace was purposely slow and the bike to bike communications between Kim and I were at an all time low; each of us lost in our thoughts and remembrances of the journey we had just experienced.
As we made our way to Anchorage, we took a meandering route to extend our time a bit more. The roads slowly and quietly hissed under our tires, interrupted only by the crunch of gravel and slight wobble of handlebars as we made our way over several sections of road under construction. Each time I was almost immediately returned to the hundreds of miles of gravel we had just covered. Soaring mountains capped with snow, glaciers creaking, groaning and calving new icebergs into a churning sea, wild animals roaming free and unafraid of man, soaring birds and amazing scenery could have conspired to effortlessly lift me from the bike and forever transform me from an itinerant observer to a permanent part of the landscape. I’d just become another part of what is the amazing natural life force that is Alaska. And if it had, I would have welcomed it.
But Alaska did not reach out and grab either Kim or me and we rolled into Anchorage late in the evening, very tired and each upset that our adventure was over. We’d get up leisurely in the morning, grab breakfast and ride over to the shipping agent. There we would unload our gear from the bikes and pack it in our suitcases for the plane ride home. We’d grab a cab back to the hotel and the following afternoon, catch a flight back to Boston and then drive home to NH. The agent would then crate the bikes up and send them home to NH.
The following morning dawned with decent weather and we walked to the Golden Corral near the hotel for breakfast. Believe it or not, Kim loves Golden Corral. Really! She had a hearty breakfast and I enjoyed seeing her enjoy it so that brightened the morning a bit. Well I thought to myself, that’s going to be the highlight of the day.
We walked back to the hotel and jumped on the bikes for the ride over to the shipping agent. We offloaded the bikes and took a few moments to take stock of our situation. Our two little trusty steeds had indeed done an excellent job and performed admirably. Kim’s Suzuki DR650 and my KTM 640A never missed a beat in over 2,400 miles of pavement and gravel riding. To be precise, they covered 2,430.1 miles with over 900 (almost 1,000) of that being on gravel. They hauled a pretty heavy load including the riders, their riding gear, survival equipment and camping equipment.
Not once did they sputter, stall or break down. They carried us through torrential rains, deep mud, asteroid sized gravel and did not so much as cough. The were filthy, covered in dust, mud, and the Denali and Dempster Highway’s calcium chloride. If you are not familiar with it, calcium chloride, is sprayed on dirt roads as a dust preventative. It is slippery as snot when wet and almost impossible to remove once dried. In fact, years later, there’s still traces of it on Kim’s DR’s exhaust.
Nonetheless, these two trusty machines carried on without complaint. The least we could do was give them a quick wash before boxing them up for the long journey home. So we did. The cleansing process helped ameliorate some of my dour mood and washed away some of my angst. The physical contact with the machine and the slow rubbing, scrubbing and rinsing that was necessary to remove only the top layers of grime was like a balm to my raw feelings of having to leave; and in some way, I got the feeling that the bikes felt better too.
Rinsed and ready for crating, we rode the bikes back to the agents and got a taxi to the hotel. There we sat in the room wondering what to do with ourselves until the following afternoon. It was not more than twenty minutes when the phone rang. It was Tracy, the gent who sought us out in Dawson City and whose acquaintance we had made only as a result of a conversation we had with a couple we met in front of Mt. McKinley.
Tracy lived in Eagle River. a town just outside of Anchorage. He knew we were headed out of town the following day, but wondered if we would like to go for a ride with him and his wife MaryLee today. Damn! We had just dropped the bikes off at the shipping agents and they were probably already well on their way to being crated I told him. I think Tracy could hear the despair in my voice because he immediately said, ”That’s not a problem, my brother Chuck has plenty of bikes and he can lend you both one!”
Well I don’t smile with my teeth showing much, but in this case Kim immediately knew something was up and asked what was making me smile so much. I told her and almost immediately her expression matched mine. Two Cheshire Cat grins coming right up! We immediately jumped into the rental car and drove to Tracy’s house. We got the nickel tour and headed over to his brother Chuck’s house. He had a fine collection of bikes. Chuck said, “Choose one.” Yikes! It was difficult to choose, but ultimately, I chose his R100RS PD and Kim chose his R/65GS. They were great machines.
Before we knew it we were off and riding as a group. We rode through beautiful mountain scenery and some awesome horse country in the Matanuska Valley. Then we headed over to Hatchers Pass where we took a brief ride into the pass but were forced to turn back due to poor road conditions. We then headed over to a most unusual Alaskan farm. What’s unusual about an Alaskan farm you may ask? Well how about if the farm grows musk oxen? They are indeed unusual creatures. Raised for their fur which is very warm, they are quite large, sound like tigers when they vocalize and can be quite aggressive when provoked. They were very interesting animals.
We spent an excellent day just wandering around Alaska and before we knew it, it was time to return the bikes to Chuck. Little did we know it, but he had one more surprise waiting for us. When he arrived he showed us his beautiful Ural sidecar rig and literally insisted that we take it for a ride. Who were we to argue? So we jumped on with me as the “driver” and Kim as the passenger. It was a blast for me. As for Kim, I don’t think she was as amused as I was. I had never piloted a sidecar rig and with changes in power, the bike changed direction somewhat. So as we made our way down the road, we also made away across the road. While I had the huge grin, Kim had the worried, I hope I survive fake smile on. But she is a trooper and came through with flying colors (and uninjured I might add).
More quickly that we could imagine, the riding day was over and we had to say goodbye to Tracy, MaryLee and Chuck. They had made our last full day in Alaska a wonderful day instead of a downer. We still cherish our friendship with Tracy and MaryLee to this day and even went on another trip with them which you’ll hear about in another article. After many goodbyes, we got into the rental and drove back to the hotel to catch some sleep and get ready for the next day’s flight.
When the following morning dawned, we had reconciled ourselves to the fact that we were leaving Alaska. We grabbed breakfast and Kim was once again in her glory at the Golden Corral. Tracy and MaryLee knew that I was a pilot and mentioned that there was a seaplane base and an aircraft museum next to the airport that we could visit if we wanted to kill some time before our flight home. So off we went and we watched seaplanes taking off and landing for a while. While I have several “ratings”, I do not have a seaplane rating and watching them only increased my desire to get one. Watching the bird get up on the sponsons and then break contact with the water was exciting as was watching them glide easily and smoothly onto the water’s surface, some more smoothly than others.
We then walked over to the museum and learned a bit about Alaskan aviation history and how much a role aviation plays in Alaska. Not only did they have historic displays, they also had static displays of various aircraft from fully restored and flying to in need of restoration and in pieces. It was all very interesting and a great way to spend the morning and early afternoon.
But before we knew it it was time to head to the international airport for the flight home. We had spent the morning with small aircraft which do the day to day job of ferrying everyday Alaskans and their goods from point to point. These aircraft are literally the lifeblood to many remote Alaskan communities. It was similar to our small bikes on our journey. They had carried us and our gear from point to point and provided us with the marvelous opportunity to observe some of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. We hope that someday we will be able to once again journey to Alaska and the Canadian Yukon and like Alaska’s small aircraft travel all over Alaska on our little motorcycles that can.