The latest edition of our Planet Ramble has been posted. Today we ride from Glennallen, and Eagle River Alaska and end up at the airport for our flight home to Vermont. On the way, we pass some amazing glaciers, take the time to smell the flowers, ride great twisty roads and have a special guest send us off.
You can find the latest by clicking HERE or cutting and pasting the link below:
The latest edition of our Planet Ramble has been posted. We leave Destruction Bay and ride the final miles back to the US border, where my lack of attention to maintenance rears its ugly head and Kim gets sick.
You can find this update by clicking HERE or cutting and pasting the link below:
The latest edition of our Planet Ramble has been posted. Today we travel more of the ALCAN, have a quick visit with the RCMP and find Destruction (Bay) along the way. You can see it by clicking HERE or by clicking/cutting and pasting the link below:
We hope you enjoy it!
Riding the TAT we’d been in rural areas for quite some time. But the deeper we ventured into Mississippi, we began to notice that we’d entered another level of rural and got the feeling that we had really passed into an era where time may have stopped for a while.
On the gravel, we found remnants of old farms and homesteads. It was a little mesmerizing riding through this part of the country. You could really get the feeling of old-time farming and people scratching a living from farmland carved from the thickly wooded earth. Each farmer cutting down trees by hand and pulling the stumps with horses or oxen.
By the way, if you don’t know, click on any one of the pictures in the gallery below and it will open that picture into a full size picture and then you can click your way through the remainder of the pictures in either direction in full size.
Then suddenly, the farms disappeared. Fields gave way to forests once again. Forests partially relented and gave way to water. We were in the true wetlands of Mississippi. When I was a kid, we called these places swamps. We weren’t in a swamp, we were in the true definitions of wetlands. The swamps of my childhood were a smelly, litter infested, mud and still water mess. These were different.
Green and brown never mixed in such symmetry. The brown water was tinged with green and rolled lazily past the shores. Trees sprouted from the depths of the water on roots that gave the trees a “standing on tip-toes” look. The roots arched from the water forming a triangular base from which the tree trunk sprouted. Although they provided a platform out of the water for the tree trunk, the moss-covered roots reached away from the base and dove into the water. A clear sign that the tree needed water to survive. These rounded tubular roots were a natural straw, feeding the ever-growing trees life-giving nutrients and fluids. It was a great example of the circle that is life, be it human or otherwise.
We stopped to take a few pictures of this natural wonder and in the 30 minutes that we were taking pictures, not a single soul passed by. We were enjoying our frozen moments, but we had to get moving in order to make it to the Arkansas border for the day.
Before we knew it, we had transitioned into back onto hard surfaced roads and farms once again began made began dotting the landscape. Most were fairly large and crossing from one to the next took some time. We had passed several and as we rounded a corner and headed down a straight stretch of road, we came across a somewhat immovable object. There was a very large animal standing in the middle of the road.
Tracy had already ridden by the large animal but the rest of us were stuck behind. Kim saw it before I did and said into her communicator, “Oh look, there’s a cow in the road.” I paid more attention than I had been and sure enough, there was a very large animal standing in the middle of the road. I muttered into my comm back to Kim, “Um Kim, that’s not a cow, it’s a bull.” “Oh” was the somewhat unimpressed response. But the bull wasn’t going anywhere fast and he was in a somewhat testy mood. He stood his ground and stared directly at us.
Somewhat surreal, in a fenced field beside the road, a group of cows and calves stood at rapt attention watching and waiting to see what might happen. While the cows watched from the side of the road, the bull watched us and we watched the bull. We yelled at him and revved our engines, but still he remained unmoved. Now we were stuck. What could we do to get this bull’s attention and make him move? After a lot of shouting and revving of engines, I decided that we had to do something different. What could we do? There was only one thing left to do. I reached over to my handlebar and gave my NH approved street legal horn a blast. Said horn was of the rubber bulb type normally associated with little children’s bicycles.
After about the 6th “honk”, the bull slowly walked to the side of the road and stared into the brush. MaryLee took off in a flash and was past. Kim and I revved our engines, I engaged the clutch and… stalled my bike. Great! I immediately pushed the starter button and… silence. My battery was now dead, it had given up but we hadn’t. I kick started the bike furiously and it caught on the fifth or sixth kick and we were off.
With the bull facing to the right we rushed to the left side of the road and we were quickly past. Not happy with trespass, the bull immediately turned left and started chasing us! He followed for about 50 yards and then stopped. But in the end, I guess he felt had to show his bull chivalry and put on a show for the cows who had been watching.
With the bull dispatched, the next item on the agenda was to try to find a replacement battery for my KTM. I thought to myself, “Oh great, we’re out in the wilds of Mississippi. Where are we going to find a motorcycle shop and better still, one that is familiar with KTMs. As we trundled on, I resigned myself to kick starting my little KTM each time we stopped.
We hadn’t been back on the road for more than an hour when Kim called through the communicator, “Look on your left!” I didn’t see anything and motored on. She said “Turn around, there’s a KTM shop on the left!” Amazed, I said, “What? Did you say that there was a KTM shop?” “Yes!” somewhat loudly she responded, “turn around we’re going to pull in.”
I made a very rapid U-turn and sure enough, it was a combination farm store and motorcycle shop, complete with KTMs! I couldn’t believe our luck. I walked to the back of the store to the parts counter and asked them if they had a battery for a KTM 250XCF-w. Sure as heck, they did. They also had oil, filters and other miscellaneous parts that would come in handy. While I waited for the other parts I wanted, little did I know that Tracy had taken the battery, had it installed and I was ready to go. Wow, he had done that in the stifling heat and had never said a word about it. I was so grateful, I didn’t know what to say other than thank you. True friends are amazing. With a new battery in place, the bike fired right up and we were back on the road and hightailing it to our rest stop for the evening, a moored riverboat that was also a casino. The best part, only about $40 a night.
As we motored on towards the casino, we decided that the heat was too much and we needed to stop get into some air conditioning and quench our thirsts. We found a small roadside market and went inside. There we met some of the nicest people. One gentleman came over and sat down at our table and asked us where we were from. We told him a little about our trip and he told us about himself, his family and his farm. I was a great little chat, and I think he wanted to invite us over to his house for dinner, but just couldn’t get that part out.
It was just as well, as we’d walked into the market, there on the counter were two large gallon jars filled with picked pigs lips and pickled pigs feet. Help yourself. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to try that delicacy. But others had enjoyed it because both jars were only partially filled.
Having had a nice chat and cooled of in the air conditioning, we walked outside once again into the thick and muggy air. Kim was just finishing off her Coke when she decided that her “cool vest” had dried out. These vests are made to cool by being immersed in water and then as you move through the air, the water evaporates and cools you. “No worries”, I said, and quickly readied my hydration system to cool Kim off. One of the nice things about my hydration system is that it keeps the water fairly cold, especially when it had been filled to the brim with ice cubes that morning.
Before she could say anything, I had the hydration system going and ice cold water was shooting out at her. At first I don’t think she knew what to do. Be angry or be happy that she was being sprayed with ice cold water. Luckily for me, she liked it more than the initial shock and ultimately asked me to spray her all over. But I must tell you, when the water first hit her, her expression was priceless. Surprise, dread and relief all at the same. I was a wonderful sight and one that Tracy caught on film. It is one of my keepsakes from the trip that she and I now both enjoy.
A couple of hours later, we were pulling into the parking lot with our dusty and dirty little machines. We parked in front and went inside to the front desk outside of the casino. After about 15 minutes, we had our rooms and headed to the bikes to get our gear. We asked the doorman where we should put our bikes and he said, “Leave them right there, We’ll keep an eye on them for you.” Wow, we’d never been treated like that and after gathering our gear to go to our rooms, we left the filthy bikes next to the sparkling clean limousines. What a great scene!
Even better was our walk to our rooms. To get there, we had to walk through the casino. With people sitting at tables and at slots, we “moseyed” our way though. Some people were dressed to the nines and we had our own attire. Dusty riding pants and pressure suits were our wardrobe and they created a bit of a surreal picture. I just had to stop to take a picture of Kim. It came out wonderfully with Kim’s bright smile and dusty gear providing an amazing contrast to the well dressed people, flashing lights and ringing bells.
We’d had a long day, and it was time to turn in for a good nights rest. For tomorrow, we would make our way into Arkansas and start another hot humid day on the TAT.
With Tracy’s pannier repaired we were once again underway on the TAT. The day had been filled with enchantment and excitement and we wondered what other treats the TAT could drum up on this day. It wasn’t long before we would get a taste of some of the twists and turns of the TAT. Literally.
We found ourselves on a gravel road somewhere in Tennessee. The joy of travel sort of overwhelmed us and we just decided to go the way we thought we should be going instead of taking the time to properly assess where we were. What else could happen on this day’s journey? As the TAT wandered and snaked its way westward, we found that it still had a few tricks.
As we made our way, I guess we zigged when we should have zagged. Suddenly we seemed to be making a lot of turns when the route sheet said we should have been going straight. We had become wanderers instead of travelers and that was ok with us. Winding roads changed from gravel to asphalt and back to gravel. Soon we were pretty much lost but we were having fun.
We guessed where we were and turned left onto a gravel road. Shortly thereafter, we came upon a wooden bridge without guardrails of any kind and we decided it was worth a try. Boards laterally placed on beams comprised the base with with three rows of boards running along its length for each tire track. It was an easy crossing of a lazy stream and it sort of represented the kind of day we were now having. Easy going. We thought, what the heck let’s go and see where it led.
The road snaked through a short section of forest and then into an open field. Soon we found ourselves at a farm house with a gate at the end of the road. Wow, we had not been on a road, but we had been riding someone’s long driveway! A woman came out of the house and made it clear that we were on her property and she’d like us to leave.
By the way, if you don’t know, click on any one of the pictures in the gallery below and it will open that picture into a full size picture and then you can click your way through the remainder of the pictures in either direction in full size.
We said we were sorry for trespassing on her property and soon she calmed down. We told her we were riding the TAT and told her a little about it. She said that we weren’t the only ones to ride down her driveway without permission and asked us to tell all those TAT riders that they should keep off her property. Well I guess we weren’t that far off course then. All those TAT riders on her property? We must not be that far off course then. We finalized our apologies and rode back the way from which we had come.
Soon we were back on the trail and going in the right direction. The roads were good to excellent and we were once again having a lot of fun, wicking it up a bit through some pretty rural areas. Tracy and Mary Lee had the need for speed more than Kim and I did and soon we had nothing but their dimming dust trail to follow.
But Kim and I were not worried, we knew they would stop and wait for us at some intersection ahead. We were enjoying ourselves and took our time dawdling along. The road was covered with a thin layer of pea gravel on top of some very hard dirt. Not super challenging, but enough to make the bike move around underneath you a bit. Kim was doing great and she was merrily chugging her way along and I was just as happy to follow in her wake and take in the sights.
About ten minutes after we lost sight of them, we once again found Tracy and Mary Lee. Tracy’s bike was facing the wrong way, parked in a shallow ditch at the side of the road. Mary Lee’s bike was on the correct side of the road but sat in the middle of her travel lane. The two of them stood standing at the side of the road and they looked like they were in conference. They stood shoulder to shoulder, looking across the road hands gesturing as if explaining some exciting event.
Kim pulled over and stopped beside them both. I on the other hand went past them and pulled off to the side of the road and walked back towards them. Now I could see that Kim was in discussion with Tracy and MaryLee. All were animatedly chatting at a level that did not allow me to hear what was being said. When I arrived at the group, they told me that MaryLee had just crashed but was OK. That’s strange, I thought to myself. Mary Lee’s bike is parked on the road and Tracy’s bike is in the ditch, but MaryLee crashed? Hmm….
They proceeded to tell us the whole story. It was a minor crash and Mary Lee’s bike had escaped mostly unscathed. The bike and MaryLee had only picked up a few scratches in the incident. The only remnants of her fall were some shallow gouges in the pea gravel.
I was amazed at Mary Lee’s enthusiasm. She had just crashed and was relating the incident more like a war story than something that had just happened. One thing we learned about MaryLee, she did not do anything half way. She either went for it all out, or didn’t do it.
It turned out that she too had her own little secret (to me anyway). MaryLee is the first Woman’s Downhill Bicycle World Champion and she knows how to ride bikes (obviously)! She was also an Olympic Nordic skier and has retained her competitive spirit and drive throughout her life. Every time Tracy wicked it up a bit, MaryLee was right on his tail, on all sorts of terrain. Her spirit is indeed impressive, but she was fairly new to motorcycling and at the speeds she sometimes traveled at, I feared for her safety during parts of the ride.
But Mary Lee was unfazed from her little get off and she was raring to go. All that was left of her crash was a small spattering of pea gravel and some marks in the road. She was ready to go and so were we. So once again, we hopped aboard our little machines and headed toward new trails.
The TAT was once again going to deliver special sights, sounds and smells. The trail squirmed and twisted its way southward leading us towards Mississippi. With the southerly turn, the temperature started to soar even higher. It was well over 100 degrees F, and the humidity was unbearable. It became apparent that we would soon need to stop to hydrate and rest.
Passing through a small town, we arrived at the Olive Hill Store. Inside it was cool so we purchased some drinks and decided to stay a while. The proprietors for the day were a pair of 16-17 year olds talking about things that kids their age discuss, while apparently running the store. Soon a friend of theirs came in and the two girls talked about their friends while their male acquaintance passed judgment on the girls friends. It seems that small towns are the same the world over, people just being people.
After our brief respite, we returned to the bikes for some more heat, humidity and amazing sights. Riding along, it soon became apparent we were getting to places where not many people go and time slows down. It seemed we were going back in time and we were willing time travelers to this very special part of the TAT.
A narrow gravel road greeted us shortly after we got back on the TAT. Sunlight beamed through the trees and lit a sparkling path before us. It was like nature was putting on a little light show for us, egging us on to go further and faster along the TAT. The beauty and the excitement got the best of all of us but Tracy and I were the first to succumb to the enticing TAT. It sparkled our eyes and whispered to us sweetly. Enjoy this as much as you can for it may not be here forever.
For a short while, Tracy and I apparently lost our minds and we raced along, dust rising in our trail with the sun flashing through the green canopy like a golden strobe light. It was a mesmerizing environment and somehow time stopped. We had become as one with our surroundings. I knew we were moving at a rapid pace but the sense of speed was gone. The feel from my fishtailing bike in the soft gravel only made me feel more part of the environment. As the bike slowly swayed back and forth beneath me, I imagined being part of a school of fish. I followed the swaying tail of the bike in front of me, and sped forward trying to keep up with my fellow school member on a stream of gravel, not water. I knew something was propelling me. It was not fins, but the fire from within the bike as well as the fire inside me. Ultimately we came to a “T” in the road where we were forced to stop and the magic moments were no more. But we both exchanged knowing smiles, we both knew that we had been enchanted by this particular section of the TAT. The ladies of our group, apparently much smarter than us, caught up to us at the T junction. Tracy and I just smiled but I know the ladies knew we had been enchanted and our little escapade was a joyous event for Tracy and I. We sat at the junction for a brief time and told MaryLee and Kim how much fun we had just had.
By the way, if you don’t know, click on any one of the pictures in the gallery below and it will open that picture into a full size picture and then you can click your way through the remainder of the pictures in either direction in full size.
Our little jaunt over, it was time to get going. As we rode the narrow gravel, we started seeing the first signs of water crossings. Small slabs of concrete had been poured over narrow creek beds. Most were less than 100 feet wide with a one inch deep flow of water lazily crossing half the width of the concrete. We straight lined most of them and before long, we got cocky. Once again, we started enjoying ourselves and Tracy and MaryLee quickly vanished into the distance while Kim and I dawdled along enjoying the green canopy that surrounded us.
I had almost forgotten about the our travelling companions when we rounded a corner and started down an incline. There in front of us lay Tracy’s bike on its side. A downtrodden looking couple stood and gazed down at the machine which seemed to be taking a nap in the very shallow water. It was a sorry sight. They both stood there for a while, a bit dazed about the whole event.
Tracy, a veteran rider of more than 30 years fell off his bike in less than an inch of water? How could that happen? I quickly got my answer as I stopped and dismounted my bike to assist. As I hurried over to them, I stepped into the tiny stream and almost ended on my backside. This was no ordinary water crossing. This water crossing was over a layer of stone, not concrete. An on that stone was an almost invisible very slippery and slimy algae. No wonder Tracy fell off! I have walked on skating rinks in my shoes before and I can honestly say that this rock was far more slippery.
Now the three of us stared at Tracy’s stricken machine while Kim stood at the side of the crossing taking pictures. For posterity! Surely three of us could easily pick up a 650cc motorcycle! But it was not to be. Each time we reached down to pick it up, we started scrambling for footing. This algae was slimy! So in a concerted and coordinated manner we proceeded to pick the bike up. After a couple of tries, we were able to get it back on two wheels. Now all we had to do was push it across the water crossing.
Very carefully, the three of us slowly pushed the bike to the opposite side of the water crossing. We decided that we had better get the other three bikes across as well. So Tracy and I agreed that we would take the ladies’ bikes across the water crossing ourselves. It wasn’t that the ladies were not good riders, it was the thought of either of them going down on this slippery rock would not be pleasant. But how to do it?
Riding with legs outstretched like outriggers, Tracy slowly rode MaryLee’s bike across. Then it was my turn, first Kim’s machine and then mine. But it must have been a real sight watching two middle aged men taking the bikes across the crossing. With only an inch of water, we must have looked like we were 4 year old beginners. It was not a difficult task, but it sure was a slow one.
When we had all four bikes across, it was time to inspect Tracy’s bike for damage. His right pannier was damaged significantly. It was bent backwards and downwards and its perfect rectangular shape was now a very interesting trapezoid. The lid lay hanging at the side of the pannier but it had retained its shape. Once we flipped the lid over the top of the pannier, two separate gaping isosceles triangles appeared under the lid leaving the contents of the pannier in the elements.
We would have to make a field fix if Tracy was to be able to use his pannier for the remainder of the trip. I got out my toolkit, but there wasn’t really anything that would help this mangled pannier. So we’d have to improvise and improvise we did. We roamed the area and found a fist size rock. That ought to do the trick I thought as Tracy prepared to do his best McGyver impersonation.
With a little pounding and tugging, we were able to get the pannier to be rectangular enough to be able to close the lid with the assistance of some good old duct tape. That stuff is great for everything!
After about an hour at and on the side of the trail, Tracy’s pannier was sealed and we were once again on the TAT motoring towards the evenings destination. Little did we know it but we were to have another challenge that day and let me say that this challenge was no bull!
The following morning, the sun rose quickly and immediately heated the muggy air to a grey haze. We finished a quick breakfast and headed out to the TAT once again. We were quickly back on the TAT and were greeted by narrow twisting roads under a lush green canopy from the surrounding trees. The traffic was non-existent leaving us to enjoy the swoopy corners and somewhat cooler air.
Again I was riding at the tail of the group, and clouds of dust rose from the gravel track. But it didn’t diminish the pleasure that the TAT was gifting to us. I watched from the back of the pack as Tracy faded into the distance and MaryLee and Kim played a kind of moto tag with each other. MaryLee would lead the way and Kim would sprint up to her until the dust began to get too heavy and faded back. I was enjoying the playful component of the ride immensely.
But after about an hour, the verdant canopies began to part and we found ourselves in farm country. Green fields contrasted with golden fields of grain. As we rode along, we saw evidence that the locals were working the fields to get the crops of grain in. We were used to seeing the huge plastic rolls of hay that are widely seen in New England. But the stacks we were seeing were vastly different.
Small piles were neatly stacked along side each other. The stacks consisted of what appeared to be individually bound bundles tossed in opposing directions making for a tightly bundled and geometrically shaped pile. We had never seen stacking like this and to us, it didn’t seem to be prepared by the large farm equipment that roams some of the fields back home. But something was stacking these small works of art dotting the fields. Who or what could be doing it?
It wasn’t long before we got our answer. As we turned from one small road onto another, there in a field directly in front of us was a pair of beautiful harnessed draft horses. As draft animals, they were huge and they dwarfed their owner who stood close by. Clad in jeans and a shirt topped off by a large brimmed black hat, a young Amish man watched as we approached and ducked down seemingly trying to hide. So it was him who had been making these beautiful stacks of grain.
Tracy stopped to take a picture and the farmer insisted that he not to take one, so as requested, Tracy put away his camera, said hello and rode off. As we continued our way through the county, it became clear that we were in fact in an Amish enclave. Good sized farms were all about but suddenly I noticed something a bit odd. At the roadside, there were no telephone poles and no wires running into the farms. They had no electricity!
Kim’s uncle is a farmer and we know how hard and thankless a job farming can be. Many, many hours are spent in the fields trying to bring a crop in and/or taking care of the animals. It has to be one of the most difficult and exhausting jobs in the world. And then it dawned on me. As difficult as it was to be a farmer, they often use electricity and power tools to accomplish the day’s tasks. Now take away the electricity and all the power tools and you have the life of an Amish farmer. It makes you think about how committed those people are to their beliefs. Forsaking even the most rudimentary of power equipment, they still carry on the difficult day’s work without complaint. It truly is an amazing act of faith to maintain such a life.
It also made me think about the little works of art that were the grain piles. No farm equipment making 10 foot rolls of hay were being used. The Amish used their own two hands and made each bundle individually. When you looked at the size of some of the fields, I felt a deep admiration for those people who toil so hard, while the tools to make their lives easier went unused. Their faith was their tool and they used it well to maintain a hard but appreciated life. Witnessing this, I thought to myself that to be Amish, you have to be a very stout person. Very stout indeed.
The enclave was fairly large and it took us about 10 minutes to pass through it. Along the way, we passed one of their well known plain black buggies. Pulled by a single horse, the buggy made its way along the road, with its lantern headlights and tail lights. Two women sat in the buggy, one middle aged and another old. I could just make out their black clothes and bonnets as I rode by.
It made quite a contrasting scene. Immediately in front of me were two women in a single horse drawn wooden carriage. While just ahead, I could see two women riding on small horses of steel and aluminum that far eclipsed the power of the larger single horse buggy. Riding through this little enclave, really helped me put things into perspective and open my eyes to a different way of life. A way of life that could be more physically demanding, but for them, more meaningful.
Soon after passing the buggy, once again the fields started to fade and we found ourselves traveling through very sparsely populated land. The road narrowed and the trees closed in. The road was now barely large enough to fit a single car, but it was nice to be in the shade at times. What structures there were on this road were very old and most abandoned. Wooden planks of siding sagged from the buildings, age having long since taken the remnants of colorful paint away. But in their grey hued glory, they told a story of remote living and of farms that had long since come and gone.
We lazily dawdled along in the oppressive heat under the canopy of green leaves and grey branches. At times, the gravel road gave way small concrete water crossings an inch or two deep. At first they were no more than 50 feet across, but they soon got wider and more treacherous. You might ask how a couple of inches of water might constitute a treacherous hazard. How could water on a hard surface only one or two inches deep cause any problems? We’ll talk about that in the next chapter.
We knew that to find some cool air we’d have to get off the TAT for a while. So we found the nearest paved road and hightailed it towards the nearest town. Along the way we found a small marina perched on the side of a narrow green river. A dirt parking lot greeted us with a single large willow tree drooping in the heat. We parked the bikes under its branches to get out of the sun.
As we walked towards the marina, the river’s yellowish green water sluggishly churned under an old rusted metal railroad bridge. The water looked to be moving as slow as we were, both of us slowly making our way towards our final destinations. We walked towards the marina boat house hoping to find somewhere to could cool off. Unfortunately there weren’t any apparent public areas. The few people at the marina looked at us but didn’t utter a word. We must have been quite a sight in our dusty, sweaty gear with our riding pants open at every vent. We smiled at the people, said hello but other than a short hi, there was no other response. It was clear that this place wasn’t going to provide us a respite from the heat so we returned to the bikes and got under way again.
Luckily for us, about 5 miles down the road, we came to a small gas station with a little restaurant and… air conditioning! We were elated. Kim and I needed fuel, but the cool air beckoned and we just couldn’t wait to get inside. We almost immediately ripped our gear off and rushed towards the restaurant. It was one of those 3 Stooges moments, each of us racing to get our gear off and looking at each other. Who was going to make it into the cool air first? If we had all gotten to the door at the same time, I could have seen me pulling Tracy backwards while I clawed at the door while just as I got to the threshold, MaryLee would jump on my shoulders knocking me to the ground and plunge for the entry way… until Kim would have grabbed MaryLee by her ankle and pulled her from the entry. And so it would continue until one of us had established our supremacy and fell through the door with a triumphant yell with the others hot on their heels.
Once inside, it was literally a breath of fresh air. Cold air blew from not one, but two air conditioners. So cold that Kim got goosebumps from being chilled; she was quite happy with that result. As we surveyed the rest of the scene, we found pure country. The gas station part of the store had all the little things that a local small town family owned store might have for its residents. Gum, fishing lures, comic books, pliers, firewood; you name the little market had it.
The restaurant was even better. The walls were covered with farm implements and the tools of farming. Fastened to the wall just above our table was a horse collar that had been converted into a mirror. Next to it was an empty feed bag and next to that were a couple of scythes. It was just a wonderful mix of eclectic farming implements used to make the place feel like all were welcome. It was a terrific place to stop.
Settled at our table, we read from a paper menu filled with down home items like meatloaf with gravy, hot dogs, hamburgers, sandwiches, potato salad, fries and chips and the like. There was no fancy stuff here, just comfort food. Having been cooled off, we were ready to eat. No sooner than we sat down, than almost as by magic a waitress appeared and took our order. Our requested food arrived in what seemed like no time and we got down to the business of eating.
By now we were very hungry and ready to shovel the tasty food down. But in this cool air, none of us was in a rush to finish and get back into the heat and humidity. We even took the time to order and eat dessert! By the time we were done, our 30 minute lunch had turned into an hour and a half meal. Ultimately we could delay no longer, and we ventured back out into the heat.
Once outside, we returned to our bikes and the girls decided that they’d had enough of the heat for the day. A suggestion was made to leave the TAT for the rest of the day and head towards the hotel at all due speed. Normally, we’d want to spend as much time on the gravel as possible, but in these conditions, no-one objected.
As we prepared to mount our bikes, Kim found that she had a visitor and it looked like he wanted to get a drink too. A three inch wide moth walked his way over the top of Kim’s gear and nestled himself (or herself) up against Kim’s water bottle. It looked like he was settling in for the ride and slaking his thirst before we departed. We tried to give him a little motivation to be on his way but he decided he wasn’t going anywhere but with us. Ultimately, we had to remove the little guy by hand and send him on his way so we could get started towards the hotel.
Moth removed, we put on our gear and went to fuel up the bikes. As we pulled up to the pumps, we noticed a small handwritten cardboard sign inside the pump proclaiming NO ETHANOL. Wow, no ethanol! In the US, no ethanol fuel is quite a find and is non-existent where we live in New Hampshire. So with our small tanks, Kim and I proceeded to fill our bikes to the brim with the undiluted high octane fuel. Little did we know that this one decision would have grave consequences on our ability to finish our TAT journey.
During lunch we had decided that we would take the shortest route back to the hotel due to the heat and humidity. Once again it would be all pavement to the hotel at this late time of day. But some fun times would still be had before we arrived at our evening’s destination.
Although it was really, really hot, we were having fun on the lonely twisting roads. We were not on powerful bikes, but it was still a joy to be on a lightweight machine swooping back and forth, playing with and on the curves. Speeds and spirits were high until I rounded a corner and saw the unmistakable markings of a police cruiser. I was about to grab the brakes but just beyond the cruiser sat another car parked next to the cruiser. It was an orange Dodge Charger with Confederate stripes on the roof.
Wait a minute, flashed through my head, that’s not a real cruiser. As I got closer, it was clear that it was not a real cruiser and the Charger was a replica of the General Lee from the old TV show Dukes of Hazzard. Cool!!! For this, I had to stop and the rest of the gang stopped to let me take pictures. I was never a big fan of the TV show, but both replicas were really well done and I had to get a few pictures. I placed the bike in front of both cars and snapped a couple of pictures as a remembrance of this nice chance encounter.
It was soon time for us to get underway and once again fortune smiled down on us. Our route would take us across the Natchez Trace. A brand new smooth ribbon of asphalt twisting through a forest. It was a two lane road with broad grass shoulders that made the whole road seem like a ride through a carefully manicured park. The road was virtually deserted and once again we had a chance to play on the curves of the road without any traffic. The heat of the day was almost forgotten as we swooped our way through lazy open sweepers, our group snaking lazily through the woods.
Once again I was tail end Charlie, but this time I wasn’t eating any dust and I was really enjoying the views as we made our way towards our hotel for the evening. Even though we were on the pavement for another hour and a half, the time literally flew by and before we knew it we had arrived at our hotel for the evening. We’d need to clean up a bit before dinner, but all of us were happy with what we’d done and where we’d been on this day.
Tomorrow would be another hot day, but we were undeterred, we were having a great time and with the next sunrise, we’d be on gravel most of the day. We were psyched and with a little rest, we’d be ready to attack the TAT once again.
Our brief night’s sleep was followed by a morning dawn of bright blue sky. Although the sun had set on our first day’s ride, the heat of the previous day had never broken. I stuck my head out the hotel door to sample the temperature and immediately a wall of heat and humidity streamed into the room. It was already sweltering.
I walked back into the room and I guess that my face told the story. Kim just looked at me and said “It’s sweltering isn’t it?” I gave her the look that said yes and she smiled and just started to get ready to ride for the day. We both stared at our dusty riding gear laying on a chair across from the bed. Neither of us really wanted to put on all that gear in the sweltering heat.
But the TAT was calling and the longer we waited, the higher the temperature would climb. So we put on our dusty gear and headed out for the day. Tracy and MaryLee were ready and we wasted little time in getting underway. A quick stop to pick up some fuel and a little meddling with the GPS and we were soon on the TAT.
After only about 15 minutes on pavement, we were once again back on the gravel of Tennessee passing verdant fields and small family farms. On today’s ride we would not see any of the massive commercial farms, only those run by enclaves of dedicated families who tilled the earth to bring us the food we eat each day. As we rode, proud but weary buildings told stories of those people who toiled each day to scratch a living from the earth. Some once proud very large barns had now given their all and leaned precariously or fell completely under the sweltering sun. Patches of once bright paint clung to the barn board that was now grey with age and withered with time.
Trucks from the 1950s and 1960s with their dulled paint and pieced together bodies sat side by side with newer expensive dual wheeled, closed cockpit air conditioned tractors. Each of these tools had its role, and each would be used until it could no longer give any more. Then like an old animal, it would be put out to pasture to lay in the sun, watching the seasons pass until it was no more.
We were only in this farmland for a couple of hours but with each passing farm scene I could see that each was but a chapter in the very beautiful story of how nature and man are inextricably intertwined. Viewing them made me feel very small and the world very large. Having taken all this in, I was awed by how unbelievably important our farmers are to us and how little we think of them and fail thank them each day.
It was now getting hotter with both the earth the riders baking in the sun. It was time to do something to get some relief. Anticipating some heat, Kim and I had brought cool vests for extreme heat. It was now or never and we put them to good use. Cool vests are vests that you wet down and then wear close to your body. As you move through the air, the vest retains the water but allows a small amount to evaporate cooling its wearer.
Both Kim and MaryLee were really suffering in the heat so I gave mine to MaryLee and Kim put hers on. Tracy and I could almost see immediately that the girls were more comfortable and the vests were doing their job. Under our riding gear, Kim and I were also wearing pressure suits. Pressure suits are like jackets made of mesh with molded in plastic armor. Not ideal for pavement but sufficient for gravel roads. Kim and I decided that we would offload our jackets and ride with the pressure suit as our jackets. Anything to get some cooling air past our bodies.
Lighter and somewhat cooler than when we started the day, we rode along taking in the farms and the green countryside. As we rounded a corner we approached a barn with a pond in front. Not unusual you might think, and as to barn there was nothing unusual. It was the pond that was a bit different. Inside the pond, a big black blob appeared to be moving slowly back and forth. What the heck could that be I thought to myself and as we got closer, we found that it was not a rock. It was something far more interesting. It was black with small splotches of white… and it was furry. It was a cow standing belly high in the pond.
As we approached and ultimately passed, the cow looked at us impassively and merely got back to the business of cooling off. Now I didn’t feel so bad. No I wasn’t a wuss, no sir. It was so hot that the cows were standing in the ponds to cool off. That my friends is pretty hot. Even though she had a leather jacket on, I did not give her any credit. Some of us were out riding in the heat, and others of us were simply lounging around in their natural pools.
We continued riding gravel and found ourselves somewhat lost. The TAT isn’t always that well marked and sometimes you just have to make a decision to go one way or the other until you can find the next section. So as we mosey-ed along, we came to another gravel road that could have been the right one for this segment of the TAT. The girls were pretty hot so Tracy and I went on ahead and scoped out the possible turn. What we found was pretty cool.
We rode a section of rather loose rocky gravel enclosed by trees. Branches of all sizes littered the road and there were some tree falls partially blocking the road as well. We rode around the tree falls and branches enjoying the somewhat cooler air in the trees. Ultimately, we ended up at a locked swinging gate that was supposed to barricade us from a wooden topped dam. We could ride around the swinging gate, but at the other end of the dam was a tall chain link fence that we could not get around.
I walked across the dam taking some pictures of the dam itself and an apparent power station. It must have been overly dry or they must not have needed the energy because although one side of the dam was full of water, the lee side of the dam was mostly dry. A mostly dry river bed ran to an impressive building and large array of power lines, but no water was churning any generators. It was a bit strange seeing all that engineering sitting idle while the supply of water it needed to produce electricity sat on the opposite side of the dam waiting its turn to go rushing through the generators and empty out into the river below.
Time passed very quickly during my little dam inspection and when I returned to the meet with the rest of the gang, it was clear that Kim was really suffering from the heat. She was all flushed and she literally had to sit down to keep her head clear. It was time to get into some cooler air pronto, so after we had plied Kim with water and recharged her cooling vest, we got under way to find some cool air and some food for our road worthy women.
The increasing heat and humidity turned the once bright blue skies and surrounding air to shades of grey. A murky haze surrounded us completely; so dense it appeared to be making everything sweat. Little did we know it at the time, but each of the pictures we would take this day would have a washed out, grey hue.
Our initial riding section was to be through some dirt country lanes. Plumes of dust were hurled skyward by each bikes tires. Dust clouds slowly rose and as each bike passed, the dust became more intense. As the fourth out of four riders, visibility was greatly reduced but it still didn’t dim my excitement about riding the TAT.
Our environment was beautiful. Trees surrounded us from both sides and overhead. We continued our ride thinking that the more we rode under the leafy canopies overhead, the cooler it would become. But the heat was unrelenting and even as we rode in the shade, the temperature and humidity continued to rise. I opened all the vents on my lightweight Goretex off-road gear, I an attempt to get some cooling air. However, as the tail end Charlie of our group, the vents only let in the dust which rapidly transformed from its airborne state to a muddy goo inside the suit. It was truly damned if you do or damned if you don’t situation.
It was beginning to become quite uncomfortable, but we were there to ride and we wanted to get the most from our adventure. It just so happened that at this moment,the adventure was becoming more difficult. So we continued our ride in the stifling heat and humidity taking brief stops here and there to drink some cool water.
As we were approaching one of those stops, I think the heat got to me. Tracy, MaryLee and Kim had already pulled to the side of the road to have a drink and check the maps. For some reason, I took this as an opportunity to do a bit of a fly by. Coming off the corner and approaching the trio, I twisted the throttle and went flying by letting them eat a bit of my dust for a change. Wooo…. Hoooo…. I thought as I passed them all.
However, my victory pass would be very short lived. I turned the bike around and then pulled up behind them. I turned the bike off and started to dismount. As I alighted from the machine, I lost my balance and dropped the bike to the ground in an exceptional display of ineptitude. Marvelous. Sometimes the heat can do crazy things to you. I scrambled to pick the bike up as quickly as possible using my best, “I meant to do that” look, but nobody was buying it. They merely looked at me like an insolent little child and went back to cooling off and checking the map.
We decided it was time for some fuel, something to eat and the possibility for some air conditioning. So we made our way through the canopies at greater speed hoping that we would soon come across a suitable stopping place. After about an hour, we found a small gas station with an attached mini-mart and restaurant. We had struck gold. We pulled in and fueled up quickly. We rolled our bikes away from the fuel pumps and quickly shed our outer riding gear.
Just as we were heading into the restaurant, a group of bikes pulled in, then another and still another. We had arrived at a bike rally of sorts. All different types of bikes were represented. From sports bikes to cruisers to our dual sports bikes, they were all there. We stopped and chatted about various topics and the types of bikes we were riding. We would have chatted with everyone, but not everyone was human. One of the riders had as his passenger, his small dog complete with goggles and skull cap. It was a great meeting of riders on diverse types of machines. But they were only there for fuel and while standing in the sun the heat was intense. Before we knew it, they were all on their way.
Our conversations completed and wilting from the heat, it was time for cool air and some food. We quickly made our way inside and the cool air was amazing. As I stood looking at the menu, I realized how hot it really was. Finally clear of all the covering gear, sweat poured from my head and into my eyes. My under layer shirt was totally soaked and I could feel the rivulets of sweat pouring down my back and into my pants. Being inside seemed only to intensify my awareness of how hot I had been. I thought to myself that I might be eating this meal very slowly to extend the time I had in the cool dry air. I didn’t want to hold everyone up, but I was really, really hot.
I needn’t have worried though. As we sat at the table together eating our sandwiches, we exchanged knowing looks that indeed all of us were feeling the effects of the heat and sun. There were only 40 trail miles left to go on the day’s ride, but we each knew it was 40 miles of dust, gravel, sun and heat that none of us wanted to continue in. The temperature was well over 100 degrees and the humidity was unbearable.
We decided that although we probably only had about two more hours of trail riding to go, we’d stick to the pavement and head straight to our hotel and air conditioning. Once we had eaten our sandwiches and hydrated ourselves, we put our gear back on and made for the hotel in Crossville, Tennessee. There would be no gravel roads on this final leg, just smooth pavement where we could maximize our speed and reduce our exposure to the heat.
Thus ended our first full day on the TAT. We had enjoyed our introduction, but we were rapidly learning that the TAT commanded respect in all aspects. We’d been taught respect for the roads and trails, as well as environment in which we rode. We knew that the TAT would provide some challenges, but we’d underestimated all of the types of challenges that the TAT could throw at us. We were now well schooled, and with new awareness we readied ourselves for day two.
We packed the truck quickly, cramming in all our gear and loading the two little KTMs into the bed of our little truck. The passenger compartment had three occupants, one more than would be riding the TAT. For the journey to Tennessee, we had Kim’s dad Dick along for the ride. Dick would drop us off and then drive the truck back to New Hampshire after stopping to meet some relatives along the way. It was a great deal. Dick got some someone to chat and keep company with on the way down (and past) and we got free transportation of the truck back to New Hampshire. It was a win/win situation for us both
Finally, we were ready to depart for Tennessee. The pressure associated with the decisions surrounding the extra fuel tanks was over since it the design was done and anyway, we would have to live with it at this point. The mood in the truck was pretty light as we all looked forward to things to come. Kim and I could hear the TAT calling and Dick was ready to have a visit with the relatives.
The trip to Tennessee was pretty straight forward with no real issues. As we made our way south, we passed through some areas that had just been struck by tornadoes and the damage looked pretty severe. Light posts were bent at odd angles, house were leveled or portions were in shambles. It gave us pause to think how lucky we are not to not usually have to worry such destructive displays of mother nature. We may get the odd blizzard or two or lose power for a while, but at least our house would still be standing after the blizzard had passed.
We stopped along the way for some Bar-B-Que at a roadside stand and it was good. We thought we must be getting closer to the south because you sure can’t get good Bar-B-Que in the north-east. At about 7:00 P.M. we decided to call it quits on the driving for the day and got a cheap hotel. Up early the next morning, we were raring to go. The TAT awaited! We quickly checked out and got back to the truck. Good, there were still two bikes in the back, so we were good to go. Soon back on the highway, we watched as we scooted past towns, rest areas and truck stops. The music was on, there was some light chat and we were feeling good.
In case you don’t know it, if you’d like to see any of these pictures in full size, simply click on one and you will be taken to a full size gallery where you can page by each picture you’d like to view.
Before we knew it was lunch time and we needed to stop to get fuel. Off at an exit that promised fuel, we found a mini-mart type gas station. In scorching heat, I filled the truck up and as I was looking around, spotted this most amazing sign. A smiling chubby pink pig in a chef’s hat leapt about and beckoned to us. His recommendation, the Sweet Lips Diner; Come In & Pig Out!
Well, this we had to see. Once the truck was fueled, we headed just down the road a bit and there it was. A long diner like you’d expect to see in a rural area. A dirt parking lot surrounded it and it was packed. We took that as a good omen and headed inside. We were seated at wooden tables and served home cooked Bar-B-Que. What do you know, the pig was right, the food was good and there was plenty of it. We stuffed ourselves on the great Bar-B-Que and waddled our way to the door. Our next stop would be Jellico and our long planned meeting with Tracy and MaryLee.
Back in the truck the time flew by. Before we knew it, we had made it. Just up ahead was the exit sign for Jellico, Tennessee and the hotel where we would meet Tracy and MaryLee. We pulled off and there it was, our hotel for the evening, the meeting place and our departure point for our TAT journey. It sat at the top of a small hill and as we pulled up the driveway, we saw two bikes. Both with Alaska plates, Tracy and MaryLee were in the house!W
We registered at registration desk and picked up our keys. As we were unpacking our gear, out came Tracy and MaryLee. They were a great sight. We hadn’t seen them in almost two years and here they were, ready to ride with us again on another adventure. We were psyched. We hugged and shook hands and had all the banter that good friends have when they haven’t seen each other in a while. The excitement of seeing them again was multiplied by the excitement of the upcoming TAT journey.
It was dinner time by the time we unpacked our gear and bikes from the truck and made it ready for packing on the bikes. There was time for a few “group” photos and sooner than we imagined, it was starting to get dark. Hunger overwhelmed excitement so we drove over to a small pizza joint and toasted our upcoming TAT journey with pizza and beer. The excitement was palpable and each of us was a bit giddy at the thought of starting the ride for real. We soon finished our dinner and headed back to the hotel. We wanted to get an early start so we called it an early evening and racked out for the night excited by the thought that by daybreak, we would be on the TAT.
When we awoke the following morning, it was already very hot; like 85+ degrees hot. You could cut the humidity with a knife and by the time the bikes were loaded, we were all somewhat overheated. I filled my hydration system with ice cubes and cold water and hoped that they would last for a while. I knew that water was going to be important.
We said our goodbyes to Dick and my little truck we were finally off. We took a leisurely pace and the first part of the morning was mostly on pavement. But as we wandered along, the sun rose and the air heated and stilted. The horizon turned grey with hanging moisture, and seemingly our bikes cut their own wakes through the murky moisture. It was as if we had an extra burden of pushing the laden air in front of us, each carving and then leaving our own wakes. The heat was growing so intense that in our full riding gear it was almost unbearable for these four northerners. We thought we might be somewhat unaccustomed to the southern humidity, but when we spoke to the locals, even they said it was overly hot. Boy did we pick a tough time to ride.
But as we entered the afternoon, things began to change to the better. We left the pavement and got onto gravel, a place where we all felt more at home. In addition, as we left the beaten track, we got into some wonderfully green and canopied lanes. Immediately the air was a bit cooler and we were shaded from the intensity of the direct sun.
Riding along was like being in a strobe lit verdant wonderland. Bright flashes of sun briefly blinded us to the terrain ahead. The view was then almost instantly replaced by wet, deep dark greens, soothing to the eyes and cooling to the body. We knew it was hotter than Hell, but with the show presented before us none of us wanted, or dared, to stop.
Time was indeed running out to complete our bike preparations. Two similarly colored red unbreakable fuel containers lay on the concrete. They were both supposed to be the same color but for some reason, one was bright red and the other was an organish red. From the cold concrete, they stared at me like non-identical twins, begging me to take them along for the ride. Oh well, at least we’ll be able to tell the two apart.
I was in a bit of a panic to get them on the bikes; but how? They were tall, slim and would be full of explosive gasoline. I searched the lines of the bikes to try to figure out where I would fit two fairly large odd shaped canisters on a very small bike. Normally, the back of the bike would be an ideal place for the fuel tanks, but that area would be consumed by our Giant Loop saddlebag crammed to the gills with our supplies for the trip. There was no way that they were going to go on the front. The front fender was only a couple of inches wide and lacked any real rigidity. Besides, that space was already taken up with our spare tubes and tire tools.
Where the heck was I going to put these absolute necessities? I thought about manipulating the bracket a bit to mount it low and on the side of the bike. But the right side was consumed with the exhaust and the exhaust exit. I wasn’t really keen on putting a fuel tank just forward of the hot exhaust and exhaust gasses. The left side was available, perhaps I could put it there, with the bracket hanging the tank over the left side. But the more I thought about it and looked at the actual position of the tank, the more I decided I didn’t like it. I did not like it one iota. As placed on the left side of the bike, it was in the perfect position to take the brunt of a fall. We would be riding on unknown (to us) terrain, so the likelihood of dropping the bike onto a rock or gravel and piercing the plastic tank was a fair possibility. I really wasn’t sure what to do.
I admit, I was stymied for a few moments. There really wasn’t any more space on the bike normally associated with where a fuel tank would be mounted. Anger began to boil inside me for having not thought through this issue earlier and also for not being able to solve it correctly now. It was one of those throw the wrench across the garage to feel better moments.
So as I stood in the garage, anger welling inside me, one of my fuel tank orphans stared at me from the concrete floor and the other waited patiently in my hand for a miracle solution. Unfortunately none seemed imminent and the phone rang. I put the tank I had in my hand on the tail of the bike and ran into the house to answer it. It was a call about my real job and that didn’t make my mood any better.
I finished the call as quickly as I could and hustled downstairs and into the garage. When I got there I found a sight that changed me altogether. There on the floor was the fuel tank that I had put on the back of the bike. Lying next to it, was the plastic cap of the fuel tank broken into two large pieces. I was mortified. My concern about mounting the tank anywhere a direct impact was likely, was correct. All I could then think about was Kim dropping the bike on the left side on a rock on the gravel. Fuel spraying all over from a broken cap or a split in the tank as Kim lay trapped under the bike. After seeing the cap lying on the garage floor in pieces, broken from a fall from about three feet on a non-moving bike, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t mount the tank on the side of the bike.
If we were going to bring the extra fuel, it was clear that some sort of drastic measures would be necessary. The tanks were designed to be used on ATVs and to be mounted upright. Hmm… Could I mount them upright just behind the seat but behind the Giant Loop saddlebag? It was this or nothing, and not having the extra fuel was out of the question. So I proceeded to mount the tank in an awkward position, high but in the center of the bike furthest away from direct contact with the ground in the event of a drop or fall.
It looked ridiculous. Mounted straight up, rigid at full attention, the tank cried out for a better design. But there was none to be had in such a short period of time due to my inattention. Matched side by side, the two tanks stood on the bikes like sentries guarding the bikes and all the goods on them. I felt foolish. But it was the only way we were going to get extra fuel on the bike.
In case you don’t know it, if you’d like to see any of these pictures in full size, simply click on one and you will be taken to a full size gallery where you can page by each picture you’d like to view.
I showed the mounting set up to some of my friends and some rightly chided me for the installation. “I had to be kidding; Didn’t I know anything about center of gravity?” He was right, the extra fuel weight would be up high and reduce stability. But I did not have to fill the tanks completely to maintain a significant addition in range and in total the weight would be less than 15 pounds, tank and mount included.
Others offered non-tank solutions such as canteens filled with fuel held in panniers at the side of the front fuel tank or other similar suggestions, but I did not like other aspects of these suggestions and besides, we were out of time. We needed to get going, Tracy and MaryLee were already on the road and headed towards Jellico, Tennessee for our meeting.
It was time to load up the truck with our bikes and gear and head for Tennessee. We only two days to make it to Tennessee in the truck and a total of two weeks (including the two days in the truck) to make it from there to New Mexico. We’ll tell you how the trip went to Tennessee and the beginning of the ride in the next chapter.
One of the mainstays of R2ADV is to suggest that by riding motorcycles all over the planet, you have the opportunity to meet new and interesting people, share and learn a bit about each other. Well such is the genesis of our story to traverse of the Trans American Trail, better known as the TAT. This journey to cross most of America actually began at a lodge in Alaska near Mt. McKinley. We had made a quick stop for a bite to each and as we were walking back to our bikes, it was there that we met a couple who we had a wonderful conversation with.
They had seen the New Hampshire license plates on our loaded bikes in the parking lot and wanted to talk about how our journey had been. We chatted for about half an hour and told them that we often blogged about our trips if he wanted to see more. They were excited and the man of the couple said, “We have a friend that rides motorcycles and he would love to meet talk to you. Do you mind if we give him your email address?” We said that we’d be happy to correspond with this new to be friend and the couple took our email address and left.
In case you don’t know it, if you’d like to see any of these pictures in full size, simply click on one and you will be taken to a full size gallery where you can page by each picture you’d like to view.
A couple of days later, sure enough I received an email from Tracy, the person the couple had mentioned. He said that he lived in Alaska and he would like to meet if we had the time. We responded that we would be happy to meet and that one of our stops would be for an adventure riders gathering in Dawson City in the Canadian Yukon. Tracy said that he might be going as well and he’d try to find us there.
To make a very fun story short (you can read all about it in our ride story: Alaska – Gravel, Grandeur & Goofy Grins found elsewhere on this site) We met Tracy as we literally first got off our bikes in Dawson City. We had stopped at the visitor center to use the facilities and as we dismounted, a man approached us and said, “Are you Kim and Mike?” Tracy had found us and we had found him. We spent 2 days in Dawson City and then a full day with both Tracy and his wife MaryLee in their home town in Alaska, and we had a great time! We had made a great friendship that continues to this day.
Tracy and I continued to correspond to each other and tried to figure out ways that we could get together and ride. When the TAT ride was agreed upon as a mutual ride, we both set out to make preparations for our ride across much of America. Tracy and MaryLee would actually start from Toledo, Ohio and we would be starting from Jellico, Tennessee. The two couples would meet in Jellico and start our TAT ride from there. We picked early June to start our journey thinking that we would beat much of the well known midwest heat. Boy were we about to get a lesson in heat. But we’ll tell you much more about that later.
Making preparations for our trip consisted of a lot fun intertwined with moments of frustration and anger. We had decided to go “light” and take our two identical model KTM 250 XCF-w bikes upgraded for long distance travel. The thought was, if some of the terrain became difficult is much easier to manage a lightweight bike. In those instances where the terrain might cause a fall, we thought it much easier to pick up 250 pounds than 400 plus pounds.
So I set off to obtain the proper equipment and modify the bikes for the long ride ahead. Kim and I already had the majority of the gear necessary, we just needed some of the equipment that would be appropriate for a long distance journey on lightweight bikes intended for brief jaunts in the woods or single track, not on a 2,500 to 3,000 mile journey.
First to be purchased were the storage containers and for that we purchased some excellent Giant Loop saddlebag type panniers. I also installed some brush guards/hand protectors and sent the stock seats out to James Renazco at Renazco Racing to have them re-fitted for longer distances than the mostly stand up, sit down on occasion stock seats.
I also installed a couple of sturdier bash plates and road safety equipment such as mirror and horn so that we would be 50 state legal on those occasions where we were on public ways. To complete our retrofitting ensemble, I installed a couple of fender tool kits with tools and extra tubes and a GPS. Oh and Mr. Cotton, my mascot for most of our adventure rides jumped aboard as well and securely tied himself to the handlebars to keep an eye on me.
There, I thought we were ready to go. But about a week before the trip, one of my friends asked a fairly simple question. “What are you two going to do between fuel stops? I’ve heard it can be more than 200 miles between gas stations.” Drat! I thought I had thought about everything and this simple, but unbelievably important item had completely slipped my mind. Our little KTMs, although fuel sippers, had small fuel tanks and there was no way they would make it 200 miles between fill ups.
Thus began the quest to develop a standby fuel storage system for our two wheeled transportation. KTM did not make anything and even the aftermarket had nothing to fit the little KTMs. Double drat! So I went about my way to quickly find a portable fuel container to put on the bikes with less than a week before blast off. My head was spinning. There was little time for mail order and we needed whatever solution fitted on the bike and ready to go in less than a week.
I rooted through bike magazines and websites and all sorts of places where I thought I might find small fuel containers. Ultimately, I found a small plastic unbreakable 1.5 gallon fuel container with mount from an all terrain vehicle supplier. It was pretty much that or nothing for a factory engineered fix. I placed a rush order and got two of the containers and mounts. They arrived two days before we were set to leave and they needed to be installed in a way they were not originally intended to be. Yikes. Oh yeah, did I mention we both had day jobs to take care of as well?
I’ll tell you more about the install and the beginning of our journey in the next 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.
The captain moved the throttles full ahead and once again we were motoring towards our next destination, Aialik Glacier the largest glacier in Kenai fjords. Unfortunately, we found that the ice was too thick in the bay to enter so we motored on towards the Holgate and the Surprise glaciers. Along the way, we would be on the lookout for whales and if we found any, we would stop and observe them for a while.
It wasn’t long before we spotted our first pod of whales. A small group of Humpback whales rolled and dived in front of us. The captain pulled back the throttles and put the boat into idle. We were now floating free and the whales seemed to enjoy the throbbing of the boat’s engines. They slowly and easily swam over towards the boat and appeared to be as curious about us as we were about them. Some swam right alongside the boat and rolled on their sides to view us as we leaned over the side of the boat to view them.
They seemed to revel in our wonderment of them. They showed us gracefully sweeping and flowing tails that slowly rose and then glided below the surface. Long white and barnacled pectoral fins slapped the water and rolled from side to side as they showed us their ribbed and streamlined undersides. With slow dives they vanished from view and came back to us with blasts from their blow holes. We watched their display for half an hour until they became bored with us and decided that something else was more interesting and they slowly swam away leaving us wanting more.
Showtime over, the captain again brought up the throttles and we were once again on our way towards the Holdgate glacier. This boat had real power and we were moving with all due speed toward our destination. A wide and churning white wake was left in our stead as we motored along. Soon land and mountains came into view. The mountains were snow and ice covered and before long, we started coming across small chunks of ice floating in the water. They were of many different shapes and sizes called, from a foot or so to ten or so feet in diameter. These smaller chunks of ice were affectionately known as “bergy bits”.
This could only mean that we were getting close to glaciers. We didn’t have to wait much longer as a white wall of ice and snow known as the Holgate glacier came into view. Far from smooth and stark white, it was a jagged, multi-colored sheet that seemed to have a life of its own. It creaked, cracked and groaned. Huge chunks fell and crashed off the sides creating gigantic splashes sending birds scurrying for cover and creating new icebergs or bergy bits.
As we got closer, a cold stiff wind blew directly off the glacier and straight at us. It was bone chilling. It was also continuous and steady causing us to bundle up if we wanted to stay outside and view the Glacier. The wind seemed like a river of water flowing directly off the glacier and that was exactly what it was. It was the trapped super cooled air that literally flowed from the top of the glacier over the edge and down to the ocean, just like a waterfall.
Bundled up we stood at the boats rail while the captain maneuvered us around to get a better and closer look at the Holgate glacier. Up close, we could see veins of different colors running through the glacier caused by the rocks and earth it had accumulated as it had scraped its way to the ocean’s edge. There were also caverns and cracks of significant size, large enough for people to enter if they could walk on water. It was truly an amazing force of nature.
Before we knew it, the captain told us over the loudspeaker that our time was up and we would have to head back to Seward. He also said if he saw anything interesting we’d stop to take a look. As he was turning the boat around, we rounded a part of the bay and lo and behold… there was another glacier. Aptly named Surprise glacier it had gotten its name because it was only visible from certain angles such as the one we now had as we exited the bay. It was not as mighty as the Holdgate glacier, but it was indeed exciting to be surprised by a glacier. It was not something that one normally imagines could sneak up on them, but the Surprise glacier had done just that. We roamed around the Surprise Glacier for about ten minutes and then the captain said we would be leaving for Seward again shortly.
Kim and I were getting cold and we headed back from the bow of the boat to the cabin to warm up. Just as we were passing the pilot house, the captain who I had been chatting with earlier about my Kindle and our Alaskan adventure ride opened the door, said hello again and…
Asked me if I wanted to drive this 7,200 horse power twin engined 95 foot long boat back to Seward for a while. Would I? Would I? Well hell yeah! He then calmly told me that the power quadrant and thruster controls were all mine and to go for it. He just said, “Don’t hit any of the big bergy bits, OK?” Wahoo!!! To say the least, I was thrilled. And so it was for about twenty minutes of cruising back towards Seward. But all good things must come to an end and in what seemed like just a few seconds, the captain asked for his ship back and I begrudgingly gave it back to him.
About 40 minutes later, we spotted more whales. This time it was a pod of three Orcas. It looked like two adults with an adolescent. The merrily breached and blew their way along the ocean’s surface, moving fairly quickly and paying little attention to us or to the other boat that appeared to enjoy them as well. It was great to see these wonderful creatures in their natural environment instead of in a captive setting. The Orcas seemed to have a destination in mind and they had little time or interest in us so our time with them was quiet short. They quickly were getting out of viewing range since it is illegal to chase the whales in Alaska. But we were good with the time we had with them and this time we were heading back to Seward for real.
The remainder of the trip was a bit of a blur since we had enjoyed the day so much. Before we knew it we were back at the dock and disembarking. We were thrilled with the days events but a bit sad for it to be over. The overwhelming feeling was one of thanks for having the means to go on such a wonderful adventure for we knew our time in Alaska was growing short. Before we knew it, we would be heading back to New Hampshire. But lucky for us, there were a few surprises to go and we’ll tell you about them in the final chapter.
Wild animals, humans and motorcycles thoroughly mixed and mingled, it was time to make our way towards Seward. On our way out of the wildlife park we came upon a rather wheezy looking caribou. With his head hanging low in an apparent weakened display of age and surrender, his impressive rack still was over the top of my head. I stopped my bike beside him to take a picture and to give him the “oh you poor old boy” condolences when suddenly his head popped up. He stiffened, snorted angrily and took a quick step towards me as to say “get lost or I’ll trample you into little pieces of Alaskan tundra.” I was really started, nearly dropped my camera and almost fell off my bike. OK then. Note to self, old Alaskan caribou can still kick butt. Give them a wide berth because they can be quite cranky. Got it. Oh, and luckily for me, Kim was behind me a fair bit and she saw nothing. My dented male ego was to remain somewhat intact.
With that, we (actually I) expedited our exit from the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge and set course for our next stop, Seward. We were quite psyched to be headed there because it is a seaport town and we had planned to go on a full day marine mammal/bird/glacier boat tour while we were there. Continuing south and traveling along Turnagin Arm we were greeted with more ocean views and twisty roads. The weather was good and in no time we made it to Seward and our hotel for the next couple of days.
By the way, if you don’t know, click on any one of the pictures in the gallery below and it will open that picture into a full size picture. Then you can click your way through the remainder of the pictures in either direction in full size.
Now the hotel was not much to write home about, but it did offer some surprises. As we entered the hotel’s lobby, we were immediately surrounded. Surrounded? Yes, as in surrounded by wild animals. Completing our entrance through the one person revolving door we were immediately confronted by two bears, a musk ox and caribou! In the hotel lobby! This just after my run-in with the cranky old caribou. Further in, we found moose, arctic fox, mink and pheasant. Ge’ez, didn’t we just leave the conservation center?
Well what really happened is that all these animals were indeed in the hotel lobby but they were stuffed. Perhaps they had been cranky with someone else and then they paid the price? Oh well, it was just strange seeing all these animals in a hotel lobby, it wasn’t like we were in a hunting lodge. We quickly “headed” to our room to drop off our gear. We opened the door there and found… no stuffed animals.
We put our gear in the room and decided to walk around the town a bit and get some dinner. We found some murals painted on the sides of buildings which had been painted by the locals. They showed topics such as the settling of Seward and some were about native Alaskan culture. They were pretty cool so we snapped a few pictures for memories. Then we did the tourist thing for a while, checked out a few shops in town and finally settled in for the evening, because we had a full day boat tour with an early start in the morning.
The following morning dawned bright and mostly sunny with fairly calm seas. It was going to be a good day for a boat tour. Actually, the boat was more of a ship. It was a 95 foot vessel with twin 3600 horsepower engines. She could make well over 26 knots with a full capacity. This was no little boat. By the way, I know the vessel facts for reasons I’ll tell you about later.
To ensure we got good seating, we arrived early and plopped ourselves down in the cabin by the windows. I was sitting there reading my Kindle which at the time was a fairly new device. The Captain of the ship walked by and asked if I was in fact reading a Kindle and I replied that I was. We chatted about it and I let him look at it. It turned out that he wrote software in his spare time, and the e-ink technology was a hot topic so he wanted to see how it looked on the screen. We chatted a bit more about Alaska and the motorcycle ride we were on which he thought was pretty cool. Ultimately, he said he had to get back to work and we thought we wouldn’t see him again. We were wrong.
The boat departed on time and we headed out to sea. Almost immediately we saw sea otters lolling about in the harbor, some lying on their backs sunning themselves while others rolled lazily like tops to help aerate their fur to aid in insulation. They were as cute as you hear about and can imagine. Clear of the harbor, the Captain laid on the power and 45 minutes later we arrived at two islands, one of which was a Steller Sea Lion rookery. We laid up appropriately close and we could see the females with their cubs sunning themselves while the very large bull males made themselves know with loud vocalizations. Every once in a while, there would be a bit of a dust up between the sea lions over space, but all in all, they seemed quite happy to lie in the sun and take an occasional dip in the water. We watched for a half hour or so and it was time to move on.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at two more islands, the Beehive Islands which were appropriately named because of their shape and one other thing. The were bird rookeries for many species birds and they flew and swooped all around the islands making them seem like beehives inhabited by bees. As we got closer to the islands, it became apparent that the islands were crammed with birds. It looked like every tiny ledge, crevice and crack had a nesting bird or its partner sitting or standing on it. The walls to the island were quite sheer, so they’d stand or sit on very narrow precipices to be used as nesting areas. There was very little free space by the time the birds had found all the spots they wanted to use. It was quite amazing.
We watched the birds wheel and soar in the air around and above the island. Had there been air traffic control, it would have been a controller’s worst nightmare! But they all seemed to be able to navigate and fly without crashing into each other. We humans aren’t so lucky.
After about thirty minutes of watching the birds act like bees it was time to find some whales and check out some glaciers. Both of which we found and saw in abundance. We’ll tell you about them and the little secret in Part 10.
We hated to admit it, but it was in fact time to leave McCarthy. Time had passed so quickly, I was really somewhat upset to be leaving such a beautiful place. Kim as ever, was taking all in stride and had already packed our gear in plastic bags and was patiently awaiting the van to pick us up and drop us off at the foot bridge so we could walk the last quarter mile or so to our bikes to re-pack our gear. I truly was going to miss the Root glacier and the amazing sights and story of incredible perseverance of all those who had toiled at the Kennicott mine. But I knew there was more to come for us in Valdez and Seward, perhaps even better, and those thoughts buoyed my spirit as we prepared to leave this absolutely amazing place.
Sooner than we knew it, we were back at the foot bridge carrying all our gear back to our bikes to commence our re-packing activities and hit the road for the day and to head for Valdez. After about half an hour, we were ready to move on and we headed back out on the 60 miles of gravel back towards the pavement from whence we had come. It was a faster an easier ride than the previous one since we had already ridden the route but still an enjoyable and exciting jaunt.
As we approached the pavement, the weather started to deteriorate and we began to experience the first rain of the day. Rain had become one of our friends during this trip and it was no big deal as we motored on happily and the temperature continued to drop. Further into the ride towards Valdez, we started to climb which helped the temperatures to drop even more. The wind began to pick up significantly and the temperature began to plummet. Snowflakes started to fly as they were ripped from the not too distant clouds just above us. They roiled above us and we could see them being swept up the side of the mountains but being halted at the summit by some other competing wind. The sun began to fade and the weather was truly beginning to get nasty.
I radioed to Kim over the communicators to stop so we could add some layers and check our maps for location and distance to Valdez. We stopped to check our map and found that we were almost right in front of the Worthington glacier. It rolled down the side of the mountain in extending two icy fingers in a “V” for victory having made its way across and over the top of the mountain ending right next to the road we were on. It was impressive! It had made it across the mountain where the clouds had been unable to.
After checking our maps, we found that we were not that far away and if the snow didn’t pick up, we could probably make it into Valdez in a couple of hours or less. After taking a few pictures of the Worthington glacier we were off again and headed to Valdez in the snow and rain. As we neared Valdez, the clouds continued to lower and we were concerned that we may hit some really difficult weather and intense snow. But as we entered a canyon, several blue holes opened overhead and the sun burst through in bright flashes. So there was hope to make it to Valdez and there was a sun above! Great!
The road began to twist and turn surrounded with high jagged rock canyon walls covered in greenery. If the weather were better, this road would have been the kind boy racers would enjoy quite a bit. But as nature would have it, there was another show to be viewed that would slow us down. Under a blue hole, in the sunlight, a cascade of white water crashed down from above. Bouncing from prominence to prominence, the water cascaded in a flash of white and a veil of misty fog. We had to stop to take it all in. In fact, while we were there, several folks were similarly effected and chose to stop as well. It was a feast for the eyes; a delicious sight.
After a few photos it was back onto the bikes and only a short jaunt to Valdez. The rain picked up again, but was an on and off affair for the two days while we visited. So in the on and off rain, we decided that it would be a good idea to visit Valdez and meet some of the locals and find out a little about the city.
We took the time to visit Valdez’s two museums full of information about the history, establishment and people of Valdez, as well as Good Friday earthquake and tsunami that wiped out most of the city in 1964. We saw a specimen of the extremely rare Alaskan Furry Koho salmon. It was encased in a glass enclosed case so you couldn’t pet it, or eat it. Those Alaskans, they protect their rare species carefully.
We later met the curator of the museum who gave us the opportunity to have our picture taken with an Authentic Alaskan hunting rifle saying that “everything is bigger in Alaska”. Shortly thereafter he came out with a 7 foot long rifle that you will see in the pictures here. Quite a guy that curator.
Did you know that Valdez claims to be Alaska’s snow capital? We had a chance to check some of their snow removal equipment and if it’s an indicator of the snow they get, we don’t doubt them. Snow machines 15 1/2 foot tall with 5 1/2 tall augers tell of a need to move a lot of snow; and there are several of them. When the auger of the machine is taller than my wife, you know its a big machine.
We also saw several examples of the symbol of our country flying around the harbor. Bald eagles are plentiful in the area and they can be seen quite regularly in Valdez. It was great to see them and they are just as majestic as you would think they are.
After two days of rain in Valdez, it was time to move on to Seward. By this time, the weather looked to be clearing a bit and we were anxious to be moving in some sun. We planned a full days ride with a couple of stops along the way. The first stop was to be in Girdwood at the Alyeska Tramway, a ski area that has a view of Turnagain Arm. Girdwood is also known for the Girdwood festival which has Alaskan artists, exotic foods and entertainers from all over Alaska. The ride was once again beautiful with curving roads alongside the ocean and mountains. The views were spectacular as the harbor was as placid as a mill pond and it reflected the surrounding mountains. It was a wonderful sight.
We parked at Alyeska and took the tram to the top. It was even more spectacular. From a white snow covered perch, you were witness to an amazing view of Turnagain harbor stretched out in front you. As if by some magical plan, a parasailer floated silently by us and down to the valley floor below. The water of the harbor was blue and sparkled in the sun, reflecting the surrounding mountains. It was perfect.
Again, we could have stayed forever, but we had to make Seward in one day, so we hopped back on the tram and headed down the mountain and got back on the bikes. Not too far from Alyeska, we spied a sign that pointed us to the Wildlife Conservation Center. Kim enjoys seeing “wild” animals so we set our course for the Center. It turned out that it was a drive through center where people drive through with their cars to see the animals. We were on bikes. Hmmm…. do we really want to be in a wild animal center on bikes? Can I really accelerate that hard on a fully loaded adventure bike? Do I really like wild animals that much?
Never fear we were told, all the “dangerous” animals were fenced in. So we paid our fee and visited with bison, elk, moose, musk ox, caribou, and supposedly bears which we never saw (although we saw the pelvis of some poor departed animal in their enclosure). Do you know that a musk ox makes a sound that sounds like a lion’s/tiger’s growl. I’m here to tell you that I heard it up close, and it does and it’s impressive. All in all, it turned out to be a good experience with the opportunity to get pretty close to the animals and see their behaviors. It was money well spent.
Time was indeed fleeting and we needed to get to Seward. So we said our goodbyes to the animals and hightailed it the rest of the way to Seward in clearing and brightening weather. When we got to our hotel, little did we realize that we would once again be surrounded by wild animals. We’ll tell you more in Part 9.
As we had seemingly been waiting for all day, we finally came to the fork in the road where we left the pavement and hit the gravel for the sixty mile jaunt to McCarthy. Almost immediately we began a fairly significant climb on a loose gravel surface road with no guard rail. It was quite a way down to the water below, but we were by this time quite use to the feeling of riding mountainous gravel roads with no guard rails. We continued further into the road and civilization quickly started to vanish. The road became a single two track that had us wondering for a while whether we had actually made the correct turn to McCarthy. Grass grew three inches high from between the two well defined wheel tracks and the trees closed in to only a few feet from the sides of the tracks. The road was beginning to look more like a trail than a road.
Hmmm… After about 20 minutes of this type of riding I began to wonder whether we were indeed on the correct road. But shortly thereafter, the road began to widen and some beautiful vistas became evident. Below us glowing a bright silver in the late day sun was what/who we would find out was the Copper River. She was wide and wonderful, carving large sweeping swaths between the mountains, sometimes running fast with white water, and other times merely dawdling along. She was full of life and effortlessly showed her power while letting her magnificence be known. She was breathtaking and she knew it.
Onward we rode and signs of civilization made themselves known in short spurts along the way. A few houses huddled here and there, out in this wilderness among the towering trees, mountains and bright blue sky. However as we continued deeper into the forest, we came to recognize that to live here you must be sturdy and self sufficient. Here, the laws of nature come first and are in control, not the laws promulgated by man. Winters with double digit sub-zero temperatures and snow measured in feet not inches are not for the weak of body or mind.
Nearly two hours after leaving the pavement, we came to the parking lot (yes, parking lot!) for the place we would be staying for the next few days; the Kennicott Glacier Lodge. We had found this place nearly by accident on the web and when we found what it was near, we decided we had to visit. But here’s the deal, you can’t ride or drive there yourself (without permission from them which is almost never granted). You must take a foot bridge across a section of the Copper River to a waiting van that will drive you the last couple of miles to the lodge. In all honesty, there are other means to get there, but the natives keep that to themselves and it’s only fair to leave it that way for them.
So what’s so good about the Kennicott Glacier Lodge you ask? Well despite great accommodations in the middle of the Wrangell-Elias mountain range, it’s located directly beside the Root Glacier and a short walk from the Kennicott Mine which is now a National Park maintained in a state of arrested decay by the National Park Service. As such, it looks like an abandoned mine that it is, but it is not being permitted to decay any more than it has to date. Therefore, you can visit and experience some of what the miners life was like and what conditions they dealt with 100 or so years ago.
So it was at this awesome place that we decided to give our bikes a rest and take some time to soak in what the Wrangell-Elias mountain ranges had to give us. One day we took a flightseeing tour and flew over numerous glaciers. Words really can’t express their beauty. They are truly something that defies description so you must make it an absolute to visit a glacier in person during your lifetime.
A glacier’s amazing attributes make it one of the wonders of the world. A slow moving dynamo, a glacier is an unstoppable force, one that the earth itself cannot stop. Able to render solid rock from the walls of a mountain and carve new pathways, they possess incredible beauty often glowing so brightly that they are difficult to look at. When you do gaze upon them you may find them to be solid white or silver, striped, or brown/grey, completely covered with the rock and gravel they have scoured from the mountains as they have slowly journeyed past.
It was therefore an even greater treat to walk upon the Root Glacier for a 4 hour guided trek, where we found the glaciers not only to be beautiful, but alive. As we approached, the scene was a bit lunar like as the surface was grey and rocky with the murrain that the glacier had removed as it traveled along the mountain’s sides. However, as we made it to the top, the surface glinted and gleamed under our crampons as we walked up the side. As we crested the first peak of the glacier and investigated its surface, we saw that it indeed had the attributes of a living being. There were streams that twisted and turned, ponds of bright blue and dark azure, deep crevices and soaring ridges, all located on the body of this single glacier and all viewable during this short hike. Amazing. We stopped for a short lunch from a ridge overlooking a bright blue pond and sooner than we knew it, it was time to leave. Having been on the glacier only 4 hours, we felt cheated but at the same time honored to have witnessed its power and beauty so close and at such a personal level.
Next, we toured the Kennicott mine. Again we witnessed amazing sights but on a more human and personal level. This mine was one of the largest copper producers in the world. But producing the copper took a gigantic toll on the men who extracted the copper from the mine. The mine was truly in the wilderness and as such Kennicott had to be totally self sufficient. Rail brought in supplies and took out product, but that was about it.
You were on your own and needed to work hard to make a living. Your bunk was supplied by the company and it was a hot bunk. When you were not sleeping in it, someone else was. You worked in the mines or in the factory that separated the copper from the ore and you did it 7 days a week. The temperatures we in the double digits negatives and the heat supplied was not for the workers but to keep the machinery working. It was the lucky worker who was stationed next to the heaters that heated the machinery. If you were far from those heaters, you got the temperature the environment gave you. As we said earlier, this land required stout people.
Before we knew it, it was time to leave McCarthy and the Kennicott mine area, get back on the bikes and continue our Alaskan adventure. In the morning we would once again wait for the van beside the Root Glacier and be taken back to the foot bridge so we could make our way towards Seward where we will take you in Part 8.
We enjoyed being in Dawson City so much that time was vanquished much more quickly than the setting of the sun in Dawson’s 21 hours of daylight. Suddenly it was time to leave this wonderful place. With quite a bit of disappointment, we the loaded the bikes and headed for the ferry and back up the mountain to the US border via the Top of the World Highway.
The trip to the border was fairly easy going with great scenery, good gravel and bright sun. We did unfortunately encounter some people in motorhomes who were driving recklessly. Very slow up the steep grades they would not let you pass and when you finally did pass, they would come down the steep grades very fast at the risk of burning out their brakes and tailgate until the next upward grade. Other than the motorhome issue, you couldn’t ask for a much nicer trip to the border. Once there, we were greeted by the residents of the town of Poker Creek Alaska, population 2. The residents? The two border guards that live at the house on the border while the highway is open. They were very friendly and even assisted us with the motorhomes we had encountered on the highway. The let us through very quickly and determined that the motorhomes merited a much more significant inspection. Ahhh… payback. Thank you guys!
Past the border we headed back toward Chicken and made a stop at the Chicken Creek Cafe for lunch again. We met a few travelers while there and discussed off road riding and our journey so far. Many expressed a desire to ride with us or make the journey on two wheels instead of four, so they too could enjoy the adventure as we had been doing. They all said… “Someday.” We were so glad that we had made “someday” arrive for us.
One of the travellers asked us which of the bikes was better and I remarked that they were both good bikes He said he thought the KTM was probably the better bike because it had glasses. I wasn’t sure what he meant until I turned around and looked at the headlights of my KTM and then I saw what he meant. The lens covers on the KTM did indeed look like glasses! (see pictures). Very dirty glasses, but glasses nonetheless.
On the way out of Chicken, we stopped to see Chicken’s own dredge, the Pedro dredge. It was being restored and was smaller in size than dredge #4 in Dawson, but you could get much closer to the Pedro dredge. We walked around and took a few pictures and once again we were reminded of the toiling that took place over a hundred years ago in search of gold.
After the pictures, it was time to get moving again so we could get to our hotel for the night at Tok. As we had related earlier, for us Tok did not represent anything special so it merely became a waypoint and a disembarkation point for our next stop at McCarthy, Alaska. McCarthy had special allure to us for numerous reasons. First, while we were researching this trip, we found the Kennicott Glacier Lodge which is located directly beside the Root Glacier that we intended to walk and which was only a short hike from the old McCarthy Copper Mine which we also intended to tour.
Having found the Kennicott Glacier Lodge with all the surrounding areas of interest, we excitedly called to make reservations. We told them we would be arriving on motorcycles and the assistant suddenly became very concerned. Did we know that they were located at the end of a 60 mile gravel road? Why yes, yes we did, and that was precisely one of the reasons we had decided to come and visit them. With a bit of hesitation, the attendant booked us and were all set to go to McCarthy. We couldn’t wait to get there.
After a few hours sleep in Tok, we tried to get an early start but we ran into two separate mechanical problems. First, one of the pannier bolts had broken on the KTM and the bolt was broken off inside the mount. Damn! There was no way for me to get the broken bolt out of the mount myself. The first thing to do was to totally unpack the bike. Then find a shop where I could get an extractor to remove the bolt. Ultimately I found an ATV shop where I spent several hours disassembling the pannier mounts so we could get at the mount to extract the broken bolt. Once we had extracted the bolt, I reassembled the pannier mounts and headed back to the hotel. By this time it had started raining. Nice. It was a short ride to the hotel where Kim was patiently waiting. We rushed through loading the bikes quickly as time was wasting.
I fired up and jumped on my bike and immediately knew something was wrong. The bike felt all mushy and it felt like I was riding on iron rollers. It was immediately clear what the problem was. I had a rear tire flat. Damn! Again! But the tire still had enough air to get back to the ATV shop without ruining the tire. Once there, we checked the tube and found no punctures. Now what? Believe it or not, it was just that the valve core was loose. Double damn! But it was an easy fix and another short ride later I was back at the hotel and packed for the ride to McCarthy.
As we made our way to McCarthy first on paved roads to the Kennicott mine with its rich history as the biggest copper deposit ever discovered, our anticipation and excitement grew as did the sight of the Wrangell – St. Elias mountain range and the glaciers it held. There were beautiful vistas filled with mountains and trees and nothing else. They continued to grow and grow as we approached, but forward motion did not seem to exist. We knew we were traveling at around 50 mph, but the size of the Great Land and the distance to the mountain ranges nullified any feeling of forward progress. We felt suspended in time and space. Although we were moving, the landscape and the surroundings really didn’t change other than to witness the increasing size of the mountains in front of us gradually got closer. Mountains changed from smallish bumps to taller peaks and finally to towering monoliths directly in front of our eyes.
By 5:30 PM we arrived at the turnoff of the pavement to the beginning of the gravel to get to Kennicott. We’ll take you there in Part 7.
As we had feared, our time in Dawson was quickly nearing its end. We had originally planned to ride the length of the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. But as our time waned, we knew we could not accommodate such a journey. Yet we were still determined to see more of the surrounding area and at the very least take a brief ride onto the famous Demptster Highway. It was an easy pavement ride to the Dempster in bright sunshine and our spirits rose even further just as did the fluffy clouds in the sparkling azure Alaskan sky. When we did reach the Dempster it was in marvelous condition. We had heard horror stories about how treacherous it could be with any amount of rain but we were indeed lucky as the road was hard and smooth and fairly dust free. If it weren’t for the spectacular scenery, in its present condition, the road was literally a gravel high speed highway. But we were in no rush and the sights were far to beautiful to speed by without taking notice.
So we dawdled along admiring the towering mountains often covered with beautiful green trees of differing varieties and greenery too vast to describe. Although they were often very green, sometimes they were barren in places and the inner core of the mountain could be seen. Hard stone of differing colors, greys, pinks and blues appearing like the bones and sinew of the mountain made itself known . Without trying to, the underlayments told the story of the mountain’s life. Soft green trees and greenery supporting all manners of life existed at the surface, while just below, cold stone lay dormant holding the living above its head. Truly, “The Great Land” is a master showman; showing you how amazing the interlocking puzzle of nature is. Everything is connected. Everything.
We rode about 60 miles up the Dempster and stopped to have a lunch by the side of the road. For some reason, our bag lunch tasted even better than usual in the beautiful surroundings. So after munching down a sandwich, some nuts and an oreo cookie or two, we decided it was time to turn back to Dawson. It was very strange, but travelling in the opposite direction was like taking another trip. It looked like different scenery. Were we sleeping on the way north? It was fantastic, a two way treat of a ride. We couldn’t explain it. The mountains were beautiful, the rivers that ran beside the road had a different character, everything seemed new. I felt like I was a kid at a carnival just getting off a ride and heading to the next. It was that kind of excitement. I was a bit drunk on it. I was having more fun than I could remember in a long time and my inner kid had just emerged. What a feeling.
At one particular point we decided we just had to have a picture. So we pulled off to the side of the road near a small stream in front of a mountain. I got a pretty nice shot of the bikes with the mountain in the background. Then Kim said she wanted a picture with me in it. So off I went to get into the picture. We wear intercoms so we can talk to each other on the bikes and while Kim was lining up the shot, I asked her through the intercom “Kim, are you sure the bike’s mirror isn’t in front of my face?” “No, it’s ok” came the speedy reply and she took the picture.
Another thing Kim likes to do is take a series of pictures of closer and closer zooms, and this series was no different. So as she focused for the second picture, I still thought my face might be covered by the bike’s mirror. “Are you sure that the mirror isn’t blocking my face?” “Yes, I’m sure”, came the reply and “click” went the camera. Finally, it was time for the third and final shot and I really thought the mirror was in the way of my face. Kim, really, are you sure the mirror is not blocking my face?” The only answer was the “click” of the camera.
So when we reviewed the results of this little picture taking opportunity, this was the result.
Love is indeed blind.
As we finished up the picture taking, another rider was riding his way north on a BMW F650GS towards Inuvik, our original destination.
He stopped and we chatted about where he was headed and said that he was indeed headed to Inuvik which was about 400 miles away. I asked him if he had any extra fuel and he said that he did not. When I asked him when he had last filled up he said he wasn’t sure. Kim and I were astounded. Here we were in the Canadian Yukon, in significant bear country and this gentleman absolutely didn’t have enough fuel to get himself to Inuvik and he may not have had enough to get himself to the next town at Eagle Plains over 100 miles away. Since the bike I was riding carried 7 gallons of fuel I offered to give him some fuel. Luckily, he accepted and I was able to give him over 3 gallons of gas! That being the case, it would have been problematic for that gent to reach Eagle Plains. Boy were we glad we had this chance meeting.
So feeling we had done our good deed for the day we headed back to Dawson City for dinner. We had promised ourselves a nice dinner at one of the premier restaurants in town. Oh boy was it nice. The presentation was marvelous and the taste wonderful. It was a splendid way to top off a beautiful day of riding. After dinner, we did a bit of walking around town to drink in all that Dawson City represented. With sunrises around 3:30 in the morning and sunset around 1:00, there was a lot of sun for the day. I for one, did not miss the night and could have stayed up for what seemed forever during our stay in the Dawson City area.
As great as Dawson City is, there’s even more to be seen as we head back southeasterly towards McCarthy, Alaska which we’ll tell you about in Part 6.
Having seen Dawson City’s colorfully painted downtown town district calling to us from above, we were excited to finish the rest of our descent and take it all in up close and personal. We jumped back on the bikes and scooted quickly down the rest of the mountain until we reached the Yukon River and the free ferry across. There was a short line of cars and trucks waiting for the ferry to make its way back across the river and pick us up. But before long, the ferry arrived and we were making our way back to Dawson City.
After a brief ten minute crossing, the ferry ramp came down and we had landed in Dawson. Suddenly we found ourselves in a wild west town of the 1800s. The streets were all dirt and the sidewalks were not sidewalks but elevated wooden board walks. Two story gayly painted buildings stood in front of us with hand lettered signs. There wasn’t a chain store in sight. There was even a horse drawn wagon. From our surroundings, I thought I could hear spurs jingling on my boots as we rode.
As we rolled into the center of town, we found the town hall/information center. It too was fronted by a dirt road and elevated wooden boardwalk and we decided to stop there and pick up some information on Dawson and the precise whereabouts of our little hotel. We pulled off the dusty roadway and parked. Kim dismounted and I was about to dismount when a bearded gentleman approached offered his hand and said, “You must be Kim and Mike.” We were flabbergasted. Here we were, in a tiny town in the Canadian Yukon literally almost 4000 miles from home and a guy we’ve never seen before in our lives picks us out just as we are getting off our bikes and says hello like he’s known us all his life. We love adventure riding.
Ahhh… Yes, yes we are, we mumbled or something to that effect. He introduced himself as Tracy. Tracy was the person that the couple at the McKinley View Lodge had told us that they wanted our email address for. He had emailed us previously and said he hoped to meet us at the Dust to Dawson (D2D) gathering, but wow, this was something. We both hadn’t even gotten off our bikes yet! We hit it off immediately and Tracy, Kim and I spent quite a bit of time together at D2D enjoying the events, meals and even a ride or two or three. By the time we had to say goodbye, we knew we had become steadfast friends. In fact, we are still friends to this day even though thousands of miles separate us from Tracy and his wife MaryLee. But we haven’t let that stop us, we’ve taken the time to correspond, and this past summer rode a good portion of the Trans American Trail together.
So when we tell you that adventure riding means more than just riding a motorcycle, think about this. Two people from New Hampshire have a chance meeting with a couple they’ve never met at a lodge near Mt. McKinley. This couple asks us for our email address to give to their friend who rides motorcycles. That friend tracks us down in a town in the Canadian Yukon and we hit it off so well that we spend three days together. That relationship is so cemented by the passion of adventure riding that the long distance relationship is maintained for four years and two couples then get together in Tennessee and ride across the country together mostly off road. I think you’ll agree that there aren’t many activities that provide the zest for life and yearning to be together to explore than adventure motorcycling.
But let’s get back to Dawson City, the D2D event and what can be found around Dawson. For a pretty small town, there is much to be found in Dawson especially during D2D. For those of you who may not be familiar, D2D is an adventure riding event hosted by members of AdvRider.com. It’s a gathering of like minded adventure riders from all over the world. Adventure riders are indeed shrinking the world. While we were there, there were riders from Europe and Australia. Planned events include group rides, a riding skill challenges and a large sit down meal. It’s just a terrific gathering.
But Dawson isn’t just about D2D. They also have some interesting historic venues. They have recovered and recreated one of Jack London’s actual cabins. It’s a tiny structure with a sod roof. It wouldn’t be big enough to be considered a one bedroom apartment today. When Jack lived in it, he shared it with at least one other person and sometimes more. Outside was an elevated and enclosed perch where food and other supplies were stored lest you attract bears into your living quarters. Every time you went to get food, you had to climb that high tree and get it. It was difficult to imagine all the hardships of dealing with the lack of running water, electricity, and just surviving the environment, never mind the addition of the absolutely challenging and unrelenting Yukon winter. The people of that era were the true examples of pioneers. To survive in these conditions, these people had to be ever stout and unbreakable of heart and mind. Some became rich, others bent or broke returning from whence they came and others unfortunately just perished.
With the conditions being so difficult, you may be asking yourself, why would anyone travel to such difficult climes? It was the lure of wealth. Gold. It was reported all over the lower 48, that gold could be found lying at the surface in the areas near Dawson and all one need do is travel there, stake a claim and riches would soon be theirs. So it was that Jack London was lured to Dawson and so it was that gold mining companies were lured as well. And they brought great machines at great expense. Huge floating machines called dredges capable of swallowing vast quantities of earth quickly. Many large iron buckets were suspended from a boom and they rotated one after another, endlessly 24 hours a day, gulping the earth from swamps, ponds and rivers. These machines, built more than 100 years ago, were so well designed and engineered that they extracted more than 95% of the gold that entered them.
In consuming the gold, they also consumed the men that operated them. No grease or oil was used in their operation for fear that the gold would be lost in the sifting process, as such, the metal on metal grinding sound was abominable. Men lost their hearing. There were little to no safety considerations and men were often injured in their operation and merely replaced with another man. The men worked in muddy swamps in the summer and as if to taunt them, extreme sub zero temperatures in winter. But there was gold to be found and this ensured a steady stream of people willing to try their luck to become instantly wealthy. This ultimately is the story of Dawson City.
Although Dawson revolved around gold, there’s more to talk about and we’ll tell you in Part 5.
We left the Tangle River Inn and made our way easterly towards Tok. We were in and out of rain showers and frankly our arrival was a bit anti-climatic. Tok is a decent sized town, but is not all that distinctive. Perhaps what made Tok distinctive was the Westmark hotel which contained a slew of busses carrying cruise ship passengers headed for another point of embarkation. All those people jammed together and they really weren’t seeing the real Alaska and its people. What a shame.
We stayed only overnight and headed out first thing in the morning north-easterly towards Eagle, year round population 180. We knew that the trip to Eagle was a dead end cut off by the Yukon river, and that we would have to re-trace our tracks, but we thought that the surrounding roads and terrain looked pretty interesting so the trip was worthwhile. There were mountains and gravel roads to ride and 180 people to me so that seemed like fun!
Shortly after hitting the road the rain began. Nothing ridiculous, but on and off showers as we made our way along the paved portion of our day’s trip. Sooner than we knew it, we were on the gravel and making good time. And then the skies opened up. It was as if one of Alaska’s glaciers had burst and let loose the millions of gallons of ice melt water that had been contained for years. Visibility dropped to near zero and the temperature dropped as quickly as the falling rain. There was little else to do but stop and put on rain gear. While we unpacked our gear from our bikes, a ten wheeled dump truck traveling in the opposite direction stopped and the driver rolled down the window.
He had news. Just ahead, he said, they were repairing the road and laying gravel down. Big gravel, in 1 and 2 inch chunks, about 2 inches deep. Not to worry though, the gravel was only about a 3 mile stretch. “Marvelous, just marvelous”, I thought. Then he said that the gravel wasn’t the real issue. They were laying the gravel because the road had turned to mud and they were dumping the gravel on top to make the road surface hard enough for travel. “Wonderful, just wonderful”, I thought. Not to worry though, the mud was only a mile long though. “Crap”, I thought.
Oh well, we came for some adventure and adventure we were going to get. So on we went, slowly making our way through the pouring rain on asteroid size chunks of gravel and sloppy mud. But when all was said and done, we made it through with flying colors with Kim riding the gauntlet like a knight who’d won many a match with nary a slip. She did indeed pull off a spectacular ride.
For all this testing, we were greeted by the über small town of Chicken (its real name is Chicken Creek). It is said that it Chicken was so named because the settlers found that the surrounding countryside was full of Ptarmigan. However, no-one could spell Ptarmigan, so they decided to name it Chicken.
While passing through Chicken, we stopped at its epicenter, the Chicken Creek Cafe and the Chicken Creek Saloon. In a strip of attached wooden buildings, they served home cooked food and bottled liquor. The food was excellent especially considering there is no running water at all. They hand pump all their water for cooking and cleaning and there are no flush rest rooms. If you need to use the facilities the outhouse is out the front door to your right.
But by the time we finished our meals, we were well rested and the rain has stopped to a drizzle. Ahh… It was time to make our way to Eagle and get a good night’s sleep. When we arrived at Eagle it was getting late and we checked in and headed to the only restaurant in town which was right on the Yukon river. It was a good meal and only made us more sleepy.
The following morning we had some time to meet our innkeeper and talk about life in Eagle and what ever else she could think of. It turns out that she was not a native of Eagle but had been a school teacher in Wisconsin. She had developed a pen pal relationship with a man who told her he lived in a small town in Alaska called Eagle. After about a year, he invited her to come out and visit him, she did and found that his home had no running water and no central heat. But she fell in love with Alaska and ultimately the man and never returned to Wisconsin.
We stayed only one day in Eagle and in the late morning headed towards Canada and the Yukon Territory town of Dawson City. We had an appointment to attend ADV’s Dust to Dawson event. ADVers from all over the world would be in attendance and we were looking forward to meeting other adventure riders from various corners of the planet.
Back we rode over the same gravel road from whence we had come and just before getting to Chicken, we made the turn to make our way to the Canadian border and ultimately onto the Top Of The World Highway. Approaching and crossing the border was pretty anti-climatic. The Canadian border is in the town of Little Gold Creek. Its residents? The border guards that live at the house at the border crossing and no-one else. While there, they asked appropriate questions and sent us on our way.
Then we were off and traveling the Top Of The World Highway. The views were great, but for some reason we were not awed. The road surface changed back and forth from gravel and pavement which made the ride a bit interesting, but for some reason, there were an abundance of motorhomes and vehicles with trailers on the road despite being fairly in a fairly isolated area. It became a bit frustrating as the motorhomes were very slow going up the very big hills we encountered and very fast coming down sometimes traveling uncomfortably close to Kim as she descended the hills.
But after about an hour we started a gradual descent and approached the town of Dawson City. Coming down some of the final hills, we came to a clearing and could catch a glimpse of the city we were about to visit. We could see the town center and it was painted in bright, lively colors that beckoned to us from the valley below. The Yukon river continued its lazy flow in front of us, for now cutting us off from the delightful little town. But we were only a couple of miles and a free ferry ride away from 3 days of fun in Dawson which we’ll tell you about in Part 4.
As we said earlier, we stopped at the McKinley View Lodge where we were in for a special treat. After a brief lunch we learned a bit about the history of the lodge and its progenitor, Mary Carey. Mary was one of the first female pilots to fly an aircraft over Mt. McKinley and she also built the lodge with some of the tools and heavy equipment you see in the slideshow. Google Mary for she was a very interesting woman.
But we were in for a more interesting treat when as we were leaving, we struck up a conversation with a couple who noticed our NH plates on our bikes. After telling them about our journey and where we were headed, they asked if we would mind if they shared our email address with one of their friends who also motorcycled around the area. Of course we agreed and we were on our way.
We continued our way towards Cantwell in a dreary overcast, hoping that the cloud cover would lift a bit so we could see Mt. McKinley in all its glory, but persistent rain showers pestered us as we moved north. Although at times the clouds did appear to break a bit, they never fully opened and we did not get to see McKinley. But as the day progressed, it did brighten and we were treated to some breathtaking scenery.
When we rolled into Cantwell, it had pretty much cleared. It had been a long day of riding and we were pretty tired. We checked in to a small off the road hotel and asked them for a place to eat. It turned out that the closest place was called “The Perch” and was about 15 miles away. So we jumped back on the bikes for another ride which turned out to be quite beautiful and to top it off, the dinner was quite awesome as well.
After a long and sumptuous dinner, we lazily headed back to the hotel for a night’s rest before we headed out across the Denali Highway in the morning. I must say that I was concerned that it would a potholed, RV clogged, gravel disaster, but as we started out westerly on the Denali the following morning, it became quite clear that I needn’t have worried.
The “highway” was indeed gravel for all but 24 of its 135 miles, but it was nearly free of any traffic. As we rode along, we really could have used clamps to keep our hanging jaws shut as we were awed by one after another beautiful view or scene. Mountains rose from vast plains covered in spruce. The air was so clear you could see that the trees went on miles and miles until they reached the soaring mountains covered in snow.
Glaciers slid down the sides of several mountains leaving ice falls which glinted in the bright and sometimes almost harsh sunlight. The whites of the snow and ice at times became silver and almost clear as the refractory fire of the light bounced and reflected off the many facets of the mountains’ faces. Each time we thought we could not be more awed, we were indeed even more floored at the visual treats we encountered. It is difficult to explain the beauty of it all. In fact, we were stopping so much, we were in danger of having to stop and camp on the side of the highway if we didn’t get moving.
So with great difficulty, we soldiered on without stopping. After about 5 hours of stopping and starting on the road, we came upon the only place on the highway that serves food. We had seen only two or three vehicles the entire time we were on the highway, but as we pulled into the parking lot of the Gracious House and the Home Style Cooking Cafe we found where they all were. The dirt parking lot was packed and there was not a single seat in the house. Not one. We waited about 20 minutes and not a single seat opened. We then broke the code and decided that our lunch would consist of almonds, cashews, power bars and water, served on a bluff overlooking mountains and glaciers.
Boy did we make the right decision. It was a stellar 20 minutes of relaxation and communing. Few words were said between us while we munched on our meager lunch and soaked in all the surrounding elements would give us. It was 20 minutes or so that neither of us will ever forget. Soon it was time to get back on the road if we were going to get to our destination for the evening, the Tangle River Inn in Paxson.
We loaded up our gear and got back on the road, the scenery birthing a tranquility that I’d not previously known. We had been riding about an hour on a section of the highway that had been built up about four feet off the tundra. Steep embankments rolled off each side of the road into a thick green underbrush. I was just motoring along at about 45 miles per hour when suddenly from my right, a gigantic blackish blur darted out from the underbrush and ran up the embankment from in front of me. It was very large and it was moving fast, but then suddenly a second smaller brownish blur followed immediately behind the big black blur.
The only thing I could do was nail the brakes and try to avoid hitting the blurs. Then it dawned on me. As we were packing our gear, the agents that we used to ship Kim’s bike warned us that it was moose calving season and the moose were plentiful and wherever you might see a moose, there might be a calf with it. Well surer than heck, I’d just found my first two moose in Alaska. I managed to get my heavily loaded bike stopped about 10 feet short of and behind the adult female moose and the calf which was running with her. They both continued running across the road and down the opposite embankment.
It just so happened that we were approaching a small river at the time. I reached into the sleeve of my Stich to grab my point and shoot camera, but by the time I got it out of my sleeve, they had already dived into the river and gotten to the other side. By the time I could focus, they were in the brush and gone. I was so happy and sad at the same time. I had missed hitting the moose and avoided injury, but I had missed an awesome camera shot.
Moose avoided we only had about 40 miles to go to get to our destination. When we arrived, we found that the accommodations were less than stellar. But once again, in keeping with the Alaskan tradition, the food was home cooked and amazing and there was plenty of it. For dessert, there was spectacular scenery from our room with lake and mountain views. Well satiated after dinner, we took a few pictures outside battling our first real difficult encounter with Alaskan mosquitos, but it was well worth it. Tomorrow morning, we would head back onto the pavement towards Tok and ultimately the Canadian Yukon as you’ll see in Part 3.