Mike and Al’s Big Adventure – Destination Alaska Part One

Story by Glenn Roberts// Photos by Glenn Roberts
September 1 2008

Before I began this ride, I was banking on the fact that the thermometer would register on the chilly side for at least some of the days in the far north. as on any motorcycle trip, spending many days on the road and pounding on hundreds of kilometres per day, one can expect rain, and even though I was prepared for it, I really didn’t expect snow to enter into the equation. After all, it’s almost the middle of June, Friday the 13th to be exact. I later found out that, while it isn’t an everyday occurrence, it’s not out of the question to have snow in any given month of the year depending on which way the winds are blowing in the far northwest corner of the continent.

My initial plans for this trip began in January when a couple of long-time subscribers approached me at the Edmonton Motorcycle Show. It seems that brothers Mike and Al Poplett have been travelling together for too many years to remember. Some of their travels, depending on how deep the snow is at home, might include a motor home with their bikes in the trailer and their wives in tow, or simply ‘guy only’ rides with just their motorcycles.

At some point after Christmas dinner, a decision is made as to where their next adventure will take them. Sometimes it’s a predetermined destination and other times it’s a matter of laying out a map of North America and tossing a coin, letting the disc’s final resting place make the decision for them.

Since they have been reading Mojo for some time now, they figured that they vicariously know me through my regular scribbling on these pages and after a few minutes of chit-chat at the Edmonton Motorcycle Show, they thought that I might be a good fit into one of their adventures and asked me if I would consider travelling with them to this year’s destination—Alaska. They enjoyed my story about riding to central Alberta last year (Sept/Oct 07-Alberta Bound on the Road Less Travelled) and thought it might be a good continuation to the story.

The rules of the trip, they explained, are simple; ‘no drama’ and ‘no one gets left behind.’

I considered their offer after the bike show season cooled down. My decision to go was further helped along with the aid of my very understanding wife, Gwen, who insisted I go on the trip. I think she just wanted me out of the house.

On this trip there would be two more riders. While I had only met Mike and Al for five minutes during the bike show, I wouldn’t meet the other two until the morning of departure. Since I didn’t really know any of them, the running joke in the office was that these guys might be axe murderers and leave me for bear meat in the wilds of Gold Rush country.

As I would later find out, Mike is a mild-mannered guy, soft-spoken and always has a smile. He works in the corporate insurance business and loves to ride his motorcycles. He has a Yamaha FJR1300 as well as a newly purchased 2008 Harley-Davidson FLH Classic.

Al is a no-nonsense kind of guy and seemed a little gruff at first but it didn’t take long for me to realize that he too is a great guy that is dedicated to his friends, and I truly believe he really would give you the shirt off of his back if you needed it. He has a 650 V-Strom for trips like this one and a beautifully decked-out Yamaha Stratoliner for his regular rides.

There were a couple of other things that were on my mind that could be cause for concern. At the beginning of March I developed a pinched nerve in my neck that affected my left arm, and being a typical guy, I didn’t see anyone about it until it had been bothering me for about six weeks. Luckily a few weeks of massage and physio fixed me right up. Also on my mind was the fact that I was borrowing a bike that I had never ridden before. I thought of being in the far north, and realizing that the riding position bothered me ergonomically, or the seat felt like I’m sitting on a 2×4 after 300 kilometres? Oh-well, I’d have to suck it up, there would only be 6,700 more kilometers to go before I could get off it.

The number of emails increased exponentially as our departure day of May 31 got closer. I flew to Edmonton on May 30 where Al met me at the airport and promptly drove me straight to Riverside Yamaha Suzuki KTM in St. Albert. Riverside is the largest volume Yamaha dealer in Canada and they regularly vie for top spot on the Suzuki side of things. Here, I was to pick up my mount for the next 15 days. Suzuki Canada was gracious enough to lend me a brand new 2008 ABS equipped 650 V-Strom for this trip up the Alaska Highway. The 650 V-Strom is one of those bikes I have heard so many good things about since its release in 2004, but I had never had the pleasure of riding one. I was looking forward to riding the V-Strom almost as much as I was looking forward to the next two weeks of riding into the midnight sun.

Luckily, I had the rest of the day to practice packing my gear on the new-to-me bike. I was using the Navigator tail bag from Gears Canada that I had already packed, leaving me to simply mount it on the bike, but I had to determine how to fit miscellaneous items in the saddlebags, and hope that everything fit.

St Albert to Dawson Creek, BC – Saturday May 31

The day and time we were all waiting for, Saturday May 31, at 8:30 in the morning, finally arrived. Mike, aboard his silver 2003 Yamaha FJR 1300, Al on his dark red 2007 650 V-Strom and myself on my borrowed flat black 2008 V-Strom arrive at Riverside awaiting the fashionably late arrival of the other two riders, Rob Pawluk and Dave Jobst. After brief introductions and a photo of the five travellers taken by an unsuspecting bystander, we were on the road out of St. Albert by 9 a.m. Our first day’s destination was Dawson Creek, BC. We made our way to Grande Prairie, AB on Hwy 43 and I couldn’t help but stop in Grande Prairie for a picture of the larger than life road sign that told of our final destination, ‘43 West Alaska.’

Our f­irst day’s ride was to be our second longest riding day at 600 km. After the day’s ride, a big meal and now coping with a three-hour Ontario to British Columbia time change, I was falling asleep watching the weather channel. Easy enough to do even when you are fully awake, but I was beat and in bed by 10:30.

It was in Dawson Creek that I first noticed just how long it stays daylight, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and a faint light was creeping in from the edges of the curtains.

No trip to Dawson Creek is complete without a stop at ‘Mile 0’ of the Alaska Highway. ‘Mile 0’ is smack dab in the middle of the town’s main intersection. I got the feeling that the locals are used to tourists and travellers stopping in the middle of the intersection for pictures. We pulled our bikes up to the milepost one-by-one for the obligatory photo session. Thanks to Dan from Nebraska for taking a shot of our group. Even though Dan was wearing mismatched shoes and swore he had another pair just like them in his van, he still took a mean picture.

The first day of riding I realized a fault of one of our crew. Mike was M.I.A. and after checking in our mirrors for any sign of a headlight off in the distance we decided to pull over and debated whether to turn around to look for him. Just when Al began his U-turn we saw the headlight and seconds later Mike rolled up behind the four of us. It was here we heard about Mike’s TB. After a brief explanation it seems that Mike’s affliction of a Tiny Bladder would be the cause of many stops along the side of the highway for the next 15 days.

Saturday’s scenery from St. Albert to Dawson Creek consisted of mostly flat prairie with hints of rolling foothills and valleys and briefly set the stage for Sunday and Monday’s ride.

I realized by the end of the day that I wouldn’t be taking pictures of what I would consider the perfect wilderness shot; grizzly bears scooping salmon out of a fast flowing river, bald eagles flying overhead and just a short walk downstream, there would be Bud Girls serving ice cold Kokanee.

Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson – Sunday June 1

Sunday’s ride to Fort Nelson of only 460 km would be a little easier and therefore warranted a little later start time of 9:30. Sunday’s ride briefly offered the first sightings of snowcapped mountains off to the west. Being from generally flat Ontario, I wanted to ride amongst the mountains so badly, but I knew if we didn’t get to them today, they would surround us in a day or two. It was hard to get too excited since many of the day’s roads were arrow straight for many kilometres at a time and that only increased my anticipation for twisty mountain roads.

Just before Fort St. John, about an hour out of Dawson Creek, was my first ‘holy crap, look at this’ scene unfold before me. I was in awe as we crested the massively steep hill that descends into the town of Taylor. With every foot of travel, a little more of the huge Peace River valley became visible until I could see the town on the other side of the river and the huge 640 metre (2,100 ft) Peace River Suspension Bridge that connects the two sides.

Later that evening in Fort Nelson, Dave, Rob and I were playing a few friendly games of pool with some small side bets. After a while we began sharing the table with a group of 20-something forest firefighters who were taking advantage of some valuable downtime. For the record, us old guys beat the youngsters. Good thing too, because some of the bets were getting into physical fitness activities that I wouldn’t want to attempt, although I’m sure if we lost, the fireboys would have cut us some slack. I did, however, end up having to clean Rob’s helmet and bring Dave a coffee in the morning.

During our time in the bar I found out a bit about Dave and Rob. Dave has travelled pretty extensively in the world and likes a bit of adventure. He has ridden a bicycle from Fairbanks, Alaska to Mexico, and another time rode a bicycle from Vancouver to Halifax. He just bought his ZZR1200 Kawasaki three weeks prior just for this trip, but is no stranger to motorcycling as he had a Yamaha 920 Virago for many years prior.

Rob is self-employed in the woodworking software field and a bit of a quick-witted comedian who rides a Kawasaki KLR. Rob seems like an unlikely biker, but after a couple days you couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. While he has experience riding motorcycles, he just wrote his beginner motorcycle license the day before we left for this trip. He said he could only write the test once in a 24-hour period, so if he failed he wouldn’t have been joining us on the ride.

Travellers venturing into the northwestern regions beware, I learned a valuable lesson on this leg of the ride and that is to stop for gas when you see a gas station. I should rephrase that, an open gas station. I was getting used to the V-Strom and without a doubt it’s an ideal bike in all aspects but I was still unfamiliar with the 90-degree V-twin’s fuel consumption, or the accuracy of the fuel gauge. Like many fuel gauges, it is merely an indicator and not to be taken as accurate unless previously proven otherwise. The top of the tank takes a while to go down but once the gauge hits about half way it begins a steady descent. I was caught off guard when the first warning started flashing on the instrument cluster and quickly motioned to Al who was leading us on the other V-Strom. I could tell by the look in his eyes the he too had forgotten to keep an eye on the gauge. We were travelling at a pretty good speed but slowed down at that moment to try to conserve what fuel we had left. As the second warning stage began to flash I broke into a cold sweat not knowing the range, or the amount of remaining fuel.

We soon found out that highway signs announcing fuel ahead are not always accurate since many of the gas stations and lodges are closed up. I began thinking of the comments going around work of me ending up as bear meat might come true if we ran out of gas in the wilderness. Finally we came to Prophet River on Highway 97 and a large sign claiming fuel ahead. Pulling in to the parking lot revealed yet another store closed, but across the road was a large parking lot and off in the distance we spotted the faint shape of gas pumps. I thought it odd that the place with large signs has no gas and the place with absolutely no sign at all has working pumps that are barely visible. As it turned out, both Al and I were better off than I would have thought with around three litres left in our tanks, Mike wasn’t much better on his FJR. It is hard to get an accurate fuel mileage reading because of the speed in which we were travelling but it took 369 km to reduce a 22-litre tank of fuel to three remaining litres. I managed to get 5L/100 km (55.5 mpg), not bad at all considering.

Total wildlife for the day stands at two black bears, two moose, one deer, quite a few hawks and five wild horses grazing on the roadside. During a rest break we met up with two Californians, Bob Scansi and Phil Rusin, also both riding well-outfitted V-Stroms. Bob and Phil were hoping to make it to the end of the road in Alaska at Prudhoe Bay but I found out later they ran out of time to complete such an exhausting trip. I would guess the number of Suzuki V-Stroms I saw would have to be equal in numbers to the venerable Kawasaki KLRs and BMW 1200 GSs that were also travelling.

The V-Strom, over the few short years they have been in existence, have proven themselves time and again as being an excellent ‘all-round’ bike that does everything extremely well. Because of that, many third party manufacturers have developed a myriad of parts for the model and the well-outfitted Californian’s bikes were the tip of the iceberg as far as aftermarket accessories go.

Fort Nelson to Watson Lake, YT – Monday June 2

Leaving Fort Nelson, BC for Watson Lake, Yukon proved to be the best riding roads I have ever been on. Every day’s ride got better since leaving St. Albert and I wasn’t sure how it could continue to get better than this. My first clue might have been the black bear sitting on the hillside, butt on the ground, front legs stretched out in front and his head moving left to right watching each one of us pass as if he was watching a tennis match, but more likely it was the warning signs like ‘Mountain Sheep on Road’ that began to appear. And they didn’t stop at just mountain sheep. Spaced equally apart were signs warning us of mountain goats, caribou, moose and even bison on the road.

This portion of the Alaska Highway follows the shoreline of many lakes and rivers, not to mention skirting the edges of mountains. Most of the roads are one twist after another and many of them are without guardrails, just mountain face on one side and lake on the other side.

While the sun was warm, it was apparent that we were at a high elevation. There was still snow in some of the ditches and Summit Lake still had a sheet of ice on the eastern end of it. Summit Lake is the highest point of the Alaska Highway at 1295 metres (4250 ft). Regardless of the low temperature, the area was picture perfect with the ice covering half of the mountain lake, the reflection on the west end of the still lake of a snowcapped mountain rising to the sky while the winding road followed the jagged lake’s edge on the north side. A scene worthy of a postcard.

We stopped at Toad River Lodge for gas for both bikes and humans, literally, fuel for the bikes and chili for the humans, possibly the best I have ever tasted. Toad River Lodge’s claim to fame, other than the outstanding chili of course, is the fact that people donate ball caps to the restaurant. When we left Riverside, they gave each one of us a Riverside hat so I donated my hat in order to immortalize the dealership in the Lodge’s hat collection. When you donate a hat you are given a card with the number of your hat. Currently there are 7,506 hats, and counting, pinned to the ceiling and starting down the walls.

Most of the talk over lunch was about the roads around Summit Lake. Just when I thought we couldn’t find better roads to ride, we made our way into Muncho Lake Provincial Park right after leaving Toad River.

Extremely deep emerald green water makes up Muncho Lake, another beautiful mountain lake with the road following the shoreline with no guardrails and a flat wall of mountain rock on the other side. It was along this stretch of road, care was not only needed for staying on the road, but watching for wildlife. Countless mountain sheep and mountain goats line the highway, as well as a small herd of caribou, which at least move when you pass them. That’s more than I can say for the sheep and goats that just stayed-put and watched us pass by, or in Dave’s case, walked directly in front of him as he tried to pass by them. Care was also needed for the moron in a motorhome who thought he could park in the middle of the road on a blind curve for pictures. Apart from the many sheep and goats, other animals on this northern BC road that I referred to as the ‘zoo’ included four bison grazing at roads edge, four black bears, two deer and a moose.

Shortly after passing Muncho Lake we came across Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park. This was the first time our group of five would split up. Rob, Dave and I decided to check out the hot springs while Mike and Al chose to continue onto Watson Lake.

The hot springs are just that. Damn hot water that comes from an underground spring. The pools are set up so you can decide how hot you want the water. The 52 C (125.6 F) hot water originates at one end of the pool and as you move farther down the pool, the water mixes with cool spring water and gradually becomes a more tolerable temperature to the point of being less than luke warm.

I don’t know if the three-hour time difference was playing on me, but the day before I got really tired in the afternoon, and today after the hot springs I crashed (in energy) again. I brought some A.C.T. powdered energy packets with me, but forgot about them until this point. Mixing a packet with a bottle of water and drinking it really seemed to help wake me up for the rest of the day.

Soon the three of us were once again on the road to Watson Lake then stopped for a break in Contact Creek, just inside the Yukon border. The proprietor of the snack bar was watching game five of the Stanley Cup finals, Penguins vs. Red Wings, and it just went into the first overtime period. We stayed until the end of the second overtime period and then booted it to Watson Lake so we could try to catch the third period. We made it in time to see the Penguins win the game and force a sixth game.

At the Belvedere Hotel in Watson Lake was where Al’s bike fell over in the parking lot. It was running at the time so when it wouldn’t start again he thought that maybe a safety ‘tilt’ switch had been tripped. After a morning phone call to Riverside in St. Albert it was suggested that maybe the kickstand switch or the clutch switch was damaged or bent. Sure enough it was the clutch switch so after adjusting it we were underway again in no time.

Watson Lake to Whitehorse – Tuesday June 3

We left Watson Lake in a light rain for our easy ride of only 450 km to Whitehorse. The rain soon stopped but the remainder of the trip to Whitehorse was chilly and a stop at Dawson Peaks Resort and RV Park, just south of Teslin, was just what we needed to warm up and dry out a bit. Once again most of us had chili and once again, it could be described to be the best I have ever had. It did finally warm up as we approached the Yukon’s capital city of Whitehorse even though there were patches of snow on the riverbank of the Yukon River.

There was still plenty of amazing scenery, but this stretch of road between Watson Lake and Whitehorse didn’t seem as scenic as the previous day, nor were there many animal sightings, I only saw one fox. We did, however, pass a sign stating we were at the end of the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies start some 3,000 kilometres south, as the crow flies, in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area. Not to worry though as there are many mountain ranges in the Yukon and Alaska as we were about to find out.

Leaving a restaurant in White-horse at 10:30 p.m. we were surprised that the sun was still high in the sky. What is even more disconcerting is leaving a bar at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning and it’s still light out, or what I would call, a bright dusk. It really messes with your body’s internal clock. You know you should be going to bed but it seems like early evening.

I remember meeting a guy by the name of Steve Corke during one of these evenings. Steve is a new rider travelling on a 650 V-Strom with an important reason to ride from Toronto to Whitehorse. His goal was to be at the Arctic Circle at midnight during the Summer Solstice wearing a Speedo, smoking a cigar and drinking a beer. A guy’s gotta have priorities. (See Steve’s humorous story on page 74)

After four days and some 2,000 km, I was overdue for an oil change. Stopping by the local Suzuki dealership proved futile as they were completely booked up and I couldn’t wait for a couple days. My next stop in the quest for an oil change took me to Yukon Yamaha in Whitehorse. Luckily, I had an oil filter with me and Yukon Yamaha allots some time each day to travellers and emergencies. Doug in parts and service had me in for an oil change within an hour.

I noticed the roadside sign of the Yamaha dealer was welcoming Biker TV. I know Canada’s Road Queen, Heather Ireland and producer, Tom Mann quite well, so I asked Doug when they were due to arrive. Unfortunately, they had left town two days previously on their way to Inuvik for the Ride for Sight and wouldn’t be back until June 15th, meaning I would miss them both ways.

The summer season here, if you can call it that, is short to say the least. The leaves on the trees were not yet full grown at the beginning of June and the snow in the ditches and ice on some of the lakes are a dead giveaway. Doug at Yukon Yamaha told me that bikers have about a two and half month riding season. Ouch!

Many thanks to the friendly staff at Yukon Yamaha.

I met the rest of my riding crew downtown and we were on the road again to Canada’s western most community, Beaver Creek, Yukon just 30 km from the Alaska border.

Whitehorse to Beaver Creek – Wednesday June 4

The brown grass and snow on the sides of the Yukon River in Whitehorse would indicate that the snow had just left recently and departure that morning reinforces that theory since we left Whitehorse in a very light snowfall and obviously cold temperatures.

While the snow didn’t last, the cold did, and I was now able to try out a TechNiche heated vest with its own self-contained battery pack. It turned into an-other awesome riding day in relation to scenery. Riding into Haines Junction, which is 140 km west of Whitehorse proved to be an amazing sight of majestic white-capped mountains and it appeared as if there was a snowstorm on the mountains to the left of us.

As the name suggests, there is a fork in the highway, left takes you to Haines, Alaska and the right fork continues the Alaska Highway to Beaver Creek. Maybe on another trip I’ll make it to Haines and Skagway but these towns were not part of our agenda for this trip. Both destinations are supposed to be outstanding.

From Haines Junction north we were riding in a valley between two very distinctive mountain ranges. To the east were the rolling hills of the Nisling Range and to the west were the snow-capped jagged peaks of the Saint Elias Mountains, part of Kluane National Park and Preserve.

We battled strong winds coming from the northeast as we rode through the valley. I was wearing a brand new FXR TK8 full-face helmet and FXR Ignitor riding coat with liner. Both had proven excellent gear so far but the cold windblasts would periodically find their way under my helmet and offered a grim reminder that we were very much in the far north. I don’t normally wear a full-face helmet, but seeing guys with half-cut helmets made me shiver just thinking about how cold they must have been.

Entering into the Kluane Lake region once again proved to be a smorgasbord for the eyes. Mountain slopes end at the lake on the east and the road hugs the shoreline of the aquamarine coloured lake on the west side. Kluane Lake is 70 km long making the wind here even more intense as it swept down the mountain faces and had the length of the lake to gain speed.

Stopping at a road construction site just north of the lake, a flagman, who lived in the area all of his life, told me that the wind that day was light compared to some days. He said he has been out on the ocean many times, but this area gets winds up to 80 mph and the 6-7 foot whitecaps in the lake still scare him.

The road from Destruction Bay, right after Kluane Lake, to Beaver Creek was some of the worst pavement we experienced, but road crews were busy trying to fix some of it. Curiously, at one point in the road construction we noticed large pipes emerging from the raised roadbed. I was speaking with a highway worker later that night. He explained that when they disturb the roadbed, the frozen ground warms up and begins to melt the permafrost making the road heave. He said in the days of building the Alaska Highway they used a corduroy road, logs laying flat across the roadbed. Then they added a thick layer of sawdust and gravel for insulation and then the roadbed went on top which that seemed to work. Once the frost begins to melt it keeps on spreading so they are experimenting with freezing the roadbed in order to stop the melting and hopefully preserving a decent road sur-face. The large pipes we saw earlier were to be used for freezing the roadbed.

The Alaska Highway for the most part is pretty decent, contrary to what I had heard before leaving on the ride. The biggest pitfall is construction. They have a short summer season therefore construction areas need to be worked on quickly and may be up to 20 km long. The most common signs seen were ‘Caution Loose Gravel’ and ‘Extreme Dusty Conditions,’ two signs that are not to be taken lightly. In some areas the gravel is deep and loose and the dust is chokingly thick at times. If the road is wet, either from being watered to suppress the dust for the working road crew, or if it’s raining, the road then is muddy and the resulting spray on a hot motorcycle engine and boots is reminiscent more of cement than mud.

Stopping at one of the many roadside rest areas proved disappointing. With an extremely sparse human population, the road is the only thing that distinguishes humanity from wilderness. The wilderness is pristine for as far as the eye can see, but over the sides of the parking area we stopped at was littered with garbage. It was disheartening considering there were plenty of bear-proof garbage containers placed around the area and no reason for loose trash.

We had gotten split up again during the day and Dave and I rolled into the Beaver Creek later than everyone else, but still in time to watch the Red Wings take the Stanley Cup in game six. Walking into our hotel, The Westmark Inn, I was surprised to see Mike and Al just checking in, and Mike’s back was muddy. Walking up behind him I made a comment in jest about him rolling in the mud. It turns out; the section of roadwork that I had spoken to the flagman about the high winds was the area where Mike and his bike went down while he tried to navigate soft deep gravel that a recent pass from a grader had left behind. Mike was fine, except for his ego, but his bike suffered a hole in the right side fairing, a broken turn signal and cosmetic scratches on the right saddlebag. The first serious wound of the ride.

Beaver Creek to Anchorage, AK – Thursday June 5

This leg of the trip was the longest day of riding at 709 km and yet another time zone to pass through so it was an early start compared to our previous few days.

The small, single lane, one-guard border crossing into the 49th State is only 30 km from Beaver Creek. I’m not sure if Dave was excited about getting into Alaska or forgot how wide his, and my V-Strom bags are, remember his bike is relatively new to him. As he pulled up beside me his left saddlebag touched my right bag. I barely felt a thing but as I looked over to see what happened, Dave’s bike was going down and Dave rolled off his bike coming to rest flat on his back, arms and legs splayed. I’m sure in Dave’s mind it all happened so fast and he probably wondered what just happened, but from my vantage point it was so surreal and it appeared to happen in slow motion. I broke out laughing so hard I could hardly hold my bike up. At the same time the border guard had motioned for all five of us to approach the kiosk at the same time. When the guard spoke to Al, he just mentioned that we couldn’t all go together because one of the bikes is lying on its side. I was still laughing hard as I pulled up, passport in hand. Fun times in Alaska, well almost in Alaska. Unfortunately, Dave’s bike suffered some cosmetic damage. Second one down in two days.

We continued on the Alaska Highway to Tok where we stopped for lunch. None of us were sure how to pronounce the name of the town since we had all heard different pronunciations, but our waitress set us straight, it’s pronounced ‘Toke.’ Of course we all then broke into the Brewer & Shipley song One Toke Over the Line, like she probably hasn’t heard that before as evident by the way she rolled her eyes.

The Alaska Highway continues to Fairbanks but we took the Tok Cut Off to Glennallen, the road then changes to the Glenn Highway into Anchorage. Once we passed through the town of Chickaloon, it was becoming apparent by the houses and vehicles that we were approaching the city of Anchorage.

Scenery in Alaska is just as spectacular as Yukon and British Columbia as we rode beside mountain ranges and over cold mountain passes. One such pass, Eureka Summit tops out at 3,322 feet just a few hundred metres beside the road. The Chugach Mountains to our south provided breathtaking views as well as huge glaciers that looked as if they were once flowing lava between the mountains and suddenly frozen solid.

Anchorage – Domestic Day – Friday June 6

We used our first day in Anchorage as our domestic day—sleeping in, washing our bikes, doing laundry and quick trips around the city. As it turned out, this was arguably the nicest day we had since we left on this ride, and we spent it lounging around and not riding anywhere. That evening Dave, Rob and I took just a short walk from our Holiday Inn to the Millennium Hotel for dinner, the host hotel for the famous Iditarod dog sled race. Sitting at the back of the hotel on the patio transformed what was a busy street out front into a resort setting at the back. The patio was almost at the shoreline of Spenard Lake where floatplanes were frequently taking off and landing. The shoreline resembled any other lake with cottages on it except that planes replaced boats tied to the docks. The sunset was perfect, the food was excellent and the beer was cold, a perfect ending to the nicest day of the trip.

Our original plan was to make Anchorage our home base for three days and make a few day trips. As it turns out, many of the places that were mentioned to ride to were too far for a return trip. For instance, Denali National Park is a five-hour ride not counting scenic stops and, as we found out, once at the gate we would not be able to ride our bikes into the park. Visitors have to purchase a bus ticket if they wish to see the inside of the park. Another location for a day trip was to be the small but scenic fishing village of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, southwest of Anchorage. Again five-hours one way not including stops.

Daytrip to Seward – Saturday June 7

Mike, Al and I did make it to the pretty little fishing village of Seward on the east side of the Peninsula. Up to this point, this ride was the coldest yet. The day was overcast and while it wasn’t too bad in Anchorage, it cooled down fast once we made it closer to the water. The drizzle of light showers, the snow on the side of the road and the occasional glacier at the roadside added greatly to the chilled air. Al was affected more than Mike and I because he unknowingly had his vents open in his coat. I later found out on the local news that it was 56 F (13 C) in Anchorage and 43 F (6 C) in Seward, not counting the wind chill.

I wondered if today I might get a shot at my perfect photo with the grizzly catching salmon and the Bud girls serving beer but it wasn’t to be. Besides, it was so cold out the girls would be all wrapped up in snowmobile suits anyway.

This was the first day our group split up with the possibility that we may not see each other again on this trip. Dave and Rob being the outdoors type of guys decided they wanted to camp instead of hotelling it so they both bought around $300 each worth of camping gear. They too, were on their way to Seward and we passed them on the road as we made our way back to Anchorage. Little did Dave and Rob know what lay ahead of them in Seward.

Check out our November December issue for the return trip home and see if Dave and Rob ended up as bear meat afterall or if I was able to catch that perfect shot of the Bud girls serving up ice cold beer from the river. MMM

 

History: Alaska Highway

The idea of the Alaska Highway began with President Roosevelt, in 1938, but construction didn’t begin until March 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Pearl Harbour was a long way from Alaska but it was feared that the Japanese could attack Alaska and take control of the shipping lanes in the north Pacific.

Assigned to the job of creating the Alaska Highway, often referred to as the Alcan Highway (Alaska/Canada), were 11,000 soldiers and 7,500 civilians. The Alaska Highway was the United States’ greatest engineering feat of the modern era, next to the Panama Canal.

When summer arrived, the work crews had to deal with ground that turned to mush, dust and muskeg bogs. Swarms of mosquitoes and black flies were a big part of the hard times that the soldiers and civilians went through to complete the 1,420 mile stretch of road from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to the official end of the Highway at Delta Junction, Alaska.

The route was taken from a War Department map and was drawn along a line of existing airfields from Edmonton, Alberta, to Fairbanks, Alaska. The construction began in five separate places at the same time, all-working toward each other. The idea of the route looked good on paper, but the engineers ran into many problems such as the lack of suitable ground to build a road on, so they followed existing winter roads and old Indian trails. Many of the roads had to follow rivers and lakes and the builders were afraid their construction would create landslides into the rivers.

In the summer of 1942, engineers employed 20-ton bulldozers, but were only able to cover six miles a day due to sub-arctic forest that was so difficult to push through. They built without grades or curves, making their way through the forest, wherever the bulldozer would go. But during the summer when the surface vegetation was removed to create the road, the frozen ground became soggy and the layer of permafrost underneath melted into a black sludge. The road cuts were then impossible to navigate by truck or bulldozer. Large loads of timber and brush were brought in to insulate the road and prevent the ground from melting underneath.

The following fall delivered freezing temperatures that could cause frostbite in seconds, slowing construction once again.

On September 24, 1942, soldiers from the 36th Regiment, coming from the south, and soldiers from the 340th Regiment, coming from the north, met at a tributary of the Liard River–thereafter known as Contact Creek near the British Columbia-Yukon Territory border. The formal completion of the pioneer road was celebrated on November 20, 1942.

It was not until 1943 that the United States Public Roads Administration developed the road into a standard highway. Because of wartime travel restrictions, people had to prove legitimate business in Alaska by obtaining a military authorized permit.

Because the highway was to benefit the U.S. Military, Ottawa insisted the United States pay for the building of the Alaska Highway while the Canadian government agreed to provide timber and gravel and waived import duties, sales and income taxes, and immigration regulations. Also stipulated was that the Canadian sections be handed over to Canada six-months after World War II ended.

After the war in 1948, the travel restrictions were lifted. The highway was not entirely paved until 1960. The Alaska Highway forever altered the political, economic, social, and cultural lives of Alaskans by making the territory more accessible. The highway’s existence also played a key role in making Alaska a state in 1959.

 

Liard River Hotsprings Provincial Park

There are two hot spring pools at Liard River Hotsprings Provincial Park, with water temperatures ranging from 42-52 C (107-126 F). The nearest is the Alpha pool, and half a mile beyond that is the Beta pool, which is larger and deeper.

The hot springs are in a lush boreal spruce forest. A 15-minute stroll on the boardwalk that leads to the hot spring pools passes through a warm water swamp. We didn’t see any but it is common for moose to be feeding in the warm water swamps.

Unlike most other thermal springs in Canada, Liard River Hot Springs does not flow directly into a nearby river or creek, but into an intricate system of swamps. Due to the continual inflow of warm water, the swamps never freeze in winter, despite being extremely shallow and located at a latitude of nearly 60° north.

The park remains open all year round, and with good reason. Even in the depths of winter, which lasts eight months in the Yukon, the hot springs provide relief to weary Alaskan bound travellers and adventurers after a long day on the road. The park is such a popular stopover for tourists that the campground fills up early each day during the summer months.

 

Muncho Lake

At an altitude of 817 metres (2,680 feet) and a length of 11 kilometres (7 miles), Muncho Lake would have to be one of my most memorable experiences of the ride to Alaska. The area of Muncho Lake, sitting between the Sentinel Range rising to the east and the Terminal range to the west. During the building of the Alaska Highway, the shoreline of the lake served as a shortcut to the Upper Liard via Toad and Trout Rivers and was chosen by the original road surveyors instead of cutting through the ‘Grand Canyon’ of the Liard.

As it turned out, cutting through the base of mountains or bluffs at the lake edge proved to be the most expensive section of the entire Alaska Highway. The lake’s icy waters, not far from the roads edge are over 90 metres (300 feet) deep and claimed many pieces of heavy equipment.

At Mile 456, the town of Muncho Lake served as a U.S. Military refueling stop and traffic gate during World War II. The town served as the site of the Northwest Service Command, a post that was created during the war to oversee all activity in the Canadian/United States northwest. The Command also took responsibility for constructing the Highway, the Edmonton to Fairbanks telephone link, and the CANOL oil pipeline that were all undertaken at the same time..

 

Whitehorse History

The town of Whitehorse is named after important historic rapids on the mighty Yukon River that resembled the flowing manes of charging white horses. The White Horse Rapids became known as the greatest peril on the Trail of 98. A hydroelectric dam built in 1958 unfortunately tamed the White Horse rapids that since have become the Schwatka Lake reservoir.

Construction began in 1900 on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway that served travellers from Skagway, Alaska. The terminus of the railway was just beyond the White Horse Rapids and the railhead became known as Whitehorse. The train still operates today.

The city of Whitehorse also was the starting point of the riverboat traffic to Dawson City via the Yukon River, a river that stretches almost 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles) through Alaska to the Bering Sea.

Whitehorse, being one of the largest construction camps during the building of the Alaska Highway, became home to thousands of American troops. Although the boom had ended for Whitehorse after World War II, the city had become an important hub in the northwest for communications, transportation and as centre for supplies for Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories.

When the Alaska Highway opened to civilian travel after World War II, mining and tourism had an enormous effect on the economy of the region and Whitehorse became the capital of the Yukon in 1953. Dawson City was the capital prior to that. Total population of the Yukon stands at 30,000 people, 23,000 of which live in Whitehorse.

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