NEW Video added
Well, I finally got around to arranging my photos of Alaska. If your inclined to read about the trip, see below. My very good friend Rick Jackson spent a lot of time taking on the challenge of documenting our adventure, so sit down, grab a beer or several and enjoy, it’s every man’s bucket-list-adventure of a lifetime. Below is my collection of photos..
Written by Rick Jackson AKA RJ Tours
Alaska Ride – Three Noob Adventure Riders go Far-Far Away to the Dempster
Why a Ride up to Alaska and Beyond?
It is unquestionably the quintessential ride-of-a-lifetime that most of us “regular” type riders dream of being able to do – at least once. It’s a ride that’s on all riders’ bucket list. It’s unabashed freedom. It’s man and machine going to a land far-far away. It’s… OK, you get the point – a ride from Southern California all the way to Alaska is really cool! How about going as far as the Arctic Circle? Even better!
Actually, I rode up to Alaska in 1996 on a 1990 Yamaha FJ1200 as far north as the Arctic Circle on the Dalton north of Fairbanks. It was an amazing ride and one that I think of often. I needed to do it again and started thinking about it and planning for it about 5 years ago. It started to be one of those things that nags at your soul; an itch that just will not go away. I proposed it to my close friends Don and Bob, and it quickly made it to the top of our collective bucket lists. Planning began last fall.
Meet the Riders
We’re Rick, Don, and Bob; three Old Fart Riders as we often refer to ourselves. A real estate broker, a pediatrician, and an airline pilot ranging in age from 61 to 63. Adventurers? Certainly. Experienced off-road riders? Not even close. Our dirt experience ranges from zero to very, very little. Roughly a .5 on a scale of 1-10. Why then would we want to take on the Dempster and South Canol Road? After all, we’re primarily sport touring riders. Yeah, we have many years of experience riding motorcycles, but not dirt! I guess we’re late stage adventure rider wanna-be’s.
How Could We Do This?
Primarily with the blessings of our wives! Some call it “permission”, but these three adventure wanna-be’s are all fortunate to be married to wonderful women. Women that understand. Keepers.
About our Rides
With that most important step out of the way, the next question was that of bikes. I figured that my beloved Yamaha FJR1300 wasn’t really up to the task since we wanted to make this an ADV ride and venture off the asphalt. I initially wanted to keep the FJR and favored the idea of having a “beater-bike” for this trip as well as our moto-camping trips. However, the more I learned about the big Beemer the more I realized that I wanted a late model Adventure model. (The fact that I think it looks like a Klingon spaceship helped.) I found a great deal on a 2012 “Triple Black” GS Adventure with all the options and bought it. I also decided that I’d keep that as my only bike for a few years, so I sold the FJR.
Don’s been riding two bikes; a 2012 BMW K1600GTL with an exhaust system on it that makes the big inline-6 sound like a Maserati, and a 2012 BMW R1200GS Rallye. He’s added about every farkle known to man on his GS and truly loves riding that bike! He claims that the GS has soul and so much more character than the K-bike that it quickly became his ride of choice for our local rides, long or short. It’s also a great platform for moto-camping. The obvious choice for this Alaska ride. Don had actually just bought one of the water-cooled GS Adventure bikes, but decided to keep his 2012 for this trip.
Bob only recently got back to riding after a 35 year absence! He came out to visit with Marilyn and me several times last year and rented an 1150RT for some local riding. About a year ago he bought a 2002 BMW R1200RT at his home in New Hampshire. With a limited riding season and a good friend with a garage in California, he decided to get another bike to keep at our house. He considered several bikes, but ultimately decided on the R1200GS, which would also be ideal for our trip. He found a well cared for 2007 R1200GS outfitted with Jesse bags and Ohlin shocks. Perfect.
In addition to purchasing a bunch of gear for the trip, we went on a few multi-day moto-camping shakedown runs to test out the gear and the bikes. We’d also try to get in some easy off-road riding! Scary. One of these runs was to Death Valley where we rode up to Aquereberry Point and also rode through Titus Canyon. For experienced adventure riders a ride through Titus would be the proverbial walk-in-the park; but it was fairly challenging for adventure wanna-be’s like us with no off-road experience! A great experience though. Unfortunately, I was riding a KTM 990 that I owned briefly instead of my GS, so I had literally no off-road time on the GS when we left, and only about 400 miles on the road!
We’ve all heard about the California drought, but we were lucky enough to hit heavy rains in Joshua Tree National Park on one of our shakedown rides. It rains very rarely in this desert area but this storm, which extended all the way back home, was perfect timing as we learned much about camping and riding in heavy rain!
About the Gear
We all spent a great deal of time trying to figure out the ideal gear for the trip. We already had a lot of camping gear, as we moto-camp in the southwest quite a bit. I’ll provide some reviews of our gear at the end of the trip report.
Picking the Ideal Date
From my prior experience and from pouring over data online, I determined that the best time to leave is actually a complete crapshoot. Yeah, you have to do it in the summer, but there are no guarantees that the weather will cooperate. Bottom line is that we’d have to be ready for all types of weather. Work schedules, family commitments, and vacation schedules determined that we’d leave Saturday June 20th.
We also decided to make this ride a one-way ride so that we could really savor the experience. We’d stop and smell some roses along the way if we saw any, we’d meet locals, we’d drink a beer or two, and we’d take side trips. We’d live up to my motto that says “You Gotta Grind”. We’d live the ride. We’d savor the experience. We’d grind.
OK, with the wordy prelude out of the way, let’s get in to the ride report. Yes, there will be plenty of pictures, maps, and some stimulating commentary.
Will these noob adventure riders make it? Will they survive the Dempster? Will they find any roses?
SUMMARY OF OUR ROUTE
The Route to Vancouver, BC
We can ride the US west coast states any time, so our plan was to ride through California, Oregon, and Washington as quickly as possible to get within striking range of the “good” roads. We’re primarily sport-touring riders (maybe real ADV riders some day) and avoid riding slab whenever possible. However, we were willing to endure the pain of endless miles on the I-5 freeway to accomplish our goal of reaching Vancouver within 2.5 days. We hoped to get in to Vancouver early so that we could explore the downtown area.
The Route Through British Columbia
Once in British Columbia, we slowed the pace down considerably to enjoy the scenery of this amazing area of Canada. One of the decisions we had to make early on in the planning phase was whether we could ride the Alaska Highway (highway 97) or the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (Highway 37) once we reached Prince George. I had already ridden the Alcan in 1996 and had read great things about the Stewart –Cassiar, so I convinced Don and Bob on that route. We also wanted to visit Hyder, AK and see the Salmon Glacier, which is nearby. This turned out to be a great decision, and the Stewart-Cassiar Highway quickly shot up to one of my top 5 highways!
Riding the Yukon Territory
Ultimately, we were traversing British Columbia to reach the Yukon Territory so that we could enjoy its many splendors. These included riding South Canol Road, the Dempster Highway to Eagle Plains and the Arctic Circle, the Top-of-the-World Highway, and visiting Dawson City. We were both excited and a bit nervous about venturing off the tarmac to South Canol Road, the Dempster, and the Top-of-the-World Highways. We had considered Telegraph Creek, but opted to skip it due to weather concerns. There were many adventures to be had in the Yukon!
Our Alaska Route
Alaska was our ultimate destination and we were not disappointed. Rather than riding the Alcan from Tok up to Fairbanks and then riding back down to Anchorage on the Parks Highway (highway A3) through Denali National Park, we opted to go to Valdez through Thompson Pass. From there we’d take a ferry ride to Whittier and ride down the Kenai Peninsula before completing the trip in Anchorage. Our original goal was to ride as far as Homer before returning to Anchorage, but we ended up going to Seward instead. More on that in the daily reports.
Day 1 – SoCal to Woodson Bridge RV Park, Corning, CA
Finally! The trip we had been planning for close to a year is here. Well, sort of. We all knew that the “real” trip was starting once we reached Vancouver, BC so our expectations weren’t that high for our first few days day. Much less our first day crossing through that maze of freeways in Los Angeles! I’ll happily ride an extra 100 or 200 miles to avoid riding through LA!
Back to the ride report, we needed to get through LA before the traffic got too heavy and opted to leave around 4:00AM. We actually enjoy real early morning rides and do them frequently, especially if there’s a compelling reason. Well, we actually had two reasons; traffic and high temperatures! Don lives in the Dana Point area south of Los Angeles along the coast, so we selected a meeting point directly in the heart of the Los Angeles basin! We moved up our meeting point in Los Angeles by about an hour.
It seemed that Bob and I had just finished up with our last minute preparations on the bikes when it was time to get up and leave! No problem through, as the supply of adrenaline was high and we were so excited to finally be on the way to Alaska.
We met up with Don, and he did a great job of leading us out of LA and we were soon over the grapevine and heading down in to the desert valley. A long and boring trudge up the I-5 freeway was ahead of us, so we stopped for breakfast at an IHOP about 7:00AM with some 200 miles on the clock already!
We made great progress on our trek northward and quickly knocked out the remaining 400 miles. I had only been able to ride the big Beemer a couple of times before leaving and wasn’t sure how it would handle the high speed freeway riding, but it did great. Very comfortable at 80 and inexplicably smooth. How can a big twin be so smooth? Bravo, BMW.
In planning out the first few days of the trip I had spent countless hours on the Internet searching for camping places along our route that would be cool and preferably have water. A river, a lake, any body of water would do. The place I found was perfect. Just a few miles off the freeway and directly on the Sacramento River! A great start. Our campsite at a place called Woodson Bridge RV Park was nestled in a shaded grove under towering Valley Oak trees. This will do just fine.
We set up camp and rode across to the other side of the river where we got some dinner and bought a few beers to bring back to celebrate the day’s ride.
I think these two pictures tell the story, so I won’t bore you with any of my own commentary. If you enjoy camping you’ll get it.
Campsites don’t get much better than this, do they? Actually, they do.
Day 2 – Woodson Bridge RV Park, Corning, CA to Champoeg State Park, St. Paul OR
Our first day’s ride through LA and the I-5 super-slab was tedious, but we had easily knocked out the 600 miles in time to enjoy our campsite on the Sacramento River. We were making great progress toward our goal of being in Vancouver, BC in 2.5 days.
For our second day, I had reserved a campsite at Champoeg State Park near Portland, about 550 miles north, which would give us a short 345 mile ride in to downtown Vancouver the following day. Since we were going to continue north on the I-5 interstate, I didn’t have high expectations of a great ride even though Don had told me that it was far more scenic than Southern California.
The first order of business was breakfast though. We had noticed some billboards along the freeway in Redding advertising the Black Bear Diner, and since we were hoping to see plenty of bear on this trip, we followed the signs in. We had adopted a habit of having a hearty breakfast each day, generally skipping lunch, and then a great dinner (and drinks).
The Black Bear Diner did not disappoint. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen some much meat and calories in a breakfast plate before. We weren’t able to clean our plates – I don’t think one human could eat a complete breakfast there – but we left the diner fully energized and ready to knock down some miles.
While I had visions of a boring and relatively straight freeway, it was far from that. In fact, the ride from Redding to Medford, OR was intoxicating!
Leaving Redding, we were soon riding through the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area and then continuing through the Shasta National Forest. The view of Shasta Lake’s beautiful sapphire colored water surrounded by mountain peaks was breathtaking. The temperatures were also much cooler than the previous day, which reinforced the fact that we were no longer in Southern California. The freeway then followed the Sacramento River as it zig-zagged its way through scenic canyons and beautiful pine forests, with tall snow capped peaks as the backdrop. Definitely beautiful scenery for this Southern California native.
We have plenty of video taken along this route, and Don will be creating a video blog of our trip, but we were so spellbound with finally having some scenery and curves that we didn’t stop and take any pictures! We do have one picture of Mount Shasta in the distance taken from a gas station around Medford, OR.
We did get an interesting picture of Don leaving his mark on one of our breaks. Hmmm.
We arrived at Champoeg State Park in plenty of time to set camp and relax a bit. Our campsite was actually right on the Willamette River, but I was disappointed that the river wasn’t visible from our site. In fact, the river was down the embankment that was behind our site. Even so, it was a nice quiet place.
After setting up camp, we rode across some beautiful farmland into a nearby town called Newberg for dinner. Afterwards, we enjoyed some beers, a great fire, and conversation mainly centering on the fact that we’d be in Canada the next day! The real ride would start when we left Vancouver, BC but we were enjoying a great ride so far.
Day 3 – Champoeg State Park, OR to Vancouver, BC
We were excited that we’d be in Canada after the day’s ride and would also be rewarded with a stay in a nice hotel in the downtown area of Vancouver. We’d been riding fairly long days on Interstate 5 to get us in to Canada where we felt the best part of our ride was starting. Since we only had about 350 miles to cover, we were looking forward to getting in to downtown Vancouver in time to enjoy Happy Hour and spend some time exploring the downtown area.
Don was so excited to get going that he lifted up his tent and started running north! Actually, it’s just a clever way to clean out the tent before folding it up.
After a quick ride back in to Newberg for breakfast we were soon on our way north. By early afternoon we were in line at the border crossing. OK, no jokes about guns or drugs here and just answer the questions! We know the drill. We got through the border without any real issues, but the crossing was not uneventful!
Of course, we picked the slowest line, so it took many start / stops while we slowly nudged our way up a gentle hill toward the border crossing. I was in the front, followed by Don and then Bob, who snapped this picture, at the back. Notice the reflection of Bob’s very powerful 55 watt PIAA lights on the back of my panniers.
Don and I were able to get through without any problems and were each told to drive down the road about ¼ mile to a visitor information center on the US side where we could gather up. We complied, but where was Bob? Had he been detained? Why?
Turns out his battery was dead and he wasn’t able to start his bike after the interview with the border crossing authorities. He had developed a habit of turning off his bike with the emergency shut-off switch rather than the ignition key, and he frequently (actually, almost always) left the ignition on with his two sets of running lights! It had taken us so long to get up to the booth during which time he was draining his battery!
Finally, a guy on another adventure bike comes over to us and informs us of Bob’s plight and tells us that Bob had walked his bike across the border and was pushing it the ¼ mile to our position. We ran back to help our frustrated and exhausted friend, and then got out the jumper cables to get his bike going.
Traffic into Vancouver was very heavy and reminded me of the freeway system in Los Angeles where it’s often faster to walk than to drive! At one point we got so frustrated waiting in line as the lanes narrowed down to a tunnel entrance that we just pulled off to the side of the freeway and moved ahead!
The downtown traffic was heavy and progress toward our hotel following Garmina’s voice commands was slow. When we finally arrived at our hotel, there was just enough time to clean up and hit the streets a bit to check out the downtown pubs and restaurants. We were struck by the diverse population, and the number of young and fit folks enjoying the downtown scene.
We found a quaint restaurant and enjoyed a few beers and dinner. We were finally in British Columbia, and the ride was going to get exciting from here!
Tomorrow’s route on the Sea-to- Sky Highway (Highway 99) would take us along the waters of the Howe Sound, snow capped peaks, waterfalls and canyons. Best of all, we were finally going to ride lots of twisties as climbed toward Whistler!
Day 4 – Vancouver, BC to Kokanee Bay Campground, Lac La Hache, BC
Our brief stay in downtown Vancouver was enjoyable and relaxing, but we were anxious to finally be able to ride in British Columbia and head to higher ground where we’d find beautiful scenery and twisty roads. Our pace was to be much more relaxed as we only had to ride about 300 miles per day for 3 days to get to Stewart, BC where we planned to cross over in to Hyder, AK. We’d be in Alaska on our 5th day and would also get a chance to check out the Salmon Glacier!
However, our first order of business was to get out of the downtown area! Traffic was very heavy as we headed toward Stanley Park and the Lion’s Gate Bridge which crosses the harbor to North Vancouver.
The road was narrowing as we approached Stanley Park and drivers were competing for position as a lane disappeared. In the lead, and not being a particularly aggressive rider, I inadvertently ended up on a road that took us off our route and dumped us on to a round-about in Stanley Park. We rode around the circle a couple of times looking for signs of how to get back on Highway 99, but there was clearly no way to get back on the highway, so we pulled off the side of the road. The ride wasn’t going too well up to this point!
A local guy on crotch-rocket, likely on his way to work, stopped and asked us where were going. I responded that we were going to Highway 99 north, and he motioned us to follow him as he headed in to the park. It was actually a beautiful ride through this gorgeous park of manicured lawns, lush landscaping, and huge trees lining the road. Crossing the entire length of the park, he took us back to a ramp leading back on to Highway 99. Before turning on to the highway, he stopped asked where were going, to which I responded “Alaska!” He gave us the thumbs up and disappeared in to the traffic.
In short order, we crossed through North Vancouver and headed toward Horseshoe Bay and the scenic portion of the highway that meanders along the coastline overlooking the water. To “drive” this highway on Google Maps, click HERE. [https://goo.gl/maps/hLbSC] We stopped several times to take pictures and also turned on our Go Pro cameras to catch the scenery on video. (Video being produced and will be uploaded at a later date.) It was so beautiful that we actually turned around at one point and rode 10 miles or so back toward Vancouver so that we could take it the natural beauty from a different perspective!
We reached Whistler about an hour and a half later. The location of Whistler Blackcomb, a world-class ski resort and popular destination for downhill mountain bikers, the town was bustling with vacationers. We stopped at Green Lake on the outskirts of town to take in some of the beauty. (I recalled my first ski trip there when I was learning to ski, and a painful accident which yielded me a cracked scapula and a bruised lung!)
If you look closely at the picture below you’ll notice a sea plane taking off. We had watched it taxi in to position and were amazed how quickly it lifted off once it applied power! Bob says that it was likely a turbine powered Beaver.
We took some time to check voicemail and to check for text messages. Bob took some time to update his daily blog, which I will provide the URL to at the end of this ride report. Hey, reading this ride report wouldn’t be any fun if you already knew the whole story!
A “PECULIAR” INCIDENT
We were making great time and, as we were approaching the junction to the Cariboo Highway (Highway 97), we realized that we didn’t have any Canadian money! Since we were also getting low on gas and could use some lunch, we decided to go a few mile south on the Cariboo Highway to Cache Creek. Stopping at a Chevron gas station with a built-in A&W Express, we filled up and then parked the bikes to go in and get something for lunch.
As I walked out I noticed a nice looking late-nineties Honda Valkyrie parked next to my GSA and an older chopped up Harley next to it. The owner of the Valk was sitting on a short wall by our bikes, and the Harley owner was fiddling with his bike. I looked at the Valkyrie guy and commented “Nice looking bike!” He didn’t acknowledge my statement and just stared at my bike for a few moments after which he finally looked up at me and uttered “Your bike is peculiar looking.” Really? Had he just said that? A few moments passed and he further offered up “I don’t see that your bike has anything in common with my bike”.
I contemplated my response. Was he looking for an argument? Did he have an issue with German bikes, or had he actually never seen an adventure bike? Was he aware that the “peculiar” design of my bike would allow me to go off-road, adjust my suspension on the fly, cruise in absolute comfort, and generally outperform his bike in every category?
I enjoy a lively intellectual debate, especially about motorcycles, and contemplated enlightening him about our hobby and motorcycles in general. How do you respond to a guy that can’t see anything in common with two motorcycles sitting at a gas station on the Cariboo Highway in British Columbia? I decided that this simpleton wasn’t worth engaging, and opted to ignore his statements as I loaded some snacks I had purchased in to my tank bag. The Harley guy, who had meticulously positioned his Skeletor scarf over his face and was letting everyone know he was going to make a grand exit as he let us all hear his bikes straight pipes. Classy. The Valk guy mounted his bike and they (thankfully) wandered off in the opposite direction as our route. I waved them a friendly adieu. (Some details slightly enhanced for humor…)
Heading north along the Cariboo Highway one of the first towns we went through was 70 Mile House, followed by 93 Mile House, and then 100 Mile House. We contemplated why a country on the metric system would label their towns with a reference to miles. We found it “peculiar”. In fact, after I told Don and Bob about my strange encounter with the Valk guy, we joked around about various peculiar things we had seen and experienced. The Valk guy had inadvertently given us plenty of ammunition to joke about and pass the time.
(According to Wikipedia the 70 Mile House name is derived from its distance from Lilloet, which was Mile 0 of the Old Cariboo Road. Other examples of towns named by their distance from Lillooet on the Old Cariboo Road are 93 Mile House, 100 Mile House and 150 Mile House.)
I had reserved a campsite at Kokanee Bay, directly on Lake Lac La Hache between the towns of 114 Mile House and 122 Mile House. Thankfully, our campsite was fairly close to the lake and even had a small stream running next to it. Nice.
Beer is often the topic of conversation in the afternoons as we look forward to setting camp. We were stunned to find out that they didn’t have any beer for sale there, so Bob returned 10 miles back to the town of Lac La Hache to buy some before setting camp. Canadians are well for brewing excellent beers, and Bob was happy to try out as many of them as he could. With that crisis over, we went about the business of setting up camp and making dinner.
From my previous ride to Alaska, I was aware that the days would be increasingly longer as we headed north. With the exception of the occasional truck that would barrel down the highway nearby, the campsite was very peaceful. I took the following picture at about 10:00 PM and texted it to my wife as I bid her good night. It felt like early evening and was eerily calm.
At midnight it was finally dark, but I could see light to the north. I recalled that we were only two days in to summer and that the Dusk-to-Dawson event was going on in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory. We’d miss that great event, but would later spend several days there.
Day 5 – Kokanee Bay, Lac La Hache, BC to Beaver Point Resort, Burns Lake, BC
I was awakened to the sound of someone rustling about the campsite. It was light out, but I felt like I’d only been asleep for a short time. Was it already morning? I quickly figured out that it was Don that was up, and he was now starting a fire with some firewood we had left over from the last night. I didn’t feel like getting up, so I reached over and grabbed my cell phone so that I could get the time. 4:38 AM!
Don’s an early riser and is always the first to break camp, but 4:38 AM? Seriously? I got out of my tent, crossed the little bridge over the stream and walked over to the restroom. Walking back I could see that Don was busy breaking down his tent and apparently in a rush to get the day’s ride started. I thought to myself that he’d have to ride alone as I was going back to bed, even if it was light out! Bob was apparently still asleep, so I got back in my tent and decided to catch a few more hours sleep.
After a couple hours I finally got up. Bob emerged from his tent soon after me, and we asked Don why he was in such a hurry. After all, we only had a little over 300 miles to cover that day. He hadn’t realized what time it was when he had gotten up! He had gone to bed before Bob and me, and had just gotten up when it felt like morning!
We made some breakfast after which Bob and I started to break camp. We were in no hurry even though Don already had his bike loaded and was wearing his motorcycle gear. Don decided to catch up on some sleep until we were ready to leave.
Today’s ride was a simple one; head up the Cariboo Highway as far as Prince George, and then take the Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16) to Burns Lake, BC. From this point we wouldn’t be far from the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (Highway 37) that would take us to Stewart and Hyder, Alaska.
The day’s ride seemed to go by very quickly. We stopped in Price George for lunch, but were soon back on the road. Unfortunately, none of us took any pictures along the way as we seemed to be very focused on getting closer to the point where would be turning off to Stewart, BC. I was a bit disappointed to see a fair amount of traffic on the road beyond Prince George, especially trucks, but I figured that they were likely coming and going from the port of Prince Rupert. We assumed that we’d been in more remote areas once we turned on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway the next day.
I want to mention here that the highway system in British Columbia is far better than what I am used to in California. The roads are in very good condition, and there are many rest areas along the way with ample parking, picnic tables, clean restrooms and bear-proof trash cans.
Our destination for the day was Beaver Point Resort [Link = http://beaverpointresort.ca/] on the shores of the beautiful Tchesinkut Lake, a few miles south of Burns lake. We’d been fortunate to have enjoyed lakeside camping along our route so far, and this location did not disappoint. The host was very friendly toward motorcyclists and gave us a very large campsite directly on the water’s edge. The daily rate even included as much firewood as we could place in a wheel barrel that they provided, as long as we picked it up and brought it back to our site! We went about the process of setting up camp which seemed to be a bit quicker each day.
With camp soon set up, we explored the area a bit and took in the beautiful scenery before heading the Burns Lake for some dinner. We’d taken note of a Mulvaney’s Pub right near the turnoff, so we rode over there for a dinner and a cocktail (or two).
Back to camp after dinner, we sat by the lake’s edge and enjoyed the beautiful views and the serenity. It was probably close to midnight when I captured this picture of two people floating around the lake in an inflatable dinghy as they fished. Can there be a more beautiful place to camp?
Tomorrow we get on the Stewart-Cassiar highway and head to Stewart, BC where we’ll be just across the border from Hyder, Alaska! We’re hoping to reach Stewart with enough time to head in to Hyder. Will we get Hyderized? Not sure, but we’ll be in Alaska!
Day 6 – Beaver Point Resort, Burns Lake, BC to Stewart, BC
Early in our planning we had contemplated taking the ferry from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert, BC. That 18-hour ferry ride would have been a great experience, but we would have missed much of the ride up through British Columbia. I knew from my previous ride to Alaska in ’96 that BC was a beautiful area to ride across. Don had ridden through the Banff and Jasper National Parks and had truly enjoyed the experience, so he was eager to see more of BC. The decision was an easy one.
The next decision was to determine whether we would ride up to Dawson Creek and then follow the Alaska Highway (Highway 97) northward, or take a more westerly track that would put us on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (Highway 37). I was very much in favor of taking the Stewart-Cassiar Highway as I had already ridden up the Alcan, and I also wanted to visit Hyder, Alaska and the Salmon Glacier. With some discussion and a lot of reading on the comparisons between these two highways on this website, we opted for the Stewart-Cassiar.
Excited that we’d be on the Stewart-Cassiar by early afternoon, we broke camp early and hit the road. Before leaving I took a few moments to capture some more images of Tchesinkut Lake. This was one of the most beautiful places that I had ever camped, and I know that I will someday return there with my wife.
A&W restaurants are very common in BC and actually serve breakfast, so we stopped in at one to try it out. Since there were four BMW GSs parked out front we figured it must be a good place. The bikes belonged to four guys that had ridden all the way from Louisiana, and we would end up playing leapfrog with them for the next 150 miles until our paths would finally split.
We’d been very fortunate up until this point encountering no rain, but it was raining by the time we finished breakfast. We put on our rain gear and headed north.
The ride was becoming progressively more scenic, and there seemed to be lakes and rivers around every bend. We’re experiencing a drought in Southern California, but there’s certainly no shortage of water in this land! We joked about the fact that that since Minnesota is referred to as the Land of 1000 Lakes, British Columbia must be the Land of 10,000 Lakes!
We were struck by how remote this land was and astounded by its shear beauty and remoteness. Don and I have ridden the mountains and passes of Colorado several times and really appreciate the beauty of that state. However, British Columbia quickly made it to the top of the charts in terms of favorite places to ride.
By mid-day we were at the junction to the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, so we stopped to add some fuel to the bikes and get lunch. Our friends from Louisiana were also stopped here, but were continuing on west toward Prince Rupert.
We had finally made it to the Stewart-Cassiar Highway!
The Stewart-Cassiar Highway is the most northwestern highway in British Columbia and is also known as the Dease Lake Highway or the Stikine Highway.
Map provided courtesy of www.YukonInfo.com.
My written words or a few pictures cannot do justice to the sheer beauty and splendor of this magnificent highway and the surrounding countryside. It’s simply breathtaking. This is a highway that should be on every motorcycle enthusiast’s bucket list. I can say that it quickly made it to the top position of Rick’s Favorite’s Roads list!
About half way up the highway to the turn-off to Stewart (Meziadin Junction) we noticed a sign on the side of the road for a turnoff to the Bonus Lake Recreation Site. We turned off and rode down a dirt road a short distance and discovered this beautiful scene.
We encountered countless bridge crossings along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, with the majority of them having steel grate decks. With our 50/50 type tires the front end tends to dance around a little, but we quickly learned to loosen up our grips and the bikes would easily traverse the bridges. A few of the bridges were plank wood though like this single lane wood plank bridge over the Nass River near the Meziadin Junction.
We turned off the highway at the Meziadin Junction on to the Glacier Highway (37A) which would take us about 40 miles in to Stewart through a deep canyon between two mountain ranges. The mountains still had a fair amount of snow on them, and there were numerous waterfalls cascading down into a river that ran along the side of the road. A strange mist hovered over the water in many places.
Meziadin Junction to Stewart Google Maps Link: https://goo.gl/maps/lNwbZ. Grab and drag the little yellow icon (“Google Dude”) to locations along the road for the street view.
About 20 miles in from the Meziadin Junction we came to the Bear Glacier where we stopped at the convenient pull-out to take pictures. The glacial meltwater has formed a small lake known as Strohn Lake at the base of the glacier.
Continuing on, we soon reached the town of Stewart and checked in to the King Edward Hotel [ http://www.kingedwardhotel.com/] where I had reserved a room on the other side of the street, as they were a bit larger and had kitchenettes. The friendly folks at the hotel had reserved a roll-away bed for us.
The next day was to be a scheduled down-day so we’d get a chance to explore the area, including the Salmon Glacier. After unloading the bikes there was plenty of evening left to take a short ride in to Hyder, Alaska which is only about a 10-minute ride.
The town is known as America’s Friendliest Ghost Town and has a population of 87 people according to the last census taken in 2010. There’s no border station as you cross in to the US, and I’m told that this is the only land border crossing in to the US where you may legally enter without going through an inspection.
We stopped in at the Glacier Inn, known for the place where you get Hyderized with a shot of 150 proof alcohol! This bar is basically the first building on the left that’s not boarded up as you enter town. It was almost empty, but we quickly noticed that it was different than most bars. Its walls were plastered with signed paper money from the US, Canada, and other countries. There were also signed life preservers, and a host of taxidermied animals on the walls. Yeah, a different sort of bar indeed.
We had some dinner and a few drinks, but opted not to get Hyderized as we had to go through the Canadian Border Services Agency station, a few hundred yards down the road, in order to get back in to Stewart.
Day 7 – (Down Day) Ride to the Salmon Glacier near Hyder, AK
A ride up to the Salmon Glacier, about 16 miles outside of Hyder, was to be one of the trip’s highlights. The Salmon Glacier is the fifth biggest glacier in the world and can be seen from a dirt road that runs along the ridgeline above the glacier. I had seen numerous videos on the Internet and knew that it was to be an unforgettable experience. We hoped that the weather would cooperate.
On the way to the Salmon Glacier there’s another great attraction though. The Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site [http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r10/specialplaces/?cid=fsbdev2_038787] is a place where there are wildlife viewing platforms that have been built along the Salmon River from which you can safely observe bears (and sometimes wolves) as they hunt for the spawning salmon. The salmon typically start arriving in July and run through September, so we didn’t get to see any during our stop there on June 26th.
Recall the title of this ride report Three Noob Adventure Riders go Far-Far Away to the Dempster. Let me explain…
Indeed, all three us were very much novice riders when it comes to riding off-road. (We’ll talk about these three noobs riding the Dempster later in this report.) Don had some very limited off-road experience as a teen, Bob had just recently gotten back in to riding after a 35-year absence and had picked up the GS a few months in advance of this ride, and my off-road experience was also extremely limited.
We had watched some videos on adventure motorcycle riding techniques, and had also completed two rides to try to learn some adventure / off-road riding skills. The first ride had been to our local Southern California desert area near Borrego Springs; however, the experience was disastrous as our adventure bikes were far too heavy for the sandy conditions in the desert. Our second ride had been to Death Valley during which we had ridden off-road for two days. The first day had been on a relatively unchallenging road to Aquereberry cabin and the Eureka gold mine and up to Aquereberry Point. On the second day we had ridden the 26 miles of Titus canyon from near Beatty, NV in to Death Valley. Well intentioned, motivated, but very naïve, we had all been in well over our heads! Bob was running a fever and was really sick from a flu bug, and Don had low-sided more than once during the ride. I was riding a KTM 990 Adventure I had just bought for the Alaska trip that was having serous mechanical problems. I ultimately got rid of the KTM and bought my 2012 GS Adventure a few weeks before the trip, but had only ridden it about 400 miles before this trip – all on asphalt!
Undaunted, we were thrilled that we were finally going to ride something other than asphalt, and we had heard that the dirt road along the Salmon Glacier was fairly easy. We also hoped the Heidenau tires we had put on the bikes would help mitigate our lack of skills, and that it wouldn’t rain. Indeed, it turned out to be a beautiful day and we really enjoyed our first day as adventure riders.
It’s just not possible for me to adequately describe the beauty and immensity of the Salmon Glacier, so I’ll stop typing and just add some pictures to the report.
Looking back, the view of the Salmon River downstream of the glacier was magnificent. I wondered if this glacier had cut these deep canyons eons ago during an ice age.
As we approached the Summit View Point the glacier take a sharp turn to the left and I wondered how far it continued. (A quick look at a satellite image [https://goo.gl/maps/7siBj] using Google Maps later revealed the answer.)
I think that this picture I captured of Don at the summit best describes the experience.
We all agreed that this was an extraordinary experience that we would take with us the rest of our lives.
Perhaps this adventure riding thing could be fun! Maybe we weren’t too old to enjoy exploring some of the natural wonders that are inaccessible by road bikes.
Day 7 – (Down Day) Sites of Hyder, AK and Stewart, BC
We really enjoyed the ride up to the Salmon Glacier, and our ride back to Stewart would take us through Hyder again before crossing back in to Canada. We decided to stop at the Glacier Inn again to get something to eat and to have a drink and to celebrate the great experience. Before leaving we walked around a bit so I took the opportunity to snap a few pictures.
Established in 1907, Hyder is located at the end of the 71-mile canal (technically a fjord) and was the access point and port to the silver mines in Canada. It was originally called Portland City after the Portland Mine, but was later renamed Hyder after a Frederick Hyder, a Canadian mining engineer. Its boom years were the 19020s when the Riverside Mine on the US side extracted gold, silver, zinc and tungsten.
For riders that want to stay in Hyder rather than Stewart, the Sealaska Inn looks like an interesting place.
Crossing the border and back to Stewart we stopped at end of the Portland Canal to take in the view. There was a large cargo ship in the port. We later met several longshoremen who were staying in Stewart while the ship was being loaded who told us that it was a Chinese cargo ship being loaded with timber.
From near the Visitor Information Center in Stewart you can walk along a boardwalk across the tidal flats at the head of Portland Canal. It’s a very scenic location for viewing wetland plants and birds, surrounded by imposing mountain peaks.
Downtown Stewart. Not exactly a bustling metropolis, but a town rich in history that oozes with character!
We spotted this interesting vehicle parked in front of the Ripley Inn that looks something like a cross between a vintage Citroën and a tank. Perhaps it was used as some sort of mining vehicle?
We get back on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway tomorrow on our way north toward the Yukon Territory, but don’t have a fixed destination. While we did schedule a number of definite stops along our route, we also had a number of “flex days” where we’d decide along the way where to stay.
If the weather holds out, we may opt to drop in to the mostly First Nation settlement of Telegraph Creek, which is known as British Columbia’s most remote town accessible by road. We’d heard that the 93-mile long dirt road follows the banks of the Stikine River was a very scenic road, but some roads leading down to the river had gradients as steep as 20%!
Day 8 – Stewart, BC to Boya Lake Provincial Park, BC
Our stay in Stewart had been fantastic, and our down day during which we visited the Salmon Glacier was a great addition to the trip. Count me in if this is what adventure touring is all about! I was also very pleased with how the big Beemer handled the road up to the Salmon Glacier. I’m sure it would be considered an easy road by most standards, but this was my first foray off the tarmac with the GSA. I had read countless comparison of the R1200GS versus the KTM990, so I didn’t expect the Beemer to perform as well as it did. So much for those comparisons.
We were anxious to get back on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, but had to decide on the day’s route during breakfast. Telegraph Creek or continue north toward the Yukon Territory? The rain forecast called for a 60% probability of rain for the next two days, so we decided that going to Telegraph Creek under those conditions may be too ambitious for these adventure noobs.
Black Bears, a Red Fox, and… Chicken?
We had been very disappointed that we weren’t seeing nearly as much wildlife as we expected to. Each morning as we’d hit the road I’d get on the radio and make my official estimate how many animals we’d see that day. Two black bear, a moose and some chickens was my estimate for this day. Chickens? The guys would laugh about my comments about seeing chickens, but would soon learn that we would in fact see some ptarmigans (chicken-liken fowl) near Chicken, Alaska. Up until this point we had been disappointed that we hadn’t seen much in the way of wildlife. Things would finally change on this stretch of the Cassiar though.
We were vigilantly looking up ahead for animals as we rode this very remote stretch of the Stewart-Cassiar highway. We did in fact see two black bear and a moose along this stretch of the road, but there were no opportunities to take pictures as the animals scampered away as we pulled over to get out our cameras.
At one point I announced that there was an animal in the middle of the road ahead and, as we got closer, I recognized that it was a red fox that appeared to be checking out something that was on the road. Surprisingly, the fox didn’t run away until we were almost right upon it, and then remained close to the side of the road for a while before going in to the woods. Was it curious about us, or was there something keeping it there?
As we turned our attention to what we assumed was road kill, we quickly realized that it was actually a baby fox that had just been killed. Not much larger than a domestic cat, this was a precious and gorgeous little animal. It was now clear why its mother had been reluctant to run away from us, and we assumed that she was still nearby waiting for us to leave.
There was no more banter about animal sightings for the remainder of the day, and our mood was very somber having witnessed such a tragedy.
The northern stretch of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway wasn’t updated or as well maintained as the more traveled southern section from Kitwanga to the Meziadin junction, but it was satisfyingly remote and secluded. While most of the roads up to this point had been in exceptional condition with wide cleared shoulders, this road was seemingly still unchanged from its original construction in the 1960 / 70s except for pot hole and some deep frost heave repairs. Narrower and not built up as high to insulate it from the permafrost, frost heaves and pot holes were taking their toll on this stretch of the highway. We slowed the pace a bit and were actually enjoying the up / down waves of the frost heaves.
The scenery was spectacular with lakes and rivers seemingly everywhere. It’s the kind of road that gives the rider such a visceral experience that, while you’re mesmerized by the natural wonder that is all around you, you can’t help but wonder what awaits you around the next bend or over the next hill. I cannot imagine a more beautiful place to ride.
We didn’t have a destination for the day, so we turned our attention to finding some place to settle in for the night. North of Dease Lake towns were non-existent so we thought we might have to travel as far as “Junction 37”, the junction of the Cassiar Highway and the Alaska Highway just inside the Yukon Territory, to find some place to eat and bed down for the night.
About an hour’s ride from Junction 37, we spotted a sign for the Boya Lake Provincial Park [http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/boya_lk/] off the highway. Don, who was leading at the time, asked if we wanted to go check it out. I mentioned that I had tentatively flagged that as a back-up location in case we didn’t go to Telegraph Creek, and I was aware that it was a beautiful setting. I wasn’t quite ready for the beauty that would unfold through.
As we rode our bikes through the campground toward the lake’s edge we came across this beautiful scene, except that there were three young women in bikinis that were sitting on the edge of the little dock. Seeing us coming down the road toward them, one hurried to put her bikini top back on.
We stopped to look around and take in the scenery. This setting was something you would envision seeing in a movie or on the cover of a travel magazine. Places like this really do exist! The water was crystal clear and had an aqua-marine color to it. It was so calm that you could see a perfect upside down reflection of the sky and clouds. I don’t think you could take a bad picture here.
A few hundred feet or so down the shore we came across a vacant campsite on a knoll directly on the water with impeccable views. We had traveled about 340 miles for the day so far, and it was about another 55 miles to Junction 37, where we assumed that we could find a place to eat and camp. However, what would it be like? Could it be anything like this incredible place?
We inventoried our food and found that we had a few canned items and a freeze-dried meal. It only took a few moments for us to decide to stay here for the night. We had found the perfect campsite.
We dropped our $20 CAN (about $16 US) at the collection booth at the entrance to the park and set up camp. The camp hostess came by in a golf cart to welcome us and mentioned that this was the best campsite at Boya Lake which had just been vacated. Perfect timing on our part.
For those that have never moto-camped before, this is likely the perfect commercial for it! Try to envision the amazing experience of sitting on this lake and taking on the views and sounds of nature. Staying in a motel is certainly easier, but the experience of being in such a setting is something that you never forget.
Don figured this was the ideal time to break out the aged scotch that he had brought to share, which made this experience even better.
Before turning in for the night, I took one more picture. While it’s a great picture that seems to capture the essence of this land, it falls short. The best picture, and the one that I will always treasure, is ingrained in my memory.
Tomorrow, we’ll finish up our travels on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, and be in the Yukon Territory! Riding up through British Columbia has been an amazing experience, but many adventures await us in the Yukon.
Day 9 – Boya Lake Provincial Park, BC to Quiet Lake, South Canol Road, YT
Our plans for the next three days in the Yukon Territory were somewhat flexible, as our next reservation wasn’t until June 30th in Dawson City. From there we planned to go north to Eagle Plains and the Arctic Circle.
I had read about the South Canol Road that runs from Johnson’s Crossing to Ross River, which was a road put in by the US military in 1943 to run oil from the Northwest Territories at Norman Wells down to Whitehorse. We had all agreed that riding the South Canol Road would be one of the trip’s highlights, so our plan for today was to ride the 235 miles as far as Johnson City. From there, we’d be in a position to ride the South Canol Road the next day and likely go as far as Carmacks, then to Dawson City the following day.
We had been really pleased with our ride through British Columbia, and were now looking forward to crossing in to the Yukon Territory to the northernmost part of our route, including Dawson City, the Arctic Circle along the Dempster Highway, and the Top-of-the-World Highway. I was also interested in getting on to the Alaska Highway, which I had ridden back in 1996, to see what it was like. Given the current popularity of the Klondike Gold rush area and Alaska, I had visions of a steady stream of large motor homes lumbering north along on the improved Alaska Highway.
Boya Lake had been a great find, but we were soon enjoying the final 55-mile stretch of the Cassiar Highway as we headed toward Junction 37 where we’d meet up with the Alaska Highway. Hopefully, we’d find gas and be able to get some breakfast there.
A few miles before we reached Junction 37, we stopped at the border in to the Yukon and were taking some pictures of this iconic sign and milestone in our trip. A motor suddenly home pulled over in a cloud of dust, and a very nice couple walked over and asked if we needed help getting a picture of the three of us in front of the sign. Amazing.
We gassed up at Junction 37, and then rode down the Alcan a few miles to Nugget city where we had a pricey, but mediocre breakfast at the Northern Beaver Post. This is one of the many family owned businesses that spring up along the Alcan, and which often stay open during the summer months only.
I can’t speak to other parts of the Alaska Highway leading up to this point, but the condition of the highway between Junction 37 and Johnson’s Crossing was superb. It was built up and well insulated from the permafrost layer, with perfect pavement and wide shoulders. There weren’t quite as many motor homes on the road as I had expected, but they were certainly not a rare site.
As is the case in British Columbia, there are lakes everywhere! Teslin Lake runs parallel to the Alcan for 40 or more miles until the highway crosses the lake at Johnson’s Crossing. We crossed the bridge and pulled in to the town, actually more like a small outpost, filled up with gas and bought some supplies. Since it was still early afternoon, we decided to push on and start our ride up South Canol Road figuring that we’d find some place to camp along the way.
Fully stocked with food, gas, and water we were anxious to get a jump on our 135-mile ride on this historic road that would take us deep in to the Yukon backcountry. We knew that there were some lakes with campgrounds along the route, so we’d just ride in until we found a great place to camp. Turning off the Alcan we came across the Canol Road rest area where a number of the original construction trucks and equipment had been put on display.
We stopped just beyond the rest area to air down tires before starting on the road. It was refreshing to be off the pavement and we were all excited about what we might find in the wilderness.
We would encounter a number of these single-lane Bailey bridges that spanned small rivers, which were ideal places to take a short break, walk around a bit and take in the scenery.
The weather was cooperating and the road conditions were generally pretty decent. There were sections where the road had been repaired and / or sand had been laid down, but they were usually (not always) marked with small red flags right by the rough section. Great news for these adventure noobs!
About 47 miles in we came to Quiet Lake nestled in the Pelly Mountain range. We followed signs to the government maintained campground which had about 20 campsites with tables, a few restrooms, bear-proof trash bins, and a boat launch. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a campsite right on the lake, but we did find a nice site up in the forest with easy access in and out, and which was located near a restroom and trash bins.
There’s something great about having spaghetti in the woods, but I was sure that we had caught the attention of bears within a 50-mile radius! Fearing we’d get visited that night, and possibly get our bikes torn apart, we tried to figure out what we’d do with anything that had a smell to it. Ultimately, we put all our stuff in a large trash compactor bag and put it in the bear-proof trash bin!
We didn’t get visited by any bears during the night – at least none that woke us up – but we did get visited by another smaller animal the following morning.
But that’s for the next post…
Day 10 – Quiet Lake, South Canol Road, YT to Dawson City, YT
Our original plan for this day was to continue up the remaining 87 miles of the South Canol Road to the Robert Campbell Highway (4), and then head west to Carmacks on the Klondike Highway (2). From there we’d continue north to Dawson City the next day. (You can see the original planned route highlighted in yellow in the map below.)
After breakfast it started to rain a bit, and the forecast for the day in this area was a 60% chance of heavy rain and thunder showers. Since the South Canol Road was simply a graded dirt road with loose dirt and not a maintained dirt road compacted with chip seal, we were concerned about what the road conditions might be as we headed north. Do we ride back 47 miles to Johnson’s Crossing and then head north to Carmacks where we had planned on for our next stop, or throw caution to the wind and head north? Our inexperience as off-road riders likely came in to play in our decision, and I can say that we didn’t have consensus here. However, the vote was 2 to 1 in favor of taking the road 47 miles back to Johnson’s Crossing and then heading north to Carmacks on the tarmac. As it turned out, we would end up getting a day ahead of schedule and ride 466 miles to Dawson City.
As we were making breakfast, a baby rabbit wandered in to our camp and was just hanging out around our feet. It was cold and shivering and, when Don finally knelt down and put his hand out, the rabbit walked right in to his hand and then snuggled himself on his arm! We assumed that its mother had been killed and this little orphan was seeking food and warmth. It would not survive long, so we found a family that was camping nearby that agreed to care for the rabbit and then drop if off at the ranger station on their way home. I hope the little guy survived.
The ride back out toward Johnson City was uneventful and we actually only hit light rain along the way, so we wondered if he had made the right decision. Stopping at the Canol Road Rest Area again we took a few shots before getting back on the Alaska Highway and the Klondike Highway heading north.
On the Klondike Highway just south of Carmacks we came across the Montague Roadhouse Historic Site. This and other staging posts were built every 20 to 30 miles along the Overland Trail and were a welcome refuge from the cold for weary travelers. This particular roadhouse was used from 1915 until the 1950s.
Our original destination for the day had been Carmacks, YT along the Klondike Highway. However, when we arrived here in the afternoon we decided to push on as we were enjoying the ride and wanted to get closer to Dawson City. I had visited Dawson City briefly during my 1996 trip and was anxious to spend some time there again.
The mighty Yukon River, which was the principal method of transportation during the Klondike Gold Rush, parallels the Klondike Highway for 50 miles or so north of Carmacks before it splits off and heads northwest toward Dawson City. Visions of paddle-wheel river boats loaded with men and equipment heading to Dawson City to seek their fortune motivated us to continue on to Dawson City. Ultimately, we decided to continue to Dawson even though our reservation at the Downtown Hotel wasn’t until the next day.
We were reminded that we were pretty far north as there were numerous construction zones along the Klondike Highway as we approached Dawson city. At one point Bob proclaimed that he had just seen a “horse” along the side of the road, but quickly realized it was a moose. Riding behind Bob, I had seen the moose standing in a clearing on the side of the road, and then bolt away toward the brush as we approached. I was amazed how quick it was!
When we started seeing tailings from gold mine dredging on both side of the highway, we knew that we were getting close to Dawson. The Klondike Highway soon turned in to Dawson City’s Front Street with the familiar view of the Moosehide Landslide above the town. I had long assumed that the landslide was a result of mining operations, but later learned that it is in fact a prehistoric and natural landslide. Many legends and myths from the First Nation people of this land perpetuate on as great folklore for tourists visiting the town.
Even though our reservation at the Downtown Hotel wasn’t until the next day, we went in to see if they had any rooms available. Predictably, they didn’t have any availability, but the nice lady at the counter volunteered to check with the nearby Triple J Hotel.
The Triple J Hotel has small cabins on their property in addition to hotel rooms, which are ideal for and very popular with motorcyclists. They had a cabin with three beds available with ample parking on the front. Yeah, this will do just fine!
We were pretty beat after the long ride and wanted to get something to eat before we turned in; however, the hotel restaurant had already closed as it was close to midnight at that point. We were told that the only place where we could find something to eat that late was at Diamond Tooth Gerties, which is a popular gambling hall that has Can-Can Klondike themed songs and dance shows.
Arriving so late and just looking for something to eat, the friendly folks at the entrance to the gambling hall dropped their usual cover charge and let us come in for some drinks and food. Sitting at the bar with the can-can dancers performing nearby, we relished in the fact that we had finally reached Dawson, a significant milestone in our trip.
Tomorrow, we’d spend the day checking out the town. We’d also prepare for our trip up the Dempster Highway to Eagle Plains and the Arctic Circle the following day.
Day 11 – Spending a day in Dawson City, YT
I was very excited to be back in Dawson City again, as I had fond memories of the town from my previous ride to the Yukon during which I became fascinated with it. Today we would be able to spend the entire day being tourists and checking out the sights and sounds of this town that is the heart of the world-famous Klondike gold rush of the late 1800s.
Walking toward Front Street which is right along the Yukon River to find a place for breakfast we discovered a poem by Robert Service on a building right across from the Downtown Hotel. Robert Service was a famous English-Canadian poet who lived in a small cabin in Dawson right after the gold rush, and had written several well-known poems about the gold rush days. His poetry and verses were humorous and vividly described life in the Yukon. His best known poems are likely The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee.
After enjoying some breakfast we walked around a bit and took in the familiar landmarks of the Yukon River area.
The steamboat SS Keno, which was the last commercial steamboat to operate on the Yukon River, is now a national Historic Site and sits in a berth right next to the river on Front Street.
Front Street ends at the George Black ferry crossing, which delivers vehicles to the west bank of the Yukon River. This is actually the start of the Top-of-the-World-Highway, which we would ride in a few days on our way to Alaska after we return from our ride up the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle.
I wondered about the family that must have lived in this beautiful abandoned old house.
Built in 1897, the Northern Commercial Co Warehouse is one of Dawson’s first commercial buildings and has withstood more than a century of weather extremes.
Dating back to 1901, these structures show what happened to heated buildings that were built on permafrost.
Many small hotels flourished during the Klondike gold rush days like the Flora Dora Hotel. Look carefully and you’ll see a woman of ill repute beckoning guests from an upstairs window!
Dawson’s raised wood sidewalks and wide dirt roads add to the charm of this town. Fortunately, it was dry this day so the dirt streets of Dawson City weren’t muddy.
Unfortunately, the forecast for the next day was not good, and we were sure to see considerable rain on tomorrow’s ride up the treacherous Dempster Highway to Eagle Plains near the Arctic Circle.
Day 12 – Dawson City, YT to Eagle Plains on Dempster Highway
Today was to be an exciting, yet challenging day, for us. Our goal was simple – ride 254 miles to Eagle Plains, which is about 21 miles from the Arctic Circle along the Dempster Highway. Mile 0 of the Dempster Highway is 25 miles from Dawson City, so our ride on the Dempster itself was to be 229 miles.
The Dempster is a gravel road that follows an old dog sled route and extends 457 miles as far as the town of Inuvik in Canada’s Northwest Territories. We would follow the Klondike River Valley, cross the Ogilvie Mountain Range, and then descend into Eagle Plains where there is a truck stop with a motel, campground, restaurant and bar. I had read many stories of adventures along this gravel road and the understanding that I came to was that the Dempster can be challenging at any time, but treacherous when it’s wet.
The weather forecast was for considerable rain, but locals had reminded us that weather in that area can change at any time.
After grabbing an early hearty breakfast at the Triple J’s restaurant, we went back to our room to finish loading the bikes. A very nice lady named Dawn at the Northwest Territories Visitor Information Centre in town had volunteered to hold some of our stuff if we didn’t want to cart it all the way up and back, which was very helpful. We had planned on camping if the weather cooperated, but would stay in the hotel otherwise.
The Triple J Hotel, host of the famous Dust to Dawson motorcycle event, is a very motorcycle-friendly hotel and even provides an area for washing bikes. We had availed ourselves to this service during our down day, but our bikes wouldn’t stay clean for long! Walking back to our cabin, we noticed a very clever raven that had learned that he could find all kinds of yummy bugs on the front of the bikes and was enjoying his breakfast!
We rode the 25 miles on Klondike Highway to the turnoff on to the Dempster where we had hoped to top off our gas, but the pumps were down. Even so, we had plenty of fuel to get us as far as Eagle Plains, as Bob and Don both carried a 1.75 gallon Rotopax tank on their bikes, and my GSA carries a whopping 7.7 gallons!
It started raining a few miles in to the ride and the clouds were low and threatening. The rain was fairly light at this point so the road wasn’t overly slippery. The scenery though was awe inspiring!
The road initially meanders along the Klondike River Valley through very scenic, rolling countryside. However, it was difficult to take in all the splendor around us as the rain was increasing in intensity and we were laser-focused on the road ahead. Remember that we’re noobs off the tarmac! This was the most challenging off-road riding we had done so far – but it would get far worse.
As we approached the Ogilvie Mountain range, huge granite-like mountain structures were rising mightily out of the landscape. I had never seen such a dramatic landscape! In my mind I kept hearing the UFOs 5-tone musical phrase from the classic movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as one of the mountain tops resembled the Devil’s Tower from that movie.
Our first motorcycle related incident was Bob’s rear fender, which was falling off, so we stopped to remove it and strap it to the top of this bag. Don had mentioned that he had taken his off in preparation for this ride, as it is a well known issue with the GS bikes when taken off-road in aggressive conditions. Mine would also get removed on the return trip.
I don’t think our bikes are clean anymore!
You can see from this picture that the road is sits on top of a 4 to 8 foot thick gravel berm, which insulates it from the permafrost. Otherwise, the permafrost could melt and the road could sink in to the ground.
While we were removing Bob’s fender a trucker stopped to ask if we were OK, so we told him about a truck a few miles back that was broken down with a flat front tire. We didn’t see the driver, so we assumed that he had radioed ahead and was catching up on some sleep.
Our next motorcycle mishap was also with Bob’s bike which had somehow picked up about a 3.5”piece of metal in his rear tire and was completely flat. It’s common to get flat tires from the sharp shale used on this road, but Bob’s flat was unique! In fact, I think that the piece we removed from the tire was part of an old gold miner’s scale. I think Bob had actually inadvertently “found” an artifact!
We rain had been pretty constant with occasional bursts in intensity, but had stopped briefly when we came to the Ogilvie Ridge Lookout, about 60 miles away from our destination. A great opportunity to take in the expansive views of the rivers and canyons below.
It may have been wishful optimism or the fact that we were fed up with riding on the rain, as we actually removed our rain gear before leaving Ogilvie Ridge. The sky was generally still full of thunder clouds, but we thought we had seen the sky opening up ahead and perhaps even a hint of blue sky. Was our luck turning?
Recall how the locals had told us that the weather is ever-changing in this area? We didn’t ride half a mile from Ogilvie Ridge when we suddenly found ourselves engulfed in a serious downpour! We stopped again and put our raingear back on. Perhaps this thunder cloud would pass and we’d have better conditions ahead. Wishful thinking.
The Mighty Dempster Shows its Nasty Side
A few miles down the road the weather Gods decided that they were going to really test our abilities as well as our resolve. The skies were turning dark as thunder clouds were forming all around us. No longer simple rainy conditions, or an individual storm cloud briefly dumping its contents, the conditions were turning dangerous. In retrospect, we should have parked the bikes and sought shelter under one of our tarps until the worst of the storm passed. However, I think we were caught off-guard and found ourselves just reactively dealing with the intense storm.
First came the lightning bolts, then hail, followed by wind so powerful that we were all having trouble keeping our bikes on the road. We continued forward at a sluggish pace. The rain then increased in intensity and far surpassed the road’s ability to absorb it or drain it effectively. We don’t see rain like this in Southern California, and it reminded me intense storms that Don and I had experienced in Colorado.
The road was becoming a sticky, oily, and sloppy mess and maintaining traction was very challenging. So heavy was the rainfall that on sections of the road that were banked to one side for drainage, an oily reddish mud was cascading across the road. I lost control the front of the bike several times, but somehow managed to keep the bike upright and recover. The storm continued like this for what seemed like an eternity as we trudged along toward Eagle Plains.
The storm eventually gave up trying to defeat us and started tapering off to “normal” rainfall and light winds as we approached Eagle Plains. Perhaps there were other riders back in the Ogilvie Mountain range that it would focus its attention on.
We had passed our biggest test as noob adventure riders.
Exhausted and wet, we decided to get a room in the hotel rather than try camping. There’s no way that we wanted to try tent camping in storms this bad anyway. Our room was very reasonable considering that we were 21 miles from the Arctic Circle. After settling in, we wandered over to the bar for a much deserved beer, or three.
The bar wasn’t open yet so we sat down in the restaurant, which features the most unique chandelier I had ever seen, historical pictures, and several taxidermied animals on its walls.
A Rider Stranded on the Dempster with a Flat
Later in the evening an adventure rider returning from Inuvik on his way to Dawson came in to the hotel seeking help for a rider that was broken down with a serious flat on the side of the road about 20 miles past the hotel toward Dawson. He wasn’t able to help him, but had ridden back to the hotel to try to find someone that could help out him before continuing on the road toward Dawson. He also mentioned that the rider was “older”, to use his words.
We were not going to leave a fellow rider stranded, and we had a very high quality tubeless repair kit from Safety Seal that we felt might be able to repair his tire. We asked around if there was someone with a truck that could help, and a nice gentleman who was having dinner volunteered to give me a ride back to the broken down rider on his way to Dawson. We discovered that his truck also had a flat, so we repaired it while he finished up his dinner!
I hitched a ride to the broken down rider, who had been on the side of the road for 6.5 hours by that time. His name is Carl and he is known as “oldgranolahead” on this site. Others had stopped and tried to plug his tire, but it wouldn’t hold. Fortunately, I was able to get his rear tire to hold air with a Safety Seal plug in spite of a significant hole with a rip on one side. The Dempster is rough on tires!
The next challenge was how to get me back to the hotel as I was now stranded! I had hoped to hitch a ride with a trucker headed toward the hotel, but it was past midnight at that point. Fortunately, the gentleman, a minister who had been up to Inuvik to preach a sermon, decided to drive me back. It’s inspiring to see how people, riders and non-riders alike, will rally around a fellow human in need.
Tomorrow, we plan to do complete the short ride up to the Arctic Circle for a photo-op. We had already decided that we didn’t have much interest in riding further to the Northwest Territories, and that this would be as far north as we would ride.
We felt that it was a respectable milestone for all three of us “older” noob adventurers.
Day 13 – Eagle Plains, YT to the Arctic Circle Marker and Back
The rains had ceased this morning, but the weather still looked imposing. We had learned that, even though it might be dry at this moment, the weather could change in an instant or a mile down the road. After breakfast and while exploring the area around the Eagle Plains Hotel countryside we discussed whether we’d do the 21-mile jaunt up to the Arctic Circle marker. Without much deliberation we decided that even if we hit severe weather again we could certainly manage the short distance, or we might even wait it out. We had come this far, so why not cruise up the road to the Arctic Circle marker for the obligatory photo op? Yesterday’s rough ride had not beaten us and our spirits were high.
The Eagle Plains area is an area of hills nestled between the Ogilvie and the Richardson mountain ranges with awe-inspiring views.
The ride to the Arctic Circle marker was uneventful and we encountered no serious weather, but the scenery was magnificent. Don had ridden ahead and was waiting for us along the route at the bridge crossing over the Eagle River, and was shooting video, so expect to see that when he releases his video.
To drive this route virtually, click on Google Maps. Grab and drag the little yellow icon (“Google Dude”) to locations along the road for the street view.
We were elated to have reached our northernmost destination and to take a few photos marking the milestone. Somehow, we forgot to bring a bottle of champagne though to celebrate the milestone! I had ridden to the Arctic Circle marker on the Dalton highway north of Fairbanks in 1996 on my Yamaha FJ1200, but I felt that this experience riding with my close friends was far more memorable.
Views from the Arctic Circle rest area.
In spite of an abundance of thunder clouds looming in the skies above us, the weather had thus far been cooperative and our time at the Arctic Circle marker was dry. We were hoping that our luck would continue to hold out as we got back on the road to head back to the Eagle Plains Hotel.
A few miles down the road our luck changed. Unlike the day before though, we opted to instead try to wait out the storm which was dominating the Eagle Plains area. We parked in a safe place off the side of the road where we could witness the huge dark clouds deluge the entire area and drench it. Our strategy worked, and less than an hour later the clouds had finished releasing their heavy showers.
Remarkably, the Dempster is able to absorb or disperse a fair amount of rain before becoming completely saturated. The road would be muddy on the remaining ride back but the mud wasn’t excessively deep, so we were back at the hotel in short order enjoying happy hour.
Unless tomorrow’s weather was really bad, we planned on riding back to Dawson City. With the amount of rain that these storms had brought to the entire region in recent days though, we were unsure of what the road conditions would be like.
Day 14 – Eagle Plains, YT back to Dawson City, YT
After our very challenging ride out to Eagle Plains in stormy conditions two days earlier, we were hoping that the weather would cooperate and that our ride back to Dawson City would be less demanding. Carl, the gentleman that we had helped with his flat tire two nights earlier, decided that he would ride back in the relative safety of a larger group.
Hoping to miss the thunderstorms that seemed to develop in the warmer afternoons, we planned to leave the hotel at 4:00 AM. After all, it’s not dark at 4:00 AM in early July this far north! We were up early and ready to leave, but the fog was so thick that there wasn’t enough visibility to ride safely! A bad omen for us, and a bit discouraging. After waiting about an hour for the fog to lift, we were finally able to get on the road. It was raining lightly and the road was muddy, but still very manageable.
We had reserved a cabin again at the Triple J hotel and hoped to get back early enough to pick up some of our gear that we had left at the Northwest Territories Visitor Information Centre before it closed. In case we got back to Dawson late, Dawn had given us her cell phone number and said that she would happily meet us after-hours to get us back our gear. This type of exceptional customer service is rare in my experiences in California, but was pretty typical of the fine folks in BC and the Yukon Territory.
Our main concern was heavy rain and thick mud, but the first part of the ride was actually gorgeous. Light drizzle and low fog plagued the ride for the first couple of hours until it finally lifted entirely, but it presented us with some amazing views.
No Thunderstorms This Time… but Deep Mud!
While we were not encountering heavy rainstorms as we did on the way out to Eagle Plains, the Ogilvie Mountain range had obviously been getting continuous rains for the last few days. As we climbed up the mountain toward the summit the mud was getting increasingly thick and sloppy. Our pace slowed down to a near crawl as we tried desperately to keep the bikes under control in this very deep mud. This is one condition where our heavy adventure bikes seemed totally unsuitable for.
Approaching the Ogilvie Ridge Lookout we tried to turn into the rest area, but this simple task proved to be extremely hard. Stopping the bike and putting your feet down proved to be harder than keeping the bike pointed forward and nudging forward at a snail’s pace! We hoped the road conditions would improve as we descended out of the mountain range toward the river valley ahead. In fact, the mud did begin to thin out as we moved down from the higher elevations which had obviously been deluged with rain for days.
With the improving road conditions, our pace hastened. “Normal” muddy conditions that we felt were somewhat challenging on our ride to Eagle Plains were now a welcome sight, and we were comfortable riding along a much faster pace than previously. I think these noob adventure riders were beginning to learn how to handle these big bikes!
We arrived at the Ogilvie River crossing and took our first break. We were making good time and the weather seemed to be getting better. Our mood was now turning optimistic that we’d enjoy a great ride back.
The Ogilvie River Bridge is the longest bridge with a metal grate bottom that we encountered on the Dempster. The metal grate bottom appeared more daunting than it actually was, as we had learned to loosen up the grip and allow the front end to dance around without slowing down too much.
The rain had subsided, and the road conditions were comfortable enough to ride along at speeds as high as 60 mph all the way back to the Mile 0 marker of the Dempster at the junction with the Klondike Highway.
We stopped at the Dempster Highway marker for some pictures and a nice couple volunteered to take a picture of us.
And the obligatory picture of my new-to-me Beemer, which I was starting to grow fond of.
Back on the Klondike Highway, we were soon on the outskirts of Dawson where we had learned about a convenience store that had sprayer to clean our bikes. In addition to spraying the calcium chloride mud off our bikes, we actually sprayed ourselves down as well!
You can see in this picture that I had also removed my rear fender / mud guard, as it had loosed up and would have fallen off.
Tomorrow morning we’ll be crossing the Yukon River on the on the George Black Ferry and riding the Top-of-the-World Highway to Alaska. Riding this road was another one of the highlights of our trip and we were excited to hear that the weather forecast called for dry conditions.
When we’re approaching the town of chicken, Alaska perhaps we’ll see some of those ptarmigans that the town of Chicken was actually named after!
More on that on the next post…
Day 15 – Dawson City, YT to Christochina, AK
We were ecstatic to see that the weather conditions had improved and that we were expecting no rain! We didn’t have a definite destination for today, but we were heading in the general direction of Valdez, Alaska as we had to catch a ferry in a couple of days that would take us across Prince William Sound to Whittier on the Kenai Peninsula. Our route was going to take us across the much acclaimed Top-of-the-World Highway over to Tok, Alaska where we’d continue on the Tok Cutoff Highway (A1) toward Valdez. We’d end up staying at the Red Eagle Lodge in Christochina, Alaska – an amazing and fortunate find!
As we loaded our bikes and checked air pressures, Bob noticed that his rear tire was low. Looking for the leak, he discovered that the rubber valve stem on his wheel was cracked and leaking air! This was a flat we could not fix with our Safety Seal kit, and we needed to get a new valve stem. Pronto.
The folks at the hotel reception desk gave us the phone number of a gentleman they referred to as “Dick Dawson” whom they said could help us out. Bob called Dick who showed up at the hotel in short order as we were finishing breakfast. A fellow rider, Dick often comes to the rescue of stranded riders or those just needing some help. But why had the locals bestowed this man with the nickname “Dick Dawson”? Turns out this was Dick Van Nostrand, the previous owner of Dawson’s Downtown Hotel and key organizer of the Dust to Dawson (D2D) motorcycle event, which has been drawing increasing numbers of riders to Dawson each summer around the time of the summer solstice. Click HERE for the video in which Dick talks about the event.
Dick was able to help Bob by taking off the tire and taking it to the shop at his house where he removed the bad valve stem and then took it over to the Napa store where they installed a new one. Dick refuses to accept any money for his assistance, but will accept a bottle of fine wine, so Bob went to the local liquor store and bought him two bottles of wine.
Dick had plans to ride across the Top-of-the-World Highway to Chicken, Alaska later that day to participate in the 4th of July celebrations. Since we were also planning to visit Chicken on our way toward Valdez we’d see him again later in the day
Our time in Dawson City had been very enjoyable, but we were excited to ride across the Top-of-the-World Highway to Alaska. We were soon on the George Black ferry crossing the Yukon River.
Riding the Top-of-the-World Highway it’s obvious that this highway is appropriately named, as you feel like you on the top of the world as you ride across the hills with expansive views of wilderness on each side as far as the eye can see. After the challenging conditions of the Dempster Highway, riding the TOTW was refreshing as the condition of the road was superb!
We did notice a number of large gold mining operations along the river in the valleys off the highway, reminiscent of the reality TV show Gold Rush, which is filmed in this area.
We were soon crossing into Alaska at the Poker Creek border crossing, which is the northernmost international border crossing in North America, as well as the one at the highest elevations.
Somewhere along our route Bob had purchased a selfie stick, so we managed to get an interesting shot of the three of us.
We also spent some time at this great spot on the top of the world to take in the vastness and beauty that surrounded us.
I had fond memories of my stop at the little town of Chicken, Alaska from my previous trip. However, I was astounded how much the community had grown! In addition to the original old town with its quaint old western style buildings, there were now two additional major operations catering to tourists with an RV park, a 9-hole golf course, a gold dredge, cabins, and more.
According to the website the original town was to become incorporated in 1902 and the name “Ptarmigan” was suggested, as these chicken-like birds that were abundant in this area were a food source for the miners. However, the peculiar spelling of the word made it hard so they decided on “Chicken” as the name.
The Pedro Gold Dredge was moved from the Pedro Creek where it operated from 1938 to 1958. It was moved to Chicken Creek in 1959 where it was in seasonally operated until 1967 and during which time it mined over 55,000 ounces of gold! It was moved to the Chicken Gold Camp & Outpost in 1998, which offers tours on this old relic.
The front of the dredge features a bucketline conveyor belt system that gouged out several cubic yards of gravel with each pass for processing inside the dredge, after which the tailings were dumped out the back on the long stacker conveyor.
The original bucket line with the 3-cubic yard buckets now rests on the ground near the dredge.
Before getting back on the road we opted to spend some time at the original town, and enjoyed lunch in the café. Our friend Dick, who had earlier helped us with Bob’s bike, had also arrived for the July 4th celebrations and was enjoying a glass of wine, so we were able to again thank him for his help.
The remaining ride on the TOTW highway to the town of Tok was amazing. While riding a relative narrow section of the road that had been cut in to the side of the mountain we stopped to enjoy the expansive views of valley below. The purple fireweed that you see in the picture below is very prolific in this area during summer and offers a beautiful contrast to the lush green landscape.
We eventually arrived at the Alaska Highway (A2), which we rode north a short distance as far as the town of Tok. Turning on to the Tok Cutoff Highway (A1) we headed southwest along the scenic Wrangell –St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
We didn’t know where we would stay for the night, but knew that there were several campgrounds in Glennallen, which is about 120 from Valdez where we had a ferry reservation the next day. It was getting late so, when we saw a sign for the Red Eagle Lodge in a small community of Christochina, we pulled in to see if we could camp there. I walked in and was warmly greeted by Richard and Judy Dennis, the owners of the lodge. They did have campsites available, but suggested that we take one of their six rustic cabins. Their prices were so attractive that we immediately decided in favor of the cabin rather than setting up camp.
Richard is a recreational pilot who flies a Cessna 182, and this property actually has a state funded grass runway right next to it!
The lodge itself is located on the original site of the historic Christochina Roadhouse that was established in 1922.
Our cabin called “Hunter’s Hut” was actually a bunkhouse cabin with four twin beds, each with its own screened window and reading lantern.
We would enjoy breakfast the next morning with our hosts and some other folks that were staying at the lodge. Richard and Judy were obviously very happy to have settled in Christochina and to have preserved the history of this historic property. More than just proprietors, this very happy couple truly enjoys sharing their little piece of heaven with their guests.
Richard took time to walk around the property with us and mesmerized us with captivating stories at many points along our walk. Every item on the property had a story and Richard, with his inviting personality and boisterous laugh, was the perfect story teller.
Perhaps we’ll schedule a full day to spend with these great folks on our next trip, but we had an appointment with a ferry tomorrow and wanted to spend some time exploring Valdez, so we bid them farewell.
Day 16 – Christochina, AK to Valdez, AK
This ride has been absolutely incredible so far, and it seems that each day brings a new “highlight” of our trip. Today’s ride had two planned highlights – a ride across Thompson Pass and our stay in the scenic port city of Valdez. However, we didn’t have many miles to cover today so we strayed off our route and discovered the old mining town of Chitina, which turned out to be a phenomenal find.
Thompson Pass is a gap in the Chugach Mountains northeast of Valdez that receives more snow than any place in Alaska with more than 550” per year. Valdez is the port city known for its great commercial and sport fishing, and is also the port where the oil from the Trans-Atlantic pipeline is loaded onto ships.
After having a great breakfast with our hosts and a few other guests at the Red Eagle Lodge, we bid them farewell and headed out on the Tok Cutoff Highway (A1) toward Gakona where the this short highway ends. From there we’d continue on the Richardson Highway (A4) to Valdez.
I recalled that during our planning phase we had discussed that that we would be missing the views of Denali Park’s Mt. McKinley if we took the Richardson Highway instead of the Parks Highway (A3) that runs between Fairbanks and Anchorage. My recollection was that the Parks Highway wasn’t that impressive with the exception of views of Mt. McKinley.
It turns out that our route along the Richardson, which skirted the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, was a great choice! As we headed southwest, we enjoyed stunning views of several prominent snow-capped volcanoes in the distance.
A few miles past Copper Center we stopped at a rest along Willow Lake to take in the scenery, which provided two areas with interpretive signs and binoculars where you can view the volcanoes in the distance. Our choice of highway didn’t provide a view of Mt. McKinley (20,320 ft). However, we had views of 4 peaks; Mt. Drum (12,010 ft), Mt. Sanford (16,237 ft), Mt. Wrangell (14,163 ft), and Mt. Blackburn (16,390 ft). Simply amazing!
Toward the end of our planning I had read ride reports recommending a visit to the remote town of McCarthy and the Kennecott Mines, which are about 100 miles off the highway with about 65 miles being a dirt road. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to go that distance and back since we had ferry reservations in Valdez the next day and we also wanted to spend some time checking out Valdez that afternoon. However, since it was still fairly early we decided to turn off the highway and go as far as Chitina, a roundtrip ride of about 70 miles. A great decision.
Chitina is somewhat resurrected ghost town which sprang to life in 1908 as a transportation hub for the Kennecott Mine and the railroad that serviced it. In these early days of Alaska’s history, Chitina had also been a main freight road for goods and materials via the original Richardson Trail in, now the Richardson Highway. Its population numbered in the thousands at a time when Anchorage was a tent city. However, when the mine closed in 1938 the town quickly became a ghost town.
We enjoyed lunch at Gilpatrick’s Restaurant in Hotel Chitina, a historic building that was built in 1914 and recently restored.
The restaurant features original furniture and a lot of antiquities from the area, as well as intriguing pictures along its walls.
After lunch we walked around the town a bit to explore some of its buildings. As of the 2010 census the population of Chitina was 126 hearty souls, and I’m sure that most appreciate the tourists that visit and bring in some dollars. However, when we crossed a dry creek on our walk and accidentally strayed on to someone’s private property we were rudely told to get off this private property! It reminded me of the reality TV show, Edge of Alaska, which takes place in nearby McCarthy and in which many residents are grappling with the balance for their need for tourist’s money and some residents’ desire for complete isolation from society.
In a field directly across from the Chitina Hotel there are a number of old cars and trucks that are being overtaken by the elements and nature. I was fascinated by one of these vehicles that had spoke wheels made of wood! What a elegant and beautiful car this must have been driving around such a rough town.
This town even has its own small picturesque lake aptly named Town Lake.
While we regretted not being able to go as far as the Kennecott Mines and the town of McCarthy, we were happy that we had made the short ride to visit Chitina. Valdez was beckoning us, but we had to first cross Thompson Pass which we had read was a beautiful area. I had even heard it described as the Swiss Alps of Alaska, which I think is a bit of a stretch, but it was nonetheless a beautiful area. Forty miles outside of Valdez we stopped at a pull-out to take a few pictures.
Note the color of the meltwater from the Worthington Glacier, which gets its color from the so-called rock flour sediment that is a result of rocks grinding together underneath the glacier.
Not too far beyond Thompson Pass the Worthington Glacier came in to view. There is a pull-out and some trails that go to the glacier, but most of this glacier is not really visible from the road. A view from the sky would reveal that the glacier is actually an impressive one.
Ironically, we came across a guy on the side of the road on a small airstrip that was offering rides over the glacier. We stopped and Don enjoyed about 20 minute flight that he will not soon forget.
Descending from Thompson Pass, the scenic port city of Valdez soon came in to view. We had reservations at a local hotel within walking distance of the harbor which is lined with interesting eateries and bars. In spite of a great day or riding, we had arrived early enough to take some time to walk around and enjoy the sites of the town and the harbor area. We stopped by some tourist shops and purchased a few things to take back home as gifts.
Our brief stay in Valdez was great, but tomorrow brings yet another highlight of our trip – a 5:45 hour ride on a ferry across Prince William Sound to the town of Whittier on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula! Our trip is nearing its end, but there’s still much to enjoy!
Days 17, 18 – Valdez to Kenai Peninsula across Prince William Sound and End of Ride in Anchorage
This will be the last post of our daily rides. This post takes us from Valdez to the Kenai Peninsula via ferry, and finally to Anchorage where we dropped off the bikes for shipment back.
We were really looking forward to the ferry ride from Valdez to Whittier on the Kenai Peninsula. Once on the peninsula we had planned to ride to Homer where we’d camp on the famous Homer Spit and enjoy some fresh fish at one of the small restaurants on the spit. However, due to heavy rain, we abandoned the ride to the Homer Spit and decided instead to ride to Seward where we stayed in a hotel. The next day, our final day of riding, was a short jaunt up to Anchorage where we dropped off our bikes with the shipper. We’d each board our planes to go home at different times the last day.
I have plenty of pictures of the very enjoyable ferry ride across Prince William Sound, but we were met with lots of rain on the Kenai Peninsula so I have very few pictures of that part of our ride.
From Valdez, we could obviously have chosen to ride back up over Thompson Pass to Glennallen, then the Glenn Highway (A1) to Anchorage, and finally down to the Kenai Peninsula. However, the ferry ride itself was one of the trip’s major highlights, and one that didn’t disappoint! A relaxing 5hr 45min ferry ride was just what the doctor ordered, and a fantastic way to start winding down our trip.
The Alaska ferry system is very impressive! A bit uneasy about how the process of loading the bikes would go, we arrived at the docks early. It turns out that checking in and loading the bikes in to the belly of the ferry was orderly and very easy. We each made sure that we had several of our own cinch straps to tie the bikes down, but the guys working on the ship gave us some of their own, and even helped us secure the bikes.
Don and Bob’s bikes were parked on the main hold, but I consigned to an area off to one side at the front of the line. After securing the bikes, we were told that we’d need to spend the rest of the time above deck where we could enjoy the views from comfortable indoor sitting rooms or anywhere along the decks. We could even enjoy breakfast in the ship’s restaurant. What a great way to spend a summer morning!
Once underway I couldn’t decide where I wanted to hang out – the front or the back of the ship both of which offered great views. (That’s the “bow” and “stern” for you seafaring aficionados…) The ferry started its voyage at a very slow tempo and never really picked up much speed, likely due to the fact that it had to navigate around many small islands, and even some icebergs!
My phone was fully charged so I started taking pictures. I don’t think it’s possible to take a bad picture from anywhere on the ferry crossing Prince William Sound! Below is a small sampling of the pictures I took.
Prince William Sound offers some of the best commercial and sport-fishing in the world. As can be expected, there was a lot of fishing going on in the sound. If you look carefully at the pictures below, you’ll see a number of fishing vessels.
The Columbia Glacier descends from an ice field 10,000 feet above a narrow inlet that leads in to Prince William Sound. During the summer chunks of ice, from microwave-size to house-size chunks, plunge into the water and drift across the sound’s shipping lanes. Many are visible above the surface, as can be seen in the pictures below. However, there are many so-called “neutrally buoyant icebergs” that are floating along below the surface and can only be seen by sonar. This is likely the main reason why the ferry never picked up much speed during its crossing of the sound.
There a numerous small islands in the sound, some of which have their own beaches and small forests.
Surrounded by mountains and the Portage Glacier, the sea port of Whittier came in to view in the distance. Whittier is located 58 miles southeast of Anchorage and is the most visited gateway to Prince William Sound. Since it is so close to Anchorage it is a popular port-of-call for cruise ships as well as an embarkation / debarkation point of the Denali Express nonstop rail service to and from Denali National Park.
Since the town is surrounded by tall mountains, travelers access the Kenai Peninsula via the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel which cuts through Maynard Mountain for 2.5 miles. Its unique design allows a single lane of automobile traffic to drive directly over the railroad track area which links Whittier to the Alaska Railroad’s main line at nearby Portage.
Motorcycles have to ride the relatively narrow area between the train rails and, since motorcycle accidents in the tunnel and not that uncommon, they place bikes at the end of the line after the vehicles. Here’s a video I found on YouTube of a motorcycle ride through the tunnel.
THE KENAI PENINSULA
During our planning we had considered visiting and staying in either Homer or Seward. Since Homer was much farther away on the southernmost tip of the Kenai Peninsula, and seemed to be the less visited of the two, we had decided to ride across the Kenai Wildlife Refuge and then down the coast along the Cook Inlet. Once there, we’d enjoy our last night of camping right on the Homer Spit, which is a 4.5 mile long piece of land jutting out into the Kachemak Bay.
We initially had dry conditions in Whittier, but as we headed across the peninsula toward the Cook Inlet we experienced hours of rain. Our vision of camping along the spit right on the water had faded away to the reality that it would likely be a pretty unpleasant experience. Stopping along the way several times, we tried to call ahead to see if we could cancel or camp reservation and get a hotel room, but could not get any cell phone coverage.
Ultimately, we decided to turn back and try to get a room in Seward. As we approached the turnoff to the Seward Highway Bob was finally able to get a signal and called our friend Walt Kitchin, who had been helping us along the way with weather reports and such. Having the backup of a “command center” had actually proven to be quite valuable to us, especially on the Dempster Highway, and we’re very much indebted to Walt for his assistance. In this case, he was able to get on the internet and book us a room in Seward within walking distance of the harbor.
After checking in to our hotel Don treated us to a fantastic dinner at a classy restaurant overlooking the harbor. Since the rain had finally stopped, we also took this last opportunity to walk around the tourist shops to purchase some gifts for our loved ones back home.
The short ride to Anchorage the next day was short and uneventful. After having ridden to some of the most remote places in North America, dealing with the traffic in Anchorage was disillusionment and an unfortunate dose of reality. Our ride was over! We now just had to go about the business of getting the bikes to the shipper and then flying back home.
For our convenience we wanted to find a hotel near the airport; however, the task proved much harder than expected as we couldn’t find any vacancies. We ended up in a hotel a few miles away near the Harley Davidson dealership.
BIKE SHIPPING WOES
I had already made arrangements with Lynden Transport to ship our bikes back to Southern California. Based on the emails with Lynden I understood that the rate we had agreed to included crating the motorcycles. However, once there we were informed that this was not the case. (When I shared the emails with Don and Bob they came to the same conclusion I did.) A huge disappointment and an extra $450 for crating that we had not anticipated. Fortunately, a guy from Classic Motion which specializes in motorcycle storage and shipment happened to stop by, so we contracted with him to crate the bikes and bring them back to Lynden for transport home.
Our problems with Lynden Transport were far from over though. While there we were asked if we wanted to pay individually or together. We were not told however, that splitting the shipment and paying individually would add about $750 to the overall cost. Also, due to the miscommunication about the issue of the crate our estimates on the overall weight was off, which added several hundred more to the cost.
Since they didn’t even prepare written quotes to us for the revised pricing or give us receipts, we didn’t find all this out until weeks later. We immediately called to complain and they agreed to reduce the cost to the same as it would have been if it were one shipment – about $250 each. However, their accounting department seemed unable to handle a credit and we only got our credit last week after threatening to file a complaint with the credit card companies.
Our ride was a very satisfying and exciting experience, and we each agreed that it was the best ride of our lives. At least to this point. We had enjoyed 17 days of living our dream of the ultimate ride. There will be many more great rides in the coming years, but I’m unsure if we could ever enjoy a ride better than this one. Perhaps we’ll ride back to Alaska some day, but the itch has been relieved for now.
The ability to go off the tarmac on our adventure bikes added an element of adventure to the ride and made the experience even better than expected. We’re probably still ADV noobs, but a new element and much unchartered terrain has been added to our riding selection. After this ride we’re also not too shy to venture out and try new places and experiences.
Is a ride up through British Columbia, across the Yukon Territory to the Arctic Circle, and across Alaska a life-changing event? Perhaps not. An important bucket-list item? For many of us it is indeed on our bucket list of things to do while we still can.
We found the sign pictured above along the boardwalk in Seward. At the end of this great life experience it seemed fitting and thought provoking, and gives rise to deep thoughts about the meaning of life. There are many other things I personally want to do before I die, but I’m so fortunate to have been able to enjoy this ride of a lifetime.
Thanks for riding along with us.