Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Days 22-24: More southern Alaska

Day 22: Exit Glacier to Copper Center

Southern Alaska is still wet. Nothing like waking up to find that your tent is in the middle of a two-inch-deep puddle.

Probably not the smartest place to camp, granted, but I got back late after the glacier hike and didn't realize that my campsite was in a depression. Ah well. Shove the whole mess into the side cases, have another granola bar, and move on.

Turnagain arm, again.

Hm. Well, at this point, it's taking me forever to finish this ride report. So I'll dispense with most of the narrative and stick with pictures. This is probably the right approach anyhow, as my words cannot do southern Alaska justice.

Day 23: Down to Valdez

Valdez is the southern terminus of the oil pipeline. The road to Valdez ... it is hands down the most beautiful road I have ever traveled in my life. Mile upon mile of this:

And this:

And finally, this:

Day 24: Valdez to Haines

No pictures from this day, as I had a good 700 miles to make in order to reach Haines, AK in time for the ferry, which was scheduled to depart early the next morning.

I rode back north to Anchorage, then east into the Yukon Territories. Revisited the stunning Kluane Lake and its soaring mountains, and I again got to enjoy the impromptu roller coaster of the larger ice heaves.

Then to Haines Junction, YT. Had a tense dinner as I watched the clouds gather and the darkness fall. The final 150 miles to Haines would take me through some remote mountains, and snow was a serious concern.

This road is supposed to be phenomenal during the day. At night, illuminated by a near-full moon, the immensity of the silhouetted mountains rolling past me was in no way diminished. Again, I was just struck to the core by my surroundings.

Eventually, I'd descended enough that the mountains gave way to the boreal rain forest of the Alaska coastline. And fog. Thick, thick fog. Also: rain. Slowing at times to 20 mph, I crept along. Eventually crossing back into the States. Found a small park at a pull-off, and unrolled my sleeping pad and bag onto a picnic table under a rickety roof. 5 hours of shut eye, then early wakeup to head into town for the ferry. I still got wet from the rain blowing in sideways.

>>>NEXT: Heading home

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Days 20 & 21: Anchorage & Seward

Day 20: Anchorage

Southern Alaska is wet. I'd learn, later on, that much of it is technically rain forest. But the night of Day 19, lying in my tent at a pull off that the signs told me was -- on clearer days -- a southern Denali viewpoint, all I knew was that it was raining. No complaints: I'd had spectacular luck with the weather so far, hitting rain only once or twice in the roughly 7000 miles I'd traveled thus far. With a little luck, it would stop by morning.

Another lovely view of mighty Denali

Or not. Woke up to still more rain. In what would soon become standard operating procedure, I didn't bother to fold up my wet tent, instead just stuffing it piecemeal into my side cases, however it would fit. Neatly rolling up the tent and fly and fitting them into the stuff sack requires more dexterity than my fingers could muster in 35°F rain.

Fortunately, I was only a little more than 2 hours north of Anchorage at that point. Even more fortunately, Anchorage is full of awesome people. Many of whom own motorcycles. (Alaska has the highest per capita motorcycle ownership rate in the United States.)

My first destination in Alaska was Alaska Leather, home of the sheepskin buttpad and other motorcycling delights, and something of an Alaskan motorcycling institution. I almost made it, but wound up sidetracked by the Glacier Brewhouse. Ahhh, nothing like a hearty bowl of soup and a pint of good porter to fend off the cold and wet. Anyhow! -- brew & stew break complete, I headed for Alaska Leather. Met the owner, Barb, and she gave gave me some references for local riders and shops. She also let me use the "courtesy computer" in her shop to type up the previous update. Continuing my extremely positive impression of Alaskans.

I headed over to the local REI to meet AKDuc, one of the local riders that Barb referred me to. (AKDuc is his screen name on He very kindly invited me to crash at his place after he got off of work.

With some time to kill, I hung out at a bookstore for a while, then headed over to another local brew pub. Lots of them in Anchorage, apparently. As I pull in, a family waiting for a table greets me. Apparently they ride too, and the son is AlaskaZman -- yet another ADVrider! So I have a beer and dinner with them, and we swap some motorcycle stories. I'm really liking Anchorage!

Eventually I meet back up with AKDuc and go for an evening ride around the hills above Anchorage. And I crash there for the night. The only downside to this Anchorage experience is that AKDuc's dog Comet almost killed me. Not that he was vicious; we're talking about a cute little terrier here. But MAN did he set off my allergies. And all he wanted to do was say hi to the stranger and hop up in my lap. Poor Comet. He only wants to love.

I take a few shots of my asthma inhaler and hit the sack. Ahhh, it was good to sleep in a real bed!

Day 21: Seward and Exit Glacier

On AKDuc's advice, I set out the next day for Seward, AK, a coastal town on the Kenai peninsula, which extends into the Pacific south of Anchorage.

The trip to Seward was spectacular.

A shot of Turnagain Arm, a bay off the Gulf of Alaska. I was told that it had the second most extreme tidal flow in North America, with the incoming and outgoing tides sometimes advancing as six-foot-tall walls of water. I didn't have the luck to see that, unfortunately.

(And in case you're wondering, the most extreme tide is supposedly the Bay of Fundy, abutting Nova Scotia. Not sure if that's true, but that's what I've been told.)

And on to Seward! After the picturesque ride down, I was rewarded with the equally lovely Resurrection Bay, on which Seward lies.

After lunch in Seward (delicious fresh fish!), I headed to the nearby Exit Glacier, which spills (slowly) down from the icefield that dominates the Kenai Peninsula. Approaching the glacier, I was greeted by signs marking its extent in the past: the first, marked for 1860 or so, was well over a mile from the current base; the span between later signs decreased, reflecting the increasing rate of melt. Apparently the glacier has recessed by nearly 1000 ft in the last decade alone. No doubt about it: part of my motivation for visiting Alaska was to see it before even more disappeared.

The Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it flows were the highlight of the trip for me. Words cannot describe, and my pictures can't really capture. Here are some pictures from the hike up to the icefield.

Looking back down into the valley. From the signposts, I figure that the glacier used to fill this entire expanse, down to the base of the distant mountains.

Black rock; white ice; blue sky.

Finally, I reached the top. This is an arduous hike, ascending roughly 3500 ft in the course of 3 miles. Near the summit is a cabin that serves as an emergency shelter.

Like most back country huts, this one was covered with good-natured graffiti by the many hikers who had passed this way. Some observed the time-honored tradition of carving their names and dates of visit into the wood ("Izabelle was here"); others, words of love ("Tim [heart] Julie"). Some, no doubt moved by the beauty around them, wrote words of inspiration ("Carpe diem!") or Biblical verses (John 14:6). No one, however, quite captured the mood of the steep and rocky hike as well as this poor bastard:

Amen, brother. Amen.

The view from the top:

And a 360 degree panorama of the same:

For some scale, you can see another hiker in the top photo. The Harding Icefield is vast, extending far past the horizon in the above images.

The rule in the bottom left of the map indicates 10 miles.

Everything is overwhelmingly beautiful up here. Even the textures and colors of the crumbling volcanic rock are mesmerizing. The rocks...

... and the ice ...

... and the places where they collide ...

Shadows growing longer, it was time to descend back into to the valley, down to the glacier-fed Resurrection River.

Got back down to the base about an hour after sunset and made camp at the nearby tent site. Too tired to go back into town, my dinner was a couple granola bars and an orange. Ah well, I'd had a big lunch.

>>>NEXT: Days 22-25: More southern Alaska

Monday, October 8, 2007

More details soon!

Sorry for the long hiatus in updates! Between being away from fast Internet connections and just being plain lazy, I haven't yet uploaded my photos from southern Alaska and the ride back to civilization. But I'm back, more or less: I'm typing this from my father's house near Denver. I've been here for a couple days resting -- enjoying a real bed, home-cooked meals, and jumping on the trampoline with my dad's stepkids.

Tomorrow I head back to PA for my cousin Nancy's wedding. The plan is to do it in two days: here to South Bend, IN tomorrow, and then to Lansdale, PA on Wednesday. Long miles, but I'd rather just get it done. Then: a real update, with pictures. Southern Alaska was absolutely stunning.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Day 19: Denali

Well, Denali National Park, anyhow. As for Denali itself, it's no closer than 40 miles to any major road, and it's frequently surrounded by clouds and fog. When I passed through was no exception: it was raining off and on all day. Here's my only shot from within the park in which blue sky was visible:

I think I might have been able to see Denali.

I'm pretty sure Denali is that white rise behind the clouds and closer peaks. What impresses me is not just its height (20,300 ft), but its rise above the surrounding land: this picture was taken from no more than 2500 ft above sea level. As its Wikipedia article points out, Denali has a greater relative rise than Everest.

Well, I was disappointed by the whole Denali experience. Until I tried to leave. (Look on either side of the road, a ways away.)

Oh crap. This would be incredible ... if I was in a car. Much less cool on a motorcycle. The sign at the park's entrance read: "Any wolf that is not afraid of people should be considered dangerous."

They were loping along the road away from me, looking back over their shoulders every so often. Great. The lighter wolf ...

... ducked into the brush. (That photo is on max zoom, right beforehand.) The black one held its ground on the left side of the road. Which left me little option but to go between them. Staying put seemed a mistake, as I could no longer tell the lighter wolf's position; for all I knew, it was flanking me. So I gassed it. Blew past the black wolf, which continued to hold ground, about 10 ft away when I passed it. I could very clearly see the color of its eyes. Yellow. I kept on the gas for a few good miles.

That was Denali. I rode another 100 miles and called it a night.

>>>NEXT: Days 20 & 21: Anchorage & Seward

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Day 18: a do-nothing day!

Well, not quite nothing. I took my bike over to George's shop, and he fixed up the fork seal and replaced the fork oil. Charged me $107 for parts, labor, and a spare seal to carry along with me, just in case. I can't say enough about the service there. He gave me a Trail's End BMW license plate frame as a souvenir, and my bike will wear it with pride.

And then ... I blogged. And blogged. And watched Pan's Labyrinth (recommended) on HBO. And then blogged. And here I am. Done, and finally up to date.

And since I'm writing multiple entries more or less at once, the order is a bit funky. So skip down a couple entries and read 'em in order!

Tomorrow: Denali! And I'll try to keep the updates more regular.

>>>NEXT: Day 19: Denali

Monday, September 24, 2007

Days 14 - 17: North of the Arctic Circle

Day 14: Crossing the Arctic Circle

I was ready to strike north from Fairbanks. But first, I badly needed new tires. My old ones (Anakees, for the connoisseurs) had some 15,000 miles on them and weren't really passing the old Lincoln-head test. Plus, I expected mud and gravel once I hit the Dalton Highway, for which knobby tires are much better suited.

So I took a trip to Trail's End BMW here in Fairbanks. This is not like any Beemer shop I've seen down south. George Rahn runs a one-man operation out of his back yard. And what an interesting back yard it is.

Plenty of bikes that he's accumulated over his 40 years of operation, along with some harrowing debris from accidents along the Dalton. (Check out this final drive and rear wheel, both off of R1150GS's.) George is a great guy, and after some chatting, he swapped my tires. No fancy-pants tire changing machines; he spooned them on with two tire irons, making the whole operation look trivial. (When I did this, I had a friend helping, and it still took me hours.)

Now prepared for the worst, I pointed my bike north. I could tell immediately that it was going to be an amazing ride.

That's gotta be a good sign.

The Dalton Highway stretches from 50 miles north of Fairbanks up to Deadhorse, the oil town immediately south of Prudhoe Bay. It's commonly referred to as the Haul Road due to the large volume of truck traffic to the oil fields and back. And when they say Wide Load, they mean W-I-D-E L-O-A-D.

This truck looked like it was carrying half a con tower off a small ship. Two entire lanes wide, so all the other traffic gets off the road.

Dalton Highway, milepost 96: Finger Mountain.

Although the landscape here is barren, I'd soon learn that this was only temporary. There are still full-blown forests well north of the Arctic Circle, much to my surprise.

At Finger Mountain, I took a picture of my bike, now setup for the rough roads.

In addition to putting on the knobby tires, I took off the heavy side cases and cut my gear down to the essentials for camping: tent, sleeping bag, pad, two changes of clothes, and the most basic toiletries. Plus bike tools and some first aid supplies. Man, that is one good looking machine.

Milepost 115: The Arctic Circle.

Yeah, so it's crooked. That's the best I could get from setting my camera on top of my helmet and using the timed photo feature. Next trip, I'll bring a lightweight tripod.

Milepost 175: Coldfoot.

Originally a Gold Rush town, Coldfoot was revitalized in the mid-70s by the construction of the Dalton Highway and oil pipeline.

Coldfoot is a wonderful place. In strong contrast with Deadhorse, all the workers I met at the cafe/hotel/gas station (the "town" is only a couple buildings) seemed to be there because they loved the place. And near the midpoint between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, it was an ideal base of operations for my time on the Haul Road. I spent all three days above the Arctic Circle camped here --

-- on a foam mat they have in a (free!) campsite nearby. Very comfy. Plus, given that the actual hotel rooms run something like $180 per night -- everything this far north is extremely expensive -- the decision was pretty much made for me. The coldest it got during the night was probably in the low 20s. Cold, yes, but I have a great sleeping bag, and it was no problem. (So long as I didn't have to go to the bathroom. BRRRrrr.)

Day 15: Prudhoe ho!

Not far from my campsite, these guys have a campsite of their own:

These huskies work in mush teams during the winter.

After a hearty pancake breakfast, I hit the Haul Road again.

You can see the Pipeline to the left of the road, through the trees. Another overcast day, but on the plus side it hasn't rained for some 24 hours, so the dirt road wasn't too slick.

13 miles north of Coldfoot, I stopped at Wiseman. In contrast, Wiseman is actually a town rather than just a truck stop. Living this far north, the people there are quirky.

You may have to click on the image to read the signs. The rusty objects in the foreground are the remains of old mining machinery.

I decided to head up to the old Wiseman graveyard. Nothing cooler than old graveyards. Well, maybe this:

Wow. I ... yeah. That's right up there with the twine ball. Not surprisingly, most of those cans are beer.

Man. Some homeless dude needs to come up here and collect these things. At 5 cents a can, he'd be doing pretty well.

Anyhow, after passing the cans, I reached the graveyard.

Even from the graves, it was clear that these were not lives easily lived. I was particularly touched by the inscription on this Mason's marker:

"Daniel Webster, 1862 - 1922. His life is a monument of much good. Loved and honored by native and pioneer."

There are some dirt roads (rutted but passable) at the Wiseman turnoff that lead to some mines. Worth the side trip. No pictures, as the mines themselves weren't particularly interesting, but the roads were beautiful. You can actually circumvent about 15 miles on the Haul Road in this way, eventually passing under the Pipeline and returning to it.

As I continued north, the Brooks Range loomed larger.

All sorts of interesting-looking side roads beckoned, but with limited gas (and riding skill -- some of these looked pretty serious) I continued north.

Milepost 245: Atigun Pass.

The continental divide -- north vs. south, that is. After crossing this range, all the rivers flow north into the Arctic rather than the Pacific. (This raises an interesting question: where is the continental triple point, at which the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic watersheds meet?)

This sign was pretty amusing:

The avalanche warning sign that has clearly been run over by an avalanche. Moments later...

CRAP. Note to self: riding motorcycle with snow-encrusted tires and contemplating irony do not mix. There was some snow at the top of the pass, and I was dumb enough to ride into it for a photo op. Ah well. I got it back up quickly enough. The damage: a cracked but still usable left mirror.

Now's when things started getting weird. The last real tree is just south of the pass. Nothing but tundra to the north.

And the pipeline.

Broken by the occasional hills and pumping station. The Haul Road makes no bones about going straight over the hills. It is quite steep in many places, and the spots of mud and occasional ruts made it difficult going at times. Still, it was not nearly as bad as some of the horror stories that I've read.

I passed through a particularly cold zone, in which everything was covered in thick frost.

It is a spectacularly bleak place.

And somewhere among those frost-covered hills, I met Dai.

Dai is from Japan. Dai plans to ride his bicycle from Prudhoe Bay to Mexico. Dai is nuts. Nice guy, though.

Eventually the frost cleared as I descended toward the coast.

And I thought Penn State was in the middle of nowhere. (FYI: PSU, where I was an undergrad, is also located in a "Happy Valley.")

About 100 miles north of Atigun pass, I came across this herd of musk oxen:

These ice-age beasts were perfectly content to lie about on the frozen tundra. Strange, strange creatures. How they survive up here is beyond me. (In particular, I wonder how they get enough water. Sure, there is water all around, but it's all frozen.)

About 60 miles south of the coast, even the hills end, and the landscape becomes a uniform plane descending gradually toward the ocean. The North Slope indeed.

Milepost 414: Deadhorse.

There is no grand sign welcoming you, so instead I just took a picture of the local gas pump.

I did not like it there. I am an unapologetically liberal Democrat, and this place just made my skin crawl. I felt like I was going to get ambushed and shot by Dick Cheney at any moment.

Ah, those Halliburton folks. What will they think of next? (OK, so actually that is pretty funny. In the dark kind of way you'd expect from Halliburton.)

And I never made it to the north shore. This is as close as I got, roughly 12 miles south of the ocean:

North of this point you enter the oil fields, which are closed to visitors. The only way through is on a tour bus, which was done for the season. Even then, you need to pass a security check before they let you on the bus. The guard there brusquely turned me around. (Ah, and as for the possibility of flying to Barrow, AK to see the shore: the cheapest round-trip tickets went for $370. Not worth it.)

Well, at least I can celebrate my successful journey with a beer, right?

WHAT?? I rode 5,000 miles, suffered a costly transmission failure, and traveled the roughest highway in the United States for THIS? A dry town??

Forget that. I rode back to Coldfoot.

Well, not quite immediately. I was hungry, so I had the $18 cafeteria-style buffet at the Arctic Caribou Inn in Deadhorse. I wound up sitting with a bunch of pipeline maintenance workers. Young guys, all in their early to mid-twenties, to my surprise. The few I talked to had come to work here shortly after high school. Working 2-and-2's: 14 days on, 10 hours per day, followed by 14 days off. One was working a 3-and-3. Man. Anyhow, they quite reasonably pointed out that if Deadhorse was not a dry town, all hell would break loose. I see their point.

Regardless, I wanted my beer at the end of the adventure, so I did indeed ride back to Coldfoot that evening. Although it was dark, the road was relatively dry, and the pass was clear. According to one of the truckers I talked with along the way, that was not predicted to be the case the next morning. So it all worked out.

And returning through Atigun pass, I saw the Aurora. It was beautiful. It shone all the way back to Coldfoot. And I had my beer: a Coldfoot Pilsner, brewed by the Silver Gulch Brewing company in Fairbanks. All in all, the perfect end to a great day.

Day 16: Exploring around Coldfoot

Well, not much exploring, really. I wanted a low-mileage day. But a couple people on the Coldfoot staff had mentioned a trail from Coldfoot to Chandalar Lake, roughly 60 miles away. Sounded like a good excursion.

But first, breakfast! I had pancakes again, but this time with caribou sausage. I thought that was sufficiently novel to warrant a picture.

Well, trust me, it's caribou. Tasted good to me. Not at all gamey.

Now, back to the excursion to the lake. As it turns out (and as a more informed staff member later told me), the Coldfoot-Chandlar Lake trail is a winter trail. During the summer, in contrast, it is a mud hole. Excluding, of course, the places where it's a river. And maybe a lake farther along.

I made it about 2 miles, falling twice in the mud and deep ruts. Got to the first water crossing (rocky and swift, although not too deep) and decided enough was enough. Back to Coldfoot (falling once more in the process). Total day's miles: 4.

The next half hour was spent duct taping back together my newly cracked windscreen (oops). Ah well. Adds some more character to the bike. Also busted a turn signal, but that hardly bears mention. Then, a good nap.

That night, the aurora was out again. This time, I was ready with my camera.

Note the prominent constellation in the last picture. These were all taken with 15 second exposures.

Day 17: Back to Fairbanks

After a leisurely morning, I left Coldfoot and headed back south. And I made another appointment with George at Trail's End BMW: all the battering the suspension took on the Haul Road resulted in a blown right fork seal. Not a major problem, as the front suspension geometry of the Beemers makes the fork not bear any significant weight. But still, something to be fixed sooner rather than later.

Back at my hotel, I sat around and watched TV. I was utterly beat.

>>>NEXT: Day 18: a do-nothing day!