Thursday, August 6, 2009

...Just Can't Wait To Get OFF The Road Again - By Kevin

The road to Alaska is paved; and up until now, Larry and I have ridden almost exclusively on asphalt. True, there have been short sections in the Yukon and Alaska where roads were being repaired that allowed me to gain a little experience on gravel roads – but this was nothing compared to what we were going to ride on once Laurie and the family headed back to Indianapolis.

Gravel roads don’t scare much. Throw in piles of loose stuff, cantaloupe-sized boulders, and potholes and I start to get a little nervous. Blessedly, the route layed out before us is easier before it gets harder. Our plan for dirt roads is as follows: Ride the Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxson and head north towards the Arctic Circle. In fact, we’ve just completed the Denali Highway portion with little to-do (more on that in a bit). We’ll then ride to Prudhoe Bay or as far as weather will safely permit. The weather here changes quite dramatically. The current forecast calls for wind, rain and wet snow flurries – Hooray!). After Prudhoe (or not), we’ll back-track (ironically) towards the Top of the World Highway and Dawson City. We’ll end our off-road tour in Watson Lake (home of the sign forest) via the Campbell Highway (a long desolate road requiring extra gas cans for us both) or the Canol Road (a shorter more interesting road where getting gas is a little easier). Anyway you look at it, that’s a lot of dirt and dust. I should also add that Alaska is having its worst case of forest fires in recent history. The smoke is so bad that some businesses here and around the Fairbanks area are closed due to smoke.

So once again were on our own in Alaska. We happily returned the cumbersome RV with a clean bill of health to the rental company and borrowed Gary’s garage to make some suspension upgrades to Larry’s KLR – a new fork brace and springs. After loading the bikes, some pleasant conversation and eating some of the best strawberry-rhubarb cobbler I’ve ever tasted (thank you Gary and Diane!), we headed north to Cantwell where one end of the Denali Highway begins.

No day of this trip is without something funny or interesting happening. August 4th was no exception. Upon entering Cantwell and having dinner at the only gas station slash restaurant in town (hope ya like BBQ!), we noticed a recently burned up RV in the parking lot. Apparently, the owner thought it was smarter to DRIVE a burning RV to the gas station rather than put out the fire. Thankfully, everyone got out in time and the driver managed to keep himself off this year’s list for a Darwin Award.

Riding the Denali Highway put most of the anxiety of the gravelly, potholed road to rest. Aside from the occasional jet-powered SUVs and trucks that came flying down the road at us, the road was easy to travel at our 40 to 45 mph pace. Since we got such a late start, we decided to camp at a BLM campground 30 miles into the highway. We managed to snatch up one of the last remaining campsites hidden from the main road near a swiftly flowing stream. You could actually hear small boulders tumbling there way down the stream. We set up our tents on the grass surrounded by blueberry bushes – quite the idyllic campsite, actually. We capped off the night by inviting ourselves over to a fire that some nice people from Alberta had made. I still haven’t fully come to grips with what I call an “invasion of privacy and personal space”, but it sure beats starting your own fire!

After traveling some 4000 miles to Alaska, we decided to let the family take some of our “non-essentials” back home to Indianapolis. Among these things were packets of instant coffee and a camp stove needed to boil the water for said coffee. After riding hungry for an hour, we came upon one of the few-and-far-between lodges that populate the Denali Highway. A sign at the bottom of a long and steep driveway advertised that they were open. As fate would have it, we managed to find ourselves barging in on a group of paying guests just sitting down to a family style breakfast of bacon and eggs, corn beef hash, and toast. How could we say “no” to the manager’s insistence that we sit down and join them?! The lodge turned out to be “The Alpine View Lodge”, and for 99 bucks a night including a great breakfast, is a steal compared to a lot of the dives we seen or had to pay for along the way.

The remaining ride along the Denali Highway went off without a hitch and we arrived in Paxson on the other side. As seems to happen a lot on the (few) roads in Alaska, we ran into Ian Coates on his Honda Trans-Alp. When we left him, he was working his way down to Anchorage, thinking his next motorcycling adventure would take him into Siberia. If you’re reading this Ian, good luck and safe journey!

I end this extremely long blog today in North Pole, AK. We are hosted this time by Jerry Watson, a KLR and Harley rider, who has graciously offered us a couple nights stay in his camper. He also cooks a mean steak, second only to his wife Adelle’s cooking. We’re helping to pay our dues by helping Jerry change out his rear tire tonight. This will be the forth tire we (meaning Larry) will have changed today. Tomorrow we continue our long, dusty (and smoky) ride to the north…

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