Friday, August 29, 2014

The Perfect Vehicle

We headed south along the Icefields Parkway through some of the best mountain scenery on the entire planet. If there was one reason the border between Canada and the United States was set at the 49th parallel, this was it. The British simply wanted to keep Jasper and the rest of the Canadian Rockies all for themselves. From the relative flatness of Hinton, we plunged headlong into the Athabasca River valley, completely dominated on both sides by huge thrusting mountains, layers of pinnacles and glaciers peering down into the waters. A 100 mile radius of the earth appeared to have at some point swollen up from inside its liquid mantle and pushed towards the sky, where it cooled, the magma splitting itself in two raggedly beautiful lines through which glacial waters now meandered south. Like a broken pie crust a child has dragged their finger through in search of fruit, the nearly vertical rock faces above us fell back much more gently away from the highway. The road ahead was full of big sweeping turns, along with a few tight hairpins, for almost 200 miles.

At the top of the Sunwapta Pass the temperature dropped a good 15 degrees and the weather threatened to close in. We paused for a photo op of the Athabasca Glacier at the Icefield Center and then pressed on for Lake Louise where Carol was growing impatient. Arriving a couple of hours later than we had planned, the road lived up to every hyperbole tourist magazines have heaped on it over the years. It was simply stunning and a great close to our fantastic journey. Carol was wandering in the car park near the local supermarket and about to leave for something better when we pulled up. After a cup of coffee, a short visit with a young woman who was adventuring with her Ural and her dog (in the sidecar), it was time to bid farewell and draw an end to the guy’s trip. With the weather closing in Sledge was keen to press on to Calgary for a new tire and start his journey south. As it was he missed a freak snowstorm that hit the Alberta plains by only 24 hours.

As a rider I started the trip with a lot less confidence than I finished it with. There were days that Sledge would take off at his own pace for a time and I’d trail behind conserving gas or daydreaming or simply hanging back from the dust cloud he’d kick up. The vast open spaces on our journey meant we never really lost sight of each other, even when we might be a few miles or more apart. Our direct, straight route meant that we were never at much risk of losing each other for long, anyway. And as I followed along, Sledge was also teaching me. Like learning to ski, it’s often easier to follow the instructor’s line than to have to figure out one yourself. Then you can use those spare cerebral cycles to focus on technique. But perhaps what I was feeling at that moment was better stated by Melissa Holbrook Pierson in her treatise on motorcycling, The Perfect Vehicle:

“When you go [motorcycling] with someone else, you are in for either the ride of your life or series of greater or lesser annoyances. Riding together is like dancing, and when you are hearing the same music and same beat in your blood, you can communicate without words, anticipate every stop, start, fluctuation of desire, speedup and slowdown. When you are not, your partner keeps knocking your knee with his until you can’t hear the music anymore, and even your motorcycles seem misstated, with the one the lead invariably digging in at a cruising speed that is exactly the one at which the bike behind aches to change gear. You might as well ride alone in that case and stop for lunch when you want to.” 

There was never a time that I felt we were completely out of synch. Verity, Sledge’s BMW F800, and Lily, my Triumph Tiger XC, were well matched and they danced, sometimes together, sometimes apart - but always to the same songs. Watching Sledge pull out of the car park and head towards Calgary was tough. He’s not quite, as Natalie Merchant once described Jack Kerouac, "a hip flask slingin’ madman", but he could be, if he wanted to. As a traveling companion Sledge is as easy you could want, as long as you follow this rule: be there for your friends. South America was where we were originally headed, but I’d postponed that part of the trip and I knew it was going to nag on both of us over the coming months. Plus we’d covered Alaska and the northwestern corner of British Columbia far quicker than either of us would have liked. We’d stretched our bikes and ourselves, a bit, and started writing a book, or at least the first couple of chapters of a story that’s as yet unfinished.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Heading for the Hills!

It was determined that we should both get new rear tires - if at all possible. Our bikes, Verity and Lily, are similarly spec’d and that meant we shared common tire sizes. The local Yamaha dealer makes most of its profit by providing mediocre service at a staggering price to twits like me that should have changed their tires back in Alaska. With nearly a thousand miles to go and a not much time to do it in, Sledge magnanimously said that I should have the last available tire in Prince George (yes, we called all the motorcycle shops), an overly inflated Metzler, and he’d burn off what was left of his Heidenaus and get sorted out in Calgary. When all the work was done and a king's ransom paid, the improvement in Lily’s handling was dramatic enough that even I noticed the difference. Once the new tire scrubbed in, we had no problem keeping up an athletic pace for the rest of the day.

We were on schedule to rendezvous with Carol on Friday in Lake Louise and that meant reaching Alberta and the north end of the Jasper National Park today. I’ve said this before and at the risk of repeating myself, there’s still something magical about things you’ve read about in books or National Geographic as a kid and finally seeing them in real life, like the Eiffel Tower or Jerry Lewis (okay, Jerry was even shorter than I imagined). Mount Robson stands guard on the Yellowhead Highway at the mid-northeastern border of British Columbia with Alberta, and it is simply breathtaking. In part because it is the most prominent mountain in North America, a technical term that means it’s as sheer a rock face as there is in this neck of the woods. It’s simply a mind bogglingly, massively vertiginous slab of granite that only about 10% of climbers who try reach the top of. And even though it's set back a long way from the highway, it still glowers over you menacingly.

With the appearance of the mountains came scores of tourists. More humanity than we’d seen in one place for weeks, including that bustling metropolis Prince George. This being Labor Day weekend the area was thick with rubberneckers meandering around in their hired RV’s and Sport Utility Vehicles. We had to keep our wits about us as drivers were wont to suddenly slow down to view some preternaturally beautiful natural sight. Roaming animals caused the most frequent problems - a mountain goat popping up here, a black bear pushing through the brush there. Cars would pull up sharply, brakes squealing as the driver reached for a camera and smacked their children’s iPhones from their busy little fingers as they were commanded to "Look!" I digress.

Plowing on towards Jasper we had no real plan other than to find accommodation for the night. We toyed with the idea of camping, but as this was the last evening of the guy trip we opted for a hotel and a pint of bourbon in Hinton, Alberta. It would add 50 miles and a double-back to the trip south in the morning, but there simply wasn’t any choice for less than $350 apiece. I will say, though, that other than it’s place at the very ragged edge of the Great Plains, Hinton is unremarkable. I’ll leave it at that.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ay Chihuahua!

Highway 29, also known as the Don Philips Way, is the road less traveled out of Fort St. John. It follows the Peace River along its tall bank through rolling farmland that made a pleasant change from the endlessly identical evergreens that had followed us all the way from Tok. Sunshine and clear roads and nary a car in sight, we had nothing but wind in front of us (not to mention a little in back) and were determined to enjoy the day; which, despite a few long waits for roadworks, we did.

Our objective was Prince George a mere 455 kilometers away, only a half day’s ride even with our scenic detour. Prince George, originally named Fort George by the The North West Company and named for Mad King George (the III), is known as British Columbia’s “northern capital” - even though it’s technically south of the half way point north. (Get on with it! - ed.) Lying, as it does at the nexus of the Fraser and Nechako rivers there is a great deal of backwoods stuff to do like canoeing, fishing, camping and hunting - none of which we did. For some reason at its outskirts I was reminded of Reading, a town in Britain with a particularly combative third division football team, around 1980 - a good place for a pint and a punch up on a Saturday. Now, however, Prince George looks over-policed. The pubs in the center were closed or transitioning to more upscale coffee and cocktails. There are signs of creeping hipsterishness intent on making things a little more livable (if that’s not a contradiction in terms).

Having gotten fed up with the industrial accommodation in chain motels we figured we’d give AirBnB, the house sharing site, a shot. It’s really easy to be cynical about mankind, or worse scared of it - especially if you’re prone to watching television news. For all my worldly adventures in the past few years, I never cease to marvel at the trust people place in their fellow human beings. As individuals we are all really just folks wanting to get along, even when getting along means that we have to share our lives with others. AirBnB taps into this fundamental trait and brings together people that need a bit of extra cash with travelers wanting something more personal. Laura and her daughter Teegan hosted us, along with their dog Diego, a chihuahua, who barked at me then jumped in my lap as sat I on the sofa writing my trip notes. We both quickly fell asleep. The sharing economy is a real thing and I’m not entirely sure where it will go, but long may it continue.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Civilization - Ho!

It took some getting used to, the distances up there. After a leisurely start, with another turn around the hot springs, we pointed our noses south and made our way to Fort St. John, some 430 miles away. We paused for brunch at the Northern Rockies Lodge, which was truly some kind of hunting lodge for rich weirdos. There was not a soul around and we had the dining hall of the big log cabin to ourselves. It was hard to tell if it was simply the time of year, or if hunting lodges of the far north had finally seen their day. None of the ones we’d seen thus far were doing great business. Rather than dwell on that, we filled our our stomachs and our gas tanks and continued on our way. 

The engaging curves and sweeps through the mountains, along with the occasional herd of buffalo, kept us occupied. To keep the blood flowing and our legs from cramping, Sledge and I would stand on the pegs for several miles at a time. That meant slowing down a little, but just a little, as we leaned into the headwind. Nothing seemed too risky on Lily now - she and I had learned enough about each other’s strengths and weaknesses that there weren’t any surprises, just increasing confidence from knowing what to expect. Lily’s rear tire had formed a chine, a hard angle where there used to be a smooth curve. That made cornering about as much fun as balancing on the edge of a shoebox and, even though the roads were solid chip seal, her back end would squirrel around as though we were on gravel. Sledge predicted I wouldn’t make it home on the tire and I reluctantly agreed. It didn't help that Verity’s rear tire was only about 500 miles better off. 

By mid-afternoon and in a downpour we finally rolled into Fort Nelson, the first real town we’d seen since Whitehorse. Five miles outside the city limits the heavens opened and every idiot behind the wheel of a car slowed down enough to ensure we got as wet as possible. We finally pulled over at the local Boston Pizza restaurant and got a bite to eat while we waited for the squall to move through, which it did, leaving acres of sunshine in its wake. 

I wish there was more to write about Fort St. John, but there’s not much to tell. It’s the hopping off point for every frikkin’ fracker in a 500 mile radius, which only means accommodations are twice the price they should be and the food is crappy. And that’s about it. But after a couple of epic days riding we’d finally reached the first vestiges of civilization and we celebrated by putting a serious dent in a bottle of Woodford’s. Jim Beam can kiss my patootie. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Soak in the Woods

We had just finished a 500 mile ride out of Haines Junction that included a quick stop in Whitehorse for breakfast and for Sledge to buy a new pair of boots. Back on the AlCan we blew by the turn to the Stewart-Cassier highway and carried out on along highway 97. As soon as we crossed into British Columbia it felt like we were on a long downhill run. The densely forested landscape widened and opened up ahead of us. The highway’s broad verge was a drive-by zoo of the local fauna. We saw several buffalo, one of whom sat at the side of road watching us go by. He had leaned his huge head on his front leg like a barfly waiting for his next round of beer. Lots of  black bears, mostly juveniles, poked their noses out of the woods in search of berries, plus for the first time we saw a couple of elk. It had been a long, but satisfying day of riding. The scenery had changed constantly and we had a much better appreciation for the vast, mostly uninhabited area that is northern British Columbia. 

In the late afternoon’s light we stopped by a bend in the Liard River and were presented with a wonderful view of what life was like on the other side of the trees that had lined the road all day. By then we were more than ready to pitch camp and make our way to the world famous Liard Hot Springs for a good soak. It was now late enough in the season that even after a leisurely dinner we were still able to snag an official BC campsite - albeit one of the very last available. 



“Have you seen a bear? We’re looking for one,” inquired the young ranger in the driver’s seat of a Clubman golf cart. “No,” we replied. “Well, we think we know which one he is. He’s been hanging out for a while now, looking for food. If you see him, just make a bunch of noise and he’ll most likely back off. Just let us know.” At that moment I finally understood how Bill Bryson felt about meeting bears in the woods: “My particular dread--the vivid possibility that left me staring at tree shadows on the bedroom ceiling night after night--was having to lie in a small tent, alone in an inky wilderness, listening to a foraging bear outside and wondering what its intentions were… What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children's parties...and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.” ― Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail 

Liard Hot Springs is one of those monuments to all things positive about governments and society. Here is a well cared for public good that in a private setting would cost hundreds of dollars to enjoy. Located as it is in a remote part of the backwoods, it was neither overcrowded nor dirty. There is a long boardwalk over a swamp that leads out to a small amphitheater built up on one side of the springs. The slightly sulfurous waters ranged from really very hot at the point it enters the long wading pool, to pleasantly cool once it passes over the weir and joins a natural stream. Relaxing in the mineral rich waters I felt like one of those Japanese monkeys and life was really pretty good at that moment. As I floated on my back looking up at the dwindling light, I imagined that this kind of bathing was a worthy form of exercise. Which it is. 





Sunday, August 24, 2014

One Tok Over the Line

Free camping sometimes comes at a price. In Alaska that price is your donation in blood to the local mosquitoes. By this time we were pretty sanguine about the whole bug thing and skilled enough at decamping that we kept most of our sanity. The only local gas was in Glenallen, about 20 miles south. There we refueled and recaffeinated and doubled back towards Tok (pronounced toke). The Tok Cutoff Highway runs alongside the Copper River in the shadow of the Wrangell mountain range. It sounds cliché, but each valley we rode through brought something different for us to admire. The Wrangells are big, hairy mountains with lots of glaciers and pointy bits that make them spectacular. Lying in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest in the US, these tall mountains are situated in the armpit of Alaska where the weather beats up the land year round. 

Our barman from the night before had warned us about the road to Tok. Years of rebuilding after a major earthquake rolled through the region had meant serious traffic delays. But not to worry, it’s in pretty good shape now. Once again we were glad to be on bikes as the rough road would have had us bottoming out a car's suspension. The rolling ground reminded me of the times my mother would set the dining room table for company. She’d flip a long, linen tablecloth and it would ripple across the hard wooden surface before it settled smoothly into place. Along this road, though, the ground never settled back down and we rode the standing waves like surfers. 

Tok is the first and last town on the US side of the border and we had camped for a night when we arrived. The highlight of our stay at the Sourdough Campground was real reindeer sausage and sourdough pancakes. On our return leg, we paused in town only for a quick lunch and more gas. As we ate, we debated briefly if we should head across to Dawson on the Top of the World Highway. All the riders we'd met who had done it recommended the detour, even the Harley and Goldwing owners. Eventually, we decided it would take too much time, besides which we needed to keep some things in reserve for our next visit. We then pointed our bikes east and retraced our steps towards Canada. As soon as we crossed the border two moose, a doe and her calf, wandered across the highway giving us a nice photo op. The grey weather closed in for most of the rest of the ride to Haines Junction where we pulled in for the night. That made it about 430 miles for the day. Our bodies had finally adjusted to the long distances. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

"I'm done with this..."

Denali National Park’s headquarters was crawling with tourists fresh off the boats. Given that we now had a rendezvous in a few days, we decided that we’d done justice to the giant bronze moose in the museum and headed south and east along the Denali Highway. It was as well we did, for as a road this ribbon of dust and rocks gave us the finest views of Mount McKinley we could have wished for. Opened in 1957 the highway stretches for 135 miles between Cantwell and Paxson and for us was how we were going to shave off a day’s riding. According to Wikipedia, the highway is poorly maintained and closed from October to mid-May each year. The recommended speed limit is 30 mph. But that’s for four wheeled, caged drivers with no ground clearance. If you have the right motorcycle you can knock it out in about three hours of glorious dirt track riding alongside some of the most stunning scenery Alaska has to offer. The long wide valley stretched out under the snow covered peaks of the Alaska Range, the highest in the world after the Himalayas and the Andes. Thankfully there were few cars in the dry conditions and I let Sledge ride ahead so I could avoid his dust. The late afternoon light finally warmed up as we turned due south through rolling fields of grass covering rounded hills. The last five miles of the highway are paved and I was confident that we’d find gas at the end of what must be a major traffic artery. We arrived in the gathering darkness to an abandoned lodge and some busted up gas pumps. All that was needed was a dust devil, a rolling tumbleweed and a harmonica’s wail to complete the scene. Perhaps a rattlesnake sound effect to fully tie things off. Thanks to the wizards of Wall Street the complexion of Alaska’s tourism industry has changed greatly in the past five years. Hotels, gas stations and lodges all closed thanks to a combination of the recession, sky high gas prices and the growth of drive-by tourism fostered by the cruising industry.

There was nothing for it but to head south towards more civilization. Route 4 was our only option, but at least it was twisty, well paved and pretty. The road traces a high bluff alongside the Gulkana river giving us a great view of the valley. At the junction with Route 1 we turned left towards the Gakona Lodge and Trading Post. There we sidled up to the barman and inquired if there was accommodation available or space to pitch a tent. We could have a room for about $100, or camp for free out by the old barn. Free sounded like the right price and we ordered a round of beers before we changed for dinner. 


As we made smalltalk our host mentioned he had a motorcycle for sale; that a guy about my age had pulled his bike up to the lodge a couple of weeks ago, walked into the bar and announced, “I’m done with this shit!” He proceeded to write down his name and address on a card, hand over his keys and said, “If anyone wants to buy my bike, that’s the number to call. I’ll make them a great deal!” And then he left. A little while later Sledge and I walked outside and looked over the bright yellow Suzuki V-Strom 650 standing in the long grass. We briefly considered how we’d get it home and finally decided the costs of flying up and riding back in a year’s time would be more than the bike was worth, even if we got it for free. With that we were left wondering just what the hell happened to its owner...

Andy, Sven's Hostel and Into the Wild

When we first met Andy on the road heading north I assumed that with her big white Ford F-350 and air of self-confidence she was an oil company executive on a mission. Perhaps there had been an case of sexual harassment out at the rig and she, as VP for HR, was going to sort things out. Had that been the case I would not have wanted to be at the wrong end of the issue. But it turned out Andy is a peripatetic adventurer criss-crossing the continent in a yellow Mini Cooper (the pickup was only a rental). This week it was Alaska and her goal the furthest point north she could get. Why was she constantly on the move? Why the hell not? Life’s too short! Over breakfast with her in Deadhorse, Andy suggested we try out a hostel she’d found in Fairbanks and we said, Sure! Sounds fun! We agreed to meet there the following day. 

Sven’s Basecamp Hostel is run by Sven. Sven who escaped from Switzerland many years before and wound up managing a tidy set of cabins and standing tents for all kinds of vagabonds. The campers were a cross-section of Alaska’s tourism industry. A set of students and their professors turned up on their way to the Brooks Range for some research. There were several German couples on long-distance expeditions across North America. A group of motorcyclists that came and went en masse. They looked like a tour group. They were far too clean and still carrying stress hangovers that indicated they hadn’t ridden up the AlCan, but instead flown into Anchorage a couple of days earlier. We felt smug and manly with our filthy motorcycles and their lower 48 license plates. The bikes were so dirty that we spent over $20 each at the local spray and wash trying to get the crap off of them. The worst part was soaking off the calcium chloride that’s used to seal the Dalton Highway’s muddy surface. Any time it rains the calcium kicks up in blotchy welts that dries instantly on any hot surface. The exhaust pipes got the worst of it and in the end it took me two days of deconstruction, soaking and gentle washing to get them clean again. 

Later that afternoon Andy gave us a quick tour of her Mini with its expensive Italian tenthouse suite. It was pretty cool and for a traveler on a budget a great way to comfortably avoid hotels. Slowly the small contingent of 20-something itinerants swelled and I began feeling my age and more than a little wistful. After dinner a couple of them played quietly on their guitars for a bit as the last sliver of moon rose over the late purples and oranges of twilight. Out in the back forty a bonfire was lit and we passed the Jim Beam around until it was gone and the wood had burned down to embers. 

The next morning woke us clear and cold with a heavy dew. After breakfast we headed south along the high ridge that runs out of Fairbanks towards Denali. Low clouds clung to the wet road for the first hour or so. The only interruption came as Sledge pulled off to look for the plug end of my tool tube. A tool tube is a homemade tool holder comprising a 4-6” diameter PVC pipe cut to length and hung, somehow, from the bike’s frame. Every design I found recommended a retaining wire for the compression plug that seals it shut. My implementation came up just short enough for us to have to bugger about in the weeds for 10 minutes looking for the lost cap. Which, thankfully, Sledge found. 

Just north of Denali National Park is the turn off for the Stampede Trail where Christopher McCandless famously walked into the wild. Well, kind of. Chris wandered 20 miles up the trail in early spring until he found an old Fairbanks City bus (63°52'05.9"N 149°46'08.4"W) that he made home. He then promptly spent the next three months starving to death. Jon Krakauer, of ‘Into Thin Air’ fame, spins a good yarn and became fascinated with how McCandless met his maker in this bit of wilderness at such a young age. Krakauer’s book ‘Into the Wild’ made McCandless famous and a film by Sean Penn made him a household name. Today pilgrims from all over the world wander up the trail searching for the Magic Bus, some pausing to drown in the Teklanika River along the way. Which I guess is the kind of sacrifice pilgrims are expected to make. You can avoid all that silliness by heading a little further down to the road to the 49th State Brewing Company in Healy. There you’ll find the replica bus that was used in the movie. Inside, the cab is lined with a depressing series of McCandless’ self portraits that show him wasting away to his pointless demise. It was a great film, though. 

We were riding, not drinking. So after a few selfies we hopped back on our bikes hoping enjoy all the splendors Denali had to offer. Did I mention it was now warm and sunny and a really good day to be alive?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Fairbanks - Out and Back

We bookended our trip up the Dalton Highway between stops in Fairbanks. On our way up we decided to take a breather and see what could be done with my bouncing front tire and what the city might have in the way of decent beer. For the first problem we stopped by Adventure Cycleworks, as recommended by the ADVrider website. Up a winding unpaved suburban street and around a few potholes we found Dan, the garage’s affable owner. With his long hair, beard and wireframe spectacles Dan looks every inch the biker. As he set to working and chatting it soon became clear that his shop was the first and last outpost for dozens of motorcycle adventurers heading up to Prudhoe Bay. He’s seen them all, from over-equipped middle aged guys out on their ‘find themselves’ tour to boy racers ready to smear their bikes into a rogue moose at high speed. Watching Dan work was a pleasure. As a skilled technician his is clearly a labor of love. All his most commonly used tools were within arms reach. Without a wasted movement he had my front tire off its rim and the replacement seated and balanced in 30 minutes. While he worked, he gave us some history of the area, the Alaska pipeline, and what to watch out for on the road north. “Ground squirrels. Little bastards will knock you right off your bike if you’re not careful. You can’t miss ‘em, they stand by the side of the road and won’t move. Just straight leg them out of the way.” It’s not an easy thing to admit, but I almost looked forward to a little squirrel polo. 

Finding decent beer proved no hardship, either. The Midnight Mine was appropriately dark and smokey, but served a variety of local brews and free burgers. Fairbanks looks a little down at heels in the summer, like someone took off it’s shirt only to reveal a bad case of impetigo. We were happy to be leaving in the morning. 

The round trip from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay is roughly 1,000 miles. That figure is a little mind-boggling written down, if only because the distance looks so small on the map. Such is Alaska. My new tire scrubbed in on the first 100 miles of the trip and things seemed to be going fine until just outside Coldfoot when Sledge pulled over to adjust his chain. Together we looked it over and checked the tension and all seemed to be in its proper place. Then Sledge had to do the same thing again near Deadhorse when the chain worked itself loose for the second time. Finally, on the north side of the Atigun Pass Sledge lost his patience with the slapping chain completely. In short he order adjusted the tension, test rode Verity around the lay-by, dumped her, picked her up, kicked her, then readjusted the chain a second time. Watching other people behave the way that I would in their situation is, for me, the essence of comedy. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud. Given Sledge’s dark mood, not to mention his sheer size, I contained myself and even resisted the urge to video the whole scene. 

Back in Fairbanks after just four days we returned to Dan’s garage and Sledge explained the problem. “Want a new chain?“, Dan asked. “Should get some sprockets, too.” “If that will fix it, absolutely!”, Sledge replied with quiet determination. An hour later Verity had become in Sledge’s words “a new bike.” With that the clouds parted and cleared the way for blue skies and open roads. 



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hey! Hey! Hey! It's Prudhoe Bay!

The run out to the Arctic Ocean north of the Brooks Range is wilderness in the truest sense of the word. Trees pretty much give up just south of the Atigun Pass, which at 4,500’ isn’t all that high, but airplanes have trouble with the winds and road conditions still claim 10’s of lives each year. North of the pass you track down the Atigun River as the mountains quickly fade away and you’re left gently slipping onto a vast plain of tundra and, eventually, Arctic salt marsh. Low shrubs, wildflowers, mosses with shallow roots live above the permafrost that prevents deeper rooted plants from taking hold. This apparently barren landscape viewed from the relative comfort of the Dalton Highway, with its regular traffic and reassuring sense of civilization, allows you to see for hundreds of miles in either direction.

The sheer vastness of the North Slope made me appreciate how completely unprepared we were for any significant change in the weather. It also reminded me of my first trip into the high desert east of the Oregon Cascades as a teenager. My mistake back then was thinking that there was nothing out there, but after a couple of days of bumping along the backroads I began to appreciate the subtlety of the countryside around me. The muted, shifting dun and ochre of the sands, the textures of golden grasses dancing in the wind, the songs of sage thrashers and crickets created an atmosphere as dense as any city street’s. It was a bit like thinking sushi doesn’t have much flavor compared to Cheeto’s.

Deadhorse sits some 250 miles north of Coldfoot. Coldfoot is the last place you can buy gas. Verity, Sledge’s bike, with 6.3 gallons of fuel was at no risk of running out, and while I had spare gas to spare, I was determined to make it on my tiny five gallon tank. That meant taking it a little easier than normal and watching Sledge disappear into the distance while I eased Lily back and forth across her rev range. It was all downhill and we were going to give it a shot. When, damn!, the gas warning light came on a lot sooner than I'd hoped for. The fractioning towers of Prudhoe Bay grew taller and the low pre-fab buildings of Deadhorse finally emerged like zombies out of the ground. Crossing the town line I felt a sputter and ignored it - there was but a mere mile more to the gas station. Then I inexplicably stopped to take a photo and Lily expired with a cough. Pouring a little gas from the Rotopax proved much more irritating and time consuming than I expected. The idea is simple. Design a plastic gas can that secures with a firm twist of a huge knob to your motorcycle and off you go. Now you’d think that people designing devices that carry enough explosive energy to level a house wouldn’t develop a pour spout so fiendishly difficult to use that I nearly stabbed a hole in the side of the container to let the fuel out. But they did. Consider this a strongly worded letter of complaint. Besides, there should be a rule that designers (gits!) should actually use the things they create before marketing them. Lily’s center stand is another example of engineering incompetence and another story for another time.

There’s only a few places to stay in Deadhorse and we ended up at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel for a king’s ransom. With long lines of dorm rooms stretching out at right angles from its main spine, the hotel's greenish fluorescent lighting made me feel like I was in a scene from Outland or Alien (before the monster strikes). As a drilling engineer, Sledge was both familiar and discomfited by the arrangements. Having recently left the oil fields of North Dakota, I think he found dropping straight back into a lifestyle he’d so recently left behind a little depressing. My notes describe a palpable tension like the skin on the meniscus of a water glass just before it overflows. Sounds a little sodding pretentious reading it now.

Our bikes were filthy, we were grubby and our gear was disgusting. The next hour was spent cleaning ourselves up and running laundry as we ate dinner and stocked up on tea bags. We wrote a few postcards to our families and friends and generally celebrated our arrival at the northernmost point either of us had been to in our lives as best we could in a dry town on the edge of the Arctic abyss. Temperatures dipped to just above freezing in the wee hours of the morning. It was time to turn and run from old man winter.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Trust and Muddy Truckers

Motorcycling is an act of trust. Some believe it to be an act of recklessness, but like almost any pastime that purports to cheat death, motorcycling is ultimately an act of trust. The rider has to trust his machine and by implication he must trust its engineers, its designers, and the workers on the assembly line. He has to trust that nothing was dropped or damaged during the shipping and delivery process that might later turn the bike into an searing fireball at 90mph. And he must trust his mechanic to do his job with care. The good news is statistically the rider's trust is well placed. Fewer than 5% of accidents result from mechanical failure and a high proportion of those are due to poor maintenance by the owner - simple things like failing to check the tire pressures or fluid levels and such-like. 

Thus when a rider's abilities are stretched by challenging conditions like mud or loose gravel, he is usually far better off trusting his bike and the laws of physics than overestimating his meagre skills. Humans instinctively pull back from danger, but when dealing with challenging terrain, like so many situations in life, it is often better to grow a pair, man up, and press forward with more speed rather than less. It turns out that physics, not testosterone, is on the side of reason here. Thanks to the two big gyroscopic wheels and the spinning cylinders of the engine, motorcycles want nothing more than to stand upright. Like the bicycle you learned to ride as a child, it wasn't your natural gift for balance, but the rotation of the tires that allowed you to make that first, terrifying journey between your parents' outstretched arms at either end of the pavement. The faster its wheels turn the more stable a bike is. The lesson then is to trust physics, not testosterone, and let the bike do it's job. 

That's all fine in theory. Ninety-four miles south of Deadhorse we'd pulled off the side of the highway for a break. It had been a long, cold, overcast morning's ride and we needed to warm ourselves up. The pipeline stood a mere 150 yards away on the other side of the road and a sign indicated we were on Oil Spill Hill. The surrounding tundra spread out from us in a carpet of fiery reds, browns and greens. The landscape's serenity was broken only by the occasional lorry trundling by and spitting stones at us. Sledge fired up his Jetboil cooker in anticipation of reconstituting some freeze-dried chili mac and cheese and a nice cup of tea. A few minutes later a large maroon dump truck wound its way towards us, slowed, crossed lanes and lurched to a stop. The driver leaned out of his window and shouted something, then thinking the better of it, cut the engine so he didn't have to yell to be heard. Are you guys heading north or south? he asked. North, we said. That's what I figured. I wanted to warn you guys that about four miles down the road from here is a slope called Ice Cut Hill. It's pretty steep and has a tight right hand turn at the top, you can't miss it. I don't know what they were thinking, but the idiots from the state highway have been working on that part of the road for the past couple of days and poured a ton of water on it to keep the dust down. Then it rained all last night and it's turned into a mud bath. A few rigs have almost jack-knifed coming down it, so be careful, okay? Sledge and I looked at each other and said in unison, Crap! Thanks for the heads up! Yes, we'll take it easy. Good, the trucker said, we try to keep an eye out for you guys on bikes. It can be tough out here! He leaned forward and cranked the deafening Mack diesel to life and waved us good luck. Sledge and I turned, tight lipped, and stared down the road. Once more unto the breach, my friend, I said. 


©2011 Google MapsFour miles further on, just as we were told, Ice Cut Hill (69°01'02N, 148°49'39Wcame into sharp relief. It wasn't as high as I had imagined, but as Sledge received words of warning from a young British couple on Chonda 90's who had just ridden down, it was obvious the conditions were nasty. (With baskets and teddy bears hanging off the front of their wholly unsuitable motorbikes, the couple could only have been British. No other nation, except perhaps the Dutch, are as silly as the Brits when it comes to adventuring.) I paused to let a huge Peterbilt slurp past us before we headed up. Ruts half the depth of my wheels grabbed on and threatened to tip me over. I wavered and wobbled and fought Lily's natural instincts until, in a moment of rare lucidity I reminded myself to lift my head. (Get your eyes up, you git! Don't worry about what's under your front wheel - look ahead!) Picking up the revs, Lily miraculously (physics is something of a miracle, right?) sat up, pointed herself up the hill where I was looking and we plowed forward. At the top, the road surface dried out a bit and the worst was over. Neither Sledge nor I crashed, but neither were we looking forward to our return trip the next morning. There is, after all, only one road in and out of Deadhorse. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Burning Rubber

An hour out of Portland on our first day we pulled over and ate lunch at the Playa Azul in Kalama. It wasn't so much that we were hungry, it was more that we needed a break and the timing was right for lunch. The just above average Tex-Mex would haunt us for the rest of the day. The next time we stopped for gas, another hour and a quarter up the road, our butts were tired and the thought of another six hours of riding not particularly appealing. Wondering aloud, Sledge asked if our bodies would eventually adjust to the long days of riding ahead? God, I hope so!, I replied. I'm going to be doing a lot of standing up, Sledge said. 

I'm tall and weigh in at 6' 3" with a 35 inch inseam and Sledge, being 6' 1" himself, is no slouch in the height department. There's a narrow range of motorcycles that fit taller riders and the Adventure category that both Lily and Verity fall into is one. Designed for on and off-road use, their long suspension and high clearance means the seat is a fair distance from the ground. When I need a break from sitting, but don't want to stop, I stand on the pegs (aka footrests). When you're on the pegs the bike's center of gravity drops and it becomes more stable, plus you get a different view of the world. More importantly the blood rushes back into your buttocks and relieves the cramps you didn't realize you had. Honestly, I've not spent any time on cruisers or other low-riding styles of bikes, but I'm not sure that I'd be confident standing up when the handle bars would be a foot lower than my knees. Which probably explains why Honda Gold Wings and Harleys look more like mobile Lay-Z-Boy loungers than motorcycles. 

By the time we crossed the border into Alaska we'd stretched our rides out to over two hours at a time. After a week our butts weren't much happier, but standing for five minutes at 65mph kept us comfortably distracted enough that we were making good time. It was getting late after a long day cutting through the Yukon Territory and we still had a hundred miles to go. We'd picked up our pace to the recommended maximum our bikes would allow (never faster than the speed limit mind you!). Suddenly I got a whiff of burning rubber. I looked forward, down, and back and didn't see smoke. Then the burning smell disappeared. Sweeping through  the twisties, we had our bikes leaning satisfyingly into the curves and - dang it! - there was that scent of rubber again. My tires weren't wobbling or acting weird - that would have been readily obvious on this road. Nothing sounded wrong, there wasn't any scraping or screeching, and then the smell was gone again leaving nothing but the odor of damp woodland undergrowth in its place. By the third time it came back the pattern revealed itself.

Sledge has a couple of personal tricks to relieve stiffness in his hips and knees. One is to drop his leg, simply drop it off the peg and let it dangle. From where I sat following him this looked like the shortest route to an amputation there is, second only perhaps to walking through a minefield drunk on tequila, but he seemed to know exactly how far the ground was under his feet. As soon as we pulled over I asked him, are you dragging your toes on the road? He looked at me blankly and said, Yea, a little. When I get bored on these long stretches. Well, I was smelling burning rubber and wondered what the hell it was! With that, Sledge raised his right foot and looked at the sole of his expensive Italian riding boot. The toe had almost worn through. Appreciating that he was an eighth of an inch from debriding his foot to the bone, Sledge broke out a sheepish smile and said, I never liked these boots anyway! 

Dirty Northern Bastards


After 10 hours of riding we finally reached Whitehorse a little after 6:00PM. That meant the day was all over bar the drinking. According to them as knows, there’s about 33,000 people in the Yukon, of which 23,000 live in Whitehorse. But far from being filled with crusty old farts dying off in a tourist trap on the edge of nowhere, Whitehorse is pretty chill. Nestled between two sets of rolling hills at a big bend in the Yukon River, it counts among it’s virtues orderly streets, attractive women, handsome men, coffee shops, good restaurants, microbreweries, and the lowest air pollution of any city in the world. Such clean living must pay off. It has a hipster vibe with a young community who were making the most of mid-August’s long, late-summer evenings.

There’s a common idea that internet dating threatens the gene pool because participants pre-filter potential mates that in other circumstances would lead to meaningful, productive relationships. The argument is that our base instincts lead us to Wonder Bread, whereas random chance leads us to 12 grain pumpernickel. Yet, while dining and dating go hand in hand, there’s a reason that the Michelin Guide has lasted for over a century. Choosing restaurants isn’t like getting married and opinions and recommendations are what the internet is all about. Our research pointed us towards the Dirty Northern [Bastard], a gastropub downtown. After 1,500 miles of Molson Canadian, this hoppy little oasis filled with bright young things was a welcome respite. With every intention of writing a blog entry over a quiet pint, I instead got sidetracked by a retired miner who told me his life story. He had run away from home as a teenager and finally found himself physically and spiritually in Whitehorse and never left. Natural resources extraction work, mining, drilling, timber and such-like, was plentiful back in the 60’s and kept him gainfully occupied. His was the kind of work that still attracts young wanderers to this day.

The next morning we set out for Alaska and for the first time things started to feel remote. Foothills and low mountains to our right, while away in the distance to our left lay rugged, snow capped terrain. North out of Haines Junction Kluane Lake kept us company for the better part of an hour. The wide expanse of blue water seemed empty and I wondered what it would be like to sail across it and explore some of the inlets. Chilling rain found us occasionally, but also helped keep the dust down on the long stretches of resurfacing work we had been warned about. On one section we were required to follow a pilot truck. This meant a) waiting 20 minutes for the truck to turn up and lead us through the construction, and b) skittering about on 2-3” surfacing gravel at a speed too slow for safety.

At the border a friendly guard gave us the low-down on pretty much everything and let us back into America. Within minutes of crossing into Alaska we’d seen half a dozen police SUV’s with gun racks. In Canada we’d seen perhaps two police cruisers in five days. I’m not sure what that says about the two countries and how they spend their tax dollars, but I wasn’t sure it made me feel safer, either.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Harleys, Gold Wings and Bitches

Dease Lake is, we were told by a friendly waitress in Smithers, the biggest place on the Stewart-Cassiar highway and worth stopping at. She was right, it is the biggest place for miles around, but that’s not to say that two stores, a gas station and a hotel makes home for many people. From my calculations there were more moose turds than living souls, but perhaps we weren’t looking hard enough. As we signed into the hotel a couple of Harley riders chatted with us about their adventure to Alaska. They said it rained the entire time and that road conditions were pretty miserable. Superciliously we gave their baggers the once over and immediately understood why they hadn’t had any fun. A big heavy cruiser is simply the wrong tool for the job out here. One of the men pointed to Verity and Lily and said, Those your bikes? You guys won’t have any trouble with them. I reconsidered my earlier criticism and decided that perhaps their state of dejection was related more to their having to head home to their wives and work than their choice of motorcycle.

Whitehorse is about 400 miles northwest of Dease Lake, but the road, we were assured by our server at breakfast, ‘is really crappy.’ So bad he’d bent a wheel rim as his car crashed into a pothole in the middle of the road. And they’re doing all kinds of roadworks up north of here, I'd never attempt the same drive on a motorcycle, he assured us. Our conversation had a whiff of grockle-baiting about it. There is no shortage of tourists on motorbikes passing through town at this time of year all asking the same questions, so why not tease them a little? 

Despite a cool, foggy start, the day quickly became glorious. The landscape flattened out onto a high, wet plain. Water ran everywhere as evidenced by the undulating road criss-crossed by culverts and flanked by drainage ditches. Copses of birch, like those in Siberia, were interwoven with the conifers. A forest fire had blown through at some point in the past few years, leaving eerie toothbrush strands of tree trunks in its wake. While not quite whoops, those big dips riders enjoy so much, the bumps in the road livened things up. Where caravans and cars had to slow down, we were at once sailing over the cracks and soaking up the rough ground without issue and made good time. 

At Junction 37 we refueled and turned left onto the ALCAN. Pausing a couple of hours later for soup at the Yukon Motel & Restaurant in Teslin, we were seated next to two men, one in his 30’s the other in his 70’s. Both had just returned from a 10 day kayaking trip on the Yukon River. The old man with his bright eyes and impressive white beard was as gregarious as his partner was taciturn. He recounted tales from his life as an adventurer, gold panner, traveler and entrepreneur. With his wife, he told us, he rode for three years across the country on a six cylinder Honda Gold Wing, towing all their worldly goods in a small trailer. No spring chickens, they one day pulled into a gas station where a gang of Harley riders was busy filling up. Trying to negotiate the gravel he felt his left knee lock up which meant he wasn’t going to be able to deploy the kickstand in time and would drop the bike as soon as it stopped at the pump. Through their intercom his wife said, Don't worry dear, I have this! Anticipating disaster, the bikers watched the scene unfold in silence. As the old man brought the big bike to a standstill his wife leaned forward and pushed the kickstand out just in time. Impressed, one of the bikers turned to his buddy and said, Man! I wish my bitch could do that! His wife roared with laughter! And we had our first belly laugh of the trip. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stewart to the ALCAN - Part 2, The Bugs

Bugs - why did it have to be bugs? I rolled over and imagined how Indiana Jones might have felt if his worst nightmare had been insects rather than snakes. Our peaceful little slice of Canadian heaven in the twilight of evening looked like a genocidal crusade the following morning - at least as far as the bugs were concerned. Imagine for a moment you are riding a motorcycle into a veiled curtain that gives way like smoke in a wind tunnel, only instead of smoke it's clouds of insects falling away to their twisting, turbulent fate - and those are the lucky ones - the ones that missed your windscreen, your radiator grill, your visor, your chest, your nostrils. Caked on every forward edge, mosquitoes, flies, moths, wasps and their myriad cousins slapped into our bikes and piled on.

From inside my helmet the view was pure Jackson Pollock. Guts in yellows, purples, reds and burnt umber splattered and sprayed disarmingly across my visor. If that weren't enough the smell was pure Australian abattoir. That is to say the stink was that of stale blood. If you've ever been in a morgue or tasted death at an autopsy (which, by the way, I have) you'll know what I'm talking about: rusting iron with a nails-on-blackboard olfactory skewer of ozone. (mixing metaphors - surely? - ed.) It came as something of surprise, if only because I'd never considered what a pomace of bugs would smell like.

Pulling into the Bell 2 Lodge (aka Swarm Central) we paused long enough to grab a bite to eat and chatted briefly with two gentlemen about my age and a little older riding Honda Gold Wings. Which way ya headed?, they inquired. North, we said, What can you tell us about the roads? Well, for the most part they're pretty good, except when the Canadians have decided for no good reason to rip things up and make life difficult for motorcycles along the AlCan. We just came across the Top of the World Highway, between Dawson and then on down to Whitehorse. It's all dirt, not bad, but not much fun on these things, they said pointing to their bikes. They weigh about 900 pounds without our luggage!

A Motorcyclist's Map of British Columbia (click to enlarge)
I wondered what I would be like in ten years time trying to pick up a half-ton motorcycle unaided. I'd wait for help is what I'd do. How are the bugs further north? we asked. Not nearly as bad as they are here! Honestly, this is by far the worst we've seen.

Taking them at their word we wiped ourselves off with our designated 'bug cloth.' My vision clearer and with the redolence of arthropod wafting about us we buggered off - northwards.

Stewart to the ALCAN Part 1 - Stewart

Our first experience of British Columbia’s provincial parks was very positive. Neat and tidily laid out, the park at Meziadin Junction lies next to a beautiful lake with the same name (the Meziadin bit, not the Junction bit). With mountains in the background, the lake's still waters serve as a reflecting pool that stretches out along its tree-lined shore for miles. We woke to clear blue skies and the realization that crows had attacked one of the freeze dried meals that we’d inadvertently left outside in a ditty bag. Bloody crows! Bloody messy things! Striking camp, Sledge said that he’d heard the ride down to Stewart was worth the detour and we soon set out in that direction for breakfast.

Less than mile up the road we turned left and found Fjordland, which, honestly, I’d only ever read about in guide books. Books that show aerial pictures of pristine inlets with a cruise ship in the foreground and vertiginous landscape in the background, in other words always looking inland. Based on this perspective, heading towards the sea down a fjord didn’t seem possible. I don’t know why. I guess I thought fjords could only be accessed from the water, but then I thought avocados were weird when I was younger, too. We stopped and marveled at Bear Glacier, worried about global warming briefly, took a few photos and realized that the cloudy little micro-climate we were in was chilly enough to warrant an extra layer. And we both turned on our bike’s electric hand warmers. 

Following the turbulent Bear River’s winding path down towards Stewart led us deeper and deeper into the fissure until we reached a sheer canyon where the road had been carved out of the undersides of a narrow split in the granite looming above us. From there the scenery opened out into a wide estuary that was as naturally chaotic as you’d hope for. Driftwood and bracken piled up on shallow sandbars of river rock scattered across the wide expanse, an ever-shifting navigational hazard courtesy of the spring’s floods. The green, mineral-rich water looked like a kayaker’s playground. 

Stewart dangles like a little good luck charm at the tail end of all this natural grandeur. With a population of just under 500, down from 10,000 at the height of a gold and silver mining boom in the early 20th century, Stewart sits two miles from Hyder, Alaska, at the pointy end of the Portland Canal. This is relevant only because the area was part of a long-running border dispute between Canada and the United States. As you might imagine, the purchase of the Alaska territories from Russia in 1867 was completed with somewhat ambiguous terms and years of wrangling between the United States and Canada ensued until 1903 when a formal treaty was negotiated. The biggest sticking point appears to have been four islands in the Portland Canal (in this case the term ‘canal’ means ‘channel’ since there is nothing man-made about the Portland Canal). A compromise to share the islands 50/50 between the two countries was introduced by the British delegate for the sake of political expediency. A move that so pissed off the Canadian judges they refused to sign the agreement, while news of the British ‘betrayal’ spread like wildfire and fanned the flames of Canadian nationalism for years. We, on the other hand, just wanted some breakfast.  

The Ripley Creek Inn on 5th Avenue houses a restaurant that doubles as a toaster museum. Old toasters are a model of simplicity, but few in this collection were the pop-up type. Each one had an electric element and some novel way of leaning the bread towards the heat. The user still had to watch over things, but could now make piping hot toast on demand at the breakfast table. The Inn's smoked salmon was pretty good, but the coffee needed a little bit more oomph. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

It's Not About The Bike

In the not so distant past I was an avid long-distance bicyclist. Not ultra-long distance, but training rides of 90 miles on a given Saturday weren't outside the norm. At my peak Lance Armstrong was still a force to be reckoned with and was busy convincing people that beating cancer is as much about attitude as it is about drugs (and winning the Tour de France seven times wasn't about the bike, but, as it transpired, about attitude and drugs). Once I graduated to motorcycles I discovered many of the things that I learned bicycling were the applicable to both sports. Motorcycling, like cycling, is a community. We may come from different tribes, but we share a common passion and a common enemy. Cars were still out to kill me and I was still invisible to the idiots behind the steering wheel. 

In bicycling the weight of the bike is inversely proportional to its cost. The less it weighs, the more expensive it is. Exotic materials, exhaustively detailed design and careful manufacturing all play a role in driving up the price. In fact, the cost of high-end bicycles is often as much as motorcycles in their equivalent market segment. Several years ago, my cycling buddy Matt proudly bought a new Specialized that weighed a full 30 ounces less than my beater Fuji. On our next ride I reached down and handed him my water bottle. "Ok, now we're even!" I said. If there was one thing I learned bicycling it was that going fast is about how fit you are, how much fat you replace with muscle, how many hills you climb and how low your resting heart rate is. It was not about the bike, it was about experience and training.

Jim, a mate who motorcycled across Europe and Asia in June this year, told me that out of the group of 20 guys he rode with, he had the slowest, oldest machine among them. Nonetheless Jim was the quickest rider. It is not about the bike, it is about experience and training. To hammer this point further, Sledge and I ride very similar motorcycles from two storied manufacturers. Sledge's bike, Verity, is a BMW f800GS Adventure and mine is Lily, a Triumph Tiger 800XC. Is one motorcycle significantly better than the other? They both weigh about the same, Lily has three cylinders and 10 more horsepower than Verity, but as Sledge pointed out, he's never seen me use the extra power, so who knows if it's actually there? Verity we discovered, is about 10% more fuel efficient, probably due to the lack of a third cylinder. Plus she has a 6.3 gallon tank, while Lily has only five, so I was having to stop for gas more frequently. Yet, apart from the moral advantage of mine being British while his is German, both are reliable, well built, well designed vehicles.

All that meant was I had no excuse other than my relative lack of experience for not keeping up with Sledge, and I was determined that was not going to be a factor. My pulse quickened, and sometimes raced as I pushed myself to test Lily's limits. Lily, however, was so composed, that after our first few days I realized that even though I was riding faster and more confidently, I still wasn't coming anywhere near what she was capable of. Our affair began in earnest. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Smithers - and Beyond

A slim, rangy man, about my age sat at the table next to ours. The North Country Inn is a German  restaurant in a log house with a large stuffed moose on the wall. As soon as I sat down I decided I'd ask for bauernfruhstuck. The waitress stared at me blankly. Farmer's breakfast, I translated, Ach! The farmer's breakfast, ok. Her accent was heavy enough that I asked her where in Germany she was from. No, I am from Quebec, she said, I only work for Germans! Duh-oh! The gentleman at the next table said, I gather you speak German after the way that you so clearly asked for the bauernfrustuck. Flattered, I admitted that I had spent time in Germany many years ago, but that my command of the language was poor then and worse now. Lothar introduced himself with an authentic German accent and asked if he could join us. He had moved to Canada from a small town near Munster almost 30 years ago. Then as a mining engineer he had explored vast areas of western Canada, but now works as an agricultural insurance claims adjuster. There is a lot of land clearing around Vanderhoof and we learned that most of it is used for growing hay and, that while the growing season is short, the days are long and crops grow quickly. Our engaging discussion was wide ranging and covered everything from fear, avarice and the inevitable ascendency of women to power as a positive thing. Eventually, we pulled out our AAA map of British Columbia (Google maps is really useless at providing a big picture) and Lothar helped us with directions. Then it was time to ride. 

The desert valley had long since given way to thick woods and rollling hills that opened out into farmland hewn from the forests generations ago. The road ran alongside rivers lined by poplars and at times we could see clearly for miles. At one point the sky off to our left was thick with smoke from a massive forest fire that posed no imminent danger to us. Passing through the tidy town of Houston, with it's giant flyrod statue, we finally stopped in Smithers at the Harley Davidson dealer for some advice. Tiger Lily's front end was prone to bouncing and it was getting progressively worse, so I asked the service guy, Mike, if he'd be willing to look at it. He said he would, but not for a couple of hours and we went off in search of lunch. We eventually found ourselves at the Mountain Eagle Bookstore, drinking lattes and browsing dozens of local music artist's CD's among the energy crystals and handmade jewelery. Smithers is kind of a happening place, a last stop winter sports/summer artist's enclave before you hit the wilderness. Back at the Harley dealer, the culprit proved to be a poorly worn tire, nothing more sinister. But with no spares in stock, it was time to press on. And on we pressed. 

The Stewart-Cassiar Highway is a favored route for those heading to Alaska on two wheels and soon we were embraced by its lush undergrowth and bear-lined verges. Daylight was drawing to its languid close. The mddle of August still had long sunsets that meant the likelihood of a deer or moose or bear wandering in the gloaming and across our path was much greater at this late hour. I rode with caution - and let Sledge take the lead. Just as it was getting really dark we reached Mediazin Junction and our first campground. We had big goals for the morning and hit ground with a thud. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Yogi Berra (not Yogi Bear, eh!)

Yogi Berra famously said, 'when you come to a fork in the road, take it.' There are two ways to get to Prince George from Kamloops, you can go right along the Yellowhead Highway, or you can go left along the Cariboo Highway. The difference in time, according to Google, is about an hour longer along the Yellowhead, but general internet consensus says it's a prettier route. The Cariboo Highway on the other hand has history on its side. It was originally surveyed and built in the 1860-80's as a means of improving supply lines to the gold miners along the Cariboo range and served as a main artery of the Gold Rush. 

We left our hotel around 9:00AM and rode along the Trans-Canada highway before turning north into a deep, dry valley. This was high desert with tumbleweeds, cacti and scrub brush. The town of Clinton lies at the junction between two earlier Cariboo Roads and retains a bit of it's former charm. Even so, it is a two horse town in one horse territory. We stopped at the Clinton Coffee House for an excellent coffee, so good that I was tempted to buy some beans to bring home. Continuing north we enjoyed a bit of history as we passed through tiny towns with names like 70, 100, 150 Mile House. A few old remnants remained, mostly dilapidated weatherbeaten wooden buildings and the occasional covered wagon (for the tourists). Making good time we arrived in Prince George mid-afternoon and in heat of the day. We stopped for an iced tea and consulted the internet for planning purposes.

Having started the day by turning left, our plan was to take the Stewart-Cassiar highway, which runs up BC's western side to the Yukon Territory. The further north we went, the later nightfall came, and we decided to ride on for another hour and stay in Vanderhoof. Vanderhoof it turns out is the geographic center of British Columbia, a piece of trivia proudly carved into the town's welcome sign. We found a room at the Vanderhoof Inn, which, although it had been renovated recently, nevertheless lacked any more air conditioning than an open window and a fan. After dining sumptuously on chicken wings and Molson Canadian, we left the hotel in search of entertainment. There's not a lot going on in Vanderhoof in the evenings other than the cinema. Eventually we found a bar, had a night cap and called it quits. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Launch Day


All our planning came down to the last four days wherein rivers were diverted, mountains moved and a entire new vistas opened up - AK2AR, part one, was finally ready to roll. And right on cue, August's heat settled over the region like the dying breath of a microwave oven salesman. By now Sledge had been on the road for a week and was completely prepared. I on the other hand had left everything until the last minute, packed, unpacked and repacked several times and in the process delayed the official departure until almost noon. 


Carol kissed me, took photos of us and we were off. Up I-205, onto I-5 and fully into the maw of the end of weekend, midsummer traffic madness. Joining the legions of tired parents with screaming children, we now find texters, phone callers, game players, and all other manner of distracted drivers weaving in and out of their lanes. The worst exemplar being a young woman who braked violently each time she started a new message on her iPhone. Some 15 miles south of Centralia it proved all too much and we turned right and made a beeline towards Yakima along Routes 508 and 12.

At Ellensburg we headed north with the goal of crossing the border at Osoyoos. The heat and summer fires darkened the sky as we drove through the Wenatchee National Forest towards the town of Wenatchee and an Econo Lodge for the evening. For the price, Econo Lodges have seen extensive renovations in the past few years and if you're willing to stop in a retro-style motor court they can be pretty okay.

Monday morning started out warm and only became more oppressive as woodsmoke hung in the air. Outside Wenatchee we saw the effects of the regional fires first hand. Blackened earth and a few sad sticks instead of trees and prairie grass surrounded us on both sides of the highway. Its easy to understand the term 'wildfire' when even the aftermath looks like it burned very fast.

Finally at the border we crossed into Canada after a few cursory questions. Drugs? No. Guns? No. Alcohol? A half liter of Jim Beam. Handguns or rifles? No, but I do have a slingshot. What's that for? I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps you could shoot a bear, you might frighten it if you hit it directly on the nose! (The young agent's eyes crinkled as she laughed in a way that convinced me Sledge would fall madly in love with her. I was mostly right.)

We set Kamloops in our sights after a quick lunch of Italian food at the only open restaurant in Oliver BC, the Amore Pizza Factory. Our journey on route 97 was rudely interrupted by a seething mass of tourists in Penticton: all of whom were driving vaguely and apparently without purpose in the 100F temperatures. Throw in an endless series of traffic lights, and well, let's say it was simultaneously miserable and enraging. Eventually, the road turned towards the countryside and emptied out. Our last 90 minutes of the day was spent sweeping through corners and finally down the steep hillside into Kamloops and our hotel.