NORTH TO ALASKA

( not the exciting one with John Wayne, Capucine and music by Johnny Horton, but theFly & Ride excursion with two guys in their 70’s on rented dual sports in the year before COVID)

JUNE, 2019

Our flight to Alaska was canceled. After months of anticipation, Jay (whose given name is Stuart) and I stood at the Delta counter while two agents tried their best to reschedule us. It was like Central Casting had sent them for the comedy roles: the tall skinny one with the too-neat hair and mustache and the short pudgy rumpled one with the northeastern accent. They were working so hard, tapping keys and talking back and forth in numbers and letters when we heard them say “I’ve got Stuart !” and the other one , “I’ve got Smythe !”. We looked at each other, then at them and said, at the same time, “that’s the same person”. Their expressions were classic. Their efforts were to no avail and we had to come back at 5 AM Friday, the day we had planned to spend exploring Anchorage.

With a four hour time difference, it was mid-afternoon in Alaska as we caught the shuttle from the airport to the Inlet Hotel. Our driver is in his late 40’s, rides a Harley he says, but is moving to Arizona later in the year to be near the kids. He’s getting a Goldwing to ride there, figuring that it will be better for touring with his wife. The Inlet is a tall, cream-colored building, a rather European-style basic hotel near the harbor. From our ninth floor room, we can see distant mountains which we are told, include Denali, shining in the sun that won’t set until 11:30 PM. The PubHouse bar & grille downstairs had a nice selection of taps, from which I settled on the Denali Brewing Chuli Stout in honor of the big mountain outside.

On Saturday morning , Nancy Hall, the co-owner with her husband Keith of Alaska Motorcycle Adventures, fetched us in her pickup truck with a wrecked Kawasaki KLR in the bed. Seems a Spanish tourist had come off of it on the dirt and gravel road to McCarthy, a spot that was to be on our agenda in a few days. At the shop, Sarah, one of the mechanics, professionally looks our assigned bikes over for pre-existing damage and marks the various dings on her sheet. Mine is a 2013 KLR, blue, a new addition to the company fleet just purchased used and low-mileage from a local resident. The 12 volt pigtail I needed for heated gear isn’t installed, so Keith puts it on for me. Jay’s bike is slightly older, black, with a Sargent seat (the good news) and an aftermarket loud exhaust (the bad news). After all the paperwork and cautions about bad roads, large animal collisions, flat tires and limited gas are done, we headed out of town about 11-ish, up Rt 1 through Anchorage and on to Rt. 3, the “Parks Highway” that leads to the national parks along the way. Jay has been here before, during his military career, but the weather on those occasions was so overcast that he hadn’t yet seen the mountains which overlook our progress.

Lunchtime came in Wasilla at the MatSu restaurant, which is not Chinese food as the name had suggested to we lower 48-ers, but is instead the name of the borough (county), derived from a contraction of the Matanuska (Glacier) and Susitna (both a river and a mountain). The waitress tell us that Sarah Palin used to come in all the time, but since she “got famous”, they haven’t seen her. We check in the parking lot and are, sadly, unable to see Russia from here.

Rain had arrived in fits and starts before we got to Wasilla and by the time we were a bit north of the town, it was constant and cold. We found our lodging at Denali Bluffs, in a downpour, with no parking spaces at the inn. A young man from Macedonia came by with golf cart. “I’m the boss here”, he told us (perhaps a slight exaggeration of position) “and you can park where it says not to”. We unloaded our bags from the bikes into his cart and he drove us down a narrow path to a “rustic cabin” which contained our small room. We walked back up the path later to the restaurant on site where the beer selection was adequate though not inspired, but the food was quite good. As we would find everywhere on this trip, salmon is plentiful up here and well prepared.

Sunday we awoke to cold rain and low clouds. We know there are huge mountain peaks ringing the area, but we can’t see them. Our breakfast is served by a Jamaican waitress who, like many of the foreign nationals we will meet in Alaska, works here in the summers, following the tourist seasons through the parks around the country. We rode down to the Denali National park, but though we could see the centerpiece peak from nearly two hundred miles away, now that we are standing next to it, not a clue. We tour the park road, as far as we can go, until a ranger stops us at a kiosk to say that only busses are allowed to proceed from here. We decline to take a tour bus to not see the mountain when we can not see it on our own just fine from the bikes. My KLR has been acting up with occasional hiccups and now it is beginning to get worse. The tachometer has gone wild, going from zero RPM to redline, then stopping completely, then the needle flailing about without any actual connection to what the engine is doing. I’ve seen this before on later BMW airheads, when the battery is failing. My taillight begins flickering, Jay tells me. When we leave the park and head to a gas station, the bike quits, no electrics.

That’s Denali back there somewhere

As Nancy had instructed us, I call the number supplied and get their mechanic on duty. He agrees that it sounds like battery failure, but isn’t certain I can replace a battery myself. A bit frustrated, since I know it will eat up the rest of the day for him to get here to deal with it, I tell him that I’ve been doing this sort of thing longer than he’s been alive and while my skills have diminished, I can handle this. With him still on the phone, we remove seat to get at the battery and discover that when Keith had added the 12 volt pigtail, he evidently had left off the washers (negative pole had some) and the positive pole connection is now just “floating”, having finally vibrated enough to come adrift. The Glitch….I can’t remove or tighten the bolt without a 5mm Allen wrench, which the tool kit doesn’t have. It has an 8, for something, but not a 5. I take Jay’s bike to Healy, ten miles away, to get an Allen wrench and washers to make their repair, hoping that the battery itself is still good. There are two young men at the Ace Hardware, here in the home of self reliance, but I had to explain to them what an Allen wrench was so they could point me to where in the large store it might be. Washer installed, bolt tightened, problem solved. All is good.

As the day progressed and we headed north, weather improved and with the blue skies and sunshine, the vastness of the country is apparent. Up here the mountains seem more distant, the pine forests and rolling hills seeming to go on forever on both sides. There are few signs of habitation, only occasional side roads with a mailbox, and the convenience stores with gas, so ubiquitous back home are completely absent. We spot our first moose strolling across the road and into the bushes on the other side, where she stops to look over her massive shoulder at us, mildly offended as we take pictures of her backside.

It was well past lunchtime when we came to the tiny town of Nenana, population 378, with the Rough Woods Inn where they serve an excellent apple pie with espresso for me and good tea for Jay. We were the only actual customers, though there were several people just passing the time at a center table. We listened as the indigenous women who own and run the place talked among themselves about daily life in this town and delivering the to-go orders to the truckers that supply everything in these parts. With such great distances to cover, these entrepreneurs will bring the men and women drivers food, so the trucks don’t have to be off of the road for long. Their necessities of dealing with the extremes in weather, distance, supply chains for staple items, nearly everything that forms the routines of human existence in a society, are foreign to our experience .

Our destination for the night was Fairbanks, 358 miles north of Anchorage and only 188 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Coming into town, it looks much bigger and far more cosmopolitan than its official population number of 33,000 would suggest. It is the hub of the North Borough which is roughly the size of New Jersey in area. Our modest hotel is by the Chena River, once a major transportation waterway, now supplanted by the highway and the Fairbanks International Airport nearby. The Pipeline, focus of much of the development in Alaska, comes through here.

After a walk around the immediate downtown area, we settle on Lavalles, the restaurant in an old hotel that harkens back to the early days, with a vibe reminiscent of a 1930’s establishment in a black and white movie. One can see the ghosts of travelers, men in double-breasted coats and fedoras, women in tight-waisted jackets and elaborate hats, wandering these narrow halls. This hotel and its restaurant would have dealt with people in transition, coming in for business, moving on to the next place tomorrow. They probably ate meat and potatoes, but for we less hardy travelers, it was an apple, blue cheese salad, with black bottom creme brûlée for dessert. The Denali Single Engine Red on draft bridged the gap between modern cuisine and days past.

Out in bright sunshine Monday, looking like noon though it’s only 6 AM, we walked across the bridge to “The Diner” for breakfast. Everyone seems to be here, so the simple name must be sufficient. The Special includes huge portions of scrambled eggs, home fries with the little crusty bits around the edges and marvelously spicy reindeer sausage. It is far too much, unless I’m going to be hiking the ridges and tree-felling all day, but I do my best to finish it anyway.

We rode up to Fox, where we gassed up and connected to Rt. 6, the Steele Highway headed toward Circle. The mountains in the distance, look softer, not as jagged, perhaps a bit older from some earlier continental collision. There is good pavement for the first 80 miles or so, then suddenly we are on dirt and gravel. The surface is fairly well graded, surprisingly smooth under the KLR’s wheels. These bikes seem to like it here. The road begins to get steeper and we crest Eagle Summit pass, only 3,600 feet but it seems much, much higher. We can feel the temperature dropping as we rise, deep snow appears on the sides of the road, and trees get sparse. Down the other side, we eventually came to the little town of Central, with a gold mining museum and Rick’s bar where the only gas, a single pump off to the side of the gravel parking lot, can be found. Inside, Rick’s mom is holding court at the bar, telling us visitors that after coming to Alaska in her youth for adventure, she has been here in Central since Rick was 17. He is now white bearded, a Santa Claus lookalike, and we are gentlemen enough not to ask her age. She and Rick tell us that in the heyday, some many years ago, there were three bars here, and the big Circle Hot Springs resort 8 miles down side road to draw tourists and locals for merriment. Now all are gone, with just this place, serving as bar, restaurant, grocery store, gas station and community center, surviving. The full time population of the town is 70, with a few more coming in summer.

There is some confusion over Jay’s order (they don’t get many vegetarians here, I think) and he is given a cheeseburger instead of the grilled cheese he wanted. He made a local woman’s day when she walked in seeking just such a meal and Jay gave it to her. Outside we met Ziggy and Fred, who had seen our bikes in the lot and stopped to inspect the newcomers . Ziggy is from Asheville, North Carolina and has trailered his new BMW 310GS up here to stay and ride with Fred, a local resident, for a week or so. He is maybe 30-ish, and reminds me of the comedian David Cross, in appearance and demeanor. Fred is nearer to our age, late 60’s or more, and lives here full time, one of the 70. He looks like a mountain man, long untrimmed beard, dressed more for comfort than style. He rides a new KLR, his second one after wearing out the first. He had a BMW once, but said it broke down and the KLR “never does.” Says he likes Ziggy’s 310 but doesn’t think it has enough power for him. (If the specs are to be believed, it actually has about the same.) We swap riding stories for a bit, as the mosquitos feast upon us, and then Ziggy and Fred depart, throwing gravel and dirt from their rear wheels as they tear away down the side road toward Fred’s home.

We were going on to Circle, another 20 miles or so on dirt to the Yukon River, but Rick tells us that the proprietor of the only store and gas station there, is giving it up. He is elderly and his wife recently died, so he doesn’t see the point anymore. When Rick was up there recently, the store was closed.

Instead, we took the eight mile detour down the dirt road to Circle Hot springs, to see the remnants of the once thriving resort. From all appearances, it must have been a great place to spend a week or two back then, but it is now abandoned and roofs of the various buildings have fallen in under the weight of Alaska’s winters. Nature here requires constant vigilance to maintain human intrusions. There are “no trespassing” signs everywhere and we decide that in this remote place, a closer look is not worth the bullet to ignore the warnings.

Our return trip was faster, since we now are more comfortable with these bikes and the road. We are skimming along the dirt and gravel at 50 mph, sometimes more, with the KLR suspensions soaking up all but the worst of the bumps, tires drifting gently back and forth along the surface as the gravel gives the tires what it will for traction and direction. On the paved section, Jay spots an eagle’s nest on a tall pole and we stop for a bit to watch the mama tend to some chicks. She is briefly upset by our interference, circling around the nest with warning calls, but quickly decides we aren’t worth the effort and returns to maternal duties. We gas up again at Fox (never, never pass up a chance for gasoline in Alaska) and make a brief stop at a roadside park where a section of the Pipeline can be seen. It seems to be completely unguarded, with tourists like us wandering around and under it at will, but I suspect there is some security that we don’t see preventing us or them from doing it harm. At least I hope so.

Back at our hotel at supper time, an 11 hour day, nearly 300 miles with well over 100 on dirt. Too tired to walk far, we opt for dinner at Big Daddy’s next door where a guy on a barstool hears us debating the tap choices and launches into his advice lecture on the subject, making very specific recommendations backed up with chapter and verse of beer technology and art. He is dressed as a hipster, baggy pants with suspenders, small white straw hat perched on his head inside the bar, well trimmed and perhaps dyed beard thrust forward and waggling as he educated us. He has waited all evening for this opportunity. We do try one of his choices and it isn’t bad.

6/4

Our Diner was closed on Tuesday morning, so we had “breakfast” in the hotel basement. On our way out of Fairbanks we stopped in at the large BMW dealer on Karen Way, out near the airport, where we wandered around among the bikes and goodies on offer and talked with some staff and customers. Upon hearing that we were doing a “fly and ride” all seem to agree on one thing, that the road here from the lower 48 is an ordeal, a real destroyer of bikes, and that renting someone else’s machine for exploring Alaska was a good idea. We have arrived on their “winter clearance” sale day and Jay found a good deal on Klim cold weather gloves, but, alas, there were none of those in my size. Though what the locals consider to be the real winter is over here, it’s still cold enough for us pampered folks from the warmer regions to appreciate such gear. After a brief confusion involving closed roads, we found our way over to Route 2 headed south, the east side of the Circle, down to Delta.

We saw a sign for “Rikka’s Roadhouse State Park which promised both some history and lunch with pie. Back in the early days of “settlement” up here, roadhouses sprung up along what was then a pack trail from the seaport of Valdez to Eagle, on the Dawson River. In 1898, the US Army constructed a road, later called the Richardson Highway, to offer an “All American “ route into the gold fields during the Klondike rush. Over the years, as the paths became roads, these outposts expanded, becoming hubs for commerce. This one, at the site of a ferry across the Tanana River, became owned by a woman from Sweden, Rikka Wallen, who began as a cook for one of the previous owners, then eventually took over and developed the site into what is there today. Several buildings are gathered around a main house which served as headquarters for the roadhouse and lodging for travelers.

South of Delta, the road is how I imagined Alaska would be, a series of curves in a canyon following a rushing glacial stream with enormous mountains looming over us on the sides, so high that from the road the tops can’t safely be seen. Craning one’s neck back that far would result in a dunking of bike and rider and the water coming off of the glaciers is, I’m sure, really, really cold.

Our destination for the day was the Denali Highway, crossing the diameter of the circle route, going back to the area of Denali National Park. We had read that this road was about 140 miles of dirt with the big mountain at the end…just what we were looking for. It was a bit worrisome when we found the gas station at Paxson closed up and abandoned, but decided to go on anyway. It would have been many miles back to Delta and we figured, “It all will work out, it always has”. This time, at least, it did. Gas was available at an outpost at Tangle River, near where the pavement ended. As is somewhat typical here, there is a gravel parking area with a complex of a few small rooms to rent, like a 50’s style motel, a single gas pump under a wooden shelter, and a dark, very smoky bar, with the lighted screens of gambling machines glowing in the haze, where we go inside to pay. Although most public places in Alaska are non-smoking, this is far from any population center and rules are “optional”. The locals sitting at the tables, playing cards and drinking beer from the bottle barely look up at the strangely dressed visitors.

Gassed up, we head west into what would be the setting sun, if it did that sort of thing up here, with Denali and its brethren visible all the way, snowcap shining brightly.

Then the pavement disappeared, replaced by awful gravel, deep and marble-like over very hard packed dirt, more like bad asphalt. Not the kind of dirt road we had enjoyed in other places, this was skittery and uncertain, with deep gravel making progress difficult, producing constant seat-clenching episodes . Slowing down meant the front wheels dug into the gravel, threatening a washout and speeding up produced the feeling of waterskiing above one’s ability, knowing that to then slow down raised the prospect of digging in the front, while continuing to increase speed had a very predictable outcome. Add to that the deep potholes, sometimes hidden, but not softened by gravel, and the sum came out as “not as much fun as we’d like”.

An hour or so later, we were glad to arrive at the McClaren River Lodge where we had reserved our room. It is a rustic place, , very friendly, with multiple resident dogs who wander in and out at will. They lounge around the “dining room” of the small lodge as we are checking in, raising their heads when the staff half-heartedly attempt to shoo them out. The dogs, we are told, have the run of the place most of the year, but are supposedly “trained” to stay out of the dining area when tourists are around. Like dogs everywhere, they have learned their humans well and know that they can stay where they want until the orders get more seriously delivered. We assure the staff that we are dog people and actually prefer to have the critters around while we eat. The dogs seem to understand the transaction and lower their ears, put their heads back between front paws and resume their naps.

The complex here is spread out over a large graveled plot, maybe a couple of acres, on two levels, bordering a backwater “lake” from the McClaren River that runs on the other side of the property. There are groups of wooden cabins spread out along the back side of the complex, with an older row on the “high” side behind the main lodge building and a newer set of small duplex units on the “low side” overlooking the backwater. Our room is in one of these, with a small unrailed open deck overlooking the swans swimming in the lake. The room is tiny, maybe 10 x 15 or so, with two double beds a tower lamp between them and no other furniture of any kind. There is a bathroom with shower, about the size of one in a camper trailer, with the sink out in our room, on the wall. There is no place to hang or even set down anything, other than on the floor, so we drag the two plastic lawn chairs off the deck and press them into clothes rack duty.

Outside, there is the machinery that keeps a place like this going. In a shed dug into the hillside there are large fuel tanks for generators, some machine-shop and welding equipment and an airplane wheel which suggests they are ready for any kind of transport into this area. Parked nearby is the most elaborate snowplow vehicle I have ever seen, looking more like some sort of lunar transport device from a science fiction movie. We realize that this is a groomer for the snowmobile trails in winter, a specialized piece of equipment that will go anywhere in the deep snow and leave a wide smooth road behind it. The teenage boy that still lives in a part of my brain immediately wants to drive it.

The owners of this lodge complex are , like a lot of the Alaskans we meet, ex-military, a married couple, who came to this place after retirement from service. They spend part of the year in a warmer place, but are here in the snowy months for the winter tourists. The place is open most of the year, biggest tourism here is in winter when snowmobiles allow access to places inaccessible the rest of the time. “We can go anywhere then”. A constant stream of hardy visitors come here for the fishing, hunting, and snowmobile trekking.

The husband -owner, who also rides a bit, tell us that the gravel is worse, deeper with more bad surface underneath, from here the remaining 90-plus miles to the Denali end. We have booked two nights here, intending to go over to Denali and back again, but he says, “I’m not trying to run you off, but on a motorcycle the next 90 miles are not going to be any fun.” Having found the previous 40-something miles to have been more that we wanted, we took his advice and checked out in the morning.

6/5

In the morning, we took the long nerve-wracking gravel route back down to Paxson and turned south, headed toward McCarthy. Route 2 is pretty much uninhabited along this stretch, just two lane blacktop bordered by endless pine forests with mountain peaks jutting above in the distance. Eventually we come to the town of Glenallen,at the crossroads with 4, where gas and food are available. There are two gas stations and the nice clerk at the one we choose tells us that there are three restaurants, of a sort, but she recommends “The Freeze” as being preferable. It is a modular-looking small building, much like an older style Dairy Queen inside, offering burgers, fries and, as an afterthought, salads for the wimpy southern visitors. At the table next to us are a couple of truck drivers, one as large as any two humans. I ponder how he gets in the cab of his truck, but discretion being the better part of valor, I don’t ask him.

We miss the turnoff to Chitina the first time, later finding that the marker to this road is visible only coming from the south. Not sure what the thinking on that might have been at the DOT. We realize we’ve gone too far and make our turnaround right at the base of a mountain that looks almost exactly like an enormous ice cream sundae, with the streaks of snow as ice cream and the brown surface showing through as the hot fudge. Makes me hungry for dessert, which I might have ordered if we weren’t a half day’s ride from anyplace that might offer it.

Chitina, population 126, is reached by a dead end paved road of about 30 miles, bordering a long glacial lake. Where the pavement ends, the optimistically named McCarthy Highway begins, 60 miles of dirt, some not much better than single track trail. This was where the unfortunate Spanish tourist had wrecked the KLR we saw in the rental company’s truck at the beginning of our journey and the place we were warned about as being the most likely spot for flat tires. Oh yes, and bears. Watch out for the bears. We fuel up at the unmanned single gas pump (as my son later said when we showed him the picture, “looks like an ATM for gas”) and head into the breach.

The McCarthy Highway was named by either someone with a perverse sense of humor or someone who had never seen an actual highway. It is 60 miles of dirt and gravel, some of it rutted like a single track trail, bordered with abandoned railroad rails in some places. About halfway in there is a high railroad trestle off to the left where the old tracks lead, leaning like a drunk on a lamppost, just waiting to fall. The railroad was built through here for copper miners, back in the day, going through McCarthy and on to Kennecott, four more miles down at the end of the road. Kennecott was the working town where the mines and processing plants were located and McCarthy was where the miners and others came to blow off steam with a variety of entertainments, some legal, some not, on offer. Kennecott is now a National Park and McCarthy is, well, still McCarthy.

Near the terminus is a large sign warning travelers not to take this road any farther. Seems that by this time, the traveler might already know that. We went on.

The “road” ends at a gorge, with a pedestrian bridge across into the town. We had been told at the rental company that our metal panniers were chosen to be just narrow enough to allow our bikes to cross the bridge, so that we wouldn’t have to leave the motorcycles and walk in. Some of the pedestrians on the bridge look at us strangely as we follow them across, feathering our clutches to avoid scooping up a walker or two as we go.

A few hundred yards up from the crossing is the historic “town” of McCarthy, reduced now to a smattering of buildings including our old -looking hotel (which we later learn is a reconstruction, using bits and pieces from others that had been here), a bar across the street and some supporting commercial establishments. The general store is more modern than the other places, stocked with everything one might need from food to clothing to tire repair equipment. The other visitors seem to all be younger than us, fit people here for hiking, bicycling and river adventures…and drinking. Lots of drinking. Also in town is a contingent of glaciologists, half of them Chinese and the other half US-based graduate students, come to study the Kennecott Glacier which runs through this valley. In addition to our hotel, there are numerous backpacker-style hostels and lodging rooms for such hardier folks.

We check in to our tiny room, distributing our gear as best we can across the floor leaving a walkway to get in and out. In keeping with the historic nature, there is no AC and the bathroom facilities are shared, across the hall. Making our way across the dirt Main Street, we meet bartender Megan who hails from northern Kentucky, happy to see fellow Bluegrass staters. An adventurous young woman, she tells us that she was working in a Newport bar when she read an ad offering work and lodging for summer jobs here in Alaska and decided on a whim to go for it.

Later we opt for some porch-sitting in the rockers at the front of our hotel, sipping a little bourbon, watching as dogs play in the dusty street and the youngsters are getting tuned up for a night of various excesses that we old folks know their bodies will regret in the morning.

In the early daylight, (not “dawn”, that would have been about 3 AM) Jay and I went exploring around the town, walking the few dirt and gravel streets and down by the river. There is a separate vehicle bridge for the local residents, closed by a locked chain link fence, access to which costs dearly we are told. If you really, really want or need a vehicle that won’t come across the footbridge, you can pay a hefty monthly fee for a key to the gate. Near the gate is an outfitter and water adventure company occupying a large old house. Some of the youngsters we saw last night are bivouacked here, draped around the house, in tents or on the porch, with various bits of nylon clothing strung on lines to dry. They won’t be up and functional for a while. In the river, a few yards from the bank, is an old van, mired up to the hubs in a sandbar, apparently being used as a party hut. Ahh, to be young again…no, wait, the hangover might not be worth it.

Along the lower road are private houses, many with extra rooms for the summer employees. There is the huge generator, the size of a house, supplying electrical power for the town, the one we heard starting and stopping all night through our open window.

It is still too early for the breakfast, so we sit in the tiny lobby of the hotel to wait. The hotel manager brought us coffee and tea. He is a slightly built, very busy guy, mid-50’s or so, closely cropped graying hair, black-rimmed glasses, with an air of quiet confidence about him. He says he can do this in summers, and live wherever he wants in the world, because of his “past life”, smiling but not saying what that was. It brings to mind the beginning of John LeCarre novels where the “retired “ MI-6 agent gets called back from just such a secluded life to do more extraordinary things.

Breakfast was at the Bistro when it opened at 7, next door to the bar across the street. There is a pleasant young woman serving “no choices, you get what I’m offering”, which turns out to be very tasty scrambled eggs and thick slices of grilled ham with properly done home fries. Jay’s a vegetarian, so I do my best to eat both pieces.

Outside we talked with the glaciologists who were laying out their complicated measuring equipment and loading up a truck to go down to the glacier. They, both the Americans and the Chinese scientists, are not fans of “head in the sand” environmental policies. No question, they say, that advanced global warming exists, is human caused and becoming irreversibly dire.

We packed up and rode the four miles of dirt down to the town and mine site at Kennecott. A Lynx ran across a few yards in front of me, a tall, impossibly long legged cat with a relatively small body, as if somehow a Kentucky bobcat had mated with a Great Dane. At Kennecott, the Park Ranger confirmed with a photo what I had seen, telling me that the warming weather had resulted in a bumper crop of snowshoe hares this season so the lynx are happy.

In one of the restored buildings, we watched a video including old films of mine and processing operations in the early 1900’s. The use of the available technology of the time to extract every bit of copper from the ore was amazing, and the environmental impact horrifying. The mine and processing plant operated 364 days per year, despite the Alaskan winters, closing only for Christmas.

Beside the town, the Kennecott Glacier is way, way down in its canyon now, covered in a debris field twenty feet or more deep, such that we can’t see the ice. Picture the dirt left behind in one winter by melting snow in a parking lot, then multiply that by 10,000 years.

Ending our tour of Kennecott, we reverse down the dirt road again, but Jay suddenly turned around having realized that he had lost his phone. He is met by a guy on a four-wheeler, coming up the road, holding the missing phone in his hand. What are the odds ?

A few miles from McCarthy, a large black bear, bigger than the NC and TN bears we are used to seeing, strolled out of the woods on to the road and stopped to stare us down. I thought there would be a cub crossing, as have seen in those mountains, but no, this bear just wanted us to know who is boss here. We didn’t argue the point.

As we came back into Chitina, there is a moose swimming placidly in One Mile Lake. She stops briefly to look at us, then proceeds on with her swim. “Can’t a girl get some privacy ?”

We were, of course, in rain off & on as we went down to Valdez, but it cleared as we got to the mountain range just north. As we ascend the spectacular Thompson Pass, I decided not to stop for pictures because it was getting “late” (by the clock, not the sun) which turned out to be a mistake. Never count on the weather in Alaska.

Valdez, with its large arch over the entrance to town, is the southern end of the pipeline that starts up at Prudhoe Bay. There is a refinery at the terminus, though gas is still expensive here, within a mile of where it’s being made. The big tankers come in at that harbor, which is around the point from Valdez, not easily seen. The city is all new since 1964, having been moved four miles away after the Good Friday earthquake, to this side of the harbor. The prior site was razed and made into a park after being deemed too unstable for resettling.

Our motel is a large, industrial looking affair, more functional than stylish. The room is tiny, with no furniture other than the two beds and some sort of small shelf thing under the window. We resort to hanging our riding gear from the water pipes that go across the ceiling. The desk clerks are a young couple who have moved here for this job, where they can live on site during the summer seasons and go elsewhere for different work when the motel, along with most of the town, is closed for the winter. Despite being an “ice free harbor”, we are told Valdez is the snowiest town in Alaska, getting an annual average accumulation of 25 feet. That is taller than a two story building. When you’re shoveling out the 6 inches from your driveway next winter, lift your gaze up high and give a moment of thought for that figure. In the worst of the winter the closed business lots, like our motel, are used by the city to “store” the snow pushed from the streets. We didn’t see it, but apparently they have some really impressive machinery to deal with the snowfall.

We walk through town to the waterfront for supper at the Wheelhouse overlooking the harbor. Not exactly memorable food or drink, but waitress Mickey who is an Alaskan, returning after having spent some time in Texas, is a font of local information.

On the recommendation of the motel clerk, we found TraDa’s a few blacks away for breakfast. Operated by its effusive owner and his shy daughter, the place opens at 4 AM to service the boat workers and others who start their day early, and need a lot of food to tide them over. We had no such plans, but ate all that was offered anyway. From there we walked down to the Valdez Museum, to stroll through exhibits of pioneer days here and watched a video of interviews with people who experienced the 1964 earthquake. Some were adults living and working in the town, some were boys at the time, playing on the docks when the quake hit. Several recall seeing a large cargo ship from the bay with its rear launched 30 feet in the air, water dripping off the propellor, then thrown up on the dock and back out to sea by the tsunami-like waves. I had been in college with a guy from Anchorage who was an early teen when it hit. He had described to me riding his bicycle down to center of town where one side of the street was now dozens of feet lower than the other. Later we rode over to the old Valdez site, now a sort of park, where we met a 64 year old man, who had been a child here in 1964, walking there with his wife, grandkids and dogs. He recalled the town as it was then, showing us around to where the docks were, and gestured down the gravel path to where his house had been before the quake’s destruction.

There is a road around the bay to the pipeline terminus, but “civilians” can’t get too near for security purposes. From the pullouts along the water, we can see Valdez across the water, but except for the cruise ship docked there, it is hard to tell it is a city at this distance. These little park-like pullouts have tables, barbecue grills and lots of bear warnings posted everywhere. Throw those steaks on the grill, but be prepared to run for your SUV.

Back in town we stopped along the harbor strip to discuss where we might find lunch when a woman walked up to us and pointed at two of the restaurants. “Lunch at the Fat Mermaid, dinner at Mike’s” she says with confidence. We took her suggestions and were not disappointed. The Fat Mermaid provided an excellent quinoa bowl and conversation with the Turkish waiter who is finishing up his PhD at the university.

Motorcycle dual sport travel comes with the necessity to do laundry, so we spent a couple of hours at the facility within our motel. There we met an Amish woman at the washers, dressed in traditional garb, with several baskets. She tells she is “old order” but she and 12 others, including children, drove up here from Indiana in a 15 passenger bus and she seems proficient at using the electric laundry equipment. Later saw one of the younger males of the group watching tv in the breakfast lounge, playing on his iPhone. As with many other subjects in life, there is a lot about the Amish that I do not know.

Under dense cloud cover we checked out in the morning and headed for Sheep Mountain. Heavy fog over the mountains occluded any view fromThompson Pass, making it hard to see more than 50 feet in front of the bike. I missed my chance to take a photo as we came in. On the way up we passed a family we had seen the day before in town. A man and woman, with a small child maybe 5 years old at most, on three bicycles loaded for travel. On the pass today, the child was perhaps in the man’s trailer, marked “Baby” on the back. Not sure where they’d stashed the extra bicycle. They were pedaling hard up the steep grade, but appeared to be happy about it. We went up to Worthington Glacier, but any view from there was fogged in as well. In and out of cold rain all the way to Glenallen, though the fog cleared enough to see the mountains on both sides, deep creeks and rushing water, so beautiful, but so common up here that it quickly becomes routine. What I first thought was a groundhog turned out to be a porcupine on the side of the road, munching grass. Sun had returned by our gas stop at Glenallen, where we ate lunch outside at a Thai kiosk, and talked to some Chinese and Philippine dip-netters. Not sure exactly what that sport entails, but they were excited about it.

The rain/sun alternations continued all the way to Sheep Mountain. At a pullout for leg-stretching and photos, we met two local guys on HD’s, one on trike conversion, both sporting lots of buttons and patches on their vests. They tell us that there was a brief “spring” a few weeks ago, then the snow returned until this week. Lucky us.

Sheep Mountain Lodge is nice, consisting of several rustic cabins on the hillside and a restaurant with excellent apple pie. We struck up a conversation with two couples at the next table who say they ride too and have recently done an Eidleweiss Tour of Europe. One of the women, no doubt visually impaired, said I“had a Sean Connery thing going on”. I thought about trying to adopt a Scottish accent, but didn’t.

Mark the owner of the lodge lets us ride bikes up the grass slope to our cabin. He’s a young fellow, a rider as well, with a dirt bike and a Triumph 800 Tiger at home. Mark tells us that snow motorcycling with a ski track kit on his YZ, is “the best thing he’s ever done” and recommends it highly, saying we should come back in the winter to try it. Ah, the exuberance of youth, where a fall at speed from a dirtbike brings laughter and maybe some soreness in the morning, not hospitalization…..too young to understand what being our age is like.

There are some of “our kind” up here. We met with two guys our age, maybe one is older, on rented BMW 800s, from same rental company as us. They have done a similar route to ours, but included a glacier flight over Denali. Back home they live in southern California, and ride in Baja. I took their pictures for them at the lodge and as they wandered around the grounds

Out early the next day, headed down to Palmer because the restaurant at Sheep Mountain isn’t open til 8. Despite the name of the place, we have yet to see sheep. In Palmer we find a very good breakfast at the very busy Noisy Goose cafe.

On our way out we visited the “only domesticated Musk Ox Farm in the world”. It didn’t open until 10, so we just took some photos of the huge, hairy beasts with their helmet-like horns and left, pondering just what makes a “domestic” Musk Ox. Do they do laundry, cook, light housecleaning ? Perhaps make good housepets ?

It is cold and overcast as we follow the huge Matanuska Glacier through its eponymous valley below. We can easily see where it once had been, many miles longer, now receded.

A moose standing near the pavement watches us passively as we approach, chewing slowly, until returning into the forest as if we are too boring to hold its interest. A mile or two later, a second one looks at us briefly from the side of the road then bolts forward in front of us, running like a horse…I didn’t know they could really do that…across the highway, big hooves clopping on the hard surface, and disappears into the woods on the other side. Knowing that they can trot that quickly heightens my awareness considerably.

We take a short detour over to the coastal port of Whittier, through what I shall always think of as “the Tunnel of Impending Doom”. There is a $13 toll to use the tunnel and when we arrive at the booth on our motorcycles, the operator leaves his place to come out and give us the “motorcycle lecture” and hands us the safety brochure. He and it inform us that the tunnel is 2.5 miles long (longest in North America, we are told) with a road surface only 11’ 6” wide. The rails are less than 5 feet apart, but with a channel of about 4 inches on the inside of each side of the rail for the train wheels, leaving less than 4 feet between to ride on. The toll operator emphasizes that if our tires are less than 4 inches wide,(the front ones are and the rear ones only a bit wider) they will go down in the channel and cause a crash. The tunnel is shared with the train and automobiles in alternating sessions and motorcycles go alone after the last cars have finished the trip. This is because when motorcycles crash, the crews have to go in there to drag them out. In the warning brochure, there is a section on the tunnel lights, including the sequence of flashes to watch for if you have been in the tunnel too long and a train is coming. You are instructed to get off your bike, leave it there and run for the nearest “safety” spot, a cubbyhole in the tunnel wall, where you can watch the locomotive smash your machine. I’m trying to figure just how I would explain that event to the lady at the rental company. We waited about a half hour for our turn, lining up with a young military man and his wife two up on a Harley with open pipes. We let them go first. If had been paint stripes 3 feet apart, anyone could have gone through at 50mph without a second thought. But after being warned “get in a rail channel and you will crash” and “if you are in there too long, the train will crush your bike”, the ride through at 25 mph was a nervous exercise. Just for spice, there are exhaust fans near each end, which give you a blast of air across your path as you go by. The sense of relief as you and the bike exit into daylight, making the 90 degree turn across the rails, is marvelous.

Whittier, a ferry docking and commercial port location, is tiny, with just one circle and one street on the harbor. There is a single residence building, apparently containing everything but the harbor side tourist stuff. Google “Town under one roof” for more information. Outside a restaurant, we met some German tourists and their German friend who has lived here for 52 years. The resident says, in a heavy German accent, that “everything was different back then”. He tells us that in those days, the train driver would stop for a while on this side of the tunnel to let passengers fish, if requested.

On the way back out, I could see the bright glow at the end of the tunnel and thought it was my cataracts making it look like a headlight…but it was in fact a headlight, of a train, waiting impatiently to enter the tunnel. This tunnel experience was not on my “bucket list”, but I’m going to add it just so I can check it off and not do it again.

Our destination was the harbor town of Seward, down on the Kenai Peninsula. Kentucky history will tell you that it was Ambassador to Russia, Cassius Marcellus Clay of Madison County, who actually initiated and negotiated the sale of Alaska to the US, but Secretary of State William Seward, a Clay nemesis , took all the credit. So for we Kentuckians, this town should be named “Clay, Alaska”. It looks more “old west” than some others we’ve seen here, built on the slope going to the water. Across from our lodging is an old hotel, restored, that would be at home in a black and white John Wayne movie. It has a restaurant, but like others on this street at this hour, there is a waiting line to get in.

We stroll up to another street and find, for me, an excellent halibut yellow curry at the Seward Brewing Company. The beer list is interesting but heavy on the ultra-hoppy IPA’s, catering to a younger crowd than us, but still a good place to be and we didn’t have to wait to get in.

From our room the next morning, we can see a bald eagle flying by our balcony, something unfortunate that must have had other plans for the day, carried in its talons. Ruined its day, made the eagle’s. Fortunately, we have less strenuous options for breakfast.

Later we walked along the waterfront down to harbor. Over the years I have developed the habit of picking up a Swiss Army Knife on significant (foreign or long) trips as my souvenir. I engrave on the handle the location where I got it and that way I have a memento that I actually use instead of something gathering dust on a shelf. Fortunately the manufacturer makes lots of models, so repeats haven’t been much of a problem. I hadn’t spotted one for sale yet on this trip and wanted to make one last shot at finding one. It is about one mile around the waterfront from our hotel to the dock area, a pleasant walk that takes us past some historical markers (Seward is “mile 0 “ of the Iditarod Trail to Nome but the race now apparently starts in Anchorage) and by the campground where folks can pull their RV’s almost to the water’s edge. We spent some time talking with a young woman and her grandparents about their nice camper van, the long journey they had made up here to hopefully convince her that she didn’t need the boyfriend of whom they didn’t approve, and, petted her dog. In the dock area is “the Fish House” which is neither a restaurant or a fish market now, but rather a large “everything shop” where one can buy hardware, outfitter supplies, some groceries, clothing, etc. There may even be some fish for sale there, but I didn’t see them. They did, however, have a Swiss Army Knife that would serve my purpose. Across the road there is a Norwegian cruise ship in harbor, with lots of folks in cruise clothes wheeling luggage down the sidewalk to get to the train station. One of them tells us that their cruise includes a train journey up into the country we’ve just come from. Seeing them all in line with their little rolling cases, I think I prefer our method of travel.

With time now growing short, we make the ride back up to Anchorage in sunshine, blue, mostly cloudless skies, no fog, and on this Monday morning, very little traffic. We pass a tributary leading to the sea where an unfortunate whale has met its demise on a sandbar. Alaska doesn’t mark its roads well, resulting in us losing Rt. One a few times. I guess the locals already know where they’re going.

Back in Anchorage, we have only a a couple of hours until we turn the bikes in, so we find lunch at Paris Cafe downtown. In keeping with its name, the restaurant offers excellent, delicate, flaky pastries. The personable owner tells us that she has a young baker, not yet out of her teens, whom she hired on a whim. The girl, she says, is a natural and her product confirms that opinion.

Reluctantly, we turned the bikes in, no problems or unexpected dings found on inspection, and got a ride to the Lakefront Hotel. Suddenly it was all over and we were just another set of tourists, waiting for our flights out in the morning. The hotel is across the highway from the airport and features its own “airstrip” on the lake. We enjoy a beer or two on the patio, watching the float planes take off and land. Several are parked in front of houses that dot the shoreline, the very picture of an idyllic life apparent in this summer evening.

THE TAKEAWAY

Apparently, one could deduce from our hotel and motel experience here, no one in Alaska travels with any clothes, or perhaps because of the cold, they are wearing everything they have, all the time, so have no need for closets, shelves or any device on which to hang something. Having such conveniences seems to be very, very low on room designers’ priority list.

The KLR 650’s were exemplary for this place combining good road manners, steady and smooth, with more than enough off road prowess for the likes of us. Power was never an issue, though specs say only 35 horsepower, a meaningless figure with the tractable torque. Nothing, short of subtracting 35 years from our ages, would have been good on Route 8’s deep gravel, so that one bit of unpleasantness wasn’t the bike’s shortcoming. The bikes returned decent gas mileage, always a consideration when fuel is so hard to come by up here. We both often reached for a 6th gear that wasn’t there. But at the low end, where it really counts, anything from 2,000 rpm and above, the bike will tractor away with no problem. On pavement the KLR handles curves well, even with 50/50 Heidenau tires, its longer wheelbase making it less twitchy than, for example, my DR650.

I’ve not included much commentary about the scenery, though that is said to be the draw for coming here. I’ve ridden in the Alps and Rockies, which aren’t as high in actual vertical measurements but seem more so because the roads go up and over them, following centuries old paths. (Denali, at over 20,000 feet above sea level, is the highest peak in North America and, we are told, is a longer climb from base to summit than Everest, at 29,000 feet, which “starts” at a much higher base). In Alaska, the roads we traveled went around the mountains, so the feeling of ascent is lesser, though the sense of the peaks looming overhead is there. Instead, it is the vastness of the country that impresses. The emptiness, mostly devoid of signs of habitation, stays with me, but it is difficult to express, like trying to prove a negative or explain infinity. The forests go on to the horizon, the mountains that seem so dominant in one place quickly disappear behind the stands of trees along the roads. Power lines and poles are not along every road as they seem to be down where we come from, with many small towns using a combination of solar and generators for electricity. Services such as food, gasoline and other “necessities” are few and quite far between, leaving the rider with an aloneness that is not found down here in the “lower 48” not even in places like Montana or Wyoming or Idaho. “Civilization “ is looser. We saw a house in a remote place on a long lonesome highway with a small plane in the driveway. It is clear that the owner uses the road as his or her runway. We took pictures, but looking at them is the difference between a photo of the ocean versus standing on the beach at the water’s edge. Words, at least the ones I know, in any order I know how to place them, cannot begin to convey the spaciousness. You have to be there and I’m glad I was. We met many people for whom this is, with all its inconveniences, the exact place they want to be and they are more than willing to exert a great deal of effort to live here. I’m not one of those, at least not at my age now, but I certainly can understand the appeal.

If you haven’t been, perhaps you should go. Just stay out of the tunnel.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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