Sunday, June 27, 2010

Alaska Ride, Day 14

Doing a motorcycle camping trip isn't something I'd normally do by myself; I love having the company of friends and it makes me more safe knowing I have people there should something happen.

Having said that, today I left Mike and Paul behind. Both of them were taking their shots at the Dalton Highway, trying to reach Deadhorse, AK, the furthest north you can ride on a street motorcycle. But it's no easy task. It's a rough dirt road, and they say it's very slippery riding in the rain. And of course, the weather reports had called for rain.

I left Chena Hot Springs this morning and did the 60 miles back into Fairbanks. And when I got to Fairbanks, I stopped at McCafferty's Coffee Shop in downtown and sent off a text to Mike just in case he might be in town. After 45 minutes, I got no response.

McCafferty's Coffee House, downtown Fairbanks, AK

In fact, I wasn't sure how long it would take for Mike and Paul to return to Fairbanks, could be another day, or it could be a few more days, or maybe longer depending on the weather. And there were other places I wanted to go on this trip.

So I headed down the Richardson Highway, Highway 2, south towards the Canadian border. The Richardson Highway is much like all the other major highways in Alaska. A lot of straight road, no twisties, and lots of construction. Between Fairbanks and Tok, there were places they tore out the asphalt and covered over with gravel. It rained on and off, but the gravel sections were not muddy, and quite easy to ride on.

The Richardson Highway (highway 2) by Big Delta State Historic Park, AK

Arriving in Tok my gas tank was near empty. The Honda ST has a fuel economy meter, showing me what my miles per gallon is every 20 seconds or so. I was maintaining an awesome 52mpg average between Fairbanks and Tok. And by the time I reached Tok, I had done 342 miles on a single tank of gas, besting my previous record of 331 miles.

I checked my cell phone to see if I had received a message from Mike or Paul. None. I sent Mike a text that I reached Tok, and that I would be here to eat lunch, but never got a message.

At Tok, a rider has the decision of taking the Top of the World Highway (Highway 9) north to Chicken and eventually to Dawson City, YT, or take the Alaskan Highway (Alcan Highway 1) south to Whitehorse, YT. The three of us agreed that on the return home we'd take the Top of the World Highway and visit Dawson City.

Except doing this meant having to endure about 79 miles of dirt road with some extremely high elevations. I mean they call it the "Top of the World Highway" for that matter. Earlier this morning I had already checked the weather report for the Top of the World Highway, and it had called intermittent rain, with periods of heavy downpour. That meant 79 miles of mud. And when I reached that Highway, I looked as far as I could see and I saw dark grey storm clouds up ahead. I decided not to attempt it, and took the Alaskan Highway towards Whitehorse.

But the Alaskan Highway would only be a little less worrysome.

The Alaskan Highway (highway 1), gravel section in the rain
It's actually not that bad to ride on.

I got to about 10 miles from the Canadian border when I hit a construction zone. They had tore out the asphalt, and right now it was muddy. A line of cars had been stopped and I stopped my motorcycle right behind them. A flagman ordered me to the front of line, because they knew that in muddy conditions motorcycles needed to maintain speed in order to keep from sliding out of control, and didn't need an RV slowing them down.

But for a rider like me, who has little experience riding in dirt or mud, that only put more pressure on me to stay pace with the pilot vehicle.

We got moving and first there was gravel, and it was well packed. Traction seemed good. But then it turned muddy, and I couldn't help puckering up. I remembered what Mike would say, just to relax, keep your speed, give the bike minimal input, and it would ride itself. And that's what I did. We got to the muddy part, and I could feel the rear end sliding around. I kept my speed between 20-25mph, even gassing it just a tad in some places. Despite the sliding, the bike stayed upright. The construction zone lasted for 2 miles. I was still pretty tense.

But that wasn't the last of my worries. At the border, there was another 5 miles of gravel road. I worried that this would be muddy too. But luck seemed to be with me on this one, it was all dry.

Alaskan Highway (highway 1), 5 miles of gravel at the Canadian border.
Cars and trucks fly by and kick up rocks at you.

But no later than I passed the Canadian Customs check, it started raining. And it poured. It was like someone had grabbed a really fat rain cloud and squeezed it. And it didn't let up for 3 1/2 hours and about 100 miles later.

Even worse, the first 100 miles into Canadian side of the Alaskan Highway is ravaged with really rough pavement. Frost heaves raises up the asphalt and cracks it open. The water gets underneath asphalt, and breaks it apart when cars and trucks drive over it. The Canadian government will slather some temporary asphalt over it, but it's still very bumpy.

And considering it was pouring down rain, I couldn't see through my windshield or helmet visor. I had to lower windshield and lift the visor up enough to watch for these bumps and potholes, which only drenched my face. I slowed my speed down to between 30mph and 50mph just so that I could watch out for the rough spots.

About an hour into the downpour, I spotted a sign saying a Visitor Information Center was up ahead. It said there would be food and overnight stay. When I got there I found an old house inhabited by a elderly couple. There was a sign up top with several words on it, but I only remembered "Koidern".

Anyways, this old couple had been married for 51 years now, and never had kids. They run this visitor information center, and sell knick-knacks. It's not a cafe or restaurant, but the wife will be happy to heat you up a can of soup. As for staying overnight, I think they have a spare bedroom. There was potbellied stove in the middle of the living room. By coincidence, the roof leaked, but leaked directly over the potbellied stove such that when a drip of water hit it, it sizzled and evaporated immediately.

The visitor information center run by an elderly couple,
It doubles as their home and gift shop.

Another elderly couple was there too. They were driving an RV that blew a tire about 17 miles further south. They were holed up in this visitor information center waiting for a tow-truck driver. They told me that earlier today, they came down from Dawson City and down the Top of the World Highway. They saw a motorcyclist down on the side of the road. Several other people were there attending him, apparently duct-taping his broken leg together. I guess I was glad I didn't attempt that road.

The elderly couple running the visitor information center told me that there was a campground about 12 miles down the road with a cabin available for public use. It was one of the public campgrounds operated by the Yukon government. The other elderly couple, the one with the RV, mentioned seeing this campground was closed, with a gate across the entrance. "Nope" said the old man who ran the visitor information center. "It's definitely open".

So I put my helmet back on and rode out to this campground. It was still pouring down rain. When I got there, sure enough it was closed. There was a locked gate across the entrance and big sign that said, "Closed".

Damn it! I continued on.

All in all, I spent 3 1/2 hours riding in the pouring rain along the Alaskan Highway, dodging potholes and bumps. There were even a couple of one and two miles stretches of gravel road, but still offered very good traction. The rain didn't let up until I reached Kluane Lake, and by that time it was just a drizzle. But around 10:30pm in the evening, I reached Congdon Creek Campground, another public campground. It was open! I pulled in and set up camp.

And so I'm sitting here right now typing this out inside my tent. There's no Internet access here, so I'll have to find a coffee shop somewhere to upload it.

Also, it seems I ruined my digital camera. I had left it hanging around my neck in the rain. It won't do anything now. I was still able to salvage the photos that were on it by removing the SD card and putting it into my netbook. Even though I still have my BlackBerry to take photos, I may have to look into buying another digital camera somewhere.

My camp at Congdon Creek Campground, YT


Bacon Cheeseburger at Hungry Bear Restaurant, Tok, AK


Entering Yukon Territory along the Alaskan Highway


Richardson Highway, heading south, about 10 miles north of Tok, AK

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About Steve

San Diego, CA-based motorcycle rider who likes long road trips, old rustic bars, craft beer, and tough women. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, writing about the mysteries of life. (Read more...)