(A series of articles previously published on Bike Magazine’s “Great Escape” site)
Alaska Ambitions: The 2009 Alaska trip was actually conceived in 2005. The intention was to do the ride in 2006: finishing the Route 66 Mother Road Rally in Santa Monica on June 17th, then ride up the west coast into Canada, visit Alaska, then dash back east. We spent 6 weeks in the US in 2006 but, in the event, we never made it to Alaska. Instead, we joined up with some Canadian friends for an east-bound itinerary that took in the PCH, Yosemite, the ET Highway, Yellowstone, Bear Tooth and Chief Joseph highways, Cody, Sturgis, Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse …. and so much more.
Nevertheless, by the time we got home, our proposed solo trip had snowballed into something bigger. A group of our Mother Road friends were keen to join us, and a plan for an ‘organised’ 2009 trip was hatched. Itineraries were exchanged and the original group mushroomed. We started to accumulate guide books and, as we read, we began to worry about gravel roads, dust, weather, magnesium chloride, and wildlife. Clearly, some serious preparation was in order …
Off Road in Wales: The prospect of riding on gravel or degraded chip seal quickly became a major concern. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity of riding to the Arctic Circle, and avoiding gravel altogether would also cut out many of the trip’s potential highlights. Unfortunately, our experience with various slippery or unstable road surfaces has, to date, resulted in the loss of two bikes as well as numerous less serious “offs”.
So, as a birthday present to John this year, I booked us both on BMW’s Off-Road Skills course. On Thursday 23rd April, I packed our motorcycle kit into the car, and we travelled back to Blighty for a wet weekend in the Brecon Beacons.
What a revelation! I would say that the course isn’t for the faint-hearted, but that wouldn’t be true. There were all sorts of riders doing Level 1: a woman who had only gone along to please her boyfriend, a chap who owned all the kit … except a bike, a couple who were literally en-route to Portsmouth for a trip to Morocco, people who had been riding all their lives, and some who had only recently passed their test. We all spent the first morning doing slow control exercises on the flat … and we all proved ourselves capable of picking up a dropped motorcycle. Then, with no further ado, we were split into smaller groups and set off on our first ride through the gravel and mud of the forest fire tracks of Walters Arena.
I confess to ending the morning with a pain in my clutch hand from “death grip”, a common ailment amongst off-road inititiates, caused by sheer terror! Though, after lunch, having heard about everyone else’s experiences over a tuna sandwich and a cup of coffee, my tension miraculously dissipated and, luckily, so did the pain. With just two days’ magnificent instruction, John and I had gained more confidence in motorcycle handling, than we ever thought possible.
Then, by way of icing on the proverbial birthday cake, we stayed on an extra day to do BMW’s new Adventure Maintenance Skills course. It is a comforting thought that should we have a puncture miles from anywhere, we both know how to change a tyre. Always assuming, of course, that we have a spare …
You might have expected that we would have taken lots of photos of our off-road experience. Everyone else seems to manage. My attempt at recording our progress was thwarted, firstly by my camera falling through a hole in my hired jacket pocket and disappearing into the lining. Then, on the second day, getting soaked. The best I can do is to include a photo of John, apparently studying Alaskan roads, with our course completion certificates lying casually on the kitchen table at home … like you do.
Southampton Docks: Friday 15th was D-day: D for deadline, D for delivery. On Friday the bikes had to be delivered to Southampton Docks to meet the shipping deadline for transport to Canada. This is the first and, probably, most crucial stage in our US trip, and nothing bar mechanical breakdown was going to prevent us making that sailing. On Wednesday afternoon, we packed everything we could into the motorcycle panniers (including, at one point, a cat!) and stuffed the remainder into a couple of roll bags. The bikes will travel empty, but we didn’t want to find (as we have in the past) that we were flying out to meet them with more luggage than we could realistically carry. Early Thursday morning we left our home in the French Pyrenees for the 730-mile journey back to the UK.
It started raining before we joined the autoroute and continued all day. By Limoges, John was already soaked. His overly-efficient water-proof over trousers were channelling a steady flow of rainwater up inside his jacket, creating a cold damp patch over his stomach, which was only marginally less pleasant than his equally damp collar and sleeves. My waterproofing held out slightly longer, to Dreux, south of Rouen, where, having stopped to fill up at an unmanned filling station, the persistent rain suddenly turned to a torrential downpour. It was still raining when we eventually arrived on my mother-in-law’s doorstep at about midnight. Poor Betty. She put the heating back on for us, but there simply weren’t enough hanging spaces to dry all our dripping wet clothes. “I’m not being funny”, she said, “But is this trip really worth all this?”
Friday dawned and the rain clouds held off, at least until we had washed the bikes, and John managed to fit his new auxiliary lights. By lunchtime we were on the road. We stopped at Vines to remedy a problem with my tankbag, then made our way cross country to join the M3. Frantic hand signals from John indicated a problem. Just what we needed. With no time to investigate a rogue engine management warning light, John simply disconnected his new lights. The warning went out and we rode on. My relief was short-lived. John began to drop back. I saw him flash his headlight and he seemed to have stopped. Round the next bend in the road, I stopped too and began to contemplate our options, should the worst come to the worst in the event we were not able to deliver our bikes in time. I was just about to turn around and ride back to his position when he overtook me with a broad grin and a thumbs up. It transpired that there were no new mechanical issues. He had been alerted by another driver that he was trailing his radio antenna. In the process of washing the bikes, grit had lodged under the magnetic base and it had simply fallen off!
There being no further drama, we arrived safely at Wallenius Willhelmsen’s dockside portacabin in Southampton’s Eastern Docks. The bikes were given a quick wipe down and keys and paperwork exchanged. The next time we see them, we hope, we will be in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
A little postscript (20/05/2009): Just received an email from the shippers saying that Roynie’s Triumph was loaded with a flat tyre. Guess what we’ll be doing on our first afternoon in Canada …
Halifax, Nova Scotia: Well, we got here! We flew into Halifax Tuesday 2nd, arriving a little too late to collect our bikes from the port the same day. We did, however, arrive in time to speak to Wallenius Wilhelmson’s office and receive a bill for handling for CAN$327, which effectively cleaned us out of half our Canadian cash. Oops!
The bikes had, in fact, already been checked and released by the Ministry of Mud and Bugs, or whatever the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is called over here. So Wednesday morning all we had to do was to pay up and get our papers stamped. John’s flat tyre turned out to be a slow puncture, which he managed to plug (temporarily) at the hotel.
By 4pm, we had managed to load six bags’ worth of luggage onto the bikes, and we were on the road.
This morning, in Moncton, New Brunswick, it became apparent that the tyre repair had not been 100% successful, so we found a local dealer to fit a new one. This evening we should cross the US border into Maine for a bimble through the Appalachian mountains on our way down to to Toronto.
Route 66: Two days into our American adventure we received the news that my mother had been rushed into hospital and had undergone emergency surgery. Our ride from Halifax to Chicago was therefore an anxious one particularly as there are many areas, particularly in Canada, where mobile phone coverage is patchy. We were fully prepared to abandon the trip and leave our bikes with Doug and Joanne Kenyon in Michigan but, by the time we arrived in Owosso, Mum seemed to be out of danger and she urged us to continue.
The Mother Road Ride Rally was started by a handful of friends in 1995 and has run annually since, growing in popularity year on year. 88 bikes registered for this year’s ride. Unsurprisingly, the riders are predominantly American, and the majority of bikes are Harleys. But it is an all-brands-invited event, so it doesn’t matter what you ride, and occasional overseas participants are made especially welcome. John and I stumbled across the Rally website by accident, while researching a possible Route 66 ride as part of what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime US tour in 2001. In common with many others, we keep coming back for more
This year’s Rally saw a change in leadership, and with that came a touch more emphasis on “the group” than we have become accustomed to. The difference in style was apparent from the outset, with a police escort ensuring that all the bikes made it safely out of the Willowbrook hotel parking lot and onto the Chicago-bound Interstate. It gave the Rally a kind of official feel to it, like it had come of age. We stuck with the main group from the official starting point on West Adams Street in downtown Chicago to the first fuel stop at Wilmington. By that time the rain had become torrential, and a few riders hung back when the group moved on, waiting for the clouds to pass over.
It is these little breakaway groups that distinguish the Mother Road Rally from other, more organised, events. Every rider has a copy of the day’s itinerary and, therefore, the group leader’s scheduled stops. New riders often choose to follow the “Rallymaster”, but there is no obligation to do so. Breakaway groups form randomly on a daily basis. Perhaps two or three riders help another with a flat tyre or someone suggests a roadside attraction not on the official itinerary. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand how lasting friendships develop on this week-long trip.
We rode a lot with Doug and Joanne this year and, with the help of a small guidebook, discovered more of the “Old Road” than the main group would have ridden. I don’t think Doug particularly relished our new-found love of trail-riding on his Goldwing and trailer outfit, but the Off-Road Skills course we took in Wales actually stood us in good stead on the odd occasion we took a wrong turn and found ourselves surfing along a farm road at 40 mph in 6″ deep gravel!
The stuff you will see along the way isn’t spectacular. A lot of the original roadside attractions are laughably dated or run-down. But there are also modern museums, restored 50’s diners and soda fountains, quaint boutique hotels and iconic landmarks: plenty of potential Kodak moments. Even so, it would be a mistake to join this Rally just to see some sort of Disneyland image of retro Americana. This particular trip is all about the road and the people. The clue is in the Rally’s name. In John Steinbeck’s harrowing 1939 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”, Route 66 is described as “the main migrant road … the Mother Road, the road of flight.”
There are odd occasions when even the loosest of plans fall apart. We spent most of Monday (day three) riding alone, having had our departure delayed by a series of phone calls to Carl Rosner as we tried to disable John’s malfunctioning alarm system. Once we eventually got going, I was particularly keen to get a good photo on an original section of 8ft-wide “ribbon road”: state of the art in the 1930’s, but barely wide enough for a single car by today’s standards. After that, we moved fairly swiftly on to lunch at the recently rebuilt Rock Café at Stroud. And here’s the thing, we had now ridden about 140 miles and, as far as we knew, were at least two hours behind everyone else. Yet we weren’t the last. At the Rock Café we met up with Pete Cantele, himself waiting for Karen York, whose group was hampered by a young cousin whose ancient Goldwing (bought one week earlier on eBay) was threatening to rattle itself apart at any speed over 50 mph! Fifty miles further on, we came across Doug and Joanne taking a break from the 100 degree heat in the cool marble foyer of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Each day, all the way from Chicago to Santa Monica, for one reason or another, riders get separated from the main group. At first we found it quite alarming, to be apparently lost in the middle of the mid-West. But we soon discovered that, as long as we stuck vaguely to the itinerary, we were never alone for very long. And, around the motel pool in the evening, you get to hear the day’s adventures. Considering American roads are renowned for being straight, it is surprisingly easy to get lost following “Historic Route 66” signage. On Thursday, Karen and Dave York found themselves having to unhitch Bill Powell’s trailer to carry it, sideways, between scaffolding supporting an Interstate underpass. They thought they were following the Old Road, but when, a few miles further on, the dirt track they were riding narrowed, then disappeared altogether, they realised they had gone wrong and ended up unhitching the trailer again to retrace their steps.
Despite the fact that the Old Road often runs parallel to the Interstate, riding it isn’t always as safe and predictable as you might expect. This year saw a near-fatal accident when another friend, Gary Miller, rounded a corner to be confronted by a 9ft high heap of asphalt that had been simply dumped on an abandoned stretch of road. Tiredness and heat exhaustion can be dangerous too. Mother Road Rally riders cover, on average, 350 miles per day, in temperatures that can range from freezing to well over 100°F. On Friday, the day we cross the Mojave Desert, no one wants to be left behind. The Rallymaster makes a deliberately early start, with the idea of being out of the desert before the ferocious heat of the afternoon. The day is probably the most challenging of the week, with the longest interval between fuel stops and little opportunity to get out of the sun.
Friday is the penultimate day of the Rally and relief at having arrived safely at our Ontario (CA) hotel, is always tinged with a little sadness. Saturday morning we leave at 6am to beat the LA traffic and finish our journey on Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica. There are photographs at the pier, some token prizes for comical mishaps, breakfast and a little prayer of thanksgiving. Then it is all over. The group splits for the last time. Most head for home, some take their bikes over to the Harley shop for an oil or tyre change, and some, like us, start the next leg of our trip.
North to Portland: It was 9am on Saturday morning. The morning mist was just beginning to lift over the Pacific. Formalities over, we said our goodbyes on Ocean Avenue and waved off George Higgins’ Alaska group, who were now on their way north.
We weren’t the only European participants this year. Willie and Jim first rode Route 66 in 2007. The two Irishmen were an instant hit with the Mother Road riders and their return this year was a probably a significant factor when it came to signing up for the Alaska trip. In fact, their travel dates provided George with the basis for his schedule. Partly because of this, John and I had opted to travel at a slower pace. Our itineraries developed in parallel, but allowed for a couple of rest days and put us two or three days behind George’s group. Doug and Joanne would accompany us as far as Portland, and we joked that we might pick up one or two stragglers along the way.
Having had a rather more substantial breakfast at the Broadway Deli, we left Santa Monica and rode north to Ventura.
Highway 33 practically belongs to bikers. Being Saturday, the southernmost part as far as Ojai, was clogged with LA weekend traffic, and I’ll admit to more than a little frustration as we queued for petrol, hemmed in by SUV’s and motorhomes. Our spirits soon lifted, however, as the road narrowed and we began to climb through the San Rafael Mountains. The twisting road seemed lush and cool as it snaked its way through high rocky gorges. There was little other traffic and what there was politely pulled aside as soon as they spotted a motorcycle in the mirror. We were briefly chilled by low hanging clouds before emerging in brilliant sunshine at the highest point, where we stopped for a photo. Then the lush vegetation gave way to scrub and we began to descend into desert.
We skirted the colourful sandstone formations of the Carrizo Plain, then the road flattened as we passed through the McKittrick Oil Field: a surreal landscape of thousands of nodding donkeys silently pumping the last natural resources out of an apparently barren land. It was hard to believe we were only a couple of hours or so from LA. We are far from eco-tourists, but still the sight came as a shocking reminder of man’s continuing dependence on oil. Fifty miles on, the desert gave way to groves of fruit and nut trees, each with its personal water supply, extending as far as the eye could see. Even so, it is inhospitable terrain. Towards late afternoon, we started to be battered by a violent wind that whipped up dense clouds of dust from recently reclaimed land. Taking shelter in the abandoned driveway of an old cattle market, we were caught up by George’s group. Willie and Jim were not with them
The group cut off onto I-5 towards Gustine shortly after they left us, while we continued our scenic meander into King City. The road wound through the coastal ranges, past cattle ranches and vineyards. Great for bikes in the morning, but exhausting in the evening at this time of year, as you battle the winds that funnel through the range from Monterey Bay.
From King City we took Hwy 25 to Hollister. This beautiful road through the Monterey County wine area is a favourite with sports bikes but also has a lamentable record of fatal accidents. Hollister, itself, is most famous as the settng for Marlon Brando’s classic movie, “The Wild One”, which depicted a sensationalised account of a riot that occurred there in 1947.
We took the majestic Skyline Boulevard (Hwy 35) into San Francisco, where our trip nearly ended prematurely. Coming to a rather sudden stop at a junction, I found a steep camber where the road ought have been and toppled over, trapping my right foot under my fully-laden BMW. It only took a moment before helpful hands lifted the bike enough for me to pull myself clear. But thanks to the ridiculous motocross boots that I had bought with Alaska in mind, I escaped with a nothing more serious than a few bruises. Heavy traffic dissuaded us from crossing the Golden Gate Bridge this time, and our collective lack of navigational skills in finding an alternative route (GPS being no help whatsoever) delayed us to the extent that it was cold and dark by the time we reached our hotel in Eureka.
North of Eureka, we joined the Pacific Coast Highway. John and I had ridden the popular southern part of the PCH as far as Monterey in 2006, but now wanted to see what lay north of San Francisco. In truth, it was not the most interesting stretch of road, with most of the coastline being hidden by the redwood forests. But we did catch the odd tantalising glimpse of the sea before we headed inland to link up with the I-5 for the run into Portland.
Our motel was in the north east suburb of Troutdale. Here we would meet up with George’s group for probably the last time, as we were due to spend an extra day getting my bike serviced. The group had already checked in when we arrived, but had gone to look at a waterfall. They caught us up later, just as we were finishing dinner. Willie and Jim were not with them
Having been unready to leave Santa Monica at the appointed time and subsequently having been left behind, the luck of the Irish had not improved. Willie’s final drive had broken on Sunday near Redding. Problems of this magnitude are never good, doubly so when they happen on a Sunday in America, where most bike dealers are closed on Monday. Willie and Jim did, however, find a custom bike shop who were open, but they would still be off the road until midweek. Some trip this was turning out to be for them. Little did I know, as I emailed Willie our itinerary for the next few days, that we would end up in the same boat.
I had my 1200GS booked in for a routine 24,000 mile inspection with Portland Motorcycles. We dropped it off on Tuesday morning and went shopping for camping equipment and mosquito repellant. Apart from an intermittent problem with the brake servo switch, the bike hadn’t missed a beat since our arrival in Halifax. But service manager, Dave, was about to drop a bombshell.
Apparently, when the technician dropped the shaft drive,he discovered a gunky mix of dirt, oil and water, along with a leaking seal and, inevitably, some corrosion. Dave said he had never seen anything like it, and assumed I must have been doing some extreme off-roading. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but the presence of red-coloured soil suggests to me that it has been there since our last US trip in 2006 They polished off the rust as best they could and replaced the seals. There was a lot of tooth sucking and tutting as Dave sent us on our way, along with dire warnings to go carefully and keep an eye out for oil leaks, as I would almost certainly have to replace the shaft drive before the end of our trip.
Playing catch-up in BC: We were now on our own. The BMW was running as well as ever, and we had both changed our tyres in anticipation of the unsealed roads we were bound to encounter north of the border. Even so, the Portland dealer had planted seeds of doubt over the life-expectancy of the shaft drive, and I was being extra vigilant for the first signs of trouble.
Northbound from Vancouver, the fancifully-named Sea to Sky Highway (Hwy 99), is a sweeping four-lane highway that follows the coastline of Howe Sound until it meets the mouth of Squamish River. The views over the islands are spectacular, though low cloud lent an eerie atmosphere. We had chosen this particular route over the scenic Trans-Canada highway, as we had been interested to see Whistler in summer. In fact, we could cheerfully have skipped this lunchtime stop. It turned out to be a labyrinth of cobbled pedestrian zones set amongst faux alpine architecture. Much like any other ski resort, I suppose. Still, we bought ourselves a couple of T-shirts and found a nice bakery for a bite to eat before riding on.
Having heard so much about the state of the roads in British Columbia and the Yukon, I could have been forgiven for being lulled into a false sense of security. Evidently, due to the winter ski traffic and imminent arrival of the Winter Olympics, the road as far as Whistler has been improved. But it didn’t take long before we got a taste of things to come. Twenty miles on, and we hit the first major construction work of the Canadian leg of our trip: 10 miles or so of varying grades of gravel on a twisty section of mountain pass. We quickly learned to keep a good distance from the vehicle travelling in front. Beyond Lillooet, the scene became pastural again as the road passed through rolling grass land.
We stayed an extra night in Williams Lake to see the rodeo and were due to move on to Dawson Creek, mile 0 of the Alaska Highway. It was Saturday morning and we had just filled up, when John noticed oil leaking from the shaft drive all over my rear wheel. I rang Dave at Portland Motorcycles. “It’s what I said. I was afraid this would happen”, he said flatly, “You’re gonna need a new final drive. You’re probably talking $2,500 ” I don’t know what was worse, the predicted cost of the repair or the potential delay waiting for parts. We were now 300 miles from the nearest BMW dealer and we had discovered that my new US cell phone wouldn’t work in Canada. “You should be all right if you keep an eye on the gearbox oil”, Dave carried on, “just don’t let it run out or the drive will seize.” What he didn’t say was that, outside of a workshop, there would be nothing I could have done to top up the gearbox oil as the filler cap is inaccessible and I would, anyway, need a special syringe.
Back at our hotel, we spoke to the English service manager at BMW in Kelowna and he agreed to take the bike in as a priority first thing Monday at least, being Canada, bike dealers are open Monday. He made a few phone calls for us and established that, should it be necessary, I might have to wait up to a week for a new drive.
Of all places to get marooned for a week, one could do worse. Part of the Okanagan wine region, Kelowna benefits from an arid micro-climate and its lakeside location lends itself to boating and water sports. Away from the endless malls that sprawl the length of the highway to the north of the town, Kelowna has a vibrant downtown area with plenty of bars and restaurants to suit every palate. There are wi-fi hotspots in the parks and then, of course, there is the wine. Yes, even in our gloomy mood, we had to admit there was plenty to distract us.
Monday brought better news. There was, apparently, nothing particularly wrong with my shaft drive after all. The rubber boot covering the linkage between the gearbox and the drive shaft had perished and was letting in water and muck every time it rained. None of the technicians understood why the Portland dealers hadn’t spotted the problem and simply replaced the two boots. What we thought was a serious oil leak was just a small amount seaping from the only seal that hadn’t been replaced. Rain water and oil was being whipped together to form an emulsion and was finding its way out of the same holes it had come in through. Only the solids got left behind.
The parts came in the following day and we had the bikes back by Tuesday evening. Even so, we should, by now, have been on the Top of the World Highway, heading for the Alaska border. Realistically, allowing for our 600 mile detour, we were now about five days behind schedule and would have to cut out most of what we wanted to see.
Relieved though I was at not having to pay out for a new shaft drive, our trip had been fundamentally ruined by the incompetence of the service department in Portland. We now needed to salvage as much enjoyment out of it as possible. Looking at George’s itinerary, we could see that if we set off north up the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, we would meet his group on their return to Watson Lake. We could then ride the Cassiar Highway with them and cross into Alaska at Hyder, its southernmost town. We hadn’t heard from any of the group since we had left Troutdale but, assuming they were still on schedule, it would be fun to ride with friends again and we might even see a bear or two.
Kelowna, BC, to Watson Lake, YT: We rode south from Kelowna on Highway 97C. This is a four-lane high mountain pass and signs warn of “winter conditions at any time of year”. On the way to Kelowna from Williams Lake, five days earlier, we had been advised to avoid this road. The café owner at Cache Creek said that only two weeks before, i.e. mid-June, he had encountered a car on its roof in the snow! The route we took instead was also Hwy 97: yet another road marked as “scenic”, that took us through Kamloops and Vernon, entering Kelowna from the north. In fact, if you look at a road atlas of the area, you will see various alignments of Hwy 97, the most notable being the Alaska Highway itself. But Hwy 97 also coincides from time to time with the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy 1), as well as running north-south from Salmon Arm to Vernon (97A and 97B).
So, researching the quickest route from Kelowna to Watson Lake , we took the recommendation of Chris, SWMotorrad’s ex-pat Service Manager. Granted, “The Connector”, was a mite chilly in places despite the summer weather, but it was a good fast stretch of highway, in an area where fast roads are scarce. We left Hwy 97C at Merritt and headed north on scenic byway 5a, through the tiny lakeside communities of Nicola and Quilchena, to Kamloops. I think we may have passed two trucks in 100 miles.
At the junction with Hwy 5 in Kamloops, we followed roadside restaurant signs to a golf club. Any doubts we may have had about the “All Welcome” sign outside the clubhouse were quickly dispelled by the cheerful waitress serving us BLT sandwiches on their sunny terrace above the 9th hole. It set us up nicely for a pleasant afternoon’s ride beside the North Thompson River to Valemount. That night we kept the golf theme going by sleeping under canvas, yards from the practice green on Valemount’s ingeniously compact 18-hole golf course.
Any hopes we had of camping the following night at Grand Prairie were quickly dashed. For some inexplicable reason, the town only caters for RVs not tents. Even the public parks are “daytime use only”. The nice lady at the Camp Tamarak RV Park, about 8 miles south of the town, kindly offered her own lawn, but there were no restaurants nearby, and we didn’t fancy the gravel side road by night. We eventually found a reasonably-priced motel, but there was little to recommend the town as an overnight stop. We didn’t bother to look for breakfast. Dawson Creek was only 80 miles away and, despite not being able to ride the whole length of the famous Alaska Highway, we would be stopping for all the obligatory photos at Milepost 0.
Once on the Highway, our spirits lifted. It didn’t seem to matter so much that we wouldn’t be seeing Seward or Denali or riding the Haul Road to the Arctic Circle. Somehow the road rekindled our sense of adventure. The BC section of the Alaska Highway is pretty much like any other highway: almost disappointingly so. But there is no doubting its remoteness. There are few settlements and, away from the highway, virtually all the side roads and pullouts are unpaved. We took pleasure in seeking out historic markers and noted interesting facts about apparently mundane structures. We detoured to find original sections of road and positively relished the odd section of gravel. For the first and, probably, last time on this trip we had no itinerary other than to meet up with the main group of riders at Watson Lake on Monday.
Even so, we found we made ad hoc acquaintances along the way with fellow bikers. Between Dawson Creek and Watson Lake the Alaska Highway is the only route north and choices for eating and sleeping are limited. We tended to find ourselves eating at a dusty roadside lodge, or sharing a beer at a campsite, with those with whom we had crossed paths earlier. We quickly found, however, that wildlife spotting was safer and more successful travelling alone. Nothing was likely to scatter buffalo, moose and bears more quickly than three or four bikes changing down to stop for a picture.
Mobile phone coverage is patchy and unreliable in northern Canada and Alaska. Added to which, prepay phones bought in the USA will not work at all in Canada and vice-versa. Internet access, however, is available almost everywhere and most overnight stops offer free wireless, so we were able to keep in touch via email and/or internet forums. News reached us of two more casualties of the road. Karen York and Bill Powell, who were also riding independently, had had a close call having been run off the road by a motorhome near Glenallen, AK. But nothing whatever had been heard from George’s main Alaska group, and our fellow Route 66 riders were beginning to speculate as to their progress. By now the group should have been on their way back from Fairbanks. They were still booked into their Watson Lake hotel, so we had to assume they were still on schedule.
In the event, we were reassured to find a few familiar bikes in the Belvedere Hotel’s parking lot: John Stoughton’s unique red HD Ultra with its lake and mountain-themed artwork on the fairing, two Goldwings belonging to George and Nelson Bland, and Joe Golf’s blue Harley. But where were the others? Still no sign of Willie and Jim. But, surely, they could not all have come to grief
Flats, splits and KY Jelly: We were spotted immediately by George, whose small group were already dining in the hotel’s restaurant. Despite not having managed to contact him directly, we were expected. Tables were hastily pulled together so that we could join them. It was about 6pm, we had barely unpacked the bikes and it was far earlier than we would normally eat. Nevertheless, it would have been churlish to refuse, so we quickly rinsed as much of the road from our hands and faces as we could and ordered our meals.
Of course, the one thing John and I were dying to ask was what had become of the others? George seemed slightly dismissive. “They dropped behind to visit a bike dealership”, he said. So Willie and Jim caught them up? “Oh yes, Willie had more trouble with his bike, but they met up with us in Fairbanks.”
Willie and I weren’t the only ones who had had drive troubles. It transpired that George had also had the shaft go on his Goldwing. The Fairbanks dealers were uncooperative, so George regailed us with the story of how he had persuaded a friend to airfreight the necessary parts, and how he and Annie had repaired the bike themselves in a hotel car park. John and I were suitably impressed.
There was, however, a little more to the story.
We finished dinner, did our laundry and dozed through the 7.30pm, long and overly-relaxing, showing of the aurora borealis lightshow at the Northern Lights Centre. By the time we got back to the hotel, the rest of the group had arrived and were beginning to congregate in the bar. John Stoughton sat down next to me. “I think it only fair to tell you that there has been a bit of a rift ”, he said.
It transpired that all was far from well. The group had been on the road for three weeks since leaving Chicago, and most had been riding for longer. A combination of early mornings, long days in the saddle, road conditions and technical issues had all taken their toll, not least on George and Annie as organisers. Willie and Jim had, in fact, only just managed to rejoin the group in Fairbanks, when a petty incident involving a flat tyre proved the final straw. Though the story of the roadside fix was told amongst much hilarity, it had clearly caused deep resentments on both sides of the fence. John and I now had to choose which group to ride with or go our own way.
The Cassiar Highway (Hwy 37), from Watson Lake to Dease Lake, is notorious amongst motorcyclists for being narrow, uneven, unmarked and partially unpaved. Not the sort of road where one wants to find one’s self in the middle of a large group, when a moose lollops out of the bushes in front of you. George’s group was now conspicuously smaller than the breakaway faction, so we opted to ride with him. In fact, the Cassiar held no great surprises. Most roads in BC are under constant improvement, and even the unpaved sections were in relatively good repair, if somewhat dusty!
By the time we got to our restaurant at Dease Lake, the other group had already ordered. No one spoke, and John and I were left feeling distinctly uneasy not least because we had spent the day riding 10 kph below the legal limit and had no desire to repeat the experience. In the event, we need not have worried. After dinner, the two groups got together for a congenial evening of beer and bike washing and any differences were temporarily forgotten. George and Annie, however, were conspicuous by their absence. The following morning we left early with the “mutineers”!
We had a leisurely breakfast at the log-built Tatogga Lake Resort before riding the remaining 150 miles on good road surface to Meziadin Junction, stopping only once or twice where a spectacular view or nature called. At Meziadin we turned off onto the Stewart/Hyder Road, a scenic ride of 40 miles or so, passing within a stone’s throw (almost) of the Bear Glacier on its way into Stewart. And then, finally, we crossed the US border at Hyder, and we were in Alaska!
We had come to see the Chum Run: the time of year when the bears gather at the river bank to feed on chum salmon returning upstream to spawn. Unfortunately, even as our parallel itineraries evolved during the winter, we knew we were likely to be too early by a couple of weeks. And so it came to pass. The bears were there, waiting, hidden in the dense forest. But the feeding frenzy, subject of so many iconic photographs, had not begun. There is plenty to recommend Hyder in summer though, even if the bears are being shy. One of my own ambitions was to ride the dirt “highway” to the top of the Salmon Glacier.
Received wisdom was that the road was rough but passable to motor traffic. So, finding no bears at the viewing platform, I managed to persuade John, on his Tiger, and Jim and Greg, both on Harleys, that the view of the Salmon Glacier was worth 16 miles of dirt
Jim and Greg set off up a reasonable stretch of well-maintained gravel, leaving a choking cloud of fine white dust in their wake. John and I left a good 200 yards or so between us to let it dissipate, but the leading bikes were still rendered invisible. Then, just as we were beginning to become complacent, the road surface changed. No more evenly graded gravel. Now we had mud, shale, rock slides and pot-holes the size of water butts at a frequency that made the road look like some sort of demonic swiss cheese. It simply wasn’t possible to miss all of them. I winced at the thought of what it was doing to my suspension then I remembered Jim and Greg on their Harleys. Oh dear.
The road seemed to go on and on. I couldn’t see in my mirrors as I was standing on the pegs, and I dared not divert my eyes to look behind for John. I had no idea whether he was still following. The road wound around the mountain and the Salmon Glacier became visible: a magnificent frozen river of ice carving its way between the peaks. My hands were beginning to cramp from the clutch and brake levers. This was a world away from the little 650 XCountry I had used on the BMW course. I was beginning to feel very alone and vulnerable and I began to hope each bend in the road would be the last.
In the end, I came upon a large boulder that blocked half the road. I now had an uninterrupted view of the top of the glacier and an even surface to turn the bike around on. I was probably less than half a mile from the car park, but I decided to quit while I was ahead. I had just positioned the bike for a photo, when John appeared. Jim and Greg had decided that discretion was the better part of valour and turned back.
From Hyder we rode to Smithers, Prince George and, finally, Jasper. George and the other three bikes mostly kept themselves to themselves, our paths crossing only in the hotel reception or car park. The rest of us got on with our holiday. We stayed up late, drank beer, played pool and laughed about the ridiculous renegade situation we found ourselves in.
From Jasper the two groups made one final effort at reconciliation and left together to ride the Icefields Parkway as far as Lake Louise, and what a beautiful ride it was. In terms of a biking road, this one does not offer the excitement of twisty hairpins or dizzying heights, but the guidebooks rightly describe it as one of Canada’s national treasures. The jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains rise dramatically on each side and multiple glaciers flow down to meet the mirror-smooth lakes and rivers that border the road. The road is popular with motorhomes, but is wide and straight with plenty of scenic viewpoints. Passing is never a problem. This isn’t a technical road in terms of riding but, as with all roads in this wilderness area, one has to be constantly alert for wildlife.
We ate a sandwich lunch at Lake Louise and took our last group photos beside the turquoise lake itself. Then we rode on to Banff to say our farewells to Willie and Jim who had arranged to fly their bikes back to Manchester from Calgary. The rest of us headed south to Cranbrook and home …
“What about the KY Jelly?”, I hear you ask. Lubrication, of course for the roadside tyre repair!