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Alaska Sojourn Part Six

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Alaska Sojourn Part Six

By July 13, 2000 I had ridden over 5,000 miles on the Conti tires I had installed at Cascade BMW in Washington. While I had beaten the mileage estimate of the annoying tech at the dealership by two thousand miles, I was more than ready to ditch these shoes in favor of a new set of Michelins. The Contis were noisy, gave me terrible gas mileage, were too soft for the chip seal roads of Alaska, and more importantly, were dangerous to ride on. They gave a squirmy, vague feedback in the curves, and more than once I suffered from “apex terror” as I couldn’t feel the road under the bike. I vowed to never again tour with untested gear or accessories.

We pulled into Anchorage after a long ride from Silver Lake. Anchorage is a big city just like any other big city, except it has a floatplane “airport” which is very large. Skyscrapers, big hotels, chain restaurants – it was as if we’d never left the United States of Generica. It even has a freeway of sorts, loaded with Alaska State Troopers. Probably 80% of the Alaskan population lives in Anchorage and its surrounding suburbs. In fact, inhabitants of other areas of Alaska are fond of saying there is Alaska, and there is Anchorage. Already I was itching to leave, and we’d only been in town an hour…

Centennial Park is a nice campground right in Anchorage. We made it our base of operations for a couple of days. We did “urban stuff.” Went to see the current big hit, “Perfect Storm,” and Mark managed to lose his cell phone. Looked all over for it, but no joy. The campus of the University of Alaska is awesome too. Make sure you check it out when you get up here. The evening lecture series for that night had Grizzly Bear Attacks as its focus. Very fascinating, but Mark, Jeff, and I had one rule: we don’t eat bear meat, and we expected the bears to reciprocate!

Anchorage BMW is pretty cool. Ran into a guy who had ridden his VFR up from Los Angeles. He was in buying a quart of oil. Lots of bikes and accessories. Forget all the stuff you might read about shipping your own tires, and paying outrageous prices just because you are in Alaska. Anchorage BMW was well stocked with everything, and I got out of there with two tires and a service two, for a few bucks more than I’d pay at my local dealer. Hats off to Anchorage BMW for their good prices and courteous service.

While waiting for the bike, a couple of cyber-friends of mine who live in Anchorage rode over and took me to lunch. By the time I was done eating, I was armed with all kinds of information about places to go next. Friendly people, these Alaskans!

A short huddle at the shop, and afterwards, Mark, Jeff, Denise, Shadow and I took off for Talkeetna. Talkeetna is a great place to view the awesome Mt. Whitney, and we were hoping to go flightseeing. (Unfortunately, neither of these wishes materialized. The visibility around Denali never improved.) As usual, we appeared to be riding directly into a storm. And we were. Pulled into Talk. at 9 p.m. and found a campsite right in town. Beautiful! Pretty tired and wet, we decided to check out several really good little restaurants. The one we decided on had a pool table and big screen tv besides some great steaks. In all, a very nice night!

Talkeetna is an awesome town. Situated at the base of Mt.Whitney, it attracts all manner of alpinists, trekkers, miners, tourists, hippies, and vagabonds. While very quaint, it is also becoming touristy, much to the consternation of those who have lived here for years. It is definitely a love/hate relationship. For example, the next morning we were surprised to see the huge tour busses pull into town. Seems Princess Cruises owns the Talkeetna Lodge, a VERY ritzy place about ten miles down the road. Suddenly the town was full of shoppers eagerly buying trinkets, blankets, cards, anything that said or had to do with Alaska. Merchants were making money hand over foot, the restaurants were packed, and Talkeetna’s one main street was filled with pedestrians scurrying from one shop to another.

Then, like in Skagway, they vanished. The busses fired up, taking the riders back to the Lodge. Once again Talkeetna was a sleepy frontier town…I loved it! The next morning, more pouring rain. Fearing revolt from his riding partners, Mark wisely suggested another day of eating and drinking in town. I walked over to the local hotel/coffee house thinking I’d have a cup and watch the rain pound on the windows. I started a conversation with a very pretty woman who was travelling Alaska on her Harley Sportster. We sat and drank coffee and compared adventures while the world passed by.

Karen was traveling in hopes of writing a book about traveling Alaska as a single woman. 32 years old, and Princeton educated, she was an impressive world traveler. She’d been to Bosnia, Russia, and several other more interesting places on the globe. Eventually we exchanged email addresses and it was time to go saddle up for a ride up to Denali Park. The weather was starting to break, and we were hoping to not make this ride in a flood. I told her I hoped I’d see her again, and she said, “me too.” Just what my ego needed at that point in my life, believe me…And, as it turns out, I did see her once again, travelling to Princeton to visit her last year. We still maintain an email friendship, and her book is going to be published very soon.

Saddling up, Jeff laid the bombshell on us. He announced he would not be making more of the trip with us. I was saddened. Jeff is the kind of guy you want as a friend. Funny, resourceful, never complaining, he lent something to the ride that could not be replaced. He told Mark and me that he wanted to take care of some personal business that was weighing on him before he started Dental School in the late summer. So, with that, he fired up the big Harley, and rode off, basically retracing our route back down the Cassiar to Vancouver. Later we heard his trip was “uneventful,” and that he rode about 800 miles a day until he got home. Jeff, you ARE and always will be, the man!! We knew we’d miss him!

The ride to Denali was a fast rip through sodden conditions. It was cold and windy. Fortunately we found a campground that had prefabricated shelters above each tent space. We put both of our tents under one and found we could keep the gear dry. Since we still had lots of daylight left, it was time to go into Denali. You can only drive so far into the Park, and then you have to take a bus tour. We did so, intent on seeing lots of wildlife.

While we did see some grizzlies and elk, the tour was nothing spectacular. The fat guy in front of me on the bus kept jumping to his feet yelling, “I see an animal!” Everytime he’d jump up, I’d get a face full of his “plumber’s butt” syndrome. The only sane thing to do was take a picture, which I did. Mark, Denise, and I were in hysterics, laughing so hard we were crying…. It’s a great pic, it really is!!

Hilarity aside, it was time to ride to Fairbanks and the Arctic circle. Cracking the ice off my tankbag, I thumbed the starter on my trusty GS, and was off. We had breakfast at the Black Bear Coffee House near the entrance to Denali and rode on into steadily improving weather, thank God. While Denali is beautiful, the surrounding area is very touristy, and we were glad to be moving. Near Nenana we played cat and mouse with an Alaska State Trooper who hung back, occasionally turning on his radar in an effort to catch us being naughty. No such luck on his part, and, believe it or not, this was the only place in Alaska where we were “painted” by police radar. In fact, seeing State Troopers on the road was a real rare occurrence.

When you are in Alaska, on the way to Fairbanks, you need to stop at “Skinny Dicks Halfway Inn.” As you might suppose, I did buy a tee shirt. Skinny Dick is true to his name, a wizened little old man of 85 years plus, he told me he found this building about 45 years ago. He liked the area so much he stayed. We shot the breeze for awhile, and had a bite to eat. Dick called me a “youngster,” which made me feel great. By the way, Skinny Dick’s place is halfway between Denali and Fairbanks in case you were wondering about the name!

Pulled into Fairbanks and was immediately ready to pullout. Nice camping place right in town with lots of trees and the Chena river running peacefully by, but Fairbanks left me wanting the open spaces. Food here was very expensive –welcome to the six-dollar McDonald’s meal, and the town was very dirty. On the bright side, the temps had warmed up to 78 degrees, and the natives were beside themselves. Shorts, bikini tops and very white bodies were everywhere. On the bright side, I did find good Chinese in town, and we stopped at an ice cream stand and happily gulped a frosty treat. Did you know that Alaskans eat more ice cream per capita than any other state in the Union? Go figure…

Next up on the itinerary was Cheyna Hot Springs, some 75 miles north of Fairbanks. A beautiful ride with no RVs or much other traffic. We spent a couple of days soaking in the hot springs and relaxing before moving on. Cheyna is most famous for viewing the Aurora Borealis in the winter. Guests can watch the Northern Lights, soak in the springs, mush sled dogs, and rent snow machines. I’d like to come back here in the winter to do these things…

So far, an incredible trip filled with grandeur, interesting people, and never-ending adventure! I reflected on the dire warnings posted in some travel books about Alaska and smiled at our good fortune. I questioned the validity of much of what I read. At that point in the ride I was pretty confident there was nothing the weather or roads could throw at us to ruin this trip! Even Shadow was getting fat on the good life!

Yep, we were becoming pretty salty moto adventurers, or at least we looked and smelled like them…and circumstance did still throw a couple of loose screws into the machinery. Mark’s bike started to miss. He’d be blasting down the road and all of a sudden he’d find himself coasting. This happened with some regularity. My bike started to drip a bit of oil. Later I determined the left jug was cracked. Mark reasoned a probable faulty sidestand switch. It was an intermittent electrical problem, sometimes causing inconvenience three or four times in a row, and then not again for two or three days.

Next, Part Seven and the Adventure turns toward home!

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