After saying farewell to family and friends in the UK we arrived in Anchorage, Alaska on the 30th July 2007.
We flew in from Heathrow via Seattle and managed to find our hotel easily despite it being 1am in the morning.
After getting our heads down for a few hours we phoned our contact at cargo and checked on the bike. Amazingly just over an hour later I arrived back at the hotel with the bike, I can't praise James Cargo enough- not a scratch on the bike and the whole process couldn't have been easier.
The next few days were spent in Anchorage sorting kit, packing and generally getting our act together. One oversight before leaving the UK was not allowing enough time for the GPS software to arrive, just shows that we couldn't plan everything! We managed to source it finally in Anchorage, it would take 3 days to arrive so rather than wait around we headed south for a couple of days riding, knowing that we would have to come back through Anchorage to pick it up on our way North.
Official start of the trip!
After all the planning and preparation it felt so good to be on the bike and living the dream. We decided not to plan too much ahead as we didn't want to be too organised - after all we are following the front wheel.
(For those of you who would like to keep in touch our trip email is firstname.lastname@example.org)
That morning the weather was not exactly playing ball, but it soon dried up revealing some amazing scenery. We arrived in the port town of Seward which caters for the tourist trade, mainly cruise ships.
After having a fresh fish supper we settled down to Emma's biggest dread - camping in Alaska. She was paranoid about not leaving food anywhere for bears, needless to say we didn't get much sleep! Thankfully the wildlife left us alone and incredibly the mosquitos, which are huge (locals joke they are the state bird) didn't bite Em who was wearing a fetching 'bee keeper' hat (just as unattractive as it sounds) but I managed to get bitten instead. Guess I shouldn't have laughed at her hat.
Ray Mears eat your heart out
We then headed for the furthest point South which is Homer. With our surname we had just had to go and get our picture taken next to the town sign.
Homer meets Homer
The locals thought we were royalty and cool that we were Mr & Mrs Homer in Homer - but no free dinners in it. As it turned out Homer was a great place, we stayed at the end of the 2 mile long spit, an outcrop in the harbour framed by snowcapped mountains.
Thats what you call secure parking
We decided not to camp as Emma succumbed to a heavy cold. If you have ever ridden with anyone with a cold linked to an autocom you'll understand why I decied to put her to bed in a hotel room and hit the bar for some Homer ale.
Leaving Homer relunctantly the next day, we headed North with an overnight stop at Girdwood. Not a very big place but we stayed just down the hill from the Ayelska ski resort in a cosy B&B with the biggest bed I have ever seen. Emma was well happy - probably because she got out of camping again (well she was still rough). If you are ever passing this way you have to stop in at Maxines - a great bar with food and drink from around the world.
Stopping at Girdwood fuel station the next morning we bumped into 2 BMW bikers - both American. The first guy couldn't believe we were travelling 2's up especially when he heard we were going to take on the infamous Dalton Highway. He slapped Em on the back and said 'well done - your a real trouper' Em looked at me all confused, I guess all will become clear when we hit the Dalton...
Continuing the road North we picked up the GPS software from Anchorage and riding on the Glenn Highway through some spectacular mountain scenery and ever improving weather we reached the towns of Palmer and Wasilla.
Next day saw us arrive at Talkeetna which is a town literally at the end of the road, famous for it's Moose Dropping festival (something about who can throw moose poo the furthest). The town is also the starting point for climbers who are scaling Mount Mckinley in Denali National Park.
With the sun still shining and Mount Mckinley as our backdrop, we headed through the national park to Healy. Denali is truly breathtaking - like riding through the pages of National Geographic. Unfortunately the American tourist is very well catered for with hotels and tours at every turn. Needless to say we avoided both and stayed in a log cabin on a hill in the woods.
Lunch break in Denali
On the road again the next stop planned was Fairbanks. A hotel on main street was to be our base where we would plan and prep for the challange of riding the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay and back.
Next morning with Emma sorting out kit and securing our accommodation for the trip north (not easy), I set about the bike. Thinking that I would have a relaxing day just getting nuts & bolts tightened and generally giving the bike the once over - that all turned to poo when I thumbed the starter - nothing, then a click.
Dammit! I was a bit peed off but also relieved that the problem had surfaced now and not tommorow when we would be in the middle of nowwhere on the Dalton.
On the fourth attempt the motor fired up, guessing that it was either battery terminals or a kill switch I headed out to the nearest motor shop for supplies. The guys there asked why I did not take the bike to BMW - It turned out that 10mins down main street BMW had a dealership at the rear of Harley Davidson!
So not at all nervous I ride a fully loaded, covered in crap GS into the parking lot of a Harley dealership. Expecting a frosty reception I am greeted with a knowing smile and directed to Scooter - the BMW man in the corner of the showroom, what follows is what I believe travelling on a bike is all about - Scooter and his workshop mechanic drop everything (they prioritise travellers) and diagnose a faulty side stand switch as the problem. I am soon able to fix the issue myself with the guys lending me their gear - we then proceeded to chat for longer than I took to fix the bike! - thanks guys, great service.
On returning to the hotel I discovered Em had had a similarly challenging day sourcing the hotels for the trip. Because the road is so isolated you have to book in advance the accommodation you need and because there is only a couple of hotels (I use the word hotels loosely) it can prove difficult getting a room. Thankfully she had won through and the rooms were booked.
Because we were returning to our base hotel in Fairbanks, I decided to leave some of our kit in the hotels baggage room, reducing our travelling weight ready for the slippery stuff.
The next day, my big dream of riding the Dalton finally begins...
Nervous? Me? Never!
Ready for anything
After a refreshing nights sleep the adventure began - we left Fairbanks mid morning for the first stop at the Yukon River Crossing and our first taste of the Dalton Highway.
Neither of us were really nervous- just keen to get going!
After leaving all our camping gear in storage, we strapped the tool / tire kits to the tank bag and streamlined our panniers down taking only necessities - one set of clothes and washgear only. This meant that we could fit two 20 litre petrol cans in each pannier, keeping the extra weight low and avoiding having to strap them to pannier tops, making it harder for me to get on and off (this makes a real difference when on slippery surfaces as just me getting on the back can pull the bike over if Darren can't keep his footing and I get my weight placement wrong). Yes it is that technical getting on and off as a pillion - the weight we are carrying is unbelievable- if we dropped the bike it would be nearly impossible for both of us to lift it back up again.
After the scare stories we had heard from everyone we spoke to in Alaska about the Dalton Highway, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that at some point we would have an off and having petrol strapped next to you might not have been a good idea. We had heard a lot of bad things about the Dalton and I came to the conclusion that it was locals trying to scare us away...the comments ranged from;
'you are nuts doing it 2's up with that extra weight'
' the biggest grizzly bear ever seen at mile marker 240'
'the steepest off road slopes ever seen, it took me half a day to work up the courage to go down Atigan - it still scares me to this day' (This from a Dalton Highway trucker veteran of 30 years).
'the highway regularly gets washed away in heavy rain - make sure you have enough fuel to turn around and head back'
Well it wouldn't be an adventure if the road was going to be easy we thought!
As soon as we hit the Elliott Highway heading toward the Dalton it was bumpy wih potholes and poor attempts at filling them. I was already begining to wish I had velcro on my backside to stop me sliding around. Then we saw the James W Dalton Highway sign and I started to feel apprehensive - I had tried very hard not to let my imagination run away with me and to make my own mind up about the road.
After rounding the bend 100m after the sign we hit the gravel and the awful feeling of the bike sliding side to side under you, then a huge truck passed us at 60mph and showered us in gravel- talk about baptism of fire!
Darren described this gravel section as "like riding on marbles on glass".
There were a few tarmac sections mixed in between the gravel. We called them 'tarmac teasers', they never lasted for long and would seem out of place in the middle of nowhere.
After four hours we reached the Yukon River and crossed the huge bridge to our lodging for the night.
This was a truckers stop with very basic facilities but really friendly service, just as well I brought the wet wipes as there was no way I was getting near the shared bathroom!
After a hearty truckers breakfast we set off for Coldfoot Camp and another 5 hour ride, crossing into the Arctic Circle.
Next stop top of the world
This section of the highway was mainly off road with some gravel sections, then some really horrible slippery mud sections made worse by the onset of rain.
Heading up from there we crossed into the Arctic Circle and stopped for the photo opportunity then examined the back of the sign as it was covered in motorcycle stickers from past travellers.
A coach load of american tourists made a fuss of us when we arrived (it was like being famous for all of 30 seconds) taking photos of us and standing around us looking in awe. By this time we were covered in mud, wet from the rain and had a cloud of mossies hanging over us.
We arrived at Coldfoot camp mid afternoon and were pleased to get cleaned up and into our civvies. First impressions of Coldfoot Camp aren't great -
A warm welcome at Coldfoot
However, this place really is good, with clean, basic accommodation all en-suite, a great cafe with a full on buffet most nights, friendly staff and a full bar.
I joked to Darren about needing a big glass of chilled chardonnay after a hard days ride and to my amazement I got one! This must be the furthest bar north.
We were up early next day in anticipation of a long, hard day to Deadhorse/ Prudhoe Bay which is the furthest point North in Alaska. We had estimated it would take us 9-10 hours based on GPS stats and advice from locals on weather and road conditions.
After giving a fellow biker some epoxy resin type liquid metal to fix his leaking radiator, we headed off.
It was a hard days riding but amazing. The views are astounding especially when you start to climb higher. The road itself has no shoulders or edges and their are a lot of steep drops. It is certainly not for the faint hearted.
A rare tarmac teaser
The vastness of this place is awesome and a little scary, you really do feel in the middle of nowhere with pine trees stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. The road climbs higher through forest valleys with twisting roads and very little tarmac now, it is all gravel, mud and worse still some awful black stuff which is slippery as hell- worse than the gravel 'marbles'. Add into the mix at intervals road works or to be more precise- grading. This is when they literally re-cut and level the road after trucks have worn away the surface or it has been washed away, or the road moves because it is on a permafrost patch. This happens alot and is by far the worst experience so far. As they re-cut the road they layer up a mound of loose stuff which, depending on which side of the road you are on, can get tricky trying to pass trucks. We then had to ride over the mounds, some were 2 foot high and with our weight it wasn't pretty.
We stopped for lunch (a twix and red bull) by the farthest North Spruce tree which was a couple of hundred years old and had been stuck back together again after a vandal had cut it down sometime before.
If you think the bike was muddy you should see us!
Then began our climb up the Atigan Mountains and onto the Atigan Pass itself. This was the point I had been dreading and we set off with trepidation.
As you approach the higher section the road curves up and to your right giving you a clear view of it's steepness, ok hold on tight - this is it.
As we climb steadily in second gear on the gravel the steep drop on our right increases showing the road behind us. We head into the pass and the view is amazing with mountains either side. Dodging the crazy goats that like to jump out at you then over the barrier, we continued through. The descent then started past a sheer plataeu and winding down and round into the valley. The valley continues through the Atigan range of mountains either side for a good 2 hours before flattening out into arctic tundra and low skies.
Again nothing on the horizon except the road and the oil pipeline.
Pipeline and road
This section of the road was really quiet and we stopped for another half hour break in which time no vehicle passed us in either direction. It was eerily quiet.
This is true wilderness.
Another scenic twix break
Due to the vastness of the views we could see the weather closing in on us making this stretch of the road with more grading work particularly fun! We pushed on steadily to Deadhorse through the rain with no mishaps.
When we reached Prudhoe Bay, it was such a relief , we had made it without any incidents and the sence of achievement was amazing. There is very little that is welcoming about Prudhoe - It is what it is - a working area where countless teams of men work on the oil fields supplying gas and oil to the USA via the pipeline.
Our 'hotel' was little more than a metal shack that exsisted to house the workers, meaning that not only did we feel very much out of place, but that also facilities were bleak to say the least.
We got cleaned up and went to bed with our heads full of an incredible day, then it hit me - we have it all to do again tommorow...
Ready to leave Prudhoe Bay - top of the World
Its interesting for me to read Ems account of the trip up, I guess just like the road is different for each rider, it's also different for two people on the same bike.
With Em perched up on the back of the bike and not in control the feeling must be different (and scary) to say the least. Hats off to her, I could not have ridden pillion on that road.
The weather has a large effect on what you ride on when tackling the Dalton Highway, on the way up the "road" was either wet from past rain or was very wet from a current downpour, making things very tricky for me to keep things upright.
Slippery when wet
We did have one or two moments, mainly the front washing out due to ruts in the gravel that had been filled in by the grader (one minute you think you are riding on firm, wet slimy gravel and the next the front drops into a soft section), but thankfully I managed to keep things in a straight line.
When re-grading the road, the workers wet the surface with tankers (bowsers) then they apply a granule that "bonds" the road together when rolled. This is great for the road I'm sure, but not so great for bikes - everything gets covered with sticky road surface, then bakes hard from the heat of the engine, you quickly get into a routine of stopping and scrapping off the muck from the engine before things start to overheat.
The road sticks to everything
I definately found the trip up a challange, but next day the section from Prudhoe back to Coldfoot proved to be the most demanding riding I have ever done.
We left Prudhoe with the clouds heavy and the road surface awash from overnight rain. The next few hours passed with very little conversation over the intercom as I concentrated like never before on the road ahead, while always looking in the mirrors for the terrifying view of an 18wheeler coming up on you out of nowhere.
The phsyical input required is difficult to explain, but with fear comes tension and the tension starts to make your muscles scream after a while. I constantly had to tell myself to relax and let the bike do as it wanted - dont fight it, then you have another slide and the tension returns, this cycle continues until we get to Coldfoot.
The fear is more out of respect for what you are doing, but more importantly where you are.. even a minor accident could leave one or both of us in major trouble due to the remoteness of our situation - it could takes hours for anyone to come by, then further hours for a helicopter to reach you from Fairbanks.
For me the responsibilty was to ensure that I did not put Em in a situation where she would be injured or helpless if I was the one with the injury - mobiles don't work out here, hence the fear, hence the tension.
But the remoteness of this road and this area is what we came for and believe it or not, despite the rain and fear of hurting the other half, I was having the time of my life.
The rain continued, the Atigan pass was thick with low cloud and visibility was down to about 10 meters, I was using the metal barrier as a marker as to where the road went, then remembered that near the top of the pass the barrier dissapears for a section, just in time I steered into the middle of the track as the barrier stopped and I briefly stared into cloud and quite possibly a bit of a drop.
Up in the clouds
I dont remember seeing too much scenery on the way to Coldfoot, but I do remember the weather and road conditions inproving for the final hour and was really happy to see Coldfoot Camp - we were both wet and cold and covered in crap, the bike looked like it had been to hell and back, but we were here again without incident.
Time now for a clean up (all three of us) before a meal and a couple of beers in the bar with some fellow bikers who were also tackling the Dalton.
After a restful nights sleep (with my mind replaying every incident of the last few days) We leave Coldfoot Camp for the last leg of the journey, the sun was out and the road was now firm and progress was much quicker - before we know it we are at the refuel stop of the Yukon Crossing and enjoying lunch.
Its here that we meet up with two of the bikers from the bar the night before and ride the rest of the Dalton Highway together with the sun out and the road now as firm as tarmac.
Good company and finally a dry road
I watch the last few miles count down on my GPS and realise that an awsome adventure, one of huge personal fulfilment is about to end and I reach round and touch Ems leg "well done mate, we made it".
Tarmac at the end of the Dalton
We both felt that we needed to experience a boat trip to see the ice flows and wildlife before we left Alaska, so with that in mind, we left Tok and headed south down to Valdez.
The road was a suprise, it took us through some amazing scenery and we even caught site of our first Grizzly. We had just topped up with fuel and had exited the station behind another bike, as this bike sped off I noticed something jump from the roadside, as we came alongside I realised it was a fairly large Brown Bear.
He looked at us a little suprised and we looked at him a little suprised - with about 30 ft between us, he then turned and walked back into the trees - an event that made our day.
After that the road just got better, finally ending with a series of mountain passes and stunning glaciers, but before long we reached the southern port of Valdez and were greeted with the awful stench of rotting fish.
We had arrived just in the middle of the Salmon spawning season, those fish that were not dead were frantically trying to continue the species while running the gauntlet of numerous Black Bears and even more numerous fisherman who had arrived on mass in there RVs.
After finding a cheap motel (Em refused to camp due to the high number of bears!) we organised the boat trip for the next day. I was more than a little apprehensive, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I am not good on water!
We left Valdez port on the boat with me a little happier as I had found out that our skipper owned the company and had navigated this route for over 30 years. As you leave the harbour you catch site of the oil terminal - and get a last glimpse of the pipeline that we had followed to Prudhoe and back.
The harbour was heavy in fog and mist, but that cleared to allow us the chance to watch the Sea Otters floating by on there backs. As the morning continues we also see Bald Eagles, Puffins and Sea Lions on the shoreline as well as the now expected Alaskan scenery. The only disapointment is that so far we had not seen any Whales, but on the plus side I was managing to keep my breakfast down.
As the boat neared our destination for the day - the Columbia glacier, numerous icebergs were now around us and looking up to the glacier itself we could see the iceflow meet the waters edge, unfortunatly the skipper could not get too close as the ice was too restrictive - and I for one was not going to argue with him.
As we turn to return to port, I realise that the numerous mini icebergs had surrounded us and the skipper had to negotiate a path through - occasionally we would hear and feel the bang as a big lump of ice scraped down the boat, reminding me why I prefer not to be on the water.
We arrived back at the harbour with no further issues, but had still not seen any Whales - nevermind, hopefully we will catch site of them later in the trip as we follow the Pacific Coast down.
As Darren says we headed out of Fairbanks after a 'day of rest' this was actually spent desperately trying to scrub dalton mud off our kit and the bike instead of 'chilling out'.
The road from Fairbanks to Tok was pretty boring as it is probably the straightest road I have ever been on. The highlight was a town called North Pole which is decked out for Christmas all year round. There was a forty foot Santa that I tried to get a picture of to give you folks at home a giggle but I wasn't quick enough with the camera- sorry!
Tok is actually pronounced Toke and is really just a crossroads of a town. We spent the night in a campground on the edge of a forest and didn't get much sleep as we were woken by howling wolves nearby at 3am which is really scary as it echoes through the trees. That morning I remind Darren that we need to buy a big knife.
We head off for Valdez taking the Highway South. This road cuts through vast forests of pine trees and all you can see is trees in every direction.
An hour later we saw a moose at the side of the road. The jeep in front saw it first and skidded to an abrupt halt with a loud screech. Then a foot long camera lense was thrust out of the window at the poor moose, who turned tail and ran off. We were disappointed that it had been scared off and continued on our way, only to come across a pond with a Moose taking a dip 5 mins later.
Much better looking when not stuffed
Then to our amazement an hour later we see the grizzly bear. Just as we passed he jumped back into the brush and I got a good look at his rear end- talk about heavy- you could almost feel the earth shake when he jumped!
It was nearing 4pm and we hadn't eaten anything all day. Finally we come across the Tiekel Lodge and decide that we have to stop for some food before we pass out.
Do I smell like a bear?
After batting off the hoards of mossies, we get inside not really expecting much as we were in the back of beyond. To our suprise we are greeted by the warm, inviting smell of cookies. A really cool guy who must be 25 is behind a counter baking the most amazing cookies I have ever eaten! We are surounded by cookies - I joke to him 'are you expecting a coach load or something?' At that moment we are besieged by American tourists. We try to make a quick getaway, but end up getting accosted by several.
Finally back on the road and an hour from Valdez, the scenery becomes amazing. We stop for a picture at Worthington Glacier.
No Darren, you can't ride the bike up the Glacier!
Then as the road winds down into the valley we follow the river as it cuts through the rock. We come across the prettiest waterfall ever and stop for the photo opportunity.
Bridal Veil Falls
As we get to Valdez it's early evening and a fog descends. We pass right by the estuary and sight of lots of dead fish, how inviting. The we notice a black bear cub in a corner, playing with the fish. A large iluminated sign on a trailer promptly reminds us not to approach bears in the area and we move on.
Our lodging for the next two nights is rustic and a real hunting and fishing lodge. The restaurant is full of every dead animal you can imagine stuffed, needless to say I didn't eat much.
The next day we head out to Prince William Sound on the boat trip. To say Darren isn't a good sailor is an understatement, I have lost count of the number of times he has embarrassed me by spewing down the side of boats. I pack a spare carrier bag in my jacket pocket ready for the inevitable. He does me proud however, passes on the clam chowder lunch and all is well.
'Thats alot of martini's" Comment by American Tourist
The trip was a real highlight and worth going to hideous Valdez for. It was good to get off the bike for the day, but we were getting itchy feet at this point. Alaska had taken us 4 weeks to cover and we were looking forward to something different in Canada, the border was calling us...
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