Travel Through Alaska on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter & Kay Forwood

U.S.A. on a Harley (4/7/01 - 27/7/01)
Distance 5578 km (243160 km to 248738 km)

This is part of the Seventh section of our around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from  Canada or read our previous visit to U.S.A.

4/7/01 Our boat had almost no foot passengers. The lower deck was packed with motor homes and 5th wheelers and cars. Our children, some of the few travelling now without wheels, choosing to leave theirs behind in Prince Rupert to avoid the high ferry charges. It rained all day spoiling the long distance mountain vistas. The lower closer mountains were visible as were a number of humpback whales and porpoises. We pitched the tent alongside others on the heated solarium deck and with our own food and booze spent a quiet 4th of July evening.

5/7/01 Juneau and we departed the boat. This city, Alaska's capital, is only reachable by boat or plane, there being no roads connecting it to the rest of the world. While set up for the thousands of visitors each day from the four or five cruise ships that dock here facilities for their poorer cousins, travellers on the state run ferry are not so good. We ended up shuttle biking our children around as the local buses didn't go to the ferry, campground nor main glacier meaning they would have to get taxi's at exorbitant tourist prices.The three children aboard the Alaskan Ferry Helicopters and seaplanes constantly dotted the sky and we counted eleven over the glacier at the same time. This magnificent glacier drops icebergs into its lake keeping the postcard effect ever changing.

6/7/01 Still raining. The locals tell us summer was two weeks ago, we missed it. Its salmon running time. They are fighting their way upstream now to be caught by anglers, or hatcheries to be milked or to breed naturally. Hatcheries now account for 25% of all salmon. We visited one with ponds packed with salmon ready to be milked and die to ensure more salmon for the fishermen and bears. Different cruise ships today, different people, same helicopters and float planes, same bored staff answering the same questions, trying to keep fresh but often failing even this early in the season. The tourist bring a lot of money but the locals don't like them. They come from cities, but most of the locals like the wild open beauty of emptiness.

7/7/01 Our 4.15 am departure meant we slept outside the ferry terminal out of the rain lying on our bedrolls huddled up in sleeping bags away from the wind.Glacier into the lake at Juneau The boat scenery better as occasional clear patches allowed views of glacier tongues coming out of cloud topped mountains. A humpback slapped the water many times with its tail as the boat motored past and porpoises seemed to be everywhere. Off the boat at Skagway, the starting point for the gold rushers heading to the Yukon for the Klondike gold strike 100 years ago. This dying ghost town as the gold diminished now experiencing tourist gold. Many of its old buildings are owned and maintained by the National Parks and their interpretative displays and tours excellent. A sad farewell to the children as they head back on the boat and we headed further into Alaska.

8/7/01 Still raining, lost count of how many days so far but the forecast for the next five days here was for rain. Yet 50 km away from the coast and it stopped and began to clear. The road follows the path of the gold rush and what took them months took us hours. They had to move in winter, over the mountains to build boats, to raft the rivers at the first melt in spring down to the gold fields. Freddie, our New Yorker friend, was waiting for us in Whitehorse. Eight days to get there from New York. Then a long day through the Yukon and back into Alaska to Tok. Here the trees grow short, the ground frozen solid about 4 metres down. The ground everywhere above that a mushy wet mess of oozing bogs. The road constantly breaking up as it sinks into the bog. Even the old wooden electricity poles slowly sink into the ground.The Harley dealer in Fairbanks Alaska

9/7/01 Onto Fairbanks. A large male moose broke the regular hum of the motorcycle by charging out onto the road just in front of us, his large feet thumping across the ground. Information on road conditions from here to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. In this world of exaggeration and dramatization it is difficult to obtain first hand subjective knowledge. The H-D mechanic advised us not to go as he has seen many damaged bikes return but others who had been said that conditions were OK. Bought five days of groceries ready to go.

10/7/01 The first 70 km sealed, followed by excellent dirt. Travelling at 70-80 km/hr except where the road was wet from recent showers, then it was a bit chopped up and slippery. The road follows the oil pipeline, a massive 1.2 metre diameter snake winding across the landscape. Suspended a couple of metres off the ground to prevent the 60 degree hot oil from melting the permafrost and tundra. Across the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle to where the already stunted trees grow shorter and sparser. A grey fox was little concerned with our passing as he chose the road edge as his highway in preference to the boggy tundra. About 400 km and we were in Coldfoot and half way. The weather had been kind with just a few light showers.At the Arctic Circle with Freddie, still heading north

11/7/01 Freddie's motorcycle had been making unusual engine noises and just 50 km into today he decided to return to Fairbanks rather than risk being stranded out here. We kept going over the Brooks Mountain Range where the road had been closed due to snow just a few days earlier and it was still slushy mud in places. While not overly abundant, wildlife were there in numbers to keep us looking. A mother fox and five cubs were playing on the road, three moose grazed as we passed and three large fully antlered caribou nervously crossed just ahead of us. The truly stunning thing in this area is the air clarity. Mountains way in the distance seem close, their details crisp, unspoilt by any dirty air particles. Thunderstorms formed miles away, can be seen dropping streaks of rain. Before we headed out of Fairbanks people asked why are we going, "to say we have been there?", that there was nothing to see. They must not have been looking as there is always something to see the first time you go somewhere. This area is quite unique and what you will see is something you probably haven't seen before.The Alaskan oil pipeline We camped at Happy Valley 130 km short of Deadhorse, out on the treeless tundra, next to a peat darkened stream.

12/7/01 Yesterday a large rock flung up onto the belt peeling it from the rear sprocket. We put the belt back on but this morning on leaving our camp it snapped. A freak break not indicative of the road. We had broken the belt stone guard in Africa and had forgotten to replace it, now at our peril. So again roadside a belt replacement, using the spare that we always carry, three hours, fighting all the time with the mosquitoes. Heading north the pipeline workers and supply trucks are generally considerate drivers slowing down or moving over as far as possible as they pass. As the road is steadily sinking into the tundra much roadwork is needed and while waiting at a road construction area, two riders, Rocky from Wyoming and Jose from Spain arrived, also heading to the biker meet. The four of us arrived at Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay to strong icy winds. The oil supply town spread out with dozens of large snow cats on spongy rubber tyres lined up waiting for the winter freeze to be able to move around again. All the buildings are on skids, sledded in during winter and now sitting on frozen ground. Jim and Jamie Clark were already there and were surprised to see others riding this far to share Jim's 67th birthday.Birthday dinner with other riders at Prudhoe Bay, the furthest north we can ride After a great dinner we decided to avoid the $US 100.00 a room price tag or camping with the town grizzly bears and rode back to Happy Valley 130 km south, in full sunshine at midnight, and seeing two arctic owls and some caribou along the way.

13/7/01 The dirt road up here can vary from excellent 100 km/hr hard pack in dry conditions to 60 km/hr chopped up mud in the wet. The roadwork areas have golf ball to baseball sized stones being rolled about and can last for 30 km but as they are slowly chip sealing, (stone chips on asphalt) the road will be getting better each year. Happy Valley, half way between the Brooks Range and Deadhorse seems to get the best weather. Far enough inland to avoid most of the ocean fog and low enough to not get the mountain thunderstorms. We spent two nights there in sunshine, a great hop off spot for the top. Heading south now, and for the next year and a half. Some Dall mountain sheep grazed the steep slopes, snow shoe hare ran across the road and two large male moose grazed on lake weed standing knee deep in water. We finally ditched the yellow spare petrol drum collected in Congo as this should be the last time we need to carry extra fuel.Looking over Brooks Range It was given to a motorcyclist heading north. The mosquitoes were bad but manageable, committing suicide in your cup of coffee or food, dive-bombing the side of the tent or getting stuck to the oily parts while we changed the belt. DEET stopped the biting but not the annoying cloud from forming around us. The worst was probably at Yukon River where we camped tonight.

14/7/01 The good weather had gone and fog and drizzle muddied the last 200 km of dirt before clearing in Fairbanks. We bought a new spare belt at the dealer here and found Freddie about to depart on a truck with his rear cylinder destroyed. He had made it back to Fairbanks but found the piston to conrod pin gouging his cylinder after a circlip had broken. It seems it may have bent the conrod and he chose to truck home. To ride from New York past the Arctic Circle to within 300 km of the top. The six who were at the top, plus Lew Waterman had a reunion in Fairbanks after a successful descent with stories of the trip the conversation. If not a difficult trip a challenge in its remoteness, weather and 1400 km of dirt.

15/7/01 Steve and Liz, an Australian couple, were travelling on a BMW F650 from the bottom of  South America to the top of Alaska. They had made it without problems but on the way down from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks the radiator water entered their oil and they were holed up in Fairbanks for repairs. They joined us and two other riders who are heading towards South America to exchange information and discuss this popular long distance ride. More riders seem to be along this route top to bottom or bottom to top of the Americas through Central America than anywhere else I know. Washed everything of the dirt and road grime.

16/7/01 Alaska draws many adventurers like the Japanese photographer just returning from his fourth summer in the Arctic where he spends about five weeks photographing wildlife alone, being flown in and flown out of remote locations. We relaxed and did minor maintenance like plugs, oil change, new leads. There always seems to be something to do on the motorcycle as it gets older.

17/7/01 After two sunny days it rained on us all the way to Denali National Park, Alaska's premier park. No private vehicles allowed due to the high usage but a series of shuttle buses allow visitors to hop on and off at will, walk in the back country and camp. We managed to get two nights camping at Wonder Lake (a rare cancellation as most people book weeks ahead) and despite the continuing rain managed to spot four grizzly bears from the bus plus other wildlife. The bear here are smaller than elsewhere as they have limited protein there being no salmon in the glacial melt rivers. This also means the bear are predominantly vegetarian thus allowing tourists safely to walk in the park. Beaver dams and beaver are prevalent nearer to Wonder Lake and the only disadvantage seems to be the amazing number of aggressive mosquitoes.Mt McKinley in Denali National Park, out of the clouds for once

18/7/01 We missed the 8.30 shuttle bus as it was full and had to dodge swarming mosquitoes for the next three hours but as a consolation Mt. McKinley/Denali poked its head out of the fog and slowly revealed all its slopes to stand fully exposed in front of our campground. Rising 5500 metres from the surrounding plains a really impressive sight. The next bus dropped us at the Eielson area where there is an unusually large concentration of brown bears. The mother and two cubs we had seen yesterday were still in the area grazing as were two other larger male bear. We could watch comfortably in sunshine from a distant hill the eating and resting of all five bear for hours. One male stalked the female while she rested. The two cubs aware of his presence took off up the hill disturbing the mother who moved quickly to higher ground then turned on the pursuing male. Growling, standing on rear legs and swiping at each other with mouths open the two bears tussled for a short time then separated. During this exchange we were two lone figures standing in open tundra just 250 metres away. The bears returned to grazing and resting and after four hours of watching we left.

19/7/01 The five hour bus ride out of the park plus 400 km motorcycle ride to Anchorage in the rain. I think we are here at the wrong time. Anchorage is having its wettest July on record and still has 11 days of the month left.

20/7/01 The Anchorage museum with displays on native peoples, the oil pipeline and the earthquake brought everything we have already seen in Alaska into perspective. We had an offer of a room from Maxine, a vibrant octogenarian, and slept off the ground for the first time in a month, and out of the persistent rain.

21/7/01 Jim and Melinda brightened an otherwise wet ride to Seward by taking us to lunch at Summit Lake Lodge along the road and for a couple of drinks overlooking a foggy and cloudy Seward bay. The constant rain just annoying but coupled with missing magnificent scenery depressing. The cruise ships are regulars in the bay as are hundreds of motor homes lined up along the waterfront with barely room to open their doors. Most are here for the halibut fishing, a large bottom feeder like a sole fish but often weighing in at over 50 kg. Others are here for the salmon run or like us just looking.A different sort of boat house

22/7/01 Down to Homer and the weather the same. This Sunday at the peak salmon run brings anglers by their thousands to line the banks or fish from rafts and boats the rivers of the Kenai Peninsula. It also brings bumper to bumper traffic in the afternoon rush to return home.

23/7/01 Halibut, halibut, salmon, salmon, salmon is all the talk and doing along its coast and rivers. The Homer spit is lined with charter operators and motor homes, their customers. Our out of the way cheapie campground is full of the seasonal workers here to milk the fishermen. Uni students summer vacationing, foreigners illegally working, singles looking for quick money all wanting jobs on a boat, cleaning fish, deck hand, or cleaning the boats. Some have to settle for lower paid more mundane work of weeding vegetable farms or barking logs for log houses, jobs spurned by the locals who are milking fishermen.

24/7/01 Almost everyone is riding a motorcycle cross countries these days.French couple riding a Russian Ural around the world Yesterday we met a French couple on a Russian built Ural with sidecar, looking like a 1940's BMW but only 12 months old and painted army camouflage colours. They have travelled across Russia and are heading towards Central America but with only 15,000 km and already a total rebuild of the engine they are not sure if they will make it. And today we met two young Italian men just landed in from having also crossed Russia but flew their motorcycles from Vladivostok to Anchorage. The bike was cheap to fly but for them at $US 800.00 each quite steep. Back to Anchorage for the night.

25/7/01 To Valdez and we have come the entire 1200 km length of the Alaskan pipeline from Prudhoe Bay. It's here where the oil is shipped around the world. It is here where the Exxon Valdez spilt over 10 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound 12 years ago bringing this town to prominence all over the world. The town grew from a normal 3500 population to 13500 population almost overnight flooding money into the small place. Today there is no sign of these problems and our campground once again packed with motor home fishermen indicating the ecology has recovered.

26/7/01 Two cruise ships fill and empty the town daily of three thousand visitors. Frequenting the museum and buying souvenirs for back home. The motor homers are fishing the salmon run up to the hatchery. The hatchery already is full of breeding fish and the remainder that weren't caught by professional fisherman on their way home are now being caught by recreational fishermen. The fish have nowhere to go, instincts door at the hatchery closed so they will mill around in their thousands near its entrance waiting to die sexually unfulfilled. A motor homer with his freezers full still fishes for the sport, such is the addiction, and allows us all we want rather than throwing them back. Tired of fishing for the day he even fillets them for us and seeking company we are invited inside for a hot chocolate. These full size coaches line the shore for the summer migrating south for the winter only to return again next year with the salmon.

27/7/01 Heading out of Alaska through Glennallen, Tok and across the "Top of the World Highway" to the Canadian border. This road much improved in recent years doesn't  hold the horror stories it used to. Now half sealed, half dirt on the Alaskan side from Tok to the border and crumbling chip seal on the Canadian side it supports the bus RV crowd but gets a bit soft or slippery in the wet. Despite the weather we had a great time in Alaska fulfilling or exceeding our expectations of wilderness, remoteness, wildlife and friendly no-nonsense, come as you are, locals.

Move with us to Canada , or go to our next visit to the  United States of America .




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Story and photos copyright Peter and Kay Forwood, 1996-
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