24 July… From the US to Canada

24 July – Day 2

Lauren doing yoga next to the tent and BMW GSA1200

Camping and yoga in Valdez Alaska

Valdez, Alaska to Beaver Creek, Yukon (Canada)

Distance: 583kms

Valdez was a great stop. Perfect weather for camping, no bears and only a few mozzies. Like everywhere, we met some interesting people at the campsite… like Phil, a recently retired 70-yr old American on an epic ride across and around Canada and the US – including considering an ‘iron butt’ challenge which involves riding to all four corners of the US in 50 hours. His blog is here: http://ptarman1.com/.

Valdez is an Alaskan town on the edge of the Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez tanker, which ran aground in 1989, was named after this town – it’s a major oil port; the Alaskan oil pipeline ends here. Even today, 20+ years after the spill, some species are yet to fully recover… and on the worst-affected areas of the coastline, you only need to use a regular shovel to dig down 15 or so cm to reach crude oil. It’s all pretty sad, really.

From Valdez we headed north up to Tok, the last “major” Alaskan town before the border. We had planned on stopping in Tok for the rest of the day, camping there overnight, but the weather was lovely, it was only 3pm and Tok was two horses short of a two horse town.. So we decided to keep going, push across the Canadian border and aim for Beaver Creek in Yukon, Canada.

Along the way, fellow travellers had been telling us that the weather changes at the Canadian border – and it always rains. And they were right! About ten minutes north of the border it started to sprinkle. And sprinkle. And sprinkle. And then rain. Really rain. Beaver Creek was just over the border, so we checked in to one of those slasher motels you see in the movies… you know, two storeys, long narrow building, angle car parking out the front, bright flickering fluorescent lights along the walkway, the incessant buzz of one of those blue light mosquito buzzers, empty ‘restaurant’ off the reception area etc etc. Still, it was dry, quiet, comfortable and had hot water – which is pretty much all that was required!

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22-23 July… Alaska, USA

Ben and Adrian having brekky in Anchorage

Ben and Adrian having brekky in Anchorage – their last meal after a couple of weeks together!

 

Lauren and Adrian on the ferry from Whittier to Valdez

On the ferry from Whittier to Valdez

23 July – Day 1

Anchorage to Whittier by bike then Whittier to Valdez by ferry

Distance: 95kms by bike then approx. 6 hours by ferry

After packing up the bike – our first ‘full’ pack of the bike on the trip – we headed into Anchorage’s downtown area to meet Ben for brekky.

Fresh fruit, muesli, yoghurt, an espresso machine and soymilk from a café that is jam packed with people?! Yes please!! Another food tick for Anchorage.

We only just – and I mean just – managed to squeeze everything in / on the bike. This was the moment that Adrian discovered the few extras I’d brought along…. ie things that aren’t on the packing list – such as a travel yoga mat, a skipping rope and a summer dress. He did an excellent job fitting everything into the panniers – a job interrupted only by a discussion on whether 2.5 months’ worth of cotton tampons were or were not a “luxury item” (direct quote!!!!) and therefore could be left behind and just purchased on an ‘as needs’ basis. Hrumph. My personal view is that a gopro (sports camera that you can mount to your handlebars or helmet) plus all necessary gopro accessories like a waterproof casing is a luxury item; tampons are not. Needless to say, both are in the panniers ;).

The ferry ride was just beautiful… calm, translucent, blue-green water surrounded by pine forests and mountains and glaciers. The light here seems to bounce of the water and burst into thousands of dancing, shimmering sparkles. Stunning.

We caught up with a couple of other bikers (oh yes – it’s approaching 24 hours so I’m definitely biker now ;)) – one from Guatemala and one who spends his time between Mexico and the US. Both have invited us to stay with them when we’re passing through. It’s strange how that all works, this biker thing… and is kind of what I imagine being a stone mason must be like. You know, you’re sitting in a café and scratch your right ear three times and then cough twice before slapping your left thigh.. then you see a guy in the far corner do the same thing, your eyes meet and you realise you’re kindred spirits, BFF, that sort of thing. Being on or with the bike is similar to that. It’s like a universal icebreaker.. bikers and nonbikers alike jump right into conversation with you, there’s no awkwardness, it’s like you’ve known each other for a while. It’s an interesting social phenomenon – and one I’m embracing.

Tonight we’ll be camping in Valdez at “Bear Paw” camping park. They have signs up saying that there’s a bear that has been hanging around, on and off, so don’t put rubbish out after 4pm or leave food in your tent. Still, I feel very safe here… with so many other camping Americans around, surely there are guns, too. So if the bear did come back, I figure all I’d have to do is call out. Strange really, that I feel safe because of the guns?! Guns, and all of my new friends.

22 July – Day 0

Anchorage

I arrived in Anchorage about 5.30pm local time after a 26 or so hour commute from Sydney. Happily, I managed to sleep for about half of that time… or at least I think I did… given that I missed one meal and was woken by my neighbours for two others before promptly going back to sleep. Nice to see that my special talent of being able to fall asleep before a plane has taken off is still going strong!!

The flight into Anchorage was just stunning. We flew low over spectacular, snow topped mountain ranges and glaciers. With streaming sunshine and a clear blue sky as the backdrop, it was an incredible welcome to country.

Lauren standing next to a stuffed bear in Anchorage

Loz with bear in Anchorage downtown… the closest I’m hoping to come to one!!!

I cabbed it to the place where I was staying, thinking that Adrian would probably be there and hoping that the guy who owned the house would also be there to let me in. No luck on either front!! We had booked a room using airbnb – a website where people rent out rooms in their house – and although I’d confirmed with him just before leaving Sydney, I hadn’t received any instructions like, you know, how to get in.

Fortunately, my first thought after the doorbell went unanswered was to check for a key under the mat and volia! So I got in – and went looking for a note or something telling me, you know, which room to stay in etc. No luck again! So I guessed which room looked like the spare/guest room and made myself comfortable. For a moment I did think it was a little strange that I’d let myself in to someone’s house using a key I’d found under their doormat, had helped myself to an apple from the fruit bowl and was now napping in one of their beds… but hey, it’s Alaska.

Adrian finally arrived a couple of hours later and we went into town for dinner with Ben. Fresh vegetarian spring rolls and tofu and quinoa salad?!! Oh yes. I was so happy. Go Anchorage!!! If Alaska caters to my dietary preferences, surely I’m set for the rest of the trip? Who would have thought that between the fur, gun and bear/moose tourist shops we would be able to find such good food?! I think Adrian is a little concerned that my food expectations – which were very, very low – have now been inflated to unrealistic proportions.

Anchorage itself is a cute little city. The population is about 300,000 and it seems pretty spread out. Every second shop in down town sells furs – clearly that’s a big thing here. And there are a heap of bars… according to my cabbie, Alaska has the biggest alcohol problem in all of the US.

Ben and Adrian north of the Arctic Circle… pre-Lauren’s arrival

By Adrian

Click here for Alaska photos

8-22 July

Two weeks ago, three flights and about 30hrs in transit, I arrived in Anchorage. Luckily I had the exit row on all legs of the trip so didn’t have to fold myself in two to fit. I walked out of the airport at 10.30pm into bright sunshine, the almost 24 hours of sunlight I’m still not quite used to two weeks later!

I had received confirmation that the bike had arrived a few days prior. I had arranged (via Bikes Abroad) to have a customs broker (Perman Stoler) complete the import formalities. I had completed the paperwork several weeks earlier (including EPA approval etc) which meant that they had an easier time and there were no issues. I could have completed it myself in hindsight but limited time, minimal cost and smooth transaction meant it was more than worth having someone else’s expertise.

Customs had hacked into the crate with a crowbar to check I was not transporting anything that was illegal pretty much making it unsalvageable however the guys at DHL still agreed to dispose of the crate for free which was great. I spent a few hours tucked away in a corner re-assembling the windscreen, handlebars, GPS and Top Box and giving the bike a onceover ensuring there was no damage. I made it to the nearest gas station on the smell of an oily rag given the tank was drained prior to packing.

I rode the bike up to a lookout over Anchorage before unsuccessfully trying to meet Benny Anschau at the Airport (flight arrived early – I arrived late).

So I ended up meeting Ben at Motoquest in town, where he was hiring a BMW F800GS to accompany me up the Dalton Highway (think the summer dirt version where Ice Road Truckers is filmed). The infamy of the Dalton Highway had led me to suggest that Ben spend the next 11 days riding around Alaska with me before Lauren arrived. This would be to assist if anything untoward occurred – or to laugh at any misadventure. Ben managed to squeeze in multiple sets of thermals and long sleeve T-shirts, packing only one T-shirt which he arrived wearing. Not so helpful given Alaska is having its hottest summer in 40+ years, with temperatures 30deg C… above the Arctic Circle!

With recommendations from Motoquest in hand we set off on the 12th heading towards Denali NP. We made a detour via Hatcher Pass which provided our first taste of the spectacular vistas that Alaska has to offer. After a day riding up the highway and admiring Mt McKinley, we stopped at some cabins in a tiny little town… I should learn to look at these places before handing over my hard earned. Having been sold on the fact there was a pub 50m away, we ended up in a mosquito infested timber cabin that smelt pretty rank with no TV or shower. A pizza and a few beers later helped us sleep through that first night.

Setting off at a leisurely 10am the next day, the swarm of mosquitoes that had settled around our bikes that night had us doing the funky chicken while packing our bags…  little did we know this was only a sample of what lay waiting for us up the Dalton! Both bikes started with the promise of an enjoyable day ahead, however 100m after pulling onto the highway Ben’s bike died. There are a lot of places on this highway in the middle of nowhere where the bike could have broken down, luckily this was outside of a nice little café that served Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. 8hrs later after sampling each of the café’s menu offerings and getting to know the staff, Andy from Motoquest personally delivered a temporary replacement Kawasaki KLR650. Ben’s dreams of riding on his comparatively powerful and civilised BMW were dashed by riding a trumped up postie bike with mirrors that shook so much he swore the white van following us was in fact black.

After getting “shaken to bits” (people do ride around the world on these), we arrived at the BMW dealership in Fairbanks where Motoquest were able to obtain another BMW F800GS from a local rental agency that was in fact better setup for the run up the Dalton than the original bike. The broken down Beemer had followed us up the highway (via the White van), and was thrown into the service department so it could be fixed prior to our return from Deadhorse. It turns out a bad tank of fuel was the culprit…

The weather for run up to Deadhorse on the Dalton Highway was promising and by lunchtime (late start) we were at the Yukon River camp. The only slightly dodgy section was the road works near the start where the mud made the traverse a little slippery, everywhere else the dirt road was of a standard to average 100km/h. The hills were rolling their way into the distance as we crossed the Arctic Circle and stopped for the obligatory photo. The bike readout confirmed the temperature as 30deg C which is apparently unheard of, especially in an area where a low of -62 deg C has been recorded. Suffice to say that when we rolled into Coldfoot mid-way along the Highway (the intended first night destination) having experienced the excellent weather and giving the reputation of the highway in bad weather, we decided (Ben perhaps reluctantly) to continue on to Deadhorse.

The scenery from Coldfoot north is spectacular and both the worsening road conditions and lack of traffic increased the sense of remoteness… It was hard to keep our attention on the road while gazing at the towering slopes overhead and dramatic mountains looming around us. Two sets of roadworks delayed progress somewhat and the wait at each gave us our first indication of the mosquito infestation to come. As the mountains levelled out on the other side of the pass, the heat disappeared and the wind arriving off the Arctic started to chill us to the bone. After weighing up the cold vs. mosquito equation, a quick pull over to the side had us racing to add layers before being eaten alive. This stop put my previous funky chicken to shame and had me dancing in a fit to get everything off and then on again quickly enough before being literally eaten alive.

We arrived in Deadhorse at around 10pm in 6 Deg C temperature having covered the 800kms from Fairbanks in one day. Having heard the horror stories of the highway in bad weather, our arrival in good shape had us readily appreciating the conditions we had experienced. The strict no alcohol policy meant no beer to celebrate, but also no hangover for the ride back. Deadhorse is an oilfield town, with a featureless landscape there for the pure purpose of making money. With little else to do we hit the hay in order to ensure we were rested before the run back to Coldfoot.

The ride back to Coldfoot was dealt with quickly with confidence from the previous day and a sound rest that night. Most surprising of all was the dot in the distance that grew into a familiar shape as we approached that grew into disbelief as we passed a couple riding two-up on a Honda Goldwing while towing a trailer. Most people that know motorbikes know that this is not the type of bike that finds its way offroad all that often, however these two seemed comfortable trundling along at their own pace undisturbed by the road they were riding on. While we could have tackled the entire length back to Fairbanks in one day, we decided to break it up a bit and chill out in Coldfoot as we had the time. The accommodation is fairly dismal for the money however the showers hot and the beds comfortable enough. The all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner certainly aids the comfort factor.

Completing the 1,600kms return between Fairbanks and Deadhorse was definitely an achievement for the trip and represents the most Northern point… effectively meaning it’s all southward from here. We decided to stop in at the Chena Hot Springs before returning to Fairbanks and while touristy (I am a tourist after all) it was probably the cheapest (50% off deal) and best accommodation so far topped off with lounging around in a natural hot spring and a good bar at the restaurant.

Ben’s BMW was swapped over to the old repaired version the next day. The ride down to the Tangle River Inn on the Denali Highway started on smooth freeway and ended up on a rough twisty road running through another spectacular mountain range. One of the numerous photo stops revealed a gravel road leading up to a glacier in the distance. Deciding it was a good idea to see how far it went, we proceeded up the road which got narrower and rougher the further we progressed. Ben lost a pannier without realising it (!) which luckily was recovered upon backtracking. The spare nut that had been obtained from Fairbanks came into good use in ensuring it was securely mounted again.

We rode the Denali Highway about mile marker 50 before turning back not because it was too rough, but because our destination was in the other direction. Out of the two possible destinations, Valdez was preferred over Kennicott due to being a better base for exploration on our day off that didn’t involve extensive walking that at least one of us couldn’t be bothered with…

Valdez itself is famous for both the Exxon Valdez oil tanker named after it and the nearby 9.2 magnitude earthquake experienced in the 1960s.

Arriving late in Valdez, the choice of motel was decided by the number of motorbikes parked out the front figuring that they had already performed the due diligence on the place. The obligatory chat about bikes and destinations ensued upon arrival. We arrived at the Steep & Deep bar soon after to enjoy a few quiet ales and stayed around until it closed. Upon direction from the bar staff this was followed by a visit to the local establishment featuring a drunk DJ belting out Karaoke favourites. A few ‘Captain & cokes’ later, I found myself up on stage belting out my best. Needless to say, I stumbled out of the room at checkout the next day to extend the booking by one more day.

I managed to wake Ben up by about midday and we found a place serving breakfast until 3pm. After clearing our heads, we booked the ferry to Whittier the next day, favouring the luxury of a ferry in lieu of 500kms of wet weather riding given the dire forecast. The ferry terminal had the usual display of pamphlets amongst which a glossy brochure of a helicopter flight to the Columbia Glacier stood out. An hour later we were standing outside the hanger eagerly awaiting our private tour. I think the photos speak for themselves in describing just how stunning the landscape was, this combined with the fact that with no cruise boats around, we had the entire glacier to ourselves to enjoy. We landed at the foot of the glacier on a tidal sandflat watching the glacier calve into the bay piece by piece. The eerie silence pierced by the thunderous crack of a glacier thousands of years old dropping into the bay was awesome. Our pilot directed the helicopter to what seemed metres away from the face then skimmed up the middle providing a view not possible by any other means.

We made sure the next night was a little slower due to the 5am start to catch the ferry. While struggling with the early hour we knew the right decision was made when the heavens opened the moment the bikes were safely strapped down on the ferry. The rain clouds gradually gave way to a clear sky enabling us to venture to the front deck to appreciate the spectacle of sheer mountains and massive glaciers rising from Prince William Sound. Once off the ferry we rode the single lane tunnel passing through the mountain just beyond Whittier, riding between train tracks provided an added complication to ensure concentration on the task at hand. The trip to Homer was fairly uneventful except for catching a glimpse of a brown bear sitting in the river running adjacent to the road. A quick stop had us running along a muddy track to the riverside to catch a glimpse and take some photos. The bear seemed to love the attention of the passing rafting boats and proceeded to waddle his way up the river bank in front of the quickly increasing crowds. Arriving in Homer, we found most of the accommodation booked out requiring an increase in expenditure to ensure a room was procured for the night.

While Halibut fishing was the drawcard for a previous trip, we decided to simply leave the hordes of RVs and other tourists to themselves and proceed to Seward. Again the accommodation was pretty much booked out however after the ninth attempt we found an old hotel with vacancy which we eagerly snapped up. The town of Seward was probably one of the nicer small towns in Alaska although very much oriented toward the tourist experience of which I am one so don’t mind so much. We downed a few ales at the home brewing local establishment before retreating to our room. The next day saw was the shortest ride as we rode back to Anchorage. Arrival in anchorage was a bittersweet moment seeing the end of the ‘boys’ trip but the arrival of Lauren for the start of the ‘big un’. After dropping Ben’s bike off and getting a quick oil change on mine, we all met up in Anchorage for farewells and the start of our trek down South to Ushuaia.

When does your new moto arrive Ben?