Monday, September 28, 2009

The Pipeline Haul Road, Park 3 + Denali National Park

The last time I visited this part of my trip was when I was up in Anchorage, busily flirting with a barrista and waiting on delivery of a new front tire. I wrote parts 1 & 2, covering my ride to Prudhoe, and then the way back as far as Coldfoot, but this is part 3, from Coldfoot back to Fairbanks.

After packing myself full of food in Coldfoot, I went southward. Even though I still felt like I should sleep sometime soon, refueling the bike and myself at the Coldfoot restaurant place have given me a renewed sense of energy, and I decided to take advantage of the nice weather as long as I could.


On my way up, I had been more focused on the adventure ahead, and hadn't spent much time looking back out of the mountains. But now going this way really gave me a chance to enjoy this state, and feeling freshly bad-ass after getting back from Prudhoe, I was more willing to take my time, stopping and taking pictures.

Often I could see the road winding out in front of me for miles and miles as we kept going down out of the Brooks Range.

Now, remember much earlier when I said there was evidence of many crashes along this road? In just the few days it had been since I passed this way, someone had added to that.

I'm still trying to figure out what the heck happened here. There's no skid marks on the road, although that looked like it had been freshly graded, but even without any skids, there wasn't even any damage to the bushes in the area. How the hell did this driver manage to do this?

There wasn't anyone around at all. If there hadn't been the orange traffic cone on the car, I might have worried a lot more that no one had bothered to report this yet.

Looking into the car made me feel less worried. There wasn't any blood at all, no evidence of bodily trauma, and obviously the impact hadn't even been severe enough to deploy the front airbags (although I can see one of the side-curtain airbags did deploy).

It is a mystery . . .

Later in the day, I was flagged down to stop by a pickup truck traveling north wearing WIDE LOAD signs. He said they had something big coming up, and had me and a few other cars pull over and wait on a straighter section of the road while the truck navigated the bends ahead.

They weren't joking when they said that whatever he was hauling was big.

But how do you know that something is REALLY heavy?

When there's another truck helping to push from behind. Holy crap.

Going farther south, the traffic was getting heavier, meaning that I might see another couple of vehicles every hour. But when I did see them, it was whiteout for at least a minute, especially if we were in a small valley to prevent the wind from clearing it away.

They couldn't have come up with SOMETHING?

All the way along the haul road, there's many turn-offs for service access. Most of them also have signs posted.

Aw, man, ruining my fun.

But while they did say don't CLIMB ON the pipeline, they didn't say anything about not hanging from it!

Yeah I might be 8 years old.

BIGGEST. UNDERSTATEMENT. EVER. They should have just put one of these at the start of the Dalton and said "Next 500 miles"

I camped that night down a gravel side-road, off in the trees where I found a small clearing that already had a fire-ring in it. The mosquitoes weren't too bad here, and I took the opportunity to lay out all my gear to let it dry out some. Why the heck was it almost 90 degrees in northern Alaska? Maybe there's something to this whole global warming thing.

I also took the chance to knock off some of the larger chunks of mud from my riding suit. This is after I'd whacked it against some trees and rocks for a while; before this, it was so dirty you almost couldn't tell the color.


My campsite had only been about 70 miles north of Fairbanks, so it wasn't long before I was back in civilization proper. Stopping at a gas station gave me an chance to take a good look at my bike.

I'm not going to lie, I was proud of my mud. I wore it all like a badge of honor, riding cheerfully past other riders on shiny, chromed-out cruisers, and yes, feeling very smug. I really wish I could have kept it; If I'd had my choice, I wouldn't have washed the bike at all on the whole trip. But this thing was so dirty that it was a problem: The carburetors were caked in so much mud that the throttle wouldn't fully close. Even twisting the handgrip closed with all my might would result in an engine speed of ~3500rpm with no load, which made parking and other low-speed maneuvers sort of dicey. Also, there was so much mud on the shifter linkage that the gear lever wouldn't drop back down from an upshift. Every time I shifted up, I had to kick the lever back down again so that I could get up into the next gear.

I was looking for one of those U-Wash-It places, but just happened to drive by a charity car wash. Perfect! They all started cracking up when they saw me pull in.

They were even nice enough to hose me off as well. When they were done, you could actually kinda tell what color the bike was again.

I did try to get in touch with the Goon who'd bought me dinner when I passed through Fairbanks the first time, but he was busy with work. Ah well. I headed out of Fairbanks, down the Parks highway to find someplace to camp.

My first attempt took me down a little service road for some power lines, but something told me this wouldn't be a good spot to avoid being disturbed for the night.

Maybe it was all the beer cans and stuff with bullet holes in it. Lets try again.

Farther down the highway, I took another power line service road that OH FUCK SAND SHIT

Worse, the bike was laying at an angle facing downhill, and the sandy soil didn't give a lot of traction. I had to remove almost all the luggage from the bike to be able to get it back up. Once it was back in the proper orientation, I headed a little bit more up the road before pitching my tent.


The night was uneventful (save for the lack of darkness), and the next day I kept on my way down the Parks highway, eventually getting to Denali National Park.

It got hazy as I went south, I guess there were some more fires burning to the southwest of Denali. There were some very hazy times, but enough clear times to let you appreciate the scenery, and the smell in the air wasn't overpowering.

The park entrance was your pretty standard fare. A big Visitors Information center with displays on the climate and geography of the park, along with the animals and people who call it home. It was nice overall, but really busy.

I'm always a huge sucker for the topographical relief maps. I don't know why, I just like them a lot.

Private vehicles aren't allowed all the way into Denali anymore, only about 10 miles in. To get to the towns the rest of the way in, you have to take one of the many bus tour services that will take you the sixty miles or so in.

But to be honest, I just didn't feel like it. Part of it was that I hadn't had a shower since, and I'm not joking, northern Saskatchewan, which was the better part of . . . like three weeks ago. And I wasn't about to curse some poor bastard with sitting next to me on the bus. It was bad enough that when I took off my suit, even I was overpowered by my stink.

But most of it is that I'm not on a solo motorcycle trip because I love being around other people. The idea of being trapped on a bus with 50 other people all jostling for position to take pictures out the windows was very unappealing to me at that point: I like seeing stuff without any glass or pillars in the way. I wasn't even in the mood to go for a short hike, as this place was way too crowded for my tastes.

I did take the road in as far as was allowed, just for the hell of it. Due to local weather patterns, Denali is obscured by clouds the vast majority of the time; the summit is often only visible one out of every three days, and even on those days you're lucky if it's clear for more then a couple hours.

The irony of this was that it WAS a clear day, there weren't any clouds in the sky. So it wasn't the clouds hiding the mountain this time; it was the smoke from the fires.

Somewhere off behind those hills is Denali, according to the little info plaque.

I rode into the park as far as private vehicles are allowed, before turning back and heading out of the park.

Denali may have been hidden, but there were plenty of other mountains around to look pretty.

Farther down the Parks highway in the direction of Anchorage, I paused to take note of a set of what looked to be fresh skid marks heading off the road.

Well, shit. A panicked attempted to avoid wildlife, maybe? Anti-lock brakes are good, mkay . . .

(It's hard to make out, but that yellow sign warns "SLIDE AREA". I thought it was funny.)

I passed this motel/gas station place, which sadly looked to be abandoned or out of business. Probably another victim of high fuel prices, which is a shame, because that's just damn cool. Looks like an old salt dome converted.

I guess that's the redneck equivalent of taking pictures of "No Photography" signs, huh?

Again, somewhere behind these hills is Denali. Or so I was told.

Does anyone want to see MY gigglewood?

As I was getting farther south, it did start to get psudo-dark, and at this point I was close enough to Anchorage that I decided to just get there tonight, even if (by my calculations) it meant that I would get there at almost 1am. I had been told by the internet that the Harley-Davidson dealer offered free camping for motorcyclists, so my plan was to stay there (assuming I could find it)

But as I was going into Anchorage, I encountered one of the things I hadn't missed about civilization: Traffic. They were doing some late-night construction on the main highway going into the city, and I ran into the end of what looked to be a many-miles long backup. Of course . . . being on a motorcycle, this didn't phase me much

*split split split split split*

As I was puttering along happily in between all the stopped cars, relishing in the jealous honks and probably dirty looks shot at me as I went past, I noticed a couple of squad cars sitting in the median a few hundred feet ahead. SHIT. At this point, I was so close that I figured they probably already saw me, and I figured the best coarse of action was to continue on and pretend like I wasn't doing anything wrong. Maybe they wouldn't see me, or wouldn't bother to do anything?

Nope. As I went by, I saw one of them pull out, hit the lights and chase me down on the median. Well, crap. I pulled off into the area blocked off with cones, shut off the bike, tossed the keys on the ground, took off the helmet and got out the only ID I had on me, my passport.

As I got off the bike, the officer got out of his car and walked up to me, glanced at my plate and started with "So, I'm guessing that in Illinois they let you do that, huh"

"Yes sir, as long as it's done safely and at less then 25mph" (This was a blatent lie on my part. Lane Splitting is expressly forbidden in every state except California, where it is expressly legal)

"Well, you can't do it here, even if the traffic is fully stopped. Motorcycles in Alaska have to abide by the same rules as cars, the only exception being that you can share lanes"

In the end, he let me go without even writing me an official warning, which was pretty decent on his part. I'll never understand why the USA has such a vendetta against lane splitting; we're just about the only country in the WORLD that bans it.

So I thanked him for his kindness, put my gear back on, merged into traffic . . . and then realized that I'd forgotten to put my passport back in my tank bag, and had left it sitting on my seat bag when I pulled away.

SHIT. This was the only photo ID I had left; I'd left my driver's license at the border when I entered Canada in New Brunswick. They'd mailed it back to what I'd listed as my home address (my dad's house), and he had mailed it to me General Delivery to the post office in Anchorage. But of course, I'd need a photo ID (my passport) to pick it up. *headdesk* This could end up being far worse then losing my tent poles, as now I didn't have ANY ID on me, and no way to get back into Canada to get down to the lower 48. I could be FUCKED.

I pulled a U-turn as soon as I could find a space, went back to where the police officer who'd pulled me over was sitting. I explained my problem to him, and asked if he would mind if I walked up and down the highway to try and find my passport. He agreed, as long as I kept my suit on, which was fair enough (it's covered in reflective bits). As I started walking, he even started driving up and down the closed area of the highway, lighting the ground with his spotlight to see if he could find my passport.

SUCCESS! Just a few hundred feet up the road from where he'd stopped me, I found it laying on the pavement, and not much worse for wear. I can't TELL you how relived I was. I thanked the officer again for his help, and continued on into the city. Little did I know what experiences were waiting for me in Anchorage :)

Entering Alaska

I rode into Alaska under some light rain showers that eased up the farther northwest I went. Canadian Highway 1 turned into Highway 2 in Alaska, and the scenery was still pretty good . . . until I got to Tok

Mind-numbing straightness for what felt like an eternity. At this point, I had a decision to make. Should I continue north to Fairbanks, or go down to Anchorage?

When I had planned this trip months ago, I had planned on stopping in Anchorage first, to get new tires put on before going up to Prudhoe Bay. But this rubber was holding up way better then I ever could have hoped for: I was something like 13,000 miles into the trip by this point, and there was still a hell of a lot of tread left. With that in mind, and also figuring that it would take a week to order tires in Anchorage anyway, I decided to keep heading north, up to Fairbanks.

As I kept going north, something else started becoming apparent to me. It was hazy, very hazy, getting thicker the farther north I went, and the air smelled strongly of a campfire. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was going on, so when I stopped in Delta Junction for gas, I asked the attendant exactly what was going on.

Forest fires, she said (well, duh). There were two big ones, one patch burning off to the northeast, which wasn't a worry, but there was also a patch burning in the area of Nenana, which was where all the smoke was coming from. Her advice was NOT to go north, as the smoke was even worse in Fairbanks, and if all possible, the smart decision would be to go down to Anchorage for a week or so and wait for this to clear out.

. . . Since when have I been known for making the smart decision?

I rode out of Delta Junction (Forgetting to take my picture with the ceremonial pillar marking the official end of the Alcan) going north to Fairbanks.


I got into the vicinity of Fairbanks sometime later in the next day, after first passing by Ellison Air Force Base. The whole road along the base is plastered with "NO STOPPING, NO STANDING, NO PHOTOGRAPHY" signs. And while I wasn't ballsy enough to stop and get the bike's picture next to one of the signs, I did my best to at least photograph them on the move (stupid crappy camera with it's shitty focus and shutter lag)

Of all the road signs that attract me, even more interesting to me then "WARNING, SHARP CURVES, NARROW WINDING ROAD", is the "ROAD CLOSED" sign. I don't know what it is about old, abandoned stretches of tarmac that draws me to them, but when I see a stretch of tarmac that's been long forgotten, I have to get on it and see where it goes.

This was just an older part of the road that took a more interesting route then the newer road, which just bypassed the ravines with bridges. I followed it for roughly a mile before it dead-ended into a berm.

Frost heaves destroy even the main roads within just a few years in these climates, and when a road is left to rot, the heaves become so bad that I had to go into the grass to avoid high-centering the bike on some of them.

I got into Fairbanks sometime in the middle of the day, and made text message contact with goon Denizen. He wasn't free until later in the day, so I rode around to the few motorcycle shops in town trying to find someplace that carried good cold-weather touring gloves. I figured that being Fairbanks, and having a lot of people with snowmobiles (Oh, I'm sorry, "Snow Machines") would mean a good stock, but no place I found seemed to have anything that was very good. Of course, the Harley store did have mountains of HD-branded tee-shirts, jeans, hats, vests, underwear, and (Not joking) infant onesies. But heaven forbid they carry much in the way of safety gear.

I passed the rest of the day hanging out at the Fairbanks visitor and information center, which was nice enough to have free wi-fi. In their parking lot, I discovered I'd made a friend;

They are not kidding about the size of bugs in Alaska, jesus fucking christ.

That evening, I linked up with Denizen, and he was nice enough to treat me to the first cooked meal I'd had in a long time, at this place called . . . uh, shit can't remember it now. Busters? Something like that. Either way, the food was very disappointing.

The steak was a joke, the mashed potatoes were instant, and the vegetables were SO OBVIOUSLY from a can that I couldn't even eat them. What a waste of a goon's hard-earned money.

He and I then went to the house of a friend of his, were we all hung out and watched Top Gear for a few hours, before I headed on my way. They were nice enough to give me a few episodes of Top Gear that I hadn't seen yet on a flash drive, which I resolved not to watch until I was in the Arctic Circle. I bid them farewell, swung by a supermarket for some more basic provisions, and steeled myself for the very long ride north.

Riding to Prudhoe Bay was . . . one of the more difficult, and hands-down the most amazing part of this whole trip so far. The harshness, the desolation, the shear distance of being that far away from everything was breathtaking, and a wonder to behold. So many times along that road did I just stop, and regale in the shear absurdity of being alive in such an incredible place. I wrote up most of my run up north a couple months ago, and I won't clutter up this post by copy-pasting it all. Here's a link to it, for those of you that missed it the first time around:

Up next: The Pipeline Haul Road, part 3

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Getting to Alaska

In my last liner update, I'd ridden through a week of rain and hail in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, before finally making it down into British Columbia, and spending a wonderful night recuperating at the Liard Hotsprings. The place had been packed well beyond capacity, so much so that the ranger pretended that he hadn't seen me come in without paying, and I camped in the Day Use area with a bunch of other bikers.


The hot springs are very far north in BC, so far north that the next day, it was only a short time before . . .

I swear, I was there too, this wasn't just a story of my bike traveling around on it's own.

Soon after I did swing by that famous signpost forest, which is the only thing of note at all about the little town that it resides in. I think the signpost forest is bigger then the town itself.

All I did was park, take this picture, and then left. I just didn't feel like walking around and being touristy that day, and the weather was too nice to not be on the bike. So west I headed, in the direction of Whitehorse.

Oooo, pretty.

Yay road! I should also mention that after taking this photo, I experienced my first wheelie on this bike. I was doing my best to take off quickly, and just gave it a bit too much clutch. Me not being a very experienced rider, as soon as I felt the front end going up I instantly pulled in the clutch to drop it back down; I didn't want to see what would happen with 100lbs of crap hanging off the back and sides of the bike. Lets keep both tires on the pavement, m'kay?

A few hours into the day, I was getting a little bit saddle sore, so I turned off the road at a rest stop that promised hiking and photo opportunities. There were some RVs parked there, with seemingly no one in them, and pit toilets that I made use of. Looking to stretch my legs a bit, I headed down a path, which turned into a boardwalk winding it's way through the trees.

The boardwalk ended at some scenic overlooks for a series of small waterfalls. It had rained in this area pretty recently, so the water was brown with silt.

Free camping in this area is so easy that even the least adventurous person ever could find good, easily-accessible places to camp for the night. I finally pulled off the road at what a sign told me was "Screw Creek", and set up where it looked like others had camped before. There was a sign up indicating that there were Inuit ceremonial facilities in these areas, and requested that hunters and hikers be respectful of the land.

The creek looked pretty good, clear, fast-moving water, so I took the opportunity to boil a couple of pots to refill the water bottles and make some dinner.

Although the first pot I boiled I forgot to put the lid on it, and ended up with what can only be described as mosquito soup.


There had been a few sprinkles of rain the previous day, so packing up the next morning I layed all my stuff out to dry for a while. You can see the thermarest over there on the left, and then my gloves on top of the spare gas cans on the luggage rack. And, me being me . . . I left those gloves there all the way though packing up, and leaving. It was a full day later that I realized they were missing. *Sigh* They were expensive, too.

The only fortunate thing was that the weather was, and there's no other way to put this; fucking perfect.

It was ~80 degrees, maybe just a hint of a tailwind, just enough clouds to make it interesting, and a nearly completely empty road that was aaaaaaaaaaall mine. It was so warm that only by riding could I stay comfortable; even without the liner, the Phantom suit that I'm wearing is quite effective at blocking wind. With the vents open, as long as I was moving, it was comfortable, but stopping wasn't fun.

So the obvious solution was to not stop riding :D

More evidence of recent forest fires in this area.

As I got closer to Whitehorse, clouds did start to collect on the mountain tops, and I could see then enveloped in rain.

It was spotty and fairly inconsistent, so while I got the very occasional sprinkle, it was never enough to require putting on the liner or rain covers on the luggage. The majority of it looked to stay up in the hills.

I passed through Whitehorse earlier in the day, and although I didn't do much besides stop for gas and supplies, I did like the town. It was a small town, only 20,000 or so, but it was still large enough that it was clear it was there for reasons other then being a kitschy tourist trap to old people in R/Vs looking for that "small town" feel. At this point, I had little knowledge that I was going to be spending about a week there, but we'll get to that later.

Now, somewhere northwest of Whitehorse, I came across this driveway. It made so little sense when I rode by that I had to turn around for another look. But actually reading it all just left me more confused.

Just . . . what?

Can anyone make heads or tails of any of this?

Goats in America, huh?

I had actually gotten off my bike to get better photos of these signs, and was about to walk up and flip over some that had fallen over to see what they said, when a highway patrolman (or something like that) drove by in an un-marked Tahoe. He rolled down his window, and although I couldn't hear him very well due to my bike still running and having my helmet on, he conveyed to me that he thought I should probably clear out of here. I tried to ask why (as he seemed really nice and friendly, not being the brutish small-penis-cop that I'm used to dealing with), and although I couldn't make out the exact words, he indicated that the owner of this property might be . . . not that stable. He punctuated his thoughts by mimicking pumping a shotgun, and then I understood!

I got back on the bike and GTFO of there.

I actually have no idea where I camped this night. But I must have, because looking at the distances on a map it's a bit unreasonable to do it all at once, and also my camera says I took these on a different date. So;


What's more perfect then scenery like this, huh?

One thing that was very noticeable about the Alcan was the number of abandoned or out-of-business gas stations and roadside stops along the way.

Some of them looked really old, but a lot of them were obviously closed very recently.

From talking to locals and people at the remaining open ones, a lot of them shut down in 2006/2007. All of these places are off-the-grid and rely on generators for electricity, but when fuel prices shot up, it killed these places with one fell swoop. Running on generators makes everything expensive, and when gas was $4/gal in the states, it was almost three times that this far north in remote areas. There was no way these places could make it, and the ones that are still around are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

Mid-day, went through Destruction Bay, and ran into some road work. Motorcycles are encouraged to move to the front of the ques, so that we don't have to deal with the dust nightmare of twenty closely-packed cars.

This place is big . . .

It was getting overcast as I rode on, and while it never rained heavily, there were some substantial sprinkles as I got to . . .

W00t! Made it!