August 25th - August 31st
After one failed attempt to depart from Vancouver, armed with new off-road worthy tires and inner-tubes, it was time to continue with the goal of driving as far north as possible on the American continent. The route would initially take me through Whistler, Lillooet, and Prince George. From there, the plan was go up the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, through the Yukon Territories, into Alaska. Fairbanks would be used as a staging area for the thousand mile ride to the top of the continent and back.
Saturday, August 25th: Successfully Leaving Vancouver & Keeping the Wheels Up
Time to try again. Up by 8:00am, shower, load up the beast, say goodbye (again), leave. The beginning of the day was a little touch-and-go due to an accident I ran into less than an hour into the riding day. Two vehicles had collided on Highway 99, before Squamish, BC. It took ~2hrs to get through it, but eventually made it to Whistler.
Now, Whistler - It looked like a fun place to visit in the winter, however, it did not fit my modus operandi for this adventure. Being Saturday, the place was packed with tourists walking and aimlessly trying to park. After one drive-around the area/village, it was time to move on. Put it on the list of places to "luxury vacation" at in the future?
The rest of the day took me through Pendleton, BC, for lunch, through Lillooet, BC, for gas and to see what happens to a town after the industry (mining) dies, and into Marble Canyon, where shelter was found for the night.
Having spent multiple days sleeping indoors, I was craving some camping action. Possible camping spots for this were scoped out, and I decided to try riding into a forrest service road, into the mountains. I ended up some miles into the road before it deteriorated to the point that it was not worth risking laying down the bike, parked it, and walked around the area. The perfect spot was found in a forest clearing, with natural protection from the wind, and a beautiful view of a lake.
I was decided to ride the beast into the camp spot, through the brush and grass. Well... it seemed easier at the time, and a lesson was quickly learned - the far-side pannier was heavier than the other, and while negotiating a sideways gradient (imagine going down a ramp diagonally), the bike started tilting. Heart sinks before the bike picks up momentum, and the next seconds include supermanning and tucking-and-rolling away from the metal as fast as possible.
She's taking a fully-loaded nap on the soft grass and soil, but the seat is pointing down the hill. There is no way of me righting it in that position with all the weight, and after unloading everything, I still have to pull it to a neutral position before getting is wheels-down again. Well, that's the workout for the day.
As always, an inspection is performed and nothing awry found. Camp is set, the area explored, dinner made, and a great night was spent under a clear and starry sky.
Sunday, August 26th: Did You Ask for Bears?
I'm up with the sun around 6:00am, pack up, make breakfast, and out of the service road. The first stop of the day is for gas and self maintenance; I abuse the bathroom for a cat-shower and to put on deodorant. Coffee and almonds for breakfast, and back to the road.
Prince George, BC, is reached for lunch at a grocery store, and a wifi and charge session is had at a Starbucks. At the same time, a dry-sesh happens in the parking lot. There, I meet Axel, a German expat forrest ranger, and we chat about the trip, and especially bears; what to do, what not to do, getting bear spray, hanging food, being "big" vs. running, and other tips. Thanks, Axel!
Back on the road around 5:00pm, the plan is to ride for a few hours and find a place to spend the night. By the time Fraser Lake, BC, is reached, I'd been hungry for a while and had begun fantasizing about cheese. Cheese is all I want for dinner. NOW. I pull into the first grocery store I see, park, and start heading in. However, there are two gentlemen talking by their trucks, and they give off an air of being locals. This is a good opportunity to ask about potential camping spots.
Doug is indeed a local, and after talking to him for a bit, he generously offers to let me camp at a property he has by Francois Lake. It's apparently beautiful, with fields surrounded by woods, and a good chance of seeing wildlife. And... it's also in bear country. I'll take it!
I get my cheese, accompany it with a can of tuna and almonds from my existing food supply, and eat on a cement block in the parking lot. Sometimes food is just food... But the cheese was delicious.
Satiated, the directions to Doug's property were followed. Down the highway, take a left at the first junction, go to Francois Lake, take a left, cross a bridge and take the first right into the dirt road, go up to the first entrance to the left.
The entrance to the property has a steel gate, and is chained but not locked. It's a half a mile to the house, shed, and fields where I can camp. Once I get there, I decide to ride into the field to get a feel for the place. Well... right in front of me, about 200 yards away, is a sow with two cubs. I steer the motorcycle away from them, but rev the engine a little, and they ran away. However, when I look to my right, there's another larger bear, by itself, looking at me from the tree-line. This will be a fun night.
There's a shed with hay behind the house, and it has exposed roof beams high enough to hang my food from. I unload the bike, leave the non-essentials, and go to the field to set up the tent. The idea is to be somewhere visible so that animals are not surprised. As I'm finishing setting up the tent, I look to my right, and there is another sow with two cubs (could have been the same, but they would have had to sprint to get there...). As a precaution, I bring the motorcycle by the tent, and leave the key in the ignition in case I need to make noise. As I do that, a large elk stares at me from down a path that leads to another field.
The sunset is stunning, and the moon comes out to say hi as I get into my sleeping bag. No better time than now to get confortable with the big furry creatures.
Sleep is light that night, and I'm woken up multiple times with hoof-steps and distant throaty noises. I know I'm fine, but the primal human instinct, so far removed from the time we had to deal with these situations, makes one uneasy.
Monday, August 27th: Rainy Ride to Prince Rupert
It's 5:00am, and large rain drops bring me up from the light sleep I'd had all night. Their sound is magnified as they hit the thin tent membrane, and quickly makes me consider my options. The first thought is to just stay in the tent and sleep through it. However, that's quickly replaced by the likely possibility of it not being a quick shower. That got me up, packed up while the rain was picking up, and was on the road shortly after.
Packed up and ready to go in the rain - that's where the food was hung for the night
The rain does not stop, and it looks like I'll be following the dark clouds for a while. The temperature is barely 40F, making it hard to not fog the inside of the visor. To add more fun to the mix, the bike stalls as I'm pulling into Burns Lake for gas. It's not called an adventure unless things go wrong!
The bike turns on, but the throttle is not behaving nicely. I recall something similar happening around March, and about 5000 miles ago, when the bike would not turn on after experiencing similar symptoms. The issues was that the fuel injectors had become gummed up because of the ethanol in the Minnesota gas (it's richer during winter months, and I likely filled the tank once before they switched to "summer" mix). The fix back then was to crank the engine while hitting the injectors - literally taking a wrench and hitting the top of the injectors as the engine cranked - and putting in fuel stabilized/injector cleaner (SeaFoam!).
There's a NAPA in Smithers, BC, and the issue starts clearing after the engine starts going through the SeaFoam. However, the rain has picked up even more, and I'm hungry and in need of coffee.
I find a small local coffee shop, where they have the best Rice Krispie Treat I'd had in a while (homemade chai marshmallow), and bunker down with a mug of coffee while staring down the storm for an hour or two.
The weather lets up, or so I think, and decide to head out of Smithers, BC, due West. By the time I get to the junction for the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, I'm cold, soaked, and not amused. The ride up the Cassiar is 500 miles, which means camping along the way. The other option is to go to Prince Rupert, which is only 3 hours away, and taking a ferry to Haines, AK. That would also mean that I could find a hostel, take a hot shower, and sleep in a bed. Yes, please.
Yellowhead Highway in the rain
It's still raining when I get to Prince Rupert, and the first task is to secure a ferry ticket. These boats leave only once every few days, and I want to make sure I'm on the first one available. Luckily, the one needed leaves the next day at 1:00pm, and takes 36 hours to get to Haines, AK. Booked.
The person at the Alaska Marine Highway office recommended a couple hostels, and the first one I visited proved to be the right choice. The Pioneer Backpackers Inn was the perfect place for me to spend the night after 36+ hours of fun on the road. I took a bed in the dorm room, and went out for dinner.
Zombie mode had taken over by this time, and exhausted, managed to get to the best sushi restaurant I've been to in a while - Opa Sushi. There, I claimed a spot at the empty sushi bar, and was shortly joined by Michael, a local fisherman, who supplies the restaurant with uni, or sea urchin. The conversation flowed easily, the food was delicious, and I even got the chance to try uni for the first time. Perfect way to close the day. Deep sleep was quickly found back at the hostel.
Tuesday, August 28th: Ferry Time!
Great sleep was had after the earplugs were applied to deter train-snore from the neighboring beds(s?), and woke up by 7:30am refreshed. The first task of the day was to go to the grocery store to get supplies for breakfast and to make food for the ferry ride.
The hostel had a fully equipped professional kitchen, which made it a joy to cook, and also made it a great gathering place to meet and talk to people. There I chatted with many travelers, including a 70+ year old man taking his bicycle on a multi-month trip around canada, which he'd been doing yearly for many years.
The rest of the morning was spent cleaning clothes (in the shower), packing, and getting ready for the ferry ride. The rain picked up during that time, and the ride to the ferry terminal at 12:30pm was wet and cold. Fortunately, the people at the Alaska Marine Highway Terminal were very nice, even the customs and immigration people (shocker, I know), and they put me at the front of the loading line.
When the people on the ferry saw me waiting there, at the front of the line, under the rain, they decided to load me ahead of schedule. This gave me a chance to meet the ship captain and crew, and chat with them about Alaska, the trip, and even a deep conversation with Bruno, the German, about cultural differences between our countries (economics, farming, media, etc). Germany is definitely on the list of places to visit in the future.
The voyage would take 36 hours, and would stop at various ports on its way to Skagway, AK. This means that one has to find a spot to sleep on the ship. I asked the captain and crew about the best place to sleep, and decided that the prime option would be on the top deck, where there is a back-facing open-air solarium with lounge chairs. This was the right choice; the views were great, the open air refreshing, and few people would be around.
Three lounge chairs were apprehended, and I set up shop on the top deck. There, I met the neighbors with whom I'd "room" during the voyage; Harmony, who takes ferry trips once a year to relax; Liseth and Michelle, who are older quebecois taking their van across Canada and Alaska; and Amy and Louie, who were on their way to Homer, AK to relocate Amy for her new job. Commonalities were quickly found with these last two, and we became the dynamic trio for the duration of the trip.
The ferry departed from Prince George en route to Ketchikan, AK. There, Amy, Louie, and I took a rainy walk to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. We were going to hit up a local bar for some drinks, but we were all tired and headed back to the ship for some rest.
Sailing the Inside Passage into Alaska
Wednesday, August 29th: Ferry Milk Run Continues
The ferry is a "milk-run," meaning that it stops at most ports between Prince Rupert and Skagway, AK. This includes Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Sitka, Juneau, Haines, and finally Skagway. Once a port is reached, it's announced over the PA. Passengers may visit the towns for the duration of the port-call (30min - 1+hrs), as long as they are back onboard on-time. The ferry will leave you without hesitation, and it's up to you to catch up with it.
Sleep was great on the open-air solarium, especially inside of the down sleeping bag, and woke up approaching Wrangell as the first port of call for the day. Louie and I got off the ferry, and drank our coffee as we walked around the port and played fetch with two hyperactive dogs. Back on the ship, breakfast consisted of hardboiled eggs, trail mix, and coffee, and afterward the day opened up to blue skies and temperatures in the 60'sF.
The day was mostly spent exploring the boat, marveling at the beautiful scenery from the ferry, talking to fellow travelers, and exploring the other ports of call for the day - Petersburg, and Juneau. In between, I took advantage of the sun to dry off all the gear; I'm sure people appreciated my stuff strewn out on lounge chairs in the middle of the rear deck.
Haines would be reached in the early morning hours of Thursday, where I would have to camp for the night. Because of this, sleep came early after getting all the gear ready to go back on the bike.
Thursday, August 30th: Landing in Haines and into Tok, AK
The Matanuska landed in Haines, AK, at 1:30am. The bike was loaded up, goodbyes were said to the crew and voyage-mates, and out into the night I went. The immediate task was to find a place to rest my head until dawn, and then ride out to the US-Canadian border, which opens at 8:00am. At the suggestion of the crew and port workers, I decided to camp on a beach about one mile north of the port.
The moon and stars were bright, which helped find the sleeping spot for the night. Louie & Amy, and a couple on a camper from the ferry also found their way there. Luie, Amy, and I slept under trees in our sleeping bags, and resuming sleep came easily.
We got up by 7:30am, shared some coffee and breakfast, and got stuff ready to head into Canada's Yukon, and back into Alaska. Heartfelt goodbyes were said, and we all staggered onto the road. The goal was to make it as far as possible toward Fairbanks, AK, 640 miles away.
The Canadian border is 40 miles north of Haines, and this time I did not have any trouble getting through. The drive across the Yukon was beautiful; through valleys surrounded by snow-capped peaks, milky blue lakes, and expansive plains.
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Yukon, Canada - big country...
Interestingly enough, the Canadian section of the Alaska Highway leading up to the US border was in terrible shape. This was rough, but fun, on the bike. Doing it in a car would have been miserable.
The US border crossing was well armored, and they welcomed me with open arms. Just kidding. As always, they know how to make everyone as welcome as criminals, and their friendliness level is that of a scorned high-school bully who's grown up to resent the past. Back on US soil, the road improved greatly, and progress was quick to Tok, AK.
By the time Tok, AK, was reached, I'd been on the motorcycle for 11 hours and 438 miles, starving, and my head and body were mush. Now, Tok... Tok is actually Tok JCT. JCT stands for Junction, and it's usually a name for prominent intersections between roads. In this case Highway 1 toward Anchorage, and 2 to Fairbanks. It's not really a city or a town; it's a grouping of buildings that sprung up out because they made economic sense to capture business from people going through.
The only thing in my mind was food. Thai food, more specifically. Fortunately, being back in the US, I had cellphone service, and was able to pull online reviews for places in Tok. To my surprise, there was one Thai food place in the area, which actually had good reviews, called Jen's Thai Food. I drove around, and was not able to find it. Hungrily, I gave up and went into another restaurant, and promptly walked out after noticing that it was overpriced pseudo-corporate standard American fare. Back on the bike, I successfully gave finding Jen's Thai one more try.
Jen's Thai Food is a food trailer; bigger than a food truck, and non-motorized. I pulled up to it, parked right in front, flipped up my helmet, and went straight to the window to look at the menu and put in my order. As I'm about to reach for a menu, I hear someone sneaking up on me on the gravel. Amy, from the Ferry, is about to scare me, and Louie is sitting in their car right in front of the place. Small, funny world we live in - they had just gotten their order and started eating in their car as I pulled up, not even see their car due to my hunger-tunnel-vision.
Hugs all around, and we sat on the picnic table in front of the tailer for another meal. It was close to 7:00pm, and it was clear that the driving day was over. The three of us decided to camp together for yet another night at a nearby state park, drink some beers, and relax by a campfire.
We made camp, cooled the beers in the nearby creek, started the campfire, and settled in for the night.
Friday, August 31st: Man-cave in Fairbanks
The dynamic trio was up by 8:00am, had breakfast, Louie test-rode the black beast, and we packed up camp. Emotional goodbyes were expressed. It was great to have these two as travel companions for a few days, and the adventures created a friendship that will last beyond the current adventure.
Back on the road, the goal of the day was to get to Fairbanks, AK. 208 miles later, the destination city was reached by 2:00pm. Shelter would be found in a glorified man-cave, which had been secured through a connection from my father. I was to meet the owner later in the day.
I met Bernie at his company, where I was welcomed into his office and offered a beer from the kegerator behind a curtain. We chatted for a bit before heading over to the man-cave, where I settled in, and hung out with the people there. The Toy Shop, as it's called, is the hangout for Bernie and his friends, where they gather in the evenings, and work on restoring old American cars on the weekends. Most of them are older Alaskan natives, full of great flavor and stories.
The Toy Shop was a warehouse which had been converted into a private automotive shop, complete with six bays, and an attached apartment with a full bar/living room. I'd be staying there and using the shop as home-base before and after the trip to the arctic circle. I could not have asked for a better place to stay, prepare, and get to know locals.
Everyone left in the evening, and I quickly looked up a Thai restaurant for dinner. Yes, I know. I'm obsessed. But do you understand how amazingly delicious green curry is!?
Back at the Toy-Shop, I got ready to sleep, but not before deciding to push the ride up to the tip of the continent by one day. The reason for this was that the moose hunting season was tomorrow, which meant that there would be many beered-up hunters all over the roads. No thanks.
Up next, the ride up to Prudhoe Bay and back.