Out of the Frying Pan…

For the past month or so, we’ve been circulating in the Northwest, waiting for news about whether Canada would open their border to US tourists. The first announcement, on June 21st, said they would remain closed and they would re-assess the situation on July 21st. So we waited for that date, thinking that if they opened the border then, we might still have time to make it to Alaska and spend three to four weeks there before heading back before the weather turned cold there.

But last week Canada announced that they would open the border on August 9th. This means that on that date either:

A. There will be a mad rush to Alaska, clogging the border crossings and booking all of the campgrounds. (Note: I’ve already checked; the campgrounds in British Columbia are already mostly booked solid, just with Canadian tourists.)


B. People will decide that heading to Alaska during the second week of August doesn’t leave enough time to fully enjoy the state before having to return.


C. All of the above.

Presently, we’re of the opinion that it may be too late to ride to Alaska just to turn around and ride back after only a couple of weeks there. But I still want to tour British Columbia and Alberta, because I’ve been there three or four times already on a bike, and (IMHO) the scenery and wildlife are hard to beat in North America, at least this close. So we’ve got another week or so to wander around this part of the country and decide whether we can make it to BC, via one of the smaller border crossings.

While we’ve been in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve received multiple emails from friends saying the same thing: “How are the fires there?” or “It looks like you’re surrounded by fires.” We actually were on the coast and away from the fires, so we hadn’t noticed them for the most part. Until now.

We left Tacoma late on a Sunday, and spent the night at Kanaskat-Palmer State Park, just east of the Seattle-Tacoma area. This is a nice park on the Green River, with nice swimming and kayaking areas. The next morning we packed up and left Kanaskat and took Highway 2 across Washington, stopping at Snoqualmie Falls as we left the campground.

These 268-foot tall falls are best known for their appearance in the television show Twin Peaks.

As we continued east, we stopped for fuel in Leavenworth. This entire town is made to look like a Bavarian village, right down to the McDonalds and the signage on the Starbucks.

A little bit of Bavaria in central Washington.

After Leavenworth, we continued east through Waterville (“Home of the Shockers” — still trying to figure that one out) to Sun Lakes State Park just outside of Coulee City, Washington. This place was, well, different, to say the least. This part of Washington is pretty much just desert, with some farmland thrown in. There’s a lake here, and the State Park is on the lake. The camping is considerably different from what we’ve become accustomed to; up until now, we’ve been camping in forests and lush areas. This park is all green grass with trees. None of which you are allowed to pitch a tent on. You must place your tent on the edge of the road, basically on a rough gravel/paved surface, which can be difficult to differentiate from the road itself. What looks at first glance to be the parking area for cars is actually the tent pitch. The picnic table is also in this parking area; heaven forbid you might want to sit on the grass.

This is our campsite. Not the grass behind it, but this parking extension on the side of the road.

Nowhere on the State Park reservation system does it show or mention that you camp on the road, not on the grass. This is the first notice you get of that.

We pitched our tent clear of the grass, fixed dinner and went to bed. About 5am, we awoke to hear the wind blowing the trees fairly strongly. It smelled like someone left their campfire burning (campfires are not allowed due to the severe wildfire danger). As I climbed out of the tent, it was clear that we were very close to what is now known as the Sunnyslope fire. The sky was dark and brown with smoke, and you could smell and feel it. We packed up quickly and left in the early dawn smoke.

From Sun Lakes State Park all the way across eastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle, the sky was smoke and haze. The temperatures also climbed back up into the upper 90s. Eventually as we made our way into Montana the smoke lessened (though never went away), and the temperatures came back down to the upper 80s and lower 90s. We rolled into Columbia Falls, Montana, near the entrance to Glacier National Park, and met our hosts for the next week.

Glacier, and….Lions and Deers and Bears, Oh My!

We arranged another great house-sit, again with two of the coolest cats ever (Diana and I are still debating whether these cats or the Seattle cats are cooler. It’s a close call). We’ve been in a beautiful two-story log home near the entrance to Glacier National Park for nearly a week, while the owners are house-hunting in Seattle to be closer to their kids and grandkids.

Jack the Black Lion, sporting his summer cut.

The deer in the front yard here are pretty relaxed. I walked out into the drive to take this photo, and they didn’t react.

Months ago, we had bought entry tickets to the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. We were unsure of what dates we would be there, so we bought a few of them (at $2 each) for different dates. Each ticket is good for seven days beyond the date on the ticket, so that gave us basically three weeks worth of “window” for us to arrive and enter the Park. As luck (or our loose planning) would have it, we had a ticket that still had two days remaining on it. So, after a couple of days relaxing in the comforts of home, we packed sandwiches and made the 17 mile trip to Glacier.

Glacier does have some spectacular views from the Going to the Sun Road.

There’s a hiking trail from Logan Pass to Hidden Lake that had a caution about bear activity. That wasn’t stopping a lot of people who were clearly not prepared to meet a bear.

One of the many waterfalls along the way.

This guy was clearly upset, barking at people. Not sure if he was warning them about the bears, or just warning them that this was his domain.

Not the best quality photo, but when you’re on a motorcycle, going slow in traffic, you take what you can get. This mama Grizzly and her cub were wandering in a field near the east end of the road. When we turned around and rode back by, they had crossed the road and were even closer to us.

We had intended to stop on the way back down the Going to the Sun Road to take more photos, but after the bears, Diana seemed satisfied and we just enjoyed the scenery.

Oh, and just fyi, we found out from the homeowners that if you enter the park before 6am or after 5pm, you don’t need a ticket. So we may go back and do a hike or two.

Meanwhile, we’ve had some time to assess our British Columbia and Alaska plans, and have decided to at least make a run for the border. Or more likely, a slow crawl, as we get in line with all the others who have not been able to head north for over a year.

O Canada….is Burning. And Tales of a Covid-19 Border Crossing

August 14, 2021
Yesterday it was 100F in Houston. Not unusual in August, eh? Except this was Houston, British Columbia, about 500 miles north of the Washington State-Canada border.

Yes, we are in Canada. And headed for Alaska. It was not the easy border crossing it used to be pre-Covid. In fact, overall it took us six days and a bunch of money to get across. But more on that later. Let’s back up and pick up where we left off, about ten days ago.

We left our Columbia Falls, Montana house sit, after picking up the homeowners from the airport. We spent six days in their beautiful home with two awesome cats, and we were sad to be leaving.

Kelly and Brian with Jack. We absolutely loved this house-sit and the cats.

After leaving Columbia Falls, we spent a night on Flathead Lake. Directly across the lake was the Boulder 2700 Fire, and people from over there were being evacuated to Polson, about seven miles south of our campsite.

The Miracle of America Museum

Just outside Polson is this collection of “stuff”, for lack of a better description, that I had heard about and just had to see. Gil Mangels has been interested in “old stuff” his entire life, and has been collecting items for most of it. The collection has grown to over 40 separate buildings on the property. Just the main building has enough interesting items in it to spend a couple of hours looking through, including old motorcycles, a complete old soda fountain shop, tons of military paraphernalia, and so much history that words can’t do it justice. In fact, I struggle to try to describe the enormity of what is here. Some would say much of it is “junk”, but there is a ton of history in the oddball items Gil has saved. And then there are the items that he has created, under the name of Spoof Creations. Outside of the dozens of buildings, there are also a lot of vehicles, military vehicles, aircraft, boats, tractors, and more.

One wall of one of the outbuildings at the Miracle of America Museum. Those are snowmobiles stacked on the wall. Gas-powered model airplanes hang from the ceiling.

That is a 1970s Polaris SnowBird Airsled. Powered by a Lycoming aircraft engine, it was an air-driven snowmobile. I had never seen one of these before.

The UFO and Alien section included an Alien Autopsy room.

Gill even took the time to give us a bit of a personal tour of the motorcycle section, as it is truly one of his passions as well. He has some nice bikes, including an Indian 4-cylinder with a sidecar, a Henderson 4, a Harley VLD, and a lot of bikes that brought back memories for me. As I said, I can’t do this place justice, but perhaps this video helps.

To Alaska or Not to Alaska

After weighing our options and looking at available days, we decided to try to get into Canada, and head for Alaska. It will be a shorter time spent up there than we had originally hoped, but it is still possible to hit all of our highlights before the weather turns (we hope!).

The border was set to open to vaccinated Americans on Monday, August 9th, so we had a few days yet to wait. In the meantime, we were required to get a PCR Covid test within 72 hours of our border crossing.

First problem: we planned to cross from Bonners Ferry, Idaho into British Columbia at Rykerts. There were no places up there to get a Covid test. So we checked near Columbia Falls and Whitefish, Montana. There was a Walgreens in Kalispell that offered the test, but they were booked solid. The more we searched, the less we found. Finally we located a RiteAid pharmacy in Spokane Valley, Washington that had available appointments. So we made the appointments for Saturday morning (this was on Wednesday), and started heading back towards Spokane.

On Saturday morning, we got our tests. The woman at the pharmacy told us that we could expect the results typically in one to three days, but sometimes it took as much as seven days. This worried us a bit, but we decided to remain positive (our outlook, not our Covid status), so we left the RiteAid and headed north to Bonners Ferry to camp out until Monday morning. If our negative results arrived by Sunday, we would get in line at the border early Monday morning and be some of the first to cross (at this checkpoint anyway). We technically had until Tuesday afternoon to cross within our 72 hour time limit.

We had rented a small cabin outside of Moyie Springs, Idaho for two nights from AirBnB. We were sure we would have our results by Monday morning and would head for the border, which was about 30 miles away.

This little cabin was very comfortable, well built, and nicely furnished. It served as home for a couple of days while we awaited the results of our (first) Covid PCR tests.

Inside of the cabin. While there is a loft, there is also a bedroom under the loft, and a full bath.

This is the view out the front of the cabin.

By Sunday night, we were starting to get nervous. By Monday at noon, we had to check out of our cabin, and still had no results, so we booked the couple’s other accomodation: a 35-foot fifth wheel trailer that had been converted to a tiny home, for Monday night. If we had no results by Tuesday, we would be outside the 72 hour window and would have to start over.

Tuesday morning we still had no results. I looked online again for a place to take another test. The nearest available appointment was in Polson, Montana, (yes, same Polson as the museum above…we were going in circles), over 150 miles away. And the more we thought about it, the more likely we would end up in the same predicament: Polson is a small town. We had no idea where the lab was located that our tests would go to from Polson. Getting the samples to the lab could take a day or two to be collected and delivered. If the lab was busy (they all seemed to be), we could once again blow our 72 hour window. The tests were free, but the hotels/AirBnBs/campgrounds were not, and it was beginning to add up.

We decided we needed a different approach. Diana located an operation in Seattle that was guaranteeing lab results next day (or same day) for a fee. While we hated to spend a lot more money, each day we spent waiting was adding up. So we left Idaho and headed back — one more time — to Seattle. It was painful to be spending all of this time going back and forth on the Interstate, wearing tires, adding miles, costing fuel.

By Wednesday morning we had paid for our same-day results, gotten tested, and headed north to Lynden, Washington, just fifteen miles south of the Abbotsford, BC crossing, and set up camp while waiting for our results. (By the way, my negative result from the RiteAid test had arrived Tuesday afternoon, but Diana’s didn’t show up until early Wednesday morning, making them moot anyway.) Our Seattle test results arrived Wednesday evening, and we filled out the information in the ArriveCAN app. It looked like we had everything in place for a Thursday morning crossing.

We arrived at the border at 8:30am, and were surprised to see just one motorhome and two cars ahead of us in the “Alaska Only” line.

Number four in line at the border. This won’t take long at all! (Cue the fading optimism)

We sat in line for about twenty minutes before a border guard came out and told us that if we had all of our documentation we could move to the other open line, as it would be faster. So two of us (out of the four) moved over there. And sat there and watched the other line start moving much faster. It was just like the bank or the grocery store!

Finally it was our turn. I pulled up to the window and handed over our passports. Then came the questions:

“Why are you going to Alaska?”

I wasn’t prepared for that one. “Um, because we can?” Probably a bad answer, so I added “And we’ve never been?” (Not entirely true, but close enough).

“Are you carrying any firearms, ammunition, knives, bear spray, brass knuckles, or other weapons?”

“Uh, no?” Probably shouldn’t have answered it as a question. He looked at me a little doubtful. “I mean, No.”

“Any cannabis?”

Again, wasn’t prepared for that one. “Excuse me?”

“Any cannabis? Marijuana?”

“Oh. Um, no.”

“Are you sure? Because you kind of hesitated.”

“I didn’t know you could even do that up here.”

“Oh yeah. It’s legal.”

I didn’t know if it was or not, but the way he said it sounded like bait, and I wasn’t taking it. “Still no. Nothing.”

“Okay”, he said. “Everything is in order. I just need to see your negative test results.”

I pulled up the letter on my phone and handed it to him. He looked at it closely. “This is dated yesterday. You took the test yesterday, and you got the results yesterday?”

“Yes, and it wasn’t cheap”, I said.

He looked surprised. “What do you mean? I thought all Americans can take the test for free?”

“Yes, that’s true, but you might not get the results within 72 hours. So we paid for these.”

That apparently was the wrong explanation. In hindsight, it sounded like we paid for negative results. He handed my phone back to me, and reached behind him. He set two boxes on the window ledge. “Take these two test kits to the tents ahead of you, and they will administer the tests. If for some reason they are closed, you have 24 hours to perform the tests and submit them to the lab.”

Ugh. Our third set of PCR tests in five days.

Sure enough, the testing area was closed. We rode a few miles into Abbotsford and found a McDonalds and sat down and read the kit information. We would have to make an appointment with an online test official, perform the test by video link, then deliver them to a lab, all within 24 hours. Then we would wait up to three days for results. All the while we were to keep a list of anyone and everyone we came into contact with, and have a quarantine plan in case our results came back positive.

We actually made the video appointments for the tests right there in McDonalds, and within an hour we had performed our tests and sealed the swabs in the packaging. I located a lab about a mile away where we could drop the kits. Although it was a hassle, it could have been worse. But it did feel a little like being back in Bolivia, where Americans were, well, less than welcome.

By noon we were headed north. It was close to 100 degrees, and the smoke from the wildfires was terrible. In many places visibility was less than a quarter mile. It seemed like all of Canada, or at least the southern half of British Columbia, was on fire.

The view heading up Highway 1, the TransCanada Highway, north of Chilliwack. We had to go the long way around to avoid a worse fire that had destroyed the little town of Lytton.

We rode in fairly dense smoke for most of the day. When we stopped for fuel in Merritt, ash was raining down on us and the sky was glowing orange. It was a long day, but we ended up in Quesnel, BC at Roberts Roost, an RV park with a nice large grassy tent area and some trees. The smoke was mostly gone, and it felt good to have the border behind us.

Crank the Scenery up to Eleven!

I think it was just after our ride up the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park that Diana spoke the following line over our helmet intercoms:

“Yeah, um, I think I’m kinda over the whole mountains and trees thing.”

I cringed. We intended to spend the next six weeks or so riding to Alaska and back. Around six thousand miles of mountains and trees.

So yesterday was a welcome change, when she said, “These mountains are way different. They’re sharp. And they’re so BIG!”

We had left our campsite outside Houston (BC, not TX) and headed towards Meziadin Lake, but just on a whim, instead of turning right at the intersection, I decided to turn left and ride about 35 miles west to the town of Stewart. I’m not sure what made me do that, especially since it’s basically a dead-end, and we would have to ride the 35 miles back to the intersection again in the morning.

But it was worth it. What a payoff in scenery.

When I asked Harald (the owner of Shady Rest RV Park in Houston) if they had any tent sites available for Friday the 13th, his response was “Yeah, and we’ve got Jason locked up out back, so it’s safe.” Then after setting up our tent, I see this leaf on the ground. Kinda looks like a horror-movie hockey mask…or is it just me?

I can’t look at this sign without singing the first three words.

On the way to Stewart.

Bear Glacier, outside Stewart, BC

It’s a funky little town with a heli-skiing problem, and some great scenery.

It turns out that Stewart is about three miles from the border with Alaska. The road crosses to Hyder, Alaska, and then back into Canada to the Salmon Glacier, then ends. You can’t go anywhere else in the rest of Alaska from there by road. And as much as we would have loved to see the glacier, our recent experience with crossing the border into Canada told me I didn’t want to try it again in such a remote place.

It started raining last night, and the temperature dropped. This morning it was still raining, and 48 degrees when we left Stewart. We rode north on the Cassiar Highway in nearly continuous rain. Like the Alaskan Highway, the Cassiar sees a lot of damage over the winter, and work crews spend each summer repairing sections. So we rode through long stretches of dirt (mud) and gravel, and dodged enough potholes to make me feel like I was back in Mexico, all while the temperature continued to drop into the lower 40s.

By mid-afternoon, we were cold and ready for a break. We found a campground on Dease Lake that had a tiny cabin for rent (nothing like the cabin in Moyie Springs, Idaho!). It’s supposed to be similar weather tomorrow, but possibly less rain. We’ll head for Watson Lake tomorrow, and if we aren’t as cold by then, perhaps further.

Our digs for the night. Eventually we are going to have to give in and set the tent up in the rain (and tear it down in the rain as well). But (ahem) somebody was getting pretty whiny (she says she “doesn’t do cold well”), so I didn’t want to push it tonight.

On the way into Stewart yesterday, we had a couple of black bears cross the road in front of us. Today, Diana counted another eight black bears that were either crossing the road, or standing on the side of the road as we went by. Her new comment: “Okay, I’m over bears. I want to see a moose!”

One moose, coming up…

Sunday’s Perfect Storm…Monday: Yukon

August 16, 2021

It seems that Sunday somehow was a perfect storm of bad weather and road conditions. We rode all day in rain with temperatures around 42F, and the road from Meziadin Lake to Dease Lake was full of potholes and under construction, with sections of dirt and gravel. We stopped at Dease Lake when we grew tired of the beating we were taking from the weather and the road.

Yesterday was like a light switch had been flipped. We left our cabin under sunny skies and temps in the low 60s, and from the moment we pulled back out onto the Cassiar Highway until we pulled off the Alaska Highway in Whitehorse, Yukon, some 400 miles later, there was not a single section of gravel, dirt, or construction, and practically no potholes as well. In fact, one 25 mile section from Boya Lake to just south of the Alaska Highway junction was racetrack smooth and downright fun. AND Diana got to see her first moose.

At the end of the Cassiar Highway where it meets the Alaska Highway, we detoured fifteen miles east on Highway 1 in order to get gas in Watson Lake and visit the famous Signpost Forest.

I had been here once before in 2004, but it has grown a lot since then. According to the Watson Lake Visitors Center, in 2004 there were 54,372 signs posted. As of last count, in 2018, there were 88,186.

As we passed the signposts on the way to the gas station, we immediately saw the San Marcos, Texas sign facing the highway. I wanted to put a 2RideTheGlobe sticker on it, but it was too high to reach.

So we searched for a Wimberley sign, but never found one (I’m convinced it’s there, but it would take a day or two of searching to find it). We ended up finding an Austin sign and left our mark (just above the “n”). (Btw, how long ago was this sign put here, if the population was 21,907? I’m thinking this could have been Austin, Somewhere Else, but the Texans have hijacked it.)

This sign reminded me of “The Thing” signs across Arizona back when I was a kid and we would do family road trips. “Thru Road…Is it or isn’t it?”

Near Teslin. Diana’s first Moose sighting. But not the last.

We had originally planned to take Tuesday off, but since we lost four days trying to get into Canada, we decided to push on to Whitehorse. We are now less than 300 miles from the Alaska border, and less than 600 from Fairbanks.

One Photo, and An Observation

August 18, 2021

Over the past six days of riding approximately 2100 miles through Canada and Alaska, we have seen around 50 fully loaded motorcycles heading south. The total number of motorcycles heading north, including us: One. Not a single other motorcycle going towards Alaska besides us. This says a lot about either:

A. How late in the season we are.
B. How dumb we are.
C. All of the above.

Diana quickly surmised (and probably accurately) that now is the right time for people riding the “Gringo Trail” to begin their trek south (the usual route from Alaska to South America via the west coast of the US and the Inter-American/Pan-American Highway). This might well explain a lot of the southbound two wheeled traffic we’ve seen.

As for an explanation of the single motorcycle heading north, you can look at weather.com for Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and get a pretty good indication.

Ride to the Top of the World

August 26, 2021

We are on our fourth day of riding the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay and back. Twenty miles from the end, Diana says over our intercom system: “I am over this road!”

So am I, but we have another twenty miles and I am using all of my concentration to focus on the greasy, slick road.

When we finally reach the pavement at Mile 0, she has another comment: “That was the most adventurous, exhilarating, beautiful, and frightening experience I’ve ever had on a motorcycle.” It’s hard to disagree with that.

The Dalton Highway was built in 1974 as a supply road for the Alaska Pipeline. It stretches 414 miles from north of Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. Sections of it have been paved, but the majority is still dirt and gravel. You may be familiar with the Dalton if you’ve ever watched Ice Road Truckers on the History Channel. Yep, that’s the road we are on. Our friend Dave, who lives in Fairbanks, has offered to ride with us on his 700 Tenere. He has driven as far as Coldfoot (the halfway point) in a pickup, but hasn’t been north of there. We have spent several days watching the weather, and discussing our best approach. We have decided that we will take four days to do the round trip, spending the night in Coldfoot, Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) and again at Coldfoot on the way back down. There is no gas available for 245 miies between Coldfoot and Deadhorse, so we have to carry at least one extra gallon each to cover the gap. As Dave, who is a retired military pilot, reminds me: “You can never have too much fuel unless you’re on fire”. So I opt to carry a two gallon Rotopax container in place of our normal one gallon water container. The gas stops available are at:

Mile 56: Yukon River Camp, just after the Yukon River Bridge, the only bridge across the Yukon River in Alaska. The bridge is a half mile long, paved with wooden planks, and has a 6 percent downhill slope heading north.
Mile 175: Coldfoot Camp
Mile 415: Deadhorse

When I say there is no gas between these places, what I really mean is that there is no anything between these places. It is truly uninhabited wilderness, save for a pipeline following along beside you.

Phil Freeman, author of “The Adventurous Motorcyclist’s Guide to Alaska”, sums up the Dalton Highway like this:
“414 miles of frost-heaves, broken chip seal and grated dirt surfaces, the Dalton Highway has its challenges. On a good day, you can ride it wide open. On a bad day, you can go home in a helicopter. Every year motorcyclists are killed on the Dalton Highway. This road offers the rider the adventure gamut. Almost half of the highway is paved or chip sealed. The other half can be smooth or baseballs. There are relatively no places to stop along the way: no gas, no convenient stores, no McDonalds. There are stretches of up to 245 miles without gas. You are literally riding through pristine wilderness. There are no tire shops or police stations. A wrecker to the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks is a $1,600 bill.”

The Dalton Highway can be a different experience from day to day and from mile to mile. In normal summer conditions, it can be gravel, dry, and dusty, except where the water trucks have sprayed it with water, creating a slick surface. August, however, is not summer in Alaska. August is “rainy season”. Traveling the 414 miles (each way) of the Dalton Highway in the rain can be treacherous with any vehicle, much less a motorcycle. Now add a passenger, and full gear, for a total weight of around a thousand pounds and take off down a greasy, slimy, muddy road with most of the other traffic being 18-wheelers, who own this road, as it is still today a haul road to the oilfields. Add to this a ridiculously bad modification (a high front fender kit on our motorcycle) that basically causes the mud to completely block out the headlight and my helmet face shield, so not only can the oncoming trucks not see us — especially in the fog and clouds of Atigun Pass –, but I can barely see them. Now ride like this for six hours each day. Yes, I am exhausted.

So was it worth it? From a risk standpoint, we probably pushed the limits, though the ride up to Deadhorse wasn’t bad. We had a sit-down meeting each evening to discuss our next move. When we arrived at Coldfoot the first night on our way north, the weather was good, with temperatures in the upper 40s to low 50s, and no rain. The problem, of course, is that because of the nearly 500 mile roundtrip to Deadhorse and back to Coldfoot, you have to consider all weather possibilities and make a decision: if you go north, and the weather changes, you may or may not be able to make it back the next day. The weather systems on either side of the Atigun Pass can be vastly different. Forecasts are wildly inaccurate at best. And this late in the season, we were taking an even bigger risk, because snow was predicted just three days later. We agreed that we would take one section at a time, and turn back if things got too bad.

Our first view of the pipeline, just north of Fairbanks.

Gas at Yukon River Camp. Our record high would be $5.89 a gallon in Deadhorse. Note: I didn’t take this photo to show the price per gallon. I took this photo because that’s how it works up there: you pump your gas, you take a photo of the pump, then you go inside, show them how much you got, and pay. There is no electronic connection between the cashier and the pump, which is in a different location.

This sign was my goal in 2004 when I rode to Alaska for the first time. Due to the wildfires, I didn’t make it. Now, in hindsight, making it to this sign is pretty easy, as it’s another 300 miles to Deadhorse.

Tour companies take people to the Arctic Circle sign, and back. This photo reminds me of the “End of the World” sign outside Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina. Just like there, you have to stand in line to take your photo with the sign. FYI, the Arctic Circle marks the southern limit of the area in which for at least one 24 hour period, the sun does not set (about June 21) or the sun does not rise (about December 21).

At the end of dinner and our discussion in Coldfoot, we decided to go for it. There is no reliable weather forecasting way up here. You talk to every trucker that just came from Deadhorse, and you talk to the locals. You look at the forecasts (with a grain of salt), and you decide. We decided our weather window looked good enough.

Our lodging at Coldfoot Camp. These camps were built to house workers during the construction of the pipeline in the 1970s, and continue to serve as lodging for oilfield workers and haul road truckers, along with the occasional crazy motorcycle tourists.

Inside our room at Coldfoot Camp. It’s not luxurious, but it is clean, and warm. It’s also $219 a night. Not cheap, but they don’t pretend it’s anything other than industrial housing at industrial rates.

Day 2

The climb over Atigun Pass was muddy and slick, as it had snowed there just a few days earlier. But the scenery was a great reward for the effort. On the south side of the pass, it is spruce forest and very green. On the north side of the pass, the North Slope begins, and it is tundra. There are no trees whatsoever, but the contrast of the colors of the vegetation against the snow on the mountains is eye-popping.

Atigun Pass.

Dave, crossing the pass.

On the North Slope side of the pass.Spectacular scenery.

Coming out of the pass on the North Slope.

A break in the weather, the pipeline surrounded by the colors of the tundra.

Dave, around Mile Post 270 on the Dalton Highway (about 100 miles north of Coldfoot). On the ride up, we had bouts of sunshine and things looked like we were in for a great ride. The forecast at this point was calling for no rain until our last day. That would change.

Here is an excerpt from Phil Freeman and Lee Klancher’s “The Adventurous Motorcyclist’s Guide to Alaska”:
“The road across Atigun Pass is a narrow, hellaciously steep stutter-bump-filled stretch of gravel cut into the side of the mountain and bordered by a rusty, avalanche-battered piece of guardrail. The mountains are steeply pointed piles of black sandstone and shale. Riding through during a heavy rain accentuates the experience, as the sky becomes as dark as the mountains, with rain showers and mist dripping on the land. The whole thing has the feel of Tolkien’s Mordor, a dark, mysterious, and sort of post-apocalyptic place.”

About fifty miles south of Deadhorse pavement suddenly appears. Beautiful, glorious, smooth road. No more potholes the size of my wheels. No more hundreds of potholes in a line. They are still finishing grading the sides of the road, and we are halted, waiting for the pilot car to lead us through the construction. Due to the permafrost, the road here is a challenge to maintain. The state has experimented with several different designs. The current iteration is about a twelve foot elevation, with four six-inch layers of foam built into the base, in an attempt to keep the heat of the road from melting the permafrost.

Last time I was this happy to see pavement was on Ruta 40 in Argentina.

While sitting in line waiting on the pilot car, suddenly the passenger in the truck ahead of us jumps out. He is wearing hunter’s camo gear. He looks through his binoculars. From where we are, we can see that he is watching a caribou that is crossing from right to left ahead of us, and is about to cross the road. The driver and passenger both reach into the bed of the truck and grab some very high-tech bows and arrows, and begin running ahead into the construction zone. They stalk the caribou for what seems like 20 minutes or so. The caribou crosses the road and seems aware of their presence, at times stopping to look back, then running ahead. The hunters continue to follow the caribou across the tundra. Eventually the pilot car arrives and we head down the road, around the abandoned pickup. Unbeknownst to us, the pilot car will lead us for 38 miles, eventually setting us free just a dozen or so miles before Deadhorse.

We find our lodging (Deadhorse Camp) and check in. Deadhorse is the end of the road, and the reason for the Dalton Highway. Here, eight different oil companies agreed to work together to extract oil and ship it to Valdez, some 800 miles away, via a pipeline. This town (Prudhoe Bay) only exists because of the oil industry. It’s said there are 35 permanent residents here, but 5,000 or more temporary oil industry residents.

Our rooms at Deadhorse Camp. Note that all of the buildings are built off the ground. This keeps the heat of the building from affecting the permafrost.

Our room at Deadhorse. Similar to Coldfoot, but the bathrooms are community-style down the hall.

This door was closer to our end of the hall, so I asked one of the workers if we could park the bikes down at this end and bring things in through this door. He politely pointed out the metal box that is wedged under the doorknob, and the fire extinguisher precariously perched at the edge of the metal box. “Bear Alarm”, he said. Then he proceeded to explain how the bear enters the building through this door, and not long ago made his way into the room of a woman who works there. After some loud yelling between the woman and other workers in the hallway, the bear left. He appears to be a regular, as they named him Charlie.

Charlie, caught on camera entering one of the other buildings at Deadhorse Camp.

Day 3

We wake in Deadhorse to a light mist and near freezing temperatures. Before we head south again, we take a van ride to the Arctic Ocean. There is no public access to the ocean. We are cut off by large oil company properties, so we must be escorted to the Ocean by company security. We are not allowed to take our own vehicles.

The Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay. It was 37 degrees when we were here. The water was similar.

It’s a tradition for people to stick their toe in the water here, to mark their farthest point north, then do the same at Ushuaia, the farthest point south. I didn’t see the need. Some people do the full Polar Bear Plunge. Colin, here, did it twice because his GoPro didn’t work the first time.

I’m still shivering just thinking about him doing it twice.

After our visit to the Arctic Ocean, we load up and head back towards Coldfoot. The mist turns to drizzle, and the temperature hovers around 40 degrees. The pavement ends and the mud begins. In places, the road surface is predictable and we can run up to 50 miles per hour. In other places, it suddenly turns slick and we have to slow to 20 to 25 mph and tip-toe through. The mud covers my face shield and I end up having to ride with no eye protection. The mud and rain continues to pelt me in the face. It is cold and difficult to maintain more than 35 or 40 mph for more than an hour or so without stopping. We each have about four layers on, plus our riding gear. My heated grips help, but the backs of my hands and my thumbs, along with my face, are freezing.

We make it back to Coldfoot in time for the buffet dinner. I must admit, while it is basically cafeteria food for oilfield workers and truckers, the food is pretty tasty. Of course, I may also be a bit biased because I have been working so hard at trying to stay upright that I am starving.

Day 4

On the morning of our fourth and last day, we wake to more drizzle in Coldfoot. Dave talks to the locals and the truckers, and the consensus seems to be that the road will be muddy but passable. As we are getting gas, a woman in a 4×4 Sprinter adventure van approaches and shakes her head. “Every time I see one of you guys on the motorbikes, I question your sanity.”

“Me too”, is all I can reply.

I have determined that the chain on the bike is worn out, but should make it to Fairbanks. We decide to aim for Yukon River Camp, our last gas stop, and see how we feel. We again get a short break leaving Coldfoot as there is a section of pavement before the mud begins. Once the mud starts, the rain starts also. Then the clouds and fog. It is a workout to go sixty miles at a stretch.

The thermometer on the deck at the entrance to our rooms at Coldfoot read 25 degrees when we left that morning.

They’re only new once, but the memories they create last a lifetime.

Diana pondering whether she really wants to get back on. “Is there a tour bus around that I can catch a ride?”

A quick technical comparison. This is Dave’s stock motorcycle. Note the headlight, windscreen, and hand guards. All clean.

This is my bike, after the same exact ride. Note the same parts, covered in mud. The headlight is completely blocked of light. The only difference is that I have an aftermarket fender kit that looks cool when it’s dry but is beyond useless when it rains. It’s not just the bike that looks like this; I did too.

Another view of Dave’s bike from the cockpit. Handlebars, controls, instrument panel, handlebar bag and fuel tank, all clean.

Same view of my bike. My gloves, helmet, etc were also completely covered. Note the mud flowing up from in front of the fuel tank and behind the handlebars. Compare the windscreens and instrument panel (I’ve wiped my instrument panel multiple times trying to read it prior to taking this photo).

We continue to self-assess as we move closer to Fairbanks, eventually realizing that the “end is near”, and it looks like we will make it without any tip-overs or trip-ending mechanical failures.

The DOT treats the roads with calcium chloride salt, which is used as a binding agent. On wet days, it will not only have you sliding all over the road, but the mixture will stick like glue to every inch of your bike and gear. When it is muddy, it has the consistency of wet pumice. Wiping it off of my face shield is like dragging sandpaper across the shield. It has the same effect on motorcycle parts: by the end of four days, the drive chain is trash; the rear brake pads are completely gone and the brake rotor is scored; Dave’s front fork seals are leaking so badly it’s hard to believe there were ever seals there. I spent $20 at the car wash just getting the big bits off of the bike and our suits, another $100 on replacement face shields, and $185 on a new chain and brake pads.

We have conquered the Dalton Highway in less-than-ideal conditions, two-up on a loaded motorcycle. This nearly 1,000 mile round-trip has been the most abuse I have subjected our motorcycle to. I am concerned about the wear and tear we have caused, but convinced that it will survive the rest of our trip home, at which point I intend to do some major disassembly and cleaning.

I am thankful that Dave chose to ride along. He added a sanity check that helped all of us stay safe, and we enjoyed the time spent together. AnneMarie was also a wealth of information about Alaska, and prepared some amazing meals for us during our time in Fairbanks, both before and after the Dalton (she needs to start a YouTube Food Channel!). We hope to return to Alaska in the future to do some further exploring and spend more time with Dave and AnneMarie.

Dave and AnneMarie, looking happy to not be riding in mud for a while, and happy to have these muddy people out of their house! (Just kidding. They were extremely gracious to host us and feed us for many days while we were in Alaska.)

Our cook and tour guide in Deadhorse might have summed it up, when he learned that Diana and I had arrived both on one motorcycle: “Huh. You don’t see that up here.”

There’s a reason for that…

One Third Denali

August 28, 2021

A few days before we left Fairbanks, we received news that our tour in Denali National Park would be shortened by half, due to an increase in landslide activity. And then, yesterday, even more unpredictably, our tour would get even shorter.

Denali National Park is over six million acres. It was created in 1917 to protect the Dall Sheep from over-hunting. There is essentially one dead-end road through the park, which runs 94 miles from the park entrance west to Kantishna. With very few exceptions, personal vehicles are not allowed to travel this road beyond the first 15 miles or so (and then only with a permit). Tour buses and transit buses take visitors the entire distance; the transit buses haul campers and hikers to various drop-off points, while the tour buses include a naturalist who narrates along the route.

Well, normally the buses run the entire route, and that’s what we intended to do when we booked the tour several weeks ago. However, three days before we arrived, the road was shut down at Mile 42 due to increased landslide activity. There has been landslide activity at this point in the road since the 1960s, but the rate of the movement has increased dramatically in the last year. The slide runs under the roadbed, and it used to cause cracks in the road surface that needed repair every two to three years. In 2018 the road began to slump a half an inch per day. This year, the landslide began moving downhill at ten inches per day, and the road slumped three and a half inches per day. The park had to close the road because they haven’t been able to find a solution to keep up with the slide.

With this in mind, we left Fairbanks — in nice, dry weather finally — and arrived at our cabin on Carlo Creek, about fifteen miles south of the park entrance, with the understanding that we would basically be doing the first half of the bus tour, out and back. That was Thursday. Friday was a day off for us, and we used it to do some basic maintenance items.

We decided to retire early Friday evening, as we had to ride back up to the park entrance early on Saturday morning in order to make our 7:30am tour. About 8pm, I looked out the window at the bike. It was snowing. In August. And it continued to snow for several hours.

Looking beyond our cabin early this morning.

Fortunately, it let up in the middle of the night, and the temperature stayed just above freezing. When we left for Denali this morning, the view was totally different than when we rode in on Thursday.

This morning’s view. Much more white than yesterday.

We arrived at the bus depot at the park and stowed our gear (we wore most of our gear on the bus, just to stay warm). After the bus departed, our driver/naturalist, Brian, advised us that the road was icy and in bad shape beyond Mile 30, and we might not be able to go beyond that. We were the fourth bus on the road this morning. The scenery was definitely spectacular, especially due to all the snow, and not at all what we had expected.

On the Denali Park Road.

Mt. Denali is still 40 miles away (that shiny sliver in the center of the photo is the sun hitting Denali; that’s as much of it as we were able to see today). We can’t get close enough to it due to the road closures, and we probably couldn’t see much of it anyway due to the weather. Many people we’ve talked with said it took several trips up and down the highway here before they hit it on a good enough weather day to actually see the peak.

Spruce Grouse.

Willow Ptarmigan, the Alaska State Bird.

Two large caribou. (Photo taken through the bus window).

Arctic Ground Squirrel, aka “Cheese Pizza”. Alaska’s version of a prairie dog. They’re referred to as Cheese Pizzas (mostly by humorous researchers and Denali tour bus naturalists) because a research project years ago determined that Grizzly bears were digging these guys up out of their burrows and eating them. The researchers found that the ground squirrel provided the bear with about 2,000 calories, or the equivalent of a medium cheese pizza. Additional fun fact: these ground squirrels actually lower their body temperatures from 98 degrees F to below freezing when hibernating, the lowest of any mammal.

View across the Teklanika River at Mile 30. This river might not look like much today, but this is the river that Christopher McCandless crossed and then couldn’t get back across, eventually dying in the old Fairbanks bus. The book and movie Into the Wild was based on this story. The actual bus was located off of the Stampede Trail in Denali, but was airlifted out last year because it had become too much of a hazard. For some reason, people kept hiking to the bus and then getting trapped by the rising river and had to be rescued. Who would have guessed?

This is the replica bus that was built for the movie. It now sits at 49th State Brewing in Healy, just north of Denali National Park and about 28 miles east of where McCandless died in the actual bus.(Additional tourist tip: this place has awesome burgers!)

Inside the movie bus.

Just as predicted, at the Mile 30 stop, the dispatcher came on the radio and advised that all buses would be turned around at Mile 30. So our 94 mile tour had dropped to 30 miles. We were disappointed, but still happy to have seen the amazing wilderness.

On our way back to the cabin, we stopped for lunch at Creekside Cafe and Bakery, and had a good laugh. A gentleman was buying cinnamon rolls, and the server asked him what size he wanted, “Alaska” or “Texas”. I almost spit my coffee out. That’s how Alaskans refer to “Large” and “Small”. It wasn’t the first time in the past couple of weeks that we’d been told “Oh, you’re from the second biggest state.” But it was the funniest version.

Alaska-sized cinnamon rolls on the right.

And then there’s this:

The other state bird of Alaska. Back home, we’re used to seeing Deer Xing signs. Up here, the mosquitoes are so big, they have Mosquito Xing signs. Fortunately, we seem to have missed that season by a month or so.

We are headed south again tomorrow morning, closer to what people here keep telling us is “the Alaska you always see in the brochures”.

And Then It Appeared

In February 2016 I rode into the small village of El Chalten in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mount Fitz Roy. It was raining and the clouds were low, and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought there were no mountains anywhere around. I crawled into my tent that night in the rain, and slept well. The next morning dawned clear and bright, and on the way out of town, I was greeted with this spectacular view:

Mt Fitz Roy, El Chalten, Argentina. February 13, 2016 (54 days past the Southern Hemisphere Summer Solstice).

Today reminded me of that day in several ways. As we left Healy headed towards Anchorage, the rain and snow had stopped and it was bright and clear, with temperatures in the upper 40s and low 50s. About thirty miles south, we began to see the elusive Denali.

Denali peeks out at us. The mountain is still 40 miles away from here.

Denali. August 29, 2021 (69 days past the Northern Hemisphere Summer Solstice).

You can’t see all the people climbing up from here…probably nobody this late in the year, but I’m no expert. On average, around 1200 people a year attempt the climb, and about ten percent of them complete it. During peak climbing season (late May to early June), the mountain can have between 500 and 600 climbers on it. Last year, nobody climbed Denali due to the pandemic. This year the routes re-opened but the numbers were considerably smaller.

We’re happy that the weather helped out and gave us a beautiful view of the highest peak in North America.