Mountains, Moose, and Miles: a Montanan's Alcan Highway Story
Friday, August 6, 2010 Ė Day 1 Ė ďLets get this party startedĒ
Obviously, I didnít get everything ready to go on Thursday night. So here its 7:30 am and I'm finishing some work on the motorcycle. Paul of Yellowstone Rec got the new front tire installed on the rim yesterday and Iíve now got the wheel installed. New synthetic oil and filter and the chain is cleaned and lubed. Now to get the rest of my stuff packed and hit the road.
So is it bad if you have to wash the panel so you can attach a decal? ;-) I donít want any of the Canadians to think Iím from places like Texas or California.
Iíve been asked how long Iíve been planning this trip. Back in 2005 when I bought my first bike after a long hiatus I had an idea that I wanted to travel to Alaska. That bike was a dual sport but not very good for long days of riding. A quick calculation had revealed that it was closer to Key West FL than Deadhorse AK. With only about two weeks of vacation time to work with and over 7000 miles to travel, my motorcycle would have to be good for 500 miles a day and dependable.
So I put the Alaska trip on hold for a little bit and I bought a road motorcycle and started learning to travel and camp on a motorcycle. By only bringing a tent and sleeping bag to the campsites and eating food along the route instead of the campsite, I could reduce the amount of gear I needed to bring with me. I also learned that finding camping sites is challenging, GPS maps are not that reliable, and a plan helps me when I have specific endpoints for the trip.
This map helped calculate the distances that I needed to travel each day, and where I would need to find campgrounds. By knowing pretty closely the route and mileage, I was able to adjust my route when I had slow days.
With that map and this cheat sheet, I would be able to keep track of the mileage that I needed to cover, and the endpoints I needed to get to.
In 2008, I started looking for a motorcycle that I felt could travel on the rough roads that I expected to encounter on my Alaska Trip. I figured a motorcycle like this would also work nicely on the back roads in Montana. Finally for the 2009 model year, BMW finally introduced the F800GS and I felt that this was the motorcycle I was looking for. With a 21Ē front wheel, longer suspension, 800cc engine, BMW reliability and 392 claimed dry weight, this seemed like an excellent motorcycle for longer travels on marginal roads. Now its 2010 and Iím getting ready for my trip.
Finally with all emails sent, the Spot Tracker updated, and the gear packed on the bike, I start off down hwy 200 for Lewistown. As Iíve said before, this isnít the most photogenic parts of Montana, so I didnít stop for many pictures. Besides my 9:30 start is a little later than I planned and I needed to keep moving. My first gas stop is in Jordon where I pick up a snack.
A little while later I see this gentleman on the side of the road. There was a larger section of grass burning and this little spot by the baler. I stopped to see if the rancher had seen it, and he had. A local volunteer fireman with a pickup and weed sprayer also stopped and started working on the larger flames. As I didnít have anything to really fight the fire, I stayed with the rancher and the baler, this little section seemed to want to smolder. It looked like the quick work by the VFD would keep this from getting out of hand.
I headed off down the highway. As I started to get closer to Grassrange, the temperatures picked up and I was seeing 92F on the bikes dash.
As I climb the mountains into Lewistown, the temperatures go down a bit. I navigated some construction and stopped at a gas station in Lewistown.
While Iím there getting some water and snacks, this Chevelle drives in. It looks straight out of Mad Max. The owner said it wasnít that fast, but was fun to drive around.
Travelling on to Great Falls, the winter wheat harvest is in full swing. Equipment and trucks are all around and all the farmers are busy. The temperature is going over 90 again.
Iím headed out of Great Falls on a short jaunt on I-15N. Several cars are moving slow and Iím passing some of the traffic when I realize that I just passed my exit for Hwy 89 to Browning. I look at the GPS and two exits up the interstate is a road that heads west and intersects with Hwy 89. I end up at Fairfield and it is time to get some gas, and take a break and cool down.
After a drink of water I head on to Browning, home of the Blackfeet Tribe. The road starts to wind through the foothills and after Browning I end up on this hill looking towards the mountains and East Glacier.
Yes, it is raining on the pass, and I would end up going through the rain. It would help cool me down after the warm day.
I had been talking with my sister earlier when I was planning this trip, and I was going to stay at her apartment this first night. A couple weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Jeremy, and his family and his brotherís family were getting together at Apgar Campground in West Glacier this weekend. So I shifted my plans a little and Terri and I met up with them at the campground and then Terri and I would go to Kalispell for the evening.
I drive in the park and around the loop for the group campsites and locate my friends. The welcome me to the campsite, and feed me some burgers and carrots, and most importantly water. Terri is just a few minutes behind me.
Here is the one shot I have of Jeremy, Lori and my sister. Sorry about the bad focus.
We walked out from the campground to MacDonald Lake. The sun was setting giving the clouds a slight pink tinge and the lake was becoming calm.
Jeremyís daughter Hanna is helping me frame this photo of the lake and the mountains.
Terri and I decided to get a quick picture in front of the lake. The kids were all enjoying wading in the lake and it wasn't as calm as when we first got to the beach. ;-)
We go back to the campground and sit at the picnic table and talk for awhile. Iím enjoying listening to the conversation and pretty soon Terri and Jeremy realize that Iím going to sleep. Terri and I head out and drive the 36 miles to Kalispell, fueling up my bike on the way.
Stats for Day 1: 591 miles, 13.4 gallons of fuel, 13 hours
For those of you that can't wait for me to copy and paste this, here is the link to the completed report on my smugmug account.
Saturday August 7, 2010 – Day 2 – “Through Banff to Jasper”
Morning came early; just like it usually does. Terri and I managed to get up and head out for breakfast at IHOP. With some food and conversation I head north. It was cool out but the sun was sharing its red brilliance and warming the world with a fiery light.
On the way to Eureka, I see this lake through the trees and stop to take a picture. Smooth as glass…holding my breath so I don’t cause a ripple in the water.
Eureka was having a quilt show and was snuggled up with over 400 blankets. I made a quick stop to pick up some Canadian currency and kept rolling north to the border. A quick scan of my passport and I was in British Columbia. I also learned that I could have taken bear spray into Canada, which would have made me more comfortable camping. Oh well, next time.
I stopped at a view point and decided to try the timer on my camera. I tend to wear a fair amount of gear while riding.
I stopped at Wasa for fuel and a quick snack. It was a quaint little town and not much happening this Saturday morning.
If I remember correctly, this is the Columbia River, near the little town of Radium. Smoke was masking the mountains across the valley hazy.
I turned at Radium and headed northeast into Kootenay National Park.
With a purchase of a park pass, we dove through this the tunnel and into this canyon.
As the smoke was interfering with my pictures of the mountains I took some pictures of the flowers that were alongside the road.
… more flowers.
I was travelling through the park at a fairly good clip, thanks to some bikers in front of me. As I headed north on highway one the clouds finally gathered together and it started to rain just north of Lake Louise. The forest and mountains were now in muted shades of green that the rain displays so nicely.
I stopped at the Saskatoon River Crossing for fuel and a sandwich. The views of the mountains were outstanding so I stitched together some pictures of the mountains. The area was pretty, even with the clouds.
Continuing north on the Icefields Parkway, the road winds its way under these cliffs. While driving through some of the curves, it suddenly dawned on me what the pock marks on the road were from. Like the signs say, “Caution Falling Rocks”.
The mountains were rocky and sheer, with the clouds hanging low over their peaks. At least it wasn’t raining.
The road climbs up out of the valley floor with a couple gentle switchbacks. It winds through the peaks above the treeline and finally drops into Jasper. The rocky escarpments offer stark contrast to the tree lined valley below.
The road continues on through the mountains following the river from Jasper to Hinton.
I pick up some gas in Hinton and make my first stop at a Tim Horton’s for a sandwich.
The plan is to travel along highway 40 to Grand Cache and Grand Prairie. Most of this will wait until tomorrow as I’m camping at the Cache lake campground in Switzer Provincial Park a few miles out of Hinton. This was the most expensive campground at $27.
All the mountains in these parks were very beautiful, definitely worth a return trip. The elevation is lower than the mountains in Colorado so it may be a little easier hiking.
Stats for Day 2: 504 miles, 9.1 gallons of fuel, 12.25 hours
off to a great start.
Excellent photos and write up, can't wait for more.....
I'm planning to do this trip
Great trip you have planned, I'm tuned in and following. Currently I am planning to do a similar return trip from Vancouver in 2012 with another friend. We will be shipping our bikes to Vancouver, doing two trips, one through Canada and USA for 6 weeks, then a second up to Prudhoe Bay and return, along a similar route to you.
Sunday August 8, 2010 Ė Day 3 Ė Starting the Alcan, Mile ď0Ē
Getting out of the tent was a little difficult, it was cold! Finally packed up I head out to the road and on to Grande Cache. The thermometer on the bike said 37F!
The road winds through the foothills of the mountains to Grande Cache, were it turns north away from the mountains. The trees are tight up to the road and only offers occasional glimpses of the terrain. I filled up my gas tank at Grande Cache and decided to push on to Grande Prairie for breakfast.
There was some mining going on in these mountains. Railroad tracks followed along the river. The hills started to mellow out as I got closer to Grande Prairie and the oil and gas activity could be seen from the road. The cuts in the hillside revealed sandy soil instead of the rocky ground seen in the mountains.
Finally the trees open up some and I was in the plains near Grande Prairie. I was cold and stopped for Coffee and a sandwich at Tim Hortonís. Fuel for the bike and then I pushed on for Dawson Creek.
Out of Grand Prairie there was a little construction, but it was pretty easy. They were upgrading the road to an improved four lane road an most of the work was on the other two lanes. The traffic seemed a little busy for Sunday, but it is a major road in the area.
Finally I arrived in Dawson Creek and the famous Alcan milepost ď0Ē. It took me 1360 miles to get to the start of the Alcan. ;-) One important thing to remember is a stop at the visitor center in Dawson Creek and get a one page mileage chart that lists out the gas stations and campgrounds. This was very useful and I found myself pulling it out at many of the gas stops and calculating how far the next gas stop was.
Perhaps this is a good place to comment on the Alcan. It is completely paved except for sections that have been torn up for construction. On the whole, it is very possible to drive the highway with a car. Gas stops are fairly frequent, however it is good to keep track of the mileage as you donít want to pass a gas station and find yourself in one of the longer stretches without gas.
I stopped at a pullout to take a picture of this river valley. There are fewer grain fields and eventually, even though there is farming, you donít see many grain crops. I don't remember if it was this bridge for sure, but I crossed my first open grate bridge deck this Sunday.
Its cloudy and raining intermittently. I stop at Fort St John for fuel and debate with myself about getting a late lunch, but decide to push on and see what I find ahead.
This is what the highway looks like. When it is possible they clear the trees back on both sides of the road.
A little after this picture, I end up at Pink Mountain and get some fuel. Its raining steady, and the clouds look like they are going to stay awhile. I gear up and head for Fort Nelson.
Originally my plan is to camp on the south side of Fort Nelson, but the rain isnít letting up so I decide to get a hotel. As I was driving in, the trucks on the road indicated there was a fair amount of oil activity and yes, there were trucks parked all over town. The second place I stopped had a single smoking room available, so I decided to take it. It was very clean for a smoking room and I was glad to get it, even though it was $125.
After Fort St John, the road felt like the Alcan. Gas stations were small, most using older pumps, and were spaced further apart on the highway. When you pulled up to the pump, you asked whether they took a credit card, and many of the clerks/owners preferred prepayment. There were sometimes lodges along with the gas stations as well.
However as far as population, this was the backcountry. Coming from a sparsely populated region in Montana, I understood this and the people that were out here. Most of the people chose to live out here away from the conveniences that the larger towns offered and enjoyed this solitude. People were friendly and willing to start a conversation if you were standing in line.
When I got to Nelson, I was worried about getting some food as my watch was getting late. In fact at the restaurant I just about didnít go in as it was near closing time. Finally I went in and asked if they were still cooking, and they said yes about an hour longer. I was now in Pacific time.
Stats for Day 3: 549 miles, 8.9 gallons of fuel, 12.75 hours
Monday August 9, 2010 – Day 4 – “The Road Less Travelled”
I slept well, and woke up the next morning with most of my gear dry. I packed and got ready to load the bike. I saw these two bikes in the parking lot and had to take a picture for my friends back in Glendive.
I fueled up the bike decided to hit the road and get breakfast further down the road. It was still raining.
The clouds and fog definitely changed the views of the mountains. Here is another view of the Alcan as I start the climb into the Northern Rockies National Park.
The road narrowed a bit as it climbed up to Summit Pass.
Here on the west side of Summit Pass, I stopped to take pictures of the rocks and streams beside the road.
Here, I start to make one of those chance encounters along the highway. Three bikes go by while I’m taking pictures and I don’t think too much about it. It looked like two full dress tourers and a Honda ST1300.
As chance would have it, I also started noticing my bike was having problems idling. It would run at full throttle, but idled rough and would die while I was shifting gears. An annoying problem.
Another thing that you will see along the Alcan, are these road patches. They will vary in length from a 50 feet to a ľ mile. It appears that when they first put it down it is a road mix of sorts with lots of loose gravel, but then over time they sweep the gravel off the top and viola a perfectly hard patch. It looks rougher than the rest of the pavement but they paint stripes right over it.
Like I said about these three riders, they passed me while I was taking pictures and then I caught up with them on one of these sections. Obviously a full dress bike will slow down for something like this, but they were really slow. So when opportunity presented itself I passed them.
I stopped to take some more pictures and my bike is acting worse at idle. I really didn’t want to troubleshoot a problem in the rain. On one of the internet forums, some folks had posted about a problem with the location of the charcoal canister vent line. I looked at my vent line, and when the engine was turned off water was running out of the vent line. I looked at the vent line for a bit, and then worked it into a loop on top of the transmission. Problem solved.
Of course the three wise men pass me while I’m working on the bike.
<TABLE border=0 cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=0 width="100%"><TBODY><TR><TD width="100%" colSpan=3>Toad River is one of the small stops along the Alcan. There is an outbuilding of sorts to the right of this with the gas pump in front. You still have to pay at the cash register in the cafť. There were some outbuildings behind the stores and a couple of cabins.
While I was fueling up, a couple from Wyoming stopped and the guy came over and kidded me about my “orange” bike. (KTM riders think the only good motorcycles come in KTM orange.) They were driving south, and mentioned that they heard the Taylor highway was closed. This was a road I was planning to ride on, it offered a short cut from Dawson City YT to Fairbanks. Before I left, I had seen that AK DOT was having problems with this road but had opened it up again.
Since it was so wet, I decided to take a break here and have some breakfast. The three bikes were outside, so I was expecting to see the three wise men inside. Sure enough there they were.
About the time I sat down, a young woman and her mother got up and said goodbye to the three wise men. The one guy sitting next to me, said she was travelling south from Fairbanks to Minot ND as she was in the Air Force. One thing that impressed me, was the fact that guys thanked her repeatedly for her service in the military. They also joked and said that she shouldn’t expect better winters at Minot.
Any way the three wise men consisted of two gentleman from California and the one guys nephew from Minnesota. They were all retired and enjoyed riding on trips together. The guy from Minnesota knew right where Glendive was as he met often with his uncle, and Glendive was one of the places he wanted to stop and camp, but he couldn’t find the campground. The two older gents recollected about their first trip up the Alcan. Apparently it was a while ago as they tented with a pup tent.
With a full belly of very good breakfast, I head out. The wise men and I would pass each other often until we reached Watson Lake.
Once past Toad River the road widens out again.
I think this is in Mucho Lake Park. Also, if you have more time than I did, you should stop by Laird Hot Springs.
As I got closer to Watson Lake, the clouds broke up a little and I was able to put away my rain gloves.
I stopped and talked with two guys on the opposite side of the road. They had a KLR tore apart, trouble shooting why the spark plug quit. With a wiring diagram and a multi-meter they were stepping through the problems. As I didn’t have anything to help them out, I continued onto Watson Lake.
Here is the signpost forest in Watson Lake. The visitor center is right there so I stopped in to see what I could find. It was well equipped and the staff was helpful. The staff thought the Taylor highway was open, but they recommended checking further along the route. They gave me a highway, gas stop and campground guide for the Campbell Highway. However, next time I would ask them for a phone number to the Alaska DOT road reports.
I stopped at a little cafť for a burger and fries. Watson lake is a nice little town to stop at. With a full tank and belly, I got back on the motorcycle to head up the Campbell Highway.
There were several side routes that I wanted to travel on, and the Campbell Highway was one of them. The road starts at Watson Lake YT and travels northwesterly to Carmacks YT. The first place to buy gas along this road is at Ross River, about 225 miles from Watson Lake. It is primarily gravel surfaced.
Here the road has been improved and is a wide four track road.
I was enjoying the sunny skies this afternoon after rain for most of the morning.
This is more of what I was expecting. It is well maintained, but just a three track road. Also the trees are right on the edge of the road and tall enough that its like driving through a tunnel.
Occasionally the road would open up, either because of a lake or a cut over the top of a hill. Then you could see the rolling hills covered with trees.
I ended up camping at Frances Lake Provincial Park. Some of the campsites opened up onto the lake and a couple boats were pulled up on the shore. The sunset cast its warm glow over the trees on the opposite lake shore.
It was a good day of travelling. The temperatures were cool, 45-75F with rain for the first 350 miles.
Stats for Day 4: 429 miles, 9.3 gallons of fuel, 12.0 hours
Enjoying the detailed ride report and excellent pics :thumb
This RR is off to a great start! Glad I found it.
Tuesday August 10, 2010 Ė Day 5 Ė ďMining CityĒ
The dawn came bright and clear and with almost no dew. This was a nice change for me, but probably not so good for the fire fighters in BC.
The road did not disappoint, winding its way through the river valleys with occasional openings at lakes or hilltops.
I like it when the lake reflects the trees so it is difficult to discern the shoreline.
The leaves were changing colors on some of the trees. I talked with a local and they were surprised too, because it hadnít been that cold yet. We wondered if it was heat and drought stress.
A stitched photo of another lake.
Somewhere around here, I stop at the village of Ross River for fuel. I needed 4.48 gallons. Since it was a general store, I picked up an apple, a pint of milk, and some breakfast bars. I sat outside the store and ate some of my food and looked around. It was a sad little native village where the only income seemed to be government sponsored jobs. It seems the native population in Yukon has the same challenges as in Montana.
So I was bombing along the road at about 55, enjoying the sunshine and the views when there was a gap in the trees. All of a sudden, I come around a corner and there is a bridge. I set myself carefully in case it is a bar grate bridge and cross the river. I realize this is a deep canyon for such a little rivulet, so I stop on the far side and pull out my camera. Looking over the bridge railing I was amazed; I could see the rocks at the bottom of the river.
I end up in Carmacks, get some fuel, and start looking around for information about the Taylor Highway. At this point I really needed to decide if I was going to go north to Dawson City or south to Whitehorse. I wanted to try the Top of the World highway, so I pushed on to Dawson City, even though I didnít have good information.
On the Yukon River these rapids, the ďFive FingersĒ, were difficult for the riverboats trying to make the trip from Dawson City to Whitehorse. Finally they removed some of the islands and dredged out the channel
I was a little tired, so I purchased a Mountain Dew at the Pelly Crossing gas station.
ďWait a minute, whatís this note on the can?Ē I think they would sell less Mountain Dew in the states if it was a caffeine free beverage. After that, I drank Coke while in Canada. :lol3
I headed out of Pelly Crossing towards Dawson City. The bridge was reduced to one lane of traffic due to construction work. As I rode through the bridge I was amazed at the project. They were sandblasting and painting the bridge superstructure. The entire steel structure, was covered with scaffolding with plywood and plastic sheeting. On the one end of the bridge is a diesel driven blower with a bag filter, presumably to catch all the bad stuff from this operation. Now, letís say in the worst case, there is lead based paint on the bridge and you are going to replace it with a low VOC, environmentally friendly alternative, and use a non-silica blasting agent. Wouldnít a normal person say that the diesel burned, and all the material and plastic sheeting consumed equal out with the lead paint and VOCís released to the atmosphere and the river? Craziness.
At Dawson City, I saw the sign for the Midnight Dome before I got into the city. I turned up the road and went to the top of the hill. From here I had a birdís eye view of dredge tailings along the Klondike river, and the mining operations on the hill on the far side of the river.
It also gave a great view of the Yukon River, and the town site. Across the river you can see the ďTop of the WorldĒ highway.
So I got my room at the Bunkhouse, and went to the convenience store for gas and some sandwiches. I didnít get any sure information on the Taylor Highway, but at this point most people were saying that it was closed. However it was too late in the evening call any agency and know for sure. So I went to bed and planned to get up in the morning to see what I could find.
Stats for Day 5: 505 miles, 12.2 gallons of fuel, 12.5 hours
Your reports of where you are buying gas to refuel the bike is really useful for me in planning my trip - thanks for the info. The bit I am really interested in is your ride from Fairbanks to Deadhorse and back and where you can get fuel along that route, so will read on with interest as you post. Info on accommodation along the route is really useful as well, from this side of the world your report is a God send for my planning. Cheers...:clap
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