Joined: Feb 2006
Location: Close to Cumming (GA that is)
Day 5: Whitehorse, YT – Fairbanks, AK.
A tip of the hat to our route planner, Gary. I started to notice when making these maps that some prior knowledge was definitely required in order to plot the actual tracks since, (as can be observed from this shot) you can't even see that there are any roads on the map unless it's zoomed in to a pretty high resolution (< 1 mile). If I'd done the route, I would have been completely ignorant of the Top of The World Highway and would have missed one of the best sections of our journey and, the Dempster Highway - which I mention later in today's write-up - took quite a bit of finding, even though I already knew its' general vicinity.
Yesterday's excellent day's riding had definitely got the three of us in the mood for a repeat performance, and so it was with a healthy dose of continued enthusiasm that we awoke bright and early at Whitehorse's River View hotel and headed out towards the day's destination in Fairbanks. This was the first day that we'd be winging it in terms of the evening's accommodation, but since this was a mid-week proposition, the general consensus was that finding suitable facilities in a place as large as Fairbanks ought not to be particularly difficult.
In preference to continuing along the remainder of the Alaskan highway, our intent was to head towards Dawson City, where a ferry would take us across the Yukon River, at which point the route would intercept the Top of The World highway. In pre-trip consultations, Gary's Ironbutt connections had rated this particular stretch of road as a must-do section, but in any case, the portion of the Alaska Highway which was being omitted at this stage, was to be completed upon our exit from Alaska. So with variety being the spice of life and all that, we headed out in the general direction of Dawson City.
The beginnings of this particular morning's travel however were marked with the first ominous signs of mechanical discontent in our machinery, or more specifically, the assemblage of mechanical schizophrenia that was responsible for my continued progress - namely the KTM. Upon pressing the ignition button, something from within the bowels of the motor was making such a horrendous grinding noise as the starter attempted to coax the engine into life that women and small children immediately went running for cover. It was the worst kind of clatter you could possibly imagine, sounding like two angrily combative gear wheels that were in a desperate confrontational duel with the ultimate purpose of ripping away the teeth from each other. Surprisingly though, when the engine did at last fire, all within sounded fine, with not a whimper to be heard from the offending items; and so since on this particular trip, time was definitely of the essence, I decided - in a rare moment of optimism (or more likely desperation) to hedge my bets and hope for the best.
Thankfully, without any further incident the three of us completed the journey to Dawson City and rode on down to the waterfront to meet the boat. The George Black Ferry (as it is called) connects Dawson City with the Top of The Road Highway which is situated on the other side of the Yukon River (at the bank of which we were now waiting) and apparently the round trip crossing operates 24 hours, seven days a week (except for 5-7am on a Wednesday morning when the vessel receives its' weekly dose of maintenance). The best thing about the ferry though, is that flying in - what for me is - the acceptable face of capitalism, the trip is absolutely free. Socialism, eh? - gotta love it! And, although not in the remotest sense an arduous crossing, I must admit that the very act of even loading my trusty two wheeled steed onto an actual boat did give the whole journey just a touch more cachet in my mind - some folks are easily amused, apparently.
...........and they still had hosepipe bans.
'Yeah, If we can run at 120 over the Top of The World, we'll keep up our 60mph overall average' - Gary does the math and is still a happy camper.
Once over on the other side of the river, the subsequent two wheeled progress was also pretty remarkable itself. Even given all the static I jokingly give the Ironbutt mentality, I must wholeheartedly concede that - if nothing else - this one recommendation alone is worth the association that Gary has with them. Immediately departing from the waters edge, the road, which was a mixture of regularly graded dirt and gravel, snaked steeply upwards away from the river and once reaching a decent altitude, cascaded wonderfully along the mountain ridges - the generally treeless landscape giving uninterrupted views of the magnificent terrain and leaving no shred of doubt in any of our minds how this particular road had gained its' name. Quite exhilarating and highly recommended. And fortunately for our heroic daily mileage aspirations, even though the road surface was unpaved, it was still predictable enough to maintain an acceptably rapid rate of progress and, once again I found that on anything as non technical as this stretch of road turned out to be, I could maintain a extended standing position by occasionally switching my feet to the rear pegs (in order to take some weight off the base of the spine). Sounds ridiculous but it works for me. YMMV and I expect it will too.
Top Of The World - don't miss it
Presently however, after a memorable stretch of riding, the U.S. border appeared in the distance. Given the utterly frustrating experience that Joe and I had encountered trying to get into Canada a few days ago, as we approached the Alaskan frontier I'm sure he was filled with as much trepidation as I, who, for the record was worriedly contemplating just what peculiar delights awaited up ahead. However any concerns we harbored were ultimately entirely unfounded as, after taking a few photo's of the border's administrative buildings and getting our documents checked in as straight forward a manner as could reasonably be imagined, all three of us were shortly back on U.S. soil and happily rolling into Alaska. Yippee!
Joe - contemplating his second cavity search (that I know of) in three days
After the elongated build-up to this moment (with all the pre-trip planning, not to mention the actual riding itself), a major sense of accomplishment washed over me as we spun our first tires on Alaskan soil. For the record, the Alaskan US/Canadian border crossing at Poker Creek is the most northerly land port in the U.S. and, as I suspected at the time, given the type of terrain necessary to access the area, it is only open for a short period of each year (mid May to mid September actually).
Our continued progress into Alaska consisted of maybe a couple of hundred yards at the most though, before making the first stop at the Top Of The World Gas and Gift Shop, where, at the hands of the store clerk in the gift shop, we had our first experience with what I can only describe as the enigmatic portion of Alaskan society. Let's just say he was quite an unusual individual - at least judged by our collective suburban dispositions, but nonetheless the ambiance provided by the gift store was sufficient to provide enough motivation for a couple of quick snaps before remounting and continuing with our journey.
Yes - Gas, Gold, Gifts and a certain 'Je ne sais quoi' from our helpful store clerk
Over the border, the Alaskan side of the highway initially continued much like the previous stretch in Canada and indeed in this area we spotted quite a few species of wildlife (mainly mule deer and the like, but apparently nothing remarkable enough to cause any of us to contemplate recording the sightings for our particular posterity). However a few miles further along we came across a couple of humans who, appearing to be somewhat disorientated, were wandering down the side of the highway, both of whom were paying particular attention to the ditches and the real estate immediately off of the highway. It turned out that they were looking for pieces of the tire which had de-laminated from the rear of their loaded up BMW. From the details that I can recall, apparently this couple (both of whom were in the teaching profession) were on a summer long voyage across Canada and Alaska, which had originated around Montreal. They had recently traveled the Dempster highway and with the abrasive nature of the road, encountered continuing problems with repeated flat tires. They must have been running the tires sans tubes because - as I recall - they'd received a handful (maybe 7 or 8) mushroom plugs from a fellow rider at a campsite on the Dempster and had pretty much had to use them all on the ride back down to Dawson City and The Top of The World Highway. When we encountered them, the rear tire was just about starting to disintegrate and, being miles from the nearest civilization and not having any tubes available, they were in pretty bad shape.
A number of grissled old artifacts
After considering our options, we decided to lighten the load in the bike (1150GS) as much as possible, and then escort them down to Tok (the nearest settlement of any size) where they would hopefully be able to resolve this unfortunate predicament. We loaded the luggage on the back of Gary and Joe's bikes, then the pillion (who probably weighed not much more than the luggage anyway) jumped on the back of my bike (which was the only one of our three configured with extra available seating anyway). After what seemed like - especially in contrast to our typically urgent progress - an excruciatingly slow descent into Tok, we eventually found someone to give them a lift to a nearby settlement where they hoped to source a tire. Even though this little incident helped to delay our progress, it felt good to help out our fellow travelers in whatever way we could, and at least I felt that we'd deposited a little positive karma in our biking bank accounts (and for what it's worth, in subsequent day's write-ups I'll detail two withdrawals that I personally made before the end of this trip). anyway, after dropping of our wounded travelers, we resumed our previously high velocity mission towards Fairbanks.
Once again the scale of our surroundings appeared to swell in dimensions and, as before, the rivers were most impressive. With the amount of ice melt flowing in them, the typical Alaskan rivers were indeed absolutely breathtaking in both their size and physical power, and it certainly provided a sharp contrast with the summer drought conditions that had been plaguing my home state of Georgia for the past few years. The distances we were covering also took on otherworldly dimensions too. Looking at the maps in Alaska it often became an easy mistake to consider a distance between two places to be, say 50 miles, when in fact it would be closer to 350. I always tended to look at Alaska (and I assume most other people do too) as that little state at the top of the map, but when I actually got in amongst it and had to pay attention to the scale of things, it was indeed a great surprise.
More Top Of The World
Ultimately though, our trio of helpful adventurers did eventually arrive in Fairbanks and as expected it was with no great difficulty that a suitable hotel was located for the night. Even though we'd been delayed significantly by our assistance of the Canadians (and as a consequence it was already fairly late), the bikes still got a little cosmetic TLC courtesy of the hotel hose pipe since, at our current northern latitude sufficient daylight was not to be a cause for concern at any time for the next few weeks. Consequently, by the time the three bikes had been cleaned up and our belongings had been relocated to the hotel room, all of the nearby eating establishments had closed for the evening, so Joe and I wandered a few blocks up the road with the purpose of finding a few snacks. This brief sojourn exposed us once again to the strange social etiquette apparently prevalent amongst Alaskan retail society.
'Eat my dust, RV'
We found some strange folks loitering around Fairbanks and it appeared to me that the almost otherworldly parallel reality of this place acted like a honey pot for the weird and dispossessed (walking around in broad daylight at midnight certainly didn't feel that normal, even for a day or two). I got the impression that since Alaska was physically so far removed from the rest of the U.S., its' inhabitants didn't generally feel much of a common bond with the 'mainlanders' and often marched to the beat of their own drummer. The social graces that most of us - for better or worse - take for granted in the rest of the U.S. don't seem to translate particularly well to a population that spends half the year in the dark, and - at a number of the retail outlets around Fairbanks, we encountered quite a few instances of being stared at by what - in my obvious position of societal superiority - I would refer to as the social misfits of society. Coupled with this behavior, were numerous moments of awkward silence as we attempted to conduct fairly elementary matters of small business with members of the regions retail staff. For what it's worth, my son, who was actually on a hunting trip in Alaska in the two weeks preceding this little sojourn, remarked on exactly the same experience - so it's not just me then!
Upon exiting the gift shop, I noticed Joe, who for some inexplicable reason was trying to cram himself into my fuel cell
But even having landed on planet strange, it was a pleasant end to a good day's adventure; we'd covered well over 700 miles since this morning including our delay with the Canadians, and finally the three of us hit our respective cots in a collectively upbeat state of mind, excited and optimistic about our prospects on tomorrows planned assault along the famous Dalton Highway and the Arctic Circle.
As usual - If anyone's got anything to add - have at it.
Douf screwed with this post 05-03-2009 at 07:37 AM