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Old 05-06-2012, 12:00 PM   #1
Alcan Rider OP
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Joined: Sep 2003
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Alaska Primer

Every year we get many of the same questions asked by riders who have never been into Northern B.C., the Yukon, or Alaska. It is hoped that we can assemble, in one thread (that could become a sticky), answers to most of those questions so we can spend more time riding and less time at our keyboards. This post is meant to begin that effort.

Some of this is serious, some is tongue-in-cheek, and I ain't sayin' which is which. You figure it out.

ALASKA PRIMER (for ADV types headed this way)

BEARS: Contrary to what you may have gleaned from various ride reports, no, there is not a bear behind every tree. We have a number of trees almost equal to the national debt, but many of those are too small for even one of our runty squirrels to hide behind, let alone a huge, ferocious grizzly. Count yourself lucky if you get to see a bruin in the wild - only a small percentage of visitors do.

BIKES: So you've been wanting to ride to Alaska for at least ten years, but you tell us the reason you haven't is that you still can't afford that awesome GS sitting on the BMW dealer's floor that you drool over every time you stop by there. To that, I say BS (in capitals, you'll notice). The reason you still spend your vacation time south of the border is because you're a wimp! You want a bike that will make the trip for you, instead of you having to learn to ride it yourself. Quit making excuses. Go out and find yourself a used bike in the $2000 - $3000 range, one that has a good reputation for reliability, that will haul you and about half the gear you think you will need for the trip (because what you think you'll need is twice what you really need), that will carry sufficient fuel in its tank for at least 150 miles, and that fits you. Spend a few hundred to ~$1000 on suspension upgrades (our roads are hard on overloaded bikes), work on the bike yourself so you know it intimately, then get some experience with it on gravel roads. Spend a little more on a good camera and a spare battery, then get your butt on the road.

LODGING & RESTAURANTS: If you want Five Star Hotels and restaurants you can find them – in some of our larger cities. But why not save yourself the expense of riding all the way here just to partake of something you could enjoy close to home? Most of us prefer common fare, properly prepared, in man-size servings – which is what a lot of our lodges and remote restaurants offer. If the menu where you've stopped doesn't satisfy your high-toned appetite, go on down the road to the next one. You should be able to find another place to eat within a couple hundred miles.

MAPS & ROUTING: You can't ride to Alaska without the latest and greatest GPS, satellite phone, SPOT tracker, and sound system that will deliver true fidelity tunes to keep you entertained along the way? Give me a break! Once again, order some DVD's of Alaska, Yukon, and B.C. scenic highways, settle your wimpy butt into your recliner in the comfort of your living room, put on the headphones, and enjoy your vicarious “adventure”. Who needs artificial entertainment? You're surrounded by nature – the real thing. There's one highway that runs from the border at Alcan to Tok. You can't get lost very far, because if you turn off that one you'll be stuck in a swamp within sight of the highway. At Tok, the signs point the way to either Fairbanks or Anchorage. Learn to read – you won't need a GPS.

Don't get me wrong. If you've never been to Alaska planning a trip can be rather daunting. You have no idea what highways will take you where, and about the only communities you've ever heard of are Anchorage and Fairbanks. But our highway system is really pretty simple. There's a circle with some spokes going off in various directions. Unless you have unlimited vacation time – say, five or six years – you will have to pick and choose what places you're going to visit on your trip. It won't be easy, as there are far more than you can see in one summer, let alone a week or two. Generally, it is recommended to get a copy of the Milepost and get started. And that's only the beginning. Next, you have to sort through all the hype that every attraction surrounds itself with, and decide what is really going to make good memories for you.

Regardless how much research you do, how thoroughly you plan, once you make your first trip up this way you'll discover that you weren't really prepared as well as you had hoped. That's all right, the first trip usually just whets your appetite for another... and another. And the next time you will have a much better idea what to look for in the maps and the Milepost. The best thing you can do in your pre-planning is to give yourself the flexibility to change things as you go.

PRICES: Most of you from south of the Canadian border don't have the slightest clue as to what it costs to operate a business in rural Canada and Alaska. If you saw the figures, you probably wouldn't believe them anyway. Gas through Canada, and in Alaska, is expensive. If you don't like paying those prices, don't buy gas in either of those places. But pulling a tanker trailer behind your bike isn't going to be fun either. Quit supporting the lodges, restaurants, and gas stops along the highways and that's what you'll have to do after they've been forced to shut down due to a lack of business. Here in Alaska, outside the cities, businesses have about 4 months in which to make 90% of their annual profits. The remaining 8 months they are often lucky to break even. It would be a long, lonesome trip if most of them were to shut down. Especially if you were to break down 200 miles from the nearest place you could get help or find a haven to get out of the weather.

In addition to gas being expensive, tires and repair parts are also. Look at a map of North America. It is farther from Seattle to Anchorage by highway than it is from Seattle to Pittsburgh. We have to ship nearly all of our commodities that far or farther. It isn't cheap. You have to pay for what you get up here. That's what those of us who live here year around have to do, and so do you. Again, you don't have to support any of the businesses in Alaska or along the way. But when they have all closed their doors, be prepared to sit for a long time, waiting for parts to come from Outside to wherever you've broken down. And just wait until you see the shipping charges on those parts!

ROADS: Our highways have names, often associated with the name of a community at one end or the other, but not always. We like the names, it helps us delineate the area where one travels. They also have numbers, which do a much poorer job of specifying where in the state it is, therefore we ignore them. So if you ask us about highway 4 (or any of the other numbers that some desk-bound office nerd in Juneau dreamed up), don't be surprised if we look at you as though you were speaking in tongues. That's just our polite way of refraining from calling you the name that just popped into our mind.

Interstate 5 has not yet been extended north through Canada all the way to Fairbanks. Presumably, you have come through the Yukon Territory and on to Alaska seeking adventure! If your umpteen thousand dollar “ADVENTURE” bike that you've outfitted with every accessory recommended for an around the world tour can't handle a few frost heaves, potholes, and pavement breaks, maybe you'd better look for adventure on the interstates down south. Save your whining for after you get back home, as voicing it up here will only serve to invite ridicule upon your wimpy self. If you can't handle a few bumps in the road, we have scores of Alaska tourism videos available that you can gaze at from the comfort of your Lazy-Boy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Here's something I wrote (but never bothered to post to the forum) back in 2010 after returning from D2D:

THE U. S. - A Nation Of Wimps?

Before you heat the tar and get out the feathers, notice that this is a question, not a statement. The reason it is asked is that after reading many ride reports, describing relatively minor annoyances and discomforts as difficulties, one is left wondering what has happened to Americans' one-time zest for overcoming problems.

Allow me to give some examples: The Shakwak Project is an ongoing highway construction project (nearly finished now) through the Yukon Territory to improve the Haines Highway and the Alaska Highway from Haines Junction to the Yukon/Alaska border. Over the years, I have watched nearly every inch of this project from clearing the realigned right-of-way to painting the lines on the new asphalt. It has been a slow, but rewarding, change, with nature providing, at times, a two steps forward, one step back scenario. Freeze damage has turned fairly new pavement into a maze of unavoidable potholes at times. A major earthquake in 2002 turned new highway into a veritable carnival ride of minor hills and valleys, with pavement breaks that threatened to trap unwary motorcyclists in deep crevasses.

During some phases of the reconstruction, detours have included deep depressions that were little better than stream crossings in third world countries, ball bearing gravel for interminable miles, sand so soft that first gear was required on my Gold Wing to even push through it, and mud that made the Dalton Highway seem like an interstate. For years the miles north of Burwash Landing were across flat tundra with absolutely no shoulders beyond the edge of the narrow pavement.

Early this summer I rode through that area again, from Haines Junction to the Alcan border crossing. It was by far the best I have seen it in over twelve years, and rarely had to drop below the speed limit. Yet in ride report after ride report from riders visiting Alaska , I find the authors complaining about the horrible conditions. Adventure riders? Since when is adventure riding as comfortable as sitting in your living room watching travelogues on the TV?

The Dalton Highway is another example. While in Deadhorse recently I had the pleasure of talking with a rider from Sydney, Australia. Like everyone else, he had heard horror stories of how bad the Haul Road was on a motorcycle; the extreme challenges it offered. He was disappointed. Compared to some of the roads he had ridden back home, the Dalton was a fine highway, easily negotiated.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
SCHEDULING: One of the biggest mistakes many first-timers make. You big-city people have to really struggle to learn how to relax and enjoy a vacation. Some of you never do. If you could listen to a few big-game guides tell their stories about clients who just had to get back to the office on such and such a day – while they were stuck in hunting camp awaiting a flight that couldn't get into the air because of terrible weather. It doesn't matter how important you are back home, nature calls the shots up here.

Maybe in your day-to-day life back home you live by the clock and calendar. Leave it behind when you hit the road. In your mind you just have to get from city A to town B within so many hours as you have reservations at the City B Motel. Okay, forget about the interesting diversion you spot along the way, you've scheduled yourself out of that opportunity.

Imagine if everyone up this way lived by the clock: You've broken down and are sitting beside the road, hoping someone will stop to offer help. Someone does stop, but all they can tell you is that they will relay your plight to someone in the next town, as they have to be on up the road on schedule. Or... you pull into a shop hoping you can get some urgent repairs done quickly so you can be back on the road and stay on schedule. But the shop manager tells you that the best he can do is put you on the list for 10:30 AM the following Tuesday. You're in luck, it's Friday, so you'll only have to twiddle your thumbs for 4 days.

No, most of us don't live by the clock. If we come along and see that you need help, we forget whatever it was we needed to get done today and help you. We enjoy life a lot more that way. You get back home and think how nice it would be to live like we do, to have a more laid-back lifestyle. Well... you just blew your opportunity to enjoy it for a few days because you had to stick to a schedule.

Don't overplan. It's far more important to come north with an open mind, all the time you can spend here, and funds to enjoy it without having to fret about getting back home deep in debt. Prepare the best you can, then take it as it comes.

Another negative aspect to tight schedules: Getting your bike serviced or repaired. Unlike most places across the broad United States, Alaska is not merely a waypoint through which you pass as you head to your destination. Riding from Los Angeles to New York City one could pass through dozens of cities with dealers for nearly any brand of motorcycle. If service is needed, one of those shops could almost certainly be counted on to get the bike taken care of. However, Alaska, for most riders coming this way, is the destination. It is at the end of the line; the turn-around point before pointing the bike south to cover a few thousand more miles in getting back home. Therefore, you have made plans to get work done on your machine while here in order to have it ready for those additional miles. You and several hundred other riders, every one eager to get the work done quickly so he/she can get back on the road to enjoy the all-too-brief days of vacation.

The number of motorcycle dealers in the entire state could probably be counted on your fingers. Add in the independent shops that can service motorcycles and you'll need to take your shoes off to count on your pedal digits as well. Still, that's not enough to ensure that on any given day your steed can be squeezed in to fit your tight schedule. The number of motorcycles that are ridden to Alaska during our brief summer simply overwhelms the limited number of technicians available statewide. You'll just have to be patient and wait your turn. Or... you can learn to work on your own bike. (See paragraph two above: Bikes) Just bring a good supply of tools.

TIRES: Sometimes it gets downright comical - the discussions over which tires are the optimum choice for getting to Alaska, and then riding some of our roads. Should I use this one? Should I ship tires to a drop point up north or carry extras with me? Will this tire get me back home? Can I make it to Inuvik/Deadhorse/Ross River on brand Z tire? Is it going to cost me too much to ship tires? How much can I save by buying tires at home and shipping them? Sheesh! What you need are round ones, usually black, that have some tread and hold the appropriate quantity of air. What you really need is to spend some time learning to ride your bike on whatever tire you choose. That latter is undoubtedly far more important than all those other variables put together.

WEATHER: If you ask someone living in Phoenix to give you an idea what the weather there will be like in mid-August, chances are he can predict it with a fair measure of accuracy. It will be hot, but it's a warm heat. Here in Alaska, all we can promise is that there will be weather, whether or not. You may be lucky, or you may freeze your heinie (as well as other parts and appendages). The sun may shine for nearly 24 hours with a brilliance you've rarely witnessed. Or you may think you'll drown before you can get the @!#$@! out of the state. Come prepared, otherwise you stand the risk of spending valuable vacation days staring out the windows at travelers going by who actually did prepare.

You're concerned about the weather, as some of the ride reports you've read tell of 15 days straight of traveling in rain. Okay... find some other ride reports to peruse if those don't paint a glowing picture. Somewhere, sometime, another rider has traveled the same route at the same time of year and experienced nothing but sun and warmth. While Rider A rode to Prudhoe Bay on June 23rd and it was 56 degrees and sunny you can't expect that it will be that way if you choose to arrive there that same date. For all you know that was the only June 23rd in the last 200 years that the temperature rose above 33 degrees at Prudhoe Bay. Likewise, if Rider B rode through heavy rain all the way from Whitehorse to Fairbanks on July 17th it doesn't mean you will need to get out the Frogg Toggs if you happen to be duplicating his ride. You may wish you had mesh gear on to escape the heat. Just be ready for any and all kinds of weather as you will probably get to experience every bit of it.

WILDERNESS: We have it, in abundance. For city dwellers, it can be daunting, even frightening to an extent. The things that you are accustomed to – the traffic, the noise, the smells, the crowded streets and highways – are far off, and you almost feel abandoned, as though the world had come to an end and you were the sole survivor. You're on your own and not sure what you'll do, especially if something goes wrong. Relax. You'll do just fine. It's called solitude, and people have been surviving and enjoying it for centuries. It's something you might even find yourself occasionally missing after you've gotten back home. It is the very reason many of us live where we do. It gives us time to take a closer look at those things nature provides us with, and to appreciate them. The slow-moving stream across a vast area of tundra. A ridgeline backed up by increasingly higher mountain peaks. Maybe a roaring, silt-laden river that has originated at the base of a glacier just 15 miles upstream. Perhaps a porcupine 7 feet up a willow, staring around at us with a very human-like expression on its face. Even living in this northern wilderness, I still find myself rubber-necking like a dadgum tourist while traveling through the north country. What the northern destinations specialize in is nature, raw and untamed.

From the highways you're able to travel in a vehicle with two, three, four or more wheels, you may think you're getting to see most of Alaska. The truth is, you'll be lucky if you get to see 2% of this magnificent state, as that is about all that is visible from its highways and backroads. But what you do see makes up for what you don't get to see: The Alaska Range with Denali as its crown jewel. The Wrangell Mts. with roads on the north, west, and south sides. The Chugach mountain range that separates the coastal areas of Southcentral Alaska from the drier inland valleys. The vast open tundra of the Arctic Coastal Plain. The coastal areas of South Central Alaska where the cities of Valdez, Anchorage, Seward, Homer, Soldotna, and Kenai are situated. The lush green of Southeast Alaska that stretches as far as the eye can see. Come, and enjoy it as it is, different from what you have back home. That's what makes it a special place.

Edited to include a repost of this trivia:
ALASKA - THE LAND OF MOUNTAINS, MYTHS, AND MOSQUITOES

Facts: The 23 smallest states could all be placed inside Alaska.
Alaska is larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined.
From its base to its peak, Mt. McKinley is the highest mountain in the world.
Alaska has more coastline than all the other 48 states combined - 6640 miles. Including the shoreline of all the islands, it's 33,904 miles.
There are more active glaciers and icefields in Alaska than in the rest of the inhabited world. The largest glacier is the Malaspina, at 850 sq. miles. Five percent of the state, or 29,000 sq. miles, is covered by glaciers.
Alaska has the easternmost (Semisopochnoi Island), westernmost (St. Lawrence Island), and northernmost (Point Barrow) points in the United States.
Freshwater - The Yukon River, almost 2,000 miles long, is the third longest river in the U.S. There are more than 3,000 rivers in Alaska and over 3 million lakes over 20 acres in size. The largest, Lake Iliamna, encompasses over 1,000 square miles.
One school district, the Matanuska-Susitna, is larger than the state of Rhode Island.
The lowest temperature ever recorded in Alaska was minus 80 at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971. The highest was 100 above at Fort Yukon in June 1915.
Annual precipitation ranges from 200 inches in the Southeast Panhandle, to less than 6 inches in the Arctic region, which is considered arid.

Mountains: Of the 20 highest peaks in the United States, 17 are in Alaska. Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America, is 20,320 ft. above sea level. Denali, the Indian name for the peak, means "The Great One."

Myths: There are none. Everything you've heard about Alaska is true. In fact, most of what you hear from Alaskans is understated, as we are modest and humble, unlike those braggarts from the little state of Texas.

Mosquitoes: The largest mosquito ever killed in Alaska, according to Boone & Crockett records... Oh, never mind. You'd think I was bragging.
__________________
"I am in the prime of senility." Ben Franklin
I'm so old I remember when the gallons rose faster than the dollars on gas pumps.
The Lure of the Dalton, The Lure of the Dempster, Haul Road Chronicles, My Evening Rides, Alaska Primer
Haul Road Primer

Alcan Rider screwed with this post 07-15-2012 at 10:29 AM Reason: Inserting Additional Information
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