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Old 09-11-2012, 05:05 AM   #1
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"First to Alaska"....circa 1946

“First to Alaska”

By Steve Anderson, Cycle World, March 1984

“When the Al-Can Highway was opened to civilians in 1946, Cecil Tipper and his Harley were ready. Or so he thought.”



When Cecil Tipper left home in Birmingham, Alabama, in May, 1946 and headed for Dawson Creek, starting point of the Al-Can Highway, what he had in mind was a change of pace.

Tipper had been a bomber pilot in the war that just ended. He’d flown 35 missions in a B-17, coming through safe and sound but ready for some decompression. He liked fishing and camping, so 1523 of unpaved miles isolated highway sounded like a good change of pace.

The 1523 unpaved miles stretched from Dawson Creek, BC, to Fairbanks, Alaska. The name at the time was the Alaska Military Highway, for the logical reason that it had been built as part of the war effort. The Canadian government had just begun allowing civilians to use the road, by permit only, so late in 1945 Tipper wrote and asked for permission to make the trip. Five months later, he got his answer……"Yes". Tipper then went to the nearest Harley dealership, in Birmingham, and bought a Harley 45, known then as the Light Twin.

The 45, model designation WL, was a sidevalve V-Twin. It had earned a reputation for durability during the war and besides, it was suppose to deliver 80 mpg and carried 2.5 gallons of gas, just the thing for a highway with fuel sources hundreds of miles apart. His experience as a pilot provided most of his riding gear, as in fleece-lined leather jacket, leather flying helmet and gauntlet gloves. He bought saddlebags and a canvas-with-plexiglass windshield. Into the bags went the standard touring kit of the time; spare chain, spark plugs, inner tube, patch kit, mess kit, bedroll, kidney belt, canteen, flying suit, Navy foul weather suit and a hatchet. Tipper added his Air Force issued Colt .45 pistol, his fly rod and flies and a small camera…….. and he was off!!

The trip out of Birmingham was easy going, up through Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, over the Continental Divide, and the Rocky Mountains to Grand Junction, Salt Lake City, Butte and then Sunburst, Montanna before crossing over the US-Canadian border at Sweetgrass, Montanna and on to Edmonton.

A Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman greeted Cecil at the RMCP post in Edmonton and requested he lay out all his equipment for an inventory inspection. The law would not allow the Army Colt .45 automatic pistol and they kept it at the post for his return. And the RCMP insisted Cecil carry at least one-day’s food ration, an indicator of what he might expect. And, before he could set wheel onto the highway he must have a letter from a motorcycle parts supplier who would agree to deliver any part he needed if he had a mechanical breakdown. Fortunately, a H-D dealer in Edmonton was willing to provide that service for an advance, refundable fee of $100.

The RCMP was not all restrictive. They provided him with some words of advice including warnings about the wildlife he might encounter including bears, wolves, and moose. Basically the advice was to keep a good fire going at night and not get too close to a female bear with cubs.

At last clear of Edmonton, Cecil’s Light Twin ran smoothly in the cool Canadian air over the road that traversed the slightly rolling plains of western Alberta. May in Canada was chilly and required full dress behind the windshield. Canadian farmers on both sides of the road were working their spring chores on their fields in this section of the Peace River Valley.

Up to this point, Cecil had spent the nights in motels and hotels, but the Traffic Control Board guide provided by the RCMP showed not a single hotel or lodge from Fort St.John at mile 49 to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory at mile 917. His first night “out”, just before Dawson Creek, was at Slave Lake where there was a good camping site next to the lake. It also was his first hint of the abundance of wildlife. While setting up camp, he idly watched some Indian children fishing with a string at the water’s edge. Tipper could hardly believe it when the kids pulled a three-foot Muskelunge from the water. More suprising still, the giant fish, which would have been a record back home in Alabama, was cut into small pieces and thrown to the dogs. Minutes later he learned for himself that fishing in such sparsely settled (and fished) territory didn’t require nearly the skill or time as it did back home.

Dawson Creek was the official beginning of the military road, so Tipper checked in at a Mounted Police headquarters and found he was expected. This seemed a bit officious then but later, when he was waiting for the next vehicle per day, he came to appreciate knowing that someone knew he was out there. The fuel situation, though, still rankles after all these years. First, gas was expensive at $0.85 per Imperial Gallon. Next, presumably for reasons to do with the war or the military, gas was sold only in sealed 5-gallon tins. Nor could the container be re-sealed and taken along, so every time Tipper filled his tank he had to leave at least half his purchase behind.

Nor were supplies plentiful. The official guide for 1523 miles, issued with the permit in 1946, consists of 17 places where there was anything resembling civilization. The legend was “H” for hotel, “M” for meals, “G” for gas and oil, “R” for repairs, “C” for checking station, “A” for airfield, and “S” for stopover (whatever that means??). According to the official chart, Watson Lake (milepost 635) was a veritable metropolis, with “S”, “M”, “G” and “A”. Whitehorse was ever more developed and boasted “H”,”M”,”G”,”R”, and “A”. But the milepost there was numbered 917, meaning the distance between gas depots was 282 miles, impossible for the Harley. And he did run out of gas. He waited one full day for the next vehicle, a Canadian Army truck as it happened, and was treated to a meal as well as gas.
Tipper has set himself a daily pace of 350 miles. The road was rougher and slower than expected. Most riding was done in second gear – the Harley had three – and mpg was reduced from the hoped-for 80 down to 50 plus in the bad sections. Later Tipper figured he’d averaged 65 mpg.

West of Fort St. John, the first official stop on the highway, the rolling farmlands of the Peace River gave way to forrest as the road angled north and then west into the Rockies. There still was snow in the high passes. The early summer sun melted the snow, which eroded the graded dirt and sometimes froze overnight.

Once across the Rockies, the Highway bent and dipped, evidence of the Engineers’ interest in finishing the road fast. It wound its way around soft spots that might have caused delays, detoured around ravines that would have required bridges, and headed over open country that required less clearing. Surface conditions left a lot to be desired. Slight erosions, potholes, ripples, grooves left by trucks, and the loose gravel surface kept Cecil’s feet out or at the ready to steady the Light Twin. Progress was slow as he had to drive 35 mph most of the time.

Occasionally, when the road conditions eased, he was able to enjoy the scenery. On his third day out, he rounded one of the easy hills near the Rancheria River and 100 yards ahead he saw a large bear and two cubs. The Mountie’s warning came to mind, as he approached the bears, the female turned. He was still 50 yards away, Cecil recalled, and he hit the horn expecting the see them trundle off the road. No such luck. The female bear paused and pushed the cubs behind her. Cecil realized the risk so he opened up the throttle and made as wide a sweep as he could on the narrow road. As he passed, the bear swiped at him with her paw…..nearly causing an early end to the trip. That night at a trading post where Cecil was the only guest, the cook-waiter-clerk and charge d’affairs offered him a menu that included bear steak, moose steak, buffalo steak, but no beef steak. Not a vengeful man, Cecil chose buffalo steak over bear.

Riding all day without seeing another person or vehicle was strange. When the saddle of the Harley began feeling too close to his skin, Cecil stopped near a lake or stream and practiced fishing. When he turned off the Harley, silence……….absolute silence dropped around him. He would peel off his flying helmet and stand for awhile to let his body settle down from the rough ride. At night, the awareness of being the only human for hundreds of miles was even more apparent. The stops were longer and there was not much of the night that was dark. Daylight hours increased steadily as he moved closer to the Arctic Circle. Every night he wiped mud and dirt off the chain, and added oil, checked the wheels for damage and tires for air pressure. After building a large fire from scrap wood, using his single weapon……the hand axe…..and having something to eat, he would settle down and watch the wildlife watching him. Wolves, without being threatening, would occasionally sit in groups of three or four at a safe distance away and just watch Cecil looking back at them. None of the animals he saw were afraid of him.

At mile 2121.4, a sign marks border between Canada and what in 1946 was the Territory of Alaska. Koidern, at the south end of White Lake, was a trading post. Cecil stopped with just alittle over 300 miles to go to reach Fairbanks. When he drove into Fairbanks the following day, the city was not what he had expected. But word of his arrival had preceeded him and the Fairbanks Dailey Miner interviewed him. The windburned motorcyclist was news, the first man to ride to Alaska!! He was quoted as saying ”the ride was a great deal rougher than I expected. Gravel on the highway really vibrated the motorcycle and darn near shook my teeth out. I’m glad I made it, but I’ve had enough. I’m going to sell my Harley motorcycle and fly home.”

But after three weeks of walking the streets of Fairbanks, visiting the University and museum, and talking to people who stopped him on the street, he recovered from the trip. He also changed his mind about selling the Light Twin, so he repacked the Harley one June day and headed south.

While the trip to Fairbanks had been relatively trouble-free, the trip home was not. Two hundred miles outside of Fairbanks, Cecil’s confidence on the gravel road turned to a moment of inattention which quickly resulted in the Harley “turning in” on itself. Cecil was thrown into the windshield and received a deep cut. The case guards saved the engine and Cecil’s legs from sustaining damage. After three hours of trying to stop the bleeding and clean himself up, he put the Harley’s contents back on it and re-established his confidence. Cecil thumped the Harley a few times and it came to life. He headed east again, very cautiously, and in a few hours reached a trading post. The proprietor cleaned and bandaged the wound. Cecil stayed at the post for three days, resting and recovering.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. Cecil did not have another problem until he reached Bismark, North Dakota. Mud and stones had ground the life out the Harley’s rear sprocket and he had to replace it. Eighteen days after leaving Fairbanks, he arrived back home in Birmingham. He had completed alittle over 10,000 miles for a cost of $500, not including the new sprocket or the $419 he paid for the Light Twin. A year after the trip he sold the Harley for $425. Today (1984) he has retired from Westmoreland Coal Company as an electrician and lives in Crab Orchard, West Virginia.

(As I read the Ride Report, it made me realize how some things have not changed in 65 years concerning Alaska and motorcycle riding......and then other aspects have changed dramatically. Amazing that the return trip only took 18 days considering what road conditions [all over the USA/Canada/Alaska] must have been like in 1946. I assume Cecil Tipper is now riding the highways in the sky. God Speed Tipper..............)

mark444
B'ham, Al

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Old 09-11-2012, 08:45 AM   #2
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Very interesting!

We have two kids that have lived in Alaska for 20 years or so and reading about that state always is interesting to me, although this is really a unique story. Thanks for posting it as I really enjoyed reading.

Gary "Oldone"

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Old 09-11-2012, 08:50 AM   #3
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Hell yeah! Neat story!
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Old 09-11-2012, 09:09 AM   #4
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Google "Cecil Tipper"

I bet this was Cecil a few years earlier. No wonder he wanted to "decompress"...........

http://www.flickr.com/photos/18532986@N07/4638408496/

(standing, 2nd from right??)
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Old 09-11-2012, 10:50 AM   #5
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Nice

It would be nice to get more history like this posted

I remember going through a museum in Whitehorse or Fairbanks some years ago and reading about two motorcyclists who managed to ride from Alsaka before the Alcan was built! They made it to civilization but that's all I remember. Anybody know the story or the museum?
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Old 09-11-2012, 11:49 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Harry Swan View Post
It would be nice to get more history like this posted

I remember going through a museum in Whitehorse or Fairbanks some years ago and reading about two motorcyclists who managed to ride from Alsaka before the Alcan was built! They made it to civilization but that's all I remember. Anybody know the story or the museum?
There was a story (with pics) posted here, I believe a year or two back, that showed two guys on really old bikes running thru Alaska (or Canada??). They had to build their own bridges across streams using trees they had cut down........had to be in the late '20's - 30's...........
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Old 09-12-2012, 02:58 AM   #7
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Nice read, my cousin did the trip on his bike in the mid 60's to 70 era(?) and I have always been jealous as it was still a bit rougher in most stretches, but these 1st riders make his trip appear easy.

Thanks for posting this.
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Old 09-12-2012, 03:52 AM   #8
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Very Nice, In some small way I wish it was still that desolate.
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Old 09-12-2012, 04:31 AM   #9
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it's a must see
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Old 09-12-2012, 08:38 AM   #10
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Makes me proud

Once again Air Force leads the way! Ok, back in 1946 we were still the bastard child of the US Army, but still led the way. Being a retired Airman, having lived in Alaska for 9 years, and originally being from West by God Virginia-How could I help but being a little proud. Crab Orchard was very close to where I used to live, and I had no idea this pioneer lived so close to me. I would have loved to had a long conversation with him about the trip. That took some serious guts back then. The trips we do today pale in comparison. From our modern equipment, to the ability to have auto services within hours (even on the Alcan!), the trips we take today just don't add up. Good on this guy for paving the way, and thanks for posting this.

That part of the World is still among the most beautiful places on Earth, even after all the modernization s that have taken place!

The only problem I have with going through Canada is the fact they don't allow me to have my concealed carry. Every country has their laws and we must obey them. I just have a big problem with using pepper spray for bears. I feel I am just adding spice to their dinner!
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Old 09-12-2012, 08:49 AM   #11
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try driving in the Winter

Quote:
Originally Posted by one2ride View Post
Very Nice, In some small way I wish it was still that desolate.
Yes, I do drive a cage sometimes........I do remember one particular trip going up, and it was late October and it was snowing like crazy. Well, most people had enough sense to stay off the road, we (wife and kids) just kind of got stuck driving in it. The bottom line is, we didn't see another living human being or vehicle for over 3 hours! I had never experienced that before at that point in my life, and that was when the remoteness of the Yukon really sank in.

I rode my 4 wheeler 80 miles into the Alaska wilderness gold prospecting and fishing one year when the rivers were low enough to cross. That was awesome. I saw nobody for over 24 hours. Just me, my machine, my camping gear, and a couple 5 gallon atv rack gas tanks.
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Old 09-12-2012, 12:35 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Harry Swan View Post
It would be nice to get more history like this posted

I remember going through a museum in Whitehorse or Fairbanks some years ago and reading about two motorcyclists who managed to ride from Alsaka before the Alcan was built! They made it to civilization but that's all I remember. Anybody know the story or the museum?

That would be Slim Williams:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slim_Williams
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Old 09-12-2012, 01:56 PM   #13
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Originally Posted by Harry Swan View Post
It would be nice to get more history like this posted

I remember going through a museum in Whitehorse or Fairbanks some years ago and reading about two motorcyclists who managed to ride from Alsaka before the Alcan was built! They made it to civilization but that's all I remember. Anybody know the story or the museum?
Hi Harry
Google Slim Williams Alaska and you will get the info on their trip
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Old 09-12-2012, 02:31 PM   #14
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riding to an unknown place without some trustworthy buddies's backup is a very dangous thing. some says he did that just because he's young, but they all think he's reckless. so togather, we headed toward the deep desert adventure. when he growed a bit older, they told him the risk he was going to make(go ride the bike alone). but anyways he come back in one peice even though he got in with a group, he got lost because reckless navigation too dependace on high tech stuff only(fact is he is too busy to look anywhere beside his bike, newbie) till, seeing a radioactive artillery yellow, god damn it, now even gps nolonger works, dodging bombshell on the ground or traspassing from the airplane above.


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Old 09-12-2012, 03:36 PM   #15
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Great article, Mark. Thanks for posting.
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