“Troy is riding his motorcycle from Prudhoe Bay to the tip of South America…I think we should join him on his way back and ride part of the way with him. I’m giving you nearly two years notice so don’t tell me you can’t do it.” That was the statement made by my former college roommate, Jody that served as the catalyst for this trip. Why not? After all, he was giving me plenty of notice!
Well, that was back in 2015 and it got us talking about who, what and where. The “why” really wasn’t important because of course, we should try to join Troy somewhere along his path. Well, Troy finished his expedition long before we started ours so we figured we would ride up to Alaska where he lives and say hello.
This was a little like coming home. Alaska has always had a special place in my heart. It is beyond description and photographs never do it justice. It is big, broad and stunningly beautiful. It is hard to completely capture its grandeur by photo or video. I have been fortunate to be able to visit several times. I spent the Summer of 1990 in Alaska working the commercial fishing industry and doing a little construction work. I went back in 2000 with my Dad for a fishing trip and again in 2007 with Jody for a week. Seven years later I went with my wife, two Sister in laws and our kids. There were eleven of us on that trip and it was great fun. It wasn’t a tough sell to get me to agree to go back.
We spent a lot of time on the phone and on other rides talking about which route we should take and who would be able to make the run. We discussed at length the type of gear we would need and what kind of motorcycle would be ideal for a trip like that. You know the fun part of the trip planning where the dreaming mixes with planning and you end up investing in more gear than you need. We were all excited to go but some more than others.
Well, the trip turned out to be an epic adventure. We ended up with four guys that could make the full run to Alaska and back. We also had a few friends and family join us for the first three days. We started with seven riders on day one. There are a lot of things that happen on a trip like this and this trip was no exception.
I could probably write a book on this trip alone but decided a top ten list might make more sense. Here are ten things experienced riding with friends on our 10,008-mile journey:
- Wind sucks! I’ve been riding bikes since I was eighteen years old but I have never experienced the wind like I experienced in North Dakota. I have been blown into other lanes before and this was no exception. The thing that was different about this wind was it was sustained with the occasional gust from hell. After a while, it had me thinking about rogue waves. It was everything you could do just to hang on and anticipate how to handle the rogue gust that would come at any moment. I was in the back of the pack and watching six riders in front of me. It was like we were all in the V-8 commercials for those that remember that advertising spot. Everyone was leaned over so far into the wind that if it stopped abruptly we all would have fallen over. I had an advantage as the sweep or last rider as I was able to watch the gusts send the other guys across the lane and then prepare for it. Lane position was important as you needed the extra room when there was a car in the other lane. It became comical at some point as we were all just hanging on for dear life. The group pulled over at one point, took helmets off and in unison said, “FUCK!”
We also rode through a few interesting thunderstorms. I recall one ride through the mountains where you could see the storm approaching and knew it was going to be big. There were no places to pull over and take shelter so we donned our rain gear and settled in for an interesting ride. The wind blew at you from both sides and from above simultaneously. Trees were whipping back and forth violently. I wondered to myself if the wind was strong enough to blow me and my bike over. I maintained some speed as to have control. Acceleration grants control and power although it sometimes feels counterintuitive in a storm. I saw an approaching RV and slowed to make sure I could stay to the right of the approaching headlights in the windswept rain. I had rain on the outside of my helmet and it was streaming down the inside of my facemask as well due to an earlier helmet drop. I couldn’t help but glance up and see the passengers in their weather-tight rectangular bubble taking video with their phones as they drove through the torrent. I’ll bet they don’t recall the storm the way I do.
- Sasquatch lives! You either believe or you don’t. I have always considered Sasquatch (aka. Bigfoot) to be a hoax. I am now rethinking my original stance considering new evidence of his existence. Here is the description of “Sasquatch” as defined by Wikipedia which we all know to be 100% accurate.
“Individuals claiming to have seen Bigfoot describe it as a large, hairy, muscular, bipedal ape-like creature, roughly 2–3 meters (6 ft. 7 in–9 ft. 10 in), covered in hair described as black, dark brown, or dark reddish. Some descriptions include details such as large eyes, a pronounced brow ridge, and a large, low-set forehead. The top of the head has been described as rounded and crested, similar to the sagittal crest of the male. The creature has been reported as having a strong, unpleasant smell.”
I am certain that I heard him at night and there was a strong, unpleasant smell that accompanied the ape like creature. We all know the famous picture that has never been debunked. I am certain that Sasquatch exists and submit these pictures as proof. We also saw a Sasquatch running through the woods. I believe.
3. Go Bears! Go away from my tent! We had a number of bear sightings. In fact, we saw thirteen bears in less than a day near Hyder Alaska and Stewart, BC. Apparently, that area is the “Bear capital of North America.” Doesn’t that sound like a great place to set up a tent? I’ve always played it safe when tent camping around Ursus Arctos Horribilis. When some taxonomist decides to use the word “horribilis” in a species name you should take note.
Our trip planner has told me in the past that I shouldn’t sweat the bears as the probability of an attack is very low. For some reason, I hold his opinion very low on this subject matter. I spent a Summer in Alaska with this guy when we were working the canneries and watched him spit his toothpaste less than ten feet from our tent. I recall him also having food in our tent. Rumor has it that a bears’ sense of smell is acute. Given his complete lack of common sense around bears, I have decided to increase my odds as a fellow tent camper.
There were four tents for North America’s largest carnivore to choose from on our motorcycle escapade so tent placement was critical. The first thing you do is put your tent close to where Sasquatch is sleeping. The decibel output from his snoring alone will most likely scare away any bear that is not infected with rabies. The other important step is a strategically placed Snickers bar at the base of unafraid, short sighted tent camper. We did get a great picture of a brown bear enjoying a stroll along Kluane Lake in the Yukon. No major bear mishaps to report outside of several that darted out in front of us causing us to test our brakes.
- Rubber side down! It’s hard to put into words how beautiful Canada and its Provincial Parks are. We rode the forestry trunk road (highway no. 40) out of Crowsnest Pass. It was also called the Kananaskis Trail. It was remote, scenic and 102 km of gravel paralleled by an occasional dirt trail. We decided to have dinner at the Rum Runner restaurant in Coleman and then head north on the trail about 9:45 pm figuring we would find a place to camp before darkness set in. Little did I know at that moment but in the next twelve hours, I would lay the bike down twice.
The first time was when we pulled off on a dirt road to look for a campsite late in the evening. As I was evaluating if we could put four tents on flat ground John noticed a partially eaten deer carcass. We decided to pick another spot (See Ursus Arctos Horribilis) so everyone turned their bikes around and rode back up onto the gravel road. I was last and rode up the steeper portion of the trail onto the gravel. My back tire spun out and I lost speed as I went up the incline. As the bike started to lean right I put my foot down to catch myself and loose gravel on an incline may as well be marbles. I ended up laying the bike down. I watched the other guy’s tail lights disappear over the hill and then I was there alone. Picking up a fully loaded Tiger Explorer that is on gravel sloping down a hill by yourself is not actually an easy endeavor. I figured someone would eventually come back but it could be awhile and there was a deer carcass close by. The first thing I unpacked was the bear spray. In retrospect, I wasn’t going fast enough up the incline and should have opted for the left side of the dirt road where the incline was less of an angle. I guess that’s why they call it experience.
The second time I went down was after watching Jody ride along the road on a dirt two track trail. It looked like fun so I decided I would pick a good spot to exit the gravel road and ride on the dirt trail myself. I found an easy off-ramp and found myself riding down the trail. The section I picked eventually veered off towards the forest and away from the gravel road. I stayed on it for a while but as the last guy in our group of four, I wondered if anyone had seen me veer off. After a short ride through the woods, I came to a hill. I stopped at the top and wondered if I could make it down it in one piece. There was only one rock sticking out of the middle but I had room to go around it. I think it might be called target fixation but I ran directly into the rock and almost went down as a result. Somehow I managed to stay upright. More luck than skill but I’ll take it. The next obstacle I came across were muddy ruts. I knew to stand up and stay in the bottom of the ruts and try to ride them out. I was all over the place and came closer to wiping out in the muddy ruts than I did on the downhill ride. I remember reading that you should accelerate out of the ruts so I did that and again lady luck was in my corner. After two close calls, it was good to see the trail dry out and remain relatively flat. The trail went through the woods and opened into a clearing. I noticed a ravine up in the distance and when I got to the ravine I noticed it was a creek that looked like I could maneuver across. I stopped at the top and noticed John on the gravel road. I was almost back to the gravel. I saw two small logs in the water and knew I had to miss those. Wet logs are slick and I didn’t think I could ride over them. That meant I had to veer left and then accelerate out hard right using the creek bank on the left as a berm to get back up the other side. The alternative was riding back the way I came and that wasn’t a great option. I also wanted to do my first creek crossing on my Triumph. I rode down the hill, missed the logs and rode back up the other side all upright. The only thing I had in front of me was flat green grass. I accelerated towards the road and the next thing I knew I was down hard and fast. I must have hit a small rut with wet tires and it was like hitting ice. The bike came down with such force that it knocked off the OEM hard case panniers and mangled my gear shifter, clutch lever, fog light, turn signal. The force on my lower leg was substantial too. It hurt and I felt the impact but was instantly glad I had invested in some tall motorcycle boots. I have to plug the Forma Adventure boot here as the initial impact was taken by the pannier but I am sure the Forma boot saved my lower leg. It also helped that I went down in a nice grassy field. John helped me pick my bike up again and we started putting it back together.
I was able to three finger the clutch lever as only about 25% of the lever broke off. The fog light and turn signal I taped up with electrical tape. I had to remove the left foot peg to be able to shift the now backward bent gear shifter. The only problem was the bike was stuck in third gear. I was going to bend it back but without heat was afraid I would snap it. I ended up riding the majority of the 102km in third gear to get back to civilization. It did lug the engine when I started out but I was able to maintain a decent speed to get out of there. I had to prop my left leg up on some riding pegs that I had mounted. It made for an interesting ride out and was cause for another exciting moment that day.
For those of you that ride and have ridden in the mountains, you know how important engine compression is in your ability to brake while going down hills. One particularly steep decline had me tapping the back brake and still gaining speed into a downhill left turn. The engine compression at that speed was not enough to slow the bike. The bike kept gaining speed and going wider and wider into the turn. The bike came within a foot of staying in Alberta. I had a moment where I had to decide to stay on it and ride it hoping to make the turn or jump, sacrifice the bike and grab every piece of gravel I could to stay on the road. I chose the former but it was close and it made me contemplate a few things. It all turned out well and made it an interesting day.
- Canada is awesome! Canada just continued to inspire. The Kananaskis Trail was stunning and eventful but Canada just kept one upping itself! Banff was beautiful, Jasper was rugged and awe inspiring with its snow-capped jagged peaks. Liard River Hot Springs was a welcome midnight respite after a 677-mile day. One of my favorite stops on this trip. If you go to Alaska and want to visit the hot springs book a campsite at Liard River Campground in advance as it fills up early. You can walk to the hot springs from the campground down a board walk. I can’t describe what a great stop that was after nearly fourteen to fifteen hours on the bike that day. You also don’t want to ride after soaking in hot springs. The mineral salts and water are relaxing so it should be where you end up that day if you want to enjoy and relax.
Canada also has unique historical cities. We closed the “98” in Whitehorse and Dawson City could be its own blog entry. For the record, the “sour toe” theft happened the day before we arrived in Dawson City and the drunk man who stole it felt remorseful and has since returned the toe with an apology letter.
We also got a chance to visit the cabin where Robert W. Service wrote some of his Yukon inspired prose. That was really cool as I have always appreciated his work. Two ladies that Jody and I worked for at a place called Alaska Nellie’s back in 1990 fed us regular doses of Robert Service and Jack London.
We also sat at a pub and watched George McConkey play his harmonica. He was a one man show and he could play! He packed up his gear at the end of the night which was still sunny and loaded it onto an ATV. Off he went. We left Dawson City the next day and rode the “Top of the World Highway.” Picture mountain range after mountain range as far as the eye can see and it will not do the landscape justice. It was an epic ride along a mountain top ridge for miles and miles.
- Good friends, good whiskey, good times! How do you sum up an experience like this? There are just too many moments to cover but it all comes down to a great shared experience with close friends. I will feel a connection with these guys the rest of my life. It was that kind of trip. It wasn’t four of us in a bunker by any means but we logged some serious miles together and experienced weather, wildlife, food, whiskey, laughs and a few moments of “don’t tell me what the fuck I can order!” It was a great trip and until Alzheimer’s kicks in I will remember it fondly. We were also lucky to see a few old friends along the way and fortunate to make a few new friends. The road and riding bikes lend itself to that. A few stories to share;
First the sendoff. It was nice that many of our friends showed up to see us off. A group of close friends came by at 6:30 am for coffee and donuts. We were privileged to have our club President show up too. He led us down the street on two wheels and bade us farewell and a safe journey. Everyone one was in awe of his new tattoos. Thanks, all for seeing us off! It was a special moment.
Troy Henkels: He was the guy that served again as the catalyst for this trip. He has made his home in Alaska and turned into an explorer extraordinaire. He has done things most of us only dream about. Climbing, rafting, parasailing, kite surfing in Antarctica, kayaking, starting rock slides, attempting to be the first person to cross the Bering Strait on foot. You know the kinds of things all guys from Iowa do. It was great to visit with Troy and the dinner he provided for us was over the top! He has built a phenomenal cabin on the edge of Denali Park. I wish he could ride with us but he was off to Nome for work. Thanks again for the hospitality Troy!
Steve and Bryce: One of my former coworkers knew of our trip and planned his own epic journey with his son Bryce. They road tripped for a month through Canada and Alaska and our trips overlapped for the better part of a week. We were able to get out and do some Salmon fishing and Bryce and Steve did not disappoint. Bryce showed us all up and caught the largest fish of the day. There were two others in the boat who will remain unnamed that got skunked that day. The icing on the cake was when we got off the river and went over to the fish cleaning station. Bryce had clearly not only caught the biggest fish of the day in our boat but also appeared to best everyone else at the take out. There were many envious eyes on his King Salmon. Bryce also plays the guitar which is always nice around the campfire. It was great seeing Steve and Bryce and they made our trip even more special.
Roger: We also have a good friend who decided it might be nice to come up and surprise us. It would have been difficult to surprise us both given the coordination required so he co-opted me into his devious plan. We planned that he would arrive in Anchorage the day before we arrived for our scheduled bike service day. Two of us needed two tires and my bike needed a few things given my earlier ride through the grass. We chose a restaurant that Sasquatch apparently had discussed earlier. He apparently had relatives that owned and operated the place. I believe the relationship was from a second cousins wife who had a brother who once owned a dog that ran away from a relative of Johns. I think I got that right. Anyway, we left a bar stool open between John and Jody and texted Roger when we arrived at the restaurant. Roger walked in and sat next to John at the bar and it was fun watching John’s mind wrap around the fact that our good friend Roger flew 3,000+ miles to have a beer in the Northwood’s with us! Of course, we had to videotape it as it’s not easy to surprise a Sasquatch. But we did!
We also met a few new friends on the trip. We met Moe who is a professional musician who has played with many famous musicians over the years. He’s played with John Denver, Buddy Guy, Eric Johnson, Sonny Landreth, Little River Band, Lee Ritenour and many others. He borrowed Bryce’s guitar one night around the campfire and treated us to a few songs. He also joined us for a section of the Cassiar Highway which he had ridden once before. We met other riders from Seattle, Mark from New Zealand, Greg and his wife from Seattle and Javier from Buenos Aires. Javier was on a thirteen month around the world trip. He packed an extra tire on each side of his bike and was smart enough to carry bear spray mounted externally to the front of his pannier.
- Don’t follow livestock trailers too closely. I probably don’t need to say any more about this but I will. We entered the state of Washington at Oroville and found ourselves heading south to pick up the road towards the Colville National Forest. Jody and Allan were able to get around a truck hauling cows. I had to tuck in and wait for an opportunity to pass as the road was curvy and there were hills that hid oncoming traffic. We were doing about 60 mph as I waited for an opportunity to pass. I couldn’t help but smell the odor that comes from a trailer full of cows. I had just taken my riding jacket off earlier and was riding in a t-shirt when it happened. A brown cloud of mist struck me and my bike. It took only a split second for me to realize what had just happened. I felt it on my arms and saw it on my windscreen. I also saw it running out of the bottom of the trailer under the gate. I hit the brakes immediately and probably nearly caused an accident with John trailing me in an effort to escape the wet cloud. An unforgettable moment. Back to experience being the best teacher and thank God for bathing wipes
- “Real Bikers” 9,000+ miles into the trip we decided to check out the Badlands. John and I had never been there and it seemed like a good stop on the way home. We stopped in Custer, Deadwood and Sturgis. We decided to stop in a Sturgis bar called the “Knuckle.”
We took a few pictures outside to document our trip and entered. It was a big place and had many bikers and tourists in there. Everything from a group that looked like a tough biker club to individual bikers and small groups. We sat down near the biker club at the bar and ordered a couple of drinks. We then looked at a couple of t-shirts that they had hanging over the bar and considered buying a souvenir. We had an older couple walk up to us dressed in their biker gear and they started to ask us questions. Were we from Europe? Where did we just ride from? They noticed the crest on my t-shirt and inquired about that. They weren’t used to seeing Triumph adventure bikes at the “Knuckle” and John rode in on his BMW 1200GS.
Apparently, they were sitting on the outside upper balcony and saw us ride in on our foreign bikes. They were a nice couple and informed us that they lived in Sturgis and liked to stop in at that pub and a couple of others on occasion. They liked hearing about our trip and we shared a few stories and pictures taken along the way. As they left, they said that they enjoyed talking to us and it was nice for them to meet a couple of “real bikers.” That made us laugh as we are a couple of weekend warriors that were lucky enough to get time off to do this kind of trip. It was also said within earshot of our tough looking friends sitting in the booth behind us. Gulp. I did walk out of there though feeling like maybe we were the real bikers and these guys with their tough looking jackets probably have never made a run like the one we were just wrapping up. We both had a laugh and will probably remind each other we are “real bikers” while we’re making a trip on the bike to the grocery store for milk.
- A few thoughts on safety: When you are tired and starting to nod off, pull over. It is possible to fall asleep on a motorcycle. 2 out of 4 of us on this trip did it. We pulled long days and occasionally stayed up by the fire longer than we should have. Be safe and pull over when you start to feel drowsy. We were lucky. Usually, ten minutes off the bike will do. I also noticed there is a hypnotic effect if you are riding towards the back and watching the bikes in front of you carve right and carve left while riding in the mountains. It’s like the pendulum, you are getting sleepy….
Check your bike daily. Check air pressure, the condition of tires, tighten a few nuts if you have been riding gravel, rutted roads or especially the Denali Highway. The last day of our trip we decided we might try to make it home. It was July 3rd and our families were at the cabin. We knew it would be a long day but we figured we would assess where we were early evening and then decide to make the final push. We filled up with gas and set off on the I-90 to knock out some quick miles. We had avoided interstates the entire trip because they suck. We wanted to hit the small towns and not look at billboards. Well, we joked about going 90 on 90 for a while and we did just that. We knocked out 250 miles in three hours with a couple of gas stops and felt great about making it home on the 3rd. When we stopped for gas our third time John looked at my front tire and saw that the steel belts were worn through.
I had been cruising at high speed for three hours with the threads showing through. I had checked my air pressure in the morning and was fine but I didn’t check the tread all the way around the tire. I had Continental TKC 70s installed right before the trip and probably had about 8,000 miles on them by this point. I knew they were getting low on tread but figured I would make it home on them. I was wrong and in a big way. I’m not sure those tires would have made one more tank of gas and submit a picture for review. I was lucky to have a friend look and notice the tires wearing thin. I wrongfully assumed a pair of new tires would get me to Alaska and back. If I would have crashed at the speeds we were traveling I would have been done most likely. I felt like I owed John my life so I took him to lunch at Denny’s. 😉 All kidding aside, you must look your bike over at every gas stop and make sure it is ready to roll. I got the last tire at a dealership in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The repair cost us 3.5 hours and me $170 for the tire and installation. On a trip this long I probably should have put a tire on in Anchorage for the ride home. The Heidenau K60 Scout still has tread on it and a little life. Not bad after a 10,008-mile journey. I probably had 300 miles on the tire before I left for Alaska. I do plan to replace that now though as it doesn’t make sense to wait.
Slow down at night. When we got back to the lower 48 and it started to get dark again at night you need to slow your speed. We tried not to ride at night in the lower 48 if we didn’t have to but we had some miles to make and chose to do it. I almost hit a bear on our last day of the trip less than an hour from our cabin in northern Wisconsin. It was a big bear too and likely would have ruined the entire trip. I was doing 55 mph with brights and fog lights on. I looked down and noticed I had crept up to 64 mph and thought that might be a little quick for 11:30 pm at night with limited vision and trees next to the road. As soon as I looked up there was a huge black shape running across the road in front of me. I hit the back brake, front brake and downshifted simultaneously and avoided him by about ten feet. I tapped my intercom to ask John if he saw it and he was laughing saying “holy shit, did you see the size of the thing?” He also asked me if I shit myself. Slow down at night as you’re not home until you’re home.
- Take your time. We had a set amount of time that we were able to get off of work. I read other trip reports and articles that said 25 days is not enough. You can only do what time offers. If you are able, you should try to plan for six weeks. We rode about 25 days and covered 10,008 miles door to door. That’s 400 miles per day. It doesn’t provide a lot of time to stop and check things out. I have been fortunate and visited Alaska several times before so I have hiked, fished and climbed a few goat trails for a better view. 400 miles per day on a bike does not give you ample time to do some of this. That said, we were reminded every morning by Jody as he would begin many of our days by saying, “Guess what we get to do today? We get to have fun and ride motorcycles all day!” And that’s what we did.