Alaska: the 49th State of Mind
©By Sam Taylor
Sometime during the presidential campaign of 1846, candidate James Knox Polk declared that the border between the Oregon Territory (which included “everything” north of the present California border) and what was to become Canada should be set at the 54°40´th parallel, where the present southerly border of the pigtail of Alaska sits. The cry, “fifty-four forty or fight” rang out across the land, implying the US would go to war for what is now much of British Columbia.
A worthy idea at the time that would have been ruinous in ours.
For if half my trip to Alaska had just been through an extension of Washington, I wouldn’t have had half the fun.
This story chronicles the motorcycle journey I recently took to “Seward’s Folly”, our 49th state. The original intent was simply to visit Alaska, the only state that I had not visited in my 42 years, and see what needed to be seen. I wasn’t all that sure what that was: Mt. McKinley came to mind, as did the midnight sun, a few eagles, and a glacier or two. Of course, as all motorcyclists know, the journey is the adventure and the adventure is the journey; this trip was no exception to that rule.
First things first: the bike. I’d been riding motorcycles for about 16 years, and for 10 years my primary mount had been a BMW. About 10 months before the trip I had sold my venerable 1994 R1100RS and bought a new 2002 R1150RT. The RT, or “Road Tool”, as I call her, was bigger than any bike I thought I’d ever own, with an excellent fairing, and electric windscreen, electric grips, hard luggage, and more. All this luxury weighed in at about 650 pounds, 100 pounds more than my old RS, and about 150 pounds more than I think a motorcycle ought to weigh. The market these days, however, does not seem to agree with me. Even the heavy RT is one of the lightest “touring” bikes available. Sure, you can take any bike and throw some soft luggage on it and go around the world, but for a bike designed to tour, The Tool is positively svelte.
In the 10 months I’d owned der Tool, I’d racked up about 11,500 miles on the clock, gotten to know the bike well (mechanically, it was very similar to my old RS), and pretty much knew it could handle a long trip. The only doubt in my mind was caused by all the anecdotal information I’d accumulated on the state of Alaska’s highways. Many of my motorcycling buddies (and certainly all of the dealers) told me I should take BMW’s GS instead. The GS is the same bike but outfitted as a dual-sport bike, with more forgiving suspension, higher ground clearance, and slightly less weight. It also has limited weather protection, is tall, and had other drawbacks that had me defending my choice of mounts. I did not relish doing any major off-road work with the 650 pound Tool, though, with her expensive plastic fairing and limited tip-over protection. But I decided to dance with whom I brung.
I take a good amount of pleasure in the planning and preparation of any motorcycle trip, except I do very little of the former and too much of the latter. Case in point: the only “plan” I had was to acquire a custom-made saddle from Rick Mayer Cycles outside of Redding, California—three hours from my home. Well at least I'd planned the first 3 hours of my trip by calling ahead and scheduling a “butt-fitting” with Rick. Feeling supremely pleased with my foresight, I directed my energies to getting the bike “ready”.
Starting with the fairly new 2002 BMW R1150RT, I added a rear GIVI trunk and Cee Bailey windshield (4 inches taller and 1-inch wider than stock). I wanted to get an Aeroflow headlight guard and Fenda Extenda for my front fender, the last two items to keep rocks and debris from damaging glass and bodywork, but put that off until later. But first I rewired the bike….
…to allow for more robust lighting. Actually this newer RT comes with fairly decent stock lighting: a 55 watt H7 low beam, a 55 watt H3 high beam, and two integrated 55 watt H3 foglights. Normal humans should find that sufficient, but I wanted to up the wattages and add two more PIAA 1100X driving lights under the oil cooler. To do this and not overtax the stock wiring, I added relays, fuseblocks, 10-gauge cable, and a host of other electrical goodies. When finished, I could throw a road-melting 385 watts of raw lumens down the pike. This is a great idea if you like, or need, to ride at night. What I forgot, of course, is that Alaska and most of my journey was lying happily near the Arctic Circle, north of which, in this or any June, the sun never sets, and south of which, for quite a ways, it never gets dark. Great mod, though, next time I want to ride to Fairbanks in December.
A day before I left, Marin BMW completed my 12K service with care and love—and the bike ran great. Of course the bike ran great before I spent the $400, but what price confidence, not to mention new oil, brake fluid, sparkplugs, adjusted valves and a stamp in my service book?
I knew I’d have to get tires, but that could wait for a 1000 miles, so I felt ready to—literally, considering the wattages involved—blaze my trail northward.
Think what you will about Global Warming, but the Central Valley of California in June (and July, August, September, and October. And May and April, too) can be Hell these days. Wednesday, June 5th 2002, was no exception. After a beautiful beginning ride out the Great Route 128, my black Aerostich riding suit began to bake me into an unhappy rider. Remember what they did to Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai? That was me. Gritting my teeth, I pressed on towards Redding, the thoughts of a nice new comfy saddle the carrot to the sun’s relentless stick.
It’s a long and complicated story only of interest to those who follow the motorcycle seat trade, but Rick Mayer, son of the late saddle guru Bill, follows in his father’s tradition of hand-crafting a fine ass-friendly ride. Operating out of a well-stocked garage, he takes about 3 hours to talk with you, take a few close-ups of your south side, and create his masterpiece. By far the hardest part of the process from the customer angle is getting up his deeply graveled driveway in an upright manner. I guess this keeps his ride-in business to a manageable level. Mail-order might be safer for the uninitiated, but as I was anticipating some severe road conditions ahead, I figured I needed to pass this test. Ironically, as it turned out, his driveway was—almost—the worst road section of my entire journey.
So by four o’clock I was back out on the highway, having stopped to check on the health of Rick’s son who seemed to be passed out in his go-cart at the bottom of the long driveway, red, sweating, and unable to rouse. Have I forgotten to remind everyone it was still friggin’ broiling, even at 4 PM? Boy Scout training came to the fore and I got the kid into the shade, pumped some water into him, scared him back to wakefulness, and sent him back up the hill to his house. Hope he’s okay....
Fortunately, interstate 5 north of Redding gains some altitude and a good measure of beauty, so the rest of that day’s ride improved. Landing in Ashland, Oregon—one of my favorite towns—I had “planned” to look up some friends and say hi. Instead, still soaking from the heat of the ride, I booked myself into a motel, a shower, and a cool microbrew. To me the ride had not really yet begun, and I wanted to get an early start the next day, so I didn’t take Ashland up on any of what it has to offer. More important things were on my mind.
Normally I avoid interstates in favor of the Blue Highways, but I was on a mission and wanted to leave the Lower 48 as quickly as possible. Plus, I wanted to visit Ride West BMW in Seattle for a new set of rubber, and was hoping they could accommodate me on short (read "no") notice. True to their reputation, when I arrived that night they scheduled me for an early morning appointment the following day, helped me find nearby accommodations, and generally made me feel welcome.
I stayed in Seattle's College District (University of Washington) that night, which was lively, fun, and had all sorts of cheap things for me to eat and drink. I visited the Big Time Brewery, cousin to Berkeley’s Triple Rock and the San Francisco’s late Twenty Tank brewpubs. One of the brothers of the owners had worked for me years before in my banking days—why he chose banking over brewing he never explained to my satisfaction—and I’d wanted to get in touch with him to say hello. Alas, I couldn’t make the connection. But I certainly enjoyed the brew. One does only what one can.
Next morning I was first in line at Ride West. Mounting the new set of Dunlop 220s took a little longer than I expected, as during the process the mechanic found that my exhaust pipe mount had about worn through. I was concerned that this would be a specialized part—which it was—requiring a specialized order—which it did. The boys at Ride West did me right, however, by scavenging the part off of an as-yet-unsold RT, ensuring no delay other than the repair. I blessed them and proceeded to use the down time to buy cool things from their parts department—the headlight guard and fender extender which I had “planned” to install but hadn’t, engrossed as I was in lighting my way. Oh, and they installed some bungie buddies on my panniers, which was well worth the investment—a small fraction of the five hundred dollars I spent there, but I still had nothing but great things to say about Ride West.
So for those of you keeping score, before I had even crossed the 49th parallel (current border with our great neighbor to the north) I had spent $1200. Yikes! Time to move out.
Pressing north, I crossed into British Columbia at Sumas, WA, just northeast of Bellingham. The technical term for the weather: icky. Today was still a good day to ride, however, and I continued up alongside the Fraser River, then the Thompson, until I found a town that met my exacting criteria of places I’d like to stay, or until I was too tired to continue. Those rivers, by the way, make California rivers, even in the winter, look like gutterwash. Fantastic, powerful, and running in deep canyons, they make great cuts for good roads nearby—except for the occasional avalanche and general road debris. In fact, it was here that I hit my first “meteor shower” of flying gravel. Thankfully, I had my headlight guard and fender extender…in my trunk. I had “planned” to install them, you see, but….
I didn’t even want to look at whatever damage there might be, so I proceeded along the Cariboo Highway (Canada 97). Things looked at tad grim in the town of Cache Creek, where I had told myself I would stop, so I kept going, passing towns with names like 100 Mile House , 108 Mile House, 150 Mile House and, well, you get the picture.
I chose Williams Lake as my home for the evening. Already, it was staying quite bright out even though it was 9PM. I turned my lights on anyway, just for show.
Riding long distances has many interesting effects on the psyche. One that I experience is obliviousness to my surroundings once I get off the bike and set up camp or check in to a motel. In fact, about all that usually will penetrate my consciousness at that hour is what I saw in Williams Lake, a huge sign across the street from my motel, yea, a veritable beacon in the absence of night, a sign from above: "Pub".
Settling down at the bar I soon had a cool, frosty Rickard’s in hand. I had never heard of this beer, so I gave it a try. Very refreshing. Soon a First Nations gentleman bellied up next door. “First Nations” is Canadian for “Native American”, by the way. He proceeded to inform me that I was most likely in need of protection, in the form of a bodyguard, which he generously offered to provide in the person of himself. Responding as how I felt fairly safe and—to myself, lest relations cool over-quickly—noting his diminutive stature and somewhat advanced age—I thanked him anyway. He then offered to take me to see some Peelers. Some what? , I asked. Peelers. You know, naked women. Strip Tease. I demurred, but enjoyed the colloquialism. He replied, in that case, perhaps I needed some companionship for the evening, whom he would be happy to procure for the simple (and customary, I took it) finders fee of 2 half-pints of beer (I later learned he had been limited for health reasons to having just one half-pint per night, beyond which he was clearly several fractions).
Again responding negatively, I turned my attention to the entertainment portion of the evening, Karaoke. Several Caucasian women were doing a creditable job, gamely woofing their way through a variety of popular love ballads. One in particular was clearly quite practiced, and I gathered from others that—in the recreational field at least—this was pretty much the highpoint of her week.
Then another First Nations man, younger than my erstwhile provider, took the stage with a version of “Shake, Rattle, & Roll” that should have Elvis’s ghost worried. I mean, this guy was hot. After his performance, I gave him a grin and a big thumbs up. Well, you would have thought Quincy Jones had just announced his Grammy. He was so tickled by my approval I became his agent: he would ask me what he should sing next. Actually, “ask” is not the right word as he could barely speak intelligible English. But boy, could he belt out those tunes.
So after my brief stint as David Geffen, and having noticed that my former bodyguard had swiped my bar change—you just can’t get good help anymore—I bid my new friends adieu (always keeping in mind the Quebec Issue). I wandered back into the street and across to my motel. It was about 10:30 PDT, and still quite light: a beautiful purple sky, clear and clean. Williams Lake may have its issues, its troubles, its Peelers-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, but it has great natural beauty.
The next morning, closing the barn doors after the cows had left, I installed my headlight protector, which insured that road conditions would improve immediately. Then I reloaded my bike and headed north. The first town I came to made me wish I had sought lodging there instead of Williams Lake: Quesnel. A pretty little town sitting athwart the mighty Fraser River, it is the only town to have survived the Gold Rush of the late 19th Century, and actually grown to its current population of 10,000 plus. Again, I wish I had stayed longer, but the mission had to continue.
The day and the weather just kept getting nicer as I proceeded north to Prince George. A fairly large city, it didn’t cry out “stop and stay” as did Quesnel. In fact, I did stop to gas up, and witnessed not one but 2 automobile accidents on adjacent corners. This observation confirmed one of Taylor’s Touring Laws which states that no matter how much space there is and how few people there are in any human settlement, there will be proportionally more auto accidents in smaller towns than bigger. In other words, if there are only two cars in a 100 square mile town, someday they will collide .
British Columbia just kept getting nicer as I headed west now, on the way to the Cassiar Highway. Sadly, several weeks later this part of Canada would suffer some nasty flooding, but the day I passed through the weather and scenery could not have been more pleasant.
My plan, such as I had any, was to try to make it to Hyder, Alaska for the night—more on Hyder in a moment. Checking my fuel gauge and trip odometer, I calculated that there had better be a gas station between me and Hyder if I wanted to sleep in a bed that night. I calculated this after I passed a gas station, and, because I'm a guy, turning around was out of the question.
Turning north onto “The Cassiar” at Kitwanga, I expected to see a town (with gas), but the AAA map was a wee bit optimistic in assigning to Kitwanga a "dot". I almost forced myself to turn around in order to find gas—this would have been with enormous personal agony—when I saw a sign that said “Gitanyow Gas Bar”, pointing left down a tiny road. What the heck. That sign demonstrated the value of advertising, because this little side road went on for over 3 miles, and I was again preparing to reverse course, when I came upon a shack with a couple of non-descript pumps out front—but not before passing a dozen or so enormous totem poles, intricately carved from bottom to top. Fascinating, and beautiful.
I pumped some gas into my thirsty steed while several children played around me, some asking for change, but most just curious. After I paid, I asked an older man if I could just keep going and get back out to the main highway, and he said of course, pointing north. Excellent—no back-tracking. Well, after traveling down a quickly deteriorating road for several more miles, I finally gave up and turned around. As I went by the Gas Bar I saw everyone was laughing and waving at me. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.
As I rejoined The Cassiar, two motorcycles zipped by at high speed, headed in my direction. In the lead was a Ducati ST2 (I think), followed immediately by a BMW 1150GS. Perhaps these were men I could deal with. I wicked up the Tool and, for the next 100 miles or so, was glad I had gassed up when I did. This little section of road was by far and away the fastest part of my trip; I never dipped below 100mph. Who were these guys? I kept up, even as fully loaded as I was (bike, not me) and we exchanged hearty waves when I turned west on the road to Hyder.
It was late in the day, about 9PM, though still plenty light, when I turned towards Hyder, Alaska. Here I had just crossed the 54-40th parallel…this would have been the Canadian border if James Knox Polk had had his way. My mind was not as much on this oddity of history, though, as it was on the thought that in about 40 minutes, I’d be crossing the border into my 50th state.
First, I was in for a treat. As would become obvious to me later, all the roads in Alaska that dip down toward a coast are outstanding, tracing as they do rivers, canyons, gorges, and glaciers to end up in a town of at least relative size. This road was no exception. On the way I was treated to the Bear Glacier, on which the cabin from the recent movie “Insomnia” had been built and later dismantled (word, by the way, from the locals, is that (Al) Pacino was standoffish and rude while Robin (Williams) was personable and funny—now you know).
Then I was treated to my first bear.
Technically, this was not my first bear-motorcycle encounter: about ten years earlier a younger and somewhat more callow tourer rounded a corner on Washington State 20 near the Grand Coulee and come face to face with a little cub. How cute. My new friend was somewhat larger.
Still cute, he probably could have stood to my height (5’9”), had he so wanted. Instead, he was content to munch on stalks of greenery by the side of the road—and watch me. I slowed, then stopped, to get a better look. Then I remembered I’d left my reverse gear behind (note to non-motorcyclists: very few bikes have reverse gears. You only need one if you find you and your 650 pounds of bike pointed nose-down at a bear).
Consider, as did I: If for some reason this bear, or his as-yet-not-seen mother, decided I was a threat, would he/they (a) run away or (b) lunge toward me? If (b), then would I (a) give the RT the gas and hope to outrun him/them? Or (b), since backing up was out of the question, er, ah, well, then what? Stand there with my bike between my legs gunning the motor? What?
Suffice to say, since I’d heard that bear—grizzly at least—could attain speeds in excess of 30 mph, quickly, I decided to give Mr. Bear as wide a berth as possible and leave him to his veggie plate. Nine-thirty PM after 600 miles is not the time to hone your personal Socratic method.
After no more bear encounters but another 15 minutes of beautiful scenery, I entered Stewart, BC. Stewart is a border town, across which lies Hyder. Stewart, by far the larger settlement, was quiet, orderly, calm, and boring on this Saturday night. So I proceeded across the border—two shacks, unmanned—into the good ol’ US of A. There was a photo op, and at nearly 10PM, plenty of light.
Entering Hyder, the first thing you notice is there is no pavement…this is a town of dirt roads. As you slow, you are greeted by the Alaskan state bird—mosquitoes, many of them—which are happy to see you and the fact you’ve raised your helmet's faceshield. This entrance road dead-ends into another dirt road, and that pretty much describes the highway system of Hyder. Here you see a little forest of signs, mailboxes, and hand-painted sobriquets (Hyder: Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska and Hyder: Grizzly Bear capital of southeast Alaska) One of the larger signs was for the Sealaska Inn.
In a fit of preparation before the trip, I had read on the web of the Sealaska Inn in Hyder, where Iron Butt Association types were known to frequent. (The IBA, for the sane among you, is a group of long distance motorcyclists who love to ride far, fast, and in short amounts of time. They maintain a fairly strict set of rules which make it difficult but oddly rewarding to belong.) Remember, Hyder is way down the “pigtail” of Alaska, and the first and only town to which you can drive before having to travel significantly farther north to the Alaska-Canada highway. So if you’re trying to do a “48 State Plus Alaska Tour”, or a Mexico-to-Alaska run (the “Hyder Seek”), Hyder lets you get your ticket punched relatively easily.
The Sealaska Inn is restaurant, bar, motel, launderette, campground, and community center run by two very nice people, Gary and Michelle Benedict. The front desk doubles as the bar, a convenience I think more motels should consider. The receptionist/bartender sold me a room and a beer for $40—Canadian. Seems that even though Hyder looks to Juneau and Washington DC for divine guidance, they get their money from Ottowa. There are no banks in Hyder, only Canadian ones in Stewart, up the road. In fact, the only US currency freely exchanged in town is at the Post Office, which requires it. As Cliff Clavin of Cheers would say, it’s a little known fact, Sammy.
As I said, at the Sealaska, $40 Canadian buys you that beer and a room with a shared bath. Not the fanciest of rooms, mind you, and not a place to have your honeymoon, but a perfectly serviceable bed and nightstand with a light that worked and was more than 40 watts …the last time I would see one or the other for the rest of my sojourn into Alaska.
Meanwhile, downstairs in reception, things were hopping. This was the night of the Mike Tyson/Lennox Lewis fight, and the bigscreen was the center of attention for what I judged to be that part of the population of Hyder that could walk or stumble in. I was able to blend into the crowd courtesy of an excellent Halibut Burrito and an Alaskan Amber. Life really couldn’t get much better.
Even though my room was right above the bar, and even though I turned in before the festivities below were complete, I slept well and soundly. The urge to stay in Hyder was strong, but the urge to continue on was stronger. The next morning I awoke early and fresh, ready to face the world. First, though, I wandered down the street to the Wildflour Coffee Shop, an amazing little oasis of good breakfast food and charming atmosphere.
Here, over eggs, bacon, and some wonderful homemade toasted bread, a strange and somewhat sinister thought began to creep into my mind. Before I can discuss it, students, first we must examine:
There is a phenomenon I have observed in my years of taking extended tours that, while not predictable, is nevertheless reliable and certain. It works like this. Day One of your tour is exciting, you wake up early (if you got to sleep at all), you rack up the miles, you think a great deal about work, family, and responsibilities. Day Two, about the same—a little less thinking about responsibilities. Day Three, same trend. Somewhere around Day Four or Five, the “Phenomenon” hits.
It’s not a good thing. You’re more tired than usual. You start finding checking in and out of motels tiresome. You begin to dread packing every morning. You start to question yourself, “is this how I want to spend my whole vacation?” You begin to calculate shortcut routes home.
It probably has everything to do with fatigue, but it happens every time I take a tour, and I’ve seen it happen in everyone I’ve ever toured with. What’s scary about the Phenomenon is that it kicks in so early, day four through six. It’s a wonder sometimes that anyone stays on the road!
If you make it through this “wall”, you are rewarded by the sloughing away of all worries about home and work, you start choosing motels more wisely and more quickly, you realize that packing only takes 2 minutes because you aren’t carrying much and wear the same thing every day, and in short you catch the rhythm of the road.
Towards the end of the tour—whatever that is but typically two to three weeks if you have the usual American vacation largesse—a secondary Phenomenon kicks in, “homing pigeon instinct”. You could be traveling through the Eighth Wonder of the World, but if you’re doing so on the second-to or last day of the tour, you’ll blow it off in favor of “getting home”. Somehow those worries, stresses, and responsibilities have tendrils that reach out in time about 48 hours and in space about 600 miles to suck you back in. More on how this affected me later in our program, but now, we return you to our normally scheduled broadcast.
So as I sat in the Wildflour, I realized that my goal to reach the 50th state of my experience had been satisfied, not just technically, either. I had spent the night in Alaska, after all. Looking at the map—which is all there is to read in many parts of the Great White North until later in the day when the newspapers arrive—it was obvious that in order to penetrate the main part of the state I had another two days of northerly and westerly travel ahead. And as much fun as I had had up to this point, the Cold Equations of Alaska travel simply state that every day up is another day back, more or less on the same road. (This equation later proved to be in error; I was thinking in a rather flat-earth manner at the time).
The Phenomenon was tugging at me. Alternates suggested themselves: I could travel across Canada. I could hang out in Victoria. I could go visit my folks in North Carolina (huh?). But 2 (x2=4) days of virtual wilderness until I even get to Alaska again—did I want to do that?
Well, divine intervention was sent me in the form of a lovely and talkative couple at the café. As we chatted about my trip, it turned out they were transplants from the Seattle area, with children and grandchildren up and down the West Coast. They summered there in Hyder, but had lived in other parts of the state. It was they who convinced me that my tour had not even yet begun, telling me enticing tales of beauty and grandeur to be found in Skagway, Haines, Seward, Homer, the Kenai—all places that I had vaguely recognized from my map but about which I really knew little.
Fortitude reinstalled, resolve restored.
As I left Hyder, I had to cross the border into Canada again, of course. Today, the border shack on the Canadian side was manned by an attractive woman I had just seen getting coffee in the café. Obviously, she was a Canadian citizen but lived in the US (Hyder) but paid for her coffee there with Canadian Dollars and worked in Canada but shopped back home in the US but her job was to guard this very porous border…if there’s a point to all this it must be irony.
She was very polite (of course, she’s Canadian) but she quizzed me fairly severely when I tried chat her up, saying I had just seen her in the café. Rule number 304 of motorcycle (or any, for that matter) touring: when crossing any national border, even the silliest one like that between Hyder and Stewart, be no more than polite and perfunctory in conversation; speak only when spoken to. Otherwise, get set for a grilling. Border agents don’t like to think they’re being shined on, and will react accordingly. Even if she’s pretty.
The ride back up to Meziadin Junction, and the Cassiar Highway, was just as nice as the ride down, and there’s that all important gasoline for sale at the fly and mosquito-infested store at the junction. Although I didn’t know this at the time, the upcoming stretch of road would have the fewest “Gas Bars”. A word to the wise: stop when you can on the Cassiar.
Technically, the road is BC Route 37, the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. Most people call it the Cassiar. From Meziadin to the Alaska-Canada Highway in the Yukon Territory, the road is 390 miles long, very long. There are many stretches of dirt and/or gravel, especially around Bell II but nearly all the way to Dease Lake. If you take the road as did I, starting in the early morning, then you are fresher when you need to be, but no matter how you slice it, it’s a long 400 miles….
….but a spectacular one, again, especially in the southerly portion. Here I saw more bear, and what I believe to be my first grizzly, although I didn’t stop (or even slow very much) to inspect him. It’s not very difficult to tell griz from black bear, as the griz is larger, leaner in a sense, has a different snout, and generally tips the emotional evocation from “cute” toward “fierce”.
Soon I came upon what was to be the worst section of road I would encounter on the whole trip, after Rick Mayer’s driveway, certainly worse in the sense that I knew Rick’s driveway had to end. Here, I had no idea if the whole rest of the Cassiar (and perhaps the AlCan?) would be like this: deep dirt intermittent with large, wheel-moving gravel. I had to slow to about 20 mph, but remembering that “speed is your friend” in the soft stuff I gradually accelerated to about 35 mph, after which my nerve gave out. I’d like to report that I got used to it, but it was not the case. I was very happy to see the little lodge in the town called Bell II.
I never found out where Bell I is or was, but I suspect its remains are under Bell II. At any rate a very pleasant lodge, restaurant, and general resort have been built here, featuring satellite internet access…the first internet access I had come across since Seattle. It was very eerie to be sitting in this lodge in the middle of a vast wilderness catching up on my email, but I did it.
At the front desk, I asked the very attractive girl (again—it must be a Canadian thing, or I’d been on the road too long) about road conditions: was it just as bad to the north as it had been from the south? She opined that I would have to put up with the mess the whole way to Dease Lake, about another 200 miles. My spirits fell a notch.
Fortunately I had neglected to factor in Taylor’s Touring Law #127: Locals don’t know diddley about their roads. Honestly, ride into any town in the world and ask a local something just slightly more complex than how to find the nearest gas station, and you are likely to receive either a blank stare, a confusing litany of lefts and rights and stop signs and bear rights and bear lefts, or—worse—wrong information. Such was the case here. About 1 mile north of the Bell II lodge, the road regained its paved status and maintained either it or decent hard pack pretty much the rest of the way to the AlCan. I can only assume the little lovely back at the lodge had never really gone north, or had done so only in the dark. Frankly, I can’t imagine how she could have been so misinformed. Great ass, though.
Focus. That’s what I kept telling myself, but fatigue had crept in once again—it had been a long morning. I saw more bear, some caribou, and other unidentifiable horned creatures, but to be honest, since I didn’t know if the road would suddenly go bottoms up on me, I was never able to really relax and enjoy my surroundings. The weather was also starting to turn and a gray sky was rolling in from the north—my direction.
I ate a rather dreary lunch at a rather dreary café in Dease Lake and continued to push on. By the time I approached the Yukon border, just south of the final junction with the AlCan, I was stopping at rest stops not just to pee, but to rest. It was just one of those days.
My spirits rebounded as I turned onto the famous Alaska Canada Highway west towards Alaska. It had gotten a bit late (about 6 PM) and a bit dark, but the darkness was due to the storm that was no longer approaching—it had arrived. My predicament was this: there are no towns of any size between the Cassiar/AlCan junction and Whitehorse, the territorial capital of the Yukon, another 200 miles away. I had no idea what the road had in store for me, and because of the rain I was not looking forward to pitching my tent. On the bright side, there were well-placed gas and rest stops along the way and I was feeling something of a second wind. What are you gonna do? I pushed on.
The rain got worse but the road remained in good condition as my second wind became a third. Finally, at about 10PM, 750 miles beyond Hyder, I pulled into Whitehorse.
My first impression of the town was favorable, as I drove by Municipal Parks on the mighty Yukon River (all rivers in Canada are mighty). By now the storm had blown over and it was light again, so easy for me to check out the town. Since it was 10 o’clock on a Sunday evening, though light as at 6PM at home, Whitehorse appeared at first as a large ghost town, an unfair assessment. Actually, to my concern, several motels and hotels displayed the “No” Vacancy sign (or the Canadian equivalent “Sorry”, as opposed to “Room at the Inn”). After thoroughly going around in circles for about 15 minutes, I tossed a metaphorical coin and chose the Family Inn. Sounded sort of homey.
Bad call. The Family Inn was a four story building containing a laundromat, a barber shop, and smelly hotel rooms that had postage stamp-sized linen, inadequate bedcovers (what's it like in February, for heaven’s sake?) and—in the land of the midnight sun—flimsy short curtains. All I can say good about the dump was that I was tired. Plus, they charged me a relatively high $69 Canadian, but I’m beginning to rant.
Somehow I awoke refreshed the next morning and stumbled onto an internet café—a very low-key place in an old bait and tackle shack. I promptly endeared myself to my host by spilling coffee all over one of his keyboards. Although we were never destined to become friends after that, I was able to continue using his equipment to retrieve email and conduct some business.
The weather was still unsettled as I went to gas up. There, at a gas bar, I met and chatted with the owner for a good half hour, a tradition that seemed to continue throughout the North. As it turned out, gasoline was never much of a problem on this trip; there seem to be the perfect number of gas stations strategically placed wherever you need to go. Since there are plenty of them, the gas stations are rarely crowded, and the owners or pumpjockeys or whatever all seem to have had a motorcycle of some kind at some point and all seem to want to swap lies. At first, my instinct to keep pushing on probably made me seem curt; once I got into the Rhythm of the Road, however, I truly enjoyed my little conversations. What’s the rush, after all?
Thus began a new pattern for the trip, and for me in general: late starts. Up until now, I had been a firm believer in the early morning start. Clutches out at six o’clock AM, I would cry, and anybody with me—most of them grumbling—would gradually learn to despise the ride leader. The joys of the early start are still there: quiet roads, crisp temperatures, the mists and mellow fruitfulness or whatever it was Keats said about autumn. After 90 minutes, you could pull into a diner and usually beat the rush (at least out in the hinterlands)—the farmers were gone and the bankers were just on their way in.
Well, up there on this tour, my thinking changed. First, because of the midnight sun, I was staying up a little later each night and, even though I didn’t feel I needed the shut-eye, 6AM was coming around mighty early in the morning. Second, again because of the long days, I felt very little pressure to get to wherever I was going by dark—which it never got. Third, the other constraint—motel availability and, to a lesser extent, campsite availability, had not been an issue so far and I doubted it would be. The one thing I didn’t want to happen again—getting into a town at 10PM and choosing poorly, as I had done in Whitehorse—was more a function of overall fatigue than the hour itself. Finally, being a value-conscious consumer, I wanted to get the most out of my motel dollar, and used the mornings to catch up on business or the news or my exercises or whatever other quotidian chores I was neglecting.
So from about this point in the trip forward, my riding hours became the very civilized 10AM-6PM.
Goodbye Whitehorse, there will be no encore, I thought to myself as I left it behind. Wholly unfair to what might be decent little city, my opinions were strong that morning.
The section of the AlCan from the Cassiar to Whitehorse had actually been in very good shape and I had routinely kept my speeds up around 80 mph. Sticking to this speed, I was surprised to round the bend about 5 miles out of Whitehorse and hit dirt, and a big stretch of it, too. Actually, it’s not dirt, it’s reconstruction, so it’s more of a combination of dirt and chipseal and asphalt and rock and tar and other gooey things. At this point in my travels I was still a little shy of road conditions and slowed down to about 35 mph. Hmmm, this Alaska thing was going to take a while longer at this pace, I thought.
I pulled into Haines Junction about lunchtime and decided to take a break at a place called Reinhard’s, a little combination café/motel/campground/parking lot featuring a Teutonic waiter who emphasized “no substitutions”. Ja wohl. There wasn’t much to substitute anyway.
Back on the road, destination Alaska. Road conditions on this part of the AlCan were the worst of the trip, with miles and miles of road repair and construction slowing me to a crawl. One thing I did like is that, except in really rough area, there were very few flaggers to totally halt traffic, and those that did were very motorcycle-friendly, waving me to the front of the line. Occasionally, when the going got a little rough, I almost wished for a pilot car to show me the way or at least pack down some of the loose stuff, but I made it through without incident.
At one point the road bends around the southeastern tip of Lake Kluane, and here I saw a fascinating meteorological phenomenon: waves and waves of dust and debris blowing briskly across the road from a gap in the mountains to the south towards the lake in the north. Bracing myself for the gusts, I rode through the maelstrom, and sure enough the pressure on the bike was fierce, lasting for about 3 miles. Quite a few of the Winebagos were having trouble getting across the pass, which I relished, not being much of a fan of Winebagos.
The rest of the trip to the border stations was uneventful, and somewhat tedious, but I felt again a bit a of a thrill when I crossed back into the good old U.S. of A. This time I was scrutinized fairly closely (had to dismount, take off the helmet, look presentable) but allowed to continue into the Great State of Alaska.
I was very happy to see Tok, population 1100, about 6 PM that evening. The weather had been spitting rain all afternoon and the skies seemed to part and welcome my arrival. Taking no chances this time, I scoured the town from stem to stern and took stock of all lodging options I saw. The first one I chose gave me a scare when they said “Sorry, no vacancy”, but the hostess suggested the place across the street (where she also worked—a common career path in Alaska, I was to find) and sure enough, they had plenty of room. The choice was $89 (US, now) for a motel room or $69 in a hotel room above the bar. Since I was going there anyway (the bar), and since I am cheap, I opted again for said latter room.
Good choice, this time. It was a nice clean large room with good cable, and curtains that almost closed all the way. Plus the evening’s commute would be very reasonable. But first, Houston, we had a problem.
When I ride I nearly always use earplugs. Many years ago I did not, and I have my Pete Townsend-like hearing to thank for it, I am sure. So these days I am very thorough about stuffing the little devils into my ears before the wind noise can do its damage.
It seems that somewhere earlier that day—I could not remember when—I had really done an excellent job of jamming the left earplug deep within my ear canal. While I was trying to check in, I casually attempted to remove the foreign object and realized it had attached itself to my brain. I got the right one out okay so I was able to hear the directions to my room, but the left one was a stubborn fellow indeed.
Up in my room, I started getting serious about its removal. I tried a series of tools, first from my toilet kit, then from my Leatherman. All I succeeded in doing was scratching myself in the ear. After about 30 minutes, the thought occurred to me that this could be serious…what happens to a person who can’t get an earplug out? Does the earplug migrate, like a bug, further into you head, render you insane, then come out the other side? Only then you are told that it’s a female and females lay eggs? Agghhhhhh!
The memory of this great Night Gallery episode (entitled, confusingly The Caterpillar) barely amused me. Clearly I needed professional help.
Marching downstairs, I approached the bartender. She was a reasonably attractive woman, all things—and there are many in Alaska—considered. I explained my problem. She poured me a beer. I elucidated further. She was reluctant, but game to try. With me leaning partially across the bar, this woman gritted her teeth and began poking around my left ear canal. Now it’s not that I’m an unhygienic guy, but let’s face it, after a week of regularly inserting and un-inserting the same earplug the old ear canal may not be the most appetizing sight for a stranger, or even a loved one. This woman was definitely not a loved one, as I could tell by the noises she was making, not to mention her less-than-gentle touch.
After a few minutes of this, which included lots of derision from my fellow patrons, she finally took an olive spear, spiked the earplug, and pulled it out. I was back in the land of sound once again. Thanking her, I departed, leaving a nice big tip, and the earplug.
I decided to take a stroll outside to stretch my legs, and while so doing I noticed I had cell phone service, and messages awaiting. One of them was from a friend who said he had just heard I was going to Alaska and, if I ever found myself in Tok, go see his in-laws at the Salmon Bake. Well, since I was listening to his message while staring at the sign, “Welcome to Tok” I figured it was the least I could do to follow through.
I hiked down to the end of town where I had seen the Gateway Salmon Bake sign. The couple who ran it were indeed my friend’s in-laws, and we had a nice “what a coincidence” chat while loaded up on some excellent grub. They ran an interesting and fun place, food served somewhat family-style except for the meat item itself. You’d go to the huge outdoor grill and order your meat (in my case the Salmon, Reindeer Sausage, and Caribou platter) and give your name and place of origin. Then you’d go inside, serve yourself some or all of the fixins, and in a few minutes you’d here across the P. A. something like, “Reinhard from Westphaila!, Reinhard from Westphaila!” or “Sam from California!, Sam from California” and your food was ready. Kind of corny but kind of fun.
After completely stuffing myself, I walked back to my little home for the evening and retired after a nightcap at the oh-so-convenient bar, where I met what must have been half the working population of the town. It was a large but quiet crowd so sleeping upstairs was no problem once I got the damn curtains to almost close.
Tok is also known as Tok Junction, and for a good reason. This is where you get the chance to choose the road to Fairbanks (200 miles) or the road to Anchorage.(350 miles). Since I had spent virtually no time on the front-end planning portion of the trip, I had to make the call now.
I sincerely think my decision to head towards Anchorage was based on my desire to help a fallen rider and not some bizarre case of fatigue-induced schadenfreude. Earlier that morning, I had seen some BMW riders pull into the gas station next to my hotel, so I casually strolled over to shoot the breeze. These were four nice guys from Colorado, two on GSs and two on Harleys. They were gradually making their way back home, and as it turned out, our paths would cross again, but what they told me was sobering.
Somewhere just down the road toward Anchorage they had seen a motorcyclist down, and he was hurt. They had come up to Tok to make a call to the State Police, and were headed back to see what they could do. I couldn’t resist, so I said I’d catch up to see if I could help. It took me a while to pack and check out, so I was alone as I headed south out of Tok.
The road was in good shape except for where it wasn’t. The trouble is the frost heaves play havoc with the pavement…if it weren’t for them, the roads in Alaska would be fine, but as it is, every 5 miles or so there’s a torn up patch, often 100 yards or more in length, that’s in some stage of repair—often an early stage in June. To give the road crews credit, most if not all of the patches are marked with cones and warning signs.
After about 40 miles (not exactly "just down the road" by my standards but let’s not forget we’re in Alaska) I came upon the wreckage, and I could imagine what had happened. Right in the middle of one of these repair patches, lay a bike in fairly deep gravel. This particular patch, from the other direction, was hidden until the last minute, so I could just see the hapless rider sailing northward, perhaps daydreaming a bit, seeing the dirt approaching at say 80mph, sphinctering-up and grabbing a little front brake. Speed + gravel + front brake = goodbye.
The downed bike was a Honda ST1100, a standard bearer amongst the touring set. It was lying on its side, front wheel bent impossibly under the main frame of the bike. The side bags had burst open, strewing stuff that looked exactly like what was in my bags all across the road. Someone had swept the gear toward the side, and placed a cone on either side of the bike. Most of the stuff was still there, though, so I had to assume that getting the fallen rider away had been top priority.
I later found out that, indeed, the rider had broken several bones and had gone into shock, and was eventually airlifted to Anchorage after a 6 hour period that included the wait and flight. Though I didn’t know these facts at the time, I knew enough to have sink home in my tiny brain the overriding reality that accidents can easily occur, and if they do, you’re not very near a hospital. That’s after you’re found.
Warren Ulrich has a great job. Everyday during tourist season he rides his Yamaha Virago from his home about 30 miles north to the Tourist Center in Glenallen, the next “major” town on the road from Tok to Anchorage. Like Tok, Glenallen exists around a major junction in the road: my choices were Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Valdez. Warren runs the Tourist Center, keeping the coffee on and the tourists oriented. He’s probably about 60 years old, and I could tell immediately that he did this job for fun, but I didn’t grasp immediately that the bike parked outside was his. The amiable fellow I met may have been the most enthusiastic docent I’d yet met on the trip, but I didn’t peg him for a motorcyclist. He, of course, could tell I was and started peppering me with questions.
Soon I learned he and his son ran a motorcycle repair shop out of their house (to which I was invited anytime for coffee and conversation) and that they made quite a decent living doing so. There aren’t many options in these parts, as he put it, and brands made no difference to the desperate. He’d put Harley switches on Beemers, Honda mirrors on Suzukis, Kawasaki valve cover gaskets on Triumphs, and basically gotten things running for riders who were otherwise stuck. Plus he did it with a smile, and a particularly big one he had on that day: his son was just picking up, for Warren, his new Hayabusa—one of the fastest production bikes available. Good for Warren.
I turned south, toward Valdez. Doing so allowed me to parallel the Alaska Pipeline for several hundred miles. There apparently was a time when you could tour the various pumping stations and facilities along the way, but those days are gone post-September 11th. No matter, it’s an impressive structure and must have been quite an engineering feat to build. In a reverse of what I usually proclaim, it’s not the width, it’s the length. In fact it’s remarkably skinny, but it winds its way up, down and around for over 1000 miles from Prudhoe Bay on the Bering Sea to its terminus in Valdez.
About all I’d ever heard about the pipeline was George H. W. Bush’s dimwitted comment, in response to environmental criticism, that caribou like to lean up against the pipeline and make love (because the pipeline is warm to the touch). What caribou I saw were nowhere near the pipe, but I’m pretty sure I saw one smoking a cigarette.
The weather was taking a turn for the worse as I climbed Thompson Pass and started my descent toward Valdez. Passing Worthington Glacier, I had to stop to get a better look. Until the road to Hyder, I had never really seen, or certainly appreciated, a glacier, and this one was a beauty. Viewing it, one could actually imagine movement, albeit, well, glacial. The azure colors buried in the ice are as striking as it’s viscous fluidity. Yet it’s simply ice. I found myself staring at it for many minutes.
It was fairly nasty out now so I was looking forward to securing lodging in Valdez-not to mention that I was pressing the 270 mile range of my gas tank against the limits. The irony was not lost on me that the pipeline was always within a stone's throw of my nearly empty tank.
Valdez may have some nice qualities that were not evident to me on that dreary day, so I don’t want to come down too hard on it. It’s a small town in a beautiful spot, framed by the Chugach Mountains and glaciers to the north and Prince William Sound to the south. It’s a working town, with the petroleum employees assuming the dominant economic position and the tourism trades the lower. The first motel I tried wanted $130 per night for a room, which I thought was steep, given my fond memories of Canada. So I aimed a little lower, and stayed at a centrally located B&B with baths down the hall. It was one of those places with a 13” TV and lamps from Edison’s days, but it had a nice washer and dryer adjacent to my room. As a hotel, it was a great laundromat.
Refreshed, I walked across the street to the Public Library and used its internet terminals to check-in. A nice place, actually, so points scored for Valdez. I’m a firm believer that you can judge the mettle of a town by its commitment to a good library. Then I rode over to the ferry terminal with the thought of catching a ride the next morning over to the Kenai Peninsula, Seward, to be precise. Unfortunately the next day was the one day in the summer (Wednesday) when ferries do not run. The office was closed with a sign on it that said “Open at 10” which I later found out was 10PM. There was a family of four outside trying to decipher the schedules and lamenting the fact that their Winegago rental was due back in Anchorage the next day and that clearly now the only option to get here on time was to drive, and quickly. It was about 6PM, and Anchorage is 400 miles away by road. I commiserated with them but said nothing when the increasingly shrill wife reminded the decreasingly talkative husband that if only he had only planned better….
The sun was over the yardarm—figuratively speaking, for the sun is never over the yardarm of any but the tallest of ships in the Land of the Midnight Sun—so I popped into a welcoming little establishment for liquid sustenance.
There I met the bartender, a nice young woman with a loyal clientele who was kind enough to take pity on a stranger and converse. Meanwhile, the jukebox was playing North To Alaska, which certainly set the mood perfectly for me, though I wondered how many times the regulars had heard or played this tune.
We talked about her recent efforts to buy a house in Valdez, and it was here I learned about the socio-economic structure of the town. First there were oil-company managers, then workers, then everybody else. As is so common in American life, there were fewer and fewer of the former and more and more of the latter, but the former were getting richer. Still, that left a number of nice houses unfilled, and she had been able to snag one with her boyfriend, their combined incomes getting them over the bar. She was happy but saw clouds on the horizon, as Alyeska Pipeline Service Company—the company in charge of providing the pipeline to oil companies—went through its struggles.
Fortified by several delicious Alaskan Ambers and a nice chat, I ambled over to a restaurant right on one of the major fishing piers. There I talked with a Union rep who put a different slant on the economic struggles of the Alaskan working man. He was a amiable fellow, and was quite forthright in his assertion that working for the Union had been very very good to him, much better than working in the Union ever was or ever would be these days. None of this information breaks any new economic ground, but I reflected that even here in Alaska, where workers are not plentiful, jobs can be hard to fill, the Mexican border is far away, people who actually do the work are marginalized, and the gap between haves and have-nots grows as it does in the lower 48.
After dinner, I lingered in the nice bar overlooking the Valdezian fishing fleet. I ordered the specialty of the house, the “Captain Hazelwood”—five shots of vodka with a vodka chaser. I am making this up. I don’t drink vodka. But I did strike up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. Diane was a forest service ranger from Eureka, California, on holiday. We hit it off, although things started on the rocky side when I found out her job was not to protect our forests and the environment, but was concentrated on law enforcement, especially drug law. As we know, Eureka is the capital of Humboldt County, where the cash crops are no longer timber and fish.
I offered my opinions on the futility of drug interdiction, especially concerning marijuana. She asked who I thought was growing the dope? Family farmers? Mom and Pop? No. I learned from her that in the last 5 years drug cartels from south of the border had greatly moved into the pot trade, especially in the wilderness areas of the West. As she put it, these people did not have “target recognition”. In other words, it was shoot first and ask no questions ever. And shoot to kill. These were not fun, mellow hippies with a couple of plants. They were evil-doers, to use the President’s phrase. They needed to be stopped, and she was there to help.
Mollified, I was also impressed. Though a career civil servant, she had conviction. Also, her 20 or so years in the Forest Service had allowed her to build up a comfortable nest egg, including a couple of houses in Northern California. So here finally was the middle class—working not for any private enterprise but for the state, and protecting citizens from a very private enterprise indeed.
We enjoyed each other’s company and closed down the bar. Naturally, it was still light outside, so I offered to show her the Beemer. We strolled over to my place, I pointed out my pride and joy, then I walked her back to her hotel (a much nicer one than mine). She kissed me goodnight, and promised to meet me for breakfast the next morning. I never saw her again.
We now delve back into that scary place known as the Author’s Brain. Mr. Brain was very busy while I was in Valdez, busy like he was when I was in Hyder. Clearly, he explained, I had now seen much of Alaska. Notice, he proclaimed, how the weather has been mixed. Just how much more of this place do we need to see, he inquired, in order to know Alaska? Is that even possible?
I made some inquires. First, I called the Alaska Marine Highway System to find out what my ferry options were, either toward the Kenai Peninsula or toward...the other way.
As I had discovered earlier, the ferry over to Seward and Homer on the Kenai would leave later that day. On the other hand, there was passage available on one of the inside passage ferries, leaving Skagway, then Haines, in about 3 and a half days. This ferry would take me to Prince Rupert, BC, where I could then conceivably catch a BC ferry to Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Once there, it was a straight shot on two wheels down to Victoria, BC—where I knew from previous experience I wanted to be, at some point.
Alternatively, I could ride out of Valdez, then hang a left, and ride to Anchorage and down to the Kenai peninsula. The overwhelming fact of riding in Alaska, if you come from anywhere else in the United States, is that you are going to retrace your steps once if not several times if you stay on the roads. There just aren’t that many options.
I mentioned before my near-phobia about retracing previously ridden roads. The irony, of which I am well aware, is that a road ridden one way is a different road when it’s ridden in reverse, especially in a beautiful place like Alaska. Every curve is opposite, banked differently. Things you couldn’t see one way you can see the other. Obviously, the weather can be different. Traffic conditions can be different. So it’s a different road, right? Just not in my tiny map-overloaded head, that’s all.
Yet here we have a state that has basically 8 roads, with only one way in and out. Choices are somewhat limited. So I had no choice but to suppress my anxiety, at least at some point. The question before me now was whether to do it now or do it later.
In retrospect, I should have taken the ferry over to the Kenai. The weather was ugly, however, and the very faint tuggings of my wallet were being felt as I continued to spend US Dollars in an expensive place, when—just over there, across that little international border, I could spend lovely Canadian dollars (they truly are lovely). Plus, I had just plain liked BC. The decision was made.
I packed up the steed and headed for Haines.
First, I had to go back to Tok. Since this was to be my second night there, it felt in an odd way like coming home. Nothing against the Tokians, but coming home to Tok is not like coming home to, say, Provence. Still, this time I knew where I wanted to stay and what I wanted to do, which is more than I can say for the time before.
The road back to Tok was, indeed, completely different from the road from. I couldn’t find a trace of the motorcycle accident I’d seen earlier, even though I thought I knew exactly where it had occurred. The luggage spray had been picked clean; there wasn’t even a trace of plastic parts to mark the incident. I can only hope that all the surviving bits made it back to their rightful owner.
I pulled into town fairly early in the day (it’s only a 300 mile ride from Valdez). I had hoped to have some time to take care of business by using the internet access I’d seen in the Visitors Center and fudge shop (can you really imagine driving all the way to Alaska and buying fudge? Who eats all the fudge that’s made in this country? Why do travelers seem to want it? What is it about fudge, anyway?). Unfortunately, there was a small line of people waiting to use the one terminal, and each of them appeared to be as comfortable with the internet as I am, say, with washing clothes. I can turn a pair of white briefs pink quicker, though, than these luddites could log on to Hotmail, so I decided to wander around some more.
I got a taste of how things might be six months later from an interesting display on the porch of this Fudge/Internet shop. Mounted on a post was a hollow pipe, angled at about 5 degrees up. Look through the pipe, the sign said, and I did. The spot I was looking at would be the highest point the sun would rise above the horizon on December 21st, at about 12 noon. Needless to say, it barely clears the trees. I had a hard time believing a great deal of fudge was sold in the month of December. I guess they make hay while the sun shines, and shines and shines....
I realized that I was just plain tired and retired to my room to read all the papers I could find and catch up on world news. It was a slow night—world news didn’t seem to matter much to me in Tok.
The next morning, quite refreshed, I began the trek toward Haines. Again, I was back on the AlCan, but this time headed easterly. By now I was much braver in tackling the torn up road sections and would blithely sail through the dirt and mud at about 50 mph. For some reason, the mosquitoes were much, much worse on this day and even slowing down was to be avoided lest I be carried away to some lair and carved up, piece by piece. I watch the Nature Channel; I’ve seen what can happen.
I crossed into the Yukon Territories and soon found myself running low on fuel. Seeing a sign for the town Destruction Bay warmed my heart and I pulled into a Shell station/restaurant/hotel/outfitter/ place that sold no fudge. Hungry, I took a chance on some trail mix. Let me say for the record here and now it was the best trail mix I have ever had, with just the right mix of nuts and granola type stuff with a heaping helping of cranberries instead of raisins. My renal system all aglow, I bought several bags of the stuff and tried to make it last through the rest of the trip.
I remembered the wicked winds of Lake Kluane and confess that I was anticipating that little stretch with some apprehension. The day, however, was calm, and I had nothing to worry about, nor did the ever-increasing traffic of RVs headed west. In just the one week that had passed since I had headed west, the influx of summer tourists had picked up markedly. Fudge shops rejoiced, and I left Alaska behind.
At Haines Junction, Yukon, I paused again to eat some more trail mix and read the local bulletin boards. Here I saw a sign for a cabin to rent at what seemed like the reasonable price of $600 Canadian/month. As I had no place to call home back in the states at the present I admit the thought did cross my mind. Haines Junction, however, was no Valdez, or no Tok, for that matter. Not much was going on in the height of summer and I could only imagine what it’s like in January. Of course, I was close to the source of eternal trail mix, but even that was not enough to keep me there.
Happy to be on a new road, I headed south towards Haines, Alaska. I was becoming quite the international traveler what with all the border crossings, back and forth from Canada to the US. Before I could cross again into the USA, however, I saw a lovely little campground by the side of the road: Million Dollar Falls. Falls, eh? I took the dirt road into the campground and sure enough was rewarded with one of the nicest, cleanest, most spectacular public campgrounds I have ever stayed. The million dollar falls themselves were perhaps denominated in Canadian currency, but they sure were nice. I had the pick of the park and chose a site near, but not too near because of the noise, to the falls. Set up my tent, lathered on the DEET mosquito repellant (though they weren’t too bad) and had a lovely evening that lasted all night. I was able to read inside my tent until at lest 3 am thanks to the midnight dusk, and slept no worse in the tent than I had in the various motels with ill-fitting curtains about which I’d been complaining. What a glorious night.
Of course, I had nothing but trail mix and a bag of freeze-dried fettuccine alfredo to keep body and soul together, so I needed sustenance the next morning. I climbed aboard my faithful Tool and headed on to Haines.
It was a spectacular morning ride on a perfectly maintained road, sweeping generally downward along the rivers and glacial wash toward the coast. This so-called Haines Highway may have been the best stretch of asphalt on the entire trip. At one point, I looked to my right and saw the glorious Chilkat river, wide and flowing and alive with several automatic gold-dredging rigs that looked like Rube Goldberg’s version of a mini Mississippi steamboat. No larger than a large tractor, the paddle wheels were scooping up water and depositing gold, presumably, in sieves. I never saw any people but you had the feeling you were being watched. I wonder how well they do?
I want to say up front that Haines was my favorite place to stay—by far—in our 49th state, so you’ll pardon me if I gush a bit about my night and a half there. It was a great time.
After passing through the US Border, and the road’s deteriorating slightly (which I’d come to expect), the little town of Haines, Alaska, (population 2392) opened up before me. First, the town is pleasing to the eye, laid out as a town should be, in a grid, not on a strip. Being on the water helps, especially that blue-green deep harbor. Towering white mountains in the background add sharp relief, and the presence of eagles soaring overhead on a warm June morning make for, what I considered, the perfect Alaska motif.
I was in no hurry that morning, it had been only a couple of hours since breaking camp (I like saying that—it sounds so much better than “checking out”). I rode the bike up and down all the side roads to get the lay of the land, eventually stopping at the tourist information center. First, though, I grabbed a cup of coffee…I was really trying to relish the leisurely morning.
At the Info Center, I was informed that this was going to be the busiest weekend in Haines in quite some time: there was a bicycle race from Haines Junction to Haines on Saturday (this was Friday). A big deal, apparently. Lodging might be tight. The nice lady behind the counter gave me a list of options in town, sorted by price, and I, as is my custom when traveling alone, went right to the bottom to Phil’s Beach Road House. I called Phil and he said sure, come on over, he had a couple of choices for me, one at the very reasonable rate of $45/night. Sounded fine to me, so I hopped on The Tool and motored over, following directions he had given me.
When I read about Phil’s Beach Road House, I read it as “Phil’s Beach Roadhouse”, with the eye on “Beach”. Instead, Phil’s House is on Beach Road, which is not really all that near any beaches, at least around Phil’s House. It’s off the road a ways, up a hill, and is essentially a house onto which Phil is adding rooms. When I arrived, there was no sign of life, so I got off the bike, stripped off my suit, and looked around. Despite the aforementioned lack of beach, things were actually quite nice, nestled as I was in the forest.
The main house was open. Literally open, actually; there was no wall on one side. I wandered inside, looking for “reception”. I got it when I turned a corner and there was Phil, on the commode. “Oh, er, sorry”, I mumbled, and Phil replied, “oh, er, that’s ok, could you hand me that roll of toilet paper? Yeah, I need to get that wall up now that guests are comin’ round.”
In a moment, Phil finished one piece of business and was ready for another. It seemed the $45 room was actually a camper trailer out back, and you know, given the interior accommodations, I jumped at the chance. Plus, I had never stayed in a camper trailer before. After Phil got the hot water running, it was a nice cozy little place, all to myself. I had arrived in Haines.
I stripped the bike of all luggage and, as it was just wonderfully warm out, set out in a T-shirt and jeans. It was a real treat to ride unencumbered in and around town and it couldn’t have been a more perfect day. I went to a self-serve car wash and gave the bike a much needed bath. I found the Mountain Market, which—as I’d grown accustomed to in the North Country—contained every material need man could hope for including several internet terminals. I caught up on my email, wrote a few postcards, and generally relished in civilization.
While sitting outside, I started chatting with a woman who worked for one of the local outfitting tour businesses in town. It turned out she was from San Francisco, and soon she offered to take me on a hike out to Chilkat State Park, where she thought we might see whales, bear, eagles, and all that good Alaska stuff. I agreed to meet when she got off work about 5, looking forward to the hike and the company…I hadn’t really talked to anyone but Phil for any length of time all day.
I had nothing but time so I read a book and ate some delicious Fish and Chips, Alaska style with big chunks of fresh white halibut. My mouth waters as I write this. Then I meandered on out to the Haines Brewing Company (located at 108 White Fang Way—what a great address), which is actually in the Southeast Alaska Fairgrounds just outside of town. Everything looked closed up, but a few businesses, including the Haines Brewing Company, actually do their business on a mocked-up old style Main Street inside the fairgrounds. I wandered into the brewery and was greeted by the owner, Paul, and treated to several samples. Good stuff. I bought my favorite souvenir of the trip, a sturdy long-sleeved T shirt that made, and still makes, for a great riding shirt. Last one on the shelf, too, so I consider myself quite lucky. It hangs in a place of honor at home when I’m not riding, and goes with me wherever I do when I am.
That afternoon I met Alexandra at her place of business, and we headed out for our hike. It was a nice brisk stroll through woods that were lovely, dark, and deep, to coin a phrase. We emerged along the shore and experienced marvelous views all around the fjords but never saw any wildlife to speak of. I realized again as I huffed and puffed behind a girl who led tours for a living that long-distance motorcycling touring may be great fun but it is not great exercise. I had maintained a rudimentary calisthenics program consisting of push-ups, sit-ups, and 12 oz. curls, but my aerobics training had taken a severe hit. Pride went before the fall, however, and I managed to keep up the pace. I thanked my guide for taking me on the hike; we parted company and I never saw her again. I was struck by her simple act of friendship to a stranger (and boy, am I strange), and how two people who have never seen each other before can spend 3 hours together, conversationally and physically, and enjoy the companionship, even though it will end. It’s a very simple human need, companionship pure and simple, and it’s fun to feel it within and express the need on plain and unencumbering terms. I had fun.
My physical exertions had elicited a powerful thirst, so I rode on over to the main corner of downtown and strolled into Fogcutter’s, which appeared to me to be the happening place in town. There I ordered a Haines Amber, of course, and struck up a conversation with a very interesting individual.
Weyland Whiteman, Whitey to his friends, was not the cleanest bar patron I have ever seen, nor did he have the fullest set of teeth. Nor had he been recently acquainted with comb or nail clipper. So at first I was reluctant to get into conversation, succumbing to prejudice long developed on the streets of San Francisco. But there we were, sitting next to one another, and as I recall he was doing something fairly intricate with a pen and a cocktail napkin. Perhaps he had developed a Unified Field Theory, or was proving Fermat to be wrong. I didn’t know, but we started talking.
Weyland was an itinerant tree-planter. He had traveled all over the United States planting trees either for commercial concerns or for the Government, say after a fire in a national park. It was piece work, but he said that he was one of the best although his age was catching up with him. I could imagine the constant digging, tugging, stooping, and lifting could take its toll. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, but who knew?
He also claimed to have 6 children by five different women, scattered around America. Apparently trees were not all that Weyland planted. I always marvel at this kind of information. I mean, I live amongst men who spend a significant amount of their time and money trying to date women, and—if not impregnate them—at least score. And here was Weyland, scary-looking to the modern eye perhaps, appearing to enjoy a very healthy love life (there were other stories he entertained me with confirming that his 5 mothers were not his only liaisons). Perhaps it was the loneliness of the tree-planting business that drove him to seek out company. Perhaps it was his easy and unassuming manner—he fully knew who he was, what he looked like, and how he interacted with the rest of humanity. Well, bully for him, I think he’s onto something.
We chatted amiably for about an hour then he had to return to camp. He was actually being quite temperate, and I suspected it was either funds or something else that kept him reigned in. We parted company, I in search of some grub.
Somewhere during the day I had either seen or heard of a place called Avi’s Fireweed Restaurant, and I think a recommendation had further sealed my desire to seek Avi out. That night, apparently, a local group called "Lunchmeat and the Pimento Loaf Band" was supposed to play there. Sounded like fun to me.
Sure enough, Lunchmeat et al was scheduled to arrive at 9 (why start earlier when it’s light all night?) and the place was jammed. Avi himself, a diminutive fellow who looked more at home working in his father’s New York Deli than homesteading as a rugged Alaskan chef/entrepreneur, was sweating profusely in the open air kitchen as he tried to keep up with the orders. My halibut burger was excellent and enormous but took nearly an hour to appear, and by then I was starving and perhaps a bit tight from the beer and wine I’d consumed. This state of affairs could not be allowed to stand, as I had to ride back to Phil’s that night, navigate my way up his dirt and gravel driveway, negotiate a switchback, and turn the bike around so as not to park facing downhill, which the narrow rut he called a driveway would otherwise force me to do. I switched to coffee and water and stayed until about 1 AM. Seeming as if it were 8 PM on a June night at home, the evening just never ended, especially since I was by then wired on caffeine and pissing like a racehorse from all the water. Sleep came to me about 4, but thanks to the way the camper was snuggled into the wooded hillside, I was able to pretend it was dark until about 9 the next morning. Still, I awoke fresh and eager to enjoy a bit more of Haines.
Fresh and eager at 10, perhaps. By now my sleeping schedule—such as it was—was completely whacked. This day was going to be a long one, I knew, so I rationalized the sleep-in. The ferry was scheduled to depart at 5 AM the next morning, but I had been told by Ferry Command (or whatever they call the Alaska Marine Highway System’s operational echelon) to arrive 3 hours before departure, i.e., 2 AM. I figured there was no point in spending good gas and beer money on a room if I had to leave by 2, so I planned to check out that morning and just stay awake all “night”—not that hard in the land of the midnight sun.
I frittered the day away by touring as much of the Haines area as I could. Fort Seward, a former military base that now was being converted (extremely slowly) into private hotels, lodges, and restaurants—Avi’s was there—made for a nice walk-around. Located on the western side of the harbor, sloping gently upwards, the Fort must have been an obvious spot for its founders.
The bicycle race, the Kluane to Chilkat International Bike Relay (sounds like I’m speaking Klingonese, here) is a 150 mile relay from Haines Junction, Yukon, to Fort Seward, Haines, AK—in other words the exact route I had taken, with somewhat less exertion, thank you. It attracted about 1000 riders and sure enough was going to fill up Haines that night. It was a pretty big deal for the locals and the town was geared up to receive the riders. I kept checking back at the Fort Seward square during the day, but other than a few wannabe bikers no one showed until later that afternoon. It is a 150 mile course, after all.
In town I browsed the local bookstore for a while and strolled down the streets. Soon I saw a familiar face. Weyland Whiteman was hanging out on a bench, and didn’t look terribly chipper. In fact, although he recognized me, I thought for a moment he wouldn’t, even though we had spoken for over an hour the previous night. He looked pretty beat up, and I asked if he was okay. He said he was fine, just that he hadn’t slept much the night before. I left him to his own fog, and went in search of mine.
I wandered back into the Fogcutter. Clearly, this place was the clearinghouse and meetinghouse for all wayward travelers as well as the locals. I met John, from Martinez, California, a motorcyclist who had just completed the “Three Flags Classic Motorcycle Tour”. This tour, a qualifying excursion for the Iron Butt crew, involves riding from Mexico to Canada. I’m still not quite sure why John kept going on into Alaska, but then who am I to ask such a question?
At least that’s what I thought he was doing, but as I write this, I find that I must have gotten something wrong, as the 3 Flags occurred later in the year. Perhaps—and I think this likely—he had been on the Ron Ayers tour that had preceeded me through Hyder several weeks earlier. I admit to total confusion, but John from Martinez was definitely there to urge me to join the Iron Butt Association.
I admit, I was impressed. John rode a Gold Wing, and did it with verve, enthusiasm, and a congenitally malformed right hand. There was no awkwardness in discussing his handicap, as it was logical for a motorcyclist to wonder, and explain, how one would control the throttle and the front brake in this situation. Of course, he had rigged up a fairly complex but completely usable device to do so—and it obviously did the trick. Considering that he was a devout Iron Butt member, and probably put over 30,000 miles a year on the Wing, my admiration was well warranted.
He was also quite adept at using his normal left hand. With that paw he managed to retain, hoist, and proffer for refill several pints of Alaska Amber. Naturally, we hit it off, but I was uncharacteristically moderate in my consumption, being as I had a long day and night ahead of me.
I went for a long walk to juice the metabolism a bit, and became even more impressed with the town of Haines. I learned from several shopkeepers about one of the great controversies in town. Apparently, several years ago, the residents of Haines voted to hike the fees and/or taxes it charged to cruise ships for tying up at the pier. This bold action had the predicted consequence of driving much of the cruise business across the Lynn Canal (built not by man but by glacier) to Skagway, about 14 miles by boat away (but at least five hours by car, as one would have to drive all the way out to Whitehorse to complete the triangle). Thus of course Skagway enjoyed a fairly brisk tourist business, and had gained all the trappings thereof: ice cream parlors, t-shirt shops, and, yes, several fudge emporia.
Haines meanwhile had none of these things. The tourists it attracted were there for the outdoors and the natural beauty. All in all it was a much nicer place to live, yet it did miss those cruise ship dollars. A natural rivalry exists between the towns and passions are fairly high on both sides of the questions for both communities.
By the late afternoon I had wandered back over to the Fort to watch the race finale, which was fun but due to the length of the course was a straggly affair. Feeling terribly out of shape I reasoned that I should go with my strong suit—my well-developed right forearm—and returned to the Fogcutter for exercise.
I plopped myself down on a barstool next to a fairly attractive young woman. I say for the record here that although I did have a choice in barstools it was limited to one next to the attractive woman and one next to a drooling older gentleman who had been at his duty station there at least all day. So no choice, really.
I got to chatting with Renee, who was (is, I suppose) a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She was on her summer sabbatical doing sort of a walkabout and had hooked up with a group of itinerant tree-planters…yep, she was hangin’ with Whitey.
As my world got smaller, I though about Weyland’s familial boasts and frankly had a hard time picturing petite, erudite Renee getting involved on that level, but after a few beers curiosity got the better of me. She demurred, but let on that poor Weyland had a bit of a heroin problem going on, which went far to explain his dental makeup and his and my morning meeting. Wherever he is, though I wished him well, both then and now.
I liked Renee, and was enamored enough to offer to see her later, somewhere down the continent. She was, as I said, demur however, and I had the feeling a little suspicious of my peripatetic ne’er-do-wellness. It was fun, though, to discuss literature and philosophy for a while rather than travel and motorcycles. I’m glad we met.
The day turned into night and the place filled with all the racers and supporters from the day. I was pacing myself mightily and had drunk so much diet Pepsi that I was spending more time in the little bikers’ room than I was barside. Once the singing began I knew the Fogcutter was in for a big night, but after several gallons of beer spilled within inches of the only clothes I had for my ferry trip I reasoned it was time to make the trip to the Ferry Terminal.
I lingered outside for a few moments and gazed at the stars—it was late and Haines is far enough south to have a night—the first I had seen in several weeks. The north star was high in the sky and the traditional summer triangle low, but there was no borealis that night as I had wished. So I somewhat wearily lugged a leg over the Beemer and putted out the five or so miles to the Ferry Terminal.
When I arrived about 2 the staging area was completely empty, and I wondered if I had made a mistake, either minor (this is the other ferry terminal, you want the one over there) or major (no ferries this week, pal, only every other week). The ticket house was open, though, and manned by three happy employees. I went in, gave them my reservation number, and asked them why I had to be here so early. The nice lady behind the counter said I didn’t, why WAS I here so early? I responded the nice lady on the phone had said to leave 3 hours lead time. All personnel had a good laugh at this. My current nice lady explained.
You see, she said, when you call the 800 number for the Alaska Marine Highway System a fairly complex system involving local phone exchanges, time of day, and position of the Moon determines where the call is routed, as there is no central booking office. Most likely my call had been routed to Kodiak, where a 3 hour buffer is required. So the nice lady in Homer had applied her local knowledge to Haines, but as anyone who had traveled by ferry out of Haines knew, a 3 hour lead time was ludicrous. I could, however, lie down anywhere inside the building as it was after all 2 AM and no one was there for me to bother.
Problem was, I had so psyched myself up for the long night—not to mention wired myself silly on the diet Pepsis—I couldn’t make any progress on the sleep front. I ended up studying all the brochures on the tourist rack and came to know where all the fudge shops in Skagway were, should I ever hop the ferry over there. The addresses are engraved in my mind.
Sometime around 4 AM I heard the rumble of motorcycle engines. Yoo-hoo! Someone to talk to. Sure enough, four bikes—two Harelys and two BMW GSs—pulled into the lot. For the next 32 hours, John, Jim, Butch, and Phil were to be my best friends.
Though not inexpensive, the ferry ride down the inside passage has to be one of the great bargains left to travelers. In 2003 during the summer, it will cost $143 for you and $179 for your motorcycle (or any vehicle under 10’ long) to go from Haines to Prince Rupert, BC. For this you get a boat trip of about 450 miles that takes 30 hours, and stops in at least 3 places: Juneau, Sitka, and Petersburg. Compare this to driving from Haines all the way: 1100 miles, or about 3 days at my pace (at this point). Plus two motel nights. Since I calculate it cost me about 15 cents per mile to operate the Tool (excluding depreciation), that works out to about $250 if I spend my nights on the Canadian (cheap) side of the border. So for an additional $70 I get to see the sights cruise ship passengers pay over $1000 to see, save the wear and tear on me and the bike, watch a couple of movies, and yack it up with some newfound riding buddies. I call that a bargain, the best I ever had.
The Kennicott is a big ship, 382 feet long with nine decks. She can hold about 750 passengers, though on my trip she carried a leisurely 140 souls. She’s the System’s newest vessel, built in 1998, and one could sense the pride the employees held in her. Because of her size, just finding your way around can be a bit daunting, and it at least gives you a way to while away some of the time spent onboard. Of course, one learns to locate the dining areas and the bar fairly quickly.
I spent my first few hours aboard stretched out on a nicely upholstered bench (marine-grade vinyl, I believe) underneath a sign that read No Sleeping. I guess no one cared sine the boat was so empty. I sure didn’t—the Zs were much needed at that point.
After a little breakfast in the galley, I spent the time messing around with my computer, catching up on the news, and chatting with my new riding buddies. They were nice guys, all from Colorado. When I stop to think about it, I’ve met lots of good people from Colorado. Whenever I go SCUBA diving, for instance, I’ve always met people from that state. Given that the nearest ocean is some distance away, I’ve been impressed with their pluck. Of course, motorcyclists have it pretty good there, but divers, what do they have? Abandoned quarries? It takes spunk to be a diver in Colorado, and that same kind of spunk was evident in my new friends.
I won’t dwell too much on the beauty of the trip since the majesty of the Inside Passage is well known. The stops, at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau, and Petersburg, were all interesting. In most cases we had enough time to disembark and stroll into town, though the pier was a ride away from Juneau itself. Fortunately, the bikes were all accessible and the crew most accommodating. The weather was spotty each time we were in port yet excellent “at sea”. I have to say left with no immediate plans to relocate to any of these places; with the exception of Juneau these island towns gave new meaning to my concept of remote. An 1150cc motorcycle would have no business living in anyone of them. Nor would I.
So passed the time. My buddies had ponied up for a couple of staterooms at a rather exorbitant price, I thought, so somewhere around nighttime I decided to look for a place to throw out my sleeping bag. At first I figured I’d be sleeping topside (the “Solarium) but as luck would have it I stumbled upon an after observation lounge that had apparently been overlooked by everyone aboard. It was spacious, had it’s own head, and no one minded when I dragged a deck chair inside, unfolded it, and used it as a bed. I slept very soundly that night in my private stateroom.
The next day was more of the same, but the same was good. I could get used to living aboard the Kennicott. Soon, though, she began to pull into Prince Rupert, B.C. By noon I had bade farewell to my companions with promises galore to keep in touch and ride together someday. Perhaps we will.
My first stop was the adjacent ferry terminal to check on the schedules of the BC Ferry system, obviously a wholly different animal from the Alaska Marine Highway. It was a bit drizzly in Rupert (as the natives call the city), but not so bad as I needed to find shelter right away. I discovered that the scheduling gods were with me here, and that a ferry was scheduled to leave the next morning for the13 hour journey over to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. I made my reservations for the 7AM departure, and headed into town to see what I could see.
The first thing I could see were lots of signs advertising motels at very attractive rates. Yes! Back in the bosom of the Maple Leaf. I checked into a very serviceable and inexpensive place right in the center of town, and proceeded to take a tour on foot.
According to its tourist board, “Prince Rupert is also the gateway to our neighbouring north coast villages of Port Edward, Lax Kw’alaams (Port Simpson), Metlakatla, Oona River, Gitkxaahla (Kitkatla), Gitga’ata (Hartley Bay), Kitasoo (Klemtu) and Gingolx (Kincolith).” I am not making this up, nor am I pronouncing it. If I lived in Lax Kw’alaams, for example, I would call it Port Simpson too, but if I were in Gitkxaahla, would I call it Kitkatla?
The port of Prince Rupert actually has some interesting superlatives. For one, it is the deepest harbor in North America. For another, it is closer to Asia by over 30 hours sailing time than any other West Coast port. The city itself is actually on an island, surrounded by the harbor and the mouth of the Skeena River, a large and important waterway itself.
The first thing I noticed after I wandered downtown was that the women were very pretty, especially compared to the ones I had seen on the boat. This fact put a nice backdrop on the somewhat dreary Rupert. To be fair, the weather was not stunning—the skies were grey—but the city had the look and feel of a place whose major industry had taken a powder. Of course, Rupert is a timber town, a place where logs were loaded onto barges to fulfill lumber needs up and down the coast. In case no one has told you, the Timber Industry is not one of the growth industries of the 21st Century, either in Canada or in the US. Fortunately, Rupert had the Fishing Industry as a backstop. Oh, well. In reality, the town reminded me of some Northern California towns in similar circumstances, Eureka, for instance.
I stumbled into Javadotcom, a pretty happening little internet café, and decided to stay a while when I observed that this was where all the pretty girls were coming from. It took me quite some time to get my email that day, and I was wired to the bone on coffee when I was finished.
I found an uninspiring little bookstore but could not find anything to refresh my book cache. By now, I had read every magazine published in June (and in some cases in the north, May and April) with the possible exception of Today’s Timberman. It looked to be a night of Canadian TV for me.
But first, a cocktail. Lest you think that all I did was hang out in bars on my trip, let me just say that I hung out in restaurants with bars, too. Actually, I never take a drink while riding, of course, not even a beer at lunch, which would not only make me sleepy but cause me to enjoy the riding less. And I was fairly temperate (for me) at nighttime too, because riding with a hangover is no fun at all—ask me how I know. Tonight, however, I was in a splurge mood for several reasons. First, I hadn’t had a decent meal since Avi’s back in Haines, and that was 3 nights before. The Alaska Marine Highway does not provide haute cuisine (here is where I imagine one would get one’s money’s worth onboard a cruise liner). Second, I was in Canada, and a decent steak was going to cost less here than a couple or super burritos at home. Third, there was a really intriguing place up on a Crest overlooking the Skeena. Lo and behold, it was called the Crest Hotel, and inside was the warm and inviting Charley’s Lounge.
There was a pharmaceutical sales convention of some sort in town, and they were all staying at the Crest. I like pharmaceutical salesman because they’re outgoing, have a lot of money to spend, and they’re not afraid of mood-altering substances. The combination makes for good conversation, bawdy women, and fine wine: three of my favorite things.
Before I got to the wine, however, I was pleased to not a couple of beers I’d never heard of. At some point in my youth I had made a vow to try every beer brewed on Earth at least once. I betray my age, however, for this was some time before the explosion of microbreweries, which makes my goal more pleasurable but very challenging. I’ve sort of given on my quest, but old habits die hard, and when I see a native or unfamiliar grain beverage on tap I cannot help myself but try it.
There were two there, but that’s all I can recall. I made notes but somehow these got lost in the shuffle, another cocktail napkin discarded. But if you ever make it to Prince Rupert and Charley’s Lounge, you’ll likely find a couple of brews you haven’t tried.
Well, somewhere after the beer, during the wine, and well into my Ribeye, I fell in lust that night. It wasn’t just the loneliness of the road (or boat), nor was it my inexpressible joy at being back in Canada and paying Canadian prices. She was tall, with jet black hair, fair skin, bumps in all the right places, and—joy of joys—nice to me. We spent an enjoyable hour speaking to each other and telling tales that you only tell to strangers.
Six AM came unconscionably early that morning. Normally, I try to have things more or less ready, packed and organized the night before an early departure, but that just didn’t happen. So I was scrambling around in a bit of a panic, when I was once again reminded of another of Taylor’s Motorcycle Touring Laws: Packing isn’t a problem. Look, you’ve made all the big decisions back at home, regarding what to take and how few of the things you think you really need you really need. No matter how scattered your luggage gets when on the road, re-packing it only takes a couple of minutes. I forced myself to chill out.
I wobbled my way down to the ferry terminal and got there with about 10 minutes to spare, though I was sure I was late. Let me tell you, 10 minutes to spare beats 3 hours to spare any time. I felt like a pro now.
Passage on The Queen of the North cost $99 for me and $116 for The Tool—all Canadian of course—and I was pleased that unlike the Alaska ferry tariff which lumps motorcycles into a “vehicles under 10’ in length category”, the BC Ferries’ rate for a bike is half that of a regular car. Like anyone, I can get used to preferential treatment real fast.
The Queen was about the same size as the Kennicott in terms of passenger capacity, with a little less room down below for vehicles. Though an older vessel, built in 1969, she was old in good ways: more wood, a gentler feel to her. The Kennicott, built in 1997, was a bit more industrial, reminding me more of Seattle's no-nonsense ferries. The Queen flowed better, and reminded me of the French ferries that sail from Calais to Dover. Like those boats, she had more than just one lounge and more than just one dining galley, which gave a patron a little variety. Too bad I wasn’t going to be spending the night, though I really couldn’t complain about my night on the Kennicott.
The voyage was marginally more crowded than my previous one—there was definitely no way to stretch out on a bench—but the forward lounge had comfortable reclining seats, similar to those you might find on an European train. I sat next to a couple I dubbed “Mr. And Mrs. Hitchcock”, as the Mister was a dead ringer for the famous director. They were from Eastbourne, GB, and were delightfully British in all their quirky ways. Though inveterate travelers, they had the absolutely worst taste in food I had encountered since my sister, at ten years old, would eat only bologna and mayonnaise. For example, they didn’t like spicy food—they found Canadian food to be too hot. I couldn’t have been more stunned if you'd banged me over the head with a bottle of Tabasco. Canadian food is not many things, and spicy is certainly not one of them. When they made their periodic trips to the ship’s cafeteria, they would invariable return with everything I would studiously avoid. Their breakfast consisted of apple pie and bacon, though they weren’t that high on the Canadian bacon which they found too tough (more likely it was not greasy enough). And the apple pie wasn’t sweet enough, though it looked to me as if it contained the annual sugar output of Cuba (which is legal in Canada).
Taste notwithstanding, the Hitchcocks were pleasant enough travel companions given I could get up and walk away whenever I wanted and they would watch my stuff. Stuff. No matter how I tried to pare down, no, had to pare down, the stuff I brought along on this trip I always ended up with too much stuff. Plus, some of the stuff was valuable in dollars (such as my tough little Sony Vaio computer) or valuable to me (my log and notebook). Even though over the years I have been blessed with luck and never had a theft problem, I still have to consider the possibility. The fact is that a motorcycle is ridiculously easy to rip off. I’m not talking about stealing the bike, of course (which would be a clever feat on a ferry), but about breaking into the luggage.
Consider: The Tool comes standard with two lockable hard side bags and one lockable “glove compartment”. I added a GIVI rear trunk, also lockable, and was using a capacious Sargent tank bag, which is soft and has no easy way of locking. Not that the lockable bags couldn’t be opened in two seconds with a penknife. The point is, theft vulnerability is ridiculously high when traveling by bike.
Which leaves you with three choices. You can
Since both options 1 and 2 seriously cramp your freedom of movement (which is, after all, what motorcycle travel is supposed to be all about), I generally choose option three. Not to say that, when appropriate, I don’t carry the important stuff with me—such as to my motel room at night or now, when aboard the ferry. Otherwise, I consider everything expendable, all offerings to the gods of freedom.
Meanwhile, back on the Queen of the North, I was killing time by enjoying the scenery. In fact, I liked this passage even more than I had the Alaska voyage. It’s generally a little narrower and the weather was good, so there was plenty to see besides water.
Also, the boat was more fun. Because this is a day’s trip, passengers don’t hibernate in their cabins. Simply put, there was more energy aboard. For instance, there was an incredibly bubbly Chamber of Commerce representative from Port Hardy who couldn’t wait to book me a room at my destination. Considering we wouldn’t be arriving until after 10PM, I thought this a good idea. It turned out that she found me a great room; more on that later.
Also, the lounge (you knew I’d find that, didn’t you?) was much closer to a real pub than its counterpart on the Kennicott, complete with band, a real bartender, and lots of clients. Being as I had a ride ahead of me, I took it easy with the bartender, still, I was overjoyed to hear the band strike up Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy”, one of my favorite oldies and a bit of a subtheme to my adventures. I also met and discussed life and motorcycles with a gent named Emil, who with his hometown buddy from Edmonton, Alberta was traveling around the western provinces on his Honda Shadow. I learned lots about Shadows and Alberta from him. Suffice to say I was in pretty good spirits when the ferry pulled in to Port Hardy.
When the on-board Chamber of Commerce woman effused on the lodging options at Port Hardy, she had handed me a list with names and prices. As usual, I chose to study the price column first, being as I would be pulling in late and leaving early the next day. I went right to the happy bottom of the list and she, enthusiastic regardless of my parsimony, booked me in a room at a private home. Armed with directions starting at the ferry landing, I negotiated the unfamiliar local roads of Port Hardy at 10:30 PM. And once again, 10:30 meant dark.
Once I found the street, the rest couldn’t have been easier. Mary Lu’s, though non-descript as houses go, prominently featured a husband who was standing at the driveway, waiting for me, waving hospitably and energetically. I was expected.
Both he and Mary Lu were a loquacious as they were hospitable. They wanted to know everything about me, my trip, my life’s plans, and my political views. We stayed up well into the night while I held forth on all these topics. Given all the solitary miles and all the helmet talk, I was primed to talk, as were they. They also fueled the conversation with sandwiches and orange juice, which endeared me to them further. It was like coming home.
Coming home, indeed. My room was a small but adequate affair that reminded me strongly of my Grandmother’s guest accommodations. Perhaps because of that, or the full belly, or the long day, I slept like a baby. Sometime during the night two Swedish girls who were staying in the adjacent room came home from a rowdy night on the town. Normally, a certain amount of interest might have been piqued, but it was a measure of my comfort that I never even woke up, nor felt as if I'd missed a thing.
I ambled downstairs the next morning to find the husband watching TV and Mary Lu baking the finest biscuits—bar none—ever to disappear down my gullet. The Swedish girls came downstairs and they were stunningly beautiful, of course. But the biscuits held my attention; they were that good.
At check-out, Mary Lu apologized for having given me the small room and cut her price to about $18 US. Since I never even knew I was in the smaller room, and had wolfed down two meals I’d not expected, I protested valiantly. She would not hear me, however, and I left them with warm smiles and promises to tell everyone about my stay and return myself someday. You’re told, and I’m going back.
I enjoyed the road down the length of Vancouver Island, but I was so looking forward to downtime in Victoria that I confess I made short work of it, barely stopping to get gas. Actually, the one time I did stop to get gas I did it for two. While warping along I had spied a fellow motorcyclist in distress along side the road. Proving again that it’s a small world, it was Emil, the Honda Shadow rider I’d met on the “Queen of the North”. Emil's buddy had gotten impossibly ahead while Emil had run out of gas. It was only ten miles into town, and ten miles back with a Gatorade bottle full of Shell’s best, and Emil was gratefully on his way again, while I have an open invitation to visit him and ride the backroads of Alberta.
Much has been said and written about this sublime city; I can only nod in agreement at all the good press. I'd planned to spend two nights there; I stayed four. Even though I’d visited the city before, both on bike and by car, I couldn’t get enough. Plus, the feeling that the trip was winding down was turning into a fevered desire to prolong my stay.
Of course, the stay was great. For two nights I bunked in one of the ubiquitous Traveler's Inns, which made me an offer of a suite I could not refuse. When that deal expired, I moved to the more spartan, less well-situated Robin Hood Motel, which still served me well as a base to see Canada 14, Sooke, and the western beaches of the island.
The days there were a blur of activity and exploration. Mostly, I pretended to live as a local would (except for that tedious working thing), wondering what it would be like to be a resident. I hiked around a variety of neighborhoods, frequenting coffee shops, internet cafes, bookstores, bars, and the like, primarily in the St. John’s Bay area. I hiked the sea wall on the southern part of the island, considering—but ultimately rejecting—signing up for a scuba dive. Though I’m an avid fan of the sport, I’ve found I’m a lot more avid in warmer waters. The thought of dry-suiting it even in the crystal clear waters off Vancouver Island sent more than figurative chills up more than just my spine.
Even in this relatively large city, the Canadians were extraordinarily friendly. I received a detailed lesson on Canadian politics from a gentleman at the Sticky Wicket Pub, just the kind of place you might expect to have such a discussion. One thing that I noticed time and again from all the Canadians was a respect for the U.S., and a general uneasiness about their own state of political affairs. On the surface, the Canadian system seems quite salubrious to someone from the other side of the border. Much of it is due to the inescapable fact that the country only has 30 million citizens to govern, with a great deal of room for libertarian types to stretch their muscles—or at least disappear. This, despite a more rigorous and paternal government. But Canadians have their worries too: a high tax rate (compared to that of the U.S.), a weak currency, and a moribund job market. Their parliamentary system seems—as do they all—arcane and cumbersome to this U.S. citizen, and many Canadians are quick to agree. Still, they realize that in so many ways they have it good, with a civil and honorable system that relies on civil and honorable citizens.
One morning, I hopped back on the bike and rode out towards Sooke. It was a beautiful day, winding my way out on the main, but country, two lane road through the woods. In Sooke, I discovered an outstanding café specializing in wraps. Mushroom wraps, ham wraps, veggie wraps; in fact every kind of wrap that you or I could imagine, they made. I tried several and brought a large doggie bag back with me. I lived off wraps for several days, and still wanted more.
The morning I had to leave was a sad one. I kept control of my emotions by concentrating on packing the bike and readying it for the inevitable trip home. As I pulled up to the MV Coho, the privately run ferry between Victoria and Port Angeles, Washington, USA, I must have lost my Vulcan discipline. Committing a cardinal sin of motorcycling, I found myself, while waiting in line, parked nose-in on a downhill slope—and I had to go backward, not forward. Thanks to more friendly Canadians, though, I got a nice push to get me out of the bind. But was it my imagination, or did I detect a snicker from a surly U.S. crewman?
Sailing across the Straits of Juan de Fuca, I reflected again on the sum of what I’d learned over the past 4 days, essentially nothing more than that which I already knew: I could live in Victoria.
My state of mind required that I enter the continental USA delicately, so when I disembarked from the Coho I rode all of 100 yards to The Landing Café, home of some awesome fish and chips—choose the Alaskan Halibut, trust me. Stuffed to the gills, I opted to ride down US 101 along the east side of the Olympic peninsula, a decision made for me by the nasty looking weather to the west. Consequently, it became time to make some time. After Olympia, I hopped on Interstate 5—suppressing the urge to cry—and didn’t get off the superslab until I crossed over into Oregon. Then I angled southwesterly using the roads around Jewell, which, from this rider’s perspective, is aptly named.
I was going to stay in Seaside, a honky-tonk beach town I have visited before, and like. I like it not just because it is the site of the saltworks that marked the farthest penetration of the Lewis and Clark expedition (Fort Clatsop is about 60 miles north-northeast), but because it features a great boardwalk stroll. Nevertheless, the day was young. I proceeded on.
Darkness eventually fell and I found myself entering the tiny town of Garibaldi, Oregon. Committing another cardinal sin, I stopped at the first cheap motel I saw before properly casing the town (which would have taken all of 2 minutes). I should have realized what I was in for when I saw that the biggest sign—amongst several illegibly scrawled signs—in the “lobby” read “NO REFUNDS, PERIOD!”.
How shall I describe the room? Another sign, posted near my door, read “Please don’t clean fish in Room”. Clearly, the sign had been posted only recently, and only in some sort of desperation by management. I like to do push-ups every day, but when my nose got close to the carpet I nearly fainted, and not from exertion. All the lamps lacked shades, and most lacked bulbs. But there was plenty of light from the 8-million watt halogen security light right outside my window, which would have been bad enough with curtains. As it was, the flimsy nighty that covered my window was not up to the task. It was a long night.
Perhaps because I got very little sleep, the next day’s ride was short—I only made it to Gold Beach, Oregon. Part of my reasoning was to stay the night in Oregon—home of cheap rooms and gentle folk—rather than push across the border into California—home of $70 hovels, sales tax, and $4.00 beers. Actually, I got a pretty nice place there for less than I paid up in Garibaldi. The town was a bit dreary, though, and my spirits were flagging.
Spirits flagged even further as I entered California the next day. Now, don’t get me wrong, Northern California and the Redwood highway is wonderful and under most circumstances I’d be delighted to be riding a motorcycle there. But these were not normal circumstances, by far. The first thing I noticed was the greatly increased presence of Highway Patrolmen. Then all the signs telling me not to smoke, wear my seatbelt, don’t bring fruit into the state, slow down, and pay up. Then you see Pelican Bay State Prison, one of the worst of the worst. Welcome to California.
Deciding that I was going to be depressed anyway, I chose to stay my final night in Eureka, which fits hand and glove with depression. To be fair, I’m not that down on the city, having stayed there many times and routed out its charms. Not one of them is the Downtowner Motel’s free continental breakfast for which one gets what one pays. But kudos to the Sea Grill, the Lost Coast Brewery, and Casa Blanca, a great little wine bar/restaurant that knew how to set a table.
I haven’t mentioned this until now, but I actually do have ties. One of them is my wonderful girlfriend, Lauren, whom I missed greatly. The other is my pretty good dog, Sequoia, whom I sort of missed too, in a masterly way. It was with these thoughts that I managed to get out of bed and make the final day’s ride.
I don’t remember much of that final 6 hour ride. Oh, yes, there was a deer determined to stop me just north of Willits, but he had nothing on a guy who’d dealt with Alaskan bear. I do remember pulling into Sonoma, California, and proceeding with immediacy to the arms of my girlfriend. It was great to see her again.
I was a changed man. They say Alaska does that to people, and I’m here to tell you that it’s true. I don’t know exactly what causes it. Certainly, the travel alone has a small effect. The distances between human settlement set the stage. The rugged inhabitants act out their roles. The open spaces, the beauty, the vastness of it all, combine to make a large thematic impression. All I can say is, ever since I got back, I’ve not quite felt at home, like there’s something missing, or something I left behind.
Guess I’ll have to go looking for it, whatever it is.