Duncan and Cindy Bennett are regular riders with Compass Expeditions having ridden with us in Australia, South America and on the epic Cairo to Cape Town Expedition. Recently they partook in our inaugural True North: Alaska tour and have very generously allowed us to reproduce their musings from that tour from their fantastic Blog page Travellingbennetts
Photo Bombe Alaska – Part 1
When asked by friends why we were going to ride Alaska, it was appropriate to re-work the classic George Mallory 1923 quote about climbing Everest – “because we think it’s almost certainly there”. We had never really considered the endless wilderness of the most northerly US state as a motorcycling destination, particularly due to my memories of reading about early explorers in the Yukon literally going mad with the relentless swarms of mosquitoes in summer. The likelihood of congress with huge and hungry grizzly bears didn’t add much additional comfort during the unfounded perceptions development stage, but when the opportunity to be cold and miserable and itching all over presents itself then we rarely take a backward step, unless we know that’s what it will be like in advance.
Several points worked very favourably for the Compass Expeditions True North Alaska tour; firstly, our daughter Kate is working in Canada so it enabled a visitation, secondly, the tour was being led by Bayne Morison our calm and fun Compass support vehicle driver from Africa, and thirdly, it was a “first time” tour so we would be like Hillary and Norgay, sure lots of people will ride Alaska with Compass, but we will always be the first.
So off we went via Canada’s airline to Vancouver on Friday 7th July, deliberately toughening ourselves up in economy as it is always worse than anything that can possibly happen on the tour, including being attacked by a bear. A brief stopover and then onward to Anchorage, vigorously waving our USA visas at any officials standing between us and the aircraft, which were required due to our trip through Sudan during the Cairo to Cape Town expedition. Arriving into Anchorage just before lunchtime, we met our first companion for the trip – Patrick of Perth – while loitering around the baggage carousel. Off to the Lakefront Hotel, we were forced to deposit the luggage and take a groggy trip into town due to the late check-in time of after 3pm. A wander about the fairly compact city centre, a coffee at the Hard Rock Café as a substitute for beer which would have caused immediate unconsciousness, and we were back out to the hotel to unpack, take a walk, and try to battle through until a reasonably civilised time to have dinner, drinks, and get to bed.
Tour day -2 was all about cultural immersion, commencing with a wander up the road to a nearby classic American Diner for breakfast and starting the process of USA food intake calibration. Using the eggs in the pictures for benchmarking the scale, it was obvious that the standard menu meals of pancakes, waffles, hashbrowns, eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, biscuit (i.e. bun), and gravy with optional sides of grits, beans, and bizarrely fresh fruit need working up to. Instead, a “do it yourself meal construction” approach was taken with selection of only certain items to bring the calorie intake down from 1976 Elvis to a more sustainable John Goodman.
A trolley bus tour of Anchorage was on offer, and our guide Bracken did a great job pointing out the key features and history of the town and the surrounding areas. The airport and Lakes Hood and Spenard are worth a mention – Alaska is not overwhelmed with roads, so aircraft are owned by a lot of the population to get to the remote settlements and cabins. The stop at the little dirt strip at Lake Hood showed a constant stream of light aircraft taking off and landing on their fat tundra tyres, while seaplanes relentlessly did the same on the lakes and large jets regularly from the international airport. Air Traffic Control have a vending machine with Red Bull, Monster Energy, and Rockstar drinks very popular for the controllers to mentally stay on top of the confusion.
An ingrained event in the history of Alaska mentioned in all the museums in the state was the 1964 Good Friday earthquake of 9.2 magnitude – the strongest ever recorded in the US and second strongest in recorded history. Areas of most of the major towns of Anchorage, Seward, Valdez, Cordova, and Homer as well as numerous other smaller settlements were destroyed, particularly where buildings and suburbs were on soil which liquified. The popular earthquake park just west of the Anchorage city is based on the suburb of Turnagain Heights, which slid down toward the sea and was never re-built.
After our rampant tourism, we went back to the hotel and started to come across some of our tour group – mostly recognisable by Australian accents, lack of children, chiselled features, and carrying large beverage containers. Dinner was with several tour members at Today’s Pizza next door to the hotel, which seemed appropriate at the time because it was today then. Repeated warnings about “meth heads outside” from a concerned yet strangely repetitive and addled patron added to the local colour, fortunately we knew a secret back route to the hotel so could avoid making new local street friends.
Day -1 had a Segway tour thrown up as the preferred option. Finding the Segway tour office was a challenge, there were billboards, posters, signs and flyers everywhere advertising an 11am departure but the precise office location wasn’t obvious, and the assumption that a line-up of Segways surely must appear by 10:59am was incorrect. 11am came and went and so the back-up plan was to hire bicycles. A mere $50 gave us both bikes for 3 hours, enough time to do 11 miles out to Kincaid Park past the airport according to the staff on duty. Clutching detailed maps with random crosses drawn for where we might see moose, we hit the road past the still mysteriously quiet Segway office region and headed west along the Turnagain Arm coastline, encouraged to keep up a good pace by the mozzies who swarmed in like pre-teen Taylor Swift fans every time we slackened off.
All distances in Alaska are in miles, which tends to result in gross under-estimation of distance by the metrified peoples. 11 miles? That sounds like bugger-all even for those who hadn’t been on a bike since a 2016 magpie terror attack near home. 18 kilometres? There is no way we could ride that far in 1.5 hours including stops for moose photos, snacks, and application of five coats of Bushman’s. Two hours in and we’d slogged up the brutal hill not shown on the two-dimensional map in Kincaid Park to the 11 mile mark, fortunately manned by a street food vendor selling water and interesting hotdogs. The plan to pedal furiously downhill on the return journey and coast most of the way back was destroyed by pedestrians with small randomly orbiting dogs, but we still made good time even with stops for moose with calf photos, re-hydration, and 3 more coats of Bushman’s, arriving back only 10 minutes late after a huge 36km. 6.7mph is nothing, but 11kmh is a jolly good effort.
Back to the hotel with the quads seizing on the complimentary hotel shuttle ride, we enjoyed some deserved IPA and house wine-style refreshments and introduced ourselves to more chiselled tour members in the bar before the official tour briefing and dinner. After an emotional reunion with Bayne at the briefing, formal introductions were made and general information was given by tour leader Justin, and luggage was issued including 60 litre soft bags to avoid people bringing huge hard cases (and being deservedly murdered by Bayne after a few days packing the support vehicle), and two panniers for each bike.
The rollcall of tour members was:
- Justin Sain (1200GS) – Compass tour leader
- Bayne Morison – Compass support vehicle driver
- Nic (1200GS) and Margreth (700GS) – Brisbane Australia
- Tim and Karen (700GS) – Hobart Australia
- Bruce and Maureen (1200GS) – Launceston Australia
- Peter and Maxine (1200GS) – Bacchus Marsh Australia
- Alden (1200GS) and Jan (700GS) – Green Mountain Falls CO USA
- Mike (700GS) – Colorado Springs CO USA
- Patrick (Vstrom 650) – Perth Australia
- Richard (Vstrom 650) – Roma Australia
- Jake (800GS) – Adelaide Australia
- Trevor (800GS) – Kilmore Australia
- Cindy (700GS) and Duncan (800GS) – Brisbane Australia
Day 1 commenced at a civilised hour, with a short trundle up the road in the van to Motoquest to get the bikes. The fleet was extensive, but only well-used hard-core adventure bikes were available to ride given the plan included the infamous Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay. The ride group were relatively experienced, so everyone set to work getting the bikes bespoked to suit their comfort levels. After a quick test ride around the car park, all was ready.
The first day was of roughly 365km distance south down to Homer. Immediate scenery overload occurred, as it is virtually impossible to avoid riding toward/alongside imposing snow-covered mountain ranges in Alaska. We motored through Portage, had a brief stopover at Canyon Creek to read up on some gold mining history, lunched at Kenai Lake, paused at the Soldotna drive-thru bank, and had an excellent coffee experience along the coast of Turnagain Arm at a pro-biker establishment. A stop near Ninilchik on the beach overlooking the Arm with the distinctive and active Iliamna Volcano and Mt Redoubt off in the distance satisfied the budding photographers, and we finished the first day with a ride past Anchor Point to Homer Spit and Land’s End Resort.
The spit holds a mixture of tourists and fisherman, and a short walk had us back into a plethora of dining options. Captain Pattie’s Fish House seemed likely to have Halibut on the menu, and although the admission of wanting a wine or beer with the meal resulted in relegation to the restaurant section with almost no views across the bay, a good IPA and wine confirmed our sensible choosing.
Day 2 was designed to force the motorcycle fledglings from the led tour nest, cruelly we had to organise our own activities or do nothing at all. Cindy’s 700GS side stand was a priority as it caused the bike to lean over precariously, making it hard to get upright before riding off. A check of the maps indicated that it was a mere 4 miles into Homer proper and the promising sounding Ulmer’s Drug and Hardware where surely both duct tape could be purchased for the side stand and strong stimulants could be purchased to increase motivation to fix it. Organising a water taxi guided tour for the afternoon on the way, we dourly headed off up the spit to town. Although 4 miles sounds quick and easy, 6.4km doesn’t but we were so immersed in the imperial system of measure by this stage we didn’t think to do a conversion. Another problem was that the spit is just barren sand and rock, and the end is always in sight and never appeared to be getting any closer, with our misery rubbed in by passing Holland-America Cruise Liner free shuttles. Beginning to stagger from lack of stimulants, we finally made it to the end of the spit, only to discover that we had another 2 uphill miles to go to get into the actual town proper. Becoming delirious from lack of caffeine, we eventually made it into Ulmer’s and made the necessary purchases.
Sensibly catching a land taxi for the return journey, in 10 minutes we’d covered the 6 miles/10km back to the hotel and prepared ourselves for the water taxi tour in the afternoon. We met up with Richard O’Roma and Patrick O’Perth who had also booked the tour and hit the docks, eventually finding the water taxi which took us over to the other side of Kachemak Bay. First fauna on the list were otters, lots of otters. Otters are a lot larger than we’d thought, reaching well over a metre in length and eating a lot of seafood which makes them about as popular with commercial fishing people as a Harley rider in any situation involving human beings. Next on the fauna list were puffins, seen in group numbers rarely observed by our guide. These sightings were considered a positive harbinger for future bear sightings.
Three hours later, after staring at every inch of the magnificent coastline and mountainsides looking for bears and only the guide thinking he caught a glimpse of a black bear’s bum as it ran into the bush, we returned to Homer. A nice IPA in the Salty Dawg while nervously looking at the thousands of flammable $1 notes pinned upon every possible space, and after first making the necessary modifications to Cindy’s side stand the clock said it was a suitable time for dinner and bed. But not until we’d heard details of the Team Tasmania flight out to unfairly see bears in plague proportions.
Day 3 was a partial backtrack north then a drop south-east to Seward. A coffee at Kasilof, and we were fortified for the journey back to Kenai Lake which had now become the traditional southern Alaskan lunch venue. On the subject of backtracking, the Alaskan road network is a loop around Palmer – Healy – Fairbanks – Tok – Glennallen, with a sparse set of dead-end roads coming out of this loop, one going north, and the rest heading in other directions except for west – there are no roads out to Nome. Hence the plethora of planes to reach much of the state. So backtracking becomes an accepted practice in Alaskan travel, but at least not much is missed and any photo regrets can be resolved on the return journey.
Coming into Seward was scenery on steroids, with lakes, snow covered mountains, and even glaciers making the ride down to Resurrection Bay one head swivelling distraction after another. The town is named for William Seward, the US Secretary of State who in 1867 bought Alaska for $7.2 million, equivalent to 2 cents per billion mozzies which is extraordinary value. Once ensconced into the warm bosom of the Holiday Inn Express, it was a stroll down through the marina area into town proper and into the even warmer bosom of the Seward Brewing Co establishment for a few spectacular IPAs and dinner. A nice stroll back via the waterfront, a few more drinks with Nic and Margreth in Chinooks restaurant next to the hotel, and the conscious period of the day came to an end.
Day 4 was solid and relentless backtracking to Anchorage on the way to join the road loop proper and finish at Talkeetna. More scenery from the opposite side was experienced up to morning tea at Alyeska on Turnagain arm, strangely including a dead whale high and nearly dry on the mud near Portage. Bayne was already anticipating the mass food disposal at the end of the trip, resulting in over-consumption of chocolate snacks, but at least we were well energised for some fairly un-inspiring riding up through the Anchorage ‘burbs.
After a bit of dispersion through Anchorage and calm re-grouping, we made our way into Eagle River for lunch. We don’t expect to be taken to a vegan café specialising in kale – kombucha dishes, but nor do we expect the complete opposite – Pete’s Barbeque. To imagine Pete’s Barbeque, think of a 17th century coal mine with a few neon signs installed, or the disturbing basement in the Silence of the Lambs movie during a power failure. We were in a land of perpetual daylight, except for the hour or so we spent on Day 4 inside Pete’s Barbeque. The food was fantastic, and once we had all evolved into blind hairless moles the atmosphere was excellent fun. The stage was used to store numerous lawnmowers, which seemed especially odd as there was no lawn, and vacuum cleaners which looked to be caged vacuums as there was no evidence they’d ever run free range out in the bar area.
The cultural immersion complete, it was back on the bikes in the increasing heat for the push up the highway to Talkeetna where we had a two night stay planned at the Swiss Alaska Inn on the edge of the town. Once changed and refreshed, we took the shortcut out the back and over the Anchorage to Fairbanks railway line to the touristy little village filled with restaurants, bars, craft shops, and adventure tour booking offices. The Denali Brewpub was the venue of choice for dinner, however we managed to completely de-rail serving protocols by moving into and out of different staff zones on the verandah to avoid the sun or sit with tour friends. As we were customers and therefore always right, any sullen staff attitudes were fully accounted for in the final tip tally.
Day 5 started with a breakfast and gathering for a trip to the Talkeetna airport for a Denali flyover. The weather looked okay-ish, but as Talkeetna is a long way from Denali hope for a clear view went unmentioned in case it put a curse on the tour. Once out in the plane and on the way, the clouds disappeared, and we were treated with some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. The plane doesn’t go up to 20,000ft and therefore all the flying is below the peak of Mt Denali and through the valleys and glaciers.
With universal agreement that the Denali experience had been right up there with the best ever, and after a wander about the town and a light lunch we moved onto the next activity – ziplining. The Denali Zipline Tour includes 9 ziplines and 3 suspension bridges, so took up a fair part of the afternoon with Peter and Maxine and Margreth joining us. No photos were taken because we left all our loose gear behind, anything falling would be lost in thick jungle forever so decided against. The tour was excellent, even though long periods were spent on apparently flimsy platforms while less confident group members sometimes had to be pried from the tree branches to get them onto the next line.
After all the activity, the day was declared a raging success and the railway line was crossed once more for dinner and some well-deserved drinks at the Mountain High Pizza Pie restaurant which was rounded out with the Blue Flags and Black Grass band playing a few catchy numbers. Back to the Swiss Alaska Inn, our laundry was sorted out and bags repacked for the next stage of the trip – the daunting push to the very top of North America at Prudhoe Bay.
End of Part One
Flogging It to Deadhorse – Part 2
We left Part 1 Photo Bombe Alaska at the close of Day 5 in Talkeetna. Even though we seemed to have done a lot of riding, the northerly progress from Anchorage only added up to about 160km so to get to the top we were going to have to up the pace. Day 6 objective was Fairbanks, considered to be the most northerly civilisation in Alaska accessible by road, a journey of about 450km which would make a reasonable dent in the distance.
Road quality heading north past the sometimes nearly visible Denali ranges to the west was excellent, encouraging the leaders to indeed “up the pace”, until a member of Alaska’s constabulary decided that the pace was too up for his liking. It appears that state law allows for mass pull-overs with the officer’s opinion on whether the basic speeding law (driving too fast for the conditions irrespective of the posted speed limit) has been violated all that counts. We first realised we had a nest of dangerously reckless criminals in our midst when cresting a hill at a very safe speed and seeing flashing blue and red lights and a line of cars and motorcycles pulled to the side of the road. We went past by a hundred metres or so and pulled over, just so we could be clearly seen and provide a positive and timely example of how one should behave on public roads.
After battling mozzies for a while, the proceedings were completed with a slight increase in state revenue, Tim’s blood pressure, and his righteous indignation, so we headed up the road to the interesting Veteran’s Memorial Park. After consoling our victimised friends with deep and genuine expression of sympathy and a mozzie repelling candlelight vigil, we checked out the Park which has displays describing all the conflicts Alaskans have been involved in. The second world war is particularly interesting, and Alaska was the only place in the USA invaded; the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska were occupied by the Japanese in 1942 to protect their northern flank. Only a year later, US and Canadian forces expelled them to prevent any potential attack by the Japanese on the US north west coast.
With squadrons of mozzies beginning to make opening visors or mouths risky, we hit the road once more at a slighted less “upped pace”, travelling to Cantwell where the big Alaskan road loop is cut in half by the Denali Highway which was designed to provide tourist access from the eastern side of Alaska to the immensely popular Denali park. A push to the McKinley Creekside Café and we’d done enough to deserve an excellent burger lunch with chips that I always swore I’d never eat to keep the carbo-load down but always did. No fuel was available, so we continued up to Healy to undertake this essential service. The process for re-fuelling was becoming smooth by this point in the trip; Justin would pull into the servo, and try to get both sides of a single bowser to allow the other 14 bikes to conga line past in two columns and be filled. If all 15 bikes had to be filled in a single line, then it just took a bit longer. Not that there weren’t occasional snafus and indeed the only bike drop of the entire trip occurred at a servo, but the system was generally quite efficient.
Filled with food and fuel, the only thing remaining to do was to get to Fairbanks, although another stop was taken at the Roughwood Café in Nenana in case someone hadn’t loaded in 500% of their daily carbs requirement with more than two hours remaining before any carbo-sustaining dinner could be had. The accommodation in Fairbanks was at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, designed for handling the enormous number of tourist groups coming through Fairbanks via train, plane, or bus. We did very well for ourselves and most of the group was sent out to the top-quality cabins next door to the lodge, probably because we were all so coated in splattered mozzies and other insects that they didn’t want us inside. The Lodge was a long way out of town; however this was later realised to be a good thing when some of the group went in to find dinner and discovered it mainly dead except for one craft brewery oasis. With Prudhoe Bay a dry area and lacking take-away facilities, Patrick O’Perth joined us for an Uber trip to the nearest Walgreens for a few liquid essentials before getting back to the lodge and calling it a day.
Day 7 was the start of the real Alaska, or at least the Alaska that most people including a lot of Alaskans haven’t seen. Not far out of town the roadworks started, giving us a refresher on riding gravel roads which would be most of the surface ridden for the following days. At Livengood, the last chance to loiter in civilisation is forsaken and the Dalton highway begins. The highway is named after James Dalton, a mining engineer who was a pioneer in oil exploration and was an expert in construction in Alaskan conditions – particularly on permafrost.
The first challenge was to make it to lunch at Yukon River, with the road a mixture of bitumen and dirt. The bitumen suffers from “frost heaves” when the water under the surface freezes and expands, creating speed bumps, drop-offs, whoops, and worst of all; potholes. The dry conditions made it pleasant riding, and the gravel sections were hard packed and easy. The Yukon River is big at the crossing – about 600m across, and that is before the huge Tanana River which flows past Fairbanks joins it to become a monster. A lunch of chilli which seemed to be lacking the obvious ingredient of chilli was enjoyed, before checking out the 800 mile long Prudhoe Bay to Valdez oil pipeline information at the crossing.
The rising temperature required some alteration in the number of layers worn under the jacket as we headed off north once more. The mainly hard-packed gravel continued with occasional patches of bitumen, making the speeds fairly high as we covered the 100km to the next important achievement – the Arctic Circle. As we were crossing the circle less than a week short of the summer solstice, our hopes of some cool dark nights to aid the sleeping environment were finally dashed. Some learned astronomy theory discussion was held amongst the “but it rises in the east and sets in the west” Australian contingent about where on earth the sun goes if it doesn’t set. The consensus was that we didn’t care, but needed better curtains.
Another 50km and we’d had experience of our first Dalton Highway roadworks at Gobbler’s Knob. As the highway is the heavy vehicle haulage route for the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, every effort is made to keep the surface as smooth as possible and keep the dust to a minimum. The roadworks crews use lots of water to get the compaction right, however this makes the road notoriously slippery when mixing in calcium chloride as a dust suppressant. Fortunately, we were all giggling about Gobbler’s Knob so didn’t get terribly focussed on the road condition, and all made it through without dramas. It was naturally broad daylight as we pulled into Coldfoot camp, famous as the major stop on the Ice Road Truckers television program. The accommodation was basic but good, and the truck stop mess hall and bar did their jobs admirably before getting to bed for a good day’s sleep in preparation for the final leg north.
Peter had volunteered to go out at second midday (12am) to see where the sun had gone, so Day 8 began with his explanation that it sort of just hovered, beaming a heavenly light on his 1200GS the entire time, which seemed about right and resolved the issue as far as the Australians were concerned. A hearty breakfast of oatmeal and we were packed and ready to roll on the most important day of the trip. For the first 40km the road was superb bitumen, then we started to get up into the Brooks Range which was the last barrier before the north slope and the tundra. A brief stop for morning refreshments, at which a seagull appeared once again proving that seagulls are literally everywhere, and we went over the top through a very scenic pass with the weather looking a bit ugly to the north.
Down we went onto the northern side, with trees suddenly a thing of the past. The road surface was generally excellent, even though it looked wet it was hard packed and allowed some good speed to be maintained by the group. The major problem was the cold which headed into the 40’s and ultimately the 30’s Fahrenheit as we went north in the overcast and slightly drizzly conditions. Stops were made to re-layer, which resulted in thick thermals top and bottom, riding t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, Gore-Tex gloves with two inner linings, double neck warmers, and a merino beanie under the extremely tight helmet. The Coloradans had come equipped with heated vests and gloves, and soon one could see the Australians mentally calculating their size just in case an opportunity presented itself to salvage.
The moisture got more serious as we reached the Sagavanirktok River (more conveniently just call the Sag River) and the inappropriately named Happy Valley camp for lunch. The cold was bitter, and wet mud was coating just about everything, making sandwich construction from scratch without ending up with an Earth condiment on the ham difficult. An experimental jog around the open spaces succeeded in making me tired without any appreciable increase in warmth, so stoically we all just had to stop thinking about hot soup, get back on the bikes, and keep going. The road continued in the hills beside the river and the surface generally remained good, until suddenly we were beside the river and into a 10km section of roadworks.
The roadworks had started on the right-hand side of the road, so the left-hand side was the preferred path as it appeared less slippery. Pace slowed and the tension was palpable, a wrong move would result in a hard fall and serious laundry issues. Riding on the wrong side was suitable until a truck came up behind us, fortunately it stayed on the right side and left us alone, unfortunately it put up a fine mist spray of chocolate coloured mud which completely coated us including the visors and other important equipment for seeing. A stop had to be made to clean visors, but Cindy suffered badly because her “pinlock” visor inside the main visor which is designed to act as double glazing and prevent fogging came loose. This resulted in fogging and having to open the visor to see, letting a literally arctic blast of air inside.
Soon the roadworks ended and the speed increased on an excellent gravel road, and then the animals appeared in the form of musk oxen, caribou, arctic hare, artic fox, and squirrels. A few stops were made for photos then we meandered along the long road through oil facility paraphernalia to reach the T-junction which signalled the end of independent riding.
Deadhorse is a bleak city of containers, industrial sheds, block buildings, dirt roads, oil and gas equipment, and lots of muddy space. Our first plan was to get fuel, then secondly get to the Prudhoe General Store which is the official end of the road for celebratory photos. Fortunately, the General Store is also a large and well stocked emporium with temperatures inside in the high 20’s Celsius, so it was not long before riders were re-warmed and ready to head to the accommodation. It was old-school camp living at the Deadhorse Camp; shared bathrooms are unusual in the modern world and no longer the norm in mining camps, but it made our experience a bit more gritty and we were comfortable enough in each other’s company by now to share facilities without staring or recoiling in horror. Once we were unpacked, it was off to dinner where another odd ritual was undertaken; getting food at the buffet required donning of gloves.
The slide into Day 9 completed without any intervening night, we had a tour planned to get to the coast and complete the northerly journey beyond reasonable doubt. To pass through the oil fields, we had to show our passports to the tour bus driver Cliff, who forcefully pushed home the fact that he was a security professional and not a real tour bus driver as we motored around Prudhoe Bay. Cliff was into detail and showed us how the workers live, normally a two-week on, two-week off roster. Cliff probably went into too much detail, by the time we had his room and phone number and directions to his room and his opposite number’s name who he shared the room with, in a hot bedding arrangement, we felt we were in deep enough. Gas flares were burning in the misty ride to the Beaufort Sea, and once past the drilling mud disposal facility we pulled up at the foggy coast. Cliff waited for a few minutes, probably to make sure that any polar bears had read his detailed instructions on not interfering with tourists, before we were released from the bus. With the promise of an official certificate signed by Cliff himself, various brave members decided to take the arctic swim.
With hypothermic members back on the bus, we headed away from the ultimate northern achievement, taking only photographs and leaving only footprints. And someone’s jocks. A few more stops at various places of interest involving Cliff’s lifestyle, and some good technical explanation about rigs and how they are moved, and we were back at Deadhorse Camp to complete the packing and prepare for the great southern journey.
The weather was a vast improvement from the previous day, with clear skies and dry crisp air that wasn’t too cold. Everything looked and felt better; the road, the scenery, the caribou, the fingers, and the toes. Pace was quick along the dry gravel roads, and even the nightmare roadworks section was a totally different proposition and gone was the slippery mud which had been replaced by a freshly graded surface that provided some reasonable grip.
Just after 2pm and we were back at the now appropriately named Happy Valley again for lunch, this time easily finding clean-ish surfaces to construct the sandwiches and even happily taking off layers and unzipping zips. The Brooks Range became visible to the south and east as we started off again, with numerous photo stops to take advantage of the glorious scenery that had been well hidden the previous day. Plans were made for Nic to deploy his drone to take footage as we climbed up into the pass, requiring some precision choreography for rider spacing which is always perfect until the film set is reached and everyone either bunches or spreads out or covers the other thespians with dust.
Stopping at the top of the pass, it was more photos, a bit of snow play for the Australians, and setting up for the next Nic film production. By this time everyone had realised that Margreth was the “A lister” in the film, so there was some jockeying for position trying to get as close in the line up as possible to her. Ride Leader Justin basically ruined it for everyone by riding alongside Margreth, but we didn’t have time to re-shoot so left it to Nic to “Kevin Spacey” him out of the final product.
Once down off the range, it was the slog through to Coldfoot with the last 30 miles mentally taking as long as the previous 100 because of the excellent bitumen road which actually made the riding a bit boring. The scenery maintained its fabulousness right up until the end, and the arrival back into Coldfoot wasn’t without some regret although we made it to the mess just before it closed and the bar had already run out of the decent craft beers so we were forced to buy US domestic. With the sun providing absolutely no assistance, it was left to checking the watch to see it was quite late and time for close of what had been a fantastic day.
Day 10 was quite a long day’s ride down to Chena Hot Springs, so we got ourselves organised as per normal quasi-religious routines and headed off at exactly 3 weeks after sunrise. First stop was at Gobbler’s Knob, where the roadworks had fortuitously moved on from, to get a view of the Prospect Camp in the valley below which holds the record for the coldest recorded temperature in the USA; -80°F or -62.2°C on 23rd January 1971. There is clearly a bit of shame that the North American record of -81°F is held by Canada at Snag in the Yukon, but bloody cold either way. Pushing on after a bit more giggling about Gobbler’s Knob, wide loads started to become a bit of an issue as it was good weather to move what looked like entire office blocks up to Prudhoe Bay, resulting in forced stops in wayside areas until the obstruction moved past.
At one stop south of the arctic circle, a well-dressed Japanese man and his lady friend approached us and asked where mobile reception might be available as they had a flat tyre on their hire car. Looking out across the endless taiga no mobile phone towers were immediately apparent, and although we were falling a bit behind, we decided that we would still likely make it to Chena Hot Springs in the daylight so pledged to help. To his eternal shame, our new Japanese friend had to admit that he had no idea how to change a tyre. In a few minutes the pit crew of Richard O’Roma, Bayne and I had the space saver tyre out, on, and the tools and punctured tyre packed away. Although unprepared for fixing vehicle problems, it was noted that the couple had enough food and water to survive more polar winters than the Franklin North-West Passage expedition, so we happily accepted a whole watermelon and hit the road once more. A bull moose on the edge of the road caused a momentary conniption, but it was worth it to see such an impressive beast as it bounded into the forest rather than into me. Unfortunately, the Japanese couple had started a trend, and about 20 miles shy of the Yukon River I noticed the front was getting wobbly, so pulled over in a wayside stop to discover a flat front tyre.
The cause was deduced to have been a rock I had inadvertently hit, but the solution in Bayne was a long time coming as he’d been trapped by yet another wide load. Getting as prepared as possible in the absence of any useful tools, we applied three fresh coats of Bushman’s and settled down to wait. Nearly an hour later Bayne arrived, and we got cracking on the first tubed tyre incident of the trip. First issue was finding the tools which had been provided by the bike hire company Motoquest. Successfully done, we (using the term we loosely by now) had the wheel off and discovered that Shinko tyres are bloody stiff which caused a lot of manly grunting and swearing to get the tube out and a new one in. All reassembled, Bayne applied his motorcycle tyre pump only to find that the valve wouldn’t seal, and the tyre stubbornly remained flat. Searching of the tool chest and spares for another 10 cent valve only increased the volume and frequency of swearing, so eventually we admitted defeat and unloaded the spare bike, a 1200GS. Fortunately it wasn’t far to Yukon River, unfortunately Nic’s latest cinema project of synchronised riding across the bridge had been wrapped up, and no celebrity level of tantrum would get him to re-shoot with me in it. A quick Caesar Salad lunch and we hit the road, not even bothering to stop at the Dalton Highway sign as we’d already done that, eventually catching up with the mob near Fairbanks after some roadworks that were way boggier and more slippery than anything we’d experienced on the Dalton Highway.
Once back into the vicinity of Fairbanks, the world was suddenly looking normal again and we turned east on the bitumen toward the resort at Chena Hot Springs. A final stop of fuel and some deserved take-away beverage procurement and we pulled into the resort just after 6pm, where the car park was discovered to have the highest density of mosquitoes and other biting insects of the trip so far. The feeling was nonetheless good and proud; we had ridden the Dalton Highway without serious incident and seen some incredible country, so with most of the dirt completed we were all well set for yet more spectacular scenery and wildlife in the remaining Alaskan south.
End of Part Two
Dropping The Anchorage – Part 3
We left Part 2 Flogging It To Deadhorse in the mozzie swarmed carpark at Chena Hot Springs at the theoretical end of Day 10, as usual the sun was completely unsupportive and refused to go down. We walked into reception dirty and sweaty, but with the casual swashbuckling air of adventure motorcyclists who have achieved something special. The run-of-mill tourists checking in immediately fell back, and even those about to get the keys left the desk without taking their watering eyes off us – they could sense they were in the presence of beings so superior to them that they could only look on in hushed awe. Either that or we were a bit pongy.
Day 11 started very late; we had almost been begged by Ride Leaders Justin and Bayne to have a sleep in and do whatever we wanted. What we wanted wasn’t laundry, but Talkeetna was a week old, so the laundry bags had started to take up most of the luggage space. Getting in behind the efficient Tassie team of Karen and Maureen, presumably while their husbands Tim and Bruce were off getting a foot massage and playing golf, the detoxing took place, and all was set for the remainder of the tour.
Less routine activities were chosen to fill in the remainder of the day; a dip in the hot springs followed by our first quad bike experience. The hot spring was extensive, and where the geothermal streams entered the pond were marked with very confusing lights which might have been trying to warn bathers that superheated steam was about to enter, but flashing concentric green and red circles didn’t really convey the message as quickly as the severely scalded skin. Feeling scorched and refreshed, we added our togs to the rest of the group’s hangings outside the rooms and headed to the quad biking. Our guide was very laisse faire, helmets were totally optional, and once out to the main arena all restrictions on speed and maintaining control were cancelled. A few drifties and other hoon-level skills were practiced, before heading back for a nice afternoon nap. Dinner was at the bar that evening, which made keeping the flow of IPA’s coming a lot easier.
Day 12 started with some glimpsing between the curtains at 4am which was the scheduled time for moose to visit the lake outside our room according to someone, who was clearly making it up as we only saw a duck. The mooses did appear at breakfast, running past the dining room just when our breakfast was served, however other team members sorted out the necessary photography. With laundry and other stuff packed and loaded into the support vehicle with help from a billion mozzies, we headed off back toward Fairbanks before getting onto the highway south. First stop was at the geographically confusing town of North Pole, which unsurprisingly leverages off the relationship of the North Pole with Santa. A coffee and a wander through the extensive tourist shop and we all felt comfortably re-aligned with gross materialism, and ready to continue our journey back into civilisation.
Loaded up with gifts suitable for giving only in faraway December, we kept on south until we got to Delta Junction, where the road from Canada joins up with the highway. The Buffalo Centre Drive In, famous for its burgers, was the lunch venue and it failed to disappoint with an actual steak sandwich available. The only major decision required was straight or curly fries to satisfy the eternal craving for salty carbs. Having pushed the pants to the limit once again, we continued south to Paxson where we met the other end of the Denali Highway we had last seen at Cantwell on the way to Fairbanks.
The day was a fairly short one, we headed up the Denali Highway to a lookout which showed huge views of the Alaska Range to the north. With the opportunity to consume some more snacks taken by those who didn’t plan to ever see a cardiologist, we regrouped and trundled off to the Tangle River Inn which was the destination for the night. After the usual efficient check-in process, we sort of hung about and had a rest before it was a civilised time to get to the restaurant. We sat by the window and watched Trevor slowly jogging back up the hill to the inn, while our hostess described a grizzly bear attack on a moose the previous day vaguely in the same area Trevor had just jogged from, but the scene remained quiet. A quick Google indicated that bears do see in colour, making Trevor’s selection of a bright red athletic shirt even more controversial. A delicious dinner was had with the whole crowd in attendance, and we learned that the mysterious Chicken Fried Steak is just steak cut into small pieces and fried like one would do chicken. With Trevor having frightened off all the bears, we decided on a group walk to the nearby lake and a swim for the brave/insane and a lesson in drone operations by Nic for those sensible enough to stay away from the water.
Day 13 was a backtrack and continuation south once we had sorted out Justin leading the wrong way toward Denali, thankfully the error was recognised before too many riders were lost in the wilds of central Alaska. It was about 100km down to Glennallen, where a stop for fuel was planned but abandoned due to the seething mass of trucks, RV’s, caravans, and cars jamming into the main Tesoro service station. Instead, a trip to the IGA was taken to stock up on lunches to be eaten further down the track. Passing the settlements of Copperville, Silver Springs and Copper Centre, things were starting to look up for the metallurgists in the group, before taking a left turn east and heading toward Chitina, which happily also means copper in the local language. We made it to Liberty Falls for disposal of the chosen lunch, stopped for a refuel in Chitina, then embarked on the 100km dirt road to McCarthy/Kennicott. The heat was palpable in the 80’s Fahrenheit, which was a bit unpleasant when not moving, but the road condition was generally good and there were only a couple of sections of deep gravel and some minor water crossings besides the thick dust.
The exciting crossing of a pedestrian bridge and an additional 5 miles saw us pull up at Kennicott Glacier Lodge. The spelling of Kennicott is correct, but so is the spelling of Kennecott which was the result of an error in the Kenni(e)cott Copper Company head office. In general terms the glacier is named Kennicott, but the Post Office sign is Kennecott so everything to do with the company town uses Kennecott. There was immediate disappointment as we’d missed the last mill tour, so spent the rest of the afternoon on a self-guided effort around the incredible site which closed in 1938 but looks like it just closed a few years ago – things don’t rot. A full sit-down meal was planned in the Lodge for 7pm, which turned out to be frankly spectacular, the beef roast was melt-in-mouth stuff and the veges magnificent.
Enough punters had shown an interest in the mill tour to change the Day 14 plan, those who wished could do the tour and leave at lunchtime, the rest could do as they pleased and have a sleep in and stay until the lunchtime exodus or leave earlier. Day 14 achieved, the interested party were guided through the history of Kennecott, which began with discovery of a seriously rich copper deposit in 1900 by two prospectors. The very high copper grade supported development in such a remote place; including a seriously expensive 196 mile railway (which is now the road) all the way to Cordova on the coast to ship the concentrate to Tacoma in Washington state for smelting.
The inexperienced guide getting some of the mill details right and some of them wrong but given full marks for trying, we finished the tour and in the mounting heat headed back to the Lodge for packing, dressing, helmeting, gloving, mounting, and leaving. The 100km trip back along the dirt was a lot quicker, as we had experience and being well spread out we could ride our own race. By about 1pm we all congregated at the Chitina restaurant, which conveniently opened up just for us and provided a very acceptable lunch.
The post-luncheon plan was continuation south once we’d recovered the highway. We’d been warned by Bayne about the scenery heading into Valdez – relentless snow-covered peaks and steep sided valleys, and he hadn’t exaggerated. After the group was separated at roadworks with a 25 minute cycle time, a long stop was taken at a lookout to admire the views before the rest caught up and we started the descent into Valdez. A dodgy looking track heading out to a viewpoint was too much for Justin, so rather than walk out he decided riding would be quicker. A meeting at the end with some cyclists was watched from afar with mounting suspense – would Justin be forced to show he was higher up the food chain and throw their bikes off the cliff? Or just have a pleasant chat? Unfortunately it was the latter so we quickly lost interest and with the rest of the group hurtling past, remounted and started the descent to sea level.
The mountain chill eased a little as we rolled down the hill, then was reinvigorated through the spectacularly tight Keystone Canyon with its multitude of waterfalls dropping off the sides into the Lowe River.
Gathering into sort of a group, we rolled into Valdez and found our way to the Best Western located next to the marina on the promising sounding Meals Ave. Dressed for the town, we wandered to the Lonely Planet recommended best restaurant in Meals Ave, only to find it closed and no meals were available. The Potatohead craft brewery was a good starting point, and a ridiculously large meal at Mike’s Palace finished us off for the day.
Day 15 included an early cruise on Prince William Sound, which suited most of the tour members as we could relax and just worry about feeling seasick rather than worry about crashing or being attacked by moose/bear/gangs of squirrels out in the harsh Alaskan environment. Otters and the odd seal were the first of the wildlife as we motored past the other end of the 800 mile oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay, before heading out through the narrows of Valdez Arm into Prince William Sound proper. An interesting location on the port side was Bligh Island, scene of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. Details of the incident were described by our skipper, with a major cause the drift of icebergs from the Columbia glacier that the ship was trying to avoid. We headed west to the southern side of Glacier Island, where a seal colony momentarily interested people until a humpback whale showed up and did some stuff.
The second part of the cruise was north up to the Columbia Glacier, or as close as the boat could get without a Titanic re-enactment as no one was too interested in getting anywhere near the water by floating around on a door. The Columbia Glacier has been rapidly retreating from nearly out to Glacier Island back to where it has split into two or three separate glaciers since the 1980’s, and is one of the last to do so with others nearby retreating at the end of the last ice-age. The result is less drifting icebergs in Prince William Sound, and a longer cruise to see the glacier.
And finally, the highlight of the cruise – a seafood chowder and a huddle down in the warmth inside while a piece of iceberg was carted about by a crew member for passengers yet to experience frostbite to touch.
Back at the dock, tips were dispensed according to one’s feelings about the chowder, and an afternoon of relaxation and possibly a small nap was celebrated. A visit to the museum was the next activity, with the history of the town featuring the difficulty early prospectors had getting out over the Valdez Glacier, the lost battle with Cordova to be the terminus of the Kennecott railway, the Prudhoe Bay to Valdez pipeline, and inevitably the 1964 earthquake which caused the town to be shifted onto more solid ground. A light snack and a few IPA’s at Potatohead with a nightcap IPA in the hotel bar saw out the day, but yet again not the daylight.
Day 16 was the penultimate, with glaciers now the theme of the trip. As always, the day started with a backtrack, and this time all of us were caught up at the roadworks for half an hour or so while listening to interesting stories from the young lollypop sign lady.
Admiring the scenery, we made our way to Glennallen for a repeat lunch from the IGA, this time eaten at the IGA with views over the Glennallen Pregnancy Centre. The descent into the dark world of American chocolate bar addiction was complete for some by this stage, with several of the team making trips back into the IGA for more Turtles or Butterfingers or PayDays and dealing them openly to their sticky victims. With the rain in Alaska now falling mainly on the Glennallen IGA, we tried to re-wrap the chocolate and geared up once more to motor the 120km to Glacier View, our final non-Anchorage destination on the tour.
As we were fairly early into the accommodation, Ride Leader Justin who was possibly still high on Turtles suggested a viewing of the Compass Expeditions Beyond Siberia video, with special commentary by himself and Bayne who had both been on the inaugural Road of Bones expedition. Numerous trips to the bar before, during, and after the video and a few PayDay poppers had some of us primed to play volleyball out on the grass court while sensible types clustered around the yet to be lit fire. With only three serious injuries to men in their prime, the volleyball was over and the penultimate tour dinner was held, before re-clustering around the fire for more medicinal drinks and medicinal toasted marshmallow sandwiches. Some nearly got to sunset, and therefore sunrise which typically happens 10 minutes later, either of which still hadn’t been seen by most.
Day 17 arrived, well for some but less well for those who had been trapped around the campfire by strong spirits. It was a mere 172km back to Anchorage, so there was no serious pressure but to arrive back to Motoquest intact at a reasonable hour. The glacier theme reached a crescendo with a stop planned to visit the Matanuska Glacier, one of few that can be reached and walked on easily. The road in was dusty and had disturbing overhanging glacial moraine cliffs, but no geotechnical dramas befell the group. After purchase of tickets and some Butterfingers at the office, the remaining mile or two was ridden to the car park.
The glacier sits in a river valley and is fairly flat at the end compared to most, so walking up onto it was no real struggle even for the strong spirit effected.
Glaciered out, we remounted and pressed on to a morning tea/lunch (munch) at Chickaloon that was designed to clean out the over-supply of snack foods that had accumulated in the support vehicle. With more chocolates consumed for a good cause and the Chickaloon ancient tractor and farm machinery display appreciated, we kept on in the rising heat with lowering enthusiasm as each passing mile meant the end was becoming nigh.
After a final re-group at the Anchorage welcome sign, nigh was reached at Motoquest at about 3:30pm after refuelling the bikes conga-line style for the final time. It hadn’t felt like 17 days prior we’d left the same carpark, so much fun and scenery had been experienced it felt a lot longer, but the trip had to end sometime. With a few wines and beers laid on by Motoquest quaffed and photos taken next to the trusty steeds, it was into the transit van and back to the Lakefront Hotel.
The finish was a team dinner in the hotel where speeches were made, and absolutely true and correct stories told with round after round of plain table water fuelling the laughter. A group of riders had become friends, and this blog series is dedicated to everyone on the first True North Alaska: Compass Leaders Justin and Bayne, Team Tassie (Tim, Karen, Bruce and Mause), the Coloradonese Alden, Jan, and Mike, fellow Brisbanians Nic and Margreth, fellow QLDer Richard O’Roma, Victorians Maxine and Peter and Trevor, SA’s Jake, and WA’s Patrick O’Perth. The hilarity just never ended and this trip will be very hard to beat.
End of Part Three, and Alaska.
If you would like to find out more about the True North: Alaska tour or secure your place on the June 2020 tour then please visit the tour webpage at: http://www.compassexpeditions.com/tours/true-north-alaska/