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Ten Top List For Alaska

By Colleen First

Editors Note: A number of our readers enjoyed the four part series written by Colleen First about her adventure to Alaska last summer.  For Colleen it was her first long distance trip and I felt her wisdom from that trip would provide benefit to the first-time long distance adventurer heading to Alaska.  In response, Colleen has created this article that many readers may find useful whether traveling to Alaska or elsewhere beyond the Northwest.

Anticipating a trip to Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean was daunting to me. Neither my riding partner nor I had never been on a major ride like this to a desolate and far away place. I researched all that I could on the Internet and asked the few people that I knew who had experience with the route. I gathered knowledge like a squirrel gathers nuts before the winter snow and ice. In the end it was all worth the effort. I breezed through the trip like I was riding to Neah Bay, not the Arctic Ocean. Did all of this preparation help? Well, some of it did. Some things were just luck and some problems never even surfaced. Below are some observations that I have about riding a motorcycle to Alaska, and the Arctic Ocean. Naturally, certain things will vary according to each individual, the fickle weather and road construction schedules.

1) Itís a long way to Alaska. British Columbia itself is huge, and it took three days just to get from the BC border to the Yukon, although I suppose we could have pushed it and made it a much quicker journey. But that defeats the purpose of a ride like this, doesnít it? There were a few things that surprised me about the trip, although most of them were good surprises. For one, Alaska is vast. I knew that it is a big state, but until you ride for hours on the same road, seeing the same mountains in the distance, you canít comprehend just how large it is. The road from the border of the Yukon Tok to Fairbanks was straight for a considerable distance, or at least not as curvy as I expected it to be. However there were always mountains in the distance to fill my camera lens with, so scenery was never a problem. Each turn in the road brought something new to see, be it wildflowers, a distant mountain range, vast expanses of trees or even vast expanses of burnt out forests. There was always something different to catch my eye and my imagination.

2) For the most part the roads are in good condition. I had heard horror stories about miles and miles of mud, gravel, dirt and potholesÖ and found very surprisingly little of that. I suppose that there were more gravel roads that it appeared in retrospect, it's simply that I was anticipating the worst that a road could offer and it didnít live up to that expectation. We took the Stewart-Cassiar highway to the Yukon and the Alaska Highway back, and found very periodic segments of construction. I recall one stretch of very loose gravel about 10 miles long, but that was the worst that I came across, well at least until I hit the Haul Road. In the frequent construction sections along the Alaska Highway there was dust when it was dry and mud when it was wet, but it was all passable. Passing/following traffic caused more problems than anything else, with dust and hurtling rocks wreaking havoc on our bikes and visibility. The KLR made the ride easy and I would have been less enthusiastic if I had been on my VFR, but mostly because of the damage inflicted to the body panels of the bike by flinging rocks and not so much a lessened level of confidence. The preceding sentences do not apply to the Haul Road to/from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, however. While for the most part the Haul Road was in excellent shape while we were on it, I can see that one flicker of the weather would turn it into a nightmare of slick mud (and it did in one section close to Coldfoot). Not to say other bikes canít make the trip, but the dual sport made it a lot more enjoyable.

3) Spare parts, tool and mechanical knowledge are worth their weight in gold. Because the two of us were riding the same model of bike we felt confident in only taking one spare of each part that we felt should be included. We split the tools and parts between the two bikes to make packing easier. I brought along service manuals in case we ran into something more complicated than a broken fan switch or a flat tire. Neither of us had much mechanical experience with our bikes, but we felt confident enough in the bikes themselves and our own ingenuity to be able to solve whatever problems came up. And we did just that. Be prepared to buy consumables along the way such as tires or chains. Most places did not stock such items (Fairbanks being the exception) so if you anticipate needing something you should arrange to have it shipped ahead or bring it along with you. Be sure that you know the basic maintenance of your bike and its components. We found out the hard way that O-Ring chains do not hold up well to gear oil and it caused some real problems on the return trip.

4) What did I wish I had? I had done a lot of research beforehand and wondered if I would leave anything out. As it was, there was very little that I was found wanting along the way. Some better dry bags would have been nice, but even those I was able to pick up along the way in Whitehorse. Warmer clothes for the snow that we encountered in the Brooks Range would have been welcome, but who was to expect snow in August? The only thing that I really wish I had was more time. Seventeen days from Seattle to Prudhoe Bay and back is enough time, but when youíre on a trip as grand as this one there is never enough time. A month would have been perfect!

5) What didnít I need? Fortunately I found that the only thing I really didnít need were as many clothes. Of course there were spare parts that I didnít use, but I wouldnít have chanced it and left them behind. But laundry facilities are available at some motels and I could have easily done without half the clothes I did bring. (But donít skimp on warm socks and a nice warm fleece to layer up with.)

6) Bring cash. While the larger towns and establishments will take plastic and offer ATMs, there are some places that donít, and when they donít take it youíre not left with a lot of options. I was able to put almost the entire trip on my credit card but still had a tidy sum of US and Canadian dollars to tide me over for the little sundry purchases made along the way. Once north of Fairbanks, not only should you be prepared with sums of cash to get you through, but be sure to carry a couple of days worth of packable food items as well, as there are no grocery stores along the haul road, and one canít rely on the generosity of truckers handing out food along the way Ö although one trucker did just that for us.

7) The Milepost Magazine is also worth its weight in gold. While I initially scoffed at my partnerís purchase of this massive annual publication I soon realized my error and relished the in-depth knowledge that it held between its covers. It's well worth the price and weight of packing it along. Detailed and accurate mile-by-mile descriptions, mileage between gas stops, recommendations on local places; itís all in there.

8) The camera. Sure, it sounds obvious. But donít just bring your camera along; use it! So many people take trips and then say, "I was having too much fun riding to stop and take pictures." These are the same people who "ooo" and "ahhh" over other peopleís pictures, lamenting that they wish that they had stopped more often. Youíre on a Grand Adventure, seeing things that most people will never see in their lifetime and, more importantly, doing it from the back of a motorcycle! Stop and smell the flowers (or the moose, as the case may be) and engrave those memories into long-lasting pictures to cherish for a lifetime. Itís also fun to show them off to envious friends and when you are writing your memoirs youíll be glad you had the pictures to bring all those wonderful memories back to life.

9) Fuel. Another concern about riding in Alaska is the lack of fuel. I didnít find this to be a problem, but then again the KLR gets 52 mpg and can go about 250 miles before needing refueling. The Milepost lists all available fuel stops, although I did notice its omission of a fuel stop just north of the Yukon River, but seeing as the station was not guaranteed to be open it was wise of them not to include it and present false hope. We each carried a 2-gallon container on our bikes but luckily never needed it. It was a nice peace of mind though, knowing that it was back there "just in case."

10) Your sense of adventure: bring it along! If something unexpected like a flat tire or some other mechanical failure occurs, donít panic. Quietly and calmly try to figure out the best course of action. When you are riding down the road and you wonder where that side road goes, follow it. Or if you see an intriguing little shop at the edge of a tiny hamlet, take the time to stop and go inside. Talk to the locals, listen to the rivers, smell the smoke from forest fires. Each sense will heighten your appreciation of the journey that youíre on. Donít be afraid to stop at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and just sit and listen to the absolute silence or the wind sighing in the branches of the trees. Or to get off your bike and check out up close the devastation that a forest fire leaves behind in its wake, discovering the delicate return of life under the fallen trees.

There is so much more to a trip like this than just eating up the miles and saying "I did it." Youíre making memories, so make the most of it while you can.


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