Thursday, December 29, 2011

Withdrawals

At the end of the riding season a year ago, a friend of mine posted a comment on Facebook, saying that he had put away his "two-wheeled friend and counselor" for the year. This summer, I had a glimpse of just how true my friend's words were. We had some major initiatives at work during the month of July, such that I pretty much spent at least an hour or two working every single day from the end of June until the last week of July, and frequently put in my eight hours at work, then another two to four hours from home in the evening. It's not fun, but that's a part of the deal for a network administrator. Things break, you fix them. You make upgrades to the network, but it can't be done during the day because that would break the business during peak hours.



<shrug> It's part of the job.



What I found, however, was that even the short ride home from work was enough to put me in a better frame of mind. If I took the "long way" home, a serpentine route that winds up a half dozen or more switchbacks up a mountainside before turning into a steep, windy, gravel back road which overlooks the ridge that my house is built upon, my mood was even more improved by the time I got home.



I learned an important lesson this summer: motorcycles are cheaper than therapy <grin>



Unfortunately, I rode my V-Strom up the driveway to my house for the last time in 2011 near the end of October. It started snowing a day or two later, and it still hasn't quit. (Well...that's not entirely true. We did have a couple of weekends where the temperature was quite mild -- to the low 50s even, once -- but I'd rather ride my motorcycle in foot-deep snow than wet ice any day of the week!)



Consequently, I found myself brooding over the view from my back porch the other night:


I'm jonesin' for an hour on two wheels ("c'mon, just one hour, please?!?!") while glumly aware of the fact that I'm still three to four months away from getting Sue Zuki out of my garage.



Why do I live in Alaska again?



Nevermind...come April, I'll be reveling in 20 hours of daylight and the ability to ride for 15 minutes and be absolutely. Totally. Alone.



I can't wait :)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Awesome Photos of a High-Side

Recently found a link to a forum that had a thread about a guy (not me!) high-siding on his SV650 on a track day. Wow...may this never happen to anyone reading this blog!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Denali Highway Loop

I had no idea what time it was, but the dripping noise I had heard earlier was gone.  Summer in Alaska is like that.  The sun comes up long before all but the most die-hard early risers are out of bed, and stays up until even the midnight partiers are ready to call it a night.  It's impossible to tell the time based upon sunlight, especially when the sun is hiding behind overcast skies.  I reached across the tent, fumbling for my watch.  Six forty-two.  Time to get up.

I slithered into my base layer and cargo pants, pulled on my motorcycle boots, and unzipped the door of the tent.  The skies were overcast and grey, just like they had been when I crawled into my sleeping bag a little over eight hours ago.  The air was chilly but not too bad, as I heated up a pan of water for a breakfast of freeze dried granola and blueberries.  Say what you will about Mountain House food, but their granola and blueberries rock.

Once again, I had to pinch myself to believe I was actually here.  I first heard about Tangle Lakes campground close to twenty years ago, shortly after I moved to Alaska.  It sounded like a great place to go camping, mountain biking, fishing...and the photos looked beautiful.  The dream gestated in my mind for ten years or so.  Then I heard that the State of Alaska had discontinued maintenance on the Denali Highway.  I shelved the dream.  A few years ago, I heard that the highway was open again, but that there was no winter maintenance.  A little research with Google, and it looked like the Denali Highway would be a great trip on my V-Strom.  Gravel and dirt roads.  Rugged enough to be a challenge.  Yet plenty of campers and RVs drive the highway each summer, so if I did get into trouble, I wouldn't be stranded alone in the middle of Alaska without any hope of assistance.  Perfect.

It started innocently enough, a little over a month ago.  "Honey, can you be out of the house between about 1:00 and 5:00 on Sunday the 31st?"

It's not usually a good sign when a conversation begins with my wife asking me to be somewhere else, but this was the exception.  My step-daughter wanted to have her baby shower at our house, and, well...guys aren't usually invited to those kinds of things.

"How about if I am not just gone on the 31st, but the 30th, too?" I countered.  And with that, the Denali Highway trip moved from "dream" to "planning".  Now, I was there.  It had moved from "reality" to "here".  I still couldn't believe it.

When I turned off the highway between Glenallen and Delta Junction at Paxson, I thought to myself, "This is what 'happy' looks like."  The alpine tundra was stunning.  Bare rocks jutted up from the scrub brush and lichen surrounding the highway, itself a thin ribbon of asphalt intruding upon the alien landscape.  More than once I caught myself wondering what cosmic mistake placed a road in this desolate valley.  The smooth roadway seemed so out of place amongst the craggy peaks surrounding me, it couldn't actually belong here.  It was just over 22 miles from Paxson to Tangle Lakes campground, and it passed in a flash.  After seven hours, I had reached Tangle Lakes, two hours later than I had anticipated.

This was my first motorcycle camping trip, and it was a big one.  This wasn't Bird Creek, or Eagle River campground, half an hour from my home in Anchorage.  If I hadn't prepared adequately, if the V-Strom wasn't up to the task, or if I wasn't prepared for this trip, it was a long way back home.  Fortunately, I had done my homework, and the night at Tangle Lakes went well.  There weren't many camping spots left when I arrived, but I found a cozy little nook in the scrub brush in which to set up my tent, a nifty little four-and-a-half pound wonder that had served me well since I bought it back in the early '90s.  By diligently keeping to a strict checklist I was able to fit all the gear I'd need -- plus tools and other emergency supplies -- in my diminutive Pelican 1430 side cases.  Mostly :)  Food and water, I packed in a Camelback backpack.


Almost everything I needed for the trip fit into the two
Pelican 1430 sidecases in the background.

8:30 am, breakfast is done, and it's starting to rain again.  I climb back inside my tent, and change out of street clothes into my motorcycle gear.  Leather Alpinestar Bat pants replace North Face cargo pants, and my Icon jacket replaces my Polar Fleece.  I stuff my sleeping bag, mattress pad and extra clothes back inside my dry bag, squeeze out as much air as I can and roll the top down to provide (hopefully) a waterproof seal.  I'm packed, but I can still hear rain pelting the fly of my three-season mountain tent.  I lie down on the now-bare tent floor to wait out the rain.  Half an hour goes by.  The rain seems to be lightening up, so I step out of the tent, strap the dry bag to the pillion of the bike, and roll up my tent, which gets strapped to the SW-Motech rack, just above the muffler on the right hand side of the bike.  I make one last check to be sure I didn't forget anything, then point the bike out of the campground.

Doubt begins gnawing at me as I turn right, towards Cantwell.  It's over 110 miles of unimproved gravel road.  Friday, just before leaving work, a coworker who rides a heavily modified Gixxer 750 warns me to be careful on this road.  "It's sandy," he tells me.  "I've driven through with my RV, but I wouldn't take my bike."  Hmmm.  My friend has got a lot more experience than I do, and a reputation for taking chances.  He once told me a story about balling up his Cessna 150 while hot dogging on final approach, and has repeated numerous stories about pushing his Gixxer way harder than I'd ever dream of doing.  Yet he wouldn't ride this road.  And I think I'm up to it?!?!  But my Wee is far better suited to this road than a Gixxer, especially one as heavily track prepped as his.  I tell the fear to take a hike, and keep pushing on towards Cantwell.

While I'm cautious not to get over-confident -- I am a long ways from civilization, and at this point, I haven't seen many other people out and about yet, so a broken leg here would indeed be a really big deal -- I find myself wondering what the fuss was about.  The gravel is in really good condition, and despite the non-stop rain, I'm able to comfortably scoot along at 40-50 mph, indicated.  Two hours to Cantwell!

At Maclaren summit, I stop to snap a few photos for the scrapbook, and to post here in the blog.  While I'm stopped, another biker on a big BMW 1200GS pulls up.  His saddle bags bear the URL "rentalaska.com".  I wave, and we chat about bikes for a minute, before I mention that I had stopped for a photo op.  "Want me to take one for you?"  I agree and pass him the camera.

He hands the camera back, and pulls back out on the road, as his flock, all on KLR650s, pass by.  I wave at the group, snap a few more photos, then hop back on the bike.  The morning is still young, and the Wee and I both are happy as clams :)

Around mile 50, I found myself getting unexpectedly melancholy. Most everything I enjoy, my dad introduced me to.  Airplanes?  Check.  He worked for Mitsubishi, installing interiors in MU-2 airplanes when I was two or three years old.  We used to go out to the airport and watch airplanes take-off and land, and build MU-2s out of blocks on the living room floor when he would get home from work.  Motorcycles?  Check.  He owned several while I was growing up.  I don't remember it first hand, but my parents told the story of him putting a motorcycle helmet on my head when I was three, then setting me on the seat in front of him for short trips around the block.  My neck wasn't strong enough to hold up the helmet, but I'd just lean back against his chest.  Camping?  Check.  I remember going camping with him several times throughout my childhood, and even my early adulthood.  He and I went caribou hunting and camping at Lake Louise near Glenallen a year or two after we moved to Alaska in 1989.  We never saw a single caribou, but I remember cruising around the Alaska countryside with my dad in his Ram Charger.  With a shock, I realize I am now about the same age he was then.

When he passed away in 2006, it was a surprise to us all, but I handled it pretty well.  I'm a part-time youth pastor, so my faith helped me then...and since.  The way I see it, he's not gone; I just can't see him or hear him now.  Yet every now and again, I'll find myself missing him.  Cruising down the Denali Highway, I find myself in the midst of one of those times again.  Dad loved Alaska, as do I.  How cool would it be to be riding this highway and camping out in the tundra with him?  I can almost picture him on one of his old Honda UJMs next to me.  Unfortunately, he died before I earned my motorcycle endorsement, so he never got a chance to see me ride, and other than the childhood trips around the block, we never got to ride together.

Then, all of a sudden, all thoughts of my dad are gone, replaced in a flash by a huge "WT*?!?!?"  My trusty V-Strom has suddenly turned into a 65 h.p. anaconda, and it doesn't like having someone riding on top of it.  I chop the throttle and gently, GENTLY!, ease on the brakes.  I drop from nearly 40 mph to 20 mph, as the road surface changes from a smattering of gravel over hard-packed dirt, packed down into a rock hard surface by countless other visitors to a thin, wet mud over slick clay.  Even at 20 mph, the Wee feels like it is riding on ball bearings.  I force myself to take a breath.  Release the death grip on the handlebars.  Relax the shoulders.  Repeat.  I notice a truck pulling a fifth-wheel in my rearview.  Nuts.  I just passed him a couple of miles back.  I pull as far right as I dare, and brake until he gets the message and passes me.  I can't believe I was just passed by an RV.  This sucks.

Mile 55, and I pass the Rent Alaska crew as they take a break next to a river crossing.  I wave again, and proceed on.  The mud has gotten better, but there are still intermittent slick spots.

I'm back in the mud again, poking along at 20-25 mph, when I notice the tell-tale headlights of the Rent Alaska BMW in my rear view.  He's got a pair of Über-cool fog lights on his bike, and it's easy to recognize him. I'd love to have a set of those fogs on my bike, but honestly, that's the last thing on my mind right now.  Once again, I pull over to the side of the road, but he just slows down with me.  When I'm sure he doesn't want to pass me, I pull back out onto the road and try to find the least slippery line through the mud.  Breath.  Release the death grip on the handlebars.  Relax the shoulders.  That becomes my mantra.  Eventually, I notice that the bike isn't really sliding in the mud.  Rather, the stock -- and fairly worn -- OEM Trailwing on the front tire is trying to track the tire prints of other vehicles.  If I follow a line through untracked mud, the ride is much better.  At about mile 60, I pull into a parking area on the side of the road to relax, munch on a Cliff Bar and suck down a couple of swallows of water from the Camelback.  The Rent Alaska guide pulls into the parking lot with me.  "This mud kinda sucks, doesn't it?" he asks.  I agree whole-heartedly.  "I live on a gravel road, but I've got no experience on anything like that," I reply.  I've read before how the maintenance crews treat a lot of gravel roads with calcium chloride (I think) to keep the dust down, but that that stuff makes it really slick for motorcyclists when it gets wet.  I wonder if that's what is making this road so nasty.  "My tires aren't really designed for this," he tells me.  "Looks like yours are about the same."  Sure enough, our tread patterns are pretty similar.  "What are you running?"  I ask.  "Metzler Tourances," he replies.  I nod.  "I've got a Shinko 705 on the rear, and a stock Trailwing on the front," I reply, "but right about now, I'd kill for a TKC80."  He tells me that's what they use on the Kawasakis, but they put a more street-oriented tire on the big BMWs.  We chat for a few more minutes, then he rejoins his crew as they catch up.  I take a few more minutes, then saddle up again to press on for Cantwell.  I realize that my earlier two hour estimate to Cantwell is going to be a little optimistic.

It doesn't really look that bad, but this is by far the most
challenging road surface I have ever ridden on.

...and it completely covers the rear of the bike.

Self-portrait.  This *IS* my happy face...at
least for now :)

The road surface kind of sucked, but the scenery more than
made up for it.


















Near mile 79, the road surface suddenly improves.  Gradually, I begin picking up speed again, until I am no longer afraid I'll find myself riding in road-snot again.  30 mph.  35 mph.  40 mph.  45 mph.  50 mph. I start to relax again, and start enjoying the scenery.  Out of the corner of my eye, I see a rabbit dart into the woods as my Wee roars past.  A few minutes later, a squirrel darts onto the road, stops as he sees me coming, then dashes across the road in front of me anyway.  I swerve to avoid him, laughing out loud.  I love this place.  Idly, I begin to wonder where all of the larger mammals are.  The Denali Highway is home to most of the common animals that we find in south-central and interior Alaska: black and brown bear, moose, lynx and porcupine, too.  But not here, at least not today.  While I must admit that I am glad I haven't run across a bear -- since I'm a bit exposed on the bike -- I am a little surprised that I haven't seen anything bigger than a rabb...

Hello, there!

Coming around the corner, I find myself in the midst of a herd of caribou milling about in the middle of the highway.  I grab a fistful of front brake and stomp the rear, causing the rear tire to skid a bit on the gravel.

Oh, yeah...we have caribou up here, too.  Not typically found in the Anchorage area, I had completely forgotten about them. I slowly step off the bike, retrieve my camera and squeeze off a couple of quick photos before spooking the herd, causing them to wander off into the trees:

Pardon me.  I didn't mean to startle you!

The road is pock-marked with hundreds of hoof-prints, as I swing a leg back over the saddle and resume my trip.  It's a good day to be alive!

The odometer slowly counts out the miles, one after another, just like the ticking of a grandfather clock.  Pretty lakes and rivers dot the valleys on the south side of the road.  Click.  Mountains, peaks shrouded with clouds, on the north.  Click.  The sun tries to peek through an opening in the clouds.  Click.  The clouds close in again, and I pass through a light shower.  Click.  A wooden bridge crosses a shallow creek, water burbling happily over rocks, and creating splashing eddies in their wake.  Idly, I wonder if there are any grayling in the creek, since I brought my fishing pole, but have yet to try my luck.  Click.

Espresso!  Next left.  Click.

Wait a second...espresso?  Here?  Yep, a huge compound sprawls on the south edge of the road, offering espresso, helicopter rides, and "large, cozy cabins".  I shake my head, laughing at the absurdity of an espresso stand in the middle of freaking nowhere.

Less than half an hour later, I found myself catching up to the traffic that had passed me on the slippery section of the road earlier.  I pass several RVs, as they slow down on some of the steeper, twistier portions of the road.  Over half way to Cantwell, the road has changed yet again, weaving around the rolling foothills of the Alaska Range.  The ground alongside the road has gotten rockier, and the trees have gotten shorter again.  There are fewer spruce trees and more scrub brush.  Of the few spruce there are, even fewer are more than six feet tall.  Before long, I leapfrog the Rent Alaska tour again, passing the KLR650s when they pull to the side to let me by.  I'm in no hurry, and so I'm content to stay behind the faster riders, but recognizing that I'm not part of their group (I guess) they let me pass anyway.

I stop at an especially scenic overlook, snap a picture of a pair of KLR650s and an RV as they buzz past, then shoot several more pictures of a picturesque valley.  The camera fails to do justice to the beauty all around me.  It's like trying to capture an art museum on a postage stamp; you can't fit the majesty and grandeur of it all in such a tiny format.  I consider trying to take a panoramic shot, but just put the camera away.  The technology doesn't exist to digitally record the setting I am in.  I will have to be content with memories.  I once heard someone say that there are simply parts of the world where God took a little extra time during the Creation.  I must certainly be in just such a spot right now, I think to myself.

A sign ahead on the roadway tells me I'm just ten miles from Cantwell.  Good, because the road has gotten intermittently slippery again, and I'm starting to feel fatigued.  It's 12:30; I've been on the road for three and a half hours already, and I'm getting tired.  Ten more miles, I tell myself.  Don't drop the bike here!  I'm counting the miles on the odometer.  It's been a beautiful ride, and I'm really, really grateful for the experience, but I'm ready to be on a road surface that isn't actively trying to throw me on my side.  Eight miles.  You can do it.  Breathe.  Release the death grip.  Relax your shoulders.  Repeat.  It will be well when you reach Cantwell, I tell myself.  Seven miles.  And suddenly, the asphalt turns to pavement.

There's a trio of KLR650s and the big BMW ahead of me when I see the one sign that brings a smile to the face and a quickening pulse to the heart of every true motorcyclist: a yellow sign with a black curve resembling the letter "S" on it.  Twisties!

The Rent Alaska crew picks up the pace, but I still find myself closing quickly on the nearest KLR650 in the second or third s-curve.  I'm hanging off the side of the bike like the Valentino Rossi wanna-be that I am, but he's just enjoying the ride.  No problem; I'm probably too fatigued to be pushing the envelope anyway.  I back off the throttle and increase my following distance.  Soon, I'm at a gas station in Cantwell, pumping 4.8 gallons of regular unleaded into the bike.

One hundred thirty six miles from Paxson to Cantwell, roughly four hours riding time.  Fifteen or so years of dreams, turned into reality.  Four hours later, sitting in my living room in Anchorage again, I'm trying to convince myself that I had really done it.  The round trip was slightly over 600 miles, and took me about 29 hours, including two stops for road construction and the overnight stay at Tangle Lakes.  It doesn't seem real.

Hmmm...I'd still like to ride the Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay, or maybe the Dust to Dawson ride...make my first border crossing on the Wee...


Edit:

Here's some video I shot on the Glen Highway on the way to the Denali Highway:



Unfortunately, the footage I shot on the Denali itself didn't turn out; my camera was acting a little flaky, sigh.



Planning:


  Itinerary for the Denali Highway trip

  Packing Checklist, with notes.

Map:



View Larger Map

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

2011 Ride for Hope!

Motorcyling can be a somewhat selfish pleasure, especially if, like me, you spend most of your time riding alone.  However, after reading Irresistible Revolution a few years ago, I decided I really wanted to start living a life that is less about me and more about others.  So, I was thrilled the other day when I saw a poster for a fundraising ride for Crisis Pregnancy Center and Heart to Heart Pregnancy Resource Center, two local organizations that are "dedicated to providing accurate information, services, and support to individuals to help them make informed, life-affirming decisions about pregnancy, sexual integrity, parenting and post-abortion recovery."  I sent an e-mail to one of the organizers asking for more information, and just like that, I'm in.  Saturday, June 25th, I'll be joining a group of motorcyclists for the 2011 Ride for Hope!


View Directions to Hope, AK in a larger map

The route to Hope cuts through some of the most beautiful scenery in this corner of the world, and using my motorcycle as a tool to help raise money to help support these two organizations is a good way for me to begin living for others. My goal is to raise $500 in pledges.  So...if you would like to sponsor me (please!!!), add a comment below.  If you can help, I'd be very grateful :)  Or if you ride too, go to CPC's "events" page, fill out a registration form and join us on the ride!


Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Different Ride Report

This past Friday, I took a group ride with several close friends.  This trip was a little different for me for a couple of reasons.  First, I almost always ride alone.  I'm not anti-social; I just never seem to hook up with others to ride together, except for maybe once or twice with my wife, and once when I was following a group of riders home from Wasilla at about 11:00 at night (we were worried about moose on the highway, and the lead vehicle was a van, lol).  Second, I didn't take the V-Strom...I took my mountain bike, a Diamondback Outlook that I've had for five years or so, and that has been seriously neglected since buying the Suzuki :)

Anyway, Friday morning, five of us packed up our gear and bikes, piled into two trucks, and departed Anchorage for Eklutna Lake, destination: Serenity Falls, roughly thirteen miles around to the far side of the lake.

The view towards the far side of the
lake, from about a mile in.
I had packed lightly, since this was only an overnight trip, and I had just cleaned and lubed the bike the previous weekend, so despite the fact that two of the five of us were about half my age :) the first mile passed easily enough. However, by mile five  I was starting to feel my lack of recent exercise.  Fortunately, we stopped for a breather at a bridge over one of several small creeks that feed into the lake.

Eric snaps a few photos with his iPhone while I'm doing
the same with my Android
And Pat catches up with us for a breather at the bridge
While all of us pulled ahead from time to time, or dropped to the end of the group as we shed layers, grabbed a snack, etc., I was keeping pretty much in the middle of the group most of the time.  Nevertheless, Nate, one of the two twenty-somethings (well, technically Joel is a couple of weeks shy of being a twenty-something) was doing his best to remind me that my twenties were more than just a few years ago :)  He was absolutely a machine, pulling ahead of the rest of us, whether we were going uphill or down, and staying in the lead more often than not.






Shortly after resting at the bridge, we ran into one of the toughest spots of the ride: about a half mile of snow-covered trail.  Yes, Virginia, it's April 29th, and yes, that's still a lot of snow on the ground.  At one point, the snow and ice pack had cracked open like a crevasse on a glacier.  No joke, the crevasse had to be at least three feet deep!  Several of us, myself included, tried to bike across the snow.  I've done it before, but not with a day pack filled with over three quarts of water, a sleeping bag, a Coleman stove and food.  All of us were just a bit too top heavy to balance our bikes on the soft, slush-over-ice snowpack, and we ended up walking most of the way.  I think three of us -- maybe all of us -- bought it at least once trying to ride across the snow.  Obviously, I was the slowest learner, because I must have dropped my bike on the snow three or four times as the front tire tried to go one way, the rear tire tried to go another, and I tried to keep going straight.

Bold Airstrip is located at mile eight, on the far shore of the lake.  Next to the airstrip is a small cabin that you can rent from the state park, and by the time we got that far, I was ready to drop my gear there and call it good.  Lucky for me, however, Eric dug out his GPS and spent fifteen or twenty minutes searching for a geocache, which he found, so I got a chance to snarf down another Cliff Bar and recuperate for the final four mile ride.  By the time I got back to my bike, Nate and Eric were already tiny dots on the trail, so I resumed by usual position in the middle of the pack, with Pat and Joel right on my heels.

Other than the ice pack just before reaching Bold Airstrip, most of the preceding eight miles had been pretty easy riding, with slight up- and down-hill sections surrounded by alpine forest.  Spring in Alaska is my favorite time of year, with the promise of an entire summer stretching out before you.  Everywhere you look, snow is melting, the grass is beginning to green and the trees began popping out buds as the sun begins to invite life back into the world.  Best of all, the air is filled with a clean, soapy smell from the tree buds on the alders, willows and cottonwoods that share the woodlands with spruce and larch trees.  At the airstrip, however, things changed, as the forest had apparently been ravaged by fire some time in the fairly recent past.  Blackened husks of trees stood out against the green mountains on each side of the valley, looking like charred skeletons with their empty branches clawing at the sky.  Yet even here, life was returning, claiming its stake on the fire-scarred forest.  Already there were small willow and alder saplings, and  I'd wager that soon mature willows and alders will obscure all evidence of the fire.

The view from the bridge...

...and the view OF the bridge.  That's Pat
in the blue sweatshirt and white cap,
Eric next to him and Pat's son Joel on
the opposite side of the bridge.
Near mile ten, we stopped to search for another geocache at yet another bridge spanning a happily bubbling creek.  All of us were tired and sore by this point, and we were grateful to drop our packs and lean over the bridge railing to watch the water go by.  We knew there were only another two miles to go, so eventually we picked up the packs again, hobbled back on the mountain bikes and started the final push to the Serenity Falls cabin.  I mentioned to Pat that I was really missing my V-Strom at this point.  "It wouldn't be worth doing if it was easy," he laughed.  Yep, I can't argue with that.

Since Bold Airstrip, the trail had grown more and more rocky.  It was still plenty wide enough for a car to drive, but whereas the lakeside trail was a smooth, packed gravel trail, the stretch between Bold and Serenity Falls was dirt with fist-sized boulders.  As I commented to someone -- I don't remember who, exactly -- in the years since I had started riding motorcycles, my *bicycle* seat seemed to have become more firm while *my* seat had become less so :)  Since my Diamonback only has a suspension on the front forks, I finally had to stop to let some air out of my tires to cushion the ride a bit.  I don't know if it truly helped, but it at least seemed to take some of the edge off the ride.

Finally, we reached the Serenity Falls hut, and we were pleasantly surprised when we got there.  I've stayed in Forest Service/State Park cabins before, but Serenity Falls is much, much nicer than any of the other cabins I've ever stayed in.  The entire south-facing side of the cabin is covered in windows, showing off the falls and the Eklutna Glacier.  The hut sleeps up to thirteen people, including three double-bunks.  Half of the hut (the north side) is bunks.  A wall separates the sleeping area from the main room, which is equipped with two wooden tables, two stainless steel counter tops for preparing food and a large wood stove.  During the day, the south facing windows do a great job of keeping the hut warm; by night, the wood stove keeps the hut toasty.  Once we arrived in the hut and dropped our packs, everyone immediately started preparing food.  While everyone else was rehydrating freeze dried food or heating an MRE, I feasted on a monster-sized, double-cheese hamburger that I had grilled on my barbecue the night before.  It had to be close to a half-pound of hamburger meat, and right then, there was no finer meal to be had anywhere on earth.  What is it about camping that makes everything taste so GOOD?

Left to right, Eric, Joel and Pat at one of the tables at
Serenity Falls.
After eating our fill, we set about gathering firewood to keep the wood stove fueled throughout the night, and talking about whatever came to mind.  Night came far too quickly and soon, we crawled into our bunks, warm, well-fed and exhausted from the ride in.

The next morning, Pat and Eric hiked a little further up the trail towards the Eklutna Glacier while Joel, Nate and I started packing and cleaning up for the ride back home.  Too soon, we were ready to go.  The ride back was uneventful, and after two or three hours, we were back at the parking lot, where I had only three things on my mind: a Quarter-Pounder with cheese, a Mocha Frappe and a shower :)  Normally, I'm not one for fast food, but after biking 27 miles round trip with a 40-50 pound pack (I didn't bother to weigh it), I was craving the calories to restock my depleted reserves.

While I've spent many, many weekends at Eklutna Lake in the twenty-some-odd years I've lived in Alaska, this is the first time I've ever gone back to Serenity Falls.  I can guarantee it won't be the last.  Even though it was still too early for spring to have truly arrived at 1200 feet of altitude, this was a breathtakingly beautiful place to spend a weekend.  I can't imagine how gorgeous it must be when the trees are displaying all their glory and the falls -- cascades of blue ice this time of year -- are crashing down the mountainsides into the valley below.  Oh yes, I'll be back to Serenity Falls again.

Information on Serenity Falls and other Eklutna public-use cabins available at http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/cabins/anch.htm

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring Cleaning

As I just posted elsewhere, I finally got around to doing some of the winter maintenance on my bike.  I replaced the air filter and oiled the chain.  I intended to change the oil and oil filter, but ran into a small snag...:

WHERE'S MY OIL FILTER?!?!?!

I think I really need to wash my bike!  That's on my agenda for tomorrow, followed by an oil change.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Electrical System Upgrades

I know there are people who ride their motorcycles all winter long, but I'm not one of them.  Whether that's because I'm not skilled enough or because I'm not dumb enough to try, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader :) but whatever the cause, there is a large block of time between November 1 and April 1 that my V-Strom just sits in the garage.  However, don't believe that means the Wee is neglected during this time; far from it.  This winter, at least, I am taking advantage of the down time to do some upgrades on the bike.  I've already posted the SW-Motech crash bar installation.  I'll also be changing the air filter, oil and oil filter before hitting the roads again this spring.

There are some electrical modifications I would like to make to the bike this winter, as well.  First, while the stock V-Strom headlights are pretty much amazing (much better than my Nissan Frontier, even), I'd like to add a little extra lighting to make the bike more conspicuous at night, so I'm adding fog lights.  Second, it can get a little chilly in south-central Alaska, even in the summer time, so I would like to add heated grips.  Third, after adding the TechMount PDA holder to the bike, I realized it would be good to have an auxiliary power port near the handlebars to supply power for my Android phone.  Using the GPS and Google Navigator sucks the battery dry much like an early '70s muscle car sucks a gas tank dry.  If I want to navigate with the Android for more than about an hour (especially in Alaska, where there are long stretches of highway with poor cellular service), I need a way to get juice to it.

Before deciding on these items, however, I had to take stock of the electrical load this would place on the bike.  From what I could find on-line, the V-Strom's alternator can supply about 40 amps of current.  EDIT: Pat (Greywolf) over at Stromtroopers suggests it may be a little lower -- 33A rather than 40A, with 10-12A available for accessories.. My thumbnail calculations suggest that my intended upgrades would add about 16 amps 5 amps:

  1. Fog lights: ~10 amps (2 x 55 watts @12 volts = 110 watts @ 12v = 9.2 amps) ~130mA (I found some LED H3 bulb replacements over at superbrightleds.com that I will be using instead of the halogen lights that came with my fog lights to keep current draw down);
  2. I am also replacing the stock incandescent brake lights with LEDs from superbrightleds.com, giving me one additional Amp (Note: they also sell straight 1157 replacemnt LEDs, but I decided to go with the motorcycle bulb after reading a report that the straight 1157s only illuminate directly behind the bike rather than lighting up the whole reflector);
  3. Oxford's Heated Grips: 4 amps (48 watts @ 12 volts);
  4. GPS power: 2 amps (my Android phone supposedly draws about 0.5 amp, but I'm providing a really large fudge factor for other devices).
The headlights draw about 10 amps, as do the high-beams and fog lights.  I can't imagine that the rest of the electrical system (ECU, brake lights, etc.) on the bike pulls 14 amps, so as long as I don't try to run fog lights and high-beam lights at the same time, I should be okay (anyone have experience to the contrary?). EDIT: based on Greywolf's suggestions (see link above), I think I should have more than enough power to run the new gadgets without overtaxing the electrical system on the bike. In fact, if my math is correct, I should still have 5-7A of current available, even with everything turned on.

After lots of trial and error, I decided to mount the fog lights at the bottom of the SW-Motech crash bars.  There is a fillet at the front of the crash bars where the bars wrap upwards around the engine.  That places the fog lights lower than I would like, where they could potentially be damaged by obstacles on the ground, but I when I tried to mount them inside the cowl, they didn't clear the forks.

Yes, it needs a longer bolt.  I'll fix it...eventually.
 Another problem I ran into with the fog light installation is finding a way to turn them on and off.  At first, I intended to buy a rocker switch from one of the electronic parts stores in town, but then I realized I would need a waterproof switch since I ride rain or shine.  I could trigger the relay with the current going to the headlights so that the fog lights would be on whenever the bike was running, but I wanted to be able to turn them on and off as needed.  I could just tie them into my high-beams, but I rarely use my high-beams (I don't want to blind oncoming traffic; just make myself a little more conspicuous).  After a lot of searching, I found a better solution.  Aerostich.com sells a nifty electronic module that ties into the on/off switch for your high-beam lights.  Trigger the high-beams for one second, and the autoswitch toggles power to another circuit.  If I connect the output wire from the autoswitch to a relay, I can turn the fog lights on and off at will.  Voila!  Problem solved :)

The next problem was trying to decide how to distribute power to all of these electronic gadgets.  I don't want to simply run a lead to the battery for each of these circuits, since that is a sloppy approach.  I don't want to clutter the battery with a slew of ring terminals, nor do I want to add more wiring than necessary to the bike.  I discovered that Suzuki offers heated grips as an option for the V-Strom, and that there is a power lead near the radiator that is designed to power the OEM heated grips.  This power lead only has power while the bike is running, so I can't inadvertently leave the heated grips or fog lights on when the bike is off.  This wire has a plastic quick-disconnect connector to allow you to easily add the heated grips after purchasing the bike, and Easternbeaver.com makes a wiring harness that is designed to plug into this connector to provide power to your accessories.  Eastern Beaver recommends that you only use it for low power accessories ("less than 7 amps"), but that is plenty of power to trigger a relay for all of my accessories.  If I connect a wire from the battery to a relay, trigger the relay with the heated grip circuit, then run the relay to a bus bar, I can provide switched power for all of my accessories directly from the battery.  Here's the schematic for the circuit:

Although I don't much care for Microsoft, Visio is a pretty good product :)
I have ordered and received the autoswitch from Aerostich, and I have just placed my order for the Eastern Beaver wiring harness so I don't have any photos of the installation process...yet.  I'll be updating this post as I install the new electrical circuits, and review the products I install.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

August Arctic Valley Ride

Just outside of Anchorage is a ski area called "Arctic Valley".  The road to Arctic Valley is a winding gravel road that technically is a part of Ft. Richardson, the Army post at Anchorage.  While Ft. Rich proper is a closed base, the road to Arctic Valley is open to the public.  In the summer, Arctic Valley is a popular spot for hiking and picking berries, like cranberries and blueberries.  It was also the first gravel road I took my V-Strom on.  Unfortunately, when I first tried to ride up Arctic Valley, there was still snow on the road a couple of miles from the top.  So, in August, I decided to ride the valley again :)

The day I rode back up to Arctic Valley, the skies were grey and weepy.  I couldn't decide if it was a light rain or a heavy mist, but whichever name you choose to assign to the precipitation, the result on the road was the same: it was very, very wet.  Up to this point, I had pretty much avoided muddy roads, but after 5,000 or so miles this season, my confidence was relatively high, so I pointed the V-Strom up the mountain, and gave a twist to the throttle.

All in all, I was quite happy with the V-Strom's handling on the wet gravel road.  While the stock Bridgestone TrailWing tires didn't feel quite as secure on the mud and gravel as they did on asphalt, the grip was surprisingly similar to what I had experienced on dry gravel: a little squirrely, but not too bad.  Just as on dry gravel and dirt, I stood up on the foot pegs and reduced speed a bit.  I had long ago discovered that decoupling my backside from the bike seems to have an immediate, dramatic and positive effect on bike stability when riding off pavement -- I think I tend to unconsciously overcompensate for every little wriggle of the bike on gravel, making the bike feel less stable than it really is.  When I stand up, those small oscillations are damped by my knees and ankles, and consequently, the bike "feels" more stable.  Whatever the cause, I can comfortably ride about 5MPH faster on gravel when I'm standing than when I'm sitting.

As for the ride itself...well, I love the mountains, and Arctic Valley is no exception.  At the bottom of the hill, just past the Ft. Rich golf course, I noticed a car in the oncoming lane had stopped, and the occupants were peering into the woods that lined the north-east side of the road.  I slowed down, trying to see what they were looking at, and was rewarded by the flash of a bear butt (not a "bare" butt, lol) as a small black bear, startled by the sound of my V-twin engine, disappeared into the woods.  I kicked myself for not having my Oregon Scientific camera, which is semi-permanently mounted on my handlebars, running at the time, but truthfully, I suspect the bear would have been out of the field of view, anyway.  I felt bad about scaring the bear (and ruining the encounter for the occupants of the car), but a stock Wee-Strom is pretty quiet, so I don't know what more I could have done.  I rode very carefully the rest of the trip, watching for bear and moose on the side of the road since both are quite common in this area, but there were no more to be seen.

A mile or so further up the road, I pulled over into a scenic overlook that overlooks Ft. Rich, Elmendorf AFB and Anchorage, and lowered the pressure in my tires a bit.  I typically run at 33-37 PSI on asphalt, but I've found that dropping pressure to about 25 PSI improves the feel of the bike on gravel.
As I lowered the tire pressure and snapped a few obligatory photos of the bike and of the view from the overlook, I was attacked by an angry swarm of hungry no-see-ums.  There are many things I love about Alaska, but the insect life is not one of them. Despite my best attempts to shoo the voracious little monsters away, several still found there way inside my motorcycle helmet, so I quickly jumped back on the bike and rocketed away in an attempt to flush the pests out with a 30 MPH breeze.  Unfortunately, that meant that I had to keep my faceshield open, and did I mention that it was raining?  I had a choice: tiny flying bugs buzzing about my face and ears, or stinging 30MPH rain drops in my eyes.  I chose the rain :)


Another couple of miles later, I reached the parking lot at the end of the road, and stopped to snap a few more pictures before riding back down the mountain.  As I had noticed on my early season trip up the mountain, riding down was a bit more intimidating than riding up the gravel road.


First of all, when riding uphill, if you find you are going a little fast, all you need to do is roll off the throttle a bit, and gravity will take care of the rest.  While the DL650 has remarkably good compression braking (allowing the rider to use the same technique when riding downhill), the effects of rolling off the throttle while riding downhill are subtly -- but critically -- different than when riding uphill.  If you determine that you need to slow down when riding uphill, rolling off the  throttle increases the friction available for cornering because you are no longer using a portion of your friction to propel you up the mountain.  When riding downhill, reducing the throttle (and therefore using engine compression to brake) decreases the amount of friction available for cornering because some of the friction is now being used to slow the bike against the pull of gravity.

At any rate, the V-Strom was sure-footed as ever, lending confidence to what suddenly appeared to be a much steeper downhill grade than the uphill grade I had just ridden a few minutes ago -- even though they were the exact same road :)  Approximately fifteen minutes later, I was west-bound on the Glen Highway, returning home after a fun hour or so playing in the Chugach Mountains.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

V-Strom 650 Air Filter Change

It's winter in Alaska, and that means my bike is sitting idle for another two months, or so.  I have decided to take advantage of the down time to perform some needed maintenance: installing SW-Motech crash bars, adding an auxiliary power bus to the electrical system, changing the oil and oil filter, and changing the air filter.

I bought the bike 11 months ago, and have racked up 5800 miles since then, so it's definitely time to put a new filter in.  However, I have to admit, I didn't know how to get access to the air box :(  Notes I found on-line suggest that the air box is under the gas tank and that you need to remove both the fairing and the tank to perform the procedure.  Since I don't have a Suzuki Maintenance Manual ($$$), and there doesn't seem to be a Clymer manual for my bike yet, I turned to Google (the parts drawings on Bike Bandit are also a great resource).

That's how I found this blog post which describes the procedure, albeit on an '04 model.  I will try his instructions, and if I run across any differences between his '04 model and my '09, or if I find anything that needs more explanation, I'll post either supplementary notes or an entire procedure here.

Edit (04/17/2011): Well, it took me longer to get around to doing the air filter change than I intended, but I finally did it.  The deus ex machina write-up was very good, and the procedure was not at all difficult, once you get past the mental block of having to remove the gas tank and take apart half of the fairing.  That sounds like a real pain in the backside, but actually, it was a remarkably simple procedure.  If you've been putting off an air filter change in your Strom because it sounds like more work than you want to take on, take my advice: just go do it.  You'll be fine, I promise :) and your bike will be happy now that it can finally breathe easier.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Techmount PDA Mount Review

While riding to Kenai last summer, I took a wrong turn in Soldotna and nearly ended up riding to Homer, rather than Kenai.  Once that little voice in my head that was screaming "something isn't right, here!" got loud enough, I pulled off on the side of the road and consulted Google Maps on my Android phone.  But you know...it sure would have been nice to have the navigation at my fingertips, rather than inside a coat pocket, where I had to pull off on the side of the highway in order to retrieve the phone.

Much later last summer, I was scheduled to take a trip to San Francisco, and while I was there, I was going to rent a V-Strom and ride up to Redding, California.  If I can take the wrong highway in Alaska (there's usually only one or two highways going *anywhere* up here), I was certainly going to need some navigational help in California.  Once again, I consulted with Twisted Throttle and found this little gem.  It looked like it would be simple enough to install, even on a rental bike, so I went to my local Twisted Throttle distributor and ordered one.  Long story short, two months later, with my departure date quickly approaching, I called my local distributor, cancelled my order, and ordered the Techmount directly from Twisted Throttle.  The next day, the local dealer called me back and said the Techmount had arrived (go figure).  They were cool about it, however, when I said I had already ordered one directly from Twisted Throttle, so they will most likely get my business again in the future.  They really are good people to work with, and this is the first time I've ever had a problem getting an item from them.

Within a couple of days, I had the Techmount from Twisted Throttle.  The mount itself is a pair of semicircles that are bolted together with small allen head bolts.  Techmount includes three split-ring spacers, plastic rings about half an inch wide, with an outside diameter to match the inside diameter of the Techmount, which are used to adapt the Techmount to different sized handlebars or structural tubing on the motorcycle.

Installation was a breeze, so I won't belabour the process with a lengthy write-up.  Suffice it to say, step one is find the appropriate sized spacer for your application, and position it where you want the Techmount to be installed.  Place the bottom half of the mount underneath the spacer, place the upper half on top of the spacer, and install the allen bolts to hold them together.  After installing the mount rings, install the short mount shaft to the upper mount ring, and secure it in place with -- you guessed it -- an allen bolt.  In the photo to the left, you can see the inner spacer ring, the upper and lower mount rings and the shaft of the mount.

The top plate is actually two pieces -- an adapter and the PDA holder itself, as you can see in this photo.  The PDA holder can be mounted with a left to right orientation, as I did, or with a fore and aft orientation (landscape mode or portrait mode, respectively).  If you want to mount a GPS with standard mounting screws, you can leave the PDA holder off and mount it directly to the adapter, I believe.

Here's the cockpit view of the completed installation.











Even though it was nearly the end of the riding season, freezing conditions held off long enough for me to squeeze in a couple of rides with the Techmount and my Android.  Overall, I'm pretty happy with the purchase.  The Techmount holds the phone very securely.  Any jolts strong enough to dislodge the phone would probably dislodge me and/or damage the suspension.  The Techmount is designed to allow you to adjust the positioning in several directions, so no matter where you mount it, you should be able to get a good view of your PDA or GPS with little effort.  On the minus side, the elastic over the screen interferes with touch screen operation a little, and if I'm not careful, the lower clamp on the PDA holder tends to squeeze on the volume control on my HTC Hero, adjusting my ring or navigation volume settings.  Additionally, the location on the handlebars means I have to shift my focus from the road to the PDA -- not a good thing in high-speed or heavy traffic.  Finally, I was also slightly annoyed to find that for such a simple device, Techmount saw fit to use allen screws with three different sized heads, requiring three different sized wrenches to adjust.  Seriously, couldn't at least one of those sizes have been eliminated?

All things considered, if I had a full-sized Garmin or Tom-Tom GPS, I'd probably go with this GPS mount rather than the Techmount, since it would be more in your line of sight while riding.  However, since all I currently have is the GPS on my cell phone, the Techmount meets my needs.  If you need an inexpensive, simple, easy-to-adjust way to mount your PDA on your bike, the Techmount is a good choice at a reasonable price.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Memorial Day

When it's summertime in Alaska, and your motorcycle helmet is covered in bug guts, you know it has been a good day.

It was the Friday before Memorial Day, and I had the day off from work.  My wife and daughter had flown to Chicago to visit my step-daughter, who was busy pursuing a career in naturopathic medicine.  That meant I had the day to myself.  What better way to spend a beautiful, warm, sunny day in Alaska than recycling old dinosaurs into smoke and noise?

It hadn't taken long to get comfortable on the V-Strom.  Although about the same weight as the Nighthawk, the V-Strom carries its weight a little higher, and consequently doesn't feel quite as stable at low speeds.  Also, the V-Strom seat is considerably higher, and even at six feet tall with a 34 inch inseam, I found the added height a little different at first.  Nevertheless, the V-Strom was a very friendly bike with no bad manners at all, and I soon found myself very comfortable on the bike.  Well, almost no bad manners, anyway.  I had managed to skid the rear tire a few times on the gravel that still littered some of the side streets in Anchorage, and was dismayed that the rear brake didn't provide nearly as much feedback as the Nighthawk before letting go.  However, that was only a minor quibble, and I quickly learned to be less aggressive on the brake pedal.  Oh, that and the horn button.  I found it nearly impossible not to bump the horn by mistake when canceling my turn signal.  I had never had that problem on the Nighthawk, but for a while, it was pretty much a daily occurrence on the V-Strom.

None of those things were on my mind today, though.  I woke early in the morning, donned my motorcycle gear (ATGATT!), packed a bottle of water in my tailbag, admonished the two dogs and one cat to behave while I was gone, and was on the road by six.

Less than an hour later, I was sitting at a coffee shop in Girdwood, a small town on the silty shores of Turnagain Arm, sipping on a mocha, trying to warm up a little before continuing my ride.
View Larger Map

Eventually, I defrosted enough to return to the bike.  The goal for the day was Seward, Alaska, about 120 miles from Anchorage.  Seward is a pretty little town nestled on the north end of Resurrection Bay.  Every summer, tourists flock to Seward to enjoy whale watching cruises into Prince William Sound, charters to fish for halibut and salmon, or just to see the natural beauty of the Kenai Peninsula.  I had first learned to kayak in the protected waters of Resurrection Bay in the mid nineties, and still feel drawn to the area from time to time.  The Seward Highway, the only road connecting Anchorage and Seward, is a picturesque thread of asphalt weaving between snow-capped mountains from Turnagain Arm until reaching Seward itself.  If not for the perpetual stream of recreational vehicles or the ubiquitous construction that marks the summer months, the Seward Highway would be a great destination for motorcyclists.  The views are unparalleled.  From Anchorage to Turnagain Pass, the highway follows Turnagain Arm's silty waters, which are home to salmon, hooligan and Beluga whales.  The Turnagain mud flats often host unbelievable numbers of bald and golden eagles, mixing it up with the seagulls to feast on the plentiful fish in the silty waters.  During the summer months, Dall sheep descend from their lofty homes in the tops of the Chugach Mountains to grace tourists on the highway.  In addition to the wildlife, there is no shortage of glacier views along the route.

Shortly past Portage, the highway leaves Turnagain Arm and climbs into the mountain pass.  While Turnagain Arm is quite scenic, the pass does not lack for spectacular views, either.  A little ways into the pass, the highway joins tiny Lyon Creek, which burbles along next to the highway.  Granite Creek joins the stream, eventually becoming the deceptively mild looking Six Mile Creek.  Don't be fooled, however.  Just around the bend, Six Mile Creek disappears into "the canyon section" and turns from a placid, albeit it swift, class II creek to a potentially fatal class IV. Since the "canyon section" of the creek is not visible from the highway, periodically someone who is unprepared for whitewater tries to canoe it and runs into trouble.  Oh...and this canyon is the easy one.  It's followed by another swift stretch of class II before the second canyon (Class IV+) and the third canyon (Class V).  Unless you are a skilled whitewater afficionado, steer clear of Six Mile Creek or book a tour with either Class Five or Nova River Runners.  I really don't want to read about you in the paper :)

A little further up the highway, Six Mile Creek turns off to the north at the cutoff to Hope.  Follow the main route to the left to go to Seward.  From the cutoff, you can see the old, abandoned bridge across Canyon Creek (which pours into Six Mile).  While the new bridge is less likely to incite heart attacks or acute vertigo than the old bridge, the old bridge did provide some spectacular views.

Less than thirty miles up the road from the Hope cutoff, you'll find Moose Pass on the east shore of Trail Lake.  At the pullout on the south edge of the lake, I got my first taste of riding in sand.  It wasn't nearly as easy as I expected, but I managed to keep the dirty side down the whole time.

Trail Lake is one of my favorite stops along the Seward Highway.  I have kayaked and canoed both the lake and a short distance down Trail River, which drains from the lake.  The lake itself is pockmarked with several small, rocky islands.  I've landed my kayak and canoe on the island closest to the shore in the photo above.  One of these days, I would really like to spend a little more time exploring the lake and the islands.

Back on the road again and less than half an hour later, I wound my way around the east shore of Kenai Lake.  By this time, the sun had started to come out, and I am was starting to get a little hot with a reflective orange rain jacket over my leather motorcycle jacket, so I pulled into the Primrose campground and shed a layer or two.  The liner came out of my jacket, and I packed the rain jacket back into the Axio tail bag on my bike.  Time wasn't an issue, so I took a few minutes to swallow a few sips of water from the bottle under the bungee cargo net on the tail bag, and used the facilities -- primitive though they are -- at the camp ground.  Primrose campground is a beautiful spot, so once again, I pulled my camera out of the tail bag and snapped pictures of the bike and the lake:

You know it's summer in Alaska when the RV's are out
After spending maybe a half hour at Primrose, I pulled the helmet back on my head and pointed the bike towards Seward again.  The road between the south side of Kenai Lake and Seward is less spectacular than the route from Anchorage to Kenai Lake.  Fortunately, it's not too far, and soon I reached the turnoff to Exit Glacier, on the north side of the town of Seward.  On impulse, I banked the bike to the right, and took a detour to Exit Glacier.  It had probably been fifteen years since I had been down this road, so it was almost like seeing it for the first time again.  There was little traffic, and I enjoyed the twisty, winding road.  Soon, however, I passed a sign advising that workers were busy repairing the damage done to the road during the winter.  I eased off the throttle, and after a few more curves in the road, found myself waiting while a road crew painted tar snakes on cracks in the asphalt. The wait was minimal, and after just a couple of minutes, I was off again.  Another couple of miles up the road, I found a turnoff that provides a great view of the glacier.  I pulled into the turnout, retrieved the camera yet again and snapped more photos.

Last time I was here, I found a trail that climbs to the top of the Harding Ice Field, which feeds Exit Glacier, and spent about an hour wandering around on the ice.  This time, I decided that motorcycle leathers aren't exactly ideal hiking gear, and therefore opted not to take the hike.  Instead, I followed the road all the way to the parking lot at the foot of the glacier, hoping for a closer peek at the glacier.  Unfortunately, the pull out earlier provided the best view of the glacier for this trip.  However, there are huge chunks of packed snow alongside the road to the parking lot...at the end of May!

It was definitely a bit chilly here, but not cold enough that I would have expected to see these huge piles of snow.  Having gone far enough down the road, I made a U-turn, and rocketed off towards Seward.  The ride back seemed a lot quicker than the ride in (it always seems that way, for some reason), and seemingly within minutes, I was back in Seward.  I followed the road all the way through town, rode past the Sea Life Center, past Miller's Landing, and finally stopped when the road ended on the beach.  Just a couple of yards off-shore, a sea lion was busy checking out all the tourists on the beach sand who in turn were checking him out.  I dropped the bike into neutral, lowered the kickstand, and pulled the camera out of the tail bag...just in time to watch the sea lion submerge below the silty waters of Resurrection Bay.  I hung around for about five minutes waiting for him to come back up, but he never did.  Tired of waiting, I cautiously made a U-turn in the sand -- not an easy task on a 478 pound, top-heavy bike with tires that were designed more for asphalt and hard-packed gravel than loose sand -- and headed back into town, where I stopped for lunch at Subway.

After finishing a sandwich, I checked my watch.  Hmmm...It's only noon, and I'm not ready to go home yet, so on the spur of the moment, I decided to take a slight detour to Kenai rather than calling it a day already.  I retraced my route to the cutoff  for the Sterling Highway at Tern Lake, just a short ways west of Moose Pass, then followed the road towards Kenai.  The first dozen miles were a blast, twisting and winding around the north shore of Kenai Lake.  Once in Cooper Landing, however, the speed limits dropped and traffic picked up, but the scenery was still gorgeous.

Five miles later, I pass the Russian River ferry, the take out point for a fun, scenic, but mellow, mostly class I run on the Kenai River.  After this, the road gets a little tedious -- long, straight, tree-lined stretches of two-lane highway.  The miles slowly ticked off on the odometer, and I finally entered Soldotna, Alaska.  Having no maps with me, and not having driven in this area in...well, I don't remember how long...I took a wrong turn in Soldotna.  After being oblivious for about ten miles, I finally pulled off on the side of the road and consulted Google Maps on my Android phone.  Realizing that I was on my way to Homer rather than Kenai, I flirted with the idea of riding on to Homer, but having other plans for the evening, I turned the bike around, rode back into Soldotna, and this time, found the road to Kenai.  A few short minutes later, I stopped for a milkshake at Carl's Jr. in downtown Kenai, fuelled up the bike, and took a more direct route back to the Sterling Highway.

By this point, I had been awake for about five hours.  I was starting to get tired, and the miles between Soldotna and Cooper Landing passed v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.  Fortunately, once back in the mountains, the road and scenery between Cooper Landing and Portage kept my interest enough that staying awake was not a problem, but fatigue has other insidious effects, as I discovered after passing Portage.

There's a little dirt road on the east side of the highway that leads to a couple of old shacks sitting next to one of the outlets of Portage Creek -- or at least fifteen years ago, give or take, it did.  Out of curiosity, I turned off the highway, and followed the dirt road around the bend and under the railroad tracks.  However, there are "No Trespassing" signs posted all over the road, and since I didn't have any particular reason to be back there, I turned the bike around and returned to the Seward Highway.  Stopped at the edge of the highway, I saw a bus coming in my lane, but as long as I didn't delay, I had time to pull out, so I jumped on the throttle and dropped the clutch a little too aggressively.  Unfortunately, I didn't realize that, although my front tire is on good asphalt,  my back tire was still in a patch of sand.  The engine quickly wounds up to redline, and the bike started to slide sideways in the sand.  About the same time that happened, the rear tire slipped out of the sand and found traction on the highway.  With the RPMs somewhere in the vicinity of the stratosphere and the rear tire finding plenty of traction, the front tire launched free of the ground leaving me unexpectedly pulling a wheelie diagonally across the road while a huge tour bus bore down on me like a charging grizzly bear.  I instinctively grabbed the clutch, dropping the front wheel back to the pavement, steered back into my own lane, then grabbed a fistful of throttle to get out of the way of the oncoming bus.  Somewhere near Girdwood, I finally released the throttle as the adrenaline slowly filtered out of my system.

It wasn't really a close call -- there was still plenty of room between me and the bus -- but it was unexpected.  Up to this point, the Wee had been a really friendly bike, playful and fun when I wanted to be a little rambunctious, but without any bad manners or unexpected behaviour at all.  Slightly shaken by this sudden revelation that even such a well-behaved bike can and will bite you on the backside if you get complacent, I vowed to treat the Wee with proper respect.  A few miles down the road, it occurred to me that I had been riding for over eleven hours -- awake for somewhat longer than that -- and I'm not used to spending that much quality time with what is still a very new-to-me motorcycle.  I chalk the incident up to fatigue and resolve to be more cautious when I've spent a long time in the saddle.

The remaining hour back to Anchorage passed without incident, although with each passing mile, I found myself getting more and more anxious to be home.  It had been a great day, and the Wee had been remarkably comfortable, but all I could think about was a hot shower and something to eat.

The final tally: 450 miles in about twelve and a half hours riding time.  I posted my best fuel mileage to date on this trip at just over 60 MPG between Soldotna and Girdwood.  I have to say, I was extremely pleased with the Wee-Strom on this, my first endurance cruise on a motorcycle, and knew this would only be the first of many long rides.  In fact, two days later, I took the bike out again on a 220 mile ride, but that's another story :)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sw-Motech Crash Bar Installation

I really had intended to get the Oxfords Touring Style Heated Grips for my V-Strom -- honestly, I really had -- but then the good folks at Twisted Throttle announced their scratch-and-dent sale on the SW-Motech Crashbars.  For $30 off, I could order a set of crash bars that might have a minor blemish in the paint, due to SW-Motech making a mistake in packing, or I might receive a set of pristine crash bars.  Mr. Twisted was calling it the scratch-and-dent lottery.  I wanted the bars anyway, and $30 off basically meant I would get full price bars with free shipping, so I rolled the dice and ordered a set of crash bars.

It took ten days for the bars to get here (so much for UPS' 3-day shipping, but that's another story).  When they arrived, sure enough, my bars had a scratch in the paint.  You can see it in the photo on the right, at the top of the left-hand bar, near the bend where the bar begins to curve downwards.  Can you see it?

How about a closer shot...over there on the far left...still don't see it?











How about now?  Yep, that's it.  That tiny little scratch was all the damage there was.  As I said over at Stromtrooper, consider it "factory distressed." :)






Anyway, I unpacked the bars, set up a work table in the garage and got to work installing the bars, which was about a one hour job.  It was pretty painless, and as others have said, the hardest part of the install is breaking loose the threadlock that Suzuki paints on the engine mount bolts.  The bolts are allen-head bolts, so you'll need a 6mm allen head wrench, and a piece of pipe to use as a breaker bar, because unless you hail from Krypton, there's no way you're getting those suckers loose with a just four inch long allen wrench.

Step 1: remove the two allen bolts at the rear of the frame.  In this photo, I have already removed the rear-most bolt, and am removing the next bolt.  SW-Motech points out in the instruction sheet that you should be careful to only remove the bolts on one side of the engine at a time, because if you remove all eight bolts at the same time, the engine could shift in the frame.  I started on the left-hand side of the bike, and only after fully installing the crash bar on this side (and tightening all four bolts) did I remove the bolts on the right hand side of the engine.

Step 2: you can get three of the four engine mount bolts loose without removing anything else, but to get access to the fourth engine mount bolt, you will have to remove this plastic trim piece (in black).  It's held in place with a single allen bolt (shown in the picture) and two snaps inside the trim.  Remove the allen bolt as shown, then wiggle the trim piece to pop the snaps loose.  It's probably easier with the seat removed, but I was able to wiggle the trim piece loose with the seat still in place.

Step 3: now that the trim piece is removed, you can easily get access to the last two remaining bolts.  Remove them.  The engine will be resting on the large hex bolt at the apex of the "vee" in the frame trellis and the four bolts on the other side of the bike, so it's secure.

Step 4: the crash bars ship with all new bolts, washers and aluminum spacers.  Six of the bolts will be 8mm in diameter, and will be the longest bolts in the kit.  These are the three rear-most bolts on the frame.  Two bolts will also be 8mm in diameter, but will be slightly shorter.  These bolts go in the front hole of the crash bar.  Slip a lock washer over the three longer 8mm bolts, then slide the bolts through the mounting holes in the crash bars.  Then, slip the shorter 8mm bolt through the forward hole in the crash bars (no lock washer on this bolt, and the crash bar is slightly recessed for this bolt).

Step 5: if your bike is on its side stand during the install (as mine is), you'll need a way to keep the bolts from falling out of the crash bars while you maneuver the bars into position.  I wrapped electrical tape over the bolts, which worked pretty well.

Step 6: slide the aluminum spacers over the bolts (on the opposite side of the crash bar mounting flanges) and apply Lock-tite to the threads...

Step 7: then maneuver the crash bars into position and twist all the bolts into place, finger tight.

 Then tighten...
 ...all four bolts...
...to the torque values...
...given in your Suzuki service manual (or as tight as you can get them with a four inch long allen wrench, if you're like me, and don't have either a torque wrench with an allen head or a Suzuki service manual).

Step 8: slip the two shortest bolts through the clamp, lightly thread them into the nylock bolts (make sure the bolt heads are on the side of the clamp with the round indentations and the nuts are on the side of the clamp with the six-sided indentations), then slip the clamp over the crash bar, just above the oil cooler and in front of the cylinder.

Step 9: I'm cheating a bit here...duplicate steps 1-7 on the other side of the bike.  Installation of the other crash bar is identical to this side, so I'm not going to write it up separately.  After installing both crash bars, slide the clamp so that it is centered on both bars and tighten the bolts to lock the two sides of the crash bars together.  Then, reinstall the trim pieces you removed earlier, and you're done!

The completed installation
The Final Verdict: at either $159.99 for the unblemished bars, or $127.99 for crash bars that might possibly have a tiny scuff mark, the SW-Motech Crash Bars are cheap insurance for your V-Strom, and in my opinion, they add to the rugged good looks of the V-Strom to boot.  The installation was brain-dead simple, so if you've got the dexterity to remove the lid from a soda bottle, you can probably install these crash bars.  Since it's currently winter here in Anchorage, I haven't had a chance yet to see how the bars affect handling on the Strom, but since they are one of the first additions many people put on their bikes, I really don't expect any problems (but I will post a ride report once the weather improves enough to get the bike out again).  So, barring any unexpected ride-test problems, I'd say if you are considering these crash bars, stop considering and order them already! :)