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.
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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 :)

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