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.
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...
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.
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.
Itinerary for the Denali Highway trip
Packing Checklist, with notes.
View Larger Map