Monday, July 9, 2012

Hatcher Pass

Back when I was lusting over a Triump Street Triple R, one of the things that swayed me away from a superbike and into a V-Strom was imagining the kind of riding I'd really like to do. The S3R was a sexy bike, no doubt about that, but when I was really honest with myself, I knew that the Triumph wasn't engineered with Alaska's frost heaves and gravel roads in mind. Now, 14,000 miles (and change) later, I am more convinced than ever that the Wee-Strom was a much better bike for me than the Triumph (although I still want to own an S3R...eventually :)

One of the trips that I wanted to make that helped steer me away from the Triumph was a trip over Hatcher's Pass, near Palmer. The beginning of the ride on the Palmer side of the Pass follows the Little Susitna River, a shallow, splashy creek that meanders through the valleys in the foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains. The Triple would be loads of fun here, as the road follows the curves that the creek has carved in the bedrock of the Talkeetnas. However, there is much more to Hatcher's Pass than the few miles of twisties along the Little Su. In fact, most of the road over Hatcher's Pass is gravel 1 1/2 lane. I had never driven the pass all the way through from Palmer to Willow, but I wanted to, very badly. Once I started motorcycling, I knew I had to ride this route on a bike. Unfortunately, a naked supersport is hardly the ideal steed for such a ride, and so this helped me decide upon the V-Strom, an ideal bike for both the paved twisty sections near the Little Su and the gravel stretch over the top of the pass.

Yesterday morning, July 8th, dawned bright and clear, although still rather chilly, even by Anchorage standards. Nevertheless, I donned my riding leathers -- no Kevlar-lined denim on this trip; I wanted full CE-approved armor for the exploring I had in mind -- and hit the road around 10:00. By eleven, I was huddled next to the fireplace at the Starbuck's in Palmer, sipping on a mocha and reading a couple of chapters from Ghost Rider by Rush drummer and ADV motorcyclist Neil Peart (a good read, though understandably melancholy at times) as I tried to warm up. About a half hour later, I was back on the road, and soon I was in the aforementioned twisties, behind a Subaru wagon, which was actually sustaining a much better pace through the curves than one might imagine.

As we approached the hairpin turn that signalled the road's departure from the Little Su, I greatly increased the spacing between myself and the Subaru. While the driver had done a surprisingly acceptable job so far, we were approaching the tightest turn on the road, and I wanted to have enough breathing room to enjoy it. The Subaru slowed, turned, and accelerated up the straightaway on the far side of the curve, and moments later, I followed, leaning the bike to the left, hanging off the side, knee out...and what is that rumbling I feel in my left foot? What is that horrid scraping noise? Did I just...uh...yep, I think I did. I've touched my toes to the pavement a couple of times when heeling the bike over hard on a sharp turn, but was the first time I had ever dragged a least on my Strom. I had dragged the pegs on my wife's S40 Boulevard and I had even dragged a peg during my MSF course, eliciting a thumbs-up and a smile from the ex-racer riding coach, but my V-Strom has much greater ground clearance than either of those bikes. I barely had time to crack a smile at (finally!) touching a footpeg on the turn when I reached a side road I wanted to ride.

Shortly before earning my motorcycle endorsement, I discovered another road for which the S3R is even less suited. Wa-a-a-ay back when my Nissan Frontier was just barely broken in, my two brothers and I packed up our backpacks and set out in my truck for an overnight hiking/camping trip in Archangel Valley. While it was a fun trip, at least for the two of us in the front seat (sorry, Nick!), I started daydreaming about returning to Archangel Valley on a bike. I thought that it would be even more fun on the Wee than it had been in my pickup.

I had no idea :)

The road itself is a narrow, rocky, pot-holed, winding trail that leads from the main road in Hatcher's Pass up to an old, abandoned mine. Rusty mining equipment and old mine shafts with beard-like tailings cascading down the mountain sides give mute testimony to Hatcher Pass's rich (in either sense of the word) history. However, today, hiking and exploring the mines was not foremost on my mind -- far from it. I was here to ride, and ride I did.

The road itself was relatively dry, although the bottoms of most of the potholes were filled with mud puddles. I splashed my way over, around and through the puddles, dodging the deeper, steeper holes, and weaving around the larger boulders that stabbed through the packed surface of the dirt road. Even with a nearly bald rear tire, I was able to comfortably maintain between 25 and 35 MPH...until I caught up with a 4x4 pickup picking his way through the minefield of granite and mud at more like 5-10 MPH. I paced him for awhile until we reached a slightly wider part of the road and he waved me past. Soon, I caught up with another 4x4, and then another. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I was picking my way around another mud puddle when I noticed something in the road. That's odd, I thought to myself. It looks like something peed on the road, but what pees BLACK? That's when I realized someone was having -- or was about to have -- a VERY bad day:

That wasn't pee -- it was motor oil. Someone had bottomed out, but they hadn't had the ground clearance to avoid a rock, and they had punctured the oil pan. I raced up the road, hoping that I could catch the victim before they seized their engine. A short distance later, I saw a VW Jetta picking it's way over the road, and sure enough, the oil trail marked it's passage around the obstacles on the road. Catching up to it, I could see the oil draining from underneath the car. I honked, saw the driver look up in his rear-view mirror and pulled up beside him.

"Dude, you're leaking oil from under your car. Did you bottom out a little ways back?" I asked.

"Yeah, but I didn't think I hit that hard," he replied. He pulled over, shut off the engine and looked underneath the car. He muttered a few choice words under his breath. "How am I going to get back out of here?" he wondered aloud. About that time, a truck that had just passed going the other way stopped, and the driver walked back up to where we were. The driver of the truck, the driver of the Jetta, and the passenger in the Jetta chatted for a few minutes, then the guy from the truck offered to give the two from the Jetta a lift back to Palmer where they could call for help. I continued on up the road after loosening the pre-load on my rear shock one full turn and letting about 5 PSI out of my tires -- something I should have done as soon as I left the pavement.

The rest of the ride up and back out of Archangel Valley was uneventful, but arguably the most fun I've ever had on my V-Strom -- and certainly the most fun I've had since last year's Denali Highway trip. By the time I reached the main road going over the pass, I was sweating and my back was mildly sore from stooping over to reach the handlebars while standing on the footpegs. I didn't care; inside my helmet, I was wearing a grin a mile wide.

After leaving Archangel Valley, I continued up to the summit of the pass, beyond Independence Mine, the farthest point I had ever gone. I didn't realize how close to the summit the mine was, so I was very surprised to reach Summit Lake within just a couple of minutes.
Yes, the date was really July 8th, and yes, there was still ice in Summit Lake. We received a record snowfall in Anchorage last winter, and while the rest of the country has posted record high temperatures, the summer so far in south-central Alaska has been unusually cool. I can count on one hand the number of days that I've had the insulated liner out of my jacket. I've ridden most days with my insulated gloves rather than my summer gloves so far. I've even had the heated grips on more often than not this year. Therefore, I wasn't surprised to see ice in the lake.

A short ways down the pass from the summit, I saw an interesting looking side road, and decided to see where it lead. Similar to Archangel Valley, this unnamed road (Google Maps suggests that it's Upper Willow Road, but it wasn't marked) was a narrow, rocky, winding road through what appears to be a glacial valley. This road, however, does not see the same traffic as Archangel Valley, and the rocks along the route are larger and looser than the road I rode earlier, and the road itself is narrower. I had a blast...until I caught a face full of tiny black flies while my visor was up, lol. The air blowing through my helmet was refreshing. The bugs blowing through my helmet, however...not so much.

This road is also shorter than the road into Archangel Valley, so I soon reached the end, and reversed course to rejoin the main road down the pass into Willow. Even though the road was in pretty good shape and wide enough for two cars to pass side by side (albeit, slowly), I found I was still riding at a, ahem, somewhat "accelerated" pace compared to the cagers around me. Many of them would pull to the right and wave me around them as I would catch up, a couple of them I passed when I saw a likely opportunity without waiting for a signal to pass.

Incidentally, if the guy in the cool, yellow, vintage LandCruiser happens to find this post, I apologize for revving my engine as I passed you. It wasn't intentional; my motorcycle dropped out of second gear and into neutral as I rolled on the throttle, an annoying bad habit it has recently acquired. On the other hand, to the dude in the Chevy pickup, weaving all over the road while holding a pocket-sized video camera to your head -- I sincerely hope the life you eventually end up taking doesn't belong to an innocent driver coming the other way, or to a passenger in your rig (hint, hint).

Finally, nearing the bottom of the pass on the Willow side, I encountered a broad, open vista spanning as far as I could see around me. I pulled off on the side of the road, retrieved my camera, looked through the viewfinder...and put it away. Just like on the Denali last year, I realized that such grandeur requires a far larger format than my Canon Powershot. There is no way to catch beauty on such a scale in a digital image; once again, I would have to be content with memories. Hmmm...maybe I just need to make another trip up the pass with my wife and daughter soon? :)

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