Sunday, October 27, 2013

Al-Can 2013

"Beginnings are a very delicate time..." --Princess Irulan, "Dune" (by Frank Herbert)

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." --Closing Time, Semisonic

It was a bright, sunshiny day in May of 1988 when I stood outside Meade Senior High School with three of my best friends, Dave Pettyjohn, Lee McShane and Mark Perry, congratulating and high-fiving each other. Our commencement ceremony had just ended; the four of us were officially high school graduates. As we stood there in the sun, broad grins splitting our faces, I felt like the entire world was just waiting for me to reach out and take it. From the end of my high school tenure was birthed a whole new beginning, and I could make of this new beginning anything I wanted. Both my mood and my future, just like the weather that day, was bright and full of promise.

I am not exactly sure what caused this particular memory to surface as I turned north out of Glenallen, Alaska en route to Seattle, but I couldn't deny the appropriateness of it. Just as I had felt on my graduation day, I was filled with a sense that the world was waiting for me to make of it what I willed. I was leaving Alaska for close to a month, and the thin ribbon of asphalt stretching away into the rolling hills outside of Glenallen seduced me out of my beloved Alaska, promising new adventures once I crossed the Canadian border.

The plan had hatched just a few short months earlier. My step-daughter had been working on a Physician's Assistant certificate through the University of Washington, and she needed help watching her son Clark while she was there. Through some combination of miracles and divine intervention, I not only got my wife to agree to drive a motorhome down the Al-Can while I followed along on my motorcycle, but my wife and I also managed to convince our respective bosses to give us a little over three weeks of leave in which to make the trip. Now, after months of planning, the departure date had arrived, and we were off!

The first day was largely uneventful, although we left Anchorage about two hours behind schedule. As we hit the Glenn Highway, I chuckled as I realized I had the theme song from "Smokey and the Bandit" on my mind:
  East bound and down,
  Loaded up and truckin'.
  We gon' do what they said can't be done.
  We've got a long way to go,
  And a short time to get there...

How appropriate! I mused to myself.

The weather was clear, warm, and sunny, and the V-Strom performed flawlessly. The highway between Tok and the Canadian border meanders through valleys in a number of mountain ranges, and I was mesmerized by the scenery. Having grown up near the volcanic Towada Mountains in northern Honshu, Japan, I love the mountains, and never, ever tire of their beauty. However, the Alaska Department of Transportation has been busy maintaining the roads near Tok this year, and, much as I wanted to sightsee, I found that I had better keep my eyes on the road, as the asphalt was intermittently marred by swatches of gravel where the road crews were busy re-paving stretches of highway. One particular swatch of gravel felt unusually tricky, forcing me to throttle back to about 40-45 MPH. At a rest break a little ways up the road, my wife mentioned that the gravel in that particular section was soft, and about 2 to 3 inches deep. Oh...that explains a lot! Both motorcycle and RV survived the road construction, however, and after approximately nine hours and 430 miles, we crossed the Canadian border -- my first border crossing by motorcycle, and another item ticked off the motorcycling bucket list! -- and rolled into Beaver Creek, Yukon, where I was greatly surprised by the number and ferocity of mosquitoes. Having lived in Alaska since my first trip up the Al-Can in 1989, I am no stranger to mosquitoes, but I have never encountered more numerous nor more persistent mosquitoes than those that welcomed us to the Yukon.

The First Nations border guard was polite and friendly: "You're with them?" pointing to the RV ahead, containing my wife and twelve year old daughter.

"Yes, sir."

"Usually when I see a motorcycle carrying that much gear..." with a nod at the tent, sleeping bag and mattress pad strapped to the passenger seat of my bike, "...they aren't traveling with an RV."

"Once we reach Seattle, I am planning to take a couple of days and continue solo to Crater Lake, Oregon before returning back to Alaska with my family."

A nod. "Ah. Can you remove your helmet, please?"

Oh...yeah. I am wearing a helmet, aren't I? "Sure, sorry. Forgot I had it on."

"Thank you. Have a nice day."

Wednesday morning dawned clear, hot and sunny, just as the previous day had been. When I first drove the Al-Can in 1989, I remember being amazed and somewhat ashamed that the roads in the Yukon seemed to be so much better quality than the roads in Alaska. While there were long stretches of gravel in the Yukon, the paved sections were smooth, seamless, flawless asphalt, whereas the roads on the Alaska side of the border were patched and frost heaved. Not so this trip. Words fail me when I try to describe the asphalt we encountered near Beaver Creek. It wasn't pot-holed or frost heaved; it was something else. It was as if a giant child had dragged his fingers in the asphalt while it was still hot, leaving meandering grooves and ridges a foot wide and tens of feet long in the asphalt. I stood on my pegs and picked the smoothest path I could find; my wife did likewise, but in a 26 foot RV with a ten foot utility trailer behind, it was impossible for her to avoid all the ruts. Eventually, the bouncing and jostling collapsed the legs on the Weber grill that I had strapped down on the utility trailer, rendering it inoperative for the rest of the trip >:( Other than the poor roads, the ride was uneventful until we reached Kluane Lake, where I stopped to shoot a couple of photographs:

After Kluane Lake, we started skirting rain showers, getting sprinkled on a few times, but riding mostly in good weather. We stopped at an absolutely phenomenal pizza joint in Whitehorse for dinner, where I discovered how important it is to perform a pre-ride inspection, just like I used to do when flying airplanes. It was getting late, I was a bit fatigued, and after removing and stowing the carbon fiber side-stand plate that I use whenever I park on gravel, as well as the "Remove Before Flight" reminder flag for the brand new disk brake lock I had purchased for this trip, I fired up the engine, put the bike and gear, slowly let out the clutch and...stalled the engine. Wash, rinse, and repeat several times. I had the sinking feeling that I had a serious transmission problem. No matter how gently I feathered the clutch, the bike stalled with an ugly "thunk" sound. I called to my wife that I had a transmission problem, to which she sweetly replied, "Did you remove the disk brake lock?"


Fortunately, the flush that covered my face was obscured by my helmet. "Ummm, no...I removed the, ah, reminder flag, but not, umm, the lock itself..." I mumbled. You see, I had cut the cord for the reminder flag about six inches too short to reach from the handlebars to the disk brake, so although I had remembered to remove the flag, I had forgotten to remove the object it was supposed to remind me of, namely, the disk brake lock itself. Feeling like a fool, I sheepishly removed the lock, kicked off Google Navigator on my cell phone (securely mounted on my handlebars) and...promptly took a wrong turn, resulting in a three mile detour through a residential area in Whitehorse. Finally, we found the Al-Can again, and raced off into darkening skies and increasingly strong winds. As we approached Marsh Lake, I pulled into a rest stop to don my rain gear before I got totally soaked, and sure enough, within half a mile...the rain stopped. We finally called it a night in Teslin, after a mere 383 miles taking almost nine hours on the road.

By the time we arrived, my low fuel light was flashing desperately for my attention, and I was beginning to wonder if I would be pushing the bike the last few miles. Pro-tip: when stopping for dinner in Whitehorse, make sure you take the time to fill your gas tank! A 'Strom has sufficient range to make it from Haines Junction to Teslin, but just barely.

Day three began with a hearty ham-and-egg sandwich and a decent cup of coffee at the Yukon Motel (and RV park) restaurant under, once again, clear, warm and sunny skies. I was a little nervous about today's ride, however, as the bridge just south of town is a steel grate bridge, and I have read a sufficient number of accounts of motorcyclists who had been unnerved by crossing such bridges on a bike. I would be crossing the bridge -- my first steel grate bridge on a bike -- with a full load of fuel in my 5.8 gallon gas tank, on a bike that is already top heavy, even without a full load of fuel. I topped off the tank anyway, gritted my teeth, and set off apprehensively. As I rolled onto the steel grate, I was pleasantly surprised by the bridge. Signs warned motorcyclists to "Use Extreme Caution!!!" (as if a motorcyclist should ever *NOT* use extreme caution on the road!), and prophecies of doom from countless other ride reports echoed in my head, but in all honesty, I found the steel grate bridge to be no worse than a gravel road, and in fact, arguably easier to ride than some gravel roads I've followed (Palmer Creek Road, I'm talking about you!). Yeah, it's a little squirrely, but not at all bad. If you can survive the construction to reach one of the several steel grate bridges you'll encounter on the Al-Can, you'll be fine. Just stand on the pegs, relax and let the bike wriggle under you; you'll be fine, I promise! :)

A few hours later, I found myself in a light rain again. We were only about twenty minutes outside of Watson Lake, and remembering how the rain had ended as soon as I put on my rain suit the day before, I decided to press on towards Watson Lake. For the next ten minutes, the rain steadily grew worse, until finally, beginning to be a bit chilled by the cool air, and worried that I wouldn't be able to maintain body heat if my leathers soaked through, I pulled over at a pull-out and donned the rain suit again. Five minutes rain. Sigh.

Day three was a short day, just over six hours of riding time, because our destination for the night was Liard Hot Springs, and we wanted to make sure we had enough time to enjoy the springs. After three days of riding, soaking in the hot water at Liard was incredible. We stayed in the springs until sundown, then reluctantly dragged ourselves out of the warm, relaxing embrace of the water and back to the RV for the night. I set my alarm for early the next morning to sneak back to the springs while everyone else was still asleep...

...but woke to the pitter-patter of rain drops on the roof. Cold, even snuggled under a blanket in the RV, I could not bring myself to don my clammy swim shorts and hike the half mile(-ish) back to the springs in the rain, so I slept in for another two hours. Evidently, the soporific properties of the hot springs affected my wife and daughter as well, because it was yet another two hours before they awoke. As they slowly clambered out of bed, I put on my riding gear and rain suit, then went outside to prepare for departure. My wife and I man-handled the utility trailer back onto the hitch of the RV, as the jack was not tall enough to lift the tongue over the hitch at the odd angle of the parking pad. Finally, the trailer was hitched, and I turned to finish getting the bike ready to go as my wife pulled out of the camp site in the RV.

I whirled back around as I heard an odd grating sound from the RV, discovering, to my horror, that we had neglected to raise the jack on the trailer. My wife had no idea that she was digging a furrow with the trailer as she drove out of our campsite and onto the road. I raced up near the passenger window -- no easy feat in full leathers and shin-high motorcycle boots -- and she started to slow down. I ran towards the back of the trailer to raise the jack when she started driving again. I slapped the side of the RV hard enough to leave a bruise on my palm to get her attention, and finally, she stopped.

By this point, the damage was done. The jack had kinked, preventing us from raising it, so I set to work with a socket set that I fortunately had had enough foresight to bring. Unfortunately, the kink was severe enough that I couldn't lift the jack through the tongue of the trailer, and we were blocking the road out of the campground. "Please, don't let another camper come through here until we have this fixed," I thought to myself...just as another camper came around the corner behind us.

The campers were a father and son from British Columbia, who were gentlemen in every sense of the word. "I work for a trucking company, and I see guys forget to raise the jack all the time," the son graciously stated. The father retrieved an axe from the car and tried to straighten the jack with the blunt end of the axe, but it wouldn't budge. Finally, after several false starts, we set the jack on the ground, and the father began hitting the tongue of the trailer, trying to force the kinked jack through the tongue. At last, we succeeded, but we had set the jack on the trailer wiring, slicing the ground wire in two.

"Sorry about that. I've got some wire strippers and electrical tape in the car," the father said.

I just laughed, shrugging his entirely unnecessary apology off. "If I hadn't forgotten to raise the jack, none of this would be an issue. I'm not at all worried about the wires."

We stripped the ends of the wires, twisted them together, wrapped them with electrical tape, and all was good. Blinkers worked, brake lights worked, and so thanking the two once again for their help, we set off down the highway in the rain.

A short time later, we stopped to refuel at an exceptionally nice lodge on the shores of Muncho Lake. As I topped off the tanks, I briefly reconsidered my decision to ride despite the rain and cold. We had the ability to trailer the bike, but I really wanted to ride all the way to Seattle, so I turned up the power on the heated grips a notch, and pointed the Strom eastward again.

Five minutes later, concerns about the weather were the last thing on my mind. I chuckled to myself as I grabbed a fistful of throttle at yet another "60kph" advisory hairpin turn overlooking Muncho Lake. I found that I could easily maintain the advisory speed limit -- in miles per hour, rather than the posted kilometers per hour.

Despite the rain, I was having the time of my life. The road itself was pure joy, dancing around the natural contours of the lake and the mountainside that rose from the shore, and Muncho Lake itself was stunning, with a blue-green tint unlike any other lake I have ever seen. I found myself imagining I was back in northern Japan, where I spent most of my adolescent and pre-teen years; the shoreline vaguely resembled stretches of the coast of Honshu near Aomori -- to this day, one of my favorite places on earth.

For 30 miles or so, the road weaved and twisted back upon itself, slowly, imperceptibly, gaining elevation, as the temperature, just as imperceptibly, dropped. Finally, having left the bliss of Muncho Lake Provincial Park far behind, I found myself entering Stone Mountain Provincial Park, and I realized with a start that I was thoroughly chilled to the bone, despite my wool base layer, full leathers, rain suit over the leathers and heated grips. My ankles and wrists were growing stiff with the cold, and I was no longer enjoying the ride. I began searching for a pull-out where I could flag my wife down and heat some water for coffee or tea to restore my core body temperature. Finally, near the summit, I spied a rest stop, and steered the Strom off the side of the road. Looking around, I realized that the parking area I had pulled into might be difficult for her to drive out of again, since she was maneuvering a 26 foot RV and pulling a ten foot utility trailer. Fortunately, on the other side of the road was a large, open, paved lot that she could easily fit into. I turned on my four-way flashers, then pointed her to the lot across the road as approached.

She didn't stop.

Furious -- and bordering on the early stages of hypothermia -- I punched the hazard light switch, stomped on the shift lever to drop into first gear, savagely wrenched the throttle to WFO and rocketed off down the road after my family. We continued down the highway, me fuming, my wife blissfully unaware, until we reached Fort Nelson. After making up, and establishing a better method of communicating in areas without cellular coverage :) (she thought I was waving her past, rather than pointing her to a better place to stop), we continued on to Fort St. John, firmly convinced that both the more southerly latitude and lower elevation meant that the worst was behind us.

Silly, silly me.

Watching both the gas gauge and the GPS slowly unwind, I foolishly decided not to fuel up as we drove past Sikanni Chief campground, the only fuel stop I knew of between Ft. Nelson and Ft. St. John. A few miles down the road, I began to realize that I would be running on empty by the time we arrived; strong enough headwinds or steep enough hills, of which there are plenty on this stretch of road, could mean the difference between riding into town or pushing the bike. We had five gallons of extra gas on the trailer, but I didn't know how much range the RV had, nor how much gas my wife still had in her tank, so I began searching in earnest for gas stations.

I finally found one on a hill, overlooking a set of ominous looking clouds giving birth to a gorgeous, intense rainbow. Unfortunately, the gas station was was the next one, and the one after that. Finally, we found an open gas station at Pink Mountain RV park. After topping off both vehicles, my wife asked if I minded if she started out while I went inside to pay. I agreed, since it was easy enough for me to catch up to her. In fact, I frequently found myself slowing to wait for her when the road grew either twisty or hilly, as the RV simply couldn't pace the bike on such roads. I had a good laugh when the poor cashier in the service station did a double take at the motorcyclist buying roughly twenty gallons of gasoline ("Yes, my motorcycle has long-range tanks," I teased, before explaining that I was also paying for the gas in my wife's RV). Finally, I raced off after my wife, hoping to catch up with her soon, as I really didn't like the look of the dissipating thunderstorm to the east. I soon found myself hunched over the gas tank, as the miles quickly ticked off on the odometer.

I didn't realize it in the growing dusk, but the dark visor on my helmet was becoming increasingly obscured by the spray kicked up from the traffic ahead of me. Finally, I noticed an odd looking patch of road ahead. "Is that concrete?" I wondered. "Are they doing construction here?" Then I realized the magnitude of my error. Not concrete, rather the road was coated with a sheet of hail that had melted and compacted to form rime ice.

Did I mention that I was riding at...ummm...perhaps a slightly higher speed than was wise on wet roads, near dusk, in the vicinity of a thundertorm? Okay, maybe I was riding at a pace that would have been, ahem, brisk even under perfect weather conditions.

The bike did a little dance underneath me, slid off of the ice into the ruts that four-wheeled traffic had carved in the ice, then regained its composure and continued down the road as if nothing had happened. Needless to say, I slacked off the pace a bit (okay, a lot!), and caught up with my wife around the next bend. I flashed her a thumb's up as I passed her at a very sedate, very conservative 45 MPH, and we continued on -- slowly -- until a very long, very tiring, very stressful day four ended roughly an hour later in a crowded RV park in Charlie Lake, just outside of Ft. St. John.

For the second day in a row, I awoke to the tick-tick-ticking of rain on the ceiling of the RV. As I got dressed and sucked down a cup of instant coffee, the rain slackened off, then quit entirely. Nonetheless, remembering the cold, miserable ride of the day before, I pulled the rain gear over my leathers as we headed west out of Charlie Lake towards Chetwynd. Just a few miles out of Charlie Lake, we entered some of the steepest grades of the trip, as the highway wove around the mountains near the Fraser River. I wondered about the story behind a multitude of signs protesting a proposed dam; I wasn't certain, but if I understood some of the signs correctly, the dam would (or at least could) result in many of the farms becoming submerged under ten to fifteen feet of water. I silently wished the farmers luck in their battle to save their homes, and continued on my way.

After several hours, and gas stops at numerous small Canadian towns -- including one stop where I dropped my helmet and broke the clear visor >:( -- we pulled into the outskirts of Quesnel, where we stopped for the night at 10 Mile Lake Provincial Park, one of my favorite stops of the trip. After spending three out of the four nights so far on the road in RV parks, the quiet and peace of the Canadian Provincial park on night five was a nice change of pace.

Before leaving Anchorage, I had spent quite a while on Google Maps and the Alaska Milepost trying to plot the route for the last leg. However, I was a little confused by the route near Cache Creek. The course I ended up plotting turned off of 97 shortly before reaching Cache Creek, and followed 99 to Lillooet, then turned onto 12 until reaching Lytton. When we reached the intersection of 97 and 99, I pulled over to discuss the route with my wife, and we decided that this was indeed the route we wanted to take. From the comfort of my sofa two months later, I can honestly say that I am very glad we followed this route. This was, by far, the highlight of the whole trip. CA-99 wound and twisted as it followed a mountain valley, slowly increasing in elevation. From the vegetation, I could tell we were entering a more arid part of Canada, even though a gorgeous river twisted through the valley floor next to the highway. Soon, the valley floor widened, as did the river, emptying into a long, narrow, sinuous lake. It was all I could do to keep my eyes on the road, entranced by the beauty of the valley. Before long, lake became river once again, and the road, already as much fun as a motorcyclist could hope for began to tie itself in knots. My speed dropped from 55 MPH to 35 MPH, and the grin I wore threatened to split my face in two. The highway climbed into the mountains like an asphalt serpent, coiling back upon itself. I soon found myself behind a BMW GS, two-up and loaded with gear. They were traveling a little slower than I would have been, but honestly -- and surprisingly -- I didn't care. I was so enthralled with the high desert beauty around me, that for once in my life, I didn't want to race at top speed.

I was in motorcycle heaven.

Finally, spying a pull-out over an exceptionally beautiful point high above the river, I stopped to snap a couple of photos:

Soon enough, it was time to leave, and after taking one wrong turn (the route didn't actually pass through Lillooet, but rather continues past the turn-off, on the opposite side of the river from town), we continued on to Lytton. CA-12 to Lytton, however, climbed up into the mountains, and very obviously didn't see much traffic. At one point, the road narrowed to a single lane over a steep cliff with no guard rails between the asphalt and the drop-off. It wasn't a problem for me on the bike, but caused my wife in the RV some concern when she encountered a Jeep Grand Cherokee coming the other way (she nicknamed the road "the donkey trail," in reference to the narrow, winding trails descending into the Grand Canyon).

By approximately 5:00 p.m., we stopped for gas in Lytton, and my wife pulled out the travel plan I had created before leaving.

"Mike! Do you realize we still have five hours to Seattle?!?!"

We had already been on the road for six hours, not including a lunch stop, and thought we were no more than an hour or two from our destination for the day. I double checked the trip plan, Google Maps, and the Alaska Milepost, and finally decided that she was right. We were a lot farther from our night's stop than we thought. We hastily departed the gas station in Lytton, and raced towards Abbottsford, B.C., hoping to make up as much time as possible, since the scenic route past Lillooet had cost us a lot of time. We barely noticed the stunning scenery between Lytton and Abbottsford. Boston Bar, Yale, Hope...all of the little towns along the Fraser River passed in a blur, as we raced the setting sun to Seattle.

Reaching Abbottsford, I turned south a little earlier than I intended, crossing the border into Washington at Sumas. Unlike his counterpart at Beaver Creek, the American CBP official was curt, direct and assertive almost to the point of being rude, until the end of the interview.

"So you're with the RV behind you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Why not just trailer the bike and ride with them?"

"I've flown the Al-Can in small airplanes three times, and I've driven it in a car another three times, but I've never ridden it on a bike before," I answered, once again at a bit of a loss to explain why I, like most motorcyclists I know, do what we do.


I shrugged. "Ummm...that's it..."

A broad grin split the CBP agent's face.

"No, how was it?"

I laughed, spying the KLR 650 parked near his booth, and finally catching his drift. "It was awesome," I gushed.

He waved me through with a huge smile, vicariously enjoying the trip seemingly as much as I had. "Have a good one!"

I relaxed, oddly comforted to be back in the U.S. again...until I checked my GPS. It was getting late, almost eight o'clock, and the sun would be setting soon. As I mentioned earlier, I had broken my clear visor in Canada, and was riding with my dark, tinted visor on the helmet. Sunset would be soon, and we still had an hour and a half, maybe even two hours, until we reached Seattle, and even then, we still had to find the RV park where we would be staying. My wife and I wound through the farmlands of Sumas and the surrounding communities, until finally reaching I-5. A half hour later, I watched the sun set over the western horizon, and realized that I would be riding in the dark with my tinted visor, despite my best efforts to reach Seattle before sunset. My step-daughter started school the next morning, so we had to be in Seattle tonight -- stopping short wasn't an option -- so, I gritted my teeth and pressed on in the dark.

Tired, stressed, and unable to see much other than headlights of the vehicles around me, my wife and I raced down I-5 at speeds I'd rather not confess in print, my motorcycle so close to the bumper of the trailer that I knew I'd never stop in time if she slammed on the brakes. However, I didn't dare increase the following distance between us, as my wife had the turn-by-turn directions printed on a sheet of paper in the RV (I thought -- it turns out they had blown out of my daughter's open window before we crossed the border into Washington). Eventually, my wife called my cell phone (plumbed into my helmet with BlueTooth), where I discovered that I couldn't navigate with GPS while on a phone call, as my GPS was Google Navigator on my phone, and the phone call took over the screen. We agreed that I would take the lead, and we would only call when absolutely necessary so that I could still navigate.

The last hour into Seattle is best forgotten. I have never been so anxious to get off a motorcycle. Unable to see in the dark, in an unfamiliar town, following GPS directions to an RV park I have never visited, riding in more traffic than we ever see in Alaska, and exhausted by over thirteen hours on the bike -- when we only expected to spend eight -- we finally pulled into the RV park at 10:30 Sunday night.

My wife, who truthfully does an exceptional job driving the RV, hates to back into parking spaces, and simply refuses to do so when pulling a trailer. As good as she is driving large vehicles, my wife's brain cannot make sense of the way a trailer reacts to steering inputs, so backing a trailer into a parking spot is my job. However, by the time we reached the RV park, I was so fried, I couldn't hardly figure out how to work the latches on my motorcycle boots. Fortunately, the husband of the RV park owner, one of the friendliest and most helpful men I have ever met, walked me through parking the RV and trailer in our spot. Without him, I think I would have simply nosed into the spot. No joke. And with that, after six days on the road, we finally reached Seattle.

Entire photo gallery from this trip here.

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