DAY TEN: SUNDAY, JUNE 21
Today is Father’s Day. The kids are long gone out of the house. Two rescue dogs at home; a Collie who talks like Chewbacca for hours on end at times and a German Shorthair Pointer who can outlast your dog in a running distance competition. I find myself missing them and the fictitious card or present that appears on the kitchen table from them each year on Daddy Day now.
I miss my wife too. But still having a blast and enjoying every minute of the adventure.
After yesterday’s fun adventures to the Arctic Circle, I find myself completely stress-free albeit somewhat exhausted from the endurance marathon we had been riding and the overall lack of sleep and rest time. Fatigue is starting to kick my butt. I Usually pay attention to it but I have purposefully been ignoring it so we could make the distance needed to get here. Fairbanks was supposed to be a 3.5 day stay over with a couple of easy days thrown in the mix…we did what we came here to do already in less than a day…so we decided to move on and head south. This decision would cost me dearly later today.
I need to mention the forest fires in the state. They were everywhere it seems. Fairbanks felt like it was Los Angeles with all the smoke pollution. The view of mountains and scenery was severely restricted since we had arrived here in the state and today it would get much worse. Everybody said to watch out for Alaskan wildlife on this trip…but no matter where we went, we saw very little of the wild animals. It is like they had fled the state…maybe it was Alaskan bears and moose on their own vacation we kept seeing in Canada.
We had heard that June 2014 was one of the wettest months on record. The trade off was that when it was nice out, you could see things in the distance. This year it is the opposite…very little rain as is usual for the month, but nothing to naturally fight the forest fires either. There were areas that we rode in, especially today, that I wanted a dust mask to provide some lung protection. Today, it just felt like we were sitting too close to a campfire most of the day.
So let’s move on to today’s report.
The weather outside is great in the morning, a fine day for riding, although just a little smokey. We leave the hotel fairly early, around 7 AM and we are already on the Steese Highway and eventually the Richardson Highway and heading to a very famous figure’s official residence at the official North Pole. About sixteen miles away is Santa’s commercialized home, a place we had passed on our way north but a place Jeffrey wanted to stop on the way back south. I had no objections…I had some postcards I had previously addressed and stamped and getting them sent with a North Pole postal stamp would provide that little more touch of fun to them anyways.
Unfortunately, somebody there didn’t get the memo; the postcard my wife received was postmarked Fairbanks, Alaska. So be it. You’re on the naughty list with me, Santa. No cookies for you this Christmas Eve!
One of the first things you see off the Richardson Highway as you pass the North Pole town boundary is the gigantic Santa statue on the west side of the road:
On closer inspection after parking, it appears this Santa was designed to scare kids; heck it gave us the heebie-geebies (yes, that’s not a formal word):
Santa’s house sure looked like a tourist trap to me. While we didn’t actually see Santa (I heard he was out moose hunting), I did see about fifteen million items for sale in his home:
It’s funny the people you meet while traveling. I had made a token gift purchase of some shirts to send home and had taken it outside to load on the bike. Jeffrey had struck up a conversation with a couple who was wondering who had ridden the motorcycle up there from Indiana; my riding mate pawned them off on me when I went back in looking for him. Turns out this couple was very familiar with the town I live in and we chatted for good fifteen minutes while Jeffrey set up some future surprise letters from Santa to his younger relations.
ETA: Hey Cindy, got the picture…had a great time chatting with you and your husband!
The ride down to Delta Junction and the cutoff on the Richardson to head south towards the towns of Paxton and Glennallen was uneventful and passed quickly. On the way both north and south we passed the Eielson Air Force Base; an impressive landing strip with lots of fighter and massively sized planes on display for the public to easily see from the road.
We initially made plans to eat lunch on the side of the road and to camp this evening somewhere on the Denali Highway and just be one (or two I guess) with nature in the remote lands. A stop at the IGA grocery store in Delta Junction netted us already made sandwiches, chips, snacks, and some bottles of water to carry along. In addition to the couple of Mountain House meals I carried and the 4L of emergency water I always carry in my MSR Dromedary bag on the bike for remote adventures, I was set for supplies for the day.
We followed the Tanana and Delta Rivers as we rode south and noticed that the air was quickly filling up with forest fire smoke. The air was calm with almost no breeze; the powerful aroma having no place to go. It was like sitting in a non-heated camping fire at times, the occasional subconscious cough the mind’s trick to try to inhale some unpolluted air that just wasn’t available.
The Tanana River, I think:
Alaska is a beautiful state. But one thing I noticed nearly everywhere I looked was trash strewn in lots of areas; both in rest stops and private property. In peoples yard, many a junk vehicle and bags or piles of metals and household waste products were easily seen. I saw numerous people driving vehicles with Alaska plates using their car windows as a way evict trash from the inside of their cars. A number of the rest area pull-offs were piled high with tourist disposables and many a beer can from late night partiers. Just one example of what I’m talking about:
Come on, a toaster box?
It just seems a pity that it seemed natural to litter or accumulate filth in the state by those that live there. I found it somewhat distracted from the beauty of what was around them. I understand being self-dependent and making do with what you have. But where I live, this is called laziness. Of course, our state and the many other places have large areas like this where people just do not care about the environment they live in no matter what scenery there is.
Example of the smoke haze that was everywhere this calm day:
The peak above, barely seen through the haze, was less than one mile away from where the picture was taken.
Riding along the Richardson, the Alaskan Pipeline comes back into view. It even goes underground under the road in a few places and bursts back up out of the semi-tundra:
There is some great signage at some of the rest pull-offs; you can read them if you can get around the occasional tent, RV, or semi with the sleeping truck driver sitting in their seat:
My required photo in the middle of nowhere, sitting on the middle line:
And yes, I captured this view many a time on this trip. Just makes me feel one with the road. It is quite possible that some day a silent electric car will be the death of me doing this type of photograph.
Lunch stop alongside the Delta River I believe:
View at our lunch stop:
While sitting there eating a very dry sandwich that contained no liquid condiments such as mayonnaise or mustard and trying to get it down, a rental RV (which you will see millions of on this journey) appeared and pulled up to us. Out bounded two twenty-something guys…from Australia. It seems we met more Australians on this trip than Americans and Canadians combined. It was unbelievable how many people come way up here from the land down under.
We had a great conversation with the brothers, who had come with their dad and separated for a few weeks to drive around Alaska while pops remained in one of the southwestern Alaskan towns for whatever reason. The two had about nine more available days and wanted some advice of where to go to find the best scenery that they had not already seen. Immediately, Jeffrey and I both responded “the Icefields Parkway”. As we ate our Ruffles, we regaled them them with what they would see if they chose that destination. Once we had finished eating and chatting, handshakes all around and we all went out own ways.
I’m a little jealous I guess. I spent years saving up for this trip to pay for the needed motorcycle, gear, and expenses; all around family needs. We met many people who were traveling for months, had no cares for money, and did not have any plans to get back to work, their home life, or any structure. Dozens of people said they had plenty of cash to travel; many were obviously using their parents credit cards or financial backing. Guess I had a different set of financial circumstances the past twenty years that made this type of dream travel an impossibility. Kudos to anybody that can travel this way. I’ll keep playing the lottery.
As mentioned when we were on the Dalton the day previously, you can easily access the pipeline at a lot of places. Some places it just seems natural to climb on it. The government decided to cover any possible liability lawsuit from a photo opportunity accident by plastering “PLEASE Do Not Climb on Pipeline” large decals all over the metal tubing every fifty yards or so where it could be easily reached.
I had mentioned early on in this report that my Mitas tires had caused me lots of concern over the first half of this journey. Now with around five thousand miles on them, they seemed to have finally broken in (which they should have done in just a couple hundred miles) and easily handled wet asphalt, mud, gravel, and other conditions. Riding along the many rivers and streams, I saw a new opportunity for exploring.
There are accesses to the rivers all over in Alaska and Canada. Many of these take you to dry river beds where many a 4×4, motorcycle, or ATV have gone in to play around. We found one of these areas and pulled in. Jumping off the bike, I went exploring on foot and walked over to the actual river. There were actually areas where there were streaks of very fine particles of gold or some other mineral that brought your imagination alive (the photo does this no justice):
I walked through some of the ice cold shallow flowing water from mountain snow melt; it was enjoyable. Eventually the need to continue on the journey came around, and it was time to remount the steed, turn around and get back onto the highway. Then this happened:
I’m laying on the ground, laughing my ass off. Jeffrey starts taking photos. Hey, it’s what you do when stupid things occur, right? It’s not a question of if you will drop your motorcycle some day, but when it will happen.
Everybody that has a motorcycle eventually drops it, somewhere. Whether in your garage, driveway, doing a donut in the work parking lot, or forgetting to put a kickstand down at the gas station, your bike is going to go down someday. Luckily for me, I did mine in sand at about 2 MPH.
No injury, no foul. Faith (again the name given my bike) just decided she was tired and wanted to take a quick nap.
If you look above the 70L bag on the back seat, you’ll notice that the second sandwich I had purchased and the bag it was in survived just fine.
We get the bike stood back up in no time, do a quick check for damages, brush off the dust on the pants, and head back out onto the highway.
Note for future planners: There is NO GAS available in Paxson, the turn off to the Denali Highway. The fuel station, located at the intersection of the Richardson and Denali Highways, closed a long time ago. Had we known this, we would have fueled up again in Delta Junction. We broke the cardinal riding rule in Alaska…fuel up whenever you can where this is gas.
We pulled over on the Denali and did a quick math test on our remaining fuel. We just might be able to do the entire Denali Highway of 135 miles, which has no fuel available that we knew of, with what we had left in our tanks. But, when we put our two minds together, we realized with stopping and going for photos and exploring, there just wasn’t going to be enough gas in the tank. We could go back the way we came to Delta Junction, a jaunt of 80 miles, and refuel. We could keep going south on the Richardson to Glennallen, about 74 miles. Or, we could just top off now with the emergency fuel we had carried since entering Canada and not worry about it any longer.
We chose to use the emergency fuel, which on my bike, was buried under much of my gear on the rear seat:
I carried a 1 gallon Rotopax container, never leaked over the thousands of miles and billions of teeth rattling bumps along the way.
The mosquitoes here were very numerous and aggressive…the Sawyer spray came out once more and relieved us of the problem. Speaking of relieving, here’s some additional info for your future trip: You may be counting on there be a gas station, restaurant, or something else that has a restroom in Paxson. We did. And now we were in a pickle. Not knowing if there were state-supplied rest areas on this highway, we each debated going off into the bushes. For a #1, very easy to do. For a #2, not at all enjoyable should you need to do such activity. We each decided to hold off until our bladders would revolt…and we continued on the Denali.
Lo and behold, about two miles up the road from the Richardson Highway, is a very nice outhouse to use. So for future info, hold it in.
The view when just getting onto the Denali Highway:
Another great point of view:
The Denali has several miles of asphalt at each end, but the main road is gravel and hard packed dirt:
The surface is easy to ride in the vast majority of areas…just like the Dalton or Top of the World highways, you can easily do 80 MPH on the straightaways if you want and 50 MPH on the wide sweeping curves and have absolutely no issues with the right tires on the bike and just a little riding skill.
We flirted with rain and sometimes lost depending which side of a mountain or hill we were on while traversing the entire Denali. The views were a little reminiscent of the Top of the World Highway:
I think the entire 135 miles, we saw only two other vehicles going the opposite way on the gravel and dirt sections. It would not be impossible to be on this road for hours and not see another soul. Of all the roads we had ridden, TOW, Taylor Highway, Dalton, etc…this road was definitely the most remote when it came to traffic.
Random summit picture:
Even out here, there’s construction vehicles doing work. See the background behind the sign:
Loved this sign, even did a u-turn to get the photo. I just can see some kid spray painting a “TWO” over the “ONE” some day.
The road surface changes from packed to loose to rutted gravel repeatedly:
After riding for some time, we came across this sign which shows how far it was to real civilization out in the middle of nowhere:
We even got close to some forest fires on the Denali:
As it wasn’t threatening anything man-made, the officials just let nature run its course.
With all the forest fire smoke, it was just nearly impossible to see the great mountains off in the distance (they are back there in the horizon):
There are a couple of places scattered along the Denali Highway where rental cabins and lodges have rooms for rent for the weary traveler. We passed one of these places just as we had got caught in a very cold micro-burst of rain that had lasted a couple of minutes. I was getting very fatigued and tired so I stopped and let Jeffrey catch up who had fallen about a quarter mile back. I mentioned that perhaps we should stop for the evening, get a cabin, and just stare at the view. Jeffrey responded that he wanted to keep riding to the end of the highway. He wanted to get to the end, fuel up, and evaluate what we would do for sleeping arrangements at that time. So we kept riding even though my body was telling me to just pull over and take a nice long break or stop for the day. My mistake number one.
For the the next thirty miles or so, Jeffrey kept falling behind and disappearing out of my rear view mirror. Knowing we were both tired and there were many opportunities to go off the road if one wasn’t paying attention, I would approach curves of the road keeping one eye on the road, and the other on the mirror waiting to see his headlights appear. My mistake number two.
I had seen a pattern to the road surface the entire way. Three feet of soft unpacked gravel shoulder, sixteen or so feet of hard pack surface, and then the three feet soft shoulder on the other side. This didn’t change for over one hundred miles. So I developed a riding cadence that allowed me to go around the curves without worrying too much about blind traffic coming the other way, the shoulder, or anything else…I just stayed about five feet from the right edge, something some of us riders call “cutting a corner”. My mistake number three.
Coming to a blind sweeping curve at around the 120 mile point going west on the Denali Highway, my mistakes accumulating in escrow finally came to an intersection: Jeffrey didn’t appear in the mirror as I entered the curve, the highway department decided to make this curve with much more than a three foot soft shoulder, and I didn’t realize how being so fatigued would cause me to miss out on the extra milliseconds of response time needed for the mind to evaluate a new set of circumstances, come up with the proper answer how to deal with it, and send the signals to the right body parts to make it happen correctly.
My front tire went into the soft gravel at and immediately turned sideways. With the throttle twisted and sending power to the rear tire for propulsion, the bike went into what we around here call the death wobble. The handlebars went uncontrollably violent, slamming the full radius of its available turns from left to right, right to left, repeatedly, fast, and hard. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can hold onto this when it happens. As soon as the front tire hit the hard pack and immediately stabilized in a direction not natural to the direction of travel, it launched me into the air. Known as a high-side, I went over the handlebars and the windshield.
It’s not the launch that hurts you. It’s not the flight through the air that hurts you. It’s the impact that hurts, of course.
The force felt to the body of hitting the ground is impossible to describe. If you have never had a high-speed ejection from a motorcycle, consider yourself lucky. Imagine an explosion to your body. Now multiple it by a factor of forty-four million. You are still under imagining it.
I had violently crashed. On one the most remote roads on the continent. All alone. I remember laying on the ground, on my stomach, the crashed bike in pieces perfectly centered in my view through where the face shield once was attached. I laid there in the gravel, right side of my helmeted head which was the first part of my body to make ground impact, watching the gravel dust begin to settle. The bike was nearly centered in my view. I did not move and simply stared at the front fairing and the dual headlights, and remember thinking that the bike looked sad. Like I had hurt it and had broken the trust we each had established since I had adopted her. Hard to explain, it makes no sense, but I remember just staring and feeling like I had done an unspeakable thing to a friend.
I remember hearing…nothing. Pure silence; not even the wind made a sound. The Vstrom had of course immediately shut down on impact with the ground. No riding partner appeared. Nobody saw the accident. It was just me lying there and the universe around me. At that moment was just me and nothing else existed.
I knew this had to be really bad. But I felt no pain, none at all. I actually remember thinking…this is what it must be like to die, because nobody should be able to survive this utter violence. I think from the shock, my brain just needed to do a hard reset. I recalled previous medical training…do not go to sleep, do not go to sleep. I felt myself going out and not being able to do anything to stop it. Then the darkness came.
Sorry, time to send this one up…part two of day ten coming soon. And hate to give away the cliffhanger for anybody, but I survived the accident.