DAY EIGHT: FRIDAY, JUNE 19
The Top of the World Highway and the Taylor Highway were the rides for the morning before we would reconnect with the Alaska Highway going towards Fairbanks in the afternoon. With light out, the three of us easily got up as soon as we heard one of the others moving about. It’s hard to be quiet in a tent; the lightweight fabric just isn’t know for its sound insulating properties.
Not sure, but I think the typical 5 AM wake-up happened here as well. Packing the bikes with gear was getting easier with each stop and we were shaving a few minutes off each morning. The entire campground was quiet as we started up our bikes and headed west to one of the most desolate roads in North America. Perfect, just the way we wanted it.
Climbing the hill leaving West Dawson to ride a road that some people have reported is the most remote in the world that they have ever ridden, I came across the following farewell sign that just begged for a picture to be taken of it:
The road surface on the Top of the World Highway is compressed gravel and continues for a couple of hours until reaching the border at Poker Creek:
The weather, as seen in the above picture, was flawless this day. Nary a cloud in the sky, heated gear was needed but for only a few hours as the day warmed up as usual.
The road, the view, and the world was ours alone for the first few hours of the day. To feel totally alone, one just waited with their ignition off and watched their riding mates disappear around the next hilly curve, assuring that the now alone rider heard absolute nothing but the wind and no sight of a single soul on the entire planet.
Rob, Jeffrey, and I leapfrogged each other as we each found our own places to pull off and either stare into the wilderness or to put our cameras to use. A toot of the horn by one of us passing the others would allow us all to know the current pecking order of who was in what position; a great way to keep in mind if somebody disappeared too long and may have gone over one of the curves while riding and daydreaming. As we would find out later, this alert process only worked for the second and third position riders.
As the population grows on this Earth, finding a truly remote area is becoming harder and harder. Even on this remote road, somebody would eventually come along to help a stranded biker…whether that be another motorcyclist or a construction worker. The Top of the World (TOW) Highway does make one feel like they are on a barren planet as no buildings are seen, no man made noises are heard, and the horizon contains nothing but endless hilltops and distant mountains to view.
Every so often up north you’ll run across one of these signs if you ride long enough:
Notice the custom no-dollar leg weights keeping the winds from turning the sign into a kite.
The great thing about Canada is that they make sure their traveling public is given the opportunity to learn about the roads they are on and what they see with their eyes:
More views of the morning:
The elevation increased at times to over 4,500 feet…enough that this far north, snow banks were easily found on the side of the road. Jeffrey had disappeared over the next hill, so Rob and I stopped and practiced our snow making abilities and had the impromptu snowball fight that all kids will have when unexpected snow was had. Sorry, no snow tasting sampling was completed. I was taught long ago to never eat yellow snow or snow in which some wild animal may have utilized for a restroom before the last freezing night would cover it.
Poker Creek in the distance to the west…the US of A port into the 49th state:
Yes, it’s way out there in the distance (middle of the photos, little dots of color) and can be seen from one big overlook east of its location. Oddly, I felt like a spy in a James Bond movie overseeing what would be my upcoming conquest looking at the far off structure sitting so conspicuously in a place where nothing man-made should exist.
Those piles of rocks you see in the foreground were created by human visitors…a symbolic gesture to the universe’s gods signifying a display of tranquility and desire for peace in one’s life. My two riding partners simply took pictures of the view while I quickly built a small spiritual temple using the millions of available rocks scattered all over the ground; my creation hopefully continues to exist past the next windstorm. I remember reading a report of triple digit winds in this area from past storms; here, it just felt like that was simple truth.
This location has a humongous road turnout overlooking a hundred miles of view in all directions. When we arrived, there were a couple of erected tents and a RV parked there. If you can handle the balmy weather up here, where it is windy even when the day is beautiful like today was, you may have found one of the best spots in the Yukon to camp.
We got to the border about thirty minutes before it opened for the morning’s traffic. A motorcyclist had passed us about ten miles from this location and had beaten us to be the first at the gate. No problems..we dismounted and struck up the usual polite conversation.
The heavily loaded motorcycle turned out to be owned by none other another motorcycle forum member that I had chatted with in the spring and right before leaving on the trip. We had hoped our paths would cross in Dawson City; instead we mingled around for half an hour at the only USA border crossing I have ever gone through that would actually stamp my US passport upon my return to the motherland. And with a cool looking stamp too:
At 8:58 am, the Canadian official emerged and opened up the east bound lane into Canada. With military timing, at what showed as exactly 9:00AM on my iPhone, the American customs delegate came out and opened the gate and told us four motorcyclists to move up as one unit. By this time, several RVs had appeared behind us over the past thirty minutes and all those drivers who were outside of their vehicles returned to start up their beds on wheels for the crossover.
Quick story: While standing there waiting for customs to open, one of the older couples in the RV right behind us walked up to us about ten minutes after they arrived. They inquired as to why I had broken their windshield with rocks when I had aggressively passed them. I hadn’t passed a single RV all morning so I asked them to point at the bike that had done the damage. They pointed at the bike that had arrived before our group. I pointed out the rider to them and wandered away to look at the view and not to be a participant of the next conversation. I have no idea if they talked to him or not. They were fairly upset but not extremely angry. It pays to gives others plenty of room on the gravel roads; when passing, to remain in the other lane until well past the slower vehicle so as not to spray them with rocks.
So Poker Creek, Alaska. Population 3 at the most northerly land border port in the USA. We found out later from another border guard that this place is so remote, the customs officials are actually housed here for lengthy periods of time so they don’t need to make the many hours drive to and from civilization each day.
Once again on United States soil, which looked an awful lot like Canadian soil to me, we rode around the next curve in the road to find the famous Alaska sign at the most northerly entry point. Yep, this was a bucket list photo. I got plenty, I’ll share just one:
We had heard rumors that there had been some paving to the US side of the highway; in the US it is officially called the Taylor Highway. The rumors are true…there is some good paved roads there for a couple dozen miles, which goes back to dirt long before you get to Chicken, Alaska.
This hard packed dirt took us into many tight turns both ascending and descending some hillside; most without any type of guard rail to keep you from sliding off the side of a hill or mountain and down into a ravine hundreds of feet deep. Being a little aggressive with the riding, I ensured that no vehicles would be coming around a corner I could see through and I’d gas it just enough to allow a little sliding around the curves. It felt very good to be alive on this morning…so pushing it a little just intensified the feeling with a successful navigation of a corner. I can definitely see that the pucker factor would increase significantly had the weather been rainy.
Chicken, Alaska. Originally they wanted to call the place Ptarmigan back in the late 1800s to honor the grouse that was all over the place there but nobody there could spell the bird name correctly. So they settled on Chicken to prevent looking stupid. Population 7 at the 2010 census, it does have it’s own post office…which is open some oddball times during the week.Not much there other than some rusted equipment that once worked on gold claims, lots of abandoned vehicles and shacks, and the GoldPanner. Located nearly 4 hours west of Dawson, forty-five minutes west of the international border, and one and a quarter hours northeast of Tetlin Junction, the entire GoldPanner trading post location is a hoot.
I give you the main building in Chicken:
The only gas, restaurant, and touristy gift shop around, this multi-building location definitely has some different characters on site:
You have the guy that controls the padlocked gas pumps…locking them even when others are pulling up to use them until you get his attention and ask him to unlock them (he stands right next to you and gives you a slip of paper you cannot read to take to the cashier). Then there’s the cashier…a older lady with a smile who disregards your questions and simply constantly repeats to every person walking in, “The coffee is free, help yourself” even if she already told you multiple times. In the separate restaurant across the gravel driveway, a woman takes your order and occasionally yells at you later…”what kind of toast you want???”, “how did you want them eggs???”, and more. Right after we ordered, a long stream of motorcyclists from Europe came in…and delayed our group’s order of food by more than half an hour while she took every single order, collected the money, and then went to the next person in line. It was a mad dash to get food when she started announcing “the scramble’s ready!” and “pancakes up!”; all without considering who had ordered the items first in line.
Good cook and good presentation, not much taste for some reason to the food’s contents for some reason. Even the onions and peppers in the scramble had no sense of flavor to them. Just bland. Oh, just disregard the scabs on the hands and arms as she leans on the counter over you. Part of the experience, part of the adventure. Take it with a grain of salt and just smile. There’s a few different types of hot sauces and condiments on the counter; you’ll definitely want to use some of them if you want the breakfast to taste like something at all.
Rob and I sat outside to chow down in dust and sunshine; Jeffrey did not want to chance losing his wireless signal by moving that he had found inside the restaurant. Here’s a pic of some of the Europeans bikes that had appeared:
No oval stickers here either. But they do have free coffee if you want it, at least so I heard two dozen times while walking around looking for oval stickers.
The road west of Chicken was mostly paved except for some spots with patched gravel. We had gotten far enough ahead of the slow moving RVs we saw at the border that they were pulling into Chicken when we left…so once again, we had the road to ourselves as everybody stops in Chicken at least to just stretch their legs.
The obligatory sign; they place them in some rest areas so you have something to distract you from the people-eating bears hidden feet away from you in the bushes:
As soon as we had left Chicken, Jeffrey had taken the lead and disappeared. Rob and I flip-flopped positions too many times to even try counting as our cameras got much of a workout. An hour later, we had still not seen Jeffrey when we reached the end of the Taylor Highway where it connected to the Alaska Highway. We were stumped; after waiting a few minutes, we were worried.
On our first day together, we had discussed the one group riding rule that everybody lives by: Never ever make a turn off the road you are riding until the guy behind you appears and he sees which way you are going. That guy then sits and waits for the next guy, and so on. This way everybody goes the same direction. Well, when we got to this main intersection, Jeffrey was not there. Jeffrey had made it very clear all winter long that he wanted no part of leading any part of the ride; he was coming along as a follower even if that meant doing nothing but U-turns when the leader screwed up. For the past few days, Jeffrey simply pulled over if he got a curve or two ahead of one of us and would gladly let Rob or I take the lead and fall back in behind one of us.
Rob and I chatted for a few minutes trying to evaluate if somehow we had both passed Jeffrey without seeing him.
We agreed something was wrong…very wrong. And with all of our slamming brakes for pictures, quick up-shifting to catch up to the others, and not having any need to conserve fuel, we found ourselves to be in need of gas before going back to look for the missing rider. We decided to go to the nearest station, fuel up, and work our way back to Chicken. If we couldn’t find Jeffrey by the time we got to Chicken, we’d then reach out to the Alaska troopers for help.
The GPS had been working correctly for days now so I used it to search for the nearest fuel. Zumo said head north as there was a 24/7 fuel pump about eleven miles up the road; nothing for many miles to the south. We set turned right in haste to go fuel up. The entire ride north I’m running through my mind how we are going to search the road with so many drop-offs in the curves, how we may be able to get help from other motorcyclists, where to set up a staging area, etc. It was not a fun eleven mile ride.
We both get to the pumping station…and sure enough, there sits Jeffrey…already fueled, and waiting for us as if nothing happened. The other two of us, not all too happy…Rob and I could have just as easily turned around and started searching or could have called the troopers for help. With a little more fuel in the tanks, we would have simply turned around without thought to look for the third amigo at a gas station off the path we were all on. Future lesson note: Ensure that everybody understands how to ride in a group setting.
Rob was 99% sure the entire trip that once he got to Tok, he would turn back home as he was not sure if there was enough time for him to do a run to the Arctic Circle and get back for a long-planned family reunion. At this point at the gas station, Rob said he was heading home. Hearty handshakes were exchanged between the two of us, along with an offer to stop by his home on the way back to Indiana. I filed away the invite, mounted the Vstrom, and headed towards Fairbanks. The last I saw of Rob in the rear view mirror, he was riding the Beemer. Good sign.
This gas stop in Delta Junction had tons of these bird nests up in the eaves, wish I knew what kind of birds these were:
The ride to Fairbanks was quick. The days of riding and some frustration with my current other participant’s changing riding style had taken their toll on me…I was exhausted and I just wanted to get to the University of Fairbanks where I had reserved some rooms a couple of weeks out. This university rents out their dorm rooms in the summer months for around $38 a night. An unbelievable price, many riders take them up on the offer. I had reserved Friday night through Monday night, giving us a time window of several days to try to make the ride to the Arctic Circle, a day to do maintenance, and a day just to rest. This ride to the Circle can be treacherous and even deadly in bad weather when the mud turns to a ice-like quality. The multi-day window allowed us to watch the weather, evaluate, and make the decision when would be the best time to go that would reduce the chances of problems with this particular leg of the journey.
I’ll give you the simply unbelievable check-in story now about our experience trying to check into these dorms. I have heard both great and bad stories from other riders; unfortunately ours was a none too pleasant situation compounded by the lack of support from working staff there.
We tried to check in and immediately had problems. Neither of the college students working the welcome window wanted to really work and both actually seemed like we were bothering them every time we interrupted their time on the computers in front of them.. It was a long, headache of a process to get checked in made much more tedious by students who just did not want to do their jobs with any type of efficiency or by providing something known as good customer service.
Finally after they handed us key cards, they then told us we could not park on campus unless we went to the museum down the road and purchased parking permits from a machine in the parking lot. So we went and got very thin paper parking permits that were to be affixed to the windshields and would dissolve if rained on. When we got back to the dorm, all the spots were now taken. Finally finding a place to park, we unloaded our stuff and carried it to the main entrance door to the dorms. The welcome guy warned us that if the flimsy paper was not taped to our windshield, our bikes would be towed. Of course, he offered no tape, and when I asked him for some, he simply held up a stapler and asked, “will this work?” I replied to America’s future life-long welfare recipient, “No”.
We decided to forget about the parking problem right now and just get the items up to the room. Nope, key cards would not work just getting us into the main doors to get to the elevator that was located to residents. Go to the window, go through three tries of getting key card coded, and it finally works to where we can get to the elevator.
Get on elevator, go to third floor (maybe it the fourth, do not remember). Get off elevator, go to room, key does not work. FIVE…YES FIVE trips up and down elevator to front window to have key looked at or exchanged…all the time wearing my Klim suit in 90 degree weather and hauling gear. On fifth trip down, I’m nearly yelling at the kid to come upstairs with me and get the door open for me since he simply cannot understand how a moron from Indiana cannot use a key to get into the room even though he keeps reauthorizing it. THEN he realizes I was supposed to go to a different dorm room and not what he keeps giving me back the wrong key. Ever feel like punching a ignorant condescending nineteen year old asshole who turns out to be the cause of a long list of problems you are having right in his pie hole? Nah, me neither.
Finally…get new dorm room assignment, go upstairs once more (this time leaving gear downstairs next to check-in window) to ensure it works first, key opens dorm room. The temp in the room is at least twenty degrees hotter. I mean, it’s an oven. No air conditioning in these dorms.. it’s Alaska I’m later told; who needs AC when the rooms are usually freezing from the cold months? No way I can sleep in this environment even though I am exhausted…so I go back down stairs to see if they have AC rooms or even a fan. What do you know; they have fans for the asking…maybe. Lazy guy at counter finally gets the strength to stand up after I actually have to requests for him to stop playing his online game and go get a fan for me; he disappears and returns with a stand-up oscillating fan, and soon as he takes his hands off of it, it falls into four pieces on the floor.
I pick all four pieces up, take upstairs on the elevator, get to dorm room, enter it. None of the electrical outlets work…and window won’t open. I’m pissed. Go back downstairs for visit number eight to the welcome staff window, hand the student the pieces of fan, and tell the guy “I’m done, cancel my reservation.” Go back upstairs, tell Jeffrey that I’m leaving while he’s working on getting his phone connected wireless to the campus network…and not surprisingly he says he wants to come along. I don’t care either way, I just want to be gone before the insane asylum needs to send a wagon for me.
Go back downstairs, and run into the manager of the dorm…somebody older than 19 for a change that actually wants to do what they are paid to handle. She understands the frustration, starts telling the two goofs behind the counter what to do, and helps cancel the reservation. I’m dripping with sweat…she gave me a ice cold bottle of water at no charge and made calls to find a room around the city. Unfortunately, call after call is made and every room in town is taken because of visitors for the summer solstice and all the activities happening over the weekend. Only room we can get is one at the Best Western, which currently has a few rooms left we are told. I get handed the phone, try to make a reservation only to be told their computer is down…so I tell them we are on our way and to hold two rooms no matter what it cost…and we get there in ten minutes through Friday rush hour traffic.
Walk inside the Best Western, and the poor guy..second day alone on the job at the front counter, is slammed with people trying to check-in. His computer keeps locking up. We finally get our turn, and he now has no rooms available. Not even for a rewards member like myself. I don’t know how…but after fifteen minutes of fighting the system, he comes up with a room with two beds. It is only available for that night…he’s booked up solid the next three nights. He could have charged me a grand…I would have paid it right then. I don’t care, I’ll worry about what to do for a room or tent space tomorrow, tomorrow. By the time he was done with us, there were at least ten more people in the lobby waiting to check in. And through it all, he was smiling.
Hey Best Western…the kid that was working the customer desk on Friday, June 19th in the evening at the Pioneer Park Inn…this should be your next CEO. NOBODY gives the level of customer service that he did. Wish I would have remembered his name. I may still just write a letter on his behalf to the BW corporate office.
In the room, I looked at the weather forecast and saw that the next day would be a perfect opportunity but that it may rain in the afternoon. I told Jeffrey I was leaving the parking lot at 3 AM in order to have a big enough window to get there and back in great weather. Jeffrey agreed that this was best and said he planned to come along. Too tired to eat, I started charging my electronics while Jeffrey had pizza delivered. Once he consumed the meat pie, we both crashed so we could try to get a couple hours of sleep before heading out on what was the main focus of this trip.
Tomorrow, we make our run for the Arctic Circle. A commercial freezer becomes a welcome respite just miles from the Circle. We find we can get really close to the famous pipeline. And discover that a rumor about Walmart turns out to be true.
Mileage: 434 miles (give or take 434 miles or so)
Areas traversed: Chicken, Tok, North Pole, Fairbanks
Gas: $29.44 (pretty sure I missed a receipt here in Chicken)