North By Northwest: A Solo Motorcycle Adventure From Georgia to Alaska (Day 1)

July 24, 2019

hom·​age  noun – expression of high regard; something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another (Merriam-Webster)

 

About the trip:  Riding solo from Saint Simons Island, Georgia, to Anchorage, Alaska, with 19 riding days and 1 planned down day at Denali National Park. This would be a one-way trip on the bike, and I was going to ship it back and fly home. The superficial goal of this trip was to visit my 50th state, Alaska, before my 50th birthday in September and to celebrate my impending retirement from the Federal government. But the more profound goal was related to the common themes in my motorcycle adventures: discovering history all around us, hidden and in plain sight, and paying homage to those who made positive contributions to our nation. One of the through lines in this trip was the contribution of African Americans during World War II and their struggles before and after to achieve equality. I think we have an obligation to learn about history and from it, even if the topics are challenging, and to ensure that history’s lessons don’t fade away with the witnesses to these events. So, please come along for a ride through history, as well as stops at my usual assortment of informative, visually stunning, and offbeat destinations.

 

About my bike:  2016 BMW R1200GS Triple Black, low suspension, with BMW Luggage Grid in place of the passenger seat

 

About my gear:

- Shoei GT-Air II helmet with integrated Sena SRL 2 Comm System

- Rukka Energator jacket and pants

- Forcefield base layer long sleeve shirt

- BMW Cool Down vest

- SIDI Armada Gore-Tex boots

- Held Airstream II gloves (for warmer temperatures)

- Rukka Imatra Gore-Tex gloves (for colder temperatures)

- Buff UV neck cover

- GoPro Hero7 Black camera (with two batteries and double charging station)

- GoPro Hero5 Session camera (with charging cable plugged into USB outlet)

- GoPro Karma Grip (powered gimbal)

- iPhone 10Xs Max (with charging cable plugged into USB outlet)

- RAM Mount Universal X-Grip holder for iPhone, 3-inch arm length, M8 screw mount

- GoPro Remote (attached to GoPro handlebar pole mount)

- King Biker GoPro turn signal mount (for Hero7 Black facing forward)

- GoPro gooseneck mount (for Hero5 Session facing backward, attached to GoPro handlebar mount)

- DJI Mavic 2 Pro Drone (with three batteries, quad charging station, and car charger plus battery tender/female cigarette adaptor), CrystalSky 7.85” monitor, and PolarPro case

- 1 SanDisk 128GB and 6 SanDisk 64GB micro SD cards

- Apple MacBook Air

- Western Digital 1TB My Passport SSD hard drive

- BMW Hella DIN plug to dual port USB charger

- Anker 40W 4-Port USB wall charger

- BMW Navigator V GPS

- SPOT Gen3 Tracker

- Vario side cases (with Kathy’s waterproof inner bags)

- Compression bags for clothes and snacks/miscellaneous

- Wunderlich subframe bag set

- Vario top case

- Dynaplug Pro tubeless tire repair kit

- Adventure Designs micro tire pump

- Kryptonite Keeper disc lock (for overnight security)

- YETI Hopper Flip 8 Soft Cooler (with one YETI ice pack) mounted to top of left side case with ROK Straps

 

Adventure Hacks:  These are some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the course of my three previous adventures and this most recent one:

- Do a test pack of (all) your stuff ahead of time to ensure it fits in your cases. Once you find a packing configuration that works, take a photo, and re-pack everything the same way each day.

- Ensure your bike is in tip-top shape, preferably with no required service or tire replacements during the trip.

- Ensure that you have all necessary paperwork for your bike (i.e., current registration, US insurance card, and Canadian insurance card).

- If you’re visiting a few National Parks or Federal Recreational Sites, buy an annual Parks Pass. It’s economical and saves you time at the entrances.

- Have a plan for roadside assistance.

- Bring at least a basic set of tools, zip ties, multi-purpose tool, tire pressure gauge, and first aid kit.

- Test all your gadgets in their “final” mounting locations and configurations before the trip.

- Remember all charging cables, and bring spare batteries if you’ll be using a gadget frequently.

- Bring coins and small bills for tolls, and research what the tolls are ahead of time.

- If you’re visiting a point of interest on a controlled-access facility (i.e., military base, National Park, etc.), do your homework on access/parking. Google Maps isn’t always accurate with the roads it picks for you. The same goes for information on the facilities’ websites. Call them and ask about the access.

- Print hard copies of your daily route, planned points of interest, and lodging name/address. Having the hardcopy is a good backup in case of GPS issues or lack of cell coverage.

- Another comment about navigation: I used both my Navigator V and Google Maps on the iPhone. The benefit of Google Maps is its dynamic routing around traffic, accidents, and construction, while the Navigator V has my pre-loaded points of interest and lodging locations. It’s also amusing to imagine the iPhone and Navigator V arguing with each other about the best route.

- On my bike gauge cluster, I like displaying Range and TPMS. I think these are the most important data points to see during my ride. I get my speed from the GPS. 

- Bring gear that will keep you reasonably comfortable in all expected environmental extremes. That’s a tall order because space is limited (unless you’re towing a trailer), and some compromises must be made. Decide what your comfort thresholds are on either end of the spectrum.

- Try to break-in your riding gear before the trip. Brand new gloves, boots, and helmet can be downright painful. I’d worn my new helmet for a total of three hours before this trip, so I don’t always follow my own advice.

- If you’re a “Special Needs Eater” (Read: Very Picky), bring snacks and some camping meals, and replenish on the road when needed. Consider bringing a cooler, which I did for the first time on this trip.

- Ziploc sandwich bags and large freezer bags have a lot of uses. I always bring quite a few.

- If your bike needs mid-level or premium fuel, don’t assume that you can find it everywhere. When I got into North Dakota, I began filling up with premium instead of the recommended mid-level; my logic (perhaps not completely rooted in computational fluid dynamics) was it would mitigate the expected rare instances of having to get a gallon or two of low-octane when needed to top off the tank.

- If you’re recording video at high resolution, bring plenty of SD cards, as well as a backup drive. Before the trip, I set up folders on the drive for each day, with sub-folders for each source of media (Drone, Hero, Session). This expedites and simplifies the daily backup process.

 

A Few Words About My Riding Philosophy:  I’ve been riding for a relatively short period of time (seven years). That said, I’ve done several long adventure rides, and I’ve tried to take a thoughtful approach to riding, influenced by my friend Yermo Lamers, creator of Miles-By-Motorcycle, who has been riding far longer than I have. I believe that motorcycle riding brings with it a level of inherent risk, and there are a number of other factors that can affect this risk:

- Wearing the right gear all the time

- Riding at a reasonable speed for the conditions and minimizing aggressive riding

- Riding a bike that’s well-maintained with the latest electronic safety aidsSlowing down or not riding in adverse weather

- Not riding in darkness

- Not riding when fatigued

I like to visualize this as an old-style balancing scale, a “Scale of Risk,” if you will.

All of those individual factors add to the risk of motorcycle riding. But even when one removes them from the situation (to the other side of the scale), the scale is still tilted by the inherent risk of riding, meaning that some factors are beyond our control as riders. That doesn’t mean we should avoid riding if it’s something that brings us enjoyment and broadens our cultural and educational horizons. Rather, it’s an admonition to promote constant situational awareness and defensive riding and a reminder of how much riskier you make things by choosing not to remove the individual factors.

 

Intended Itinerary:

6/28/19 – Saint Simons Island, Georgia to Columbus, Georgia

6/29/19 – Columbus, Georgia to Decatur, Alabama

6/30/19 – Decatur, Alabama to Scottsburg, Indiana

7/1/19 – Scottsburg, Indiana to Lincoln, Illinois

7/2/19 – Lincoln, Illinois to Plover, Wisconsin

7/3/19 – Plover, Wisconsin to Saint Cloud, Minnesota

7/4/19 – Saint Cloud, Minnesota to Grand Forks, North Dakota

7/5/19 – Grand Forks, North Dakota to Carlyle, Saskatchewan

7/6/19 – Carlyle, Saskatchewan to Swift Current, Saskatchewan

7/7/19 – Swift Current, Saskatchewan to Canmore, Alberta

7/8/19 – Canmore, Alberta to Grande Cache, Alberta

7/9/19 – Grande Cache, Alberta to Fort Nelson, British Columbia

7/10/19 – Fort Nelson, British Columbia to Watson Lake, Yukon

7/11/19 – Watson Lake, Yukon to Whitehorse, Yukon

7/12/19 – Whitehorse, Yukon to Tok, Alaska

7/13/19 – Tok, Alaska to McKinley Park, Alaska

7/14/19 – McKinley Park and Denali National Park, Alaska

7/15/19 – McKinley Park, Alaska to Valdez, Alaska

7/16/19 – Valdez, Alaska to Whittier, Alaska

7/17/19 – Whittier, Alaska, to Anchorage, Alaska

 

Day 1 – 6/28/19

I only had two planned points of interest for this first day of riding, the main reason being that I didn’t want to overdo things at the outset. I should mention that I’d ridden a total of about 200 miles in the year and a half before this trip, and 180 of those were the round-trip to get the bike serviced in Jacksonville in May. I knew the first several days might be a bit uncomfortable until my body got used to being on a bike all day. There was also the acknowledgment that my riding skills would be a little rusty. As one would expect in the Deep South, the temperature was already climbing, and the humidity was sticky in the early morning hours.

As I left the house to formally begin the adventure at the Sidney Lanier Bridge in Brunswick, I questioned my decision to wear my heavier Gore-Tex riding suit for the entire trip. The first week was certain to be hot and unpleasant, but the majority of the trip would be in cooler climates with greater risk of rain. If I could gut it out (or more accurately, sweat it out) until North Dakota, I’d be fine. In hindsight, I should have worn my summer-weight suit and shipped the Gore-Tex to North Dakota, where I’d make the swap. Lesson learned for the future.

My route would take me through Douglas, where the airport hosted an Army Air Forces flight training school during World War II. It was an uneventful two hour ride on roads I’d traveled before, and I was soaked from sweat by the time I arrived at the airport. A small World War II Flight Training Museum is in the barracks of the former flight school, but, unfortunately, my schedule wasn’t going to align with its opening at 11am. I did take a little time to explore the campus on foot and imagined what it was like when the flight school operations were in full swing, with aviation cadets participating in the nine-week program. I'll come back sometime in the future for a proper visit.

After rehydrating, I hopped on the bike and headed north towards Robins AFB and the Museum of Aviation, which bills itself as the second largest museum in the US Air Force. It is an impressive facility, with several large buildings for exhibits and a number of aircraft outside on static display. I was disappointed that a few areas were closed for private Air Force functions, but I understand that retirement ceremonies and changes of command have priority.


Students of history will recall that a variant of this aircraft, an EB-66, was shot down during the Vietnam War in 1972 and set in motion the events memorialized in the book and movie Bat 21. The tremendous cost of this rescue operation in terms of aircraft and lives lost caused the Air Force and other branches of service to rethink their approach to high-threat combat search and rescue.

After exploring the museum for a while, I rode west towards Columbus and arrived at my hotel about an hour and a half later. I was really worn out from the heat and hoped that the next several days wouldn’t be this grueling. The weather forecast, though, didn’t show any relief in sight. I had used my BMW Cool Down vest over my base layer and under my jacket in the afternoon; it’s soaked in cold water to produce an evaporative cooling effect. But the concept relies on airflow, and my jacket’s vents weren’t large enough to provide sufficient airflow over the vest.

One thing I was reminded of as I retrieved the gear from my bike at the hotel: Motorcycles serve as a conversation starter for strangers approaching you anywhere you’re parked. The topics are almost always focused on one of the following:

- I had a motorcycle.

- I have a motorcycle.

- I want a motorcycle, but…

  -- My significant other won’t let me, or

  -- I’m too old, or

  -- I can’t afford it.

Three separate men initiated chats with me under the hotel awning, and all three chats touched on one of those topics. So, if you don’t want to talk to people, don’t ride a motorcycle.  

I had to do some tech troubleshooting that night on my GoPro Karma Grip powered gimbal, because it wasn’t turning on and controlling my Hero 7 camera like it should (and had when I tested it previously). I’d checked for firmware updates before I left, and none were showing up on the GoPro app or website. After going back and forth with GoPro tech support for a while, the GoPro app finally listed a firmware update, which I installed. That seemed to fix things, and I was once again a satisfied GoPro customer, a feeling that wouldn’t last through the next day.

Tomorrow, more history, heat, miles, and perhaps some drone photos and video.

Total mileage: 293.7 

Lodging: Hampton Inn Columbus-North, Columbus, Georgia