North By Northwest: A Solo Motorcycle Adventure from Georgia to Alaska (Day 16)

August 18, 2019

Day 16  7/13/19

The rain and overcast conditions in Tok had helped keep the smoke from dissipating overnight. I was glad that I had the Buff to cover my mouth and nose, but I couldn’t do that with my eyes, which were stinging a bit.

About 15 minutes outside of Tok, the visibility became almost zero from the smoke. I turned on the high-beam headlight and slowed down well below the speed limit. Vehicular encounters with moose or other large nature friends on the Alaska Highway happen all-too-frequently in good driving conditions; this smoke was creating a circumstance with very little reaction time should they choose to cross the road. I did everything I could to mitigate the risk, other than not riding at all, which wasn’t an option.

After what seemed like forever (but was closer to 45 minutes), I was through the heavy smoke. As I approached the Gerstle River, I saw a sign for the Black Veterans Memorial Bridge, another fitting tribute to the African American Soldiers who helped construct the Alaska Highway.

Thirty more minutes of riding, and I was in Delta Junction, where the Alaska Highway officially ends and the Richardson Highway begins. I stopped for gas and then rode over to the visitor center, just in time for a tour bus to disgorge its many passengers.

I started on the Alaska Highway four days ago at Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, and here I was at Mile 1,422 in Delta Junction. Although it’s not as rough, unpredictable, and quagmire-like as the Dalton or Dempster Highways, I felt like I’d gotten more adventure than expected on the Alaska Highway. I do recommend making the journey, stopping for the scenery, and learning its history.

I continued past Delta Junction on the Richardson Highway for almost an hour and started to see signs about the Eielson Air Force Base airshow. In all of my research for this trip, I completely missed anything about an airshow happening on the very day I’d be passing through. Airshows mean crowds and traffic, but thankfully, most of the vehicles were approaching from the opposite direction to enter the gates. The line must have been at least a mile long.

I couldn’t ride past North Pole without stopping for a photo.

The clock and my stomach told me that it was time for lunch, so I started searching on my GPS for possibilities in Fairbanks. I’d enjoyed my last Tim Hortons grilled cheese yesterday, and since they haven’t invaded Alaska yet, this left Starbucks as my second choice. I navigated to one in town only to discover that it wasn’t a standalone store, just a mini-location in a Safeway. As I stood next to my bike in the parking lot, contemplating what to do, a man approached from the vehicle next to me. You’ll recall the different types of motorcycle conversations I have with strangers. This was the “I have a motorcycle” one; he actually has the BMW R1250GS, the latest version of my bike. He noticed my Georgia license plate and was curious about the trip. And here’s where he saved me from making a huge mistake with my route for the day after tomorrow. He asked if I was taking the Denali Highway between Cantwell and Paxson on my way to Valdez. I said it appeared to be the shortest route, and Google Maps had also suggested it first. He then explained to a surprised looking me that the Denali Highway is 134 miles of mostly dirt and gravel and very challenging for heavy adventure bikes with road-biased tires (i.e., mine). The alternative route would add 112 miles to an already long day.

I thanked him for this information and rode across the street to Taco Bell to reflect on my choices. Ok, there really wasn’t a choice, and I would have to do another big mileage day to stay on schedule for the ferry in Valdez on Tuesday morning. Even with all the planning and research that went into this trip, I managed to miss the part about the Denali Highway not being a suitable route for me. The same thing had happened with not knowing about a potential traffic meltdown from the Eielson airshow. I’d put so much effort into figuring out how I’d get to Alaska and what I’d see along the way, the part about riding around in Alaska became a bit of an afterthought. Another lesson learned.

Back on the road and now heading generally south towards Denali National Park, I began to see the mountains ahead in the distance.

I stopped for gas in Healy, just north of my overnight lodging in McKinley Park, and also took some photos of the Neana River next to Parks Highway. Heartier souls than me like to tackle these rapids in big rafts.

As I made a left turn on Crow’s Nest Road for my lodging, I was greeted by a steep, curving, and banked dirt road with lots of gravel and potholes. Here's the view from halfway up the hill looking down.

I should have parked the bike and walked up the hill to get a better sense of what was around the bend and to make mental notes about the road hazards. But impatience caused me to just press on up the hill. As I rounded the curve, I saw that the hill was still going up, but I’d lost some speed. Enough speed that the engine bogged down and stalled. RPMs get too low for the gear you’re in, the bike stalls, and you can usually just restart the bike while coasting. Unfortunately, bikes tend not to coast up steep hills, and I came to an abrupt stop. My brain reflexively sent a signal to put my left foot down, but the ground wasn’t level on that side. Those of you who have tipped over with a tall bike know the terrible feeling when the bike goes past the point of no return. It happens in slow motion, but there’s nothing you can do, and you’re just along for the ride. So, over we went. The good news: The bike didn’t land on top of me. More good news: The engine guard did its job and protected the engine. The bad news: The hand guard didn’t fully do its job and rotated up, exposing the clutch lever at impact, sheering off the end.

The side case reflector was cracked, and the bottom of the case got pushed in slightly from its expanded position. I learned later from a BMW service advisor that the clutch levers are designed to sheer off at the end, because if too much breaks off, they’re unusable. No clutch lever usually means you’re done riding until it’s replaced. Mine had plenty left to be completely functional.

Before I even had a chance to think about getting the bike upright, two burly young men who’d witnessed my pratfall from a nearby pickup truck came over to help. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, though, now sitting on the bike but precariously stopped on the hill. I started the engine, rolled on the throttle, and synchronized my brake release and clutch release to get moving forward. I parked the bike and hauled my stuff into the “charming” cabin where I’d be staying for the next two nights. Regarding the cabin, let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected and certainly not worth the exorbitant amount I’d paid. It was very cramped, not especially clean, and the floor wasn’t level. So much so, that the water almost spilled out of the shower. 

Daily portrait challenge: How many tourists can fit in the Alaska Pipeline?

I walked down the hill to pick up supper, already fretting about having to ride down on the bike in two days. I was also upset that it would be a very long day due to my poor planning. And I was angry and embarrassed about the bike mishap. I’d managed almost 5,500 incident-free miles during 16 days, and I fell over trying to ride up a hill to my cabin. Well, my bike now had some “adventure scars,” and BMW will happily take my $100 (plus labor) for a new clutch lever. It was indeed fortuitous that tomorrow would be an opportunity to decompress off the bike, surrounded by the natural beauty of Denali National Park. Maybe I’ll even go for a relaxing hike first thing in the morning. How about the Mount Healy Overlook Trail?

Total mileage: 325.3

Lodging: Denali Crow’s Nest Log Cabins, McKinley Park, Alaska