Florida to the Arctic|
on a Single Cylinder Motorcycle
c) 2001 by Stuart Heaslet
On a day when a gold miner has a lucky day in Chicken, Alaska, the local saloon will fire a load of women's panties from its fully operational miniature cannon. The fellow in charge of this contraption is somehow related to the famous bearded Chicken Lady who runs the combination mercantile store, saloon and café that makes up the entire breadth of Downtown Chicken. And it's because of him that the walls of the Saloon show undeniable proof of self-inflicted warfare amid shreds of feminine fabric.
The tiny hamlet of Chicken lies in a small valley west of the northernmost border crossing into the United States at Poker Creek Station, and straddles the Top of the World Highway near the Lost Chicken Hill Mine and the Sam Wade gold dredge. The Lost Chicken is a family placer gold mine operation, and the Wade Dredge (built in New Zealand) is a historic ruin of one of the largest gold dredges ever seen during the 19th century Alaskan gold rush.
But history wasn't on my mind on this cool spring day after riding the Kawasaki from Dawson City in the Yukon Territories. I had a powerful hunger, needed a bathroom, and wanted some fuel. I had been on the road for nearly two weeks prior to my arrival in the Yukon Territories, and at the tender age of 46 it was my first major overland motorcycle trip. So it was with high hopes I swept past the sign announcing the "Chicken Community" and coasted into Downtown Chicken and its single gas pump surrounded by deep mud.
Now, I'm a fair guy and try to relate to women on an intellectual basis, but when I pulled up to Downtown Chicken, but intentions crumbled when I came face to face with the Chicken Lady. Sporting a beard and other hair, the Chicken Lady distracted me so much that I nearly dropped the bike.
Life in the north country can be hard, and became more obvious that the man who operates the saloon cannon was savvy about picking women. After an hour talking about the winter and nearly everything else under the sun, the Chicken Lady claimed she had eaten actual dinosaur meat while on a dig in the Brooks Range north of Fairbanks. She said this in a casual way, but suddenly it was clear that this was no ordinary event, and I might be privileged to be one of few people to talk with the only woman in the world who had undergone a sort of ancient hormone therapy. Turns out that the frozen mountains preserved some of that dinosaur meat, and there enough to put hair on, well, anyone.
Two weeks earlier I had left home in Juno Beach, Florida for what was to be two round trips to the Arctic, encompassing over 29,000 miles during the summers of 1999 and 2000.
I used every bit of six months during late 1998 and early 1999 to prepare for the trip. The house and the business had to withstand minimal care for most of the spring and summer months, and preparations were complicated by the fact that Florida was going through a major dry spell in early 1999, so at the last minute I decided to install an automatic sprinkler system. It was not until the early afternoon of May 6, 1999 that I departed Juno Beach for Prudhoe Bay on the north slope of Alaska.
Predictably, the heavens opened two days after I left, soaking Florida with heavy thunderstorms every day, meaning that the sprinkler system rarely operated for nearly four months. The first day was spent trying to get out of Florida on the Turnpike north to Interstate 75, and west on Interstate 10. As usual, this time of year was hot and humid, and smoke hung in the air from the various forest fires around the state.
Early in the planning stages, I had chosen a Motoport Ultra II two piece armored suit for the trip, complete with thermal liners. While it seemed to outsiders that the suit was too heavy for summer riding, this did not prove to be the case. Motoport has an interesting approach to engineering its gear, with removable thermal/moisture liners that zip inside the uncoated Cordura shell jacket and pant. Motoport has chosen not to slavishly subscribe to the notion that a good riding suit must have a waterproof outer shell, impervious to water. They argue that an uncoated Cordura shell over an optional waterproof Gore-Tex thermal liner is more versatile. This unusual approach proved to be right - during hot summer days the suit ventilated well, and the periodic summer shower wet the suit so that it acted as an swamp cooler in 100 degree plus conditions. Indeed, even when there was no rain during summer days in the Plains and Southwest US, each fuel stop was highlighted by a trip to the water hose. People got a kick watching me dump water down my suit at these stops, and I would feel cool for a couple of hours afterward. Other times the suit kept me warm and dry during the cold gray rain days in Canada and Alaska. Most of the time I wore shorts and T-shirt under the suit, but when the temperature was 19 degrees one morning I layered in polypropylene shirt and glove liners, a pair of jeans and a couple of long sleeve cotton shirts. Even at the colder temperatures, I never had to wear long underwear, though I did make heavy use of a wind triangle to protect my neck. Until I came upon a glove layering system using polypropylene liners, a neoprene fishing glove, and the heaviest leather gloves I could find, my hands did get a little cold, though not unmanageably so. Layering, whether it was under the Motoport suit, my feet or my hands, was the key to good thermal control.
For the most part I followed smaller state and county roads on a track through Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas Nebraska and through the west side of the Dakotas. Just outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi, after a ride from Pensacola, Florida, the first indication of a grounding problem came to light - any braking action would also light up the turn signals. It was at this time that starting the KLR became a little more difficult as well. Later during my travels through South Dakota, the bike actually stopped running, but I was able to get it going again. (Later I found that the connection to the battery's negative terminal post was loose.) Predictably, since this was my first major experience with the KLR, mechanical problems would show themselves most during the first 5,000 miles of the trip. The remaining 24,000 miles had almost no problems, though I admit to being somewhat obsessive about preventative maintenance. And, as it turned out, the bad grounding situation was my own doing - the cause proved to be my poor rewiring of the rear turn signal lights when I relocated them to fit the Jesse luggage system. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Not being an electrical genius (I've since learned how to do basic tracing of circuits with a multimeter), I pressed on to Tallulah, Louisiana after a hot and sticky 600 mile ride.
Continuing on past Tallulah I traveled northwest through Louisiana and Arkansas with the moon hanging off my left shoulder and the Mississippi River to the right. There was an almost obligatory photo stop at the burned out gas station north of Tallulah with a sign that said, "Mishap Prevention is the Responsibility of Everyone." It was a crisp, early May day, and later as I passed through the small town of McGehee, I came across an accident between a farm truck and a pickup during a time when hardly any traffic was present. Both drivers appeared to be good friends, and were standing around looking quite sheepish as the policeman wrote his report. I could only imagine how these guys were going to escape the inevitable teasing in this small town.
I had heard that some of my ancestors on my father's side were buried northwest of Fayetteville, Arkansas in the northwest area of the state, and wanted to visit the old Bethel Cemetery located just north of Decatur on the Decatur-Gravette road. I found the peaceful little cemetery off the main highway (the old roadbed was still visible a quarter of a mile east of the main road) and also found the graves of a number of family members. Five had been killed in a feud over money and women. We Heaslets seemed to be easy pickings back then, but I'm grateful the family gene pool survived.
In the beginning, I was going to camp. Had all the stuff for it, too, but by the time I got to Bowman, South Dakota after nearly 2,000 miles I decided that this was a road trip, pure and simple. For me, a road trip is different than a camping trip. I wanted to ride every day, and it became clear that setting up and breaking camp each day put a major dent into the process of traveling. I love camping, but I like to set things up so they're comfortable for a few days at a time, at least. Many riders I met along the way had tried both camping and hotels, but most seemed to prefer using the existing roadside hotel facilities for a warm shower and a bed every night.
Armed with this rationale, I dropped into Schmidt's Package Express Center and True Value Store in Bowman, South Dakota and shipped the camping gear back to Florida. It was at this moment that storm clouds began dumping the heaviest, wettest snow I had ever seen. Rumor had it that this same storm had dumped eight inches of snow in western Montana, so the owner of Schmidt's inquired (delicately, of course) if I planned to continue riding that day. I said yes, not knowing how this was going to haunt me, because I figured the snow was going to melt on the road and yours truly (from Florida and other tropical places) would be able to negotiate whatever little piles of snow that might accumulate. The man at Schmidt's was visibly more restrained when I informed him I was traveling north to Alaska instead of south to a warm place, but he seemed to relax a bit when I said one ‘needs to be loopy’ to do a motorcycle trip like this. They can't touch you if you’re certifiably nuts.
I had always wanted a machine that would take me places that many motorcycles would avoid. The BMW GS or F650 were options, as was the Triumph Tiger, but I wanted something that was bulletproof, easy to pick up after a fall, and easy to fix in the field. I didn't want electrics to be compounded by a system of electronic controls - as a former sailor I had developed a healthy paranoia about electrical systems in wet conditions. Reliability was the greatest single factor needed for the trip, and if anything went wrong I wanted to be able to solve it in the field. That meant no fuel injection, no electronic chip controls, a big tank, and a good parts network. Ironically I would be stopped later by the pesky grounding problem, but it proved to be my own fault.
After much research, the KLR seemed the ideal motorcycle that would allow overland travel on dirt roads as well as on interstates, so I bought the KLR (affectionately known as "Thumper") in 1998 from what is now PowerSports of Palm Beach, a Kawasaki dealer in Palm Beach County, Florida. As a lightweight, single-cylinder, liquid cooled machine with a displacement of 648 cubic centimeters, the KLR has a stellar reputation for overland touring in South America, Africa and other areas around the world. While the KLR has suffered from some criticism of its ten year old engineering, the machine has a reputation for simple maintenance, good parts availability, and reliable performance. Its large 6.1 gallon fuel capacity and its nimble ability to tour long distances on dirt roads means that the KLR is one of the most sought after adventure-touring motorcycles in the world.
Compared to other motorcycles, the KLR is also quite inexpensive costing less than US$5000, though I admit to spending over US$2500 on aftermarket equipment to get ready for the trip. Major equipment added to the Thumper included a Russell Day-Long seat, stainless steel brake line for the front brake, a heavy-duty Works rear shock, Progressive front springs, Jesse aluminum pannier luggage, Moose bash plate, Clearview windshield, Acerbis hand guards, new jetting and aftermarket exhaust, a cruise control lever, IMS pegs and shift lever, Aerostitch pannier bags and a Kawasaki tank bag. From an idea put forth on the KLR newsgroup list (www.egroups.com), I also installed a 4-inch PVC pipe with expansion caps to the front of the bash plate. (With the later addition of the Happy Trails highway pegs, this was replaced with a 3-inch pipe to clear the front wheel.) This tube was used for tools in an attempt to shift weight forward, and it turned out to be on of the biggest conversation icebreakers on the road. The pipe was painted black, the caps were bright red with a warning, "Stand Clear When In Operation." Customs officials were always curious, but no one ever asked me to open it. People would ask what it was and I enjoyed making up answers ranging from "it's a nitrous tank" to "it holds beer."
Riding the Great Plains have always fascinated me, because of the colors and the expanse of sky, and I found Highway 2 north out of Grand Island, Nebraska, then north on Highway 183 to Bassett to be one of the most beautiful late afternoon rides I had ever experienced. This was the first time I had seen the valleys and rolling hills of Nebraska's northern high plains, and the new spring growth and rich, reddish light from the setting sun made the picture quite stunning. The comfort behind the saying "red sky at night" was an illusion, however, because of that snowstorm I heard about in Montana. So, keeping my fingers crossed, I continued north to Bassett, Nebraska, nearly running out of fuel in the process. It was the only time during the entire trip that I allowed myself to be complacent about fuel reserves, and I was very glad to find the Texaco station open late on Saturday night in Bassett. It was almost like a ghost town, because everyone had gone to another town for a big dance.
The following morning was cold and windy, and I departed to the west toward Winner and on to Sturgis. I began to experiment with different crosswind techniques, and found the best way was to keep my body more or less upright, and banking the bike into the wind. It reminded me a little of a forward slip in an airplane, with little cross control inputs, and it proved to be the most stable position for gusty crosswinds. This technique was particularly useful during what was to be the most challenging time of the entire trip - while on the road to the Fortuna portal into Canada north of Williston, North Dakota, winds from the south west were so strong that I could barely maintain 45 miles an hour westbound at full throttle, and when I turned north the winds nearly tore the bike from the road. When I arrived at Weyburn, Saskatchewan, I was sweating in the suit even though it was only 38 degrees.
I prefer solo riding. In the beginning I asked a number of people if they would like to go, but most of them would mutter something about work or family obligations. To my delight, this was the best thing that could have happened, because I discovered that I met many more people on the road as a solo rider. Riding in a pack makes a group more self-absorbed, I suppose, and as the tour evolved I realized that the freedom of solo riding far outweighed the temporary security offered by group travel. This should have been obvious to me, since most of my life has been filled with solo travels. A woman told me once that I seemed to like discomfort and insecurity, and it's true that travel without the normal cushions of group touring has been the most enlightening for me, whether by sailboat, airplane or foot. It can be a dangerous time too, for example a fellow could very easily fall in love somewhere along the way. Emotions and personal awareness seem to be at an all-time high during these ventures, and maybe that attracts people.
Touring Canada is a lot of fun. I may risk the ire of my fellow US residents, but there is a friendliness in Canada that I don't see much in the United States. Stopping at the Esso station near the Pizza Hut in The Battlefords in Saskatchewan was a typical example - the woman who managed the station took one look at my riding suit and asked if I was still cold. I replied, "No, this is my big black bunny suit and it keeps me real warm." She giggled, flirted and said that all I needed was a couple of rabbit ears to make it work, and it was then I wondered if all Canadians were this much fun. Later, in Cache Creek, British Columbia I met Estelle Darough, who works two jobs at the Sandman Inn and her brother's Chevron Station. After several long days on Thumper, Estelle went out of her way to make me feel welcome by serving me one of the best steaks I ever ate, and then telling me that if I would stop in the following morning at the Chevron station she would give me some fresh baked rolls. She is a real friend, but I admit part of the attraction is because she kept calling me "sweetheart" after nearly a week of heavy riding in rain and sleet. I hated to leave, but I had an appointment in Vancouver later that day and I had already planned to ride over Highway 99 through Pemberton and Whistler from Cache Creek. (If anyone travels to Cache Creek, be sure to look up Estelle. She works evenings at the Sandman Restaurant, and mornings at Chevron.)
Through the KLR list I had met Al Phipps, a KLR owner in Fort St. John, British Columbia, just north of Dawson Creek. In early 1999 I had bribed him and his wife with a promise of dinner, and they put me up for the evening and allowed me to clean up and wash some clothes. While we were in a local pub filled with oil field workers, somehow I let slip that I did a bit of environmental work, but they were nice enough to kick me under the table to shut me up. We also talked about Al's upcoming cross-Canada trip scheduled to depart July 1, and we also discussed (for the benefit of spouses everywhere) how these trips could improve domestic relations at home. After dinner, they took me on a tour of the Peace River, ostensibly to search for some of the thousands of moose allegedly in the area, but we didn't see a single moose. Deer were all over the place, but the Phipps insist to this day that there are tons of moose, too. I haven't been able to independently corroborate the Phipps' claim yet, but they are both nice people, so if they say there's moose, then there must be a moose somewhere. The first time I actually saw a moose was over 2000 miles northwest, in an Anchorage schoolyard.
Road conditions in Canada are generally excellent for the dual-sport tourer. The Alaska Highway paved most of the way to Alaska, and is maintained by some of the hardest working crews I have ever seen. I did hear some recreational vehicle drivers and motorcyclists with large street bikes complain about even these good conditions, but in all cases I found these people to be inexperienced or short-sighted in regard to their selection of equipment. In spite of that, they were still able to ride the sections under construction, though I could tell that there was more of a pucker factor for them. There were sections under construction that had to be negotiated behind a construction company pilot vehicle, but unwritten protocol for motorcycles in Alaska and Canada is that if they come upon a line of vehicles waiting to be escorted through the next section of highway, the motorcycle should go to the head of the line immediately to avoid being choked by dust or mud from the line. This protocol was backed up by some of the construction flag workers. Thumper tended to be the fastest vehicle on dirt and gravel, but slowed down some on muddy sections during rain or behind a water truck.
One can expect at least 50 or more miles of gravel on the Alaska Highway in any given year due to maintenance. The Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks Alaska is the best maintained road of the system. Go off the Alaska Highway and most roads are well-maintained gravel highways, and it was refreshing to cruise 60-80 mph on dirt or pavement without the pucker factor associated with riding single-purpose machines on the wrong surface.
To the chagrin of many local Canadians, road crews are eliminating some of the twisty sections and replacing them with wide, fast roadbeds designed for the hordes of US-based recreational vehicles going to Alaska (why don't they just stop in Canada - it's beautiful, cheaper, and by some accounts more fun). I'm sorry to see some of these old roadbeds disappear, especially north of Destruction Bay near Burwash Landing in the Yukon. A huge road project is going on there, but even the temporary roads are in good shape for a dual sport.
But the other main highways in British Columbia, Yukon Northwest Territories and Alaska are the real treat. Known by their proper names as the Cassiar, Dempster, Canol, Denali, Dalton, Mackenzie, Liard, and Campbell, these roads and the communities they serve are off the beaten track, and well worth the time to visit. And there were always more places to go that time allowed - for example, one day traveling on the Campbell Highway on a bright August day brought me past Frances Lake to the turnoff to Tungsten, Northwest Territories, but time and fuel reserves did not allow the detour. And I have heard that the road on the northeast bank of the Mackenzie River north of Fort Simpson has been opened further to summer travel - usually it is just a winter road - toward Wrigley.
Big changes are happening in northern Canada, with the April 1, 1999 creation of Nanavut, a new Canadian Territory. This new Territory re-defines the future of Canada's northern political map in the old Northwest Territories east of the Yukon, yet few people in Canada or the United States are aware of the significance of this, or of 34 year old Paul Okalik, the first Premier of Nunavut. I have always been curious about the Western Arctic in Canada, and someday would also like to spend time in Nunavut. It was for this reason I wanted to attempt a visit to Inuvik, but I knew there was a chance that I could not get through during the thaw. I bought fuel at the Shell station in Stewart Crossing near the turnoff to Mayo, and continued on to the Dempster Highway junction to Inuvik. During my first trip to the Arctic, I was told that the thaw was in full force, with up to two feet of water running over the top of the ice at the two river crossing near Arctic Red River and Fort McPherson on the way to Inuvik, and that trucks were the only ones being let through. I knew I had been taking a chance that the ice bridge would be open, or that the ferry would be operating, so I abandoned the Dempster and continued on to Dawson City located at the junction of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. Anyone who is contemplating a trip to Inuvik should schedule arrival at the Dempster after June 1, since this is the approximate time the thaw ends and the ferry begins service. The ferry across the Yukon River to the Top of the World Highway at Dawson City usually opens sooner.
Traveling nearly 8,000 miles in two years on gravel, these roads took me to the edge of another life - it seemed that it could be easy to shift gears and settle quietly in such places as Ross River, Pelly's Crossing, Atlin, Fort Simpson, or Coldfoot, AK. But the traveling heart doesn't do well sitting still, and it's best to keep moving before finding something wrong with a place.
Normally, I rode between 100 and 700 miles in a day, and on one occasion rode 845 miles during one stretch of the Alaska Highway. On another occasion, for almost no reason whatever, there was a 960 mile day during one of the hottest summer days in the Southwest. There was really no need to do either of these monster days, the first happened to be a beautiful day with nearly 21 hours of daylight, and the second...well, I just can't explain that one, but I didn't want to stop. The Russell Day-Long seat made it easy, though my dualsport buddies make fun of it calling it a "winged feminine pad."
Following my return to Florida in September 1999, I rode back to Canada and Alaska via Utah in May, 2000. Aside from a brief delay caused by a theft of gear from the bike in Salt Lake City, I was able to meet some friends at the Moab Dual Sport Rally for some off-road riding around Canyonlands National Park and the surrounding area before continuing a second major tour. This second tour accounted for nearly 16,000 miles, and covered many of the "off the beaten track" highways and two lane roads of Canada that I had missed the previous year. Compared to the first tour, the second had nearly double the rainfall, but temperatures were not as extreme.
For the most part, I used Avon Gripster tires, an 80% road - 20% dirt tread combination. In one instance I changed to more aggressive Pirelli tires when I knew I would be on gravel roads most of the time. I also tried using Metzelers and Dunlops, but I preferred the Gripsters overall. Except during one leg, I never carried spare tires, preferring instead to arrange for tires in advance. Also, the tire repair kit included a large piece of auto tire sidewall to use as an internal casing patch in case of a catastrophic tire casing failure.
This holds the inner tube in place until I can get somewhere to arrange shipment of one of my tires. I had the time to behave that way, and tend to subscribe to Helge Pedersen's philosophy that most problems can be solved with time. In addition, in the beginning I carried four spare heavy-duty Metzeler tubes (later only two), along with three 8 oz. bottles of Slime, patch kit materials, and a tire plug kit in case I ran across another motorcyclist with tubeless tires. All of this was in addition to a full set of tools for virtually every job imaginable on the bike. I started out with CO2 cartridges too, but found that they were totally useless, expensive and unreliable. Some of them did not have full charges, so I used all of them up in the early part of the trip, and resorted to my little bicycle hand pump. Eight strokes on the front tire equals one pound of pressure, and the rear tire needs 11 strokes to raise one pound of pressure. I can live with that. Temperature and altitude affected apparent pressure, so I was diligent checking tire pressure each day. There were no unpredictable tire problems the entire trip, and replaced tires well before they reached maximum wear.|
A treat is staying at Trapper Ray's, a small hotel near the Liard River at the hot springs just northwest of Muncho Lake Provincial Park. The latest excitement there is the bear attack on a couple of tourists, and while the story is heartwrenching it reminds me that bears are king in this part of the world.
While on the Alaska Highway, the best and cheapest place to buy premium gas between Ft. Nelson and Watson Lake is from the J&H Wilderness Resort, just west of the big Highland Glen Lodge at Muncho Lake. J&H is a Mohawk fuel dealer, but buys his fuel independently. In other areas of Canada I had avoided Mohawk stations because their high octane fuel was gasahol, but it's different in Muncho Lake. In general, I tried to stick with the big name fuel companies and avoided a station when I saw a gas truck filling the underground tanks. I don't believe I had a single incident of water in the fuel, except one time near Whitehorse when the bike hiccuped briefly. Thumper's 6.1 gallon capacity made it possible to make 150-200 mile runs without stopping, though I usually had to go to reserve at 220 miles or so.
When I went through Muncho Lake, the lake was still frozen but quite beautiful. The operator of the Highland Lodge was in the process of putting floats on his Cessna 185 and his Beaver, however, so it was apparent that full thaw was just a few weeks away. It was in this area too that I saw the most wildlife of the entire trip. Black and brown bear, Dall sheep, moose (on the return trip), rabbit and squirrel were everywhere. It was fun trying to look up into the mountains to see the sheep, but the best way to see them up close is cruise slowly through Stone Mountain and Muncho Lake Provincial Parks and wait for them to come down to the road to lick the salt.
I met a lot of people along the way who manage to make the traveling lifestyle work, for example the waiter who traveled with his dogs from Boulder, Colorado to the Resurrection Roadhouse in Seward, Alaska makes most of his living in a five month period, the construction worker who specializes in seasonal work in Anchorage and then goes to a warm place in the off season, the ski-instructor couple from Taos who rode a motorcycle to Alaska in the summertime, and so on. These people live carefully, choosing an economical way of life, and in every single case they appeared happy and did not act as though they were deprived of anything.
While in Fairbanks, Alaska, I stopped in at Raven V-Twin Motorcycles, run by Dave Critchfield and his wife, Helen. Dave and Helen are wonderful people, and while he works as an avionics specialist during the day the shop is run by Helen. Of special note is Pete Bailey, their mechanic. Pete is the most intuitive mechanic I have ever met, and he was able to show me where I screwed up the rewiring of the turn signals, causing the intermittent ground problem. It was here also that I bought new tires for the run to Prudhoe, and while I was unloading the bike and repacking the essentials for the trip, KLR owner Jim Cline and his wife stopped by on their KLR to say hello. Jim is an air traffic controller working in Nome, and he commutes via Cessna from Fairbanks. Jim said that he would be flying a Cessna 185 that day (I drooled), and would find me somewhere up on the Dalton Highway - sure enough, about three hours later Jim comes flying crab along the road, fighting low-level turbulence. He later sent me some aerial pictures of me on the Dalton Highway south of the Arctic Circle.
Enroute to Prudhoe Bay north of the Arctic Circle, I passed the new Marion Creek campground just north of Coldfoot. Here I met a California couple who had just bought their motorhome after thirty years of hard work - looking at them gave me the queasy sense that one of them would likely be dead within five years. Meeting them, as well as others, strengthened the sense that travel was an important and indispensable aspect of my life, and at that moment I didn't want to be anywhere else.
The Dalton Highway to the town of Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay is an excellent road for a dual-sport bike, and is typical of the type of gravel road conditions that can be found throughout Alaska and northern Canada. I heard from some of the Fairbanks locals that there is a group of Harley riders who make an annual beer bust run up the Dalton, but I can only imagine they would have an interesting time at places like Sand Hill, Beaver Slide or maybe Ice Cut. These are relatively short hills, but if they are wet, then traction bets for street tires are off. The Dalton is well graded, with periodic sections where there is maintenance, and I found that highway speeds were easily managed. The truck rigs that carry supplies to Deadhorse are big, but if one came the other way, I pulled over and stopped. All of the truck drivers were professional, and slowed down when coming from the opposite direction. I always got out of their way if they needed to have room to make a run at a hill, and I wondered if this courtesy was shared on their radios, because I noticed that since I was the fastest one on the road when it was dry, many of the trucks ahead of me would seem to know that I was coming, and would slow down to let me pass so that I wouldn't be choked by the dust. When it was raining, they would be faster than me. All in all, my experience with the truckers was very positive.
Fuel planning route notes based on the KLR's extend fuel range: First fuel north of Fox/Fairbanks is at the Yukon crossing where one can buy a $9 hamburger. The next stop 60 miles later at the Arctic Circle (no gas). Next fuel is 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle at Coldfoot, which is the last place to get gas before the 250 mile run to Deadhorse over the Atigun Pass. Other routes that require careful fuel management because of fuel stations being nearly 250 miles apart include the dead-end road north of Fort Simpson along the MacKenzie River, MacKenzie and Liard Highway combination, Campbell Highway between Watson Lake and Ross River, and Dempster Highway to Eagle Plains and Inuvik. To my knowledge, all other highway areas have fuel stations less than 250 miles apart.
Somewhere north of Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway in early 1999, Thumper and I killed a rabbit. I had never seen so many rabbits, most which were hanging out by the side of the road, usually in the sun. It was a cool morning, in the mid thirties, and I was moving around 60 mph northbound when I saw a rabbit stroll out onto the road in front of me. I moved over to pass behind him, and he did a 180 and walked back into my new path. At that point, the road became filled with new gravel, and I didn't want to make any sudden moves, so I gently eased over to a packed section in the center of the road, at which point the rabbit did another full turn and hopped directly into my front tire. The suicide was fairly clean, and it confirms that KLR does, in fact, stand for "Kills Little Rabbits." No damage, but there were hundreds of dead rabbits along the Dalton in a stretch beginning about 20 miles south of Atigun Pass. This was true on other roads in 1999, but on the second trip to the Arctic in 2000 I did not see so many rabbits.
From Coldfoot to Deadhorse is about 240 miles, with no fuel services. As a precaution, I put two one-gallon gas cans in the Aerostich tank pannier bags - while Aerostich delivers a note to the customer saying that these bags are never to be used for fuel cans, it is pure lovely coincidence that one gallon cans of fuel fit perfectly. Crossing over the Atigun Pass was the highlight of the ride that day, and I was able to get some great pictures looking south on a clear day. I arrived in Deadhorse five hours after leaving Coldfoot, riding through a thick freezing ground fog that left ice on the front of the bike. I was concerned about carb ice, but Thumper ran well. Since I did not have consortium permission to bring Thumper into the oilfields, and hence to the barge dock on Prudhoe Bay, I went to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel and arranged for an escorted short ride to the ocean shoreline via their tour service. The Beaufort Sea was still frozen, air temperature was 27 degrees F., and the people at the hotel said that I was the first motorcyclist of the season to arrive. (I asked if I would get a prize, and they said no. I then asked if anyone cared, and they all said, "Not really.") I also bought fuel at the automated Tesoro station in Deadhorse, and filled up the extra fuel cans for the run back to Coldfoot. The Prudhoe Bay oilfields are not pretty. The area has been gearing up somewhat for tourism, but when I was given the ride out to the Prudhoe Bay dock, the road had not been cleared of snow and I ended up walking the last quarter mile through snowdrifts in my full-dress suit and motocross boots to get to the ocean, next to the rolled up fresh water hose at the dock.
I did not bother to carry auxiliary fuel on any other legs, preferring instead to drop the speed to a more fuel efficient 50 mph or less. Since the KLR has an aftermarket Big Gun exhaust (I do not recommend this exhaust for touring since it relies on regular re-packing, and other issues) and a Stage II carb setup, mileage usually averaged 42-44 mpg, but at lower speeds would improve to 50 mpg or better. The stock KLR carb jetting offers better fuel economy (over 50 mpg), but I had made a decision to squeeze more power out of the bike. On 250 mile legs I had to go on reserve for a good bit. If I had to do it all over again I would do a Stage I carb setup, with the K&N filter, and keep the stock muffler which is mechanically baffled.
The Cassiar Highway is another one of the main north/south highways in Canada, with fewer services than the Alaska Highway. However, it is an excellent road for the dualsport tourer, and fuel is plentiful. Everytime I ride the Cassiar it rains, and on one occasion I passed a rider on a BMW GS. Shortly afterward, the KLR choked to a stop, only to start up again within four minutes. Air filter was clean and dry, electrics seemed in good order, and so on, and it became clear that I was suffering from a KLR malady called the "plugged up carby vent hose." I was riding in an area of some very sticky mud, and it plugged up the carby vent and put the whole fuel/air situation out of balance. And, of course, the one thing I had not done was to install a T-fitting in the carb vent hose to allow an atmospheric bypass, because I had not had problems on any other gravel roads in the rain. But I could see that Cassiar sticky mud in my hose, and I kicked myself for thinking that this bike was invincible. In the meantime, the GS rider stopped to offer help.
This is one of the best examples of comraderie between motorcyclists. The GS rider was Ron Weinert, a retired Northwest captain living in Buhl, Idaho who was riding his friend's GS back from Alaska to Sacramento, California. His friend had crashed the bike earlier in the year on the wood bridge just outside Beaver Creek in the Yukon, near the Alaska border, crushing one of the jugs and doing other damage. The bike was rebuilt by The Motorcycle Shop in Anchorage (good mechanics - you can eat food off the shop floor there), and Ron was doing his friend a favor by riding the bike back. So Ron accompanied me for the next 100 miles or so on the Cassiar until the special mud problem cleared up, and we parted company at the Hyder/Stewart junction. Ron didn't have to do that since the problem was not major (it never occurred again), and I respected his preference for solo riding, but it was great of him to slow his own travel down to accommodate me. I just heard from Ron - he bought a KLR and is going to Baja California.
According to a German fellow I met, Whitehorse is one of Canada's best-kept secrets. There are a lot of Germans in Whitehorse. I found myself staying for a couple of days at the Stratford Motel, and I took full advantage of the time to clean Thumper and get the new rear tire. I also discovered the Sanchez Mexican Deli at 211 Hanson Street near downtown Whitehorse. Run by Otelina Sanchez, I spent some time here and managed to hurt myself silly with excessive salsa. (This place rivals the Smithers Own Pizza Factory in Smithers, B.C. - they have an exquisite Mexican pizza.) Also in Whitehorse, I met a woman named Joan Oram who told me that I should visit Atlin, British Columbia. She and her husband are in the process of building a place in Atlin, and the way she described it made me decide that I would have to return for a longer visit. Looking on the map one can see that Atlin and Juneau, Alaska are quite close as the crow flies. Joan told me that there was some talk of trying to build a road to Juneau, but that there was significant opposition. I must say that Joan was extremely attractive, and while I have a girl at home it was possible to imagine how a Yukon woman could change my mind about all sorts of things.
With visions of dancing Yukon women in my head, I rode from Florida to Alaska again during the Summer of 2000, this time via Oklahoma and Colorado, to Moab, Utah, where I participated in what is now the Canyonlands Motor Classic. Fred Hink has his famous Arrowhead Motorsports shop there, and it was here that I had a chance to meet many other KLR owners, and to do some riding around the La Sal mountains and the White Rim trail. I was loaded with the panniers, and a carton of fig newtons for these trips, and when I got back from the White Rim, I suffered the jeers of my fellow riders when they discovered that I inadvertently rode with a tire pressures somewhat exceeding 40 psi. I won't bore anyone with the details, but it is sufficient to say that no one will ever let me forget this episode. It was no wonder I fell so often, but I discovered that when one does a full face plant in a sand patch, from inside the full face helmet it looks like swimming underground. It's very interesting to watch those sand particles and rocks move across your screen. (I always carry a spare face shield.)
Later, I turned north to Salt Lake City because I had to catch a plane for a 10 day business trip. I stored the bike at the Diamond Storage service near the airport, and when I came back I found that my storage locker had been robbed. Taken were the Jesse panniers, my riding suit, tools, and spare parts - nearly $3,000 worth of gear. Because I had declined the horrendously expensive in-house insurance, my homeowners and moto insurance covered part of it - Diamond did absolutely nothing, including not notifying me or my office that there had been a theft (Diamond discovered the break-in two days before I returned). If anyone sees a set of black Jesse panniers for the KLR, they're probably mine since I am the only one to have a set in the US.
Kurt Simpson, editor of Dual Sport News, and his lovely wife Kimberly live just north of Salt Lake City, and when they heard of this fiasco they took me in. For the next couple of days I was on the phone arranging for replacement clothing and parts via FedEx. Motoport happened to have a replacement suit in my size, and they sent it out so fast that I got it the next day. One day later I was on my way to Boise, Idaho to buy a set of Happy Trails aluminum panniers from Tim Bernard. At the same time, Fred Hink promised to send replacement gear to me when I arrived in Alaska. Tim was extremely gracious, and opened his shop to me so that I could rebuild the luggage system, and I was also able to purchase metric tools needed to finish the trip. Tim did not charge me nearly enough for the use of his shop, that is certain, so I owe him. So, with the great help of Kurt and Tim, I was back on the road after three days, headed north to Lewiston, then Spokane, Washington, crossing into Canada on Highway 97 at Osoyoos.
Extensive touring was also done in Alaska, from the Kenai towns of Seward, Homer and Valdez all the way to Eagle, Circle and Prudhoe Bay. I took some side routes by boat to Seldovia, across from Homer, and was seasick on a halibut charter out of Seward, but managed to recover quickly with some serious relaxing at The Beach House outside of Seward. The big news in Seldovia during the summer of 2000 was that the local school principal was suing the local cab driver for her alleged use of foul language and apparent defamation of his character, all done allegedly in front of children. This sort of community tabloid upheaval attracts me, but I am not sure I could withstand living a full winter cooped up in place like Seldovia.
One of the most helpful items I carried was an AT&T tri-mode cell phone, with the U.S. and Canadian one-rate plan. North of Fort St. John there is no coverage, and even though Whitehorse, Tok, Smithers, B.C. (and a bunch of other places) have cell coverage, they don't have AT&T cell coverage because, well, I suppose they don't care to make an agreement with AT&T. As a small businessman I understand the economics of the problem, but the big picture still stinks. The smaller regional cell systems are there and could work for CanTel and AT&T customers too, but it won't, because somebody won't play fair ball.
Thumper carried a K&N cleaner and oiler kit, for good reason. On two occasions the bike began to lose power, because the wind gods decided that dust from trucks should blow straight back into the air filter of the hapless motorcyclist trying to pass. This was especially true on the Dalton Highway. So, I recommend setting up bike so that there is easy access to the air filter. Oil changes on the road are not a problem - I usually stopped in a motorcycle shop to buy oil and asked them if I could change my own oil and dump the old stuff, and they always said yes. Oil changes happened every 2500 miles or so, and I carried Fram oil filters because they come with replacement O-ring seals.
I wore Alpinestars Tech 8 motocross boots, and carried a pair of lightweight hiking shoes in my baggage. The riding boots were not overkill and were quite comfortable throughout the entire trip. The full face Shoei helmet was not my favorite choice as I would have preferred a dual-sport type helmet to make it easier to stop quickly and take pictures or have a drink. My Neanderthal chin doesn't fit the Nolan or Shoei dual-sport helmet though, so I'm waiting for Arai to ressurect their dual sport helmet.
The second trip was broken up with a couple of business trips - the first from Salt Lake City, and the second from Anchorage. This meant that I was on the road off and on from May to September, and it is not a travel method I recommend. For some reason, breaking up a trip like this intruded on the experience, and while I would rather do a trip like this in pieces than not, next time I will make sure I have available time to keep the ride continuous and intact.
And I think next time I will avoid riding the Southwest, Texas and the South during tornado season next time. On my return from Alaska in August, 2000, one leg consisted of a long hot ride from Moab, Utah (yes, I stopped to see Kurt Simpson and Fred Hink again) to Gainesville, Texas during a terrible drought. Dust devils were everywhere, and suddenly one appeared in front of me about 50 miles west of Albuquerque. In one second I was blown across two lanes, and in the next two seconds I was blown right back to where I had been. It was 107 degrees that day. but the sweat had nothing to do with temperature. And this was a day that I rode over 950 miles. This wasn't planned, and all I can think of is that I hadn't been riding for nearly two days and there was some sort of psycho-physical withdrawal that required major scratching. None of this had been planned. Psychotherapy might be in order, or I could blame the new tires Fred installed the day before in Moab. I am certain he told me to ride them for a while to get the glaze off the rubber...yeah, I think assigning blame is the way to go here.
Many people have helped me do the right thing when it came to selecting equipment and touring. Gino Pokluda of Sandia, New Mexico was the founder of Dual Sport News and most influential on my equipment choices, and Manny and Bonnie of Redline Cycles in Lake Park, Florida have been tremendously helpful with mechanical work I was unable to do myself. Fred Hink of Arrowhead Motorsports in Moab, Utah is my reliable source of parts and technical advice - Fred has a Kansas-bred sensibility that helps keep the KLR in good, reliable shape. And Don the Carp, owner of The Motorcycle Shop in Anchorage has been the turnaround spot for me for new tires and such. Don's shop is great, and is without doubt one of the best Kawasaki, BMW, Triumph shops I have ever seen. (No sales tax in Alaska!) There are many others who have been very helpful on the KLR list currently located at egroups.com.
As a result of my extended traveling over the past two years, I've decided to focus more on work that I like. Strangely, the motorcycle trips have made me feel somewhat disassociated from the usual daily business at hand. At the same time, I don't expect much understanding from friends or family - many seem to have an initial interest in the trip, but found it sufficient to look through some pictures and listen to a few highlights within a span of five minutes or so. Afterwards, invariably, the conversation became focused on themselves once again.
But maybe I'm the one who is self-absorbed. Why should anyone give a damn about a trip that is so obviously self-serving?
For some reason I don't have a burning desire to recount every nuance of the tour experience, simply because I'd rather ride than write. I enjoyed stopping in various places, but the ride was the thing, so I never stopped for long. I also found myself enjoying, and then seeking, relative anonymity on the road, and tended to stay in small towns where it was certain I would find similar kindred souls.
It's a cool February day in Florida today, and I'm about to turn 48 years old. Thumper just turned 58,000 miles today, and it has been just over two and half years since the bike was bought. I haven't decided yet where to go in Spring 2001, but maybe it will be Canada again.
If anyone has any questions, feel free to contact me at email@example.com. I'll do my best to answer questions.
|View some of Stuart's photos||Other Adventures|
Chris and Mariola's Baja Trip
Alex Jomarron's Alaska Trip
Bogdan Swider's Mexican Trip
The Tokyo to London Project
Jeff's Iron Butt Saddle Sore 1000
Magical Millennium Motorcycle Tour