I had put the idea of riding to Alaska on the back burner for a while even though I had the perfect bike and it was ready and prepped for such a ride. With family pressures, work, one child in college and another one graduating high school, I had not thought it would be feasible for a few more years. I had reserved a couple of weeks off work for July 2009. Then I was able to add more time off when others at work had not claimed summer vacations. I suddenly was looking at a block of time I had free from June 26 to July 30, 2009. I had 6 months to ponder the meaning of this.
At first, I stressed over what to do with such a large block of time. Should I tour parts of the north central states that I had not seen? Should I drive to the east coast? How about riding Route 66? Perhaps retrace some nice roads in Oregon, Washington and Idaho I had enjoyed many years back. I had good reasons to eliminate all these ideas. My mind kept going back to riding to Alaska. All the elements were falling into place. It would be in July, the drier part of the year. The days would last 20 or more hours long. I had the perfect bike. Now the big question was could I do it alone or should I consider a partner?
My wife may have been concerned about me trying and failing again. But she only mentioned one thing about the trip. Since she does not ride or enjoy riding two up it was inconceivable that someone would actually want to ride 10,000 miles or more for a relaxing vacation. She could not understand why I would not just fly to Anchorage and rent a bike. Then ride around Alaska for a couple of weeks and fly home. That idea held no appeal for me. The ride is the thing. The challenge is the duration and scope of the ride. Would someone fly to the top of a mountain in a helicopter to say they had conquered it?
I struggled with my decision about what to do on my vacation until one month before the date. However once I made the choice to do Alaska, I was at peace. I had not spent the previous 6 months pouring over The Milepost. I remembered some of the areas and things I wanted to see and do from my research for the trip two years previously. I stopped by AAA to get new maps and made sure I had the right gear. I already knew what to take and how to pack light. (Note: do not bring the entire Milepost along with you, unless you happen to be an anal compulsive type.)
One of the single biggest decisions you can make about a trip of this magnitude is whether to go solo or with a friend. This decision was somewhat easier since I had no riding buddies who could go on a 5 week trip. I had only one buddy with whom I had ever done any long rides. He is a dentist and it is difficult for him to take long periods off work from his practice. Jim and I had been friends for 30 years since we were stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton. He was a Navy dentist and I was the flight surgeon for MAG 39.
We are like brothers. People even say we look alike. We even argue like brothers and never hold it against each other.
Thinking the ride would be better with a buddy, I placed a notice on some motorcycle web sites for anyone interested in tagging along. I had no serious inquiries until about 2 weeks before the departure date. I was at the local bar with my dentist buddy, Jim when I told him my plans to ride to Alaska. He was stunned I had not asked him. I told him, “but you can’t take 5 weeks off from work.”
He wanted to know more. I told him that a lot of people spend their lives planning to do something and never get around to doing it. Then when life’s circumstances take them in a different direction or they or a loved one has a health problem, or any of a thousand other excuses pop up, they regret not having ever done what they had always wanted to do back then, if only……
I told him, everything was on course and all the planets were aligned for me to do it this July and if not now, when? What other life changing event would intervene to thwart my adventure?
I could see the wheels turning in his head. He got that far away look and after a few moments, he said, “I could see if this young dentist working for me would be interested in becoming a partner. I might be able to pull it off.” I had serious doubts and advised him his bike needed some intense prepping for the trip. I could not delay departure a week or two waiting for him to get ready. I immediately gave him a list of items his bike needed and told him where to get them and how to get them installed. I advised him about the proposed itinerary and getting spare tires sent to Anchorage.
We discussed a general plan for the trip that would cover at least 10,000 miles. I had wanted to blast up Interstate 5 to the Canadian border in 2 days. Then take the Canadian Highway 1 to Cache Creek. We took Caribou Highway (97) at cache Creek to Prince George. At this point, we would go west on the Yellowhead Highway (16) and continued to the junction of the Stewart Cassiar Highway (37) at Kitwanga with a planned side trip to Hyder. After a day in Hyder to drive up to see the Salmon Glacier we would resume our ride on the Cassiar to the Alcan just west of Watson Lake, Yukon Territory. We would reenter Alaska at Beaver Creek and proceed to Tok, then head southwest toward Anchorage on the Tok Cutoff to Glenn Highway (1). Depending on how much time it took to get this far, we discussed possible side trips on the Richardson Highway (4) to Valdez and the Kennicott mine in the Wrangell- Saint Elias National Preserve since we knew we would find spectacular mountain views and wildlife there. If we made it to Valdez, we would backtrack to Glennallen and then resume towards Anchorage.
We had shipped knobbie tires to Alaska Rider Tours and I had advised them we would be in Anchorage around July 4 or 5 (eight days ride from San Diego and approximately 3,900 miles of riding) if all worked out. Then after two days in Anchorage to see the city, we planned to spend a few days in the Kenai then backtrack to Anchorage and change into our TKC knobbies for some serious unpaved roads. We planned to head north on the George Parks Highway (3) to Cantwell where we would turn east on the Denali Highway (
toward Paxson 134 miles away and with over 100 miles of unpaved roadway. At Paxson we would turn toward Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway (4). After leaving Fairbanks I factored in 2 days to get to Deadhorse and 2 days to return. Then we would return to Anchorage on the George Parks Highway to see the part we had skipped at Cantwell. This would take us past Denali National Park. We planned to switch back into our street tires in Anchorage since they should have over 50% tread life left and then leave for home via Tok, Chicken, Top of the World Highway (9) and on to Dawson City. From Dawson City we would drive the Klondike Highway (2) south to the Alcan Highway and try to meet up with the Mythical Mandeep at Watson Lake. After Watson Lake we had no further plans. If we had enough time left on our vacation we would try to see Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta and decide later on a course to be determined through Montana or Idaho, Oregon, and hopefully the California Coastal Highway 1.
I have never liked to make a ride route too rigid. It is best to stay flexible. This was an ambitious plan to see virtually all of the main highways in Alaska, the Cassiar and the Alcan Highways, roads in my favored Northwestern states and coastal California. As it turned out, the ride followed pretty much this outline with some very cool unplanned changes about which I will report. One side trip that turned out to be particularly nice would be to Skagway, Alaska and the other would be taking the ferry from Valdez to Whittier on the Kenai. This latter decision left us high-fiving ourselves for our brilliance as will become clear when you read about it later in the report on July 5th.
To prep my bike I had already enlisted the help of my friend and superior motorcycle mechanic, Ronnie Lindley who operates Power-Performance- Perfection in San Marcos, California. He has over 20 years experience as a certified mechanic and helps racers build race engines and preps dirt bikes for the Baja 1000. He knows everything about bikes and is patient enough to teach you what you want to know. He had tuned my bike and spent time making sure I knew how to change my tires on the road if I had any problems.
My V Strom was currently sporting Metzler Tourance rubber front and rear. Fortunately they were nearly completely toast by the time I was prepping my bike and I could begin the trip with brand new tires. I had ordered a set of Metzlers and a set of Continental TKCs to be pre-positioned at Alaska Rider Tours in Anchorage. I had spoken to Brenden at AK Riders who assured me we could use their shop to change tires, change oil and clean our bikes. They even offered to lend us any tools we might need.
I had obtained 13,000 miles out of my rear Tourance and expected the new rear tire to last for the whole trip even accounting for the extra weight and rough roads. However I had unknowingly purchased a Tourance EXP instead of the plain vanilla Tourance. To my dismay I saw that halfway through the trip the Tourance EXP was showing serious signs of wear. I could tell it would not get me home and at least hoping it would get me back to a larger city in the states where I could put on a new tire. There is more about this later in the report. Suffice it to say, there is no reason to buy a Tourance EXP unless you want to replace it in 6500 miles instead of 13,000 miles.
Jim began ordering bike and camping gear. I received a response to my inquiry from a fellow V Strom rider who lived about 90 minutes from my house. (This part of the story may be total fiction.) He was definitely interested in going on the trip. I spoke to him on the phone and decided to meet him. I told Jim about the prospect of a third rider and he agreed to go with me to meet him.
We drove to a halfway point between our houses and spent a Sunday afternoon getting to know each other. We discovered first off that he had completed an Iron Butt and a Baby Butt. I immediately let him know in so many words I was not impressed with Iron Butts and may have even let it be known how dumb I think those types of distinctions are. If you have to ride 1,500 miles to attend an important event and you do it in 24 hrs, just do it. But why feel like you have to do it so you can sport a license tag holder that says, “Member of Iron Butt Association” or so you can impress someone with the quality of your butt hide. My opinion is, those rides are inherently unsafe. There are so few people who even know what an Iron Butt Ride is that it is meaningless. When you explain to them what it is, invariably they cannot understand what the fascination is.
On a motorcycle tour the ride is the thing. The ride is when you experience the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of the road, the people, the cafes, the stops, the roadside attractions and weirdness. You just can’t do this on an Iron Butt ride. Why not just sit on your bike in the garage for 24 hours without falling off it and tell people you did an Iron Butt but didn’t get the paperwork submitted. It is the same thing and a hell of a lot safer. Also you save gas money and wear and tear on the bike. You can even put a HDTV in front of you with travel DVDs playing to make it feel like you are really experiencing something special. An industrial fan in you face would complete the simulation. But I digress. Suffice it to say, the stranger did not make a good first impression.
Next he told us he was retired. Then the information that flowed was like drinking from a fire hose: he could take 2 months to do this trip, he had dreamed about it for years, he was so excited he had not slept in days, every other time he had tried to do the trip with someone they had backed out, he wanted to do Prudhoe Bay and Inuvik, blah, blah, blah.
We looked at his farkles as he explained how his set-up was so well thought out and his statements indicated his set up was superior to any other arrangement. He had been riding his bike around town fully configured for the trip for who knows how long. I noticed his Iron Butt tag holder. Nice. He barely looked at our bikes and accessories. Hmmm.
As we talked, I told him I had not seriously thought about going to Prudhoe Bay, but I was aware of the ride and the conditions needed to prepare for it and pull it off. I told him that sounded like something we could do. That was when I decided to buy knobbies to preposition in Anchorage. However, most reports I have seen on knobbies on the V Strom state 3500 miles is considered about average for tire life. If we switched to knobbies in Anchorage to go to Prudhoe Bay and back, they would have almost 2,000 miles on them. Then trying to use them for the 800 mile round trip from Dawson City to Inuvik and back, not to mention driving on them to Dawson City would mean you would need a tire change in Dawson City to get home. Plus, I was pretty sure that I did not want to do Inuvik after doing Prudhoe Bay. I told him I was definitely not doing Inuvik.
To his credit, he did mention using the Ventura headlight guard to protect the headlight lenses on the dirt roads from rock damage. Jim and I both ordered one. And I liked his large dry duffle he put his sleeping bag and bed roll in to consolidate and protect those items from dust and water. We ordered those, too.
I thought he was a nice enough fellow and I wasn’t sure Jim was going to be able to pull off getting free from work. At the time I thought it would be nice to have a buddy on a long trip. But sinister doubts were creeping into my thoughts.
I had mentioned to Jim that the three of us on a trip would be like having three alpha males. We were all educated, successful, professionals with loads of experience in jobs that commanded respect, authority and responsibility. What could go wrong, right?
We exchanged emails after the meeting. All systems seemed to be on “go”. We reviewed each others pack up lists. Jim set about hiring his partner and ordering gear. Less than a week before we left, Jim’s dental associate agreed to be a partner in his practice. He had collected all his gear and it would be ready for D Day, June 27. June 26 would be our pack up day. We planned to meet Rider 3, let’s call him "Iron Butt" for now, at a spot on Interstate 5 at 2AM on D Day. We wanted to get through the hot central California Valley before it became a furnace.