July 4, 2009
We woke at 6:30 without a cloud in the sky. Packing up was a pleasure. The only debris on the tent floors was a little bit of sand. You could put your tent on the smooth rocks next to the sandy beach while to morning sun dried the tent. Then a simple shake of the tent had the floor clean.
We rode back to the Alcan and headed north. Just five miles up the road was a small café. The owner was the cook, waiter, and chief bottle washer. He had a mellow dog that wandered about the café and ignored the customers. He looked more like a wolf than a dog.
The café showcased the trophies of local hunters. The number and variety of birds and animals that were prepared by a local taxidermist was like wandering through a free museum while our omelets were being cooked. Another part of the café was a showcase for a local artisan who made bowls from spruce burls. The craftsman would look for fallen spruce trees that were at least fifty years old. The burls on trees this old were already seasoned and when split, hollowed, polished and heavily varnished with a thick clear epoxy these old burls would not crack. They were very beautiful pieces of woodwork. On another corner of the café folding tables that were made with laminated strips of nine different types of wood were displayed. These were made by a friend of the owner’s in Vancouver during the winter and sold in his café during the summer. The prices on the wood craft pieces and tables were very reasonable and I thought they would make nice gifts for people who had everything.
Breakfast arrived and was eaten with gusto. It was becoming a routine to stop for breakfast at the first local café we encountered after packing up. I got the same thing and yet the different ways of preparing scrambled eggs, pancakes, toast and home fries made it seem like I was eating a different breakfast every day. It is similar to ordering a taco in a different Mexican restaurant to gauge the cooking there. It is hard to screw up a taco (although some places can do it) and it is a benchmark of the quality of cooking you will find at the establishment. Jim ate the same thing at every breakfast too, but the degree of instructions that he had to give the waitress each day about how he wanted his fried eggs prepared made the order taking process longer than it needed to be and a bit painful at times. That’s the beauty of ordering scrambled eggs. Unless you are some kind of freak, you needn’t tell the waitress how to scramble them: “Add 2 tablespoons of low fat milk, and be sure to salt and pepper them before you scramble them. I want them moderately moist when served…etc” My mind wandered. I wondered if I had remembered to pack up my hatchet.
We left the café feeling very full. There was a gas station and a sign that said no gas for 160 kilometers. I looked at my trip meter and quickly computed that it might be close but should be doable. The road stretched out between mountain ranges, every minute on the bike was like watching an endless parade of beautiful vistas roll by. I watched a Canadian Air Force C-130 fly over at 500 feet and bank slowly to the right. Then it flew over again and again.
After an hour the gas gauge was flashing at me. I figured I had 40 to 50 more miles to the gas station that was about 50 miles away. The tendency is to speed up and get to the station. You have to slow down for maximum cruise efficiency. We were encountering more unpaved sections and heavy gravel so slowing down was working out well. I began to worry that the next gas stop might be closed and was happy that I had the extra gallon strapped to the rear box. Finally road signs telling of the next gas stop appeared next to a heavily graveled section of road. The gas station rolled into view and I pulled in.
The gas station looked more like a cluttered souvenir shop. There was a single old pump out front that looked like a non working antique. I hoped they had gas. An old man ambled out as I opened the gas cap. This pump was not digital so the price per liter could not go higher than 99.9. After pumping gas the owner had to get out his calculator to tell me how much I owed. The price seemed within line with all the other stations in Canada. Gas in the desolate interior areas was as much as $1.35 Canadian per liter.
I had expected Jim to be right behind me. But he was nowhere in sight. I could see a half mile south on the highway and worried that he may have fallen in the heavy gravel. While the old man was filling up my tank I told him about my buddy. How he always ran out of gas on every one of our rides. How he seemed to always find the hard way to do something that could be done faster and easier another way. The old man said he knew people like that. Jim showed up after my tank was filled and I had paid for the gas. The old man didn’t miss a beat and wanted to have fun at Jim’s expense and told him straight up, “I don’t have any gas.”
Jim had run out of gas and his delay getting to the gas station was caused by his having to take off his spare gas can to put in the spare gallon of gas we each carried. Then he had to reattach the gas can. There was a look of anxiety and disbelief when the man told him he had no gas. I looked at him and confirmed that there was no gas at this station, a plausible idea considering the look of the rusted old gas pump. The old man added, the next station was 100 miles north and we were welcome to stay up to three weeks for free behind his place.
I asked him if there were any fish in the lakes around here. He said, “Just small fish.”
Then he launched into a story about a circus that had passed through a few weeks ago and one of the alligators in the circus had escaped into the lake. A tourist had been fishing and hooked the gator pulling him into the lake. The gator snapped off the man’s leg before they could pull him out. He then looked at Jim and said, “Is it getting deep enough for you yet?”
He then filled up Jim’s tank with gas. We stayed and talked to the old man who was also named Jim, and his wife Corrie and petted their dog. They had lots of stories and you could tell they enjoyed talking to folks as they passed through. They had a pot bellied stove in the center of the general store that was pumping out hideous heat with the outdoor temperature at 75 degrees F. I asked why they had the stove going. It was to keep water ready for tea.
We stayed at the store and talked to them for 45 minutes then headed north again. The mountains, trees, lakes and sloughs rolled by. We encountered ten mile sections of dusty unpaved roadway. Even though unpaved they were well graded with no washboards or pot holes. It was easy to go 50 miles per hour if you could see through the dust. The asphalt portions contained numerous frost heaves, pot holes and bumpy patched areas that had us weaving around the road using both sides when no traffic was coming. This allowed us to take the cleanest line up the road. It is important to avoid the pot holes to prevent a broken rim. Hitting a deep pot hole at 50-60 mph can be very rough on the tires and rims. Whoever was leading would point out the big ones with their leg for the person following.
We crossed into Alaska for the third time at Beaver Creek. The US Customs agent saw my military base decal on my bike and asked me if I was in the military. I replied I was in the Navy Reserve. He waved me through and said, “thank you for serving.” It cost him nothing to say that and yet hearing it on July 4th while entering the US from a foreign country felt good. I was home again.
The ride to Tok was not particularly beautiful. There were some curves and very distant views of mountains. But most of the view was flat marshy areas of scrub spruce with many of the spruce trees appearing dead.
Tok was a widely spread out small town with a few businesses well off the highway. A local rodeo was taking place as part of the Fourth of July festivities. We stopped at Fast Eddies for lunch. It was good food with friendly fast service. By now I was becoming good at taking a fast bath in a restroom. After washing my hands and face, I wet my short hair and then wiped dry. I felt clean again.
It was my turn to buy wine. Jim had wanted more than the amount we had in a liter bottle so I bought a liter and a half of Carlos Rossi red for a few bucks. I asked the saleslady to put a higher price sticker on it to fake out my buddy. She asked, “Is $18 ok?”
I said, “Make it $26.”
She dialed in $26 on her price tagging gadget and stuck it on the bottle before I left. This could come in handy when it was Jim’s turn to pay for something. He would never realize that Carlos Rossi wine should not be this pricey. I stowed it in my box and met Jim at the gas station across the highway. We checked our oil. We were both about ¼ quart on the low side so we split a quart of oil. This was not bad oil consumption for over 3,000 miles of hot, dusty riding.
We headed southwest out of Tok toward Anchorage. I was careful to stay within the speed limit since entering Alaska. The LEOs in the US were much less tolerant of speeders than the very rare RCMP we encountered in Canada. We were lit up twice in Canada but not pulled over. There were local police pulling folks over everywhere in Alaska. It could have something to do with it being July 4th weekend.
Just outside of Tok were encountered several lakes with a moose grazing in two of them next to the highway. We stopped to marvel at these creatures and take some photos.
We drove toward Valdez as the day grew longer and we began to tire. I was looking for a likely spot to camp for the night but the property on the highway south to Valdez was either private property or contained the Alaska pipeline. All the nice highway turnouts to the pipeline displayed a warning sign about blocking the road, etc. We drove on to Valdez hoping something would show up as it was approaching 10PM and we had covered almost 500 miles.
The closer to Valdez the more beautiful the scenery became. We passed the turn off for Kennicott. Soon sweepers dominated our route through a valley offering views of mountains with waterfalls and glaciers. We stopped for photos of Worthington glacier which was easily reached from a parking lot next to the highway.
Several rafts full of people were seen floating the river leading to Prince William Sound as we closed in on Valdez. They looked like they were having fun in the whitewater. Ordinarily this would not seem unusual, but it was 10:30 in the evening! The rafting outfitters would stay open as long as it was light and there were people who wanted to float the river. This is something you would never see in the lower 48, because it would be too dark to see it happening at this hour of the night.
We were getting low on fuel again and the long downhill was helping our fuel consumption. I had computed I had at least 20-30 more miles left in the tank but was worried that Jim would be out of gas soon. It was July 4th and all the good spots to camp along the road were already jammed with families and campers. I knew that the closer to Valdez we got the less likely we would find a camp spot. I turned on the road to Pump Station 1, the end of the Alaska Pipeline where there was a campground.
The “camp ground” consisted of parking spaces next to the road. This could be probably the least beautiful site we ever encountered on our journey. It was close to the water for the salmon fishermen and at least there was a nice view of Prince William Sound with the mountains towering over the city of Valdez showing the late evening sun struggling to set. The only available site was just 100 yards from the secure gate to Pump Station 1. It had barely enough room for our two tents between two RVs. We didn’t even attempt to use our tent pegs as this would require pounding them into asphalt. We resorted to tying our tents to the curb stops on one side and our motorcycles on the opposite end. We signed off our merit badges for “Urban Camping”. As we were completing setting up the tents a young girl ran by saying there was a brown bear nearby. She said a dog was giving it a hard time. I saw no need to hurry over to get close to an angry grizzly.
We spoke to our neighbors in an RV on our right. They were a retired couple from Wisconsin and spent their summers fishing and canning their catch in their RV for later use. Canned fish are not included in total catch limits. So they could catch their daily limits, can them and go at it again the next day. The husband was a Marine in 1954. We enjoyed talking about the usual things, our home states, the military, our vacations, what the Dalton Highway was like, the mosquitoes, etc. In talking to them we got the idea to do the glacier cruise to see the icebergs calve. Then we heard about the ferry to Whittier. Just then the ice cream lady made another run through the campground. It was now around midnight.
This got us to thinking. Why not try to get on the morning 5 ½ hour ferry to Whittier? This would have the dual purpose of offering us a cruise of the Sound to see the mountains and ocean mammals and also get us to Whittier and the Kenai without having to ride our bikes over 5 hours to Anchorage saving us time, gas, and tire wear. We also would not have to leave our bikes and gear parked in Valdez while we spent all day on a glacier cruise. In going this route we noted we would avoid backtracking over the road we came to Valdez on and then back tracking the roads from the Kenai to Anchorage and Anchorage to Glennallen on the way home. It was perfect. It meant we would get to Anchorage a few days later than we had planned by doing the Kenai first via Whittier. It was perfect in so many ways. Why hadn’t we thought of this first? We watched the last rays of sunlight go behind the mountains.
The July 4th fireworks began 2 miles away in Valdez across the sound at 12:30AM. It was strange seeing fireworks going off during daylight but if they had waited until it was as dark as it could be, the fireworks display would be at 2AM and it would only be minimally darker. We slept well on the asphalt campground. We had a mission for the morning: make the first ferry to Whittier.