NORTH TO ALASKA
We left Seattle for Alaska on July 17, 1999. The route took us north from Seattle, skirting Vancouver, BC, up the Fraser River Valley through Prince George to Dawson Creek, B.C. Dawson Creek is the start of the Alaska Highway, and from there it's roughly 1,530 miles across the Canadian Rocky Mountains in northern British Columbia and through the lonely and lovely Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska.
By the way, the Alaska Highway was all paved by the time of our trip in 1999 (construction, etc., excepted.) This is a major improvement since my first trip up this highway in 1968. At that time, except for the first 100 miles out of Dawson Creek, the entire Canadian section of the road was gravel - about 1,100 miles. Even in a car there was a real sense of adventure, traveling roughly the distance from Seattle to Los Angeles on a gravel road.
From Fairbanks we headed north on first the Steese and Elliott Highways, and then the rough and remote Dalton Highway (the Haul Road) to our destination at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean. Unfortunately, the pavement doesn't last long north of Fairbanks. The first 30 miles of the Elliott Highway were paved, but the next 450 miles of the Elliott and Dalton Highways to Deadhorse, Alaska were all gravel. Gravel roads require lots and lots of patience in any vehicle, but certainly on a motorcycle.
Deadhorse is the northernmost point in North America that's connected to the road system. (Prudhoe Bay, as the adjoining oilfield is collectively known, is the northern starting point for the famed Trans-Alaska Pipeline.)
Rather than spend several days retracing our steps, we shipped the bikes by plane from Deadhorse to Anchorage. That afforded us the time to explore the Kenai Peninsula, and to visit Homer, situated in perhaps the most beautiful natural setting in North America.
After a few days in Anchorage to catch our breath, wash our bikes, sightsee and visit old friends, we headed to the Haines ferry terminal via the Glenn, Alaska and Haines Highways, re-tracing a couple of hundred miles of our inbound trip on the Alaska Highway. The trip from Anchorage to Haines is roughly 750 miles of breathtaking scenery - and if the weather cooperates, perhaps one of the most beautiful rides in the World. I'm happy to report that it co-operated for us.
At Haines we boarded the Alaska ferry M/V Columbia and for three and a half days we rode "the Blue Canoe" back to civilization, as we sailed the famed Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia to Bellingham, WA, just 100 miles north of Seattle, and then home.
We took just four weeks to ride the loop from Seattle to Prudhoe Bay and back, covering about 4,400 road miles, plus the 900 miles on the Alaska ferry.
Road conditions ranged from Interstate highways to gravel roads, although the norm was paved, two lane roads (that's one lane in each direction for you city dwellers) with a fair amount of RV traffic on them, since the north-country is a prime tourist area in the summer. Because much of the trip is through mountainous terrain, most of the roads have lots of twists and turns and ups and downs. In short, perfect motorcycle roads. There is one note of caution. As you get further north (parts of the Alaska Highway as well as many roads in Alaska) the roads can get pretty bumpy from the severe frost heaves that result from continual freezing and thawing of permafrost.
Most gravel roads that are highly traveled (like the Dalton Highway) end up being packed down to the consistency of low-grade asphalt. The bigger vehicles kick the gravel off to the side of the road, and so you are left with a hard (and often dusty) surface, on which, if the road is dry, you can often ride at speeds at least up to the legal limit. ighwayHihIGHWAY
So, 50 to 60 is not unreasonable under the right conditions. If the road is in this condition, about the only danger is the constant dust, the rocks kicked up by other vehicles and the line of gravel that forms between the car tracks. The worst conditions are when the road has been recently graded, and the surface may be several inches of loose gravel on top of a hard-packed surface.
The other problem is rain. The previously described packed surface becomes a veritable skating rink interrupted by occasional mud holes big enough to bury a small car. But I exaggerate! Seriously, under those conditions you slow down to the fastest speed at which you can control your bike, and sometimes with both feet on the ground, you motor along at 15 or 20 mph until it gets better. That may be a few minutes or a few hours. If you are a firm believer that the adventure of the journey is always superior to the joy of the destination, you will take the gravel in stride and have great stories to tell your couch-bound friends.
We had intermittent rain much of the way from Fairbanks north to Atigun Pass, the summit of the Brooks Range. Thankfully it kept the dust down, although in several places (at Yukon River Bridge and on the north slope of the Brooks Range, as prime examples) it was slick enough to skate on.
The weather in the North Country differs widely from place to place, but in July and August I expected temperatures in the 60s and 70s. We weren't that lucky in 1999. It was in the mid-to-high 80s as we rode toward Dawson Creek, but cooled considerably as we headed up the Alaska Highway. By Whitehorse it was in the 50s, and it was in the mid-40s when we left Fairbanks for Prudhoe Bay. The summer temperatures in Fairbanks are often in the high 70s and 80s, and occasionally are higher, so the cold weather was a disappointment. Suffice it to say, if you are making this trip you'll want to bring along some warm clothing.
Rain is a problem in Alaska, so good rain gear is a must. I planned the trip for the driest time of the year, but we still caught about ten days of the wet stuff between Fort Nelson, BC and Atigun Pass, on the Dalton Highway.
SO WHAT'S THIS RIDE LIKE?
With the possible exception of the Dalton Highway, there is nothing very arduous about riding to Alaska, except that you must want to get up every morning for thirty days and ride two or three hundred miles on a motorcycle that day. (Note the two or three hundred miles a day. I determined early on that this wasn't going to be an Iron Butt Rally.) Mostly, it's a very long ride; much of it through beautiful wilderness, or near-wilderness.
I said with the possible exception of the Dalton Highway (the Haul Road.) The Haul Road is a long gravel road that can be pretty rough. We sped along at fifty and sixty miles an hour on some of it, even higher in places, and spent two or three hours on the north side of the Brooks Range picking our way through orange and grapefruit-size rocks at ten to fifteen miles an hour. Some people don't call that fun. I call it high adventure, and loved every since minute of it.
The only legal issues are getting into Canada and getting back into the US. Canada customs wants you to have enough money to make it through to the US, and I have never been hassled on a motorcycle. You may need to show your bike registration, and often are required to show proof of insurance. Canada is death on handguns, so don't bring one. They will turn you back. As the border has gotten tougher to cross (because of drug and illegal immigration problems) I have carried a passport the last couple of trips up. It seems to make the crossing smoother, although a passport is not necessary. A photo ID is all that's required.
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