Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Alaska - The Last Frontier

I was late picking up Dave after some difficulty getting my rear tyre changed and after a warm welcome we set off into the worst weather of the trip. It was cold with driving rain and sleet, so after 3 hours we stopped at a non - descript Best Western motel in a non - descript Hope. We showered to warm ourselves up and stop our teeth chattering and then headed out for some warming soup, burgers and beer, accompanied by several rounds of pool, which I let Dave win to help him get over his jet - lag. The next day was freezing cold but clearer and after crossing the Allison Pass, wary of ice, especially as they don't use salt on the roads here so as not to attract animals out of the woods, I started to speed up. It wasn't long before Officer Stockmeister of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police flagged us down and gave us a speeding ticket. He was quite decent about it all things considered, giving us the minimum fine of 138 canadian dollars - 100 for speeding and 38 for each KPH above the speed limit. He also explained that we had 30 days to pay or contest the ticket, so looks like I won't be paying that one then and will be adding British Colombia to Turkey and Australia to the list of places where I am wanted for unpaid speeding tickets.

Along the border, seeing lots of joint US and Canadian flagpoles, interestingly not something I noticed south or north in Alaska on the American sides of the border. We arrived in beautiful Kaslo set on the long vertical finger of Lake Kootenay and starting seeing black and grizzly bears on the road along way. Julius and Kristen, owners of the Grizzly Bear Ranch greeted us and we met Davey and Julie and Timon and Lisa at dinner. Davey was a retired fire officer and Julie was his younger partner, both were good company, whilst Timon (presumably named after Shakespeare's least popular play?) and Lisa were a couple of Actuaries who maintained the reputation of the profession as making chartered accountants look interesting. Next day we went bear watching together, also seeing plenty ofwhite tailed deer, mule deer, elk, a Bald Eagle and an Osprey. Most surprisingly, there were tiny, buzzing migratory humming birds in the garden, which was patrolled by Koro and Masher, the ranch's two Alsatian bear - dogs. They went bonkers one evening and we rushed out to see a black bear on the opposite side of the river that runs past the Ranch being warned off.

Julius (an ex - War Reporter) and Kristen (an ex - Diplomat's wife) regaled us with tales of the locals in the surrounding area, which is renowned for pot growing. Their neighbours on both sides, O'Shea and Dibble seemed to be doing a great job in keeping up the reputation of backwoodsmen for drunkeness and excess. One day, Dave and I joined Duff (nothing to do with the Simpsons, that was his real name) and Suzanne from Johnson's Landing for a day kayaking on the lake, which was great and a nice break from being in a big group. We stopped on a beach for lunch and Duff revealed himself as a conspiracy theorist sans pareil. His favourite themes were about Chem Trails and Con Trails, which are being used bu the government to control the weather and as communication mechanisms, and this "must be true" because Beck has just realeased a song about it. More convincing were his references to Building 57, the 3rd tower that was demolished on 9/11, but which no-one seems to know about and references to the film, America: From Freedom to Fascism, which is actually a very good, thought provoking film about who ruled the USA in the twentieth century.

Anyway, all to soon it was time to say goodbye to Dave B at Castlegar Airport and I headed north to Kelowna to see about my clutch. The people were very nice at SouthWest Motorrad and after suggesting I wash the bike they thought the gear oil level was just overfilled and so was splashing around. They helped me to drain the level, gave me a T-shirt and sent me on my way having saved me a tidy sum in unecessary repair bills. They also said they would keep hold of the clutch and send it onwards as an when I may need it. I headed north, now a day ahead of where I thought I would be, and made it to Prince George for a night in a bog standard motel.

The road out of Prince George, Highway 16, is a noticeably quieter "highway" and I start to recognise the other travellers on the road, seeing the same people throughout the day. There is the redneck in his green Ford truck with the Leer trailer cover, the double trailer petrol tanker, reassuringly heading north, the old couple in the camper van and Greg, the biker from Vancouver. Names here are strange too. Yesterday I was heading for Williams Lake and Prince George and today I am heading for Watson Lake and Prince Rupert. For anyone who like me is a fan of the Simpsons, Burns Lake and the next town along, Smithers, would also raise a snigger or two. I stop in the Tim Horton's in Smithers and meet Talking Bear, an enormous Gitivangak Indian who was riding an even bigger Triumph America. He gave me what appeared to be some good guidance on the fuel situation ahead on the Cassiar Highway. There was fuel at the beginning at Kitwanga, then at Meziadin Junction and 333 km later at Dease Lake according to Talking Bear. He also guides me to the ring of mountains that surrounds the town, still crested in ice and snow even though it is the middle of June. Once again the names are funny - along with Mount Cronin and the Seven Sisters Mountains, the biggest one nearest town is called the Hudson Bay Company Mountain, no doubt named by some brown - nosing pen pusher in the 18th or 19th century.

Immediately I get on the Cassiar there is loads of Moose Scat in the gravel on the road and an enormous blood stain on the road surface, indicating both just how enormous these beasts are and how dangerous it is to hit one. The flies are getting thicker as I pass through dense forests of fir and the strong raina and sleet showers become a temporary relief as it affords the opportunity to clean my visor off.

However, when I get to Meziadin Junction there is no fuel and the station is all shut up and the pumps wrapped up in tarpaulins. I go to the nearby campsite to see if anyone has any fuel I could buy, but there are only a friendly group of cyclists who suggest I get off the road and go to Stewart, 59kms off the Cassiar Highway and right on the southern border of Alaska, butting up against Hyder on the Inside Passage. It was marked as another unsurfaced road on my map, but I had little choice but to try it out as I had already done 170km since Kitwanga and didn't have enough fuel to make it to Dease Lake. Even though when I got there the petrol station was shut for the night, the ride alone made it the best enforced diversion ever. The birch trees fringing the road and the lakes and rivers shimmered in the strengthening wind and sun as the clouds dispersed and revealed a deep sapphire sky. The mountains stand firm in their icy fastness with the lowering sun glinting off the glaciars. The biggest of which, Bear Glaciar, has fingers of blue ice that reach down the edge of the road itself. Like runnels of white - hot lava that have cut through the stands of Douglas Fir, Cedar and Larch that cling to the precipitous mountain slopes, the scene is mesmerising. Only the plethora of black bear feeding off the sage and dandelions on the side of the road focuses me on the road ahead.

In the bar in the Stewart Hotel, I meet a bunch of BIH Miners, with black faces and dirty overalls who have been off road and helicoptering into some of the old mines. They explain that the rising global commodity prices have encouraged their company to send teams like theirs into some of the disused mines to recover previously uneconomic ores. I started out the next day, cold in the shade of the mountains and soon realised that the bumps of the rocks on the road had snapped my speedo and odometer cable. I was stuck at 87417 km, and I stopped and fiddled around at the Rabid Grizzly rest stop (honestly that was its name!). I was initially stressed out by this, as my LED fuel indicator had broken on a similarly rough section of road around Lake Atitlan in Guatamala and I had been relying on the odometer to predict my fuel range. Now that was gone and some of the longest inter - fuel sections and the most remote roads were just about to come up, the Cassiar being a case in point. Also, my rider display now looked a sight, as my ABS red warning lights flashed constantly (broken in Argentina), my LED didn't work at all and now only my rev counter worked amongst my clocks. I was also pissed off because I was hoping to cross the magic 100, 000km mark on this trip, by far the longest I have ever ridden on any of my motorbikes.

The stress disappears as I realise that I have nothing to prove to anyone apart from myself on this journey and this has always been a thing with me that I have recognised for a long time. I always seem to strive to collect certificates and awards as a way to get the recognition I craved as a kid. I have got to know myself so well on this trip and I have nothing to prove to myself after making it this far, that I don't feel I have to do anything I don't want to do. Maybe I am starting to grow up a bit and just like Jack London in 1897 when he joined the Klondike Gold Rush when he said "It was in the Klondike that I found myself. There you get your perspective. I got mine". I carry on for a great day's ride through the most remote road I have been on so far. You know you have been through somewhere isolated when you see more bears than other vehicles on the road and more moose than people you have conversations with, including the people at petrol stations and the motel.

The mud and gravel sections were slippery and wet with the road tyres on and the petrol staion at the ironically named Good Hope Station is also shut. I run out of petrol before getting to the junction with the Alaska Highway, but like everything that day, I take it in my stride adn thanks to the litre or so of fuel in my camping stove bottles, make it with fumes left in the tank. I meet Bellingham Bill and Simon from San Rafael on their KLRs at the petrol station heading in the opposite direction. They tell me about the onward road conditions, although they point out that there biggest challenge was the flies that got bigger and thicker the further north you went. They show me their radiator grilles that looked like someone had just taken the top off an Eccles Cake as testament to this. Still feeling fresh, I quickly polished off the last 464 kilometres into Whitehorse in just less than 3 hours into the setting sun as I headed north east, mostly on tarmac now, over sparkling lakes and the glinting slippery surfaces of the metalled bridges of the Yukon Territory.

I get to Whitehorse to find all the hostels and motels full. At one motel, Ron, a Harley - riding Vietnam Vet and muppet look - a - like, flagged me down to say that my box was hanging off as I went by. He was just unloading his bike and had noticed the loose strap. By now, all the stupid plastic locks of my BMW panniers were broken and needed to be strapped on and this one had gotten too close to my exhaust during the long day of riding and burnt through. At the office they said they were full and so I went back into town to see what else was available. The answer was nothing, and I was resigned to riding out of town to try my luck on the road towards Alaska, when passing the same motel, Ron flagged me down a second time. Ron Johnson is one of those rare Christians who actually seems to be focussed on emulating the behaviour and philosophy of the religions founder. He offered me a bed in his large suite style motel room and we agreed to split the cost. In Whitehorse there are no generica North America restaurants here, so we went out for a Chinese meal together in a bright and sunny Whitehorse at gone 11pm. I learnt that Ron used to work on the railroad and he had recently lost his wife to cancer and his Mum to old age. I also learnt that not only did he have a face like Ernie from Sesame Street, but he also sounded uncannily like him too.

I am absolutely knackered after 2 tough days of riding more than 1,000kms each day. I have underestimated the distances here and realised yesterday that my Yukon, NWT and Alaska map is half the scale and so double the distance of my previous Canada map. As soon as the food hit my stomach the long day's ride caught up with me and I was ready for bed. Next day after breakfast together, Ron and I said our goodbyes and wished each other well. What a gent. I have been so lucky on this trip to meet so many good people. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as evil people, there are only bad situations or sick, ignorant or fearful people that get involved in bad things. The thing I don't understand is, why are governments so consistently unrepresentative of the people who I have met that live in those countries?

As Albert Einstein and any long distance bike rider know, time and space are relative on a continuum. Now that my speedo is broken and the distances between places are getting longer and longer, I start to measure distance in time and vice versa. I also notice that the grizzly bears seem to have fur to match their surrounding fauna - from cinnamon brown in British Colombia, to almost white around Stewart and and blonde / sandy up north. There have also been reports that bears are attracted not only to food and perfumed smells but also synthetic smells too and there are accounts of them demolishing vehicles to eat batteries, tyres and rubber hoses! I also read one funny story of a group of French hikers who would be hiking away from their vehicle for a number of days and who decided to spray their car with bear - repellent to make sure it would be OK whilst they were away. However. because the repellent is basically made from chillies and is effective in temporarily blinding and confusing a bear that gets too close allowing you to escape, it actually made their car even more of a culinary attraction than normal and they came back to find all the tyres chewed off and the bonnet ripped open and all the delicate little amuse bouche inside taken by the furry gourmands!

Whereas there are estimated to be between 800 to 1000 brizzlies in the lower 48 states. As I approach the border, I read in my guidebook whilst taking a break over a brilliant spicy, homemade pizza, that in Alaska, there are estimated to be between 12,000 to 13,000. These numbers have been declining in inverse correlation as the human population of Alaska has soared from 70,000 to 500,000 people since the second world war.

I pass Haines Junction and eventually cross the border into Alaska and immediately get stuck at the front of a queue waiting for a flagger to let us go ahead. This is frustrating for two reasons. Firstly, I am waiting next to a bloke on a Harley who is talking to the flagger and explains that he has come 3500 miles from Seattle in just less than 2 weeks. She seems amazed at this distance, absolutely stunned that someone could ride a motorcycle that far and that fast. She then asks me hwo far I have come and I say that I have come from Argentina since the beginning of the year and she nods and just says "u-huh" in recognition. I am stunned at her response and guess that she only knows US High School Geography (which seems to be to be able to memorise the State Capitals of the 50 States) but the Pilot Car has eventually arrived and we are off. The section of road is wet, muddy and slippery, but it is not that bad and it is frustrating to have to follow the Pilot Car for nearly 20 miles at 15 mph, the boredom only relieved by seeing the Harley rider skid and buck over the uneven ground in my mirror and to get a great view of a large bull moose crossing a lake. His large palmate antlers are majestic and comply with the rule that they always seem to have 14 points.Whilst the bike is a great place to view wildlife, unfortunately it is not such a great place to take pictures from, once you have fiddled about taking gloves off, getting the camera out, etc then the moment has invariably gone.

I arrive in Tok and manage to get a room in a motel made from portacabins. Although it is getting quite late, it is bright out and the sun is stronger now at gone 10pm than it has been all day. I go for a stroll. I almost wet myself with laughter when I read a poster on the community health centre noticeboard that they have a big problem with ticks in Tok, much to the bemusement of some Tlingit winos who are hanging around the car park. I decide to take Michelle Shock's advice and anchor up in Anchorage for a couple of day's R&R. and get a great viewing of an enormous bald eagle, sat on a bridge railing as I cross it. I get a close up view of his fearfully enormous high - bridged beak and his cold steel - blue eyes as he stares at me on the bike for a few seconds. He is simply enormous and seems like a wolf with wings. Thankfully he decides that I am not worth eating and he flies down to the stony beach below and picks up the moose calf carcass that he was feeding on and carries it off into the forest, easily supporting its weight with its terrifying talons and wingspan that seemed at least 12 feet across. As I get closer to Anchorage there are also some panoramic views of the taiga, tundra and mountains beyond, and I can see for miles as the clouds clear. The air quality is brilliant after rain and I can see Moose in th valleys, Dall Sheep on the mountains, a beaver swimming across a lake and even a family of chipmunks being shepherded just across the road in front of me.

My visor is just caked on with flies and insect debris. It looks like the inside of a perspex mixing bowl that has just had rock cakes or fruit scones prepared in it. Bits of dried fruit and splashes of egg yolk with other indescribable gunk chucked in for good measure - it is also about as transparent too. There are a lot of parallells here in Alaska with being in Patagonia 6 months ago. The flags are similar (mountains and the southern cross on the Patagonia flag and Ursa Minor and the Pole Star on the Alaska flag. There is also the perpetual daylight issue, although that is much more pronounced here. I am having to use my tarpaulin over my tent and the airline facemask that Dave B left with me to be able to get off to sleep. It is also strange here to see everyhting closed at a "normal" time when it is still bright daylight whereas in Patagonia people seem to adapt their behaviour more to fit in with their natural surroundings. Here nature is ignored or expected to adapt itself.

Calcium Chloride is laid on the roads here and rocks too, scattered around randomly from icy patches that have melted since the spring has begin here. They never use salt up here as it makes the roads more dangerous as it draws all the animals out to lick it up! There are lots of delays for roadworks here as they are digging up the road to lay blue felt underneth to try to prevent buckling of the surface in the winter due to the ice expanding underneath. Road from Tok to Anchorage was constantly changing, with a rollercaoster of buckles, gravel and dirt and then some silky smooth new tarmac too, all with a dash of moose to keep you awake. No external stimulants were required on the middle section from Glenallen Junction as the scenery was simply breathtaking, turn after turn after turn. Snow and ice - peaked mountains in the distance and low forest and tundra in the foreground with herds of caribou clearly visible. It was like entering some mystical kingdom, like the legends of Shangri - la. The wind - buffeted cottonwoods and feverfew gave off a wonderful scent too from the side of the road. Small planes in front of cabins on the road between Tok and Anchorage. There was no discernible runways, so presumably they used the road to take off and land.

I get into Anchorage which feels like a teeming metropolis after all the wilderness and tiny hamlets I have been in for the last few days and get a place at the Backpacker's Lodge, courtesy of directions from Arnold a Harley rider I met at the traffic lights. It is cheap (for North America anyway at 50USD), central and clean. I fall asleep almost immediately after I have unpacked the bike and then get up for a walk in the bright evening. After a stroll through town past the rows of gift shops and unhelpful ATMs I stop at a Japanese restaurant to celebrate getting this far with some sushi and Kirin Ichiban. By the time I have finished and walk back to the hostel through the dusky gloom brought on by the rain at gone 1am in the morning.

I can't sleep in my portacabin because the light is streaming through the inadequate ventian blind, so I flick on the television. Inevitably there are loads of medical related adverts on (again playing on American fears that they won't live for ever, it will just feel that way). Straining. Going Too Often. Not going at all. Going when you were not expecting to. Incomplete emptying - which always puts me in mind of an inefficiently run fire drill in a public building, but which of course refers to an altogether different, trouser-dampening reality. The biggest single market is in drugs that deal with erectile dysfunction. My favourite features a group of men who gather together to play in a band. I think it is meant to show them looking relaxed and happy, but they are such good musicians you cannot help noting that impotence has left them with plenty of time on their hands to practise their instruments.

The best part of the adverts tends to come towards the end when the law requires the pharmaceutical company to list the possible side effects of the various products. Sometimes these are spelled out in a warm tone implying this is all a bit of a formality imposed by the fussy government. On other occasions they are rattled out at speeds normally only reached by horse racing commentators in the closing stages of a big race. The symptoms include coughs and sneezes, runny noses and rashes but there is a more alarming end of the spectrum too where you are solemnly warned of the possibility - presumably small - of suffering a stroke, a heart attack or even death - the last and greatest side-effect of them all.

It got up to 10 degrees centrigrade at one point today - and this is summer! In Tok, they proudly claimed that it was the place on earth with the coldest average temperatures in the world at -30 degrees throughout the winter months! I am sure that I have heard of a colder place in Siberia, but I guess they are less concerned about such statistics there... I had a busy morning, running around in the pounding rain and hail on the bike and sorting out my speedo and odometer cable and pin - key thingy by replacing it with a second - hand one from a wrecked RT BMW, Whilst the RT had a 17 inch front wheel and my GS has a 19 inch one, which should mean that it underestimates my speed and distance, at least it is working again despite having about 5,000 uncounted miles since it went on the Cassiar Highway last week. I then enjoyed another fantastic afternoon nap, did some stuff on the internet the weather cleared about 9pm with bright sunshine streaming through the thinning clouds and then enjoyed an evening walk along the Tony Knowles coastal path to Lake Hood to watch the sea planes take off and land.

I am beginning to warm to Anchorage as the weather improves. The people are all warm and friendly and Alaskan Ales IPA is one of the best beers I have ever tasted. All of which, along with Lena's advice and reading about Buck's problems heading north without enough rest in "The Call of the Wild" lend me to considering staying here a while longer. Walking around in the late night sunlight I also start to appreciate the town's architectural merits too. Most of the public buildings date from the 1920's and 1930's and so are heavily Art Deco influenced. The cathedral is a fine example and must be one of the few Art Deco churches in the world.

The residential areas vary from smart to ramshackle wooden buildings, sometimes traditional cabin, sometimes chique modernist statements in clapperboard and clinkers and sometimes without any distinguishable style whatsoever. All are charming though and surrounded by trees and often painted in muted sages, greys and cinnamons, which gives the city an overall low -rise, low impact impression with Cook Inlet and the mountains beyond dominating. Ushuaia and Anchorage are the polar twins of each other. Surrounded by mountains and the sea, perpetual light in their respective opposite solstices and a cold, dampness. Gift shops and cruise passengers during the day and raucous nightlife thereafter.

Captain James Cook arrived here on his third and fatal journey on the Resolution in search of the North West Passage. He failed and instead of finding the long sought after route, which now due to global warming is becoming a reality, after leaving here and reaching Hawaii, he fell sick and died. Another song I am singing in my bike helmet iPod - on the way here I added "Anchorage" to my repertoire and since arriving here I now have been thinking more and more longingly of being with Lena and in the more or less perpetual daylight the Kinks have been rolling through my head "girl, I want to be with you all of the time, all day and all of the night" seems particularly appropriate. I notice that Anchorage also has the same cruise - crowd who flow in and out like the tides, wearing the same branded red anoraks as each other and their counterparts at the other end of the Americas in Ushuaia. No crowds of feral, free - running dogs here though, even though Anchorage is the start of the annual Iditarod dog - sled race. The tens of thousands of gold seekers who rushed to the Klondike learned quickly that only dogs could survive and serve as the major form of transport here, as attested by the carcasses of dead horses and mules that covered the trail. This is also well documented in the attempts of Amundsen and Scott in the Antartic and their relative success using dogs and mules respectively.

I take a ride out along the Kenai Peninsula to Homer (why is there such a strange link between NW place names and The Simpsons?) and stop by on the way to see the Russian Orthodox Church and beach in Ninilchik, looking across Cook Inlet to the Aleutian Range. Around the Turnagain Arm, allegedly named by Cook as he thought it was so broad and grand an entrance, lined with glaciated mountains, that it must be the entrance to the Northwest Passage. It is in fact an estuary and so Cook had to turn around (again), but its grandeur is undeniable. The next day after a great short order breakfast at the White Spot Cafe, I was packed up and off to Denali National Park.

I get stopped by a flagger again along the road, and whilst we wait, she offers me some spicy and gamey moose sausage which was very tasty. She also explains to me that just as Arabs have many names for sand, Alaskans have many names for flies. Everyone seems to know the cycle of seasonal hatchings intimately and she explains that the big spring female mosquitos are now in decline and the small, almost invisible stinging "no - see - ums" are just about to hatch out. Thankfully the pilot car arrives and I am off, leaving the annoying cloud of flies behind - they seem to gather whenever you stop for a few seconds. As I head north to Denali, I realise looking down at my map that there are no more intercity roads west of here for more than a thousand miles all the way to the Aleutian Islands. Should I stop in lower Alaska for the solstice bike rally or head north through the wilderness on thousands of miles of unsurfaced roads amongst the wildest wilderness on the planet and guaranteed close encounters of the furred kind?


lena said...

what is or are flaggers?
this leg seems to have been about wildlife; including dave b who is of course both wild and full of life, think i would pass on the insects which seem to conjur up cake parallels inexplicably in your mind...
i must check out the 14 point moose regulation though
sounds like somewhere we should return to!

Honesy said...

Flaggers are people who stop / control the traffic at roadworks and also give out moose saudsage to bikers too...