The journey begins...


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ALASKA - part 1

8/19/2007 PM

We stopped at the official border between Canada and the U.S. – marked with signs proclaiming pride in the peaceful border with no fences.  At the customs gate, the border guard gave Darren a little bit of a hard time about not being able to see his license plate tag, but I had no problems.  Crossing the border renewed our energies.  We were struck by the immediate difference in the forest as we rode through the Tetlin National Wilderness Refuge.  Unlike Canada’s forests, which had been subjected to logging, mining and fires, this forest refuge was super-thick with massive amounts of underbrush.  The sides of the roadway were less maintained, making it harder to view animals that may be approaching and gave the area the feeling of true wilderness.  There were also far fewer vehicles as it was later in the afternoon.  The views were hard to capture on camera with endless forests views that were unhampered by pollution.  You could just imagine the abundance of wildlife living in such a huge area.  We rode past lots of marshland and small ponds where frozen ground had thawed in the summer.  After stopping at the grocery (where we found a great buy on two steaks for less than $3), it was still bright as day – although nearly 10 pm - when we pulled into the campground in Tok.  Darkness finally fell at about 11:30pm.  We both agreed that we would need to be careful riding in Alaska.  It is easy to feel like you should keep riding because it is not getting dark and you can underestimate how tired you are. 


We had gained an hour when we crossed the border (Alaska time).  We had a relatively short 200 miles miles northwest to get to Fairbanks.  The ride from Tok to Delta Junction was fairly boring with more forest, more marshland, no wildlife and a bit more traffic.  We stopped in Delta Junction at a visitor center where we unintentionally came upon the milepost indicating the official end of the Alaskan Highway (Hwy 2).  There were also some mighty big mosquitoes there…

From Delta Junction to Eielson Air Force Base there were multiple areas of construction that required us to stop the bikes and wait for a flag-person to grant us access.  Darren stopped at a rest stop along a wide riverbed to investigate a problem with his cooling fan, which was not coming on.  Unable to quickly diagnose the problem on the road, he planned to investigate it further when we reached Fairbanks in about another 100 miles.  We passed many military vehicles with soldiers dressed in camo gear and hard hats.  They all looked very tough and stoic with little facial expression.  The road turned into a freeway with multiple lanes in each direction, exit ramps and a middle barrier as we passed the North Pole and Santaland.  When I was about 8 years old my grandmother brought me with her to Alaska to visit my aunt who was living in Anchorage.  I vaguely remember parts of this trip and as we passed through the North Pole, I was struck with a sense of de-ja-vue.  The freeway ended as we entered Fairbanks.  We circled the city center to get our bearings before stopping at the visitors center and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office for maps and information.  Darren’s battery died and his bike would not start.  After a laborious push-start in a parking lot we rode to the Kawasaki dealer. 

The staff at the Kawi shop was unbelievably horrible.  They laughed and acted happy when Darren said that he was having a problem.  Then the parts person got on the phone to the service department and announced that there was a ‘foriegner here with a problem’.  The service technician was the only knowledgeable and respectful person we encountered there.  While he diagnosed Darren’s bike, we tried to work with the parts department  - which was like pulling teeth.  When we asked for brake pads for Darren’s bike, it took nearly 20 minutes for them to announce that they didn’t have them.  Darren was being remarkably cool about the situation, while I was starting to get really frustrated.  When Darren asked if they had a washer he expected to need, the clerk simply said, “I don’t know, I would have to look that up” and then proceeded to do nothing for us.  Finally what appeared to be the owners wife came along and not only found the brake pads, but also the washer.  The service mechanic concluded that the aftermarket stator and rectifier had fried some wires and partially melted the plastic connection.  We were glad to have the original stock parts with us.  As we were leaving one of the staff made a comment that we “should have bought a BMW”.  After the shockingly poor customer service at the Kawasaki dealer (which had a campground across the street), we chose to stay at the campground closer to the Harley dealer – having heard that they were more helpful.  Darren spent the rest of the afternoon and evening putting the stock parts back in his bike and soldering the wires back into workable condition.  We were introduced to our camp neighbors, Jerry and Judy, a couple from Kalispell, Montana who where traveling in a van and using Fairbanks as a hub for their day trips. 


Jerry and Judy invited us to have breakfast with them, which was really great!  After completing the stator replacement, Darren began the planned maintenance for the bikes, which included changing his front brake pads.  A super-friendly bike shop in Corinth, Mississippi had changed them last time and inadvertently over-tightened the bleeder bolt in the side of the caliper.  When Darren attempted to loosen it and place it in the correct position, the side of the bolt housing on the caliper broke completely off – making the caliper completely defective.  Darren’s bike could not be safely ridden until we replaced the front brake caliper.  I called the Kawasaki dealer who agreed to order the part with overnight shipping. 


In the afternoon I called the bike shop to check on the status of the part and was told that there was a 2 month backorder and they were unable to help.  I called all over Alaska and even back to the shop in Mississippi in search of the part.  After finding it on ebay, I told Darren the news and he called his good friend Mark back in Georgia.  Mark (aka Flux) has a KLR as well and saved us by taking the caliper off his bike and agreeing to overnight it to us.  In the meantime, we were bidding on the part on ebay and would have it sent to him for replacement. 


Once again we continued with the planned maintenance of changing both rear tires to knobbies in preparation to ride north on unsealed roads.  We also changed the front sprocket on both bikes.  Checking our emails revealed that there had been some confusion with Mark’s wife – who inadvertently shipped the replacement caliper ‘ground’, rather than overnight.  It would arrive in 4 days…

Afterwards I rode to Taco Bell to pick up some food and my bike wouldn’t restart for the ride back.  Luckily some other motorcyclists who were camping near us were also there and helped by riding back to camp and getting Darren, who was able to push-start it and get it back.  An investigation proved that the exact same failure of the aftermarket stator had also occurred on my bike, frying the wires and connections under the seat.  Now both of our bikes were not working…


Darren awoke to find his bike had a flat tire.  Now he had to wade into the river with the tire tube to identify the problem – which was actually the valve-stem (after a good cleaning it was fine).  Fairbanks has not been treating us well.  It seems that every time we think we have a problem solved, another one comes along right after it.  At times we both felt defeated and miserable.  Darren’s electrical fixes were working, but we were not confident that they would last long-term.  He expressed serious concerns about riding north to Prudhoe Bay – a 1000-mile journey (round-trip) on unsealed roads that were meant to be fairly desolate.  Being so close to our goal and faced with the conclusion that we may not reach it was depressing to say the least.  We made the decision to ride to the Arctic Circle and then decide if we felt safe enough to continue to Deadhorse. 

After replacing my stator and rectifier with the original parts, we were invited to eat with Jerry, Judy and their friend, Sue, who had joined them for a portion of their travels.  After a bottle of wine, beer and schnapps, we were all feeling a bit better.  Darren retired to the tent and I went to the lounge to read for a while.  I fell asleep on the couch and Darren came in and woke me after waking up in a fright without me in the tent! 


Jerry and Judy offered for us to use their bicycles for the day.  It was really great!  It had been a really long time since I had ridden a bicycle and I had to get used to the handling again.  We rode all around town.  Fairbanks is known as hub for Alaska’s interior and the Artic.  It has strong economic ties to the military, oil industry and the University of Alaska – not to mention tourism.  It is the second largest city in Alaska with about 35,000 residents.  First we stopped at a migrating bird refuge where tons of cranes were taking a rest on their way south.  Then we rode across the river and around the downtown area, stopping to eat lunch at a Thai restaurant.  Then we rode through Pioneer Park, a 44-acre historical thematic park, and browsed the shops.  We watched a short presentation on the aurora borealis (northern lights) given by an expert who answered all of our silly questions.  Then we stopped into a shop dedicated to dogsled racing where we learned a bit about the famous Iditarod race. The only regret for the day was not bringing our camera.  Jerry and Judy really made our day by allowing us to use those bicycles and we really appreciated it.


It is my birthday and I spent it reading and writing all day in the campground lounge, which has been our refuge for the past week with wireless Internet, a book exchange, phones and a comfy couch.  I even found a book on the history of Australia that I began reading.  In the evening we met a friendly couple in an RV who were in Alaska to celebrate their honeymoon.  They were kind enough to feed us dinner. 

Afterwards, back at Jerry and Judy’s camp, Sue had bought me a birthday cake and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me.  It was really a great day and through all our hardships in Fairbanks, we were blessed to meet such generous and friendly people.   


The caliper finally arrived in the early afternoon and Darren was able to finish his bike maintenance, but we decided it would be best to stay the night and leave in the morning.  Another motorcyclist named Goeff (from San Francisco) arrived.  He was riding south from Deadhorse and we offered for him to set up his tent in our campsite for free.  We were repaid with a bottle of wine for me and the sharing of a bottle of Jack Daniels and cigars for Darren.  We stayed up late taking about travel and motorcycles.


Finally on the road again!  We headed north on Highway 2 past Livengood to the intersection with the Dalton Highway (also known as the Haul Road).  The road was named after James Dalton, a North Slope engineer (the ‘North Slope’ refers to the northern slope of the Brooks range, although there is actually no slope left at Deadhorse – it is all flat!).  The road was built for construction of the Tans-Alaska Pipeline and access to Deadhorse.  They call it the Haul Road because truckers use the 500 mile road to haul supplies to Deadhorse.  The road begins with lots of small potholes in very hard-packed dark dirt that resembles old worn blacktop.  The unpaved portions of the route alternates between this surface and looser small gravel over the hard-packed surfaces.  None of the road was difficult or required skilled riding.  We stopped at the Yukon River bridge (the only highway in Alaska that crosses this great river) for gas and again at the Hot Spot Café 5 miles later to share an expensive burger.  The road became very nicely paved for a long way, allowing for higher speeds curving through the foothills of the Brooks Range.  The landscape was mainly forest with the pipeline snaking alongside the road, sometimes crossing underneath the road under bridges and sometimes disappearing underground for a while.  There were many rivers and small lakes.  A small sign pointed up towards a pullout with the sign indicating we were at the Arctic Circle.  In layman’s terms, this is a  place where the sun doesn’t set on summer solstice and it doesn’t rise on winter solstice.  A remote place indeed.  We had a brief conversation with a Brazilian couple riding 2-up on a motorbike they had ridden north from Tierra del Fuego.  After taking the obligatory photos at the Arctic Circle we continued north to Coldfoot where we purchased two gas containers and petrol.  There were multiple other motorcyclist and we chatted while taking a break.  We also noticed that my lowered bike was causing a problem with my rear tire – a couple of bolts were cutting into the tread of the tire when the bike went over bumps.  We would have to remove the tire and cut the bolts shorter to resolve the problem.  We rode 5 miles further to the BLM campground at Marion Creek.  As we pulled in my bike felt stiff and Darren noticed it looking a bit lower to the ground.  When we pushed down on the seat there was no suspension left and Darren was devastated to think that my bike’s suspension had given up.  It was enough to push him over the edge.  We would have to turn back to Fairbanks.  After a miserable conversation about giving up the ride on these bikes when we reached the lower 48, Darren walked back over to my bike to further investigate the suspension.  Remarkably, the suspension was now working without a problem.  He removed the tire to fix the problem with the bolts and adjusted the suspension setting.  I walked to the well for cooking water and found it was out of order.  Luckily another camper in an RV was willing to let me have a few liters of his water so we didn’t have to ride back to Coldfoot.  It was quite cold in the evening, but my bike seemed to be behaving properly and we decided to push further to Deadhorse in the morning.