After two and a half years riding many parts of the world, this traveler lost her heart to Alaska
Skirting northeasterly around Denali National Park, I was hit with countless chevrons of snow-capped mountains and gigantic glaciers that did anything but disappoint – my hunger for wild lands was going to be well nourished here. I’m a wilderness seeker in lifelong pursuit of natural beauty; although nowhere on my moto radar did I expect my heart to be stolen at first sight by Alaska.
The beginning of the end of our two-and-a-half-year road trip started with the Fishhook Fatties: a gregarious biking group from south-central Alaska whose ethos is assuredly “work hard, play hard,” at least during the summer months where daylight hours are in high demand. They also love big adventure bikes – the women riders being no exception – and all prefer dirt to pavement, ourselves (my partner, Jason, and me) included. That said, I remember screaming the maracas off my F650GS just to keep up with them from Wasilla to Dawson City, Yukon, and back to Fairbanks.
With the full-throttle eagerness of two Alaskan road-trip newbies, Jason and I jumped straight onto the George Parks Highway from the Fishhook Fatties’ base located on the northern point of Cook Inlet in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. As day ones go on any impromptu motor-
cycle journey, my expectations comprised no more than finding my stride and settling into the saddle. Little did I know what lay in store: an Alaskan’s Alaska astride two wheels.
Out of the captivity that can be felt in cities – Alaska’s second-largest city being no exception – we all but raced out of town, northwest up the Elliott Highway. Our starting point for the 240 km munch to Manley Hot Springs via an old gold-rush route that gave us views of the vast Minto Flats and, on rare occasion, North America’s highest peak, Mount Denali,
at 6,200 metres; otherwise known as “
the Great One,” 320 km to the south.
Having fallen out of favour with Lady Luck, the rain drizzled relentlessly the entire way to Manley Hot Springs. We trudged our way through the calcium chloride sludge with some artful slides thrown in for good measure – it’s like riding on snot over marbles. I was on high alert, with backside muscles poised for a long cardio workout and my lips set to pursed.
What was I expecting on Pearl, my hefty F650GS, laden at 240 kg with luggage? I scrabbled, lost control and groused watching my wheels flinging manes of spray everywhere; I should’ve long ago embraced “less is more” on a bike ride from Argentina, where size matters off-road.
Having located a drier section, I shelved the dampened spirits for a sunny interval and went for it with a handful of throttle – I admit, I was amped. Failing to realize when we’d reunited with the viscous malevolence, I scared myself silly at 100 km/h as I squirmed in a mire mid-corner. “What the *@&?!” I cussed, careening horribly toward a ditch – my brain unable to gauge the speed. Language disappeared, and for a split second I prayed in a soft high-pitched lament any human listener would’ve termed a yelp. “Oh my God, I forgot who I was!” eventually emerged, exhilarated as much as frightened. That’s the problem with Lady Luck: she can turn her back at any hairy moment.
Those paired to my intercom roared in recognition of the self-induced blunder. It gave me a lift somehow. It’s mysterious how comfort arrives; the guys riding with us had calmed my shaken spirit. That’s the Fishhook Fatties for you: full of enormous energy that pops up to inject hilarity every mile of the way.
Kicking the side stands down and now caked in mud, we observed a charming Post-It Note-sized village on the banks of the Tanana River. Just outside of Manley Roadhouse, a fine-eating establishment and roofed accommodation, we pegged the Dome Sweet Dome on a public campground (near the bridge over Manley Slough) to a regiment of twin-engine skeeters rushing to meet and greet us at full tempo. Having ditched the motorcycle gear, our newly exposed skin must have looked ripe for the feasting. With a smooth Alaskan IPA in hand, we jumped straight into the spring-fed baths, keeping the winged assailants at bay and our muscles set to soaking.
The next dawn brought a win in the road surface lottery and a pleasant morning accompanied by lovely swaths of afternoon where we rode on dry satin all the way back to Fairbanks. Around 320 paved kilometres on the connecting Richardson Highway deposited us in a sea of bikers, courtesy of Thompson’s Eagle’s Claw Motorcycle Campground in Tok. It’s a popular choice for riders of any discipline. While the place is a forest of intimate snuggeries, the day rapidly becomes an amphitheatre of motorcycle noise filled with the unmistakable camaraderie that springs from the fellowship of the road. Sated on a mean Alaskan breakfast of reindeer sausage at Fast Eddy’s the following morning, and with no snot on marbles in sight, Mother Nature afforded us optimal conditions in which to wend our way out of Tok to Tetlin Junction, an easy 160 km on the Taylor Highway to the start of the Top of the World Highway.
Magnificently, riding in such a direction will bestow a further 300 km of beautifully paved and sometimes loose gravelly road connecting Tok with Dawson in the Yukon. Dust 2 Dawson If you haven’t heard about Dust 2 Dawson (D2D), you’re in for a treat. Just trace a line on the map to Dawson, hop on your moto in June and start riding. If you can, try not to rush at getting there, for a ride both rewarding and nurturing is likely to appear. Rock up to Dawson, but just don’t call it a rally. Despite such a disclaimer, you’ll be in the thick of an atmosphere abuzz with the boundless joy and warmth that is D2D. The backstory starts with three unassuming fellows: John (Cash) Register, Jim Coleman and Mike (Fighter) Stein. Dating back to 1992, D2D was loosely concocted over a few pints in Dawson’s Midnight Sun, a hotel bar where the trio first met. As Fighter recounts, an 800 km road trip between the amigos up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik was set in motion, during which Coleman and Cash deviated to Eagle, Alaska. Awed by the place, a pact was made that when one of them passed away, the other would return to the North Country with the ashes of the departed. Devastatingly, when Coleman was hit on his R1200GS by a Suburban in 1994, Cash re-enacted their road trip a year later. Kilometre for kilometre, he dismounted his bike at the same pit stops, refuelled at the same cafés and drank another cold one at the Midnight Sun, all the while carrying Coleman in the tank bag.
The dusty route to Dawson gained momentum annually, magnetizing many to pay their respects, come together and celebrate. Hosted by “Dawson Dick” and his wife, the 400-strong motorcycle event we attended in 2016 comprised three days of biker festivities, local charity fundraising and on-the-fly poker playing. After perhaps the liveliest non-rallies I’ve experienced, the return road to Tok beat backward under us. Peeling away from the Fishhook Fatties, I arose the next day muddy-eyed, having burnt the candle down to a nub. Wending out of Tok, Jason and I rode into a peevish wind toward the Dalton Highway. The last leg north until we run out of road. Lady Luck I’d somehow curried favour with Lady Luck again, as an uncharacteristically dry Dalton guided us for a glorious 400 km as we soared along on the dirt from Fairbanks, up the Dalton Highway to Wiseman, just 20 km from Coldfoot (the last place to gas up), and the halfway point to Prudhoe Bay. Sunrays gleamed down from the sky, and inevitably the landscape took on a raw, peculiar beauty: a bleak and unadorned Wuthering Heights quality. The only feature vying for our attention was the pipeline that followed us all the way from Fairbanks to the top.
That, and Atigun Pass across the Brooks Range – where the Dalton crosses the Continental Divide – which holds a strong resemblance to the iconic peaks found in Patagonia, Scotland or New Zealand. Take your pick – it’s impressive. Jason did let it slip, though, that he was starting to feel cheated by northern Alaska’s bluebird skies and optimal riding conditions, which are usually pretty unstable. “Really?” my eyes rolling to the top of my head. We carried on watching out for Dall’s sheep grazing on the upper slope, a herd of caribou crossing our path and bald eagles overhead. What a treat to see a family of muskox to boot, standing unperturbed in the grasses. It’s true what they say: Alaska has two seasons – winter and construction. Inching closer toward Prudhoe Bay treated me to a white-knuckle ride on a loose section of road under construction. If I got to cruise beneath warm sunny skies to this point, I’ve at least got to earn my spurs on the last smidgeon of it.
A stratagem came to me, like a god thundering in my head: just keep riding. I’ve surmised that after logging more than 76,500 km, my journey on Pearl was set to continue as a great enterprise of balance. Feeling good, we fly; feeling otherwise, we nosedive – oftentimes rather bluntly. Hurray! We’d Made It. Damn I Felt Good! Where there’s pinnacle pleasure, there’s Prudhoe Bay. There was a lot of time up here but not much to spend it on. Just like the road to get there, the memories of Alaska will calcify, and you won’t experience it without feeling you’ve blossomed many friendships, forged some intoxicating new ones and deposited heavily in the good times bank. For me, that’s riding with the Fishhook Fatties. Summer days I’ll remember as cloudless, the air gold and pumped with the excitement. An undeniable sense that making it this far, which had touched the vanishing point, mattered little. It was just part of the pathway astride two wheels to something else, a blissful elation. If “ecstasy” means the delicious intrusion of the wonderful into the ordinary, then it had just happened to me.