Decision Time for Prudhoe Bay!

We crawled along in the smoke. The road stayed good. The fire changed direction yet again and the highway was no longer under threat. Up ahead the border loomed in the gloom. A friendly official waves us in. We made it! We are finally here in Alaska!!! But we can’t see a damned thing with all this smoke. Maggie has a grin on her chops you wouldn’t believe and there was even a tear or two in both out eyes as pulled in for gas just across the border. We got off the bikes and had a huge celebratory hug. We met a large troop of Harley riders headed south. None of them could believe or comprehend our journey; that we’d ridden the two wee bikes here all the way here from Chile. 30,000 miles. 14 months road time. Neither could we.

Fortunately the smoke cleared about 15 miles up the road as we rode to Tok for a celebratory cuppa. Tok was actually named after a Husky pup mascot owned by one of the US Army Engineers back in 1942 when the Alcan was being built. Along the way I had another wildlife encounter in the form of a mother moose, her mouth stuffed full of vivid Fireweed, come charging out of the brush at the side of the road followed by her calf. Mum charged straight across the road and disappeared into the opposite tree line but the calf for some reason tried to outrun me along the road. She took off full-pelt up the road with her legs flying in all directions like an amateur roller-skater and I chased after her for 30 yards or so until she realised where Mum had gone and likewise charged off into the brush. We rode on to Delta Junction – the official end of the Alaskan Highway for some celebratory photos at the terminal marker. We now rode south down the Richardson Highway – a very scenic road flanked by the Alaskan Range of mountains into increasingly grey weather. By the end of the road it was pouring down but we didn’t mind as we had our sites set on a cosy motel and a big slap-up dinner with beer & wine galore at a little place called Glennallen – a right proper celebration for our big arrival in Alaska. We pulled up at the Caribou Inn. It looked OK but the $139 rate knocked us flat. We went for another look at the local tourist office, which was useless, only to confirm that this was the only place with rooms. A local dignitary had died and there was a big Potlatch being held to celebrate his life so most of the accommodation was gone. We had no idea what if any accommodation lay between here and Anchorage, the tourist info ladies didn’t really know and it seemed a bad idea to go on any further. It was tipping out of the heavens so we rode back to the Caribou and got $10 off the rate. The room was OK but would have been expensive at $75 down in the lower 48. We had also found out that Glennallen is also host to a big bible college and that most of the staff in the hotel were attendees. This one horse town possesses no less than 6 churches and we were dismayed to find that the bible in our room had been left open at a selected verse. I hate this sort of thing and we were both feeling increasingly uncomfortable in this weird place. Anyway, shower then dinner and that beer and wine! That’ll soon fix things. The first part went well – that was the shower. It was all downhill after that. Now we find that thanks to the local Bible bashers, there is no alcohol in the town not even at the grocery store and when we asked for it we were met with horrified and bemused stares. OK what about a nice dinner? Never, ever eat in a restaurant staffed by kids. Especially if they are of the rosy cheeked Sunday school variety. We both ordered Chicken fried steak. A piece of meat of indeterminate species appeared looking like it had been starved, taken out the back for a good hiding, thrown around the kitchen floor before being fried to death. It was covered in a grey goo that was offered as gravy. Veg, straight out of the tin and then boiled to tasteless death. Reheated potatoes that tasted revolting. School dinners or food at the worst ever works canteen was never this bad. We did try it but it was utterly revolting – the worst food in North America, no; the worst food of the entire trip – no; the worst food we’ve ever been offered anywhere in our whole lives – yes that was it. We left our slop and settled instead for a bag of Doritos from the local supermarket. Some celebration! By morning the weather had improved offering splendid views of Mount Sanford on the road behind us. We didn’t fancy a Sunday School breakfast so we were up early and rode on down the Glenn Highway towards Anchorage. 35 miles down the road we pulled in at a little wooden cabin for a glorious and delicious breakfast. They had a superb bar and restaurant with wooden cabins out the back for a fraction of what we paid last night. If only we had known…

The Glenn Highway to Anchorage was another stunner of a road. To our right we ran past a line of stunted Spruce so typical of this part of the world but to our left we had the mega mountains of the Alaskan Coastal Range, festooned with snow caps and monster glaciers, most of it inaccessible from the road. It formed a pleasing backdrop for our morning ride but sadly the grey skies returned when we reached the big city to the point where we entered it in a deluge. It was early afternoon so we had time to ride around and find somewhere to stay. Anchorage is a huge place – 250,000 people live here and accommodation can be pricey. We noted a place called the Anchor Inn offering rooms at $59 a night – sounded good. We pulled in to an empty parking lot in the centre of a 3-storey block of jaded motel rooms that had all the feel of a tenement block. A heavily tattooed Harley biker bloke was fixing the lock on a door that had obviously been smashed in. He was the maintenance guy and got chatty about our bikes & our trip. It emerged that the Anchor Inn had been a crack den that they were trying to clean up, as it had a good location on the edge of downtown. The bikes should be OK, but chain them together and don’t leave anything lying around. Time to look for someplace else to stay. We had a casualty today. Our little Canon Ixus Camera, that has served us so brilliantly throughout the trip to date, got waterlogged when I left it in my jacket pocket. I thought it would be OK but the rain was horrific and my jacket outer was thoroughly soaked, the little camera with it. In our hotel room I powered it on. The lens emerged halfway and stuck and it has been there ever since so we’ve given it up for dead. We still have our new digital SLR but the Ixus was brilliant for slipping in your pocket when you’re just headed out for a short walk and for using on the bike for quick snaps of things along the way. Anchorage BMW replaced the fork seals. They were quite good, letting me do most of the work to keep costs down and we were impressed by the standard of service there compared to other US BMW dealers. We were also delighted to discover that there is good food to be had in Alaska and it wasn’t all Glennallen standard. We had our celebration at a place called the Orso and ate some really fine food there – Sockeye Salmon, Halibut, Scallops, Side Stripe Prawns, all served with a cashew nut salad on a bed of cous cous. Truly delish!

From Anchorage the road took us first south out to Seward, a little jewel of a town set at the end of the stunning Resurrection Sound. We rode out of Anchorage round Turnagain Arm, a lovely lazy road with stunning fjord like peaks everywhere past a place called Indian Creek where there was a touristy ‘Pan for Gold’ set up by the side of the road. A little further on we crossed Bird Creek and spotted a crowd in the creek. At first we thought it was more gold panning but then we noticed they were wearing waders and were actually fishing! This was our introduction to ‘Combat Fishing’ – an Alaskan spectacle, where an army of fishermen stand literally shoulder-to-shoulder and take on the mighty salmon horde. What a horrific sight! We always regarded, as most folk do, that fishing was one of the most relaxing and peaceful pastimes you could imagine. A quiet spot on the river, casting a line in the late afternoon sun with the hope of catching the odd fish for supper. A time for reflection and inner peace, not this caper. We hit Alaska right when the Salmon were in full run for their breeding grounds up the many rivers and tributaries that line the coast. It was an amazing spectacle and we saw it everywhere we stopped by running water. The fish come in from the sea where they have lived for the past 2 – 4 years depending on the species. Once mature, they return to the place where they were born in one of nature’s great animal migrations. When the Salmon hit fresh water they stop feeding and begin to slowly die, but not until they have swam back to their point of origin and reproduced. By the time they reach the spawning grounds, they have swum up fast flowing rivers, climbed natural waterfalls and man made fish ladders (around dams), all the while slowly starving to death and their bodies are in a horrible emaciated state by the time they reach their end with rotting fins, pulpy flesh, deformed eyes and so on. The female lays thousands of eggs in gravely riverbeds and the male fertilises them. The young salmon live in the river for a while and then swim out to sea and so the cycle continues. The quantities of fish involved are enormous. We read in the paper of a fierce debate concerning fishing on the Kenai River, which had been closed this season due to dwindling fish stocks. The fisheries agency wanted to rest the river to allow the fish a full year of uninterrupted breeding. They were monitoring the fish coming into the river using a Sonar counting device and in one day they counted 85,000 fish! On one river in one day in a season that can run from July through September and this is a depleted year! Multiply this by the number of rivers and creeks and you get an idea of the scale of the Salmon invasion. In the past there are chronicles from early explorers who wrote of rivers being so full of fish that you could no longer see the water, indeed it was almost possible to walk across without getting your feet wet. To catch Salmon, the fishermen need to get them just as they enter the river as once they stop feeding their bodies become inedible hence ‘Combat Fishing’! All these people, all these fish in one place, one concentration. Some folk set up camp and get the BBQ going, cleaning the fish for supper. It all attracts a very dangerous nuisance – Bears! Yes, this is Bear country and they have all of them – Black Bears, Brown Bears, Grizzlies (actually another name for the Brown Bear). Salmon spawning is fish harvest for the bears and all they have to do is wander down to the river and scoop as many fish as they want. So what could be easier? Well actually someone pulling the fish out of the river for you – then you don’t even have to get your feet wet! Summer is a busy feeding time for the bears. They need to store up on fat for the winter hibernation when food is scarce on the ground and the bears will actually put on up to 40% of their body weight in excess fat by the end of Salmon season. So this big concentration of fish and people attracts the bears down from the mountains for the easy pickings. There were photos in the Anchorage newspapers of guys fishing 20 or 30 feet from a Grizzly who was waiting patiently for the fisherman to land his catch. This is America so inevitably guns come into play! One story told how a group of fishermen were camped out at Bird Creek and were having to fend off curious bears. One guy pulled out his handgun and fired a few rounds into the night. When another fisherman complained at this rash action, he threatened to shoot him too! “There’s six bullets left in this here gun and one of them’s got your name on it”. The local sheriff was called (the whole episode was caught on video), the gunman had his gun removed and spent the night in a cell. They also confiscated his catch!

In Seward we learned a lot about fishing from a little guy from Colorado called Dan Burseth. He’d flown up for the Salmon season – a lot of people do. Catch a load of Salmon and Halibut – the other Alaskan fish of plenty – get them cleaned, filleted and freeze packed and you can set yourself up with enough fish to last 6 months! We wandered around the docks with Dan at the end of a day watching the fishermen unload their catches. 100lb halibut weren’t uncommon. Monsters from the deep with a twisted face so that both their eyes are on one side and a wicked looking mouth similarly skewed. But what fantastic eating! We walked back to our hotel a little in awe from our lessons in fishing and also from the majestic surroundings that line Resurrection Sound. Snow capped mountains by the dozen and glaciers were in danger of becoming a common sight. We walked past a row of lampposts. Atop the first stood a seagull, same with the next one, and the next. The next one had a Bald Eagle on it and then there were a few more with seagulls. Whoaa!!! – go back there – a Bald Eagle? We have seen a lot of wildlife in our travels but nothing had prepared us for this sight. Quite simply he was the most powerful, majestic and utterly stunning animal we have ever laid eyes on. His dark brown body with that white-hooded head and the way he looked at us. I felt like a target under the scope of a very experienced sniper with those two eyes boresighting on us down that wicked looking raptor beak. And he was just sitting there on top of a lamppost in a line of lampposts with seagulls on them. Of course the minute I drew my camera out he flew off… We spent a whole day on a boat trip round Kenai Fjords National Park. In beautiful weather with big billowy clouds, we skirted the coastal inlets that ran up to Aialik Bay and the enormous glacier of the same name. We saw more Bald Eagles, this time in proper surroundings with a nest and a chick. We saw Humpback Whales, Stellar Seals, Harbour Seals and thousands of seabirds. Puffins, Guillemots, Cormorants, Murres and lots of Gulls. We also saw a solitary Black Bear beachcombing along a lonely strand. The Aialik Glacier was fabulous too and it put on a full show for us with stupendous displays of iceberg calving with all the attendant ice show special effects. Highly recommended!

The road next took us out to Homer but bad weather dogged our trip and we didn’t stay. That and the overcrowded, touristy Homer Spit, a long stony finger jutting out into the Fjord, put us off. We rode back to Anchorage where we picked up a new Pentax Optio W10 camera to replace our dead Ixus. The little Pentax is slim but more importantly waterproof down to 5m and would serve us well over the rest of the trip. The bad weather cleared as we rode north to Denali National Park. We passed a couple of viewpoints along the road but the big mountain (the biggest in all of North America) wouldn’t show herself to us. We had a great day hiking up to the Healy Ridge overlook with fine weather and the rock formations along the ridgeline combined with some great vistas to make the uphill walk really special and worthwhile. Access to Denali is limited. There are 11 miles of paved roads and you have to take a bus along the main gravel road if you wish to go further into the interior. It’s expensive and the idea of bouncing along on a bus to the end of the road and back wasn’t particularly appealing. So we were delighted when we found out about a Ranger led ‘Discovery Trip’ into the Denali interior to a place called Cathedral Mountain. It sounded really exciting and we signed up then and there. We’d be taken by an experienced Ranger into an area rarely visited. In fact they only walked this trail twice per year and this was the second and last trip for 2006 so we might have to do a bit of bushwhacking as we blazed the trail. The hike was through bear country too and they are feeding on berries at the moment, which grow in abundance in the area, so we had to keep together as encounters could be a possibility. We had to bring sandals as we had a wet river crossing to tackle with water likely to be up over our knees. We couldn’t wait! We were up at 5am – didn’t want to sleep in. Rode 6 miles to McKinley Village, where we had a disgusting egg and bacon roll ‘thing’ for breakfast at the local Subway. We were at the Denali Bus Station in the Park for 8am to meet the rest of our group – a family of 5 from the Mid-West on vacation, a camera buff/bore from Boston and a very pleasant little Vietnamese girl who had done some work for the Park Ranger service. We left the station to pick up our Ranger Guide from the Ranger HQ along the way. We were horrified when the bus stopped and this obese kid in a Park Rangers uniform got on. She was a nice kid but quite honestly she didn’t look as if she could walk the length of herself (in fact this was probably shorter than walking round her). In her introduction, we found out she’d never been to the area where we were hiking. She relied on the bus driver to pick a good spot to drop us off along the road. We scrambled down an overgrown incline onto a well-marked trail and that was all the bushwhacking out of the way. Within about 10 minutes of setting off, we met two other groups of hikers and found that this area is a well-known trail. We were trying desperately to keep an open mind but this was getting worse and worse. Next up, that river crossing. The sandals stayed dry as we used some stepping-stones to traverse a bubbling brook. In fact a little ways upstream and we could have almost jumped across. The Boston Bore had advanced from irritating to annoying. I had a Canon, he had a Nikon. He proceeded to educate us along the trail with his entire photographic knowledge and we had a series of lectures on f-stops, depths of field, lens performance, battery life and so on ad tedium. He liked to travel but did so alone as his wife wasn’t interested and he had no like-minded friends (I wonder why?). We made the mistake of telling him about our trip and he was confused at how somebody so young could afford it. We tried to enlighten him that doing a trip like this is all about setting your priorities in life. If you really want to do something then you will always fin a way. We weren’t special and anyone could do a trip like ours it if they really wanted to. But he wasn’t listening. He fished for our ages as we were obviously too young to retire and all but asked us how much the trip cost. I think in the end he simply decided we must have been millionaires or lottery winners. He’d had a child late in life and it saddened me when he discussed his young daughter as a financial burden and hence the reason why he couldn’t do a long trip. We couldn’t get away from him quick enough. Back on the trail, our tubby little Ranger did point out a few interesting facts on some of the flora along the way and we did find some bear poo once, but after about 35 minutes of walking (the road where we started was never that far away) we stopped for lunch. Our picnic site overlooked a beautiful river valley. Way down below I spotted a bear and her cub, barely visible foraging along the river valley and we viewed them with binoculars whilst chomping on our sandwiches. “Well, better be heading back in case that bear decides to come this way”. And that was our Ranger lead ‘Discovery Hike’. To be fair the hike was free, we only had to pay for the bus ride, but ultimately it was a waste of time. Back at the road we were able to pick up a bus heading further into the park and lose both our Ranger (who was a nice kid but totally unsuited to this job) and the Boston Bore who were both headed back to base. The rest of the park was quite beautiful and we saw Grizzlies – a mum and 3 cubs – feeding on berries along the road. We also saw lots of Caribou, but the bus thing didn’t do it for us even with good drivers who were very informative and chatty and stopped for all the wildlife viewings.

From Denali we rode north through the small town of Healy, close to the spot where Chris McCandless left the road to die a lonely and horrible death from starvation in an abandoned bus just inside Denali. We’d read about this in John Krakauer’s amazing book “Into the Wild” before the trip. Butterflies were gathering in our stomachs as we rode north to Fairbanks. Here we had a big decision to make on whether we would attempt the road on up to Deadhorse / Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean, 450 miles of gravel and mud, each way. Since Maggie had crashed in Argentina at the start of the trip, breaking her elbow, and following several other lesser tumbles we had shied away from bad roads whenever we could as both of us had had our confidence in off-road riding severely shaken. We had completed our main objective of riding from Chile to Alaska, so why spoil it by having another spill or mishap trying to do something we weren’t particularly adept at? But still, we’d travelled to Tierra Del Fuego. We had gone as far south as we possibly could and there was a draw, a pull on us, to get as far north as possible. We’d had a jumble of reports on the road condition from good hard packed dirt with paved sections to mud nightmares through horrible roadwork sections that would trash the bike. The question of whether we could get to the top had plagued us all the way – now we would find out for sure!


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