Wide Awake in Alaska

Feeling catatonic? There's no better cure than a trip to the far north

There are periods of time during our adult lives when we need to spend more energy doing what we should do instead of what we want to do. I see that. We go through periods where we don't even notice days, weeks, even months as they swirl by, so much tepid water under the aged bridge. It sucks. But it's also probably necessary that we're bored at least part of the time, don't you think? Otherwise there wouldn't be anything to weigh our excitement against.

Recently I came face to face with how utterly pathetic my middle-aged plodding has become. The acknowledgment zinged me like a nine-volt on the tongue while I was standing in line at the Seattle airport to board a plane bound for Anchorage, Alaska.

"Alaska!" my wilted brain suddenly screamed out. "I'm going to freaking Alaska to ride motorcycles!" And then the choir sang and I noticed my heartbeat for the first time in months.

Friends and family who knew I was headed for a five-day dual-sport adventure tour of Alaska's most beautiful back roads must have been baffled by my unenthused retorts. "No, I'm not excited, I've got a magazine to get out. No, it won't be any fun because it's going to rain the whole time. The mosquitoes...the missed meetings...(the morose chip on my shoulder might fall off and throw me off balance. I could have too much fun and never sit still again)." After all, a motorcycle ride in Alaska turned me wild once, and it took years to recover. It could happen again.

"Bring it on!" I thought as I peered out the jet's window at the seemingly endless crests and folds of the Pacific Northwestern landscape. "Let there be adventure!"

I was scheduled for a tour with Phil Freeman's Alaska Rider Tours, a somewhat newbie outfit that offers custom and organized dual-sport journeys and cruiser-style street rides. The Web site promised my endeavor would include winding paved highways and less-traveled dirt roads as well as stunning mountains and glacial scenery "as far as the eye can see." I got off the plane feeling like a pallid office zombie among the crowd of robust, red-cheeked sportsmen there to fish and hunt, kayak and climb mountains.

Nonetheless jubilant, I found my way to a crazy little B&B; in Anchorage called The Earth, which is really the almost charming, ramshackle home of an outspoken Norwegian Amazon named Margarite who has a sign over the kitchen sink that says, "I am not your mother!" That was most helpful since I might have been confused when she nagged me to take off my shoes and pick up my towel. One by one I met my tour mates as they arrived at The Earth--the expectedly pleasant group of easygoing motorcyclists looking for a little zest in life. Alaska Rider Tours offers a variety of options ranging from five-day stints like mine for those "short on time" (sigh) to full-blown, two-week adventures or self-guided tours. For the dual-sport trips you can choose between riding a Kawasaki KLR650 or a Suzuki DR650, or you can slip Freeman some extra cash to saddle up a BMW F650GS, R1150GS or GS Adventure. The bikes we had were, er, well used. Word has it the outfit scored a whole stable of brand-new bikes for the 2004 season.

After bidding a hasty adieu to Margarite, we motored off in a chilling drizzle. (Note: For a less neurotic vibe, opt to stay across the street at the affordable Lanai Tower, as I did on our return.) Freeman provides a chase vehicle on his tours, so we didn't need to schlep our stuff around or strap bags onboard and worry about the tighty whities getting wet. The bikes are equipped with saddlebags, though, so you can tote your sundries and the extra layers you'll need when the weather changes...and it will. Late June through early September is the time to ride in Alaska, but even then, it could snow as easily as break 70 degrees.

Our first day's ride took us north along the snaking coastline and up sweeping U.S. Highway 3 into the mountains toward Mount McKinley and the astonishing wilderness of Denali National Park and Preserve. When you're in Alaska you'll notice that no one calls the tallest totem in North America by the 25th president's name, but rather by its original moniker, Denali, which means "the great one" in native Tlingit-speak. But that's OK because you probably won't get to see McKinley anyway. Seems the giant is enveloped in clouds some 250-plus days per year and tourists almost always head home without the slightest glimpse. That's why they post so many photos and drawings at the overlooks. "If you could see this great mountain, here's what it would look like..."

In fact, it was my third time staring into the thick white curtain in the general direction of McKinley, er, Denali, so I felt like an old pro. One thing you are likely to see on any trek to Alaska is an abundance of zoo-quality wildlife. Moose, I say, with all their movable enormity, can be just as impressive as mountains. I find them especially stirring when they pop out onto the roadway at dusk.

That first day was a feast for my haggard spirit. By the time I crawled under the covers I was tingling with a renewed sense of wonder. Alaska is so intensely remote--so unfathomably empty--it can do no less than fascinate. Could anyone ever return from a trip to the extreme north to say, "Yeah, it was OK..."?

Dirty Day, Double Heaven
Day two of our ride was an illustration of the term "extremes," which is actually a synonym for "weather" in Alaska. The famous Denali Highway is a 130-mile stretch of mostly ragged dirt road that connects the national park to the state's interior Highway 2. Built atop actual tundra, the Denali route crosses the most profoundly beautiful backcountry you can possibly imagine. Unfortunately, state budget cuts last year cost the legendary highway its maintenance funds. It won't be long before the road is impassable by straight street machines. I'd ridden the highway on heavyweight cruisers in 1999 (harrowing, even back then), and I imagined that passage on midsized dual-sport machines would be cake. More like mud pie, as it turned out, with rain and darkness thrown in the mix. An absolutely epic ride, though--the kind that you remember like your first car or favorite kiss. In truth, we wouldn't have reached the Gracious House hunting lodge on two wheels that night if the bikes had been any less able. Instead of conquering the devilish storm, we would have been forced to load our machines onto the chase trailer halfway through the ride (some did) and miss the pure exhilaration that rewards survivors of such cold and grievous missions. It was one of those "never have ham-and-cheese sandwiches tasted so good" moments you can't buy, steal or even induce with narcotics.

A night at the Gracious House lodge is an Alaskan adventure unto itself. Although dilapidated, the eclectic doily-ridden atmosphere of the huntsmen's haven is undeniably charming. We slid into the family owned, jerry-rigged camp well after dark. Dripping wet and obnoxiously elated, we proceeded straight from the bikes to the establishment's trailer-cum-bar, the "Sushi Box," and devoured everything in sight. We wrote on dollar bills and tacked them to the ceiling as we compared pothole-by-pothole accounts of the day. Finally we crawled into our rustic cabins and slept harder than spent puppies.

By morning the storm had broken like ice on a pale blue pond and we rode off into the most scenic day yet. The remainder of the Denali Highway was glorious, with McLaren Summit being the literal and metaphorical high point of our travels through the Alaskan interior. Turning away from the Alaska Range and off the slippery dirt highway, we headed south on Highway 3 through a blanket of autumn-gold aspens, Mt. Wrangell off the port shoulder, its snowcapped peak dazzling against the perfect sky.

The Haunting
Freeman let us know well in advance that our third night's stop, the Copper Center Lodge, was home to a ghost. He even had the Haunted Alaska guidebook to prove it. It all started Christmas Eve about 80 years ago when one of the lodge's patrons, Don Green, went mum on the couch in the middle of the festivities. Seems it took awhile for the revelers to realize the guy was dead. Worse yet, it was in the middle of a god-awful snowstorm and there was no way to transport his remains...so they put him in a shed out back. You know what they say about the spirits of bodies not properly put to rest. And guess who got the room the mistreated Mr. Green most frequently haunts? It's told he has a habit of coming in and sitting on the edge of the bed, causing the snoozing guest to wake in a panic. I woke up in a panic all right, but I think it was the halibut casserole haunting me, not the ghost.

The next day was our last on the road and I was starting to feel the bite of reality. How great it is to escape on two wheels, huh? I believe one reason it's so deeply relaxing is because we are completely removed from the parade of everyday tasks. The senses can be left to wander over the scenery while the subconscious does a cleansing sweep of the attic. There's no conversation to make, except with yourself. No phone calls, bills, treadmills...you get the idea.

The last astonishing memory we made on this Alaskan adventure was at the Kennicott Glacier, about an hour northwest of downtown Anchorage. I'd gazed, fascinated, at the living, moving ice masses from the plane, yet at ground level I could fathom their enormity even less. Did you know that glaciers cover 10 percent of Earth's surface? If they all melted, Kentucky would have a coastline. The facts don't beat getting up close, though. It was challenging jumping across the calving chunks and crevasses in motorcycle boots, but those first steps on an actual iceberg won't be forgotten.

Fresh Start
At the airport I felt like a different person. My just-crawled-out-from-under-the-desk pallor had been replaced by an outdoorsy glow. What's more, I could hardly wipe the smile off my face. I wasn't sure how long the high would last, but I was certain of one thing--I needed to get off my lazy bum and do more touring. It's too easy to get complacent and miss the years that are prime for searching out dreams and small-town diners. We say we're too busy. We believe we'll have time later. But what if that's what Don Green was thinking right before they rolled him into that shed behind the Copper Center Lodge? Trust me, it's time to get the wheels turning.

It will haunt you if you don't.

Tour: Denali Highway Adventure Tour
Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Tour Company: Alaska Rider Tours
Contact Info: (800) 756-1990; (907) 783-1990; www.akrider.com
Cost: $3200-$3800
Tour Includes: Bikes, fuel, meals, accommodations, support truck
Time Required: 5-7 days
Riding Season: May-September
Avg. Mileage: 180 miles per day
Critters: Caribou, moose, bear, eagles, salmon
Gear & Goodies: Long underwear, heavy gloves, rain gear, electric vest
Other Activities: Whitewater kayaking, rafting, ice climbing, hiking, fishing, backpacking, float-plane tours
Roads: 4 stars
Scenery: 5 stars
Eats: 3 stars
Digs: 2 stars
Bikes: 2 stars

Backcountry the Easy Way
Riding ATVs in the Wilds of Alaska

By Lee Klancher

Just after the turn of the century, explorer John Muir let his dog lead him into a fierce Alaskan storm. That stubborn canine carried Muir on an adventure he later described as "the most memorable of all my wild days."

If ever there were a land where you might consider following your dog, muse or urge to see the wilds, Alaska would have to be our continent's leading candidate. The state's vast expanses of wilderness host the continent's highest peak, largest landmass and one of the smallest populations. Of course, if you lack the time and energy required to follow Sparky into the state's backcountry, you might want to consider a milder but still happily adventurous trip on an ATV. Chris Maynard of Alaska All Terrain Tours proved to be an ideal guide, and he didn't stop to pee on every tree, either.

For a couple hundred bucks, Maynard will take you into the backcountry for a day-long tour of the Anchorage area's stunning Knik Valley. Custom tours are also available. The one-day adventure we sampled combines enough stunning scenery and awesome off-road riding to leave you breathless. We met Maynard outside his shop in Anchorage, and loaded our gear into his 15-passenger van with light rain falling from a heavy, overcast sky. Despite the rather bleak conditions, Maynard was optimistic. "When it comes to weather in Alaska," he explained. "You don't know until you go." Maynard and his riding buddies call the rare clear, cloudless days in Alaska a "Code Blue." That's all they say over the phone in the morning. "Code Blue! Code Blue!" They already know where to meet--the trail head where we unloaded our Polaris Sportsman machines for our own semi-Code Blue adventure.

These modern ATVs are a joy to ride, with long-travel suspension, ample power and quick, accurate steering. We tested our machines' capabilities on the twisting hard-packed trail peppered with dips and humps that had our group of mostly beginner riders bouncing over puddles, sliding out of turns and, of course, giggling wildly. This initial tree-shrouded section spilled out into the Knik Glacier Valley, a flat, mile-wide plain of glacial silt crisscrossed with ice-cold, steel-gray runoff streams. The trail crossed these streams a half-dozen times during the two- to three-hour ride to the glacier.

The open sections of the plain were desertesque, allowing us to get the ATVs up to 30 or 40 mph and toss off long broadslides across the barren terrain. After about an hour of blasting across the open valley, the trail took us back into the woods. These winding, two-track trails offer short hill climbs, some off-camber turns and mud holes to splash through. After about 30 minutes on this trail, you spill back out into the valley for the final run to the Knik Glacier. The glacier is visible for most of the ride, and always appears deceptively close. Even when it looked close enough to hit with a rock, the ride to the face required another 45 minutes of careful maneuvering across the ice-warped landscape. Finally, at the head of the valley, we reached a 30-foot-high pile of glacial till.

Maynard stopped us as we arrived at the base of this mound. "Put it in four-wheel-low and follow me," he said. We did as he suggested and chugged along behind him up a steep, short trail leading up the ridge. As we crested the top, we were treated to an absolutely breathtaking view of the glacier spilling out of the Chugach Range's snowcapped peaks, with RV-sized chunks of glacial ice floating in the lake created by the massive meltdown. We took in the stunning view as Maynard served snacks and regaled us with stories of Alaskan adventures.

The ride home looped across the dark gray bed of wet glacial silt only a few hundred yards from the glacier. The soil has a crust on top with soft mud underneath. As we drove across the cracked, damp surface, the crust bent and bowed. This tricky soil will stick an ATV solidly if you slow down. Don't ask us how we know.

We later heard stories of people who got stuck in similar goo in the wide tidal plain near Anchorage. This is a fate to be avoided, as the tide will drown these unfortunates when it comes in, and we gasped as we heard stories of people being pulled apart by helicopters trying to extract them from the muck.

Happily, we got away from the glacial mud and Knik Valley in one piece, which was more than enough adventure for one day. All on Maynard's tour agreed that this is a terrific way to see some of Alaska's stunning backcountry. We recommend it without reservation to anyone of any riding level. Don't let your dog talk you out of it.

Tour: Backcountry Explorer Six-Hour Tour
Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Tour Company: Alaska All Terrain Tours
Contact Info: (907) 868.7669, (888) 414.7669, www.atv-alaska.com
Cost: $139 for four-hour tour, $219 for six-hour tour (two-person minimum)
Tour Includes: ATVs, helmet, fuel, guide, snacks
Time Required: One day
Riding Season: May-November (through December if snow holds off)
Trails: 5 stars
Scenery: 4 stars
Bikes: 4 stars


Ah, yes, Alaska. The last great wilderness the United States can claim as its own. And in that lies the beauty of touring there. You're still at home. There's no language barrier, no currency to exchange, no kilometers to calculate. It's as wild a ride as you've heard though, and a must-see motorcycle destination.

At least a little dirt riding experience is appropriate for Freeman's dual sport adventures. On our ride we had a few street-only types who didn't much enjoy the river crossings or rainy night roosting. Actually, a little dirt experience is important whether you're on this tour or on your own. Alaska is still such a wild place you'll find little has been done to tame it. The tiny string of paved roads is like kite string holding a grizzly bear. If you want to see the real backcountry, you're going to have to take some mining or logging roads. There is also constant roadwork going on in this state because of the permafrost. The roads have been built on ground that's always frozen, and so, constantly shifting and churning. You will find great portions of the road torn out each year. These are called "pavement breaks" and they are always dirty, and slippery as snot when it's raining.

You're biggest concern should be wildlife, however. Moose, caribou, bears, wolves, you'll see 'em all, and probably right in front of you. Slow down and stay alert. Don't ride when it's dark or when you're tired. Ambulances and tow trucks are a less common in Alaska than moose kills.

Phil provided guests with a map and information that was only so-so. What you need--whether you're on one of these tours or on your own--is a current edition of "The Milepost," available at amazon.com or any book store with a travel section. This is the bible for touring the Northwest Territories, and especially the Alaska Highway.

Bring them, of course. As many as you can muster. However, if you're not the social type, Alaska Riders' self-guided tour program may be the way to go. Freeman will pickup and drop at the airport, arrange your bike rental, provide information and detailed maps and even have your hotels pre-booked according to your preferences. But don't be fooled--you can do Alaska on your own too. I've ridden on the highway to Alaska and back and it was the trip of a lifetime. The only thing you might miss are some of the local charms known only to guides, and the obvious benefit of help if you have a problem.

Tourist Visa & Passport
If you ride the Alaskan Highway, a passport will be handy when you cross through Canada, but once you're back on American soil, you're as good as gold.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Freeman's Denali Adventure, if I'd had more time, I would have opted for the Prince William Sound version, which incorporates the Kenai Peninsula. Having sampled many organized tours I would have to say this one is a little homespun, but in the nice way. If you're looking for Edelweiss-level luxury and detail, you're not going to find it here. But if you want real flavor and don't mind a potential for surprises, you'll be right at home.

Alaska has many faces--all scenic, of course, and mostly snow covered. There are a few man-made distractions along the way though.
Bush pilots are plentiful, while the Denali Highway's only bar, "The Sluice Box," is a singular kind of experience. Thankfully, there's more than one outhouse.