Riding Alaska: The Final Frontier

After biking from the bottom of the planet to the top, Alaska stole Lisa Morris’ heart. Here’s how…

Skirting northeasterly around Denali National Park, I was hit with countless chevrons of snow-capped, glacial studded mountains in the Alaskan interior, my hunger for wild lands was going to be well nourished here. It was a sweet spot that seemed to me the very best of Alaskan wilderness allure. For us, it was the beginning of the end of a two-and-a-half-year road trip from the bottom of the planet to the top, the last frontier. 

Along the way, the fortuitous power of social media connected us with the Fishhook Fatties, a gregarious biking group from south-central Alaska whose ethos is ‘work hard, play hard’, at least during the summer months where daylight hours are in high demand. The Dust to Dawson (D2D) motorcycle event was just around the corner, so we jumped at the chance of joining them in June upon invitation. It was perfect timing before the final push up to Prudhoe Bay, the northernmost reaches by navigable road in the US. 

As day ones go on any motorcycle jaunt, my expectations comprised of no more than finding my stride in the saddle. Little did I know what lay in store, an Alaskan’s Alaska astride two wheels. When the clouds are not obscuring her (sometimes it’s completely out of view), Denali National Park’s centerpiece will do anything but disappoint from the George Parks Highway. As North America’s highest peak, Mount Denali towers above all at 6,190m and is otherwise known as The Great One. Settling into the dirt biking bliss that is the Denali Highway, all the way from Cantwell to Paxson, rapture flowed out of my body going headlong across the tundra. 

One of the most scenic wheelies in the world

Out of the captivity that can be felt in cities, a necessary evil that ensued for a quick resupply in Fairbanks, we all but raced northwest up the Elliott Highway, our starting point for the 156-mile jaunt to Manley Hot Springs via an old goldrush route, bestowing us with views of the vast Minto Flats that made us earn every sloppy mile. 

SIZE MATTERS 

Having fallen out of favour with Lady Luck, dark clouds raced through. I looked up and gave the sky a slit-eyed appraisal. Dark and tortured, it hammered down on us the entire way to Manley Hot Springs. Like riding on snot over marbles, we trudged our way through the calcium chloride with some artful slides thrown in for good measure. On high alert with the backside muscles poised for a long cardio workout, and my lips set to pursed. 

What was I expecting on Pearl, my hefty F650GS laden with luggage at 240kg? I scrabbled, lost control and watched as my wheels flung manes of spray everywhere. I should’ve embraced light and tight long ago, as size always matters offroad. Ho hum. 

Having located a drier section, I shelved the dampened spirits and smiled like the sun was coming out. It wasn’t, but I went for it with a handful of throttle. I admit, I was amped. Failing to realise when we’d reunited with the viscous malevolence, I scared myself silly at 60mph as I squirmed in a mire mid-corner. “What the..!” I cussed, careening horribly toward a ditch, my brain unable to gauge the speed at which enthusiasm outweighed skill. Language went away and for a split second I prayed in a soft high-pitched lament any human listener would’ve termed a dizzy yelp. “Oh my G-aw-d, I forgot who I was!” Taking a moment to stop my heart’s wild tattoo, thank goodness for adrenaline, I thought. 

The adventure capital of Alaska

To all yearnings, the sloppy passage ceased and, having prevailed, we struck gold. Kicking the side stands down, we observed a charming Post-It note village on the banks of the Tanana River. Just outside Manley Roadhouse, we pegged the Dome Sweet Dome in the campground to a regiment of twin-engine skeeters, rushing to meet and greet us at full tempo. Having ditched the riding gear, our newly exposed skin must have looked ripe for the feasting. Jumping straight into the spring-fed baths, we kept the winged assailants at bay and our muscles set to soaking. A heavenly antidote to the tough journey to get there. 

CAMARADERIE 

The next dawn brought an unexpected win in the road surface lottery, and a pleasant morning accompanied by lovely swaths of afternoon where we rode the same route on dry satin all the way back to Fairbanks. Then, around 180 paved miles on the connecting Richardson Highway leading onto the Alaska Highway deposited us in a sea of bikers, courtesy of Thompson’s Eagle’s Claw Campground at Tok. It’s a favorable choice for riders of any discipline, but particularly popular for bikers en route to D2D. While the place is a forest of intimate snuggeries, the day rapidly became an amphitheater of motorcycle noise filled with the unmistakable biking camaraderie that springs from the fellowship of the road. 

Cordial relations established with my stomach from a Fast Eddies breakfast of reindeer sausage the following morning, and with no snot on marbles in sight, the day saw us make our way out of Tok just down the road to Tetlin Junction. With favorable conditions on our side, the Taylor Highway saw us ride 60 beautifully paved miles before it turned to a good dirt road the remaining way to the border. Magnificently, riding the Top of the World Highway in such a direction will bestow a further 115-miles of partially paved, but mostly reconstructed, chip seal and sometimes challenging gravelly roads connecting us with Dawson in the Yukon. 

There are few words that can do the Alaskan landscape justice

DUST 2 DAWSON 

If you haven’t heard about D2D, you’re in for a treat. Just trace a line on the map to Dawson, hop on your motorcycle 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 unfold. 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 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 concocted over a few pints in Dawson’s Midnight Sun, a hotel bar where the trio first met. As Fighter recounts, a 500-mile 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 died, 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 reenacted their road trip a year later. Mile for mile, he dismounted at the same pit stops, refueled at the same cafes and drank another cold one at The Midnight Sun, while carrying Coleman in the tank bag. The dusty route to Dawson gained momentum, magnetising many to pay their respects, come together and celebrate.

D2D’s 24th anniversary saw riders sign in from 20 U.S. states and six countries. Hosted by ‘Dawson Dick’ and his wife, the 400-strong motorcycle event 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 reluctantly away from the Fishhook Fatties, I arose the next day muddy-eyed, having burnt the candle down to a nub. Winding out of Tok, we rode into a peevish wind via Fairbanks towards the Dalton. The last leg north until we ran out of road.

DALTON HIGHWAY 

I’d somehow carried favour with Lady Luck again, as an uncharacteristically dry Dalton Highway guided us for a glorious 248-miles. Gliding along a good dirt road from Fairbanks to Wiseman, just 12-miles from Coldfoot—the last place to gas up and the halfway point to Prudhoe Bay. 

The landscape took on a raw, peculiar beauty with a bleak Wuthering Heights quality. The only feature vying for our attention being the pipeline that followed us all the way from Fairbanks to the top. That, and Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, where the Dalton crosses the Continental Divide, which holds a strong resemblance to the prominent peaks of Patagonia, Scotland or New Zealand. Take your pick, it’s impressive. 

Jason did let it slip he felt a little cheated by Alaska’s bluebird skies and the perfect riding conditions that are usually pretty unstable. “Really?” I said, my eyes rolling to the top of my head. Blissfully happy myself, I carried on watching out for Dall sheep grazing on the upper slope, a herd of caribou crossing our path and bald eagles overhead. It was a treat to see a family of musk ox in the grasses to boot. 

It’s true what they say, Alaska has two seasons: winter and construction. Inching closer towards Prudhoe Bay, gifted me to a white-knuckle ride on a loose section of road under construction. If I’m going 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. 

Satisfying the need for dirt

I’ve surmised that after 47,550 miles, my journey on Pearl was set to continue as a great enterprise of balance: she imparts to the gravel a generosity of spirit and while urging me to relax and let go, frequently saves me from myself. Aided on the Dalton’s loose stuff by bumping into Lyndon Poskitt, a Brit that races the bike on which he travels, instilled a ‘cock of the walk’ hubris in me that I didn’t know I possessed. 

Hurray! We’d made it. Damn I felt good! 

Where there’s pinnacle pleasure, there’s Prudhoe Bay. Just like the road to get there, your 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. Summer days I’ll remember as cloudless, the air gold and pumped with the excitement. 

An undeniable sense that having made it this far, I may have touched the vanishing point, but it mattered little and less. It was just part of the way astride two wheels to something else, a gold-encrusted elation. If ecstasy means the intrusion of the wonderful into the ordinary, then it had just happened to me. Lisa and Jason regularly blog about their two-wheeled adventures as they’re riding around the world, and if you want to read more head to www.TwoWheeledNomad.com and www.JasonSpaffordPhotography.com

The Final Frontier Factsheet

DENALI HIGHWAY 

The first road access to Denali National Park, Denali Highway is a lightly traveled, mostly gravel highway 135 miles long incorporating the second highest road in Alaska. It leads from Paxson on the Richardson Highway to Cantwell on the Parks Highway. Traveling west, the Denali Highway leaves the Richardson Highway (Alaska Route 4) at Paxson, and climbs steeply up into the foothills of the central Alaska Range. The first 21 miles are paved. Along its length in good weather, there are stunning views of the peaks and glaciers of the central Alaska Range. At MP 15 from the pullout on the south side of the road, in clear weather you can see the Wrangell and Chugach Mountains, and the Alaska Range.

MANLEY HOT SPRINGS 

Courtesy of Chuck and Gladys Dart, the privately owned hot springs (located on the Elliott Highway, 161 miles northwest of Fairbanks) bubble up through the ground into a spring-fed greenhouse where you can soak in one of three concrete baths, unwind and relax the muscles. Inside the greenhouse that is heated by geothermal energy, exotic fruits and native flowers bloom where the place hums thick with color. A nominal fee of $5 per person (in 2016) makes the soothing dip inexpensive to boot. 

TOP OF THE WORLD HIGHWAY 

Open during the summer and a snow machine only trek in the winter, the Top of the World Highway connects Tetlin Junction, Alaska, to Dawson City, Yukon. Comprising two highways: the Taylor Highway 5 in Alaska Yukon and Highway 9 in Canada. It is 175 miles in total from the junction of the Taylor and Alaska Highway to Dawson City, Yukon. At mile 66 of the Taylor, you will find the community of Chicken on a reconstructed road that’s usually in good condition. The road from Chicken to Jack Wade Junction is gravel and can be challenging so give yourself time. From Jack Wade to the Little Gold/Poker Creek border, the road is newly paved. The Canada/US border is open during the summer from 8am to 8pm Alaska Time and 9am to 9pm Yukon Time. From the border to Dawson City, the road is chip sealed. When entering or leaving Dawson City on the Top of the World Highway, take the George Black Ferry. It crosses the Yukon River, for free, 24 hours a day in the summer. Note: Gas is only available at Chicken, between Dawson City and Tetlin Junction. (More information at www.bellsalaska.com)

DUST 2 DAWSON 

Dust to Dawson (D2D), not a rally, is an annual event that has been running since 1992. The ride, which runs every year around midJune, invites motorcyclists from across the world to get together and celebrate in Dawson City. The city is ideally located at the junction of the Top of the World and Taylor Highways, the North Klondike Highway and the Dempster Highway.

GOLD RUSH CAMPGROUND, WISEMAN 

Just 13 miles from Coldfoot and halfway point to Deadhorse. Turn left at Milepost 189 and three miles on, alongside the middle fork of the Koyukuk River, awaits Gold Rush Campground and Jim ‘Clutch’ Lounsbury: a larger-than-life retired goldminer who loves to meet and greet motorcycle travelers.

DEADHORSE AND PRUDHOE BAY 

At the end of the Dalton Highway, some 683 miles from Tok is Deadhorse, which is more of a work community than a town in the traditional sense. It was established to support oil development in the surrounding Prudhoe Bay area. Take additional fuel (and inner tubes if you need them to be prudent) as the last place to gas up on the Dalton is Coldfoot (half way to Deadhorse).  

Want to ride in Alaska? Here’s how you can…

Not everyone will have the opportunity to motorcycle around the world, but don’t fret, if you’re willing to spend a bit of cash you too can be riding your own machine through the wilderness of North America. At current prices , Motofreight offers airfreight from London to Anchorage from £1,495 for a BMW R1200GS size motorcycle or similar. For more information head to www.motofreight.com.