“The Last Frontier”
I ride 30,000 miles on my K1100LT and R1100GS every year, so I consider myself experienced and well prepared for anything on any trip. I travel with well-maintained motorcycles, 40 years of mechanical experience and the best camping gear. But for my Alaskan trip there were some hazards I didn’t find out about until I got there. I had researched my trip to Alaska in great detail, but I failed to find any warnings about the unique challenges of “The Last Frontier.” Most likely these same hazards will arise in adventure travel in any of the remote parts of the world.
Take extra cash. Food, gas and parts are almost twice the price in the remote areas of Alaska. I paid $7.65 per gallon of gas on the Dalton Highway above the Arctic Circle. On the long drive through Canada, gasoline is 50 percent more expensive than in the U.S. Tires are $35 extra per tire with the additional shipping from Seattle to Fairbanks, and in Fairbanks tires for BMW GS bikes were sold out by mid-July.
Long distance travel declined during the recent recession, and almost two-thirds of the Alaskan Lodge/gas stations went out of business. Sometime you see a sign “Next Gas 76 Miles,” only to get there and see a closed store with brush growing in front of the door. Most of the motorcycles I saw had gas cans strapped somewhere on them. I mounted one Kolpin gas carrier on each of my panniers and I highly recommend them.
Make sure you know the service requirements of your bike and that your ride is in top condition. I didn’t know about the 10-year life of plastic brake lines and was lucky that South Sound BMW in Seattle is such a wonderful BMW dealer. I also learned about the life expectancy of alternator belts, but the first call I made in the Anonymous Book got me help and I was back on the road the next day.
Dirt roads are everywhere in Alaska, and the roads to Denali and Prudhoe Bay are mostly dirt. The paved roads in Alaska and Canada will very likely have stretches of gravel because of damage from freezing and heavy spring rains. These gravel stretches may have a sign, but one sign may be the prelude to many short patches over several miles.
The gravel can be round like marbles or crushed shale; both are laid down with a binder of slippery clay. The crushed shale is also used in making asphalt and the sharp edges are what shorten the life of tires. The natives I talked to confirmed the rapid wear of tires and you see lots of motorcycles with spare tires strapped on top of their loads.
Another hazard on gravel roads is the potholes. The week before I arrived in Alaska, a GS rider hit a pothole and the bike flipped and landed on him. I interviewed the State Trooper who investigated, who said the rider was doing 55 mph; the rider suffered multiple severe injuries and it was a miracle he lived. The same trooper has seen an increase in motorcycles (and accidents), and motorcycles on the dirt roads are mostly BMW GS bikes. The only Harley-Davidson rider I saw north of the Arctic Circle looked at my bike and said, “I should be on one of those.”
Driving on Marbles
Remote roads are built of gravel and rarely paved. This type of gravel is termed “Bank Run,” meaning it comes from rocks deposited on riverbanks. These rocks are rounded, not crushed, and vary in size from marbles to grapefruit. Hitting the grapefruit size at 30 mph can easily dump a bike; several times just pulling off the road at a crawl I flopped over. You just can’t hold a loaded bike up at any speed on loose, round gravel.
Fat Men on Loud Motorcycles Sign
This sign is easy to understand once you get on the bridge. I did see some bikes with knobbies, but I strongly recommend the Metzeler Tourance for dirt and asphalt combinations. I don’t know if the knobbies will drop into the corrugations, but even my wide GS tires wobbled terribly.
Moose above the Arctic Circle
Alaska and the road through the Yukon and British Columbia are full of wildlife. Moose are the worst; they will suddenly jump onto the road without warning. I met one R1200 GS rider with the front of both front fenders broken off when he hit a moose. On my trip I had one run onto the road in front of me, lose his footing and fall down; but in the last second I was able to swerve around him.
Caribou are the next most common danger; they like to graze next to the road and will jump in front of you when spooked. Accidents are less common, but still sudden and deadly.
Mostly in Yukon and British Columbia, Bison seem gentle and cautious; but they can and do charge. The week after I took this photo, a tourist was gouged in the stomach and pinned to the ground. A recommendation by the locals is to stop; but if you do, don’t move and do not make eye contact.
Bears are a serious problem, as they need to eat large amounts of food in a short period or they starve in the winter. You are unwelcome travelers in their land, and when you pick berries you are eating bear food. The problem with bears can be avoided; camp where there are metal food storage units and watch carefully when anywhere near berry patches.
You will see many other animals like elk and wolves, but they are rarely a problem and a real treat to see.
Worth Every Penny
My 15,510-mile trip was worth every penny and all the effort. Alaska is the “Final Frontier,” where the land is harsh and challenging, but the journey is worth far more than the effort. Be prepared.
“When you enter the food chain, enter at the top.” –Mike Kelly