I had been riding on a level plateau for a couple of days, a place where endless fields of wheat merge with the sky and arrow-straight roads melt into the distance. Western Canada’s Prairie Provinces have a beauty all their own. My thoughts, however, were not on the grassy plain. Instead, all I could think of was the mighty mountains somewhere beyond the horizon, and reaching the trip’s real beginning at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
Through a happy coincidence of geography and wartime expedience, Dawson Creek was chosen as the starting point for the Alcan, now simply known as the Alaska Highway. Its mission: Provide an overland supply route for military operations during World War II. The original rendition was nothing more than a muddy trail in the wilderness. As recently as 30 years ago, it still took a special breed to tackle it. Nowadays, any combination of rider and machine can negotiate the road’s 1,422 miles.
Rolling out of the Mile 0 RV Park and Campground in Dawson Creek, the enormity of the task struck me. I suddenly felt small in a vast wilderness, a sensation I’d had before, as this was my second ride up the Alaska Highway in the last six years. The road itself is 100-percent paved and varies from smooth asphalt to packed chip seal that is extremely hard on tires. Gas is generally available every 50 miles or so, but there are few motorcycle-specific service facilities until Fairbanks, Alaska. Make sure your machine is in top condition and carry some tools. Help is not a cell-phone call away.
The flat terrain eventually surrendered to foothills that resemble wrinkles on a colossal bedspread. By afternoon, I was in the dusty shale-gas center of Fort Nelson. The town’s origins date back to the early 19th century, when it sprung up as a fur-trading outpost. In many ways, it still retains a frontier flavor. Its claim-to-fame tourism-wise is the Museum of the North, with its impressive collection of Alaska Highway items. It’s well worth the $5 admission and couple of hours’ time spent.
The Northern Rockies, an ever-present but distant companion to the west, now stood like an impenetrable wall directly ahead of me. The U.S. Army expended considerable effort and untold tons of explosives forging a trail through the corridor some riders call “canyon land.” The next 150 miles stand out as some of the best riding on the entire highway. Twisting, turning tarmac takes on the personality of an amusement park ride, constantly rising and falling as it hugs rivers and skirts glacial lakes. At times, mere feet separated me from unforgiving rock walls, emerald green water and dizzying drops into chasms below. I relished every mile. The edges of the Suzuki’s Bridgestones got a real workout.
The GPS registered a steady gain in elevation; 4,250 feet at Summit Pass, the road’s highest. A chill in the air from an irresistible combination of altitude and latitude prompted me to break out my riding jacket liner. As I bundled up, I drank in the landscape of Stone Mountain Provincial Park. Animals of all types inhabit the sanctuary’s boundaries. I can still vividly recall rounding a corner and startling a young bull moose. True to his deer family pedigree, he went into predator-defensive mode with a series of quick zigzag moves. I reacted with countersteering maneuvers per my MSF training. Both of us lived to see another day.
Toad River Lodge is one of my favorite stops. After a buffalo burger dinner, an Alaska Highway staple, I approached a couple of truckers who were less than talkative. Noticing my notebook, one asked if I was a reporter, or maybe some kind of professor. My response of “Hardly, I’ve been a steelworker for 34 years” was all it took to break the ice. Once he learned I had a “real job,” he clued me in on the ins-and-outs of operating a big rig year-round in the Great North. Not easy. These guys buck the odds every day to bring the stuff to market we take for granted.
North of the Liard River, animals, particularly bears, were so abundant I had to stop photographing lest I never make it to Alaska. I did find time for Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park’s bubbling pools. They offered a relaxing break to this saddlesore rider. A popular stopover, the RV slots fill quickly, but tent campers are always accommodated.
Watson Lake, a former highway construction camp, lies on the Yukon/BC border. The town hosts a long-time Alaska Highway attraction, the Sign Post Forest. Lore has it that a homesick soldier posted the distance to his hometown on a pole. Others followed suit. Over the decades, travelers have added 70,000 more. One of these rides, I’ll remember to pack my own contribution.
Once in the Yukon, the Rockies faded in the rearview mirror and the Cassiars assumed escort duty. Soon, a wolf appeared. Safe in their vehicles, drivers took pictures with impunity. They don’t call them cages for nothing. I was a little nervous when he trotted toward me, even though he showed no aggression. He’d probably been conditioned by drivers tossing food and was looking for a treat. But as with bears, feeding wolves is a bad idea, not to mention illegal.
An imposing wall of thunderheads altered my plan of overnighting in Whitehorse. After crossing the metal-grated bridge at Teslin, I called it a day and grabbed a campsite at the Yukon Motel and Restaurant. The expected deluge never materialized, though the temperature plummeted. I awoke to the sight of my breath in the tent and 29 degrees on the thermometer.
Just over two-thirds of the Yukon’s 34,000 inhabitants call the capital of Whitehorse home. By comparison, Yukon grizzly bears number around 7,000. When black bears are factored in, bruins probably outnumber people! Building the road north of town required extensive blasting, as evidenced by the vertical walls carved out of rock. This was also the scene of the horrible road construction I’d heard about at every gas stop since Dawson Creek. I guess on some level, many Alaska Highway travelers long for the days when the road was tougher. But the gravel covered no more than 10 miles. A picnic compared to my first ride, and I was not disappointed in the least.
Haines Junction is the gateway to Kulane National Park and features an excellent visitor’s center. While in town, be sure to check out the Village Bakery. The menu includes smoked salmon, a complete deli, ice cream and a wonderful assortment of baked goods. The town also serves up spectacular views of Haines Glacier amidst the backdrop of the St. Elias Range.
Cold water licks the pavement in many places around Kulane Lake, the Yukon’s largest. I’ve often wondered how many inattentive drivers have taken a dip in icy winter conditions. Widening work is ongoing. North of Destruction Bay, I was treated to some of the worst frost heaves on the entire road, though not as bad as on my first trip. The V-Strom’s taut suspension took it in stride; cruisers and heavily loaded touring rigs need to take it easy, lest their undercarriages be ground to powder. This portion should have probably been left gravel.
Beaver Creek is the last town in Canada. On the ride home, I arrived during a torrential thunderstorm. I’d been camping for two weeks, so I figured it was as good a night as any to get a hotel. The town’s best offering is the Westmark, which features comfortable rooms, a fine restaurant and surprisingly reasonable prices.
I arrived in Alaska, back in the USA, seven days after I set out from just east of Chicago. In Alaska, the Army elected to make an end run with the Alcan, skirting the eastern edge of the Alaska Range. I was a bit leery about the road conditions; on my first ride, many stretches from the border to Tok were a muddy, rutted nightmare. Not to worry though; the work was complete and I cruised into the Last Frontier on a smooth carpet of freshly laid asphalt.
My first stop was Three Bears Outpost to retrieve a pistol I’d shipped ahead. The proprietor also recommended bear spray as a first line of defense, something of value in Canada as well. From there, I continued to Delta Junction, the official end of the Alaska Highway. Here the older Richardson Highway takes over for the ride into Fairbanks.
The Golden Heart City began as a trading post and quickly became popular with prospectors in the surrounding hills. Today, Fairbanks is Alaska’s second largest city, and a haven for riders needing their bikes serviced after the long ride up. Since my ultimate goal was Prudhoe Bay (Rider, The Haul Road, April 2012), I had Northern Power Sports spoon a set of Continental TKC 80 tires on the Strom. Equipped with aggressive rubber, I was ready to attack the Dalton Highway, a road that in many ways represents what the Alaska Highway used to be, a rugged trail in the wilderness. But even though today’s version of the Alcan is tamer than the one of years past, it still remains a ride not soon forgotten.