2011: Alaska!

Destination for 2011’s adventure ride…Alaska!

Duration: August 20, 2011 – September 30, 2011 (42 days)

Mileage: 7,760 miles by motorcycle (about 1,500 by ferry)

States/Providences: California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and Alaska

Thoughts prior to departure:

aka:  “L.A. to Prudhoe Bay” or “Alison goes to the Arctic” or “Part II: Journey of Self Enlightenment”

Regardless of what its called, it’s the season when work slows down (normally) and I find my wanderlust kicking into full gear.   This year, as I prepare for another solo journey, I want to explore further into the wild and ride throughout the coastal states as far north as I can get.

The (very tentative) route: to wander for 6 weeks on the road…head north along the eastern sierras in CA, into some back-country throughout OR and WA, cross into Canada, ferry to Alaska, ride to the Arctic Circle, take a picture (or two) then return south along the coast.

The Reality:

“Northern Lights Wake Up Call” proved to be a more fitting subtitle.

The journey was a lot longer, quieter and more wearisome than I had originally anticipated.  I was prepared for elongated days in the saddle, expecting to ride until the sun went down late in the evening, but I was not prepared for the lengths of solitude.  Leaving Los Angeles so late in the summer, I found out just how “late in the season” it really was.  Alaska and Yukon Territory start closing down after Labor Day.

The roads were vacant. Most of the passing vehicles were RVs heading south for the winter.  The other motorcyclists I encountered would ask me how Alaska was, implying I had already been, as they had. While I continued north, riding beside chilled winds, the first snowfall on the mountains along the Alaska Highway indicated a short autumn and winter on its heels.  Restaurants and shops were empty, if open at all. The same held true for gas stations, which was of concern since it could be the only one around for 50 or so miles. Luckily, a fellow traveler advised to fill up when possible, regardless of fuel noted on the map, as it might not be in service. Space to set up my tent for the night was easy to find, unlike the busy campground roulette of last summer’s ride. Some spots held no other occupants.

Equally, there are perks of arriving in September: I wasn’t shuffling my way through lines of tourists, and I encountered really lovely weather. Prepared with waterproof gear and cases, I rode in more days of sunshine than rain. And when water eventually fell from the sky, it passed relatively quickly, leaving ahead a glistening path for my motorcycle and I to navigate through.

I was also late enough in the season for dark skies.   Viewing the Aurora Borealis was one of the, if not the, top highlight of my trip.  Each night, if the night sky were clear and I knew I was north enough, I would set my alarm to sound in the middle of the night. I then peeked my head out of the tent just enough to glance at the sky to see if the dancing lights were out.  The only thing I ever saw was the fog of my warm breath against the cold night air.  I would return to the coziness of my down sleeping bag and set the alarm again for an hour later.  One evening, after riding across the Denali Highway, the day fell into night quicker than I anticipated, so I decided to stay in a hotel. The idea of a hot shower and hearty meal that someone else prepared for me was quite appealing.  Upon checking into only the second hotel splurge of my trip so far, I noticed there was a wake-up call list for the northern lights.  My name went on that piece of paper quickly.  So, at 1:34am, I received the call, bundled up, and ran downstairs to watch the green refraction of light dance amidst the stage of dark sky.  I sat until my fingers were numb from the cold and the colors absorbed back into the night sky.

I tend to leave a lot of room for wandering.  But there were not as many options for that as there were the year before.  There are only so many roads that head north through Canada and only one leading in and out of Alaska.  The ferry south along the inside passage from Haines, AK to Bellingham, WA was a much needed break from the exhausting days of riding.   I didn’t leave coziness of my sleeping bag for the majority of the three day trip and still got to see some of the most beautiful landscapes of Alaska.

In the end, I did not make it to Prudhoe Bay, or even the Arctic Circle. I was 500 miles shy of my destination (250 of them being gently iced over dirt road by the time I arrived), so due to timing, both personal and seasonal, I will have to try another day if I want to touch the Arctic Ocean.

North America Route