Ride North – Week 5

Just as we left with the departure with Skagway, Alaska in the last post, we now start a week that took us through the North of the Yukon and into Alaska proper – our third border crossing into Alaska so far!

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We departed Skagway with our route planned to take us from Whitehorse, Yukon up to Dawson City, Yukon. A quaint gold-rush era town with mud streets, we’d heard a few good things about Dawson City but apparently not everything, as we were about to find out.

We were on the road — Canada Highway 2, or ‘Klondike Highway’ — to Dawson City gassing up when a small hatchback parked near the gas station, teenagers spewing out of it like it was some sort of clown car. “Yo, sweet bikes, where you guys headed?” one asked us. Stuart and I answered simultaneously “Dawson City!”, to which the guy answered rather excited, “Oh cool, for the music festival?”

We didn’t even know about the music festival! It was supposed to be kicked off that day (Friday) and we had no clue. We got tired fast, about 150 miles before Dawson and set up a camp off a telephone pole access road near a small airport North of Stewart Crossing, Yukon.

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The next day we made it to Dawson City, and found it to be quite busy with festival goers. One of the larger musical events in the North of Canada, Dawson City Music Festival (DCMF) was a folksy music festival that gathered a few thousand people in the small town. Feeling the rush, we set out to ferry across the river and grab what turned out to be the last available campground spot at the Yukon government campground!

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I made myself comfortable immediately. You’ll never regret packing a hammock.

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Stu and I quickly made friends with the other guys camping near us, both DRZ-400 riders. Eric, shown here, was an incredibly nice and cool dude from California who’d just returned from the tippy-top of Alaska: Prudhoe Bay. He was coming back down this way to reunite with a girl he’d met here on the way up North.

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We hung out with him for a while and ferried back into town to enjoy the festival, meet people, listen to music and drink. Since it was rather wet during the whole weekend, we were forced to stay in Dawson City regardless since the way to Alaska from there was all gravel and dirt, which turns to slick mud when wet.

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We found a few cool machines near the festival ground, too, and decided to ride ’em.

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Dawson City is a very cool town with a lot of history. Not only are the streets still dirt and its old buildings preserved, you can still see late-19th century style Can-Can shows, go into bars with the honky-tonk piano playing and pan for gold in the nearby creeks, but the atmosphere also feels like a genuine frontier town. It’s also filled with very nice, welcoming people — which we met few of, due to the thick crowds of people from Alaska and the rest of Canada lining up to get into bars and other venues.

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The ferry, which takes you over the Yukon to the unpaved ‘Top of the World Highway’ to the Canada/Alaska border, is completely free courtesy of the Yukonian (Yukonnaise?) government.

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The few locals we did meet, like these kind girls, were also nice enough to test the impact resilience of the armor padding in my leather jacket. Thanks, Kristi!

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We hung out with some locals for our last night after the festival-goers had all gone home and set off to ride the Top of the World highway, now entirely dry.

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Aptly named, the Top of the World Highway has incredible panoramic views of the Alaska / Yukon mountain ranges and rolling hills.

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I ripped over the pothole-riddled, gravely and muddy roads with my now rather bald 80/20 road/dirt tires with no problems. No punctures or flats, thankfully.

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What views we were treated to!

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Stuart took off a bit ahead of me in some of these sections where the gravel got very loose. His KLR had much better tires and suspension to handle the loose, deeper gravel and I wasn’t going to push my luck. Besides, the scenery was too beautiful to rush through.

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We went through the tiny border checkpoint in record time and got to our first true Welcome to Alaska sign. We made it! Alaska proper!

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After passing by this sign, the gravel road got a bit nicer, with even better views, and then…

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The very best pavement we had on the whole trip. Not anywhere else have we ever seen such beautiful, perfectly unmarked and smooth pavement.

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It was a joy to ride, although the sheer pleasure was maybe slightly lost to Stu on his giant dirt bike, I momentarily relished in the feeling of sheer traction and speed.

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Which was quickly overtaken by the thrill of riding dusty dirt roads again all the way to the quirky town of Chicken, Alaska. Both ways of riding are fun!

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The sun was out all day and made riding a real pleasure.

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We stopped in Chicken for the night, which is a curious small town with maybe four buildings, a bar, a liquor store, and a restaurant — which offers some free camping in the back we used. We also left our sticker prominently at the bar.

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We left eager for more great sights the next day, riding onto the Taylor Highway to Tok, Alaska. Apart from some highway construction (which was about to become a very, very common sight — the roads in Alaska are constantly being repaired and rebuilt in the summers to recover from the severe damage to them in the wintertime) it was smooth sailing.

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The Taylor Highway offers impressive views of the rolling lower hills, covered in pine trees. Massive forest fires have turned entire areas into spooky otherworldly landscapes covered in husks of skeletal tree remains.

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I thought it looked incredibly cool, and it made for a unique atmosphere and scenery.

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While looking unimpressed here, I can assure you Stuart also enjoyed the road massively.

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Taking plenty of photo-stops along the way, we rode on, eventually meeting with the Alaskan Highway at Tok to turn into one of the longest straight stretches of road in the entire United States. We stopped in Tok for some food and to enjoy cellular service, and I got an email on my phone from a girl who worked in Chicken.

She had my wallet. It was turned in by a fellow motorcycle rider (whom I’d later meet in Fairbanks), who found it somewhere up the Taylor before a bridge in the middle of a dirt road. While annoyed, my sheer luck was enough to make me burst out in laughing. Stuart, tired as hell, went off to the local motorcycle campground to nap and I went off to ride the Taylor.

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Two more times. Third time the Taylor’s the charm, as they say (do they?).

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I got to photograph a few spots I really wanted to take shots at the first time but neglected to.

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These trees make for incredible scenes.

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Eventually, adding 200+ miles to the day, I made it back to Tok complete with my wallet and we set up camp at the Eagle’s Claw campground. We met a bunch of other bikers, used their sauna (!) and enjoyed what is easily one of the best campgrounds in Alaska. Go visit if you’re in Tok! It’s easily the best thing in town.

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The next morning we departed for Fairbanks and Stu found his chain to be slapping around, so we did some side-of-the-road wrenching you see so often in hip bearded-twenty-something cafe racer jacket promotional videos. Only decidedly less hip, with a spray can of Teflon chain lube and a cleaved up crutch as swingarm support to prop the bike up.

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We had our first real day of rain on the road (yes, we’re astronomically lucky) and arrived in Fairbanks. Which is a city. That’s really all there is to say, we were rather bored by it overall and were eager to get back on the road. The exception to Fairbanks’ overall mediocrity was Larry and the rest of the awesome crew at Lavelle’s Bistro downtown, whose generosity and hospitality made for a very memorable and fun night out on the town. I think we stumbled back to our cheap University of Alaska dorm-room we rented for the night at 5 AM, tired and drunk.

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I vaguely remember taking this photo.

We wanted to stop in Fairbanks to put some new (knobby, all-terrain) tires on my bike as well as figuring out a plan on where to ride. We checked for my tires at the local post office which had sadly put them away into a warehouse that was closed for the weekend, scratching our plans to ride up the legendary Dalton Highway to the very Northernmost tippy-top of Alaska.

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Instead, we decided, we’d ride for Denali National Park and Wilderness to do some good hiking and stretch our legs.

It was a great decision. The sheer beauty of Denali is difficult to put into words or even photographs.

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As the wilderness rangers explained to us, out of 400,000 visitors each year, only 3,000 hike Denali’s backcountry. Requiring a permit and a viewing of an informational VHS, the backcountry in Denali is one of the few true areas of wilderness you can visit. Not only is it entirely without trails — you blaze your own — it is so incredibly vast that you are truly alone. There is nobody else, and you can easily find old cabins, ruins and sights that have simply never been found before.

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We will certainly be back there. The rangers also warned us to expect rain: every single day of the year so far had been rainy.

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Our luck: we had nothing but beautiful clouds or clear skies and sunshine.

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And the most insane sunset I’ve probably ever seen in my life. As the sun passed behind the incredible mountainranges near Mount McKinley, it lit up the clouds that were crowding the peaks of another range nearby. As it set lower, the orange light lit up the lingering clouds vividly in a neon orange glow that seemed completely unreal.

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It was an incredible sight that made us pause in our tracks.

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We set up camp with even more grizzly bear preparations than usual (we only startled a massive moose on the trail, no actual bear sightings) and planned for another day of hiking filled with stunning sights.

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Plenty of those in Denali.

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At the end of the day, we found ourselves with a broken water purifier and my knee felt absolutely horrible, so we hiked our way back to the parking lot to reunite with the bikes, make food and ride for Fairbanks the next day to put my tires on.

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I snuck around on some of the Alaska Railroads tracks. I’ve always loved tracks and trains, and the scenery made them even more beautiful.

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We made it to Adventure Cycleworks in Fairbanks the next day, the bikes dirty with tons of mud from the Denali area’s highway construction (told you we’d get familiar with it!). We also met a group of KTM riders there that we’d previously spoken to in Dawson City — they’d just come down from Prudhoe Bay, and advised the Dalton Highway was as challenging a road as everyone says it is.

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Only opened to the public in the 1980s, the Dalton Highway — or ‘Haul Road’ as the locals call it — is a mostly dirt road that goes to the very highest road-accessible point in the American continent. The town there, Deadhorse (charming sounding, isn’t it?) is more or less a work camp for the largest oil field in the US. Every year motorcycle, car, and truck drivers die or are seriously injured in accidents on this very, very challenging road. With the slightest moisture, the calcium chloride that they mix in with the road’s dirt becomes extremely slick, making it easy to drop off the sides of the at times rather highly raised road. Not to mention the powerful winds, Arctic temperatures, hundreds of speeding truck drivers…

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Sounds like fun? You bet! Let’s get these tires on already!

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With the tires on (thanks Dan! What a cool guy that is.) we rode out at the end of the day to make our first miles towards the beginning of the Dalton Highway. The light vanished quickly — this was probably around 12:30 at night.

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And this is about 1:30.

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Destination: Deadhorse!

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Tune in soon to see our incredible ride up the extremely challenging and dangerous Dalton Highway, with the most beautiful sights so far. I’m very excited to share the photos of that ride and the stories, as it was the most fun I have ever had riding a motorcycle as well as some of the most beautiful parts of the planet I have seen in my life.

The wallpaper a week has been sent out again this week to backers and late supporters as usual — get in touch if you want to be on the list! Until next time.


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