Taking the scenic route through the 49th state

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jul 18, 2014 - 20:22
  • Updated : Jul 18, 2014 - 20:22
ANCHORAGE, Alaska ― Our quest was emblazoned on the T-shirts we were given before we left for Alaska: “8 men, 4 highways, 5 days, 865 miles.” On motorcycles.

We were a mixed group of Sunday motorcycle-riding friends. Roger and Rod, both 71, had been pals since high school, and Roger had brought his son Josh, 31. Chris and Jonnie, both 48, and Steve and John, 53 and 51, respectively, had ridden together for years. All were veteran riders.

We set out from Anchorage under a leaden early June sky, an uneven line of seven rented BMWs and one rented Triumph.

The weather report had told us to expect 7 degrees Celsius and cloudy skies, with some rain. We were dressed for it in helmets, boots, gloves and waterproof riding suits, our saddlebags and tank bags filled with cold- and wet-weather clothing.

But the sun was out before we left the city limits, headed northeast on Alaska 1 along the Knik River. We planned to spend the night in Talkeetna before moving on to towns to the north and east, following a route developed by team leader Steve, based on intel from motorcycle friends and Alaska locals.

Our lunch destination was Palmer, 72 kilometers away. By the time we got there, we had seen a bald eagle, our first moose, our first glimpses of Mount McKinley ― a.k.a. Denali ― and a high-speed chase that left a pickup truck in a ditch, its occupants fleeing on foot and state troopers in hot pursuit.
Mirror Lake reflects the mountains along the South Parks Highway in Alaska. (MCT)

We recovered from the roadside drama at the Valley Inn’s Open Cafe in Palmer before heading west through Wasilla, home of Sarah Palin, on the South Parks Highway.

Because of Alaska’s vast size, I had expected Texas, with snow and immense stretches of empty highway, interrupted periodically by scenic vistas. I soon saw I was wrong. It’s all scenic vistas ― sudden peaks appearing through the clouds, broad green valleys split by milky, glacial rivers ― sort of Yosemite on steroids.

Our first-day destination was Talkeetna, reputedly the town that served as the model for the 1990s cult TV favorite “Northern Exposure.”

The ride took us across the Matanuska Valley, through broad pastures stitched with glacier-fed creeks and streams. In the distance, ever closer, were the mountains of the Alaska Range, a jagged, snow-tipped line of towering peaks, among them the 6,168-meter Mount McKinley. (Locals in need of a weather report, rather than ask if the day is cloudy or sunny, simply ask, “Is the mountain out?”)

We spent the night at the tiny Swiss-Alaska Inn, struggling to sleep after a fresh salmon dinner at the Wildflower Cafe on Talkeetna’s quaint main street. Even in early June, days are endless. Sunset was pegged at 11:30 p.m.
Chris Day churns up dust on the Denali Highway of Alaska. Eight friends decided to take a 1,400-kilometer ride around Alaska. (MCT)

The next day, we began the journey’s serious riding north from Talkeetna to the Denali Highway. This was the adventure we’d come for ― 177 kilometers of unpaved road, open only a few months of the year, empty but for the occasional logging truck or camper van. Behind and ahead of us were icy peaks, their snowmelt feeding the Susitna River, which we paralleled for an hour before crossing it on a long, wood-plank bridge.

At day’s end, we rolled into the Tangle River Inn, a homey set of low buildings on a barren landscape, one of the Denali Highway’s few way stations, where we’d booked cabins for the night. It was hard to shake the sensation that we were at the end of the road, on the top of the world. There had been 7.5 meters of snow on the ground only weeks before, and the Tangle River was still dotted with chunks of ice.

We’d been told to expect mosquitoes. At Tangle River, we met them in force: monstrous insects as big as hummingbirds, though happily not as voracious as their smaller Southern cousins.

The Denali Highway dawn came early; the sun had been up hours before we met for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast. Fed and fueled, and after a short hike along a local lake, we returned to the scenic roadway.

It was slow going. Every photo op became a video shoot. Every gas-station stop turned into a sightseeing event. Two men would start fueling, two would go into the gas-station store, one would hit the restroom and one would visit the gift shop. Then he would emerge, saying, “They’re selling a petrified walrus penis for $63.50,” and half an hour would be lost as everyone rushed to take a look.

Our destination was Valdez, the port town after which the doomed Exxon oil tanker was named. For much of the afternoon, we skirted shiny white lengths of the Alaska oil pipeline as it threaded its way out of the mountains to the coast.

We had more wildlife sightings too ― not the grizzlies and brown bears we had worried about, but moose and caribou. Our feelings about them were mixed: lovely to look at but deadly for a motorcyclist to encounter at 100 kph. In the Matanuska Valley, we saw a sign saying, “Moose Crash Area,” and telling us that 257 of the big animals had been killed by cars in the last year.

The road to Valdez took us through Thompson Pass, a high promontory between deep, icy canyons still being carved by active glaciers. We rode through the clouds, stopping to take photographs of our motorcycles against the snowy peaks.

It was 4 degrees Celsius but felt colder at high speeds. I was glad I’d prepared for this, dressed in a long-sleeve shirt outfitted with battery-powered heat coils, made by the cleverly named Mobile Warming, and a waterproof jacket and pants.

By Charles Fleming

(Los Angeles Times)

(MCT Information Services)