“The last foreign country still friendly to Americans,” read the first, but far from last, hand-scrawled sign we would see expressing the many interesting sentiments Alaskans have for their state and visitors to it. These are independent folk up here, rugged individuals who are not a little suspicious of the “southerners” who come callin’ every summer. Motorcyclists on big, fancy and electronically festooned BMW motorcycles dressed like textile astronauts tend to loosen up the locals’ attitudes, though, and after the first six days of the Rider Alaska and Yukon Tour with Ayres Adventures, August 9-21, to a man (and two women), for the most part our group of 12 has been received with open arms.
My initial impression is that Alaskans welcome but don’t seem to rely upon tourism as much as some other places, even though most establishments except maybe the dog sled rental have but a few months to make their nut before winter sets in and it becomes even more deserted than it is now.
That’s right—this is motorcycling paradise, as long as you like your riding in big, open leaps. The 49thstate can swallow Texas in one bite, after all, so long stretches of sublime but lonely highway connect the breathtakingly scenic bits. And despite the attraction of America’s last frontier, there’s practically no one up here to get in the way except a few buses jammed with corpulent cruise-ship passengers, which you can pass without even slowing down. Since leaving Anchorage on Monday we’ve been on stretches of road (like the Taylor Highway up to enigmatic and tiny Chicken) where we didn’t see another car for more than an hour, and even when we got behind a motorhome or trailer caravan on the comparatively busy AlCan Highway we’ve almost never had to wait to pass. The sun doesn’t set until 10 pm, either, giving some of our group the opportunity to get in some pretty big bonus miles before bedding down.
Rather than through or over the mountains, so far we’ve mostly been riding past incredibly jagged and snowcapped peaks, lakes, rivers and endless forest on long, lonely highways with the simple numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4. We’ll get all the way up to 7 eventually, passing through more tiny towns like Chickaloon, Gulkana and Tok, most of them no more than a crossroads with gas, maybe a diner and a hotel/motel slightly askew on its foundation from having been built on shifting permafrost. The water coming from the taps in our rooms in some places is so cold you can’t drink it.
We lucked out and got the best of groups and guides, everyone clicking and buying one another libations in the evenings. Interestingly this is everyone’s first Ayres Adventures-hosted tour, Genie and I included, and so far we’re pretty impressed. Our guides John and Nuno both have vast experience but seem to be enjoying themselves like it’s their first tour, too, yet jump right in when it’s time to get to work or deal with some bit of unexpected adversity. You can tell everyone’s having fun because the closure of one of the tour’s highlight routes due to massive winter washouts has hardly made a dent in our attitudes—in fact, the stoic, friendly couple from Norway, retired car-guy good rider George from Pittsburgh and affable Roger, who practically sleeps on the motorcycle, rode to both sides of the road closure in order to see Dawson City regardless, an 800-mile round trip.
Right now I’m in the public library in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, on Saturday, sitting next to another public computer user whose most recent bath was surely in a campfire. I’m out of computer time and my eyes are watering, so I’m outta here. I’ll get you an update on the ride, the road conditions and what it’s like to ride with the Alaskan state bird—mosquitoes—when they’re almost as big as the real state bird, the ptarmigan.
Ptarmigan, by the way, is what the locals wanted to name Chicken when it was founded…but they couldn’t spell it.