story and photography by Perri Capell
Alaska lures male motorcyclists like flies to honey, but getting more women from the Lower 48 to tackle it on two wheels has been a challenge, says Phil Freeman, owner of Alaska Rider Tours in Anchorage. In 2007, he struck the mother lode. Eleven women signed up to tour the last frontier for a week in late June, just after the longest day of the year.
Participants came from Connecticut, Illinois, Texas and California. They ranged from a police officer and a chaplain to corporate executives and a hair salon owner. The youngest of the 11 was 39, the oldest, 56. Six were married, three were mothers, six had tattoos. A trio of capable guides—Nicole, Katie and Sojourner—brought the number to 14.
Most of the women preferred Harley-Davidson or other cruisers, but since only four Harleys were available for the tour, a few found themselves on BMWs or Suzuki V-Stroms for the first time. Me, I was happy to jump on an old favorite—a Kawasaki KLR650.
Eight Days, 14 Women, How Many Shoes?
Our itinerary was a 1,200-mile loop on Alaska’s most scenic paved roads. No butt-buster days for us—our longest was about 280 miles, leaving plenty of time for sightseeing and shopping. As the first Women’s Motorcycle Ride of Alaska left AK Riders’ parking lot for Talkeetna—a 113-mile leg—a few men waved and cheered. We were making history: Eight days, 14 women and 52 pairs of shoes (we counted).
Nicole led, as she did most days, while Katie and Sojourner alternated between serving as sweeper and driving the support van. Besides luggage, the van was stocked with snacks and adult refreshments (you could count on Happy Hour in a parking lot at day’s end). The guides doubled as mechanics, sometimes devising innovative solutions. When one Harley rider couldn’t raise her kickstand because the bike’s floorboard was in the way, the wenches (er, wrenches) attached a string to it so she could pull it up.
Riding conditions were pleasant and cars scarce. About 35 miles from Anchorage, Nicole led us off AK 3 onto the old two-lane highway for a few twisties, but then it was back to the main drag to the Talkeetna Spur. We passed local landmarks like “World Famous Wal-Mike’s” and a giant igloo that once housed a restaurant. But the highlight was the scenery and the limitless feeling you get riding a motorcycle in a state twice the size of Texas, with only 1.1 persons per square mile.
I wasn’t prepared for Alaska’s majesty. Among its superlatives: Seventeen of the 20 highest mountain peaks in the United States; more active glaciers and ice fields than in the rest of the inhabited world; 3,000 rivers; 3 million lakes; twice the coastline of the Lower 48. In 1867, former Secretary of State William Seward haggled with Russia to get the price down for Alaska to an unbelievably low $7.2 million (about 1.9 cents an acre). Now there’s a shopper!
Plenty of daylight remained for exploring after we parked the bikes in tiny Talkeetna (population 800). Settled by miners in the late 1890s, this rustic village was the setting for the quirky TV show “Northern Exposure.” To work up an appetite before dinner we poked around stores housed in historic cabins, then wandered along to Café Michelle for a first-class meal before calling it a night.
Land of the Never-Setting Sun
If you can call it a night here, that is. Our tour coincided with the summer solstice, and the sun went down for just a few hours. I enjoyed the long days, finding that, like many Alaska visitors, being here changed my circadian rhythm so I stayed up later.
Back on AK 3 the next day, also called the Parks Highway, we turned north for a 272-mile sprint to Fairbanks. This was our chance to see 20,300-foot-high Mount McKinley, America’s tallest mountain. But as is typical in summer, Denali—which means “the great one” in Athabaskan—stayed hidden by an overcast sky. I’ll have to return on a day when “the mountain is out,” as locals say.
A consolation was the moose calf standing on wobbly legs on the highway near Denali National Park. A bus driver stopped to let it cross the road and we stopped as well, but the calf didn’t budge until the bus driver climbed down to shoo it off. Nicole shooed us along, too, so we wouldn’t get caught between Momma Moose and Junior.
Farther north, the sun emerged and stayed with us for the rest of the trip. We stopped in Nenana, an Athabascan village, where the guides took a quick nap, then continued to Fairbanks. My diary notes, “It’s all lush, lush, lush. Wildflowers and lupines everywhere.”
Nestled south of the White Mountains, Fairbanks is Alaska’s largest northern city, but just 31,000 people call it home. Entering the city, I caught a glimpse of the dramatic new wing of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Museum of the North. Opened in 2005, the gleaming building —designed to evoke images of glaciers, mountains and a diving whale’s tail—is an architectural masterpiece.
Chena Hot Springs, Cold Museum
The next day was our rest day at Chena Hot Springs, just 60 miles from Fairbanks. The guides assumed we’d enjoy getting a massage, soaking in the mineral pools and visiting the resort’s Aurora Ice Museum, the only ice museum in the United States. Talk about extremes—the 145-degree F. water enters the hot pool while the museum is 20 degrees F. inside!
I was sweating in the first, shivering in the second. Still, the ice sculptures are amazing, including two knights jousting on horses, a giant chess set, a bed carved into a polar bear and more. Entrance is $15, and for another $15 you’re served a lime-green apple and vodka concoction called an “Appletini” in a martini glass made of ice.
While Chena’s attractions were fun, I got the impression that my companions liked riding and sightseeing in Alaska more than being pampered. All of us were eager to ride the next day’s 256-mile leg south to the Denali Highway. First stop was visiting Santa Claus at the North Pole, the town south of Fairbanks where residents answer and send letters from Santa postmarked “North Pole.” We told Santa we had been good and gave him our wish lists before continuing on AK 2 to the Richardson Highway (AK 4) at Delta Junction.
As an Alaska Scenic Byway, this road is worth savoring and I lagged back, enjoying the sweepers along lead-colored glacial rivers flowing beneath ice fields and snowcapped mountains. By now the Alaska Pipeline was a constant companion as it headed to its terminus at Valdez. Many people consider the gray metal snake an eyesore, but to me, it’s more like installation art rolling over the landscape, somewhat like the artist Christo’s Running Fence in California.
At Paxson, we turned west on the Denali Highway for 30 miles. The Tangle River Inn, our home for the night, served great strawberry-rhubarb pie along with fantastic views of the Alaska Range for dinner. We bedded down in small cabins named for animals; I was in the dog house, protected by a bulldog.
The next morning, three ladies got up at 3 a.m. to ride south on the Richardson to Valdez for a day-long cruise they had arranged to see whales and calving glaciers. The rest of us slept in, then left for Valdez in groups of twos and threes. It was the moment Nicole had been waiting for. Until now, most of the women had been riding in formation behind her. By going off on their own, they signaled their confidence in themselves as solo riders in America’s vast last frontier. “You’re free, little ducklings,” Nicole said softly as she watched them ride out.
The day was picture perfect. Brilliant sunshine bounced off the snowy peaks of the Wrangel and Talkeetna Mountains, and as we approached massive Worthington Glacier the view was outstanding. Cresting Thompson Pass summit, we could see the Chugach Mountains pointing upward like daggers, thanks to the clear air.
A colorful harbor town, Valdez is packed with fishing and tour boats. The Alaska Ferry had just docked when we arrived, and dual-sport riders fresh off the boat passed us with everything but the kitchen sink piled on their steeds. The ladies who took the sightseeing cruise from Valdez gave it such high marks that it’s optional on future AK Rider women’s tours.
We reversed direction on the Richardson Highway the following morning and enjoyed equally incredible views going north. For me, seeing 14,000-foot-high Mount Wrangell in the sunshine made up for missing Denali. At Tazlina, we turned west onto the Glenn Highway, or AK 1, a National Scenic Byway through a glacier-carved valley. We didn’t want to miss the four-course meal being prepared for us that night at our hotel, the Majestic Valley Lodge.
The lodge was busy, and a few ladies weren’t happy about their overflow rooms in the “bunkhouse.” But no one complained about the chef’s delicious dinner or not being on a motorcycle during a 10-minute hailstorm that evening.
Changed by the Ride
The Glenn Highway hugged the Matanuska River during our final day’s journey back to Anchorage. The women took the curves smoothly in front of me, and I could see how much they’d gained. For many, coming to Alaska had pushed the envelope of their comfort zones. Some told me they had ridden more miles in Alaska than in their prior riding season. A couple said they had never ridden in the rain before. These riders had tested themselves and passed with flying colors. Other women had made friends they’ll likely see again.
For me, the scenery surpassed my expectations. Most riders I know who’ve been to Alaska typically talk about completing the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay, not about seeing Alaska’s natural wonders from the pavement. It was great to enjoy the views without worrying about staying upright on the “haul road.”
Riding just with women seemed more leisurely for me than riding with men, and I hope the women’s Alaska tour becomes an annual event. With so little traffic and such terrific roads, it seems an ideal way for women to improve their riding skills in a no-pressure environment and meet other female motorcyclists. Our group was blessed with some natural comediennes and away from daily responsibilities, we laughed until we cried at times. And at the end of the trip, some of us cried because we’d had so much fun.
For information on MotoQuest Tours, visit www.akrider.com.[From the February 2008 issue of Rider]