Every adventurous motorcyclist dreams of riding to a far-off destination like Alaska on the spur of the moment; just drop everything and take off for a month or a year. If you’re not going on an organized tour, though, the reality requires some serious planning. Especially if you have just returned to motorcycling after a lapse of 28 years as I had. From two years prior to leaving on a 10,276-mile, 10-week Alaska journey until returning home, here’s a little of what I learned.
After taking a refresher MSF RiderCourse and test riding several bikes, I settled on a BMW R 1200 GS Adventure for the trip. It has qualities of both street bikes and dirt bikes, like a Jeep on two wheels. In the 18 months that followed, I read a number of books and watched videos about handling a big bike on- and off-road. I became a regular at my local dealership, BMW Motorcycles of Ventura County, and went on several of its organized weekend campout rides. Practicing for the big trip with a few smaller ones really helped my skills and planning.
Pondering if I should ride with someone or go it alone, I talked to other riders with lots of experience. The consensus was that if you have a solid riding buddy who can go with you, then it might work; otherwise, you’re better off alone. Traveling alone gives you the option of changing plans on the fly (as I would later do) without the possibility of the other person not wanting to do what you really want to. And as I would learn, although I was not riding with someone, I was never really alone.
As for the safety issue of riding solo, either a Spot or DeLorme inReach satellite communicator solves the issue of summoning emergency medical help or sending texts anywhere in the world. With the tracking turned on, they also allow friends and family to follow your progress on their computers. I considered the more expensive option of a satellite phone, but correctly assumed that I would not be away from cell coverage for more than a couple of days.
Prior to leaving, I learned some sage advice from Rene Cormier, a hearty soul who rode his BMW Dakar 650 around the world over four years. His idea of a plan was not to have a plan. I focused my research on reading The Milepost (a must) and The Adventurous Motorcyclist’s Guide to Alaska along with the accompanying Butler map to figure out a general route to travel. But my “no-plan plan” was to pick only the day of departure and the day when I would start heading back, with passage on the Alaska Marine Highway for the run from Haines, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington. That way each day turned out to be a fresh adventure.
I had assembled a good core of camping equipment, but scanning threads on the web and reading helpful books prompted me to get more stuff like bug spray, mosquito netting and supplies to sustain me in the event of a breakdown. I began a packing list a few months prior to leaving on the big trip and modified it as needed after each local campout. Leaving mid-June from Southern California, I had to prepare for temperatures ranging from below freezing in Alaska to over 100 degrees, and from sunny skies to fire-hose intensity thunderstorms. It was worthwhile; almost everything got a workout.
Don’t worry too much about forgetting something; there are plenty of places to get what you need. I learned this the hard way when a sloppy packing job left me needing to replace the tent that fell off my bike somewhere along the way. (Lesson: dry bags shrink when they lose air—“burp” them before tying down.) As for cameras, GPS units, tracking devices and all the rest, get them well before the trip and test them on your overnight camping trips. I had a few new gadgets I never used since I couldn’t be bothered to figure them out once I got on the road.
If you’re planning to camp and cook, the bike won’t have as much capacity left over for non-necessities. I ended up shipping 25 pounds of DSLR photo gear home on my third day, for example, keeping only the compact camera that I had gotten for the trip, because the heavy bike was just too challenging on gravel. If you plan on spending every night in a hotel, you can take more stuff.
Hotels or camping? For some riders, particularly those traveling with a significant other as a passenger, hotels are often the way to go. This requires careful planning and making reservations during prime summer travel times. Camping and cooking meals, on the other hand, keeps costs down and virtually eliminates the need to plan where you’ll spend the night. As a single rider, I could always find a campsite, although I looked for a motel when the rain was coming down. Another advantage to camping is that if you like an area and want to stay another day or two, you won’t have a problem.
I came across a very wide variety of motorcycles on my trip, everything from a ’46 Harley to a trove of BMW GS bikes, to 350 enduros to Gold Wings pulling trailers. I even saw one traveler on a sportbike. Naturally, the bigger bikes stayed on the pavement, or more correctly in Alaska during the summer, on the paved roads with long stretches of gravel pavement base in the process of being graded. Yes, there were a couple of stretches of unrolled rough construction that could cause a pucker, but going slow will get you through.
Being alone, I avoided side trips with technical off-road stuff. I had no trouble with the terrain as far north as Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay), or on the mostly gravel Denali, but I did try to avoid the rain which makes the gravel there very slippery. In Fairbanks, I met one couple riding a BMW K 1600 GTL who were well into their 70s and retracing their same ride route from 30 years earlier. In short, the best bike for the ride is the one you have.
The pre-trip prep for my bike included fresh tires to take me to Fairbanks and Adventure Cycleworks, where I had reservations to get fresh Heidenau K-60 tires for the gravel road to Prudhoe Bay and the Denali Highway. I changed the oil before leaving so I could make 6,000 miles before having to do any maintenance. For emergency repairs, I read up on what tools to take and discussed spares with my dealer. A mandatory flat tire kit and mini-compressor saved me on the Dalton Highway (a.k.a. “Ice Road”) in a desolate section of tundra when a razor-sharp rock found its way between the knobs of my fresh tires. I was also very glad I had mosquito netting to go over my hat. Very glad.
Prior to hitting the Dalton Highway, a 900-mile round trip with legendary goo and constantly watered gravel that bonds to everything, I used a tip from a dirt-biker friend and generously coated my bike with spray cooking oil. It made cleanup at a coin-operated car wash upon returning to Fairbanks much easier, although far from effortless. And my concern about not being able to get the 89-octane (mid-grade) fuel that the R 1200 GS requires was solved by getting a bottle of octane booster and augmenting the regular-only fuel dispensed in the remote areas. I was only caught once without the coveted tonic, but the fuel-injected bike still ran fine.
The sights and scenery were spectacular. Every day I would come across a spot worthy of a National Geographic cover. I kept my expenses down by camping as much as I could, only eating in an upscale restaurant twice in 10 weeks, and by avoiding upscale hotels when I wanted a roof over my head. I used my “saved” money to take a boat trip in Valdez to view marine life and the Columbia Glacier; to take a flightseeing trip to a wilderness area so I could photograph bears hunting for salmon; and to go whitewater rafting in Denali.
Although the riding and the scenery were breathtakingly beyond expectation, the most outstanding part was meeting people from all over the world. When you’re on a motorcycle, you belong to a fraternity of riders; you share a bond of commonality. Sometimes you meet someone who you will ride with for a few days or even weeks. I can now say that I have open invitations to visit folks in the U.S., Canada, South America, Holland, Germany, England, South Africa, Austria and France. Camping together, sharing a fire and a brew with those who have a common love of travel and motorcycles, makes for an international family of friends.
Even people who were not on bikes contributed to the adventure through gratuitous acts of kindness. There was the couple in the Jeep on the Dalton who left me a can of Fix-a-Flat when I wasn’t sure if my plug would hold; the woman just leaving work on a commercial fishing boat who gave me a fresh salmon; the guy at the next campsite in the Yukon who came running over with a red-hot glowing log to help me start my campfire; and certainly the folks at House of Harley and the MotoQuest headquarters in Anchorage, who welcome and help all motorcyclists.
I returned home refreshed and invigorated. I also came away from my trip with a better understanding of myself and a new respect for our ancestors who lived off the land. Meeting people from other parts of the world, I learned to open my eyes and heart to appreciate these new experiences. I also learned that the adventure motorcycling bug is infectious and delightfully addictive.
As for the final question folks asked: “What would you do differently?” The answer is simple: “I would leave sooner.”
(This article Going North was published in the March 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)