The Final Frontier: How Alaska Stole This British Rider’s Heart

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
Lo!—the dramatic sight of Mount Denali gave way to not a single whisper of cloud obscuring her. Photos by Jason Spafford.

Skirting northeasterly around Denali National Park, I was hit with countless chevrons of snowcapped, glacier-studded mountains in Alaska’s Interior. My hunger for wild lands was going to be well-nourished here, a sweet spot that seemed to me the very acme of Alaskan wilderness allure. The day was just beautiful; blue skies and fluffy clouds above the endlessly evolving landscape, a remote horizon where snow and ice intermingled with sky at the edge of the world.

For us, it was the beginning of the end of a two-and-a-half-year road trip from the bottom of Argentina. Along the way, the power of social media connected us with the Fishhook Fatties, a gregarious motorcycle group from south central Alaska whose ethos is “work hard, play hard,” at least during the summer months when daylight hours are in high supply.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
Taking in the dramatic sights in Denali National Park—enjoying them as much as playing in them!

The Dust to Dawson (D2D) motorcycle event was just around the corner, so we jumped at the chance of joining them in June upon invitation. Perfect timing before the final push up to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, the northern terminus of the Pan-American Highway.

As day ones go on any motorcycle jaunt, my expectations comprised no more than finding my stride in the saddle. Little did I know what lay in store–an Alaskan’s Alaska astride two wheels. When the clouds are not obscuring her, oftentimes completely out of view, Denali National Park’s centerpiece will do anything but disappoint from the George Parks Highway.

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Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
Without warning and at first sight, Alaska’s Denali National Park will steal your heart in half a heartbeat.

As North America’s highest peak, Mount Denali towers above all at 20,341 feet. Ensconced in the dirt biking bliss that is the Denali Highway, from Cantwell to Paxson rapture cartwheeled out of my body as we rode headlong across the tundra.

Out of the captivity that can be felt in cities–a necessary evil that made for a quick resupply in Fairbanks–we all but raced northwest up the Elliott Highway, our starting point for the 156-mile munch to Manley Hot Springs via an old gold-rush route that bestowed us with views of the vast Minto Flats, where we earned every sloppy mile.

Size Matters

Having fallen out of favor with Lady Luck, dark clouds raced through and I looked up and gave the sky a slit-eyed appraisal. Dark and tortured, it hammered down on us the entire way to Manley Hot Springs. Like riding on snot over marbles, we trudged our way through the calcium chloride with some artful slides thrown in for good measure. I was on high alert with the backside muscles poised for a long cardio workout, and my lips set to pursed.

What was I expecting on Pearl, my hefty BMW F 650 GS laden with luggage, at 530 pounds? I scrabbled, lost control and groused, watching my wheels flinging manes of spray everywhere. I should’ve long ago embraced light and tight, where size always matters off-road. Ho hum.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
The dirt penetrated every part of my clothing and baked onto every square inch of bike.

Having located a drier section, I shelved the dampened spirits and smiled like the sun was coming out. It wasn’t but I went for it with a handful of throttle. I admit, I was amped. Failing to realize when we’d reunited with the viscous malevolence, I scared myself silly at 60 mph as I squirmed in mire mid-corner.

“What the…!” I cussed, careening horribly toward a ditch–my brain unable to gauge the speed at which enthusiasm outweighed skill. Language went away and for a split second I prayed in a soft, high-pitched lament any human listener would’ve termed a dizzy yelp. “Oh my G-a-w-d, I forgot who I was!” Taking a moment to stop my heart’s wild beating, thank goodness for adrenaline, I thought.

Finally the sloppy passage ceased, and having prevailed, we struck gold. Kicking the sidestands down, we observed a charming Post-It note village on the banks of the Tanana River.

Just outside Manley Roadhouse, we pegged the Dome Sweet Dome in the campground to a regiment of twin-engine skeeters, rushing to meet and greet us at full tempo. Having ditched the riding gear, our newly exposed skin must have looked ripe for the feasting. Jumping straight into the spring-fed baths, we kept the winged assailants at bay and our muscles set to soaking. A heavenly yang after the yin journey to get there.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
A Garden of Eden experience awaited us at the end of the Elliott Highway at Manley Hot Springs Resort. Cue an indoor tropical garden of paradise.

Camaraderie

The next dawn brought an unexpected win in the road surface lottery and we rode the same route on dry satin all the way back to Fairbanks. Then around 180 paved miles on the connecting Richardson Highway leading onto the Alaska Highway deposited us in a sea of riders, courtesy of Thompson’s Eagle’s Claw Campground at Tok.

It’s a favorable choice for riders of any discipline but particularly popular for those en route to D2D. While the place is a forest of intimate snuggeries, the day rapidly became an amphitheater of motorcycle noise filled with the unmistakable biking camaraderie that springs from the fellowship of the road.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
The velvet moss swallowed my footprints as I passed; the forest at Tok was as enchanting as I’d remembered, its sorcery holding me rapt.

Cordial relations established with my stomach from a Fast Eddies breakfast of reindeer sausage the following morning, and with no snot on marbles in sight, the day saw us make our way out of Tok just down the road to Tetlin Junction.

With favorable conditions on our side, the Taylor Highway saw us ride 60 beautifully paved miles before it turned to a good dirt road–helped by the weather–the remaining way to the border. Magnificently, riding the Top of the World Highway in such a direction bestowed a further 115 miles of partially paved but mostly reconstructed road, chip seal and sometimes challenging gravel that connected us with Dawson in the Yukon.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
A motorcycle trip wouldn’t carry much clout without a roadside repair. Always good to carry extra rubber in remote places.

Dust 2 Dawson

If you haven’t heard about D2D, you’re in for a treat. Just trace a line on the map to Dawson, hop on your moto in June and start riding. If you can, try not to rush at getting there, for a ride both rewarding and nurturing is likely to unfold. Rock up to Dawson but just don’t call it a rally. Despite such a disclaimer, you’ll be in the thick of an atmosphere abuzz with the boundless joy that is D2D.

The backstory starts with three unassuming fellows: John “Cash” Register, Jim Coleman and Mike “Fighter” Stein. Dating back to 1992, D2D was concocted over a few pints in Dawson’s Midnight Sun, a hotel bar where the trio first met.

As Fighter recounts, a 500-mile road trip between the amigos up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik was set in motion, during which Coleman and Cash deviated to Eagle, Alaska. Awed by the place, a pact was made that when one of them died, the other would return to the North Country with the ashes of the departed.

Devastatingly when Coleman was hit on his R 1200 GS by a Suburban in 1994, Cash reenacted their road trip a year later. Mile for mile, he dismounted at the same pit stops, refueled at the same cafés and drank another cold one at The Midnight Sun, while carrying Coleman in the tank bag. The dusty route to Dawson gained momentum, convincing many to pay their respects, come together and celebrate.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
A brief respite on the Denali Highway. Behind us, jagged edges to razor sharp points glowed blue with an endless supply of ruggedness.

D2D’s 24th anniversary saw riders sign in from 20 U.S. states and six countries. Hosted by “Dawson Dick” and his wife, the 400-strong motorcycle event comprised three days of rider festivities, local charity fundraising and on-the-fly poker playing.

After perhaps one of the liveliest non-rallies I’ve experienced, the return road to Tok beat backward under us. Peeling reluctantly away from the Fishhook Fatties, I arose the next day muddy-eyed, having burnt the candle down to a nub. Wending out of Tok, we rode into a peevish wind via Fairbanks toward the Dalton, the last leg north until we ran out of road.

Dalton Highway

I’d somehow curried favor with Lady Luck again, as an uncharacteristically dry Dalton Highway guided us for a glorious 248 miles. Gliding along a good dirt road from Fairbanks to Wiseman, we were just 12 miles from Coldfoot–the last place to gas up and the halfway point to Prudhoe Bay.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
The Dalton Highway is a long, desolate road dictating a little extra gas and grit determination, but it’s one I’m glad I did—if you time your weather window right, it’s God’s country.

The landscape took on a raw, peculiar beauty with a bleak “Wuthering Heights” quality. The only feature vying for our attention was the pipeline that followed us all the way from Fairbanks to the top. That, and Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range–where the Dalton crosses the Continental Divide–which holds a strong resemblance to the prominent peaks of Patagonia, Scotland or New Zealand. Take your pick, it’s impressive.

Jason did let it slip he felt a little cheated by Alaska’s bluebird skies and the perfect riding conditions that are usually pretty unstable. “Really?” my eyes rolling to the top of my head. Blissfully happy myself, I carried on watching out for Dall sheep grazing on the upper slope, a herd of caribou crossing our path and bald eagles overhead. It was a treat to see a family of muskox in the grasses to boot.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
Muskox are made distinctive by their large curved horns, presented in a Lego-lady-meets-Viking-warrior hairdo.

It’s true what they say–Alaska has two seasons: winter and construction. Inching closer toward Prudhoe Bay, I was suddenly on a white-knuckle ride on a loose section of road under construction. If I’m going to cruise beneath warm sunny skies to this point, I’ve at least got to earn my spurs on the last smidgeon of it. A stratagem came to me, like a god thundering in my head: just keep riding. 

I’ve surmised that after 47,550 miles, my journey on Pearl was set to continue as a great enterprise of balance: she imparts to the gravel a generosity of spirit and while urging me to relax and let go, frequently saves me from myself. Aided on the Dalton’s loose stuff by bumping into Lyndon Poskitt–a Brit who races the bike on which he travels–instilled a “cock of the walk” hubris in me that I didn’t know I possessed.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
An Alaskan road trip just wouldn’t be the same without sighting a moose.

Hurray! We’d made it. Damn I felt good! 

Where there’s pinnacle pleasure, there’s Prudhoe Bay. Just like the road to get there, your memories of Alaska will calcify and you won’t experience it without feeling you’ve blossomed many friendships, forged some intoxicating new ones and deposited heavily in the good-times bank. Summer days I’ll remember as cloudless, the air gold and pumped with excitement.

An undeniable sense that having made it this far, I may have touched the vanishing point, but it mattered little and less. If “ecstasy” means the intrusion of the wonderful into the ordinary, then it had just happened to me.

You can follow Lisa and Jason’s adventures on twowheelednomad.com.

Two Wheeled Nomads Alaska
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

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