The night before the line stretched 30 vehicles long. But now we drove right on and were delivered across to the opposite bank without delay. The Yukon River flows here with such force that they keep a Caterpillar tractor on both banks to maintain a passable surface for landing the ferry platform. We proceeded onward to the Top of the World highway, which would take us to the US border. This was a stretch of land that I really looked forward to seeing. Once again smoke filled the sky, but even more so than any day prior. The Canadians keep this road well maintained, it being the major sight seeing route for the Holland American cruise line's inland bus tour.
Much of the 65 miles to the Alaskan border was recently restored with 6"deep of 2" crushed stone. This made for a bit of a treacherous ride. We had to continuously keep up a speed fast enough not to sink into the stone bed but slow enough to keep from launching our motorcycles off the sheer, unguarded drop-offs that line most of this route. The beauty that this mountain pass is famous for was hidden in a guise of haze. Huge pastoral drops vanished into an ocean of miasma, leaving us only to imagine what we were missing. We arrived at the border crossing about 40 minutes earlier than its opening. This was one of the explanations for the lack of a line at the ferry. The other reason was that this road had been routinely closed down to traffic for the past 3 weeks due to fires on the Alaska side. About 15 minutes before the crossing opened a guy in his 60s pulled up behind us on a R1150GS Adventure. We spent the time until the border opened exchanging stories.
Forty miles past the crossing is the little town of Chicken, Alaska (population about 25). We were given warnings that Chicken was closed due to the fires and we expected to just drive past. Well, Chicken was a buzz when we pulled up to its 7 or so buildings. There were people hustling around all over. When we got inside the restaurant we could see why. Firefighters were using the town as a basing facility. We got in line behind about 20 firemen for placing a breakfast order. We seemed to be on the tail end of the sitting, which allowed us an indoor table. Jeff and I again met up with our new acquaintance from the border, Mr. Adventure. While we ate our caribou sausage and eggs, I pulled out my camera to show off my bear shots from the day before. Mr. A took a look at the images and then looked back at us and said we were lucky to be eating breakfast that morning. He went on to say that what we saw was not a brown bear, but a grizzly bear and if our story about being 30 feet away from her cub was true, we were fortunate that she did not tear us into pieces. Jeff and I gave each other a "you learn something new every day look" and went on with our tales. Best I can figure out is that the mama grizzly saw 4 opponents to take on; Jeff, the two motorcycles and me. About the time we were finishing up our meal some loud-talking tourists came walking through the canteen. They had to know everything about the firemen and their efforts. We did not pay much attention until just before they left, one walked up to our table and asked if she could take a picture of us. Jeff and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders in an "OK" fashion. By the time she walked out the door I realized that she had mistaken us for firefighters. Her parting words tuned me into this: "You're going to be on the front cover of our home town paper." I looked over at Jeff in his Hi-Vis Aerostitch suit, which he had left on for the meal, with all the dust and mud now part of its constitution, and realized that he was a dead ringer for the part. So somewhere out there our mugs have graced the pages of some small town paper with the headline "Our Heros". Riding south on the Taylor Highway gave us a taste of what the real heros were up against. This 60-mile journey on the Taylor to the Alcan had us running through some of the most oxygen-depleted territory we had been through so far. Several times we had to pull over to gain back our breath and wit.
Near the junction of the Taylor and Alcan Highways is the town of Tok, Alaska. This RV haven was the start of a very disappointing stretch of roadway. Let there be no doubt that this is where man has placed his footprint on this, the land of bogs. Yes, there are hundreds of miles of forest, but what stands out most in my memory are the areas where man has made his mess, Tok, Delta Junction, the North Pole and Fairbanks. Not to mention the Army and Air Force bases. Having dreamt of Alaska most of my life, what a buzz kill it was to find the same mercantile crap there that you can see almost anywhere. This was a disappointment to say the least. To be fair we did not travel into old Fairbanks, but from the highway well, as they say, Marshals anyone? And if Santa Claus is held up in North Pole, Alaska it must be against his will. Heading north of Fairbanks became immediately more interesting. From Fox to Livengood the paved roadway gets twisty, with broad sweeping turns. This area is where you start to see the pipeline pop out in the distant green mountain backdrop. After that fun we hit the James Dalton highway, a rock encrusted dirt road wide enough for two trucks to pass. This is the road to the end, Dead Horse. Back at Tok I had made a call to the BMW owners message service to hear if Joe had left a note for us. He had and the message went something like "I'm in Fairbanks staying at the Hotel Something or other" and he left a number. OK, he made it there safe last night and I guessed he was well on his way to Prudhoe Bay. It was about 11:00am and we speculated that he had bitten off at least 200 of the 500 miles he would be driving that day.
On the Dalton Highway, Jeff and I were almost immediately baptized with a stone shower delivered by an 18-wheeler doing at least 50 MPH past us and showing no mercy. Amen. Here the pipeline was running parallel to the highway, now and then disappearing, and then seen again on the other side of the roadway. The smoke and fire persisted, although not as intense. At one point we saw a fire directly below the pipeline itself. The firefighters apparently knew about the flames but felt other areas were more vulnerable. We later found out that the pipeline is built to withstand the heat. About an hour into the Dalton we found a section of road reconstruction, which ran on for at least 15 miles. The crews were done for that day and in an effort to keep the dust down, the whole distance of the project had been watered down - making for a mud bath far more difficult than the Cassiar had been 6 days before. I could tell Jeff was not thinking this stretch was amusing. All day long our CBs kept working fine, so I got on the radio and gave him turn-by-turn instructions. This method actually worked great. By the end, Jeff had built up his confidence and I believe it was his turning point as a journeyman rider. After hitting dry roadbed again I took off ahead of Jeff to give him less dust to inhale. I'd drive up ahead and then stop for a while until we made contact again. At one point I ran into two guys from New York City (small world) on BMW R1150GSs. I pulled over and introduced myself, then stayed until Jeff showed up for his intros. They said that this was their second time up there on motorcycles. One of the bikes had a cool video set up. There was a camera attached to the tank, so that they could ride and turn the view 240 degrees. We ended up playing tag with these guys for the next hundred miles. After crossing the Yukon River (yes, it flows over here also) we came to a place to get gas. It went by the name of Hot Spot, Alaska. I'm not sure if that's official or not. The place offered gas, food, souvenirs and rooms to sleep. The entire compound was crafted out of shipping containers. We were about 60 miles from the Arctic Circle here in Alaska and I knew that we would be in need of a place to stay that night, so I inquired with the good innkeeper if there was the possibility of a room we might secure for that evening. Indeed, the innkeeper was more than delighted to accommodate our request. With that task out of the way, we gassed up and headed north to the AC for our portrait at the marker. It was about 9:30pm when we pulled out of the Hot Spot lot. The light was still in the sky. Interestingly enough the road becomes paved not too far from here. The more north we went the more bleak the landscape got. Again the smoke was cutting out the vistas, allowing us to focus on only the near at hand. Getting to the AC was monumental for several reasons. First, this was the most northwest point we planned to travel. From here on in we'd be heading back home. Second, this was Jeff's birthday, which I didn't let on to him that I remembered. While at the Hot Spot gift store I picked him up some Arctic Circle and Hot Spot, Alaska mementos and surprised him by gifting him there at that moment. It had been a just a little more than two years ago that Jeff had first proposed the idea of learning to ride and going with me on this trip. In that moment, he had made his mark for the task. In turn, Jeff had a surprise for me. Throughout the trip, he had held off on telling me that his wife Jessica was expecting twins. Jeff felt safe in making this announcement here at our most distant location from home because he knew that if I had known this a few weeks earlier there was a chance that I might have tried to talk him out of the trip (not wanting the responsibility of looking out for the future father). We were really having a great time at this place. Unlike the AC marker in the Yukon, no one was around. Very strange because the park services here were much more accommodating than they were in the Yukon. We set up our rides in front of the marker and I had Jeff stand in place. The plan was to take two digital shots and combine them to look like we were standing in the same photograph. I snapped off about 6 shots and had Jeff stand in the same place I had been. I got in place and Jeff fired away. Well, he tried. After about a minute back and forth on how to press the button, it was discovered that the battery was dead. To make matters worse, Jeff's camera went dead back in the Yukon. Ah, all this way and no photo - I considered taking out a pen to sketch the scene! Just about the time we had resigned ourselves that life was just not being fair, the two BMW riding New Yorkers pulled in. We talked for a while and shared in eachother's achievements. The dead battery predicament came up and to my surprise, our new friends had a solution. That video camera setup they had on their bike had been running off an inverter. All I needed to do was plug in my charger and hot dam, I was back in the photo business. These guys were planning to set up camp at the Arctic Circle Park where we stood, so while the battery charged we discussed the different camping areas at the site and, of course, the possibility of encounters with grizzly bears!
We made it back to Hot Spot at about 12:00am. Not far from turning into the driveway, I saw a large dog-like creature cross my path. It was a beautiful dark gray wolf. The next day while talking to the road crew it was confirmed that a large gray wolf lived in the area. Besides the family that ran the hotel I think there was only one other person staying in the storage container compound that night. The noise of the generator purred in the background and satellite TV awaited us in our rooms. I went in to take a shower. As I stood there at the spray in all my nakedness, an explosion that sounded like a stick of dynamite came from outside and then rain like you have never seen. My mind turned immediately to those poor guys up the road at the AC campgrounds. I guessed they would not have to deal with the bears if they had any bit of the storm we were experiencing (bears are too smart to come out in rain like that). Including the ride back from the AC we road 660 miles that day.
The next day we woke up to spotless, power washed motorcycles and a sky as clear as they make them. We walked over to storage container #4 to pick up breakfast. That's when we noticed that this site was also being used as a base camp for the firefighters. The lightning we experienced the night before is typically how the forest fires get started. Without the flooding rains after such an event the flames spread rapidly in the dry conditions of this 30-year cycle. Heading south we again ran into the road crew and were stopped by a very friendly sign operator. Besides confirming the wolf sighting she told us that the State of Alaska was in the process of paving the Dalton and that within ten years the entire length would be installed. This is fair warning to those of you interested in real adventure; it's now or never. Who knows, someday soon, a McDonalds may replace Hot Spot?