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Alaska FAQ

General questions

I'm doing a similar trip. What sorts of guidebooks should I bring?
There are approximately eight million travel books on Alaska and, trust me, I bought them all prior to my trip.

Of all the books I bought, only one really stands out as The Book To Bring With You: The Adventure Guide to the Alaska Highway.

If the trip piques your interest in Alaska, check out Walter Borneman's Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land. It's an excellently-written book that covers Alaskan history, geography, politics, and more.

Before the trip.

Who's going with you?
Two of my best friends, Tony and Stephanie. Tony and I work together at Danger Inc.; Steph is a fellow Wind Dancer. They also happen to be married (to each other), which works out well.

Why isn't Peter going?
Peter didn't go with us for a few reasons, the main one being that he fractured two vertebrae while snowboarding last February, and a three-week trip on the motorcycle was out of the question.

Fortunately, he was able to take a couple of days off of work to fly up to Fairbanks while we were there. He travelled to Barrow with us, went to Fairbanks' Midnight Sun Festival, bummed around the town on our day off, and took the train to Denali for flightseeing with us. So, he got a mini Alaskan Adventure of his own. :)

Won't you freeze to death, riding through the Yukon and Alaska?
Not in summer. The Yukon and eastern Alaska were actually experiencing record-breaking heat waves when we rode through: it was 90F in Fairbanks during our four days there.

Alaska's weather fluctuates wildly. You have to bring layers, and just be prepared to stop add or subtract them as the weather changes. I did well with sweat-wicking T-shirts, a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt, an electric vest, and my Kilimanjaro jacket. Some days I rode with just the jacket and a T-shirt; others, I piled on everything.

Why are you taking a street bike?
Because that's what I own! I'd heard that since the Alaska Highway is all paved now, there's no reason to go out and buy a dual sport for this trip. Plus, I'd seen pictures of VFRs and the like up doing the same trip I was.

What mods did you make to the SV650S for this trip?

  • Suzuki handguards. These came right from a Suzuki dirtbike, and ended up being a great idea. I needed to do a little bit of dremeling to make them fit the SVS, but it was worth it -- my hands stayed much warmer/drier in the hailstorms than they would have otherwise.
  • SW Motech quick-release sideracks. I guess the "quick-release" part didn't affect me at all on the trip, since I never removed the racks. It sure was nice at home, though, when I could remove the racks in 10 seconds.
  • Givi E360 Deluxe hard luggage. Frickin' awesome. Completely waterproof (even in the hail and heavy rainstorms through British Columbia), and I never had to worry about leaving my stuff on the bike at restaurants. They were easy to carry into hotels at night, and -- best of all -- I could hose off the bugs in my driveway once I got home.

How did you get a month off of work?
I got asked this one a surprising amount. I just asked my boss, he thought about it, and agreed. It probably helped that I've been working at Danger for nearly four years, and everyone knows me really well.

During the trip.

Ohmigod -- pictures of bears! Why aren't your bear bells working??
OK, people, the bear bell on the mirror stalk? That's a joke. See, Steph bought us hikers' bear bells to celebrate the trip: we didn't actually put them on with the intent to scare off bears. You can't actually hear the bells over the engine noise. ;-)

Plus: we wanted to see the bears. Every time we stopped to photograph the wildlife, we did so only if everyone in the group felt it was safe.

There were two times when one rider pulled over to see a bear, and another person in the group vetoed the stop. One time, the bear was too close to the road, and there was no cover between it and us -- too risky. The second time, a mama black bear and two cubs were in the oncoming traffic lane, and there were RVs stopped to look while we all figured out which way the bears were going (no one wants to hit a bear!). The mama bear was obviously confused and somewhat agitated with the traffic: best to see her as we passed, and just keep moving on.

You really have to use common sense when wildlife-viewing along the Alaska Highway. All the books tell you to pull off the road and stay in your cars: use a zoom lens, and never approach the wildlife. Well, when you're on a motorcycle, you don't have the choice -- you're out there, outside of a metal box. For the most part, the animals ignored us; they were pretty interested in swimming, eating little yellow flowers, taking a stroll, whatever. The one time that a bear suddenly realized we were there -- he made direct eye contact and took a single step forward -- we vaulted back on our bikes so quickly that it looked like a gymnastics event. Would the bear have charged us if we'd stayed? Probably not, since we were still a good 50 yards from its yellow flower snacks. Was that a risk we were willing to take? Not a bloody chance.

After the trip.

So, how'd the bike hold up?
Pretty well. The most annoying problem was a flaky battery, but that was most likely my fault, as I'd accidentally left the heated grips on overnight at the beginning of the trip. The battery was also dead after the four-day ferry ride, so I'm suspecting that there's a short somewhere.

As the battery was a fluke, the only "actual" problem was bolts vibrating off. Both Tony and I found loose bolts throughout the trip (Steph may have as well, and I just didn't hear about it). In fact, my lefthand passenger peg bolt vibrated off near Denali, sending the peg flying back at Steph at 70mph. Luckily, she and Tony avoided it, and they stopped to pick it up for me -- I was blissfully unaware that I'd tried to kill my friends with a 10" long hunk of metal. My shift pedal was also loose by the end of the trip, and while washing the bike after returning home, I found that the horn was also loose and probably would have vibrated off of its bracket after another couple of days.

Other than that, the bike worked out perfectly. There was one stretch of construction, about a mile long, where the golfball-sized gravel was larger than my tire treads and made the SVS really squirrely. I thought we were going to go down a couple of times during that. Otherwise, though, the Bridgestone BT010 front and BT020 rear were just fine for the trip -- though they're squared something awful now. ;)

What were the roads like?
For the most part, really really good. There were some nasty stretches of construction between Whitehorse (YT) and Tok (AK), but that was pretty much it. The construction moves around from season to season and from year to year, so it's sort of worthless for me to describe exactly where it was, but here's what you may encounter:

  • Pea gravel. The same pebble-sized gravel found in turnouts all over the country. It was just a lot more prevelant in northern BC/Yukon/Alaska. Not only were there sections of construction where the road was covered with pea gravel, but pretty much every turnout and driveway used it. Hotel parking lots, gas station parking lots, restuarant parking name it. Once you get used to it, it's easy to ride on. Just stand up on your pegs and keep your shoulders and arms loose; the gravel is smaller than the tire tread, so the bikes never really got too squirrely on this stuff. It's more psychologically difficult than physically difficult, but, like I said, we got used to it really quickly.
  • Larger gravel. This was the most difficult stuff to ride through: golfball-sized rocks interspersed with pea gravel. We found it in some of the more rural parking lots, and through one mile-long stretch of construction. The latter was the most difficult part of the trip for me, as I mentioned in the above question. The SVS was sort of sliding all over; I couldn't steer, per se, and I found myself just sort of moving into the oncoming traffic lane (the road was, of course, cambered slightly for extra fun). Fortunately, it was a pilot car section -- one-way traffic only -- so it was more nerveracking than actually dangerous.
  • Rutted mud. Just what it sounds like: mud that large construction equipment has recently driven through, leaving big tire tread marks. It was sort of slippery when wet, but far less slippery than, say, a wet metal bridge or riding over wet leaves. When dry, it was easy: just try to hit the biggest ruts head-on and keep your eyes up.
  • Extreme dusty conditions. In Canada, there would be signs before each stretch of construction -- even the ones that were only a few yards long. Most of these stretches included a "Caution: Loose Gravel" sign and an "Extreme Dusty Conditions" sign. If we were the only ones on one of these sections, it would be just like a pea gravel section: nothing to worry about. If, however, there was an RV in front of us, or in the oncoming lane, a monstrous amount of dust would kick up and it would look like we'd landed on Mars or something. In the best cases, it was just annoying; in the worst, you wouldn't be able to see the road until the RV was safely back onto asphault.

That list makes it seem as though the roads sucked, but really, we hit frequent construction in about a 400-mile stretch of a 5000-mile trip. So, really, it's not all that bad...especially when you consider that most stretches were well under a half-mile long. We hit one 10-mile stretch of construction that was mostly just mud and pea gravel, but that was the longest by far (and wasn't that difficult to ride on).

Where are the trip reports?
I'm not doing my usual trip reports for the Alaksa trip, as I'm trying to sell articles about it to various magazines. You'll just have to wait and hear the stories from the published sources. :)