Monday, 3 December 2012

Day 120 to 123 – to Haines, Alaska, USA


19 to 22 July    Kms travelled – 32,106

I welcomed in my 120th day on the road with a leisurely stroll out of the bar in McCarthy, Alaska, across the river footbridge and down to my chosen hostel for the night.  I had really enjoyed my evening at the bar; good food, good drink, and good company is always the best recipe.  Surprisingly lively given the size of the town, the bar sported a mix of locals, seasonal workers (who seemed the most up for a relaxed party), and tourists.  I guess I fell into the latter category but I did, in fact, feel rather at home.  A strange place McCarthy, but one that was capable of very quickly getting under your skin; I could spend some real time here.

And it was also a strange walk back to my bed too.  Although in the wee hours, there was still plenty of light to see the way, and even try to take a few artistic photos (such are the effects of a good drink – I suddenly found myself thinking I knew what I was doing with a camera – oh how I laughed the following morning).  I was sharing a bunkroom with Tomas, a Czech chap who was in town for the wondrous wandering that an Alaskan summer can offer – doing his own thing but on two feet, not two wheels.  I hope I didn´t disturb him.

Indeed it was on two feet that I spent much of the next day exploring the town, its history, and its people (past and present).  One of the tiniest of places, having shrunk back into near nothingness following the closure of the copper mines so many years back, it was curiously difficult to wander down the dirt covered main street; I think it took me over an hour in all to make that walk.  I have rarely been in a place that was so friendly, open and where people seemed to have such a genuine interest in your story.  I can´t recall how many times I was stopped and engaged in conversation, most definitely more often than I am in my home town.  Was the word out that there was another McCarthy in town, and that he was humbly following the footsteps of the late, great writer Pete McCarthy?  I don´t think so...  I´d like to think that everyone encounters the same experience on arrival here. 

But time eventually ran out, and I had to make the walk back out of town, over the footbridge (bikes and quads can cross it – but not cars) to the car park at the end of the McCarthy road, ready to be collected and transported back to Idris in Chitina.  I was sad to say goodbye to McCarthy – and realistically it was truly a goodbye.  I was unlikely to journey this way again.  While I was already planning a return to Alaska and the Yukon – I was simply having to leave too many things undone here – but that would likely be a couple of weeks on a hire bike focussed on places yet to see, rather than things already done.  But who knows...  never say never I guess. 

The journey along the McCarthy Road by minibus took around 3 hours, and it was well into the evening by the time my cramped legs stretched down onto Idris´ all too familiar footpegs.  It was nice to be reunited, even for the short run to find a bed for the night.  But the journey along the McCarthy Road was not without its highlights.  There were still some parts of the original rail bridges available to view, and a reasonable dash of impressive wildlife too, including a most grand lady moose.


My views on the road itself mirrored those of my KLR friend of a few days before.  A whole lot of loose gravel, huge amounts of dust, and lots of road works – plus punctures galore.  We passed a few 4 wheelers doing the required tyre changes, plus our own vehicle had had a puncture earlier that day on its way out.  While the driver insisted this was nevertheless the best condition he had seen the road for years (as now the potholes and washouts had been more or less filled), I would imagine that next year (2013) would be a far better time to tackle the road on two wheels – once a summer´s worth of traffic and a winter´s worth of snow and ice had compacted down this relative gravel pit.

The next morning saw me rise and on the road in good time for the trouble free and pleasant ride back up to Tok.  Which we simply rode past this time as we headed east down a stretch of the Alaskan Highway that was both new to us, having arrived in Alaska via a more northerly route, and in fact new to everyone in places.  There were quite a lot of long patches of road works right through to the border with Canada and beyond, leaving a real mix (again) of road surfaces to navigate.  I guess they only get a short window each year to make the necessary repairs. 

Pitching up at a roadside motel just before the border, I decided to stop for the day.  I had made pretty good time, and the place looked clean and well run.  It also turned out to be reasonably priced (for Alaska) and friendly too.  Having settled in and had my meal for the day, I spent the late afternoon and evening sat on the porch chatting with travellers as they made their way through (it was also a fuel stop).  It was here I met Michael from Ireland (originally) and for the second half of his life, from Sydney.  He was on his own round the world experience (GS800) starting the Americas section at the top and heading down.  Hopefully this blog will prove of some use to him as he heads south.  We also found that we were booked on the same ferry to Bellingham, Seattle in a few days, so plenty of time to catch up then.  We also spent a while chatting to Ignacio from the Canary Islands in Spain (Fazer), who seemed quite buzzed to be able to chew the fat with someone in Spanish for a while.  Happy to oblige and buen viaje tio!

The Alaskan Highway on the Canadian side got a bit bumpy.  It was not so much pot holes that were causing the issue, but the regular and often deep undulations that had my heart racing and wheels airborne at times.  I resigned myself to a slower and more steady pace, not least as the compressive effect of bouncing up and down on Idris´ well worked suspension was causing my long forgotten South American back issue to flare up.  Better get that checked out when I get home... just in case.  The wind was also starting to pick up...  curious that this becomes more of a factor at the more extreme ends of the earth.

This slower speed, coupled with one stupid driver who insisted in driving right on my tail for miles irrespective of the poor and changing road surface and local wildlife which seemed to prefer the tarmac, meant that I started leaving all waiting traffic pass me by at each enforced stop for road works.  This happily left me with more time to chat away to the people working the road stop signs.  It was at one of these signs, before a 2 km stretch of dirt road, that the young chap shared a story of a bear and a bike.  


Some two weeks earlier, during the wet weather that had been plaguing the area throughout June, a solo rider on a GS1200 had passed through the road works riding relatively slowly due to the poor (dirt) road conditions, when a large grizzly leaped from the roadside and paw-swiped him from his machine.  Rider and bike went down pretty hard.  The bear went down even harder, as the construction crew on seeing the incident drew their weapons and killed the freaked animal lest it go for the injured ABR.  It was reported that the bike was a wreck, but the rider survived with a few bumps and bruises only.  I was waved on with a warning to watch the roadsides, just in case.  And this thought gave rise to another as the question came to mind:  Do bears, you know, do their business in the woods?  It seems, from my Alaskan Highway experience, that they don´t – but in fact undertake the majority of their ablutions at the side of the road!  This did nothing more than reinforce my view that I should not stay long in the land of the bear...  well, at least not without a rapid means of escape.  I must confess, they still scare me.

But as thoughts wandered in and out of my busy mind, miles rolled by, and it wasn´t long before I was struggling to a halt around Destination Bay (which seemed more like a lake to me, but what do I know).  That northerly wind had continued to rise in strength, and after crossing the plains of a wide river valley a few times, my muscles were starting to feel the strain.  As I pulled into the fuel stop, filled up and rolled on to a more sheltered parking spot, I noted that I was not the only two wheeler feeling the same.  Bikes were rolling in and parking up every few minutes, including a lovely German couple (GS800s) on their round the world epic, who spent much time complaining about the quality of BMW dealership mechanics.  It seems that after over 18 months on the road so far, the only mechanical issues they had encountered were the result of sloppy workmanship by BMW.  Needless to say, they were now doing all their own maintenance.  And then Michael rolled in too – so much coffee was drunk and chatting undertaken, before we decided that the wind had eased sufficiently to move on.

I left Michael find his own pace, and settled back into my mile munching rhythm. It was not long before Haines Junction came into sight, and after consulting a local about alternative overnight stops, I decided to pitch up at a friendly motel with a Chinese restaurant.  Sat outside supping a local beer it was curious to see the sky showing the hazy reddish signs of the wildfire raging in Siberia!   

I awoke and packed really early for the run down to Haines – along the famed Haines Highway – a National Scenic Highway (I wasn´t exactly sure what that meant, but it sounded impressive).  

A number of ABRs I had met along my travels from as far south as Argentina had highlighted this road as something to be done.  But I was strangely nervous as I headed out of town for the first 10 miles or so of dirt road (roadworks again).  This would be the last ´real´ road I would be riding as part of this adventure.  I was getting those end of the journey jitters, worrying about doing something silly and missing the boat, then missing my flight, then missing my wedding anniversary – something I promised both my long suffering wife, and myself, that I would not do no matter what.

But as the road rolled by, and the scenery opened up, I lost track of all my worries.  This road had started with dirt, but was now paved with the most wonderful of blackstuff.  Quick and rolling bends brought us each time to new vistas that took the breath away.  Each turn of the head, as we rose steadily towards the mountain pass, what like a photo shot.  You could spend days here capturing the wonder of snow capped mountains, green grass and tree filled valleys, bubbling mountain streams bursting over polished rock, with herds of horses prancing behind.  Amazing.  Then glaciers.  Then jagged, ragged rocks jutting in to the sky.  Then more open plains setting out the winding road before us.  

And then a grizzly bear...  what!  Yep, a grizzly with two young...  right by the side of the road.  I rode on.  I stopped.  With one hand I pointed the camera behind and started snapping away, trying to get a good shot, while covering the bikes controls ready for a speedy departure.  A wonderful sight, and I am so grateful to Canada for permitting me to experience that before I left its shores.

Then the ride pushed downwards, through narrowing tree-lined valleys.  Through the border once more into Alaska, and then we were rolling left and right along a wonderful road which matched the wide river bed´s track through the fiord-like mountains.  I must confess I turned around and re-sampled this 10 mile stretch a second (and third) time.  It was a perfect day, no traffic, wonderful road and incredible scenery.  Even Idris´ dodgy front tyre didn´t hold back the fun as we came again to the side of the eagle reserve where, in autumn, thousands of these incredible creatures compete with the bears in feeding on the last salmon runs of the year.  Ah, I thought, that´s what a National Scenic Highway is – and what an understatement!   

And then it was Haines and, as I rolled into town, I reflected on how good I felt.  I noted I was sporting the widest of grins; a smile that I probably couldn´t shake even if I tried (which I didn´t).  My aches, pains, worries and woes had all been blasted away on the Haines Highway.  It was probably one of the best roads I have ever ridden, certainly one of the best riding experiences of my life.  It is hard to get across to non-bikers how something like this feels.  Petrol therapy – to the max!

Thought for the day
It was during the evening that I stayed in the motel near the Alaskan / Canadian border that the news of the multiple shooting at the Dark Knight film premier in Aurora, Montana, came through.  Some crazy had gone... just that!  And after stockpiling munitions for months, had unleashed his anger on an unsuspecting movie crowd of young and old alike.  The young student couple who were working at the motel for the summer were from Montana, and the horrific events became the topic of discussion for the evening. 

Not surprisingly the subject came back around to rights verses regulation.  I can see both sides, and I´ve noted our friends in the US are generally more protective of their civil liberties than people I have encountered in Europe.  And generally they don´t respond well to big government telling them what they can and can´t do.  That said, just because you have the right to carry arms, does that mean that you should?  Is it true that a vast majority of weapons used in criminal activity in the USA are, in fact, stolen from legitimate gun owners?  If there were less legitimate guns sitting around, would less people be able to use them for criminal purposes? 

Also, I subscribe to the view that government, and in many respects society in general, is there to protect the weak.  It is this capacity to look after those who are less able clearly separates us from most other animals (which, on the whole, tend to discard their weak).  I am supporting UNICEF´s work because they do just that – they protect and support kids around the world who are under threat.  Taking the point a step further, if government/organised society is there to protect, then consequently laws and cultural dictates should principally focus on protection of those who may be at risk.  If there is no risk to others, then no law should be imposed – leaving instead personal choice.  Violent aggression within society is considered illegal.  It is illegal to protect and prevent violence against those less able to defend themselves.  If, however, everyone is armed then you could argue that everyone is able to defend themselves to a reasonable degree and, therefore, societal interventions are unnecessary.  Sounds a bit like the wild-west, doesn´t it?

The still hotly contested question remains in the US about the balance between what you can do and what you should.  I pondered this question as I rode the miles – and could only come to the conclusion that greater regulation was necessary.  More detailed checks, linked databases, and waiting periods would not remove the right to own guns (well, not for law abiding citizens), but it could only help flag up when a possible nutter was stockpiling fully automatic munitions!  Curious what you think about when you have time with yourself.  

These were my thoughts.

14 comments:

  1. Yep - and a bit more to go too. :-)

    Pat

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  2. A great trip .Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Glad you enjoyed the blog. Thanks for posting.

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  4. Hey Pat. Good to hear the trip ended well. We met at the Stewart River Crossing in the Yukon. I was parked ahead of you at the gas station, the fellow on the KLR. It's been great reading about your adventure. On the last day of my trip, I crossed the border into Point Roberts to pick up new sprockets. I gingerly asked the border guard why the flags were at half mast, knowing some tragedy had happened. I had been away from the media for over 3 weeks. It was a very sad surprise for me too.
    Hope to see you on the road again some day. Keep blogging and keep the rubber side down. Brent

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  5. Hey Brent, great to hear from you, and I´m really glad you liked the blog. I recall our chance encounter well - always great to have the chance to pass the time at a rest stop with a like minded biker. I still envy your trip up into the north. I´ve pretty much decided I have to go back to Alaska and the Yukon again sometime to ride the roads still undone. It was a pity I was running out of time, and that I was getting so road weary by then. But where would we be if we felt we had done everything? Hope things are well with you, and stay safe. Cheers, Pat

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  6. Hi Pat

    Great trip- awesome, dude.

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  7. S'o good, thi's trip. Rubber s'ide down.

    Great blog.

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  8. Many thanks, glag you enjoyed the write-up. Remember you can still donate direct to UNICEF and help all those less fortunate kids. Just use the link on the top right of this page.

    Thanks again
    Pat

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  9. Hi Pat: I just stumbled across your Blog this morning as it was referenced in Ray's blog who is now slowly crossing the USA. I have just returned from a 17,500 km trip across Canada and USA from Vancouver to St. John's on my Yamaha XTZ1200. En route I was planning my next trip (rather addicted to ADV travel now) to SA. Your Blog is an excellent source of info for those of us who like to plan, and plan ahead! Just want to say thanks! Pete

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  10. Cheers Pete
    Thanks for posting and for the positive feedback. Overland travel is like a drug, possibly because it offers such rewards. We will all have come across scare stories about Mexico, central and south america, but my solo journey shows that with a bit of prep and common sense it can become the most amazing reality.
    Thanks again
    Pat

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  11. I'm totally agree with Pete...
    I'm on my way to south, now in VeraCruz, Mexico. And all the reference that Pat give is great.
    About scary moments, I did one 2 nights ago about..

    Thanks Pat
    Damien

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  12. Hi Pat: I am Ignacio, from Spain. We share couple of hours near in a gas station in Yukon. I was riding one Yamaha FZS 600 with spanish license plate. There was another rider from Australia, Mike. Do you remember me?
    I don´t know how to contact you.
    Please, Can you answer me back to:
    lagobaikal@yahoo.es , pls?
    Would be great. I have one incredible history to talk you.

    I was seeing your blog, it is pretty cool. I found the link because I was checking my pics from Alaska and I had ones of your stick in the side case of your bike. pretty cool.
    I have mines as well, but it is not finished yet. How ever, the journey does.
    http://topalante.es

    Regards.
    Ride safe.
    Ignacio.

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