Pictured is a sample of what some of the tracks were like where the my motorcycle would have to carry me and my survival gear.
An expedition motorcycle was needed. The plan was to travel across parts of Alaska where there were no roads, places were only snow machines, dog sleds or a bicycle could transport people and luggage when the ground was frozen solid and covered with snow. The major difference would be timing: instead of frozen tundra and ice the motorcycle would be crossing the terrain in July when much of the ground would be covered by two- or three-foot deep spongy tundra. What was a hard packed track in winter would be loose gravel, some swamp or impassable mud wallows in July.
The motorcycle needed to be light enough to be dragged through or carried over sections too deep to ride through or soft to cross. It would also have to be powerful enough to carry camping gear, extra gas and food to points where there would be none. Additionally it had to be simple; one that a shade tree mechanic like me could repair if a tire deflated, a crash broke a clutch lever or bent a rim.
Another factor in the decision of “Which motorcycle was best for the expedition?” was the purchase price. Where the expedition was taking me there was a possibility the motorcycle might have to be abandoned or that it would be confiscated for illegally being in another country.
Reasonable priced and with enough power to get through tough situations the KLX250 was a wise choice for this adventure.
The initial plan was to start in Anchorage, Alaska. From there I would somehow get myself and my loaded motorcycle to as close to Russia as I could, and then hopefully on into Siberia after crossing the Bering Strait.
My motorcycle of choice was a 2009 Kawasaki KLX250S (read about our own KLX250 adventure tour on Kauai). I had used a KLX250 before in the jungles of Thailand and found that the 249cc engine with six-speed transmission had enough displacement and power to carry myself and significant gear over major highways at satisfactory speeds or through some nasty sections of slippery, narrow trails. At 277.8 lbs dry, I could unload the luggage and then drag or push it through uglier sections. I also liked the purchase price of under $6000 for a new model. It was not an adventure budget buster and left some funds for the accessories I would need on the expedition.
Having been to Alaska 25-30 times since the early 1970s, I knew what to expect on the major road system in Alaska. What was an unknown were the trail or track conditions off the pavement between Anchorage and my eventual destination far to the northwest a few miles below the Arctic Circle.
Waterproof Ortlieb Dry Bag Saddlebags and a large Duffel Bag from Aerostich would keep gear dry while being lightweight additions to the overall weight.
I ordered the accessories I needed to outfit the KLX250S from motorcycle adventure outfitters like Happy Trails, Wolfman Luggage and Aerostich and had them ship the boxes to The Motorcycle Shop in Anchorage where I collected the KLX250S. When I explained where I was going, on an expedition to the Bering Sea nearly 600 miles from Anchorage as my last supply depot, each company offered some suggestions for my list of gear, including riding clothing and free advice about cold weather riding.
The 2009 Kawasaki KLX250S was waiting along with the numerous boxes at the Motorcycle Shop. Owner Don Rosene had known of my planned expedition and offered some friendly advice as I signed legal papers and started to bolt on and strap parts and accessories to the KLX250S in the parking lot of his shop. He said, “Take a sharp knife. If a polar bear comes after you, and you can run fast, maybe you can cut yourself enough to bleed out before it eats you.”
Rosene also introduced me to an Alaska State Trooper who worked out of Nome. As I rode away from The Motorcycle Shop to break in the motorcycle I began to wonder about his tips, thinking either Rosene had a good sense of humor or knew something I did not about the far north of Alaska.
The best known route from Anchorage to Nome was over the Iditarod Trail, famed for the annual dog sled race in March. Leaving Anchorage on the fully-loaded KLX250S to arrive at the first check point about 30 minutes away was relatively easy. The four-lane paved highway was simple work for the 249cc motorcycle with its weight. When I needed a little extra zip to pass a truck or slower moving vehicle I simply downshifted to fifth and had plenty of power.
The Iditarod Race leaves the pavement in the town of Wasilla where I stopped at the Iditarod Trail Headquarters. It was here I discovered some interesting facts about the miles ahead:
First, the 1,049 miles of the race trail to Nome was a symbolic figure. The race was really a “thousand mile race in the 49th State,” thus the number 1,049. The actually mileage was closer to 1,200 miles, depending on which route was taken.
Second, a bicycle rider had made the trip in 14 days.
Third, about one foot off the gravel track into the weeds and bushes of what would be the frozen trail in March was where the Kawasaki stopped in July. Maybe another foolish motorcycle adventurer would want to spend the next two to six weeks dragging his or her motorcycle and gear over the 1,200 miles of thick weeds and brush ahead, but this one backed up to the gravel track and began mapping Plan B.
I spent the next weeks breaking in the KLX250S, testing the motorcycle carrying capacity on and off pavement, and checking my camping gear and the weather worthiness of my riding gear. A stop at the Alaska Leather store in Anchorage they let me change oil and we renewed old friendships. Their proffered advice about my expedition towards Russia: “Don’t Ride Naked.”
I built up my own took kit. The one on the right pictured here came with the motorcycle. The rest of the tools I added from various stores around Anchorage.
While I was prepping and testing the KLX250S I was also working on an updated version of my book ALASKA BY MOTORCYCLE. Every few years I return to Alaska to see what might need changing from earlier editions, as well as research film projects for motorcycle informational DVDs about riding to and in Alaska. This year the news at Alaska Leather was they had moved to a newer and larger location, as well as had posted on their marquee the “Don’t Ride Naked” motto – a sticker of which they insisted I affix to my helmet, wanting me to carry their mantra to one of the last places on the planet where a motorcyclist would want to ride naked, Nome.
The next stop was at Walmart and then an auto parts store where I built up a tool kit. The tool kit that came with the Kawasaki was adequate for simple fixes, but I knew where I was going I would be at times at least 70 miles from town. Besides adding some basic tools like a hammer and vice grips, I purchased a bicycle hand operated air pump and tire patch kit. Passing the ATV section at Walmart I noticed two items that made sense to add to my gear. The first was a pair of waterproof snowmobile gloves that came nearly to my elbows. Knowing I was going to be close to the Arctic Circle, the summer riding gloves I carried with light rain covers would likely keep my hands dry, but not warm.
A self-made brace from a curtain rod kept the soft hand guard from pressing against the clutch lever at speed from the wind.
The second purchase was a pair of soft lever covers that easily mounted to the handlebars of not only an ATV or snow machine, but also over the levers of my motorcycle. For $15.00 they seemed to be a good investment against the high probability of cold rain and possibly protection in a slow speed fall.
The next decision was to go by boat versus air cargo. Out of Anchorage there were boats and barges carrying goods to Nome, but they were slow and not scheduled for when I wanted to leave and arrive. An option was to ride the motorcycle north to Fairbanks or on the Dalton Highway to the Yukon River Crossing and there try to hitch a ride on a boat going down the Yukon River. That option would have been even slower than a barge out of Anchorage and likely would leave me stuck trying to find a way across the Norton Sound. In the winter the Iditarod entrants (and the bicycle riders) could cross the Norton Sound because it was frozen, solid ice. Not so in summer and there were few small boats making the passage.
The distance between Anchorage and Nome by air was 549 miles. A promise of a two day air cargo delivery made this a more timely option than sitting and waiting on the banks of the Yukon River swatting mosquitoes for a week or more.
I had to strip off all the accessories at the air cargo shipping dock in Anchorage and ship the accessories in a separate box.
I rode the Kawasaki to the air cargo terminal at the Anchorage airport and began shopping for the best deal. The range in prices by various air cargo companies varied, depending upon when I wanted the motorcycle in Nome. $750, uncrated, would deliver it to Nome in a promised day. $500, uncrated would get it there on a less expensive carrier, but with no promise that it would be there anytime soon. When computing the price of a room in Nome at $75.00-$100.00 a night waiting for the motorcycle when I wanted to be exploring on it, the $750.00 offer seemed best, especially if I had to wait a week.
The air carrier I selected changed rules about half way through the packing process. Some bureaucrat in a back room concluded the motorcycle had to be shipped as two units, not as one which I had previously been told. The bureaucrat wanted all the bags (tank bag, fender bag, headlight pod bag, saddlebags, windscreen and carrying luggage stripped off and shipped in a separate box). Some hassling took place while the unknown bureaucrat hid in his or her office and issued interpretations of rules, one of the wildest being saddlebags on motorcycles were not fixed items, and thus had to be removed.
The other hassle was the airline counter person wanting me to pay a freight forwarding company located across town to fill out the one page form I had already correctly completed for Dangerous Goods. This process would likely take a half day and cost up to another $150 not counting taxi fares and possibly an additional night in a motel in Anchorage at $110 for the least expensive room near the airport.
Beach riding in soft sand with a fully loaded motorcycle made me appreciate the lighter Kawasaki KLX250S versus the Kawasaki KLR 650 I opted to leave behind.
Eventually the bureaucrat either went out for lunch or home for the day and the counter person decided the properly presented Dangerous Goods form I supplied would suffice. The motorcycle was stripped of all accessories which were boxed and shipped separately. With the battery disconnected and gas tank drained, the motorcycle was weighed, then measured for overall space displacement and my credit card was whacked with the promise my motorcycle would be waiting for me the next day when I arrived in Nome.
Two days later the motorcycle arrived and I reassembled it at the air cargo bay in Nome. A friendly worker there volunteered a liter of gas and my expedition began. The only good part of the air cargo experience, other than meeting some nice workers in Nome and Anchorage, was a telephone call from one employee telling me that the bureaucrat had been incorrect, saddlebags were considered an integral part of the motorcycle, and if I wanted to ship the motorcycle back to Anchorage using their company I would not have to remove them.
At the first gas station in Nome I stopped at to fill my nearly empty gas tank the cashier asked, “What kind of motorcycle is that?”
I told him, “It’s a Kawasaki.”
“Don’t see many of those up here, not that kind.”
I asked, “Have you ever seen any?”
He scratched his beard, and then answered, “Nope. We’ve got a couple of Harley-Davidsons, some Yamahas and a Honda or two. Where’re you going with that Kawasaki?”
“I’m going to see if I can get out to Council, maybe Taylor, then up to Teller and, across to Russia from there.”
He laughed, and said, “You won’t see the Harleys on that route. Heck, even the dog sleds in the Iditarod stop here in Nome. You’re headed where few people go unless they have to.”
My expedition out of Nome was looking up. I’d be going where loud pipes were not trying to save lives and I possibly had dealt with the last bureaucrat for a few miles.