Dr. Frazier: ADV Secrets for Canada & Alaska

December 18, 2014
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Driving through Canada to Alaska is on many adventurers’ “must do” lists. For motorcyclists, the conjured image of roaming the bear-infested ‘Last Frontier,’ fighting off swarms of mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds or seeing salmon swimming up glacial- fed streams can be accompanied by a degree of trepidation. There are some secrets, however, that will make the adventure less worrisome.

Slim Williams and John Logan made the first motorcycle ride from Alaska to the Lower 48 in 1939. At the time there was no paved or gravel road connecting Alaska with the rest of the United States. Williams and Logan set out to prove that travel south by motorized vehicle could be done, although much was over animal trails and tracks, and the adventure took six-and-a-half months. They used two BSA single-cylinder motorcycles, one of which was flown as air cargo over the most difficult section from Dawson City south.

Road Conditions

A ride through Canada to Alaska now can be done all on pavement thanks to the completion of the paving of Highway 37 (also known as the Cassiar Highway) from Kitwanga to west of Watson Lake. This route takes you on a west-to-east ride through some rolling Canadian hills to Dawson Creek, the start of the Alaska Highway. The rest of the journey to Alaska is on pavement to the west end of the Alaska Highway at Delta Junction, Alaska.

One of the secrets of the pavement ride to Alaska is that it’s never all on pavement. Harsh winter weather conditions often break-up the pavement, requiring annual road repairs. The construction areas can range from several hundred yards to several miles. The gravel, dirt, and sand can be one of the toughest challenges for motorcyclists, especially those on heavily-laden bikes not well suited for off-pavement riding. One wise Harley-Davidson couple shared their secret for road repair challenges. The lady pillion will hop off the back of their motorcycle at the beginning of construction zones, remove her helmet and hitchhike a ride in a car or truck over the road repairs while her husband muscles the lightened motorcycle solo.

What Motorcycle Is Best

Slim Williams  left  and John Logan  right  rode into Vancouver  BC with their dog Blizzard on a platform mounted between the two BSAs  the first motorcyclists to ride push pull  behind a horse  and fly motorcycles from Alaska through Canada.
Slim Williams (left) and John Logan (right) rode into Vancouver, BC with their dog Blizzard on a platform mounted between the two BSAs, the first motorcyclists to ride/push/pull (behind a horse) and fly motorcycles from Alaska through Canada.

Slim Williams and John Logan managed to keep their BSAs alive for the entire trip, solving breakdowns along the way without the benefit of BSA dealers or roadside assistance insurance programs. Where their BSAs fell short was in the comfort category. For the modern motorcyclist the best advice is to choose a motorcycle that is comfortable and affords wind and water protection. Small-displacement Vespas have made the ride, some all the way to Prudhoe Bay, as have heavyweight 1800cc highway behemoths best known for bagging 1000 miles a day over the interstate highways of the Lower 48. There is no need to purchase a branded “adventure” model to tag Deadhorse, Alaska or Inuvik, Northwest Territories. The ability to reach the extreme ends of roads is more the skill level of the pilot and their tenacity than the model choice.

When To Go

The best window for good weather is in June and July. There is no guarantee these months will be dry and warm, although they can be. Keeping good rain gear on hand is a wise choice, even if wearing all-weather adventure gear. If the motorcycle’s electrical system can support it, consider using heated, cold-weather gear as well. 

Riding, Shipping, Renting Or The Guided Tour 

Riding a motorcycle to Alaska will be expensive, costing more each day the further north you get. A $75 motel room in the town of 100 Mile House, Canada, will be $200 a night in Coldfoot, with nowhere near the amenities. Lodging, however, is one of the only significant budget items a motorcyclist can vary as they move north towards higher prices, with the exception of eateries and their menu items. While tenting and fast food can ease the drain on the ATM balances, there is no getting away from the price of gas when the station is the only one in 200 miles.

Higher up the scale of cost is shipping the motorcycle to Alaska and flying to meet it, or traveling by ferry from Washington or Prince Rupert, British Columbia. If taking the ferry, take a good book. Often the scenic Inland Passage is socked in with fog, not giving the passengers much of a view other than the gray bank of clouds.

The Kawasaki KLX250S looks overloaded but the high bags are only filled with a sleeping bag  air mattress and small tent. There was enough room left for the moose antler found along the way. One side bag carried an extra two gallons of gas in an inexpensive plastic container.
The Kawasaki KLX250S looks overloaded but the high bags are only filled with a sleeping bag, air mattress and small tent. There was enough room left for the moose antler found along the way. One side bag carried an extra two gallons of gas in an inexpensive plastic container.

Flying into Alaska and renting a motorcycle misses the scenic ride through Canada, but if time is a factor, this option cuts out 10-15 days of travel. On the downside, the least expensive rental motorcycle can be $100 per day. Bigger rental motorcycles bring heftier prices and some are required to be used for pavement riding only.

The guided tour from Canada, or within the confines of Alaska, is another time-saving option. In some cases it will be easier on the pocket book as well, being less expensive than flying your own motorcycle in or even riding your own, depending on your adventure-cost style. One downside of guided tours is that they’re bubble wrapped adventures where the guide and tour company choose the road and take the client to the places they think the customer should see/stay/eat. Because the customers ride together, eat together and swill together, there is little chance of experiencing the local color.

A seldom used Alaskan adventure option is to fly into Alaska, helmet and riding gear in hand, and purchase a new motorcycle. The sticker price for a Kawasaki KLX250S at The Motorcycle Shop in Anchorage is more than it would have been in the Lower 48, but the higher price is only a reflection of the cost of getting the bike to Alaska by slow boat. The 250cc motorcycle, fully loaded, is able to run with the big dogs (1200cc) on the highway and once off-pavement is better suited than the heavyweight adventure models. It can be used for a month in Alaska, stored until the next summer and used again for a second month of exploration. The savings over renting or driving from the Lower 48 paid for some wild adventures not on the usual Alaska/Canada adventure checklist, like 10 days poking around Nome, Alaska. 

Bears And Mosquitos 

This is about as close as one wants to get to a bear  while keeping the motorcycle running and one hand on the clutch for a quick get-away if the bear changes direction. Forget bear repellant  the bear will run right through it. The secret to bear repellant spray is you have to hit the bear directly in the face  which may just make it madder.
This is about as close as one wants to get to a bear, while keeping the motorcycle running and one hand on the clutch for a quick get-away if the bear changes direction. Forget bear repellant, the bear will run right through it. The secret to bear repellant spray is you have to hit the bear directly in the face, which may just make it madder.

Bears are most often seen in Canada. Many riders won’t see a single bear, other than a carved or stuffed one, during their entire tour of Alaska. One Lower 48 rider was so worried that he managed all the legal paperwork and expense to get his gun to Alaska, but then never saw a bear during his two week tour. Another rider bought an expensive canister of repellent spray, but was later told by the shop owner that it would only be effective at a distance of three to four feet. At that point the bear would basically be on top on the sprayer, and bear experts conclude the spray would only make the animal mad. He too, never saw a bear on his motorcycle adventure.

Alaska is unfairly equated with Siberia when it comes to tales about mosquitoes. The secret is mosquitoes vary from year-to-year, and month-to-month. One year in June there will be swarms consistent with those described in tall tales. The next year, a dry June, will have a month of mosquito-less days. Here its best to follow the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. 

How To Plan 

Time and budget are a good place to start. A base budget should allow for two weeks travel time when riding through Canada to Alaska from the Lower 48. Then add the time needed to reach the Canadian border from home base in the Lower 48 and then double that to account for your return trip. Comfortably riding 400-500 miles each day can allow some touristing along the way, scheduled oil or tire changes, and a laundry day.

It can easily take eight to 10 days riding to and from Alaska from the Lower 48, depending on where you enter Canada. A quick loop through central Alaska on the pavement will quickly consume another four to five days. Add a day or two for rest, maintenance and sightseeing and the two weeks are easily consumed.

Record seekers have blasted through Alaska and Canada in three to four days and nights. One rider from Los Angeles did the loop in 10 days. With little more than a sleeping bag on the back of his sportbike, he was riding 1000 miles a day to reach Alaska and return. When asked why so quick, he said, “I only have 10 days of vacation.”

The money side of the plan should incorporate the fact that Alaska and northern Canada are expensive, the primary reason being that everything from bed linen to swill has to be shipped in and once there transported by air, truck or barge to points away from the major ports. It is not unusual to find an item costs twice as much in Alaska than it does in the Lower 48, depending on where it is purchased.

A good base plan will allow for $250.00 per day while moving on your own motorcycle. This includes some basic motorcycle maintenance like an oil change, tourist purchases and sampling some amenities.

Any planning should include the book titled The Milepost – Alaska Travel Planner (www.themilepost.com ). Nearly 800 pages thick, it includes maps, hotel/motel contacts, ferry schedules and road conditions. Updated annually, it is filled with tips applicable to motorcycle travelers. It is the only print publication needed to plan a motorcycle ride to and from Alaska through Canada.

Know Your Motorcycle, Tools And Tires

There are numerous motorcycle-specific internet forums and threads that offer a wealth of information on what can go wrong, anywhere, anytime, on the model motorcycle used. From these sources you can gain a sense of whether your motorcycle is known to eat alternator belts or have ECU’s unexpectedly die. Carrying the right spare part might well save you thousands when your motorcycle dies or will not start and you are a $2500 towing charge from the nearest motorcycle repair shop. And once there you’ll need to afford the week wait while the part is delivered from the Lower 48.

This Ducati owner said  I didnt need aggressive adventure tires on this sport bike for any of the ride from the Lower 48 to here at Deadhorse. I did grit my teeth a time or two.
This Honda Shadow was sporting street tires as its owner hunted fishing spots well off the pavement in Alaska.
(Above) This Ducati owner said, “I didn’t need aggressive adventure tires on this sport bike for any of the ride from the Lower 48 to here at Deadhorse. I did grit my teeth a time or two.” (Below) This Honda Shadow was sporting street tires as its owner hunted fishing spots well off the pavement in Alaska.

Tire choice is another variable. Some large displacement motorcycles can make it up and back on one set of high mileage road tires, avoiding the downtime and high cost buying tires while on the road. A common and expensive mistake is to start on a set of aggressive off-road tires, only to find they are bald before reaching Alaska because of the chip seal of the paved roads through Canada. One rider bound for Anchorage to meet his wife, who was flying in, found himself in Tok, Alaska on a bald rear tire. His solution for marital bliss was to order the tires from a motorcycle shop in Anchorage that stocked what he needed, and then have them flown by a single engine airplane to Tok. The $500 set of tires cost him $2500 but he met his wife on time.

Tires are expensive on the way to and in Alaska. Like everything else they have to be shipped, trucked or flown in, resulting in the higher cost. Dealers will have stock on hand at the beginning of the summer, but the supply dwindles as fall approaches because dealers don’t want capital tied up in tire inventory that will just sit on the shelf over the long winter from early fall to late spring.

While the option of carrying tires on the back of the motorcycle through Canada and into Alaska ensures a supply if needed, it is an ugly option for two reasons. First, there is the dirt and grunge the tires collect from the road, making them nasty to carry into motel rooms or B&Bs along the route. Secondly, unless the motorcyclist can change a tire using tools carried, finding a motorcycle dealer willing to skin the old ones off and spoon the new ones on will be a challenge. Some motorcycle repair shops refuse to do any tire changes unless the tires are bought from the shop. From their standpoint, in many cases, it’s a liability issue, not related to profit margins, on tires sold and service charges.

One secret, if needing tires, is to have them shipped ahead to a motel or friend to hold for your arrival, if you can make the tire change yourself. The most expedient option is to have a motorcycle dealer or tire changer order tires well in advance and schedule an appointment for the tire change. The extra cost paid for the tire and service means more free riding time and no worry or hassle trying to find the tires and someplace or someone to install them. 

Final Secret 

Motorcycling through northern and northwest Canada to Alaska is a constantly changing adventure. While making one journey start making plans for the next one, for it will not be the same.

Money, time, common sense and good planning will make a motorcycle ride to Alaska through Canada an enjoyable adventure no matter what size, shape or model motorcycle used. The degree of the adventure is not measured by the motorcycle, it is measured by the individual’s adventure motorcycle fun meter.


Dr. Frazier: ADV Secrets Canada & Alaska 

This Honda rider admitted he had made an error by not bringing good wet weather riding gear as he encountered near freezing temperatures and numerous days of rain. A comfortable long distance Yamaha rider said he favored his Yamaha over having to sit on a less comfortable dual-sport motorcycle for the many days he had ridden. To manage a food budget  this catcher mitt sized hamburger at the Hot Spot Cafe was the only meal needed for the day  a secret on the Dalton Highway.
A secret for successfully dealing with a broken master link on a motorcycle chain 500 miles away from the nearest parts depot in Fairbanks is to carry a spare master link. Mosquitoes can get under the netting when slipping food under. A good splash of mosquito repellant on hands and face is the secret to keeping them from biting. Cold and wet on Atigun Pass in June or July can be expected  even though the pass is only 4 733 feet high.

 

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