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Dr Frazier Rides the Alaska Pipeline

Friday, November 9, 2007
One year someone stole this sign at the Arctic Circle.  The new one has been in place for some time  maybe being too big to unbolt and carry away.
Scampering through the wilderness of Alaska, our Adventure-Touring guru, Gregory Frazier, followed the Trans-Alaska pipeline past the Arctic Circle.
Motorcycle Alaska: Riding the Pipe Adventure or Excursion Ride?

Bike down! A BMW rider had crashed his Bavarian adventure behemoth on a slow, straight section of gravel road. It had been 25-mph two-wheel symmetry to watch. First the rear end had gone sideways, trying to pass the front wheel. Then the pilot tried to muscle the horns of the twisted beast, stuck both feet out and slammed the throttle shut. The result was $25,000 of highly touted adventure-touring motorcycle flopping gracefully on its left side, spitting the rider off, both then sliding to stop 100 feet further down the road.

Checking the rider and motorcycle for damage we discovered little more than a severely hurt ego and $1500 of broken, bent or scratched motorcycle parts. The driver had discovered that "Riding the Pipe" could hammer a credit card for repairs and there was a significant difference between adventure riding on pavement and gravel.

The "Pipe" is the 800-mile long Trans-Alaska Pipeline that runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, most of which parallels a combination of paved and unpaved road. Less than half of its length is buried underground, the remaining section sits on top of 78,000 above-ground supports spaced 60 feet apart. The 48-inch diameter pipe crosses streams and rivers 800 times, three mountains ranges and cost $8 billion to build in the 1970's after oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. It now supplies roughly 20% of the US oil production.

In 1974 the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company built a 360-mile gravel road parallel to the pipe from the Yukon River north to the start of the pipe at Prudhoe Bay, the furthest point north. Prior to 1995 a special permit was needed to travel over this section, which was then privately owned. Today the motorcyclist can ride alongside the pipe the entire length, or slide along some of it as the BMW rider and numerous others do each year.

I was in Alaska on several missions this year. My book, Alaska by Motorcycle, was getting an update as well as the accompanying DVD, Motorcycling to Alaska. Some product testing for Kawasaki KLR accessories and adventure riding gear had me joining a team of riders with the new Aerostich Tours company. Exploring some of the more remote sections of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was also on the agenda, which meant getting away from the general tourist sections and riding where the pipe-going-got-tough. This last item also meant eating and sleeping with the bears and other wildlife, well away from cell phone and Internet connections.

The pipe is inside an outer shell with insulation in between.  Here it is on  skids  as it passes over an earthquake prone area to let it slide or flex in case the earth shakes.
Stretching over 800 miles of rugged terrain, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline pumps oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Adventurous travelers can follow the pipeline route on paved and unpaved roads.
The words "adventure" and "motorcycle" have a wide range of definitions. For some adventure starts when they begin planning for their 5,000 to 10,000-mile effort just to reach Alaska. Purchasing what they think they need to ride to and from Alaska can easily leave credit card riders gasping in the $20,000 -$40,000 range. Add $150 - $250 a day travel costs for two to four weeks, a ferryboat ride for $1500, new camera, some electronic gizmos to keep sounds flowing into their ears and the rider can soon experience one definition of adventure: "a noteworthy event," as in making mammoth outlays of cash.

Another adventure definition, "an activity of a hazardous or exciting nature," can be the ride itself. Dodging foot deep, rim denting potholes in the Alaska Highway at 70-mph on a fully loaded 2,000 pound touring bike can be both exciting and hazardous, especially when the rider zigs when they should have zagged.

Once they reach Alaska, a whole new set of factors come into the definition. My personal favorite is stress. The stress of being so far away from the safety net of a familiar motorcycle dealer or repair shop, being chased or eaten by wild animals, or the unknown of sleeping, eating and traveling far away from home. For each rider a personal stress level, his or her envelope for defining adventure, is different. My stress meter glows orange when I see a motorhome or car pulling a trailer. I know Grandma or Grandpa, driving the metal elephant, is looking out and around for moose or bears, definitely not me on a motorcycle, and might at any second make that fatal U-turn, left turn or veer into my lane. For one motorcycle traveler I met this year, his stress meter was bright red from the $3,000 tow truck ride he got when the ECU on his motorcycle quit working. It was also screeching after his roadside assistance provider put him on hold for 25 minutes on his personal satellite phone at $5 per minute while he was trying to get them to provide the paid-for help.

Riding the pipe from Valdez to where the dirt starts on the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks can be as much of a challenge as doing the gravel to Prudhoe Bay. Along the paved sections you can see as many animals and mountains as you can in the far north, possibly more. The pipe itself is more accessible along the pavement sections with a visitor center and places where you can pull off and ride up and under the pipe, then off into the bush. In Valdez there are as many motorcycle shops as there are at the other end of the pipe, Deadhorse (also known as Prudhoe Bay): none. If your bike or you break in either place it is a long and costly trip to Fairbanks or Anchorage. On either section you are likely to find other motorcycle travelers to share experiences with in the way of road tales or riding together for a while.

Too often I have ridden to Alaska, done the paved loop of Fairbanks to Anchorage, then the Dalton Highway along the pipe to Deadhorse and back. The southern portion of the pipe, from Delta Junction to Valdez gives the rider a myriad of scenic motorcycling with as many challenges as doing the dirty Dalton. Camping, roadhouses, animals, road construction, lakes, snow fields, and glaciers can all be found along Highway 2 and 4 to Valdez.

The skid marks in the mud tell the story of a bruised ego that slid south like the oil in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
The skid marks in the mud tell the story of a bruised ego that slid south like the oil in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
Once the rider reaches Valdez they have an option there not offered at the other end of the pipe; taking a ferry to the next piece of pavement at Portage, then riding over new ground, paved, to Anchorage and not having to turn around and ride back down the pipe from Deadhorse. This gives the rider more to see of Alaska and a different way of seeing it for a short distance.

Riding along the entire length of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline gives the motorcyclist about as much of a taste of Alaska as one can get. Not only is there the sometimes dangerous ride up the Dalton Highway over the dirt and gravel to the north, to the south you can ride up to and put your hands on the pipe, feel the warmth radiating from the pumped black gold inside (so it flows easier, especially in the winter). Anywhere along the pipe you can find a bear or a wolf if you are lucky, to give you that tall tale for when your get back home. You can also expect to find Grandpa or a moose on your driving side of the road.

My Alaska projects were nearly over when I met a motorcyclist at a gas station headed to Fairbanks with a plan to "Ride the Pipe" north. My previous two weeks had been spent camping, swatting mosquitoes, dodging errant trucks, cars, RVs and animals on 2,000 miles of Alaska's road system, while testing some pretty tough motorcycles, riding gear and equipment. I had watched both big and small motorcycles crash, riders get ambulance rides for broken bones and watched money fly out of wallets like moths around retired business suits in my closet at home.

The other rider was fresh. His motorcycle was spotless from having taken the ferryboat from Bellingham, Washington to Haines, Alaska. Even the stickers on his aluminum panniers were clean, as if they had just been applied.

One sticker perplexed me enough to ask him for a meaning. It was one of the oval country stickers with letters on the inside of the black outline. For example, the letter "D" stands for Germany, "E" for Spain, and "USA" for America. His sticker I could not place. I asked if it stood for Andorra or something weird like the Falkland Islands, once claimed by Argentina, or maybe Alaska-Deadhorse-Valdez?

He told me the letters identified him as an Internet adventure motorcyclist and asked me if I was knew about membership. I pled ignorance, but then asked if I was not a member and did not have the sticker, did that mean I was not a motorcycle adventurer?

He thought about the question for a few seconds, then answered, "Yeah, I guess you'd have to be something else, maybe like a motorcycle tourist."

The motorcyclist has only a 20  chance of a perfectly clear day like this to see 20 320 foot high Mt. McKinley in the background  the highest mountain on the continent of North America.
The motorcyclist has only a 20% chance of a perfectly clear day like this to see 20,320 foot high Mt. McKinley in the background, the highest mountain on the continent of North America.
I sadly hung my head for a few seconds, then looked up and asked, "Can I be a solo Alaska Motorcycle Excursionist, you know, get a sticker made up with AME in it? I've been riding around up here for a while, did the Pipe this week, but nothing I put on the Internet.

"Yeah, that would be all right," he answered. "I got my sticker for $5, you could probably do the same."

I told him I would look into it.

He then asked if I knew where there was any cheap sleeping in Fairbanks, Coldfoot and Deadhorse. He said that he had not been able to find any inexpensive hotels or motels on the Internet. I pointed to the tent on the back of my motorcycle and said, "That's as cheap as I can find. $40 will get you one at Sam's Club or Wal-Mart in Fairbanks, $40 more a sleeping bag, then you can toss them away when you're done."

"Huh, never thought of that. $80 is half the price of a hotel room for one night. I think I'll do that," he said. "Got any other tips like that?"

"There's a book and DVD full of them. If you order the Alaska motorcycle book and the DVD, and tell the order taker you found out about it on MotorcycleUSA.com, they will include free the American Motorcyclist Association 75-minute Alaska DVD, RIDE GUIDE ALASKA, but you have to ask for it. Give them a call at 800-532-5557 with a Visa or Master Card. They can Express Mail the book and both DVDs and you can have all three in a couple days, before you head up the Pipe."

He and I paid our gas bill and walked back to our bikes. As he was putting his billfold away I gave him a business card and said, "Have a safe and fun ride. My email address is on the card. Drop me a note when you get back home and let me know how your adventure went, and thanks for the help with the sticker idea, the 'AME.' It's like I'd be an existential motorcycle explorer, you know, a me."

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