The load on the back looks high and heavy on the 250cc Kawasaki KLX, but much of the luggage was clothing, air mattress, and a large, warm sleeping bag for camping on the permafrost.
“It’s risky out there in the bush. After you cross the second steel bridge, aim due north towards Devil Mountain and you’ll find them hot springs, if you can get through. Take what you’ll need, you’ll be alone and there’s nothing out there except the birds, bears and the bush.” The outfitter in Nome who was giving me this advice added, “It can be a devil of a three or four day walk out of there, kind of tough if you fall off that motorcycle and break a leg or something.”
My plan was to reach the Serpentine Hot Springs, just below the Arctic Circle. The various maps I was using showed them to be about 100 miles north from Nome. The road changed in description and name, describing it as either the Taylor Highway or Kougarok Road. Whether a road or a highway, everyone I asked agreed it was loose gravel or hardpan until I crossed the second steel bridge. After that some locals said they thought I could even make it as far as Deering over what were described as tractor trails, “since you’re on a motorcycle.” Others said the hot springs might be reached “if the track was dry,” but not if the water in the dips was too deep.
My Native “guide” and new motorcycling friend John Bahnke shared secrets of the Taylor Road and riding time with me while we had fun for an evening during a night of the midnight sun.
As I was gathering supplies and information in Nome, I was referred several times to the Wilderness Skidoo Shop (www.wildernessskidoollc.com
) where I was told there was a motorcycle owner who would know the road conditions to the hot springs because his family owned a house and some land near Kougarok. There I met John Bahnke II, who did not own a motorcycle, but did own the house near Kougarok. After we chatted for a few minutes about the road, camping, and what I would find towards Kougarok, he laughed, and said, “I’ll bet you’d be more interested in talking with my son John, he’s the motorcycle rider, crazy for them like you.”
John Bahnke III came into the shop after riding in on his KTM. I had met him earlier in the week but we both had our helmets on at the time and chatted only fleetingly. I recognized his KTM as he parked but we had not exchanged names during our earlier meeting. I didn’t make the connection between him and the snow machine shop earlier when people in the small town of Nome kept referring me to the shop.
Honda rider and another Native “guide” Roy Walluk kept me laughing most of the evening with jokes, jibes, and wild or tall tales of life in and around Nome and the Arctic Circle.
We spent several minutes talking of motorcycles, the small motorcycling community in and around Nome, and our respective bikes. When he learned where I was planning on trying to reach he offered to ride with me as far as his parent’s country house, and then maybe further if I could wait until closing time at the shop. Because it was late June and daylight until midnight, I accepted his offer, knowing we could easily ride the gravel in sunlight and hoping to get some photographs of other motorcycles than my own. He asked if I minded his friend Roy Walluk joining us, which I didn’t.
Both Bahnke and Walluk were Alaska Natives, Inupiaq people native to Alaska. We joked that I would be having real Native guides if they showed me the way to Kougarok. The laughing was the beginning of an evening of motorcycle adventuring and fun.
Bahnke and Walluk were not only motorcycle enthusiasts but each also volunteered with the local fire department. They shared stories and wild tales about life in Nome and the surrounding communities, having grown up there.
While Bahnke and I were waiting for Walluk to end his work day as a mechanic and catch-up with us, Bahnke spoke of his racing in the Tesco Iron Dog snowmobile race (www.irondog.org
), known as the “world’s longest, toughest snowmobile race.” The race starts at Big Lake, near Anchorage, and goes to Nome, the halfway point, then finishes in Fairbanks, often in weather as cold as -57 Fahrenheit. Two drivers, each with a snow machine, must travel as a team, nearly 2000 miles, one for back-up if something fails or goes wrong. Both must finish the race together. (In 2010 Bahnke and his partner were in fifth place, 200 miles from the finish when Bahnke’s machine coughed for a few miles, then died. The last 200 miles he was towed in by his partner.)
This bridge was originally built in Fairbanks. When its life was over in Fairbanks it was disassembled and floated down the Yukon River, then up the Norton Sound and finally carted overland 40-50 miles inland and re-assembled, complete with the Fairbanks street sign.
He and I traded stories by the side of the road about my riding in the BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE (www.horizonsunlimited.com/bigdog
), the “world’s highest, toughest, dirtiest and meanest off-road adventure motorcycle ride” and his Iron Dog snowmobile races while we were being dive bombed by Alaska’s famous mosquitoes. We decided that since there was only one road and Walluk was a fast driver, we would leave the hungry mosquitoes and let Walluk catch up with us while I poked along taking photographs of musk ox, abandoned gold mines and scenery.
Walluk on his Honda 650XR easily caught up with us before we reached the first steel bridge. The bridge was far from its original home in Fairbanks. It had been disassembled there, floated down the Yukon River on a barge, and then up to Nome from where it was hauled overland by truck to its current resting place and re-assembled over the Kougarok River. My guess was it had been moved nearly 1000 miles. When I asked why, Bahnke spread his arms wide and said, “See any trees up here to use for making a timber bridge?” As I looked around the tallest thing I saw was Alaska bush, maybe reaching 10 feet in height. I had forgotten how close to the Arctic Circle and how far above tree growing country we were.
My Native “guides” Roy and John took me fishing. I came back with no fish for dinner, but many memories of life in the Alaska bush.
Forty years earlier a friend in Seattle had gifted me a scrimshaw-carved walrus tooth, the inner tooth root canal filled with gold, and signed by W. Walluk. When I described the artifact and asked Walluk if he was a relation, he looked at me straight-faced and said, “Our family has been missing that sacred walrus tooth for over 40 years, send it back to me.” At first I was stunned. I started to ask where to send it, and then Walluk smiled, and said, “I’m just kidding. He’s a well-known and respected artist and relative. What you have is likely worth far more than you might think.”
Bahnke and Walluk offered me a choice: park the motorcycles near the bridge, take a boat upriver and try my luck fishing for wild pike or riding further towards the Serpentine Hot Springs. After hunting good motorcycle riding roads, fishing is my next favorite pursuit, so the decision was made for them to “guide” me to where I could catch the proffered “2-3 feet long” fish. What my guides did not tell me was that the tackle box was errantly left out of the boat. I spent half an hour flogging the one lure we had, a well-
A second bridge on the Taylor/Kougarok Road suggested it too was floated down the Yukon from Fairbanks and then hauled the 80 miles across the tundra to this river crossing, nearly 1,000 miles from Fairbanks.
worn fake rubber mouse that sank instead of floated. While I flailed away, trying to make the sinking mouse look like a swimming one, Bahnke and Walluk told me jokes and we traded the usual tall tales of fishing. What I did get out of the fishing expedition was a scenic private boat ride upriver while sighting moose and possibly one wolf. Walluk said it was a nearly extinct type of wolf, but I had learned by then that could mean a ghost wolf or stray dog, whichever Walluk baited me with in our hours of joking and laughing.
My effort to reach the Serpentine Hot Springs was halted shortly after I crossed the second steel bridge, 85 miles from Nome. I was alone then, Bahnke and Walluk having returned to Nome and their jobs. The second steel bridge looked much like the first, and I guessed it too had come by barge and truck from Fairbanks, but this one did not have a Fairbanks street sign on it like the first one did.
Some of these water holes in the road were shallow, while others were 2-3 feet deep.
The good gravel road after the bridge turned to a bad track, likely what was defined on my maps as a Tractor Trail. Deep dips were filled with dark water. For the first few miles I could walk through these water-filled dips, checking the depth, and then return to pilot the Kawasaki through using the low water spots. Then I came to the lake across the track, a dip 60-70 feet across and no way to ride around it, the bush on either side being too thick and dense for the KLX to drive through. The water on my side of the small lake was above my knees in the first 2-3 feet as I tested the depth. I thought about unloading the motorcycle and doing a portage of my gear, and then parts of the motorcycle, around the small lake, finally pushing a lightened motorcycle through the pond, but before I got to that foolishness I saw a broken tow strap lying in the road.
The broken tow strap on the exit side of a water hole told the story of one vehicle pulling another out of the deep wallow, and where my adventure ended. The water hole was too deep for the motorcycle and there was no way around.
As I looked at the strap I imagined one 4 x 4 truck attempting to pull the second stuck 4 x 4 out of the wallow, and the tow strap breaking. I was alone, 85-90 miles from Nome, and wet from numerous water crossings. The thought of spending several hours trying to get through or around this one mud wallow that late in the day, only to find another, possibly wider and deeper up ahead, made my decision for me. The Devil in the mountain ahead had won: I was not going to bask in the soothing hot springs. It was time to turn around and find a camping place for the night, dry my sodden clothes next to a fire and enjoy a hot meal with coffee while watching the midnight sun.
I had seen a collection of fishing cabins along the river several miles back and stopped, but upon inspection I decided my tent was going to take less time to set-up than it would to clean out one of the unlocked cabins. While the mosquitoes pestered me they did not like the
A gas stop in the bush meant where I used the extra two gallons of gas I had to carry, there being no gas stations 80-100 miles back to Nome.
Deet repellant I liberally splashed on myself and by midnight I was comfortably filled with spaghetti, instant orange juice and some dried jerky, nestled inside my warm sleeping bag.
I had carried two gallons of spare gas in a plastic gas container stored in the left saddlebag, enough to give me an extra 40-50 miles for poking around on the way back to Nome. A side road showed Pilgrim Springs, also known as Pilgrim Hot Springs on other maps, to be close enough to reach with my gas supply. Still holding out hope for a soak in a natural hot springs I decided to try to reach the area even though I knew it to be another track often through deep water holes.
During the gold-rush days of the late 1890s the hot springs was named Kruzgamepa Hot Springs. By 1908 it had a saloon and roadhouse, serving as a spa and relaxation point until it burned down that year. The Catholic Church built an orphanage near the hot springs after a severe influenza epidemic from 1916-1918 left many children homeless. The mission operated until 1942. When I arrived, the only things seemingly alive in the compound were
The dormitory at Pilgrim Springs was home to Native orphans after a severe epidemic of influenza decimated much of the Native population. The day I was there the only stories of those hard times were whispered in the winds.
mosquitoes and a few birds. Looking through the broken windows into the empty church, dormitory and cooking area left me with a grim feeling of how life must have been for the orphans in summer or winter. The wind blowing through the emptiness of the buildings and the surrounding trees seemed to whisper a dark sadness, not the sounds of happy children. It was a solemn place.
The hot springs were located several hundred yards from the former mission. Hot water had been piped into an elevated wooden holding tank with rickety wooden stairs leading up to it. Soaking in the thermal waters, looking at the Kigluaik Mountain Range 10-20 miles away, on a perfect warm and sunny afternoon, was my reward for having decided to risk the solo ride off the main route to the hot springs. This was the Alaska bush like it had never been described to me before: lush, scenic and serene, not the cold most commonly envisioned when thinking about the closeness of the Arctic Circle and the permafrost surrounding the area.
The hot springs had been piped into a tub that offered a picture perfect view of Mount Osborn and the Kigluaik Mountain Range, one reward for two days of living in the Alaska bush.
My second night in the bush found me camping with a moose. I had made a soup from my remaining beef jerky with hot water boiled over an open fire. Between the smoke from my fire, my talking to myself, and the noise of the motorcycle driving into the camping area I thought I would have scared any wild animals well away. Around 11:00 p.m. there was a rustling in the bush loud enough to wake me up. My first thought was it had to be a bear, tired of eating berries as they do during the summer and looking for early salmon spawning in the stream near my tent. I had cleared out my camp of all food and washed the coffee pot well away from my tent, so I wondered what would be of interest to a bear. My two day-old wet socks hanging off the handlebar ends of the motorcycle would not be appealing, nor would I with two days of bug spray on all my clothes inside the tent.
I quietly unzipped the tent opening and looked at where I thought the sound to be coming from and saw not a bear but a full grown moose. It was browsing on flower buds and leaves in the bush near the water, seemingly not to
Pictured is camping alone in the solitude of a quiet lake, deep in the Alaska bush. Adventuring with a motorcycle does not get much better than this anywhere on the planet.
care whether I was there or not. I thought about making noise to scare it away, and then decided that was wrong, I was the guest where I was camped in the moose’s feeding area. Quietly I zipped the tent closed and attempted to go back to sleep, trying not to remember 30 years earlier when I was camping with a group in Canada and a moose walked over a tent the size of mine with a man sleeping inside, stepping on him and knocking the breath out of him, but luckily not breaking any bones.
As I drifted off to sleep my last thoughts were about how I had failed to reach the Serpentine Hot Springs, but balancing the scale in my mind was how I was deep in the green summer bush of Alaska, sleeping next to a moose that was enjoying its dinner.