With dozens of trips to Alaska over the years, our contributor has amassed a unique collection of photos documenting how others prepared for their Alaskan adventure.
Alaska has long been a dream destination for motorcycle adventurists, USA-based and worldwide alike. Some spend years planning and preparing for their adventure ride to the far north. Others get a whiff of wanderlust and head north with little more than an airline ticket, riding gear and wad of cash to rent a motorcycle and ride within the state.
My bestselling book, Alaska By Motorcycle
and accompanying DVD, Motorcycling to Alaska
, gets updated every two-three years. While doing so it afforded an opportunity to travel to Alaska to see what changed and how road conditions affected motorcycle travel. After 27 trips to Alaska since the 1970’s, and 10 to reach Prudhoe Bay (also known as Deadhorse), I observed that motorcycle travelers had unique perceptions of what Alaska riding was like and how to best prepare themselves and their motorcycles to meet their perceived challenges. The outfitting and motorcycle modifications made were likely wider than preparing for any other destination on the planet.
Planning and preparation at the lowest level likely was done by the motorcyclists who signed-up for a packaged or guided adventure tour. They generally flew to Alaska or Canada with their riding gear and used tour company rental motorcycles. Some had been known to ship or ride their personal motorcycle to Alaska then join the group, but these were exceptions. When the rental or tour company-owned motorcycles were seen on the roads in Alaska, they were close to stock or had minimal functioning add-ons.
Sighted in Fairbanks before successfully reaching Deadhorse, this Kawasaki KLR 650 had been prepared in Seattle and trucked to Fairbanks specifically for the Fairbanks-Deadhorse-Fairbanks attempt.
The next level was the adventurist who prepared their motorcycle for Alaska and then shipped, trucked or air freighted it to Fairbanks or Anchorage. Some came from as far away as Europe, South Africa, and Japan and reflected serious modifications and carrying systems, riding gear and camping equipment. Some were on ‘round the world trips,’ others had targeted Alaska as their destination.
Then there were those adventurists who spent months or years preparing their motorcycle to ride to North America’s furthest point north. Some purposely started as far south as they could, points like Key West, Florida or even further south on the globe, Ushuaia, Argentina. These long distance riders often provided the most interesting choices of motorcycle and modifications for adventure rider viewing.
Over the years I have seen motorcycles ranging from 50cc to a monster Boss Hoss manage the Alaska roads. As I had written in my book, about the only motorcycle combination I had not seen was a clown riding a motorized unicycle.
While I hadn’t discovered during my research what make of motorcycle was the first to reach Alaska, I did find that the BSA was one of the two ridden from Fairbanks to the Lower ’48 in 1939 by Slim Williams and John Logan - they being the first known to ride motorcycles down from Alaska. In June, 2010 the John Logan piloted BSA was on display in the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
(Above): Slim Williams (left) and John Logan (right) along with their dog Blizzard rode their last 800 miles with their BSA’s connected. (Below): The John Logan 1939 BSA on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
Given what adventure riders today felt was necessary for survival to, from and in Alaska, the two 1939 riders were adventure riding minimalists, having no windscreens, modified seats, GPS, spare tires, or expensive panniers. They did carry a gun with which to hunt for food, and a dog named Blizzard accompanied them. Their adventure spanned six and a half months and was to prove overland transport was possible from Alaska to the Lower ’48. Amazingly, neither of them knew how to ride a motorcycle before departing from Fairbanks, and had to secretly practice a little before leaving in front of a cheering crowd.
Modern day Alaska-destined adventurists have a wide range of motorcycle makes and models to choose from. Their individual modifications, whether to a rental motorcycle or their own personal touring model, are clearly part of the fun factor in preparing for the adventure. In no particular order, below are listed some of the most common add-ons or survival choices.
Tires seemed to always be a major concern. Some Alaska adventurists planned to deal with tires based on their belief that there were no tires available for their model of motorcycle when they arrived in Alaska. This belief led some to ship tires to Alaska to be waiting for them upon arrival. Others constructed unique carrying systems to pack spare tires to carry with them, either hoping to save a few dollars over having to purchase them in Alaska or along the way, and to insure availability upon arrival. Sometimes riders went to extremes carrying as many as three tires stacked one on top of the other on the back of their already heavily-laden motorcycles.
Gas availability, especially for small capacity motorcycle gas tanks, was another concern requiring a wide range of opportunities to be creative. Some riders opted to spend well over $1,000.00 for a larger gas tank for their particular model of motorcycle. Others went to the other extreme of carrying inexpensive plastic gas containers. In between were customized spare gas tanks and containers that were affixed to the motorcycle with rope, bungee cords or fabricated metal mounting systems.
Tires on this BMW were carried the whole distance from the Lower 48 to Fairbanks so the owner would have tires when needed.
Wind, rain, snow, bug and mud protection afforded adventurists an opportunity to test everything from extra-tall, clear plastic windscreens to textile or rubberized gas tank panniers.
Luggage carrying systems ranged from Army/Navy surplus backpacks to camera carrying cases to manufactured aluminum rear luggage cases, also known as “panniers.” Adventurer choice was usually a function of the economic well-being of their personal adventure budget. While one system cost the traveler less than $100, another easily pushed the $1,500 envelope.
Ergonomics, especially modified motorcycle seats, also presented a wide range of options, again often based on economics. At one end of the spectrum were customized seats designed specifically to fit the owner’s butt cheeks. At the other economic end were modified auto bead or sheepskin seat covers usually hand fitted by the owner to fit over their original motorcycle seat.
Luggage securing systems ranged from expensive imported straps to inexpensive rope or discarded BMW shipping crate straps.
Clothing options and testing choices were another rider choice. While Slim Williams and John Logan rode helmetless and without rain gear or protective Gortex, the modern adventurist options of riding wardrobe are far wider. Electric riding pants, gloves, jacket liners, boots and rubberized rain suits all provided an opportunity to plan, make choices, and test the results along the way.
This BMW had a unique luggage system.
Carrying camping gear versus a well-padded wallet for those choosing to sleep indoors was another decision that was often cumbersome, expensive and fun. Rather than pay $200 a night for a 1970’s dorm-style room on the way to Deadhorse, I had often packed a small tent, warm sleeping bag and inflatable air mattress (to keep me warm above the permafrost). I noted this being done more often as riders learned where the better camping places were along the way, but that Deadhorse still saw few tents or campers.
Gizmos and gadgets let adventurers push both their economic envelopes and the limits of their motorcycle charging systems. The budget adventurist to Alaska still found their free AAA maps would just as easily get them to Deadhorse or Homer as did the electronic digital gizmo addict who discovered there was only one road up and back.
Finally, any make and, surprisingly, any model motorcycle had been ridden to and from Alaska. The range of rider choices for adventure riding to and in Alaska was to some unbelievable, but to me always interesting. For one adventure rider, the choice was simple: they walked into a BMW dealership and told the salesperson they planned to ride to Alaska, and rode out the dealership’s door badged as 100% BMW. For another adventurer their choice was a Harley-Davidson Buell, with a mix of unofficial Harley-Davidson clothing and luggage accessories.
The best places for tire kicking and adventure motorcycle viewing for me had long been:
1) The Motorcycle Shop
This was one of several heavily loaded BMWs seen at the Arctic Circle with enough luggage to cause one to wonder what all was included.
in Anchorage. This Kawasaki, BMW, Ducati, Triumph, and KTM dealer was the one destination many adventure riders made a point of touching if only to schmooze for a few minutes with other travelers passing through.
The Harley-Davidson Farthest North Outpost
in Fairbanks. A Harley-Davidson and BMW dealership, this shop had a reputation as a Harley-Davidson destination point. Their taking on the BMW line from longtime Alaska motorcycle guru and hero of many, George Rahn, still had Rahn plugged into the flow of adventurists heading to Anchorage or attempting the road north.
The Dalton Highway, the famed road to the edge of the earth. This former supply road was the ultimate adventure test for both motorcycle and rider as it crossed the Arctic Circle, then over the Brooks Mountain Range and Atigun Pass to Prudhoe Bay, also known as Deadhorse. In June and July numerous adventure seekers attempted this 414 miles of mixed pavement, gravel, rocks, ice, snow and mud to reach the point furthest north on the North American continent to which they could pilot their motorcycles. While at one time only a handful of motorcyclists would attempt this treacherous road, hundreds now try it each year.
This 2006 Kawasaki ZG1000 Concours with sport touring tires and serious adventure seeker Jim Clark from Lancaster, KY was headed to Deadhorse, which they successfully reached.
Jim Clark, 69-years-old from Lancaster, Kentucky on a Kawasaki 2006 ZG1000 Concours, and his son Pat on a 2001 Yamaha Roadstar 1600 Midnight, had prepared for and ridden to Alaska two years before, reaching the Arctic Circle on June 21, 2008. On their second attempt, Clark said of their having reached Prudhoe Bay on June 21, 2010:
“I had sworn I wouldn't attempt to reach Prudhoe Bay if the weather was bad. After watching it rain in Fairbanks all morning and seeing the rain dissipate on Fairbanks’ weather radar near Livengood, we decided to go. The rain was steady all the way to Livengood, but we were optimistic that it would soon end thereafter. However, it didn't end and we slid all the way to Yukon River Crossing. Sliding the front tire on a very heavy bike was real scary! It was about nine hours to Coldfoot, but it was back near the Beaver Slide that I realized the Fairbanks weather radar showed the rain ending, because Livengood was as far as the radar reached. There were no radars north of Fairbanks. Ooops!
"Two years before we had ridden to the Arctic Circle in good conditions and had one brief mud encounter due to road grading. That was when I discovered the purpose of the large water pumps placed at streams and ponds along the road. Those pumps filled tank trucks that dumped the water on the gravel/dirt sections of the road in a deluge, thus creating serious mud. The tanker trucks made frequent runs to refill at the pumps and the mud could last for days. There were no warning signs indicating that a dry road was muddy over the next hill. Pat was leading when he radioed, ‘Oh s***! Mud!’ I heard that same warning several times north of Coldfoot on this trip.
Dirt attested to this older BMW R100 GSPD having survived the mud to reach Prudhoe Bay.
"There was one stretch in particular that seriously scared me about one hour north of Atigun Pass. That mud was man-made by water tank trucks to keep the dust down and settle the recent construction sections. It was black, deep and very greasy. On our return trip it was still black, deep and greasy after two days! A couple of highway maintenance workers were standing at the southern end of the treacherous section as we headed south. They seemed disappointed when we didn't go down. I'm sure they were waiting for an entertaining motorcycle crash.
"Southbound we hit light rain on Atigun Pass, but the mud wasn't deep enough to scare me much. More light rain just north of Coldfoot near the construction section was getting tiresome. South of Yukon River Crossing we hit a very treacherous watered section and even though I was riding downhill in first gear, I passed one of the small tour buses bouncing and sliding down the hill. I pitied the tourists in that bus and the driver who was probably getting it from a bunch of cranky, old tourists who had been bouncing around for many hours like beans in a shaken coffee can.”
“Next to mud, loose gravel was always a possible crash cause. After many ‘Gravel!’ shouts from Pat, who was always leading, I became immune to it. I did note that the types of gravel varied in different sections of the road. I deduced that gravel always came from a source along that section of road. If the construction contractor for that section had gravel sizing equipment and a quarry he used that. In the mountains they crushed local rock for the road. A couple of sections were very
Testing the temp of a BMW by letting mud and calcium chloride fill the radiator so that it was no longer allowing air to flow through was one adventurer’s gamble, or folly.
rough river-run gravel and stones that weren't sifted. I likened those sections to riding on worn cobbles with the occasional loose rock to dodge. These sections kept me very alert. Once, in a moment of inattention, I hit a baseball-sized rock and the result was a broken belly fairing and cracked oil case. I was very lucky that the oil didn't start leaking until we returned to Fairbanks and changed oil three days later.”
“We rode into the sun north of Atigun Pass as midnight approached on June 21. The weather had cleared and the road was dusty. The sun stayed at just the right angle above the horizon to cause much blind riding. It was scary riding one handed with my left hand shielding my eyes while my right controlled the bike.”
“Southbound trucks stirred up great clouds of dust so thick that I couldn't see Pat riding ahead of me. After one close encounter when I nearly rode into him from the back I switched to riding a quarter of a mile behind him and stopped when he disappeared in a cloud of dust.”
“I got a lot of practice dodging potholes and it became a point of pride when I rode a particularly rough section without hitting one.”
The scratched and crushed corner on this BMW side pannier seen in Fairbanks attested to its durability after a crash on the way to Alaska.
“They were many animals up there. I warned Pat to not race a caribou just before it suddenly turned left and crossed the highway in front of him at 35 mph, for him a very close call and a timely warning.”
“The temperatures were mild south of the Brooks Range, but much colder north of them. We plugged in our electrics north of Atigun Pass and I kept turning up the thermostat all the way to Deadhorse. My sheepskin mittens were very welcome.”
“We were two hours from Deadhorse, in the surprising and unexpected sand dunes, when strange low stratified clouds appeared among the dunes. It was a very cold fog that froze to our clothing. We were in it all the way to Deadhorse and it was pretty thick. We arrived in Deadhorse at 3:15 a.m. There we were told that it was called "Ice Fog". The temperature was in the 20’s.”
Reflections by Jim Clark on the Hell and Heaven of the adventure:
“The road conditions often combined several of the Hells at the same time, like riding into the low sun for long stretches on rough road when an oncoming truck raised thick clouds of dust that can blind you for minutes. My right hand cramped on the throttle. Meeting a running caribou that suddenly appeared out of the ice fog, and then dodging pot-holes and suddenly it became muddy and made me paranoid.
Sticker proving pilot and motorcycle had successfully reached Deadhorse.
"The Heavens included the adventure of the road, coupled with mud, rocks, dust, cold and pot holed and rutted pavement. Wildlife included wolves, bear, ptarmigan, arctic fox, caribou, water fowl and musk ox, most going away from the motorcycle but some chancing close calls. The sun at midnight on the longest day of the year made long shadows of the mountains and tundra. It cast a warm glow but no warmth, strange but beautiful. I questioned whether there was any place on the earth that changed so quickly from one breathtaking sight to another so quickly.”
Son Pat and father Jim Clark had taken two motorcycles not often considered adventure models, and made them into adventure riders.
For me, Alaska by motorcycle was again a truly multi-fold adventure. The first part was in the planning and preparation. The second was the actual driving experience. I would give equal weight to both parts of the adventure equation. After having planned, prepared and driven to and in Alaska many times over nearly a 40-year period, my adventure learning curve still had a few degrees of upward angle to it. About the time I believed I had seen everything that could be done to make the adventure more comfortable or more extreme, I saw something new, something that would work for me in the future, or a motorcycle that I had ruled out as capable of being ridden to Alaska.