The Alaskan Odyssey – IV

This is the final installment of my notes from my 2014 ride from California to Alaska. My previous posts (post 1, post 2 and post 3) describe my journey so far from San Jose, California to Haines Junction near the border of Yukon Territory and Alaska.

September 7th 2014

I wake up to beautiful sights of snow capped mountains of the Kluane Range. The air is cool and crisp and the roads are wet. I grab my camera and try to capture what I see.

After a few moments the beauty of the moment is pushed aside by troubling thoughts of yesterday that return. These picturesque snow capped mountains disappearing into the clouds actually do not bode well for me as a motorcycle rider.

I am not quite comfortable riding out as the weather on the highway further north is uncertain. There are reports of ice on the road due to the storm clouds which could start pouring in a day or so. In fact I see lots of RVs coming south with a sheet of snow on them. I do not have the luxury of four wheels and riding on ice can be very treacherous. I can ride in the rain, as I have been doing for the past week, but ice and sand scare the hell out of me. A simple fall can have disastrous consequences. Maybe if I had some company I would feel bolder.

I had spent most of the previous evening researching, debating and discussing options with Karthik over the phone. Should I take the risk of riding further north considering the bad weather or should I cut short my trip by riding back. I could continue north despite reports of icy roads and chances of heavy rain in Alaska. Even if I make it to Alaska safely I will still have the tough task of riding back to Haines to catch my ferry from Haines on the 21st. I could get stuck in Alaska with no sure and safe way of getting out with my motorcycle. None of the ferries from Anchorage had any vacancies.

I could ditch the idea of going to Alaska, cancel my ferry tickets out of Haines on the 21st, basically cut short my trip and head back via road. Even riding back is not without perils. There is a rather large storm cloud looming over most of Yukon and headed south towards British Columbia. Driving south would mean constant battles with the rain. I could take an early ferry from Haines, Alaska to Prince Rupert, British Columbia leaving in two days time and avoid riding in the rain. This way I get to try out something new. But these ferries are few and almost fully booked. It’s easy to get a passenger ticket but there is no space for a motorcycle this late. I could take a chance and try to convince the ferry captain to squeeze my motorcycle on board.

I feel stuck, defeated and confused. I can’t make up my mind. Even today these options befuddle me and I am not sure what the right choice could have been.

This confusion results in a stalemate. I don’t know which way to go and hence I end up staying at Haines Junction for the day.

Haines Junction is a really small town. There are a couple of restaurants, a few motels, a small church and a gas station doting the highway that passes right through it.

They do have a very modern and well funded Kluane National Park visitor center which is a short walk from the motel. I spend a few hours there learning about the park and the First Nation people living in and around the park. They have loads of information on things to do in and around this area.

Should I go left or right!

By noon I have decided that I will not go any further north. I will go to Haines and take a ferry out to Prince Rupert. This meant cutting short my trip. However this decision does not feel true. It seems logical but I do not have a sense of relief that usually comes with making the choice that resonates with you. Here is an excerpt from my chat with Karthik.

KM: What did you decide to do?

Me: Still vacillating. I am quite torn. One part of me does not want to quit and do it just for the sake of it. Nothing else. The other is being cautious, almost defensive to the extent of it feeling like cowardice.
Me: I don’t have anything in particular to prove. I’d be just as happy turning back here. But some thoughts are still taking me back to Alaska

KM: It’s not cowardice. Bravery and cowardice apply in life and death situations. A road trip is not. You are not defending your life or loved ones by going on. In fact you owe it to your loved ones to be cautious and responsible. If anything.. My 2 cents.

Me: True.. But that thing about it being once in a life time etc.. Makes me wonder if we over thought and over analyzed the weather conditions or made a good safe call.

KM: Nothing is once in a life time.. Unless you want to shorten it by going overboard! You are the best judge of the conditions there and your capabilities to meet them. There is no bravery against Mother Nature.. No one wins over nature. It’s prudent to balance that. There will always be another holiday. Another summer. Another trip to Alaska…

Me: That is very well said. I am going to read that every half hour to remind myself.
Me: The thing is that based on gear, vehicle and skill level I know I can do this. But I would be doing this at around 80-90% skill and 100% luck. Which is ripe for pushing things overboard. There is very little buffer to play with. I should balance it out a bit in my favor.

KM: It’s not about the gear. It’s about your confidence to meet the conditions and the fact that it’s the Yukon.. A pure risk/ reward calculation should suffice. What are you trying to prove? Why can’t you try this again – with company or better weather? If this wasn’t you but someone you loved – what would you tell them?

Me: Yes sir. The more important questions. I will stick to my decision. I shall cancel the 21st ferry and head on to Haines tomorrow. Thanks for helping me with the reasoning. Difficult to keep a balanced mind sometimes.

Having made up my mind again, somewhat, I wander around the town when I notice two motorcycles outside a restaurant. I walk in and find the two riders, who were finishing up their meal. I introduce myself and sit down with them eager to hear about their journey. They are more than eager to share too! They are two friends who worked together in a farm in Minnesota and had decided to spend the summer working on a fishing boat off the coast of Alaska. To make it even more exciting they rode up to Alaska at the beginning of summer on two Kawasaki KLR 650s. They had finished their fishing assignment and were now heading back having just crossed the very mountain passes I am trying to avoid.

They are traveling on a shoe string budget. The motorcycles are old but capable. They have make-shift motorcycle gear. Hiking shoes for riding boots, really thick rubber gloves for riding gloves. Multiple layers of sweaters and fleece to fight the cold. None of it looks comfortable or enough. They have only spent around $500 in the last three months. Eating fresh sea fish while on the boat to cut costs. Now that they are on the road they have a fishing rod to catch river fish wherever they camp. Even camping is mostly done at free sites. Today is the coldest they have ever been and they just had to get indoors to a warm place and thaw themselves out. They are treating themselves to some warm cooked food for having braved the cold.

I look at them, their long month old beards, their meagre riding gear, low budget and beaming smiles. Why am I not smiling? Even after having done weeks of hard riding I feel envious. I have a bike that costed more than their entire budget, I have very good riding gear, heated jackets and gloves. I have been staying at motels with the luxury of a comfortable bed and a hot shower. I feel like I am traveling in an RV compared to them. They are definitely more hardcore and in a different league.

I wish them good luck, give them some information on what to expect going south and bid them farewell. I go back to the motel with muddied thoughts.

September 8th 2014

The morning comes with a good feeling. The skies have cleared up. I can see the blue sky. The orange morning sun bathes the snow capped Kluane range. It looks like it will soon melt the ice on the road and burn the remaining bit of clouds and make this a very good day.

It’s amazing how much a little bit of warmth and light can change things. With no ice on the road and a small five day window of good weather I feel confident enough to reverse my decision and decide to make a run for Alaska. Boosted by the conversations with the two riders yesterday I feel inspired and capable once again. I decide that I can spend two days riding to Fairbanks, tour around a bit for a day and then head back before the weather gets bad. I will have to give up the ferry from Haines and ride all the way back overland but that feels alright by me. I have a quick chat with karthik and then my parents and apprise them of my decision.

I pack up, check out, fuel up and hit the road. Within a mile or so I am back into remote wilderness. The Alaska Highway skirts the Kluane National Park on the east. It quickly gains elevation and the temperature drops. But there is no ice on the road. Thank you Sun! I am soon treated to some mind bending views of the Kluane Lake.

Kluane lake, at 408 sq. km., is the largest lake contained entirely in Yukon.

The lake is quite still and even in this cloudy light mirrors the snow frosted mountain tops of the Kluane Range.

I stop and walk around for a bit. This place is empty. I can see for miles and keeping in line with what I have seen of Yukon so far it is devoid of man made structures. The soft breeze is quiet enough to give an eerie contrast between the visual and the aural. The vastness of the lake, mountains and distance that meet the eye is accompanied by soft breeze on the skin and the low frequency rhythmic ripples that wash the pebbly shore of Kluane Lake.

These views just make my day. I feel vindicated in my decision. The confusion is gone and I am cheerful again.

As I ride on the weather keeps getting better. The skies clear up and the sun shines through. I reach a small petrol station at Destruction Bay which is on the banks of Kluane Lake. Apparently it is named so because of winds which would knock down structures erected by the military during highway construction. It has a small convenience store and a motel. This could be the place to stay on another trip I think as I keep moving. I am closing in towards the border and this is one of the last few Canadian communities on the Alaska Highway.

The next hundred odd miles to Beaver Creek are rough. There is a lot of construction going on, lot of gravel, lot of stops, lot of one way traffic led by a safety truck. Roads are being paved and the sections where there was gravel large trucks are sprinkling water and rolling them to create a hard packed dirt road. This also keeps the dust down making my life easy. Most of the workers managing traffic are kind enough to let me to lead the convoy following the safety truck to save me from riding constantly in the dust cloud. One thing comes to notice. There is an almost even distribution of male/female workers at these sites. Heavy construction is usually an all male activity in the cities. This is a rare sight for a city dweller.

After a few hours of gravel roads I roll into Beaver Creek, Yukon. This is Canada’s westernmost community. It’s a really small place but a little bigger than Destruction Bay as this place caters to the Canadian Border Services and boasts of an airport. I stop at a Ida’s Motel and Cafe for lunch. It is closed but a sign on the door tells me to knock on the room #1 door if I need service. I do and out comes an old Punjabi gentleman who eyes me curiously. It seems like I have woken him up. He is tall and has gray hair and a short beard. He walks over to the cafe and lets me in. I order a ‘western omelet’ with extra chillies and sit alone in a large dining area waiting for my food. Once I get it I start chatting with the owner. He moved to Yukon from India around thirty years ago and worked for the Yukon government for the most part before settling in at Beaver Creek to run this cafe and motel. He had a young Pakistani bus boy/helper. I wonder how life is for anyone in such remote places let alone someone who is not a native.

The US border post is around 30 miles from Beaver Creek. The roads are already getting better and the temperature warmer.

I see signs indicating a change of guard and soon I see the final welcome sign for this trip!

It’s done!

After 12 days on the road I have finally reached the fabled Alaska that I have been chasing so far! I am so glad that I chose to carry on and not turn around at Haines Junction. After a few photos with the welcome sign I move along towards the border check-post. Just like at the welcome sign there is not a single soul at the border crossing. I pull up to the first window and wait a few minutes before an officer comes out to assist me. The crossing is a bit smoother than I expect. Since I had landed in SFO for my last entry into USA my short excursion into Canada and back does not require any new entry stamp on my passport. I am let in without any issues. In fact I take an extra few minutes to double check with the officer whether everything is in order before continuing further.

As I ride further into Alaska a small sense of achievement mixed with relief and satisfaction starts to grow. Just a few hours ago I was struggling with choices and conflicting emotions and now I feel accomplished and relaxed. The wide smooth sweeping roads look inviting and I begin to chomp down the miles. I pass some small communities on the way. The Alaska Highway runs with the Tanana River for a little while. By around 3pm I reach the town of Tok.

I stop to fuel up the motorcycle and myself. There is proper 4G network at Tok and after more than a week of network handicap I can finally use the phone. I send out some messages and make a few phone calls. It’s half past three and I have about 200 miles to go to Fairbanks, Alaska. Abhi who had flown in to Alaska earlier was waiting for me there. I ask about the road conditions from a local. He says that the roads are good with no construction work. With about 5 hours of daylight left I reckon that it’s possible to do another 200 miles at an easy pace given that I am not feeling tired. It’s a little bit more riding than what I would like to do in a day but I have done this sort of mileage before and the prospect of meeting up with a friend at the end of the day is attractive. I will also get to avoid spending a hundred odd dollars on a motel at Tok.

With these thoughts in mind I get back on to the motorcycle and the Alaska Highway. As I reached the outskirts of this small town of Tok I begin to get up to highway speeds when all of a sudden a car, ahead of me, makes a U turn. I have not seen this car until now. It has been hidden in front of a truck ahead of me which at the very last moment peeled off to the right. Now I am face to face with this car which is in the middle of making a U turn. I have very little time and distance to brake and risk T-boning the car if I don’t stop in time. Almost instinctively I swerve left to avoid hitting the car and hope that the driver sees me in time and stops turning.

Well one can certainly hope for the best but should prepare for the worst.

The driver doesn’t see me until I actually hit him. This is not what I had hoped for. Since I have not braked to avoid t-boning the car I have not slowed down at al. I hit the car right above the left front tire and go flying off the handle bars for a considerable distance before I land on the left shoulder of the road. As it is with most accidents or slightly traumatic events your brain is super alert and minutest of details are magnified. I have multiple feelings in the span of a few seconds. I feel anger towards the car driver. I feel a bit numb as I hear the sounds of the impact slowly making a deep impression in my brain. I feel rather loose in the mind but rigid in the body as I involuntarily fly. I feel the wind get knocked out of me as soon as I land on my right shoulder and ankle. I gasp for air as soon as I feel that I have control over my body. I frantically try to get my helmet off as I just can’t breathe with the chin guard of the helmet so close to my mouth. I see, from the corner of my eye, for a split second, the condition of my motorcycle which quickly tells me that this was not a small bump and that my trip could very well be over. The fragility of motorcycle riding dawns on me once again when I see pieces of my steel luggage boxes lying about.

Soon I hear people rushing to me. The car driver is first. As I gasp for air I hear him say “Are you alright? I am sorry I didn’t see you at all!”. I was wearing a bright pink rain jacket and still hadn’t caught his attention. I am too winded to see his face. I do see his T-shirt which had some german writing on it. I gesture him to help me with the helmet as I cannot work the strap with gloves on my hand. In hindsight that was a mistake as I could have further injured myself by moving the neck around. But who remembers these things when you can’t breathe. Next to the scene is a passerby who heard the crash. He happens to be an off-duty EMS (Emergency Medical Services) member who has sufficient training. He quickly puts a brace around my neck to keep it from moving and causing any further damage and starts with first responder tasks. From his quick check it is clear that I am hurting.

This is where preparation for the worst comes in to play. I have really good riding gear. I have brand new riding shoes with ankle and shin protection. I have jackets and pants with armor to protect the knee, elbows, back and hip. I also have a good quality full face helmet. I firmly believe in ATGATT. I do agree that it is no substitute for the safety and protection one gets from driving in a car but it does make a difference when an accident is in that “sweet spot”.

An ambulance arrives and whisks me away to an emergency clinic just half a mile away. I spend the next few hours getting x-rayed and talking to the Alaska State Trooper who was taking statements. I have no broken bones, a small wound on my left knee. My right ankle is swollen and my right shoulder hurts. Things could have been much worse. I am quite lucky! The nurse reminds me this a few times as she checks my range of motion. I bounce well apparently.

I definitely cannot walk away from the accident though. The pain and swelling in the ankle is enough to keep me from walking. With no mobility and no traveling companion to help I am rather stuck. The wonderful staff of the Tok EMS realize this and offer to help. They get me dinner while I wait for some blood test results. While I was getting looked at my phone had been ringing off the hook. As soon as I got ahold of my phone I call my family and a few friends to let them know what happened and that I was safe now. Abhi, in Fairbanks, decides to come down and help me out. However, by the time he can get a rental and drive down to Tok it will be very late in the night. The EMS staff suggest that he should leave in the morning tomorrow as it will be safer. They also suggest that I stay the night at the EMS chief’s house which is another half a mile away. He has a spare couch in the living room that I can use. I am given some medicines and wheeled to a truck and then driven to his house. The nurse who is looking after me lives in an outhouse on the same property. She promises me a house call the next morning. What hospitality!

I take my painkillers and go to sleep counting my lucky stars and feeling quite overwhelmed by the hospitality and the help I have got.

September 9th – 12th, 2014

The nurse shows up early in the morning and declares that the swelling had gone down considerably and diagnoses a possible ligament tear in the ankle and shoulder. I don’t need any further emergency treatment. However, I still need to get a doctor to look at it when I get back home.

The EMS staff have been very very helpful. I shall forever remember their kindness.

Abhi arrives in Tok with a rental car and we move to a motel. I spend the next couple of days doing basic paper work, working with the insurance, figuring out a way to get back with all the gear and luggage that survived the accident.

My motorcycle is deemed totaled. I check on it at the local towing yard and concur. It is not going anywhere. It was a good steed that had served me well for over twenty thousand miles. I had the pleasure of riding it to twenty three states or territories across three different countries, the highest and lowest motorable road in North America, along the Pacific Coast and the Atlantic Coast, across the Great Continental Divide. I have some really good memories with my F800GS.

I am getting better quickly and within a day I am able to hobble around slowly, although with some pain, without needing any help. This means that I can fly back by myself. We depart from Tok to Fairbanks to return the rental car.

It is a great drive. Warm temperatures and clear skies.

We reach the end of the Alaska Highway at Delta Junction.

I just had 85 miles to cover before I could have said that I traversed the whole Alaska Highway with no issues. But I can’t say that now can I?

After spending a night at Fairbanks we take a shuttle to Anchorage where I will be flying out from. The drive is once again fantastic. I would have certainly had a good ride if not for the accident.

The shuttle driver is a very interesting lady who has had all sorts of jobs and says that that is the way of life in Alaska. She has been in the military, worked at an oil rig, worked as an IT admin, driver, bank officer etc. She has varied hobbies like opera singing, hunting, trapping, fishing, cross country skiing. What a woman! I see Mt. Denali albeit from afar and from the confines of a shuttle. I am still enjoying the views.

I fly out the next day from Anchorage airport with all my luggage in two large bags. I am lucky enough to get the window seat and see from high up in the sky the last two weeks of my journey played back in reverse. Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and then finally California. I did ride quite a distance. A total of around 3200 miles.

This has been my most ambitious journey so far. I have enojyed almost every bit of it. In hindsight now I love every bit, all the ups and all the downs. I do feel at times that I got what I wanted out of the trip but many times I feel like I have not. I have been defeated and have not finished the project successfully.

However, these are really just after thoughts and matter very little compared to the actual act of journeying and living on the go.

2 thoughts on “The Alaskan Odyssey – IV

  1. Pingback: The Alaskan Odyssey – III | Nobody Going Nowhere

  2. What a riveting read. I could feel my heart rate go up when you described the accident. The hospitality provided by the nurse and others was indeed very timely. One shouldn’t leave any opportunity to do good karma I guess. You sometimes don’t even realize how important your “small deed” can be for someone else.
    Like your friend, Karthik said, you can always go back but hopefully with some company this time. šŸ™‚

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