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IBMWR Trips and Tales

From the Land of the Midnight Sun
by Forrest Braun
July, 2000

 

From: Forrest Braun <fbraun@alaska.net>
Subject: BMW: Trip Report - From the Land of the Midnight Sun

The following is my recollections of my trip from Alaska to the east coast. It has taken me a while to get it together since getting back home has entailed a lot of making up time at work just trying to catch up to where I was before leaving let alone all of the new stuff on top. Anyway, I hope someone finds it interesting - if not there is always the delete key, and I'll never know the difference.

At the end of July, I needed to be in Norfolk, Virginia for an NSPE Board Meeting. So being the intrepid biker that I am, decided to make it a cross country expedition. This trip would be the longest distance that I have done on a motorcycle at one time. The intent was to take a month, leaving home on July 8 and returning on August 8 with the meeting between July 26th and August 1. We had one mandatory stop in Missoula, Montana to visit friends not seen in 25 years. From Missoula on I would be on my own as the SO would be flying back home to return to work. The trip was made on a K12LT bought new in the middle of the cold and snow of winter. Prior to leaving home we mailed a box to our friends in Montana that would take me from there on east and back home. In addition, I packed another box that would be Fedex'd (how's that for changing a proper noun to a verb) to me in Norfolk.

The northern part was, of course, done of the Alaska Highway, then once state side across the northern tier of states until I needed to drop down to get to Virginia. The idea was to try to remain in the cool as long as possible. The return trip was going to have to be quick and dirty direct line.

Over the years I have traveled the Alaska Highway several times and likewise the Marine Highway, but had never taken the Cassiar. So that was the route of choice. Of course a major portion would still be on the Alaska Highway as far as Watson Lake.

Since the original tires on the LT had 3,500 miles on them and having heard of the poor mileage characteristics of the stock tires, I had new tires installed and the oil changed prior to starting. It makes much more sense to start a trip of this length with new rubber than facing the possibility of needing new ones half way through Canada.

So 6:00 AM Saturday morning rolled around and we hit the road north and east from Anchorage. In many respects the highways, Glenn, Richardson, Tok Cutoff and the Alaska Highway from Anchorage to the Canadian Border are unchanged from 1962 when I first traveled "Outside" by road (and up to then only the second time out of the territory/state). Yes, sections have been rebuilt and updated (and still being rebuilt as the permafrost continues to leave the ground) but the road location is largely unchanged including the same frost heaves. The temperature was comfortable leaving home but by Glennallen was up into the 70's and by Tok into the 80's. It wasn't until coming back up the Alaska Highway that temperatures would return to an acceptable range.

>From Glennallen until we passed through the Alaska Range on our way to Tok, Mount Drum and Sanford in the Wrangell/St. Elias range stood out nice and clear. We crossed into Canada at Beaver Creek, with the usual questions - Where are you from? Anchorage; Where are you going? Montana and Virginia on vacation; Any tobacco or fire arms? No; OK have a good day. We stayed the first night in Beaver Creek, Yukon. Had a member of Canadian's finest RCMP next to us. We had a good chat with him. Normally stationed in Dawson City, he was relieving one of the other officers in Beaver Creek. He mentioned he was having trouble adjusting to the change in acceleration from the Expedition he used in Dawson to the Crown Vic used in Beaver Creek - not that he was complaining.

Major sections of the highway have been rebuilt over the years, replacing the old gravel road with seal coating and eliminating most of the dust and mud of earlier years. Most of the time we could cruise right along between 70 and 80 with no problems slowing for the gravel patches where the seasonal repairs were being done.

Just north of Kluane Lake, a major section of the road, 20 to 25 miles, is or will be under construction. The stretch this summer has relocated most of the road off to the side so we just crossed the construction areas several times. It looks like next summer could be different since preliminary work is taking place along the existing right-of-way. Right in the middle of all of the construction a coyote crossed the road in front of us. A little unusual for a shy type creature.

Kluane Lake is always great with its blue green waters surrounded be the hills and mountains of the Kluane Park. Though out the Alaska Highway we passed several different groups of 3 to 6 bikes were heading north. Saw only three total heading south between the Alaska Canada border and Prince George/Prince Rupert highway. We were beginning to think we were the only ones going south. A lot of Harleys (spell check comes back with harelip) with a few Goldwings (spell check -geldings)and only an occasional BMW in the mix. We never could figure out why the Harleys were always two abreast in close formation. On this road with its widely varying conditions, this formation seems to be placing a lot of faith in your fellow riders and even more so in the on-coming traffic.

Riding two up, we did the lodge/motel thing instead of camping. As a result we were traveling relatively light. Everything fit into the bags and top case. All the other bikes we saw had all kinds of stuff bungied on. I begin to wonder if I was doing the right thing traveling so light.

From Kluane it was on through Haines Junction, and Whitehorse to Teslin for the next stop. The weather continued to be on the hot side. The mornings would be cool and comfortable but by noon back up to 70 or higher. Teslin is on the east side of Teslin Lake, a large clear blue lake. The motel was right next to a steel grate bridge spanning a small bay on the lake. Each time a vehicle crossed the bridge - hmmmmmm, and each heavy truck - HMMMMM. While there, we chatted with a couple from Minnesota who were riding to Alaska first for vacation but if things worked out to stay. They had sold everything in Minnesota so it looked like a pretty serious move. They had had only a few hours of rain since leaving Minnesota and had been really enjoying their trip. We wished them the best.

end part one

The next day got us onto the Cassiar. Before getting there we stopped for breakfast at Swift River. While there a couple of riders came in from the south and stopped for gas. They had come the Alaska Highway and were returning home in Soldotna. We both compared notes on the weather, highway conditions and construction. I was warned of construction south of Watson Lake which I would be going through on the way home. After they left, a tour bus pulled in full of retired people from Kansas. We chatted with several of them about where we were from and going. They were going to Whitehorse and then to Skagway before heading south through the Inside Passage back to Seattle. We also told the driver about road conditions.

Since gas is available only at limited locations along the Cassiar and not entirely sure of the range of the KLT prior to starting this trip, we had worked out locations prior to leaving home - basically at third points between Watson Lake and Kitwanga on highway 16 in BC. These all worked like a charm - the bike's range is much better than the K100, the LT's stable mate. The greater range is due to better mileage and larger fuel capacity. In addition, I was finding that the gas gauge was giving a good reading on fuel consumption and more easily checked than tracking mileage alone.

The Cassiar lived up to my expectations. It is a decent road through some great country with mountains, hills and valleys giving a widely varying panorama. The type of plants and trees also vary as we progressed from the north to the south from boreal (Alaska toothpick) to temporial. The north end of the road was narrow and rough as it crosses through the north end of the Rocky Mountains. There were quite a few pretty good pot holes, one of which I made the mistake of looking at and of course hit. When I looked at the mirrors they had both popped loose and were just hanging there. I grabbed the left one and handed it to the SO and quickly found a safe spot to stop and popped both mirrors back on. I made a mental note - don't look at the pot holes stupid.

Our next stop was about at the middle of the Cassiar near the high point in the mountains. Mostly, we randomly found a place to stay usually calling it quits about 4:30 or so. So this night was no different - let's try here and here was a delightful lodge owned by a German/Austrian family. The lodge was much like a Gaust Haus in the Alps. The dinner was nice fresh red snapper, and breakfast the next morning was very tasty French toast. Breakfast was ready by our usual starting time of 6:00. All in all a very pleasant surprise in the middle of nowhere.

The next morning started out rainy, the first real rain since leaving home. The rain lasted about 2 hours before breaking off and the rest of the day slowly continued to get better and hotter. There are several fairly steep grades along the Cassiar varying from 7% to as much as 9% which for roads are pretty steep. Invariably there would be a wood planked bridge at the bottom before climbing back up the other side. Before leaving Anchorage I had heard that one biker heading north had bit the dust on one of these steep grades ending in a wood decked bridge so we took a little extra care especially if the bridge deck was wet. Traffic was really light and almost no truck traffic.

There was about 20 miles of construction of which 2 miles were with a pilot car and pretty much cobble stone. Not too bad but did have to watch it and keep from tensing up and fighting what the bike wanted to do. While waiting for the pilot car at one of the stops, we chatted with the kid holding the sign. He was just out of high school and working for the summer. Once the construction season was over, he was planning on heading for New Zealand for the winter. Not a bad idea.

At lunch break at the junction to Stewart, BC, a group of bicyclists also took a break. They were on their way to Stewart/Hyder and had started in Missoula. The age group varied quite a bit from early 20's to middle 40's They were making between 40 and 80 miles a day. That seemed to be pretty good to us since there are a lot of hills to peddle over.

We reached highway 16 connecting Prince Rupert to Prince George, BC and points east in the middle of the afternoon. Started heading east on 16. Semi-truck traffic was heavy. Actually, compared to the Cassiar, the road was quite crowded, trucks, motorhomes, cars. Jeez - not used to this. Finally stopped a little east of Smithers, BC for the night.

Since the Cassiar is a little dirtier and what with the rain, the bike was a little grungy but not too bad. I asked the desk clerk if they had any old rags that I could use. She was kind enough to give me a couple, so I spent the next hour cleaning the bike. About the time I finished, three bikes pulled in for the night. They had come in from Prince Rupert after coming down the inside passage on the Alaska Marine Highway. They were pulling trailers. Their biggest complaint was that the grit kicked up of the roads was eating their brake pads. That and plastic parts on the bikes were starting to suffer from the continual vibrations of the rougher roads. They were planning to make Seattle the next day. That's a pretty long haul of some 1,500 miles.

The next day we headed off through Prince George and onto Jasper. About mid morning we stopped at a wayside for a rest. While there a bicycler also stopped and we started chatting with him. Come to find out he spends his summer in a cabin on a lake in the area and winters in Prince George. He had been a former stock broker in Vancouver, BC until convinced the market was going to tank and decided to leave the rat race. He also owns places in Hawaii and Mexico. As we left, he was sitting on a picnic table playing his flute.

Through Prince George, we started up the Fraser River heading to Jasper, Alberta and into the Canadian Rockies. Most of this road is pretty tame with wide curves and gentle sweepers with very light traffic as we slowly climbed up into the Rockies. While scooting along a straight stretch I saw a black animal along the side of the road that at first I thought was a dog. Instead it was a black bear checking out the traffic before crossing the highway. It crossed the road between us and the motor home that was a ways behind us. Up near the top of the pass over the Rockies a small herd of elk were grazing along the side of the road. I shut the engine off and we could hear the herd gently whistling among themselves. We stopped for the night in Jasper. A little on the expensive side, but that always seems to be the case inside National Parks where ever they are.

The next morning was clear and cool as we headed south through Jasper and Banff National Parks and Lake Louise along the Icefields Parkway. In the early morning, a small group of goats were down by the road eating the grass growing along the side of the road. The highway runs down the spine of the Rockies with sharp and rugged mountains on each side of the road. We wiggled our way up and over the pass before the temperatures started to get hot again and once down the other side did they ever. We headed on down through Radium and Fairmont Hot Springs and Fort Steel heading towards Kalispell, Montana. In the morning hours, traffic was quite light but from Lake Louise through Radium and Fairmont traffic was heavy. We crossed the border at Roosville. Did you buy anything in Canada? - No. Gold or furs? - that's a new one, No. OK have a good day.

end part three

Spent the night in Eureka, Mt. - in an air conditioned room - turned on high - - Ahhhhh.

The next morning headed on south through Whitefish where the rich have driven up the price of real estate and Kalispell on down the east side of Flathead Lake and on to Missoula. I figured that about here would be a good place to get an oil change. Found the dealer easily enough and arranged for it the next day which worked just fine. We then called our friends and made arrangements to meet a little further south. We had a great time see each other after all the years. This was just before the fires in western Montana. The fires got to within 2 miles of their home at the eastern base of the Bitterroot Mountains so they were lucky.

After a couple days here it was time to head east. From Missoula, I headed up the east side of Flathead Lake heading for Glacier National Park and Logan Pass. The road over Logan Pass was really enjoyable except for all of traffic. I had really wanted to stop at the top to look around and take a break in the cooler air at the top but to lot was full and the rangers were not letting anyone stop. I now know why everyone has said to get there early before the traffic takes over. So it was off down the eastern side of the Rockies.

It is an eye opening view coming out of the Rockies on the eastern side - like there's nothing out there. The mountains end and the northern Great Plains begin. I expect that kind of feeling looking out over the ocean but not looking over land. Over the next couple of days heading east on US 2 through eastern Montana, North Dakota and even into northern Minnesota thoughts of the early pioneers traveling westward through this country passed through my mind. What it must have been like, day after day seeing what must have seemed like the same terrain and then - smack - the Rockies. Of course most of the pioneers were further to the south but I don't think it's that much different. But it must have been a real daunting experience.

Passed through the geographic center of the North American Continent, Rugby, North Dakota. Really exiting. A little east of Minot, I stopped at a wayside for a little R and R. On the opposite side were four BMW's heading west. When they returned to their bikes we talked briefly. They were returning to Seattle area after the MOA rally in Michigan.

Headed on east around the west end of Lake Superior at Duluth and on along the south shore of Lake Superior. Very interesting country with nice roads. It was interesting to note the snow machine trails throughout the UP since snow machining is also big at home but the lack of real trails that connect motels or lodges has sometimes been a disadvantage for the general touring public.

Early one morning west of Marquette I spotted a big black thing sitting on the side of the road. From a distance I couldn't tell what it was through the early morning overcast light and tinted face shield so I slowed down to be cautious. Once close enough I could see it was an adult bald eagle sitting on the edge of the road having a morning snack of road kill. He just sat there while I slowly motored passed. I see eagles at home all the time but was not expecting to see one here.

From Marquette I cut across the UP to the north Shore of Lake Michigan and back onto US 2 and onto the Mackinaw Bridge. Traffic picked up significantly. I had to mind my manners and play closer to the rules of the road. Crossing the Mackinaw Bridge was interesting with large ships going underneath, the open grating, the very slow truck traffic in the right hand lane, and the construction in the northbound lanes.

end part 4

From the Mackinaw Bridge I went down the east coast of Michigan along Lake Huron. I cut inland a little north of Detroit and headed on south to Columbus for a stop at the AMA and the Museum. I found the displays very interesting and the location very good. Based on what I saw there I'll continue to support the Museum.

From Columbus I continued on across southeastern Ohio following the back roads to Parkersburg, West Virginia, after crossing over the Ohio River. From Parkersburg to Weston, WV, I following US 47. Since I was doing relatively good with respect to time, I took a couple of days to wonder around in West Virginia and western Virginia over a whole series of nice roads from one valley up over a ridge into the next valley. Crossed the Blue Ridge but didn't take the Parkway - have to keep that for a future trip. Gives me an excuse to go back.

Virginia was an eye opener, too. What with the great roads, there is all of the history starting with the colonial period, through the Revolutionary period and the Civil War. All the history that I have read didn't really prepare me for the fact that just a whole lot of US history takes place in this one area. Monroe, Jefferson, Madison all close together, Washington not that far away on the Potomac. Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson to name just a few, born there. The little bit of time I was able to spend made me realize that I had only scratched the surface both from the riding side as well as the history. I will be back. I stopped at Morton's in Spotsylvania and they were kind enough to slip me into their schedule for a service and tire change. From there to Norfolk was a mad race down the interstate through Richmond and on to Norfolk. Coming into Norfolk in the dark and rain was interesting to say the least. After a couple of false starts finally found the hotel.

The next day while registering for the conference the word spread that there was someone that rode cross country from Alaska, so I had lot of opportunity to expand and color the story. It made a big impression on everyone there.

The conference was over on August 1 so time to head home. I packaged up a lot of material from the conference and mailed it home. The next morning I left early. Theoretically, I was supposed to be back at work on the 8th. So it was try to take the most direct route home. Back through Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, up through Michigan, across the Mackinaw Bridge on the construction side with single lane on the metal grate. From there it was into Ontario. Going through the Canadian Customs - Where are you from - Alaska; Where have you been - Virginia; On you way home - Yep. Have a safe trip.

end part 5

Heading west in Ontario on north shore of Lake Superior on 17 revealed a completely different type of geography from that on the US side. The north side has a lot of basalt rock while the south side appears more sandy. Highway 17 was a really nice road that I had pretty much to myself so could make pretty good time. Passed through Thunder Bay, Ontario and pushed on towards Winnipeg, Manitoba. In the middle, I had to stop for gas. While paying for it I could here sounds of thunder in the distance. Sure enough, about ten miles down the road I ran into what would be the first of several thunderstorms over the next three days.

Once out of Ontario I would be crossing a Province a day. Winnipeg, North Battleford, Grand Prairie, Muncho Lake, Haines Junction, Home. I stopped in Edmonton to call the office and let them know that I was going to be a couple of days late - got back to Anchorage on the 10th.

Coming across the Canadian prairies from Saskatoon to Munch Lake I kept leapfrogging four Harley riders. I had the chance to talk to them at one stop. They were heading for Fairbanks and wanted to know which road was the one to catch west of Edmonton. I had to look it up on my map but I told them the signs were quite clear if they stayed o the Trans-Canada Highway.

While crossing Alberta, I determined that Albertains have not made the conversion to the metric system like the rest of Canada. Full size crew cap diesel 3/4 to 1 ton pickups with at least 500 pounds of mud on them would be blasting off down the highway at 90 - mph not the posted kmh. BC'ers are not far behind either.

Coming into Muncho Lake late in the afternoon, I was following a double semi tanker truck with what looked like propane tanks through the twisty and hilly stretch of road. Since the corners were all blind there was no chance to pass so was a comfortable distance behind. While going around one left hand corner oncoming traffic made the trucker jog to the right. The sudden shift and the slightly off camber road made the second trailer ride up on the right side wheels lifting the left side about 8" to 10" off the ground. He made good on his recovery, but I decided I didn't really need to be in the same area any longer.

At Muncho Lake I decided to stop for the night, and as was my practice it was a last minute thing. I stopped at a nice looking log lodge, the largest log structure on the Alaska Highway, on the lake. A really nice setup with really good food. Come to find out it is owned and operated by a German/Austrian family. They also had a real good German beer on tap, too.

end part 6

The next morning was cold and rainy. When the clouds lifted enough, there was just a touch to new snow on the tops of the surrounding mountains. I rounded a corner after crossing the Laird River and through the rain on my face shield and the gloom of the morning could see these big brown things on the side of the road. A herd of bison, maybe 20 or 30 of them.

A little south of Watson Lake, is an area of construction. They were working on about 5 miles this summer but as up at Kluane Lake, a lot more was laid out for work next summer. Part of the road was rerouted and quite muddy do to the rain, but not bad.

Between Watson Lake and Beaver Creek I was leap frogging a group of BMW's but we were always stopped at the wrong place so never had the chance to talk. "Ships passing in the day."

I got home on the evening of the August 10 nine days out of Norfolk, which I didn't think was too bad. I took the rest of the week off and didn't call the office to let them know I was in town either. Altogether, I did about 11,600 miles and averaged about 51 miles per gallon and one set of tires.

end of part 7 and the end

So if we cut Alaska in half at high tide Texas would be the third largest state; at low tide in thirds and make Texas fourth largest.

Ya'll have a great one.

Forrest T. Braun, PE
fbraun@alaska.net
Anchorage, Alaska

Ted Verrill

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