Motorcycling the Alaska Highway

Experience the real thing on a time-warp two-lane road with grizzly bears and moose. Then take a little side trip to the Arctic Circle. From the December 1999 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine.

"And what is your destination?" the Canadian Customs officer inquired.

"We're headed up the Alaska Highway" I replied.

"Do you understand the distance?" she asked.

The inquiry was void of any real concern -- obviously a standard line from Interrogation 101.

"Are you carrying any fruits or vegetables? Alcohol, tobacco or firearms? Any dead bodies in the trunk? And by the way, did you know Alaska's a friggin' long, long way from here?"

"Yes, we understand the distance," I chirped back. But as Evans and Verlin and I rode away, I wondered if we did. Perhaps miles and sense don't add up to distance on the Alaska Highway.

Sure we'd read the books and stared at the maps, but the truth was, we had absolutely no idea what lay ahead.

Normally I carry a warm, fuzzy blanket of expectations on motorcycle trips, but this time I felt only the invigorating chill of inevitable adventure. We'd heard the tales of bike-swallowing mud, moose attacks and man-eating mosquitoes. It's also well known that on the Alaska Highway roadside assistance is preformed mostly by grizzly bears, and if you happen to be unfortunate enough to require emergency medical services, the odds favored vultures over Life Flight by several hours.

Tall tales aside, it was a certainty that food, lodging and fuel would be scarce. We'd made no reservations since we had no idea what daily mileage road and weather conditions would allow. Winters this far north eat pavement for breakfast, and though they spend all summer trying, construction crews simply cannot keep up with the damage. July is the ideal window for travel to Alaska, but we knew rain was a certainty and snow a definite possiblity. We were about to ride into a little chunk of Grey Area, the enduring hinterland of North America.

What we found in the long, dream-fulfilling days that followed was that we had no understanding of the distance -- the mileage, yes, but not the scope. There's a whole world up there that doesn't mirror our own cozy existence. It's vast and wild and the human element hasn't made a dent.

The Launch Stop

The Alaska Highway officially begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, at the "0" milepost. This isn't anything like "Dawson's Creek," home of principally attractive and sexually active teenagers bent on emotional growth. It's a high-plains town that could just as well be Kansas except the vast fields here brim with flowering canola instead of corn. We did meet two small boys who were fascinated with our motorcycles. They assured us they were going to have their fathers install engines on their bicycles immediately.

Getting this far into Canada can be a quest in itself depending on where you're coming from, but strangely, once beneath the famous Alaska Highway sign, it feels like the journey begins anew. We had an easy and very scenic two-day ride up from our meeting place in Bellingham, Washington. If you're traveling from the East, the favored route has you enter Canada above Great Falls, Montana. Coming from this direction you can take in the magnificence of Banff and Jasper National Parks and the Canadian Rockies that you'll be flanking most of the way to Alaska.

By the time you actually reach the official start of the Alaska Highway you'll have gotten the idea that road hazard warning signs in British Columbia don't match their American counterparts. One idiosyncrasy is they often use pictures instead of helpful words like "Loose Gravel" or "Bump." It's like a game of Pictionary where you're only given about three seconds to guess. Once you're bouncing or sliding across the hazard it all becomes very obvious. The worded signs weren't always more enlightening. Our favorite was "Don't pass into oncoming traffic." Okay, thanks. And can someone please tell me what a flashing green light means? The most endearing thing we noticed is that Canada's little slippery-when-wet guy is wearing a smart little fedora while he fishtails. Our American slippery guy is about to swap ends in the identical sedan yet we didn't think to give him a hat.

You learn to have a keen eye for road hazards signs once you're on the Alaska Highway, and we can tell you that sometimes they just aren't there. It might be easier if they only marked the sections of smooth pavement, or perhaps they could just place one enormous warning sign in Dawson Creek that says "Crappy Road next 1422 Miles."

Home Is Where You hang Your Helmet

A couple of righteous bumps and one long, sobering grated bridge out of Dawson Creek and everything seemed suddenly and stupendously different. The grassy plains began to churn, then erupt into mountains. A heavy storm greeted us there yet did not sodden our spirits, and the Peanut M&M-sized; hail served only to heighten our sense of challenge and confirm our escape from normality. The storm was dark and dramatic, but as we breached its far edge, the setting sun crept beneath the clouds and colored the sky gold and peach. The wet road stretching north before us reflected deep steel blue and a delicate steam rose lazily toward the darkening sky. The bikes made the mist swirl up from the road in smoke-like tendrils.

This incredible storm and ensuing sunset had been wildly exhilarating, at least for Evans and me, and we were pretty giddy as we pulled into the muddy parking lot of the Pink Mountain Motel. (Although the entire Alaska Highway is surfaced, there are oddly no paved parking lots.) It turned out Verlin had to ride for almost 30 miles kneeling on the tank of the Royal Star Venture in order to see beyond its gigantic windshield and he was a bit non-plussed. The sunlight refracting on the wet windshield had made it virtually impossible him to see the road, much less enjoy the powerful visual display. After a quick vote it was decided the Yamaha had a date with a hacksaw in its future.

Motels on the Alaska Highway are nothing like the common chain-style variety we've grown so accustomed to. They might be cute, bizarre, tacky, quaint, rustic or ramshackled -- but you won't find anything that even approaches ordinary. The motel at Pink Mountain where we stopped that first night is a classic example. The big cinderblock building looked more like a crematorium than a motel, or maybe an overgrown peep show palace. Certainly it didn't look like anything in the Milepost Travel Guide. Inside it was set up like a mental ward. Most of the guests were sitting in a central area that resembled an underground bunker watching (of all things) the movie "Fargo." We had to drag our gear through the middle of this scene, dripping wet, one load at a time. At some point a woman said, "Boy they have a lot of shit!"

Down the narrow red, bare-bulbed hallway we went, into tiny cubicles that were also fantastically weird.

The place wasn't bad weird though; it was just bizarre, which felt perfect. Wherever we landed the establishments were clean and inviting, and the variety made it that much more wonderful. For example, the next night we stayed upstairs in a huge log house at Laird Hot Springs. We never had a problem finding rooms on the highway and the prices were always reasonable, considering they had us by the soft pillows. Our camping gear never saw the light of day.

Don't expect much variety when it comes to food though. I ate bacon cheeseburgers so many days in a row we worried we'd have bad luck if I ordered something different. The surprise about the food is how much is made fresh each day. We delighted in the wonderful baked breads served at almost every restaurant. Even the burgers were blessed with lovely homemade buns.

There was also a steady supply of soup, stew and chili to warm your belly and fresh pies to top it all off. At afternoon stops we often found ourselves gorging on delectable bakery treats. We fell deeply in love with butter tarts and stuffed our saddlebags with them.

Alaskan Safari

Moose look bigger standing on the highway then they do on the Discovery Channel. They're like camels, only with horns instead of humps. One way to imagine what it's like to ride the Alaska Highway is to envision touring African Safari USA at freeway speeds. On our trip we saw 5 black bears, 1 grizzly, 4 moose, 13 caribou, 2 fox, 1 lynx, 1 porcupine, 1 flock of mountain goats and something that looked like a Standard Poodle. By the time you stop and turn the bike around for a closer look the animals have usually bolted (except the mountain goats that appear to relish licking the pavement). This is certainly real wilderness, and unlike their more callous cousins living in our National Parks, these animals don't submit to ogling.

For every animal you merely glimpse on the highway you'll find a dozen like it stuffed, mounted and displayed proudly at gas stations, cafes and motels along the way. You can't escape the glass-eyed beasts. During one meal a local educated us about grizzly bears. He told us that officials in the area were up in arms because there had been so many bear attacks in the area. He said they had issued an official warning that people should carry bells and pepper spray with them at all times. They also advised that people learn the difference between black bear and grizzly bear scat. "You can tell the black bear's scat because it will be filled with berry seeds," he said. "The grizzly's will have lots of bells and smell like pepper."

The bear-loving locals sometimes refer to motorcyclists who ride the Alaska Highway as "Meals on Wheels". They like to remind you that grizzlies can accelerate as fast as a quarter horse and carry an 800-pound moose in their jaws without letting it touch the ground. Staring up at one of the 11-foot monsters all stuffed and snarling in its glass tomb, all I could do was hope I was riding the Honda if we happened upon its brother.

Roll It, Pat It, Mark I with a @#%*!

If you're not familiar with the term "pavement break," the Alaska Highway will quickly indoctrinate you. This is where the regular road surface temporarily vanishes and some less predictable substance fills the gap. The break could be 20 feet or 20 miles, and it could be hard, soft or sickeningly soupy. The vast majority of these construction zones were mildly irritating, yet highly effective speed deterrents. A couple were completely hairball.

When we're flagged for construction in America, we normally must wait for a pilot car to guide us through the zone. Like Sunday-school teachers they lead us along, giving wide girth to any potentially litigatable situations. In Canada the flaggers stop you for a little pep talk. "We're doing a bit of maintenance up ahead, eh. It's slick as snot and a couple bikes went down this morning, but you'll be fine. Oh. And watch out for the steamrollers." So you're plowing your way through the glossy mess and the steamrollers are coming at you. To avoid them you bulldoze your way through a couple berms of decomposed granite, but oncoming semi trucks and motorhomes quickly remind you which side of the road you're on. You thread your way through the traffic, cranes and dump trucks Space Invader style, taking brief note that all the heavy equipment operators have stopped their machines and are sitting there watching you. And they're giggling. We didn't stop to curtsey.

Truthfully the road wasn't as bad as we'd heard it would be and even the worst section -- which we hit right after a heavy rain -- was only mildly terrifying. When it hadn't been raining, dust in these sections was even more of a drag.

It requires great effort to maintain a 1400-mile highway that's been laid through a sub-arctic forest in the middle of nowhere. And as if it isn't enough work to tame the frost heaves and fill about a billion cracks and pot holes each summer, there's a major effort underway to straighten and widen the famously unkempt highway. Sadly, some of the most seductively curvy sections are earmarked for reconstruction over the next five years.

Motorhome Madness

You've never really felt fear until you crest a hill to find a pair of Holiday Ramblers lumbering toward you two-abreast. Yes, it's a mildly unfortunate fact that the Alaska Highway is predominated by motorhomes. The happy news is, there are about a zillion places for motorcycles to pass, and we never once grew weary. Also, since so many people bring their own accommodations, there is always room at the inn for those of us who don't plan ahead. This isn't a bad crowd to hang out with actually -- kind of the upper crust of the rec. set. People with French poodles and pacemakers usually don't venture this far into the wilderness.

I doubt the army engineers and enlisted men that first built the highway in 1942 would've thought that driving it would one day be a common quest for retired folk. The military vehicles had to be towed by bulldozers to get back down the road once they'd finished building it. In fact, it had to be rebuilt by a fleet of private contractors in 1943 to accommodate even the lightest traffic. Still, the original construction of the Alaska Highway has been catalogued right along side the Panama Canal as one of the greatest engineering feats in American history.

Proposals to build an international highway joining Alaska to the Lower 48 date back to the late 1920s and a man named Donald MacDonald, who is no relation to Ronald. It was a much-debated idea that was deemed mostly ridiculous (perhaps it was the part about the continuing bridge across the Bering Straight). MacDonald enlisted a famous sled dog adventurer named "Slim" Williams to travel on the proposed route in hopes of promoting the idea. Slim, who was 58 at the time, and a fellow zestfreak, John Logan, 20, set out from Fairbanks riding two BSA motorcycles. Upon arriving in Seattle six months later they became national heroes, but the highway remained a lost cause.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor finally ignited construction of an artery to Alaska. It was feared the lonely state was a sitting duck for future attack. President Roosevelt decided it was essential to create overland access to America's isolated asset, and with the Canadian government behind him, he ordered immediate action. The United States had agreed to pay the tab for construction of the highway, then relinquish two-thirds of it to Canada once the war was over. It was called the Pioneer Road, and a bottomless budget allowed it to be forged and fortified in a mere eight months.

Soldiers and civilians working on the highway faced extreme challenges including temperatures that would dip to -60 degrees F in the winter. Permafrost (sections of land that are permanently frozen and buried by insulating moss called muskeg) drove the engineers bananas. When you strip the vegetation off, the otherwise very stable ground turns to mush. Eventually they built much of the highway right on top of the moss. However, it's still melting permafrost that causes the dizzying dips on the highway. When you ride behind your buddies it looks like they're piloting pogosticks.

One young enlisted man mending a broken foot in Watson Lake was asked to put a new coat of paint on the nearby 635 mile marker. This particular sign had wooden arrows pointing in the general direction of major reference points like New York, Edmonton, Whitehorse and Tokyo. The homesick soldier decided to nail up an additional arrow featuring his hometown of Danville, Illinois. Since that day over 45,000 people have followed this tradition and posted signs noting their own hometown or surname. It was at the famous Sign Forest that we stopped to butcher the Yamaha's windshield, then Evans painstakingly etched the date and "Motorcycle Cruiser" into the remnant and we proudly nailed it among the masses.

One Tok Over the Line

Tok, Alaska, is the first settlement you encounter once you reenter America after crossing the northern border of the Yukon. We toasted the end of our successful journey up the Alaska Highway with Lattes and Haagen-Dazs in the shadow of a great grizzly bear frozen in an immutable growl. The adventure had quieted a dream for all of us.

The highlight had been our stopover at Laird River Hot Springs Provincial Park in British Columbia. This extraordinary natural hot tub (about as big as an Olympic-size pool) can soothe the pants off the weariest road warrior. And unlike many other mineral springs within park boundaries this place hasn't had its character castrated in the name of improvement. A long wooden boardwalk delivers you across otherwise impassable wetlands to the sub-arctic oasis nature disguised as a rainforest. The main pool has a hot end and a scalding end with temperatures ranging from 108- to 128-degrees. Thoughtfully situated wooden benches beneath the water allow for serious soaking.

Although it had rained during much of our journey and low clouds often obscured the glacial peaks, we found the scenery had more than satisfied our senses. The colors and textures here were different than any place we'd ever traveled. Rich green spruce trees thrive among the olive green poplars, which look exactly like the pines you find in a hobby store. The mountains were varying densities of smoky blue as they faded into the distant skyline. Water is abundant here, and the lakes hold minerals shed by the melting glaciers that cause them to reflect brilliant aquamarine. To further brighten the mix, magenta Fireweed lined the highway from beginning to end.

In addition to the motorhomes, we shared the highway with an abundance of motorcycles (there were more motorcycles than passenger cars). The riders we met were on all types of bikes but none were about show. Function outweighs fashion on the Alaska Highway. The conversations we had beside the great road always involved three main points: your point of departure, destination and how much time you had left to live by the map. We met riders from as close as Seattle and as far as Stuttgart, and all were invigorated by their quest.

We left the Alaska Highway at Tok and turned west on the Glenn Highway toward Anchorage where Evans' wife Karin and photographer Groover had flown in to meet us. The road doesn't officially end until you reach Delta Junction, 108 miles north, but we would sneak this section in on the ride home. It would feel good to tell our story, but the three of us knew that what we'd come to understand about the distance could never be fully conveyed.

The Alaska Highway is a very long two-lane back road that skirts modern reality. It's perhaps the only way to absolutely experience what it must have been like to set out 60 years ago when our mainland routes were lonely, meandering affairs. In comparison, our precious Route 66 is nostalgic nothingness -- an idealized frontage road cowering beside a major interstate.

The Alaska Highway is the real thing. It's that bit of uncertainty and pinch of grit which season the most memorable adventures.

Jamie Elvidge gets email at Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com

DALTON HIGHWAY: A RIDE TO THE ARCTIC OCEAN

A Hog on the Haul Road. By Evans Brafield

At about 9:00 p.m., as we rolled into Prudhoe Bay, the northernmost point on the continent accessible by road, I tried to muster up the energy to care. Twenty miles outside of town, fog rolled in, and the temperature dropped to single digits once the wind chill was factored.

We'd just ridden 480 miles in two days over some of the roughest gravel roads I'd ever encountered. To make matters worse, the gravel in town was deep and soft, threatening to trip us up within what would been sight of our hotel if not for the fog.

Two months earlier at the Honda Hoot, Mansoor Shafi, owner of Roadgear, infected me with his enthusiasm to ride to the Arctic Ocean. Never mind that we would have to take a van ride across the oil fields for the last couple miles. Our goals were twofold: We wanted to ride north until we ran out of continent, and we wanted to see the sun dip below the northern horizon for a mere 23 minutes. (For more than 70 days each summer, the sun doesn't set in Prudhoe Bay.)

For weeks, friends and coworkers -- even my wife (who made me promise to come back alive) -- kept asking me why I wanted to attempt such a trip. Riding a cruising tourer on roads known for their roughness certainly wouldn't be much fun. I had no real response to their queries except saying that I didn't want to get as far north as Fairbanks without seeing the Arctic Ocean.

The 414-mile Dalton Highway, originally called the North Slope Haul Road and since shortened to the Haul Road by the locals, was built in a mere five months in 1974 to facilitate construction of the Alaska Pipeline. At its peak usage, more than 350 trucks traveled the road daily, carrying everything from food to the fuel. Now, according to a retired trucker we encountered, the traffic has dwindled to about 50 big rigs per day. Traveling north from Livengood to Prudhoe Bay, the Haul Road passes through four distinct Arctic Zones. From Fairbanks to Coldfoot, the stunted spruce trees characterize the boreal forest. The Brooks Range rises up as the highway climbs to the 4800-foot Atigun Pass, Alaska's highest. The North Slope carries the road beyond the tree line to the endless views across the tundra.

Finally, the Arctic Coastal Plain flattens out and conspires with the flattening of the Earth's curvature to give the broadest vistas possible on the planet.

Sounds pretty nice, huh? Well, the Dalton offers minimal services and no medical facilities.

Is your fuel range less than 244 miles? Better carry extra gas from Coldfoot to Prudhoe Bay.

Have an accident? Towing will likely cost more than five dollars a mile from where the driver pulled out of the garage. And don't even think about getting hurt.

The midway point of the trip, Coldfoot, bills itself as the world's northernmost truck stop, and for much of the time since 1974, its business was primarily truckers. The cafe was constructed from the crates used to carry the Pipeline's insulation. Now, travelers fill the Slate Creek Inn or park their RVs in the campground. Tent campers can stay free of change, so at the end of the first day of our journey, Mansoor and I flopped down between two abandoned machines left over from building the highway. The cafe's food is tasty, which is good since it's the only option for miles.

On the second day, on the northern edge of the Brooks Range, about 2.5 hours outside of Prudhoe Bay, I took a run along a ridgetop access road for the pipeline while Mansoor slept next to his motorcycle. The air was crisp, in the mid-60s. The view across the tundra was unsullied by little except the snaking pipeline and the Haul Road. As a young buck caribou mirrored my path about 50 feet away from me for about half a mile, I decided that the Dalton's difficulty and dangers were overrated. The rest of the trip would be a breeze.

Thirty minutes later, cresting a hill at about 55 mph, I saw a full-grown buck caribou trotting up the road in the oncoming lane. As I applied my brakes, he tried to run off my side of the road. With the Electra Glide slewing in the gravel, I swerved towards the side of the road. Thankfully, the caribou realized he wasn't going to make it off the road and turned away, allowing me to pass him close enough to touch him. Not that I had time, since my trajectory sent me plummeting down the ten-foot embankment.

Visions of broken bones flashed through my mind as I wrestled the Harley to a stop. If the embankment had been loose gravel instead of hardpack, this story would have a markedly different ending. I put my head down on the tank, closed my eyes, and was left with a distinct memory of the hairs on the inside of the caribou's ear.

The caribou incident and a dicey, 20-mile section of soft gravel took their toll. When we arrived at Prudhoe Bay Hotel, I was toast. Since the fog blocked the sunset, I ate dinner and went to bed.

Prudhoe Bay is little more than a supply depot for the oil field, offering little of interest to tourists. So the next morning, Mansoor and I took the van tour of the Arctic Ocean before starting back towards civilization. The ride back was beautiful and uneventful. For some novelty, we camped in a campground right on the Arctic Circle.

Would I attempt this ride again? Definitely. Would I recommend it to others? For brave souls who thrive on doing things most people find illogical, this is a must-do trip. For others, the scenery alone is worth the hardship. You might even get to see the hairs inside a caribou's ear.

Maybe the Haul Road ride was too much for Evans Brasfield, since he has since left the plush life or a Motorcycle Cruiser staff editor to be a freelancer (and a father). He can be found online through his web site.

HOW TO RIDE THE NORTH COUNTRY

The journey to Alaska is the only destination left in America guaranteed to thrill your thermal pants off. All it takes is time, money and ambition -- although not excessive amounts of any. It's a perfectly doable dream that delivers enormous satisfaction.

We rode from Washington State to Anchorage in five days, putting in 350 to 400 miles per day. While it's physically possible to explore almost every mile of Alaska's ridable road surface in five energetic days, it really deserves at least a full week. Plus, you have so much daylight during the summer you can easily pull longer-than-average days.

The Nautical Option

We chose to ride the Alaska Highway both ways, but you can board a ferry with your bike at one of Alaska's many ports and easily shave three riding days off your return trip. It'll be an expensive day-and-a-half though. You'll pay a tariff for the bike -- which is upward of $200 if you depart from points near Anchorage -- plus your own admission, which is only slightly less. If you want a soft bed onboard you'll pay from $200 to $600, or you can pitch a tent on the windy deck of the ship for free. Food and beverage service is not available on all vessels, so be sure to check beforehand. For ferry schedules and information, call (800) 642-0066 or visit the Alaska State site.

Riders' Reads

The Milepost (800/726-4707) is the bible of the Alaska Highway. Even though it's a weighty and unwieldy package, and the complex format makes you feel as if you need a secret decoder ring in order to extract information, it is an essential reference source. The bulk of the annually published book is a mile-by-mile sightseeing guide setup to keep the RVers occupied. And frankly, it would be dead weight for motorcyclists if it didn't have so many gems buried in its depths. Purchase and master the usage of this book in advance, even if it is last-year's edition. Updated editions aren't readily available until the touring season is already underway.

July and August are peak months for traveling the Highway, although we didn't find the road or accommodations overwhelmed even at the center of that window. Hotels and motels in Alaska proper are at more of a premium due to the additional marine and air travel and are therefore pricier. We recommend utilizing Let's Go: Alaska & The Pacific Northwest (St. Martin's Press, 212/674-5151; www.letsgo.com) for planning this portion of the trip. It's loaded with information and the format is handy.

There are a few other books you'll encounter that are pertinent to the experience. Gregory Frazier's Alaska by Motorcycle (Whitehorse Press, 800/531-1133) is an enticing read since it's actually about bike travel. Unfortunately the information is a bit out-of-date. The Alaska Highway (Fulcrum Publishing, 800/992-2908) is a helpful guide to routing and mileages, and despite being published in 1993, it gives a pretty accurate description of existing highway conditions and cautions. Elvidge's favorite book about the Highway itself (she bought seven on our trip) is Alaska or Bust published by the University of Alaska (907) 474-7505. It's a very readable and colorful account of the Highway's history and the effect of the road on the isolated region. We favored "International Travel Maps," from ITMB, on the trip because they're easy to read as well as remarkably detailed and accurate. You can find them at your local map store, or call California Map Service at (925) 284-8804.

Packing List

Since the climate, even in summer, is very inconsistent, you need to bring the whole range of gear. (The one thing you don't have to worry about is extreme heat. Alaska hasn't seen 100 degrees since June 27, 1915.) You'll definitely want more substantial garb than you might wear to your local bike night. We met a lot of riders, and we can't remember a single one wearing leather -- synthetic Cordura with built-in armor was the standard. Practically the entire Aerostich (800/222-1994) line was represented on our trip with the Darien jacket and both the one- and two-piece Roadcrafters worn by Chalmers, Elvidge and Rainey. Chalmers also wore Tour Master (800/455-2552) Cortech pants. Brasfield set his own course with his Roadgear (800/854-4327) waterproof Euro-Tec jacket and pants. If your suit isn't waterproof you'll spend a lot of time getting in and out of your rainsuit, so make sure it's a good one. We brought Harley-Davidson Motorclothes' (800/LUV-2RIDE) electric jacket liners and gloves but never had to plug them in. Regardless, we wouldn't leave home without the option, since temperatures can plummet below freezing in the Yukon and Alaska even in midsummer. Average daytime temperatures during the season range from 40 to 70 degrees.

Something else that is essential to pack, although you may not need or choose to use it, is basic camping gear. Keep in mind much of the ground in northern Canada and Alaska is permanently frozen, and even on a warm night it can radiate a dangerous chill. If you don't have one, invest in a high-end insulated pad to go under your sleeping bag.

Bears on the Alaska Highway are abundant and all breeds are aggressive when it comes to snacks. If you have food onboard stow it where it can't be reached (like strung 10 feet off the ground between two trees) and never keep it on or near your person. Lastly, you'll want to bring a tent that completely seals out the relentless bug population.

Mosquito Hell?

We'd heard DEET, in its highest available strength, was the only chemical that would effectively repel the vigorous mosquitoes thriving in the area, so we stocked up on the oily stuff before leaving town. Luckily we also brought along less caustic repellent, which we tried first. We'll use the full-strength DEET next time we have to strip paint. Solutions using less than 10 percent of the toxic juice, such as OFF! Deep Woods worked well enough, and even natural citronella products kept the buggers at bay.

The mosquitoes really are hell on the Alaska Highway, and even though we were pretty vigilant with the repellent we still got bitten. One thing we hadn't thought to bring was itch-relief ointment, and there aren't many drugstores on the way. Although we stocked up on high-strength hydrocortisone, the best stuff we found was Benadryl Cream, which uses two percent hydrochloride instead.

So Don't Crash

It's a good idea to bring an extensive first-aid kit with you since emergency medical assistance is scarce. The availability of cellular service is extremely infrequent so if you have an accident or witness one, the best thing to do is send someone on to the next town to make the emergency call. Call boxes are placed very sporadically once you reach Alaska. The Emergency Medical Services Council (907/562-6449) in that area publishes a pamphlet, "Help Along the Way," which you can pick up at local businesses and tourist-information centers.

There are also numbers you can call for 24-hour road-condition reports. In British Columbia dial (800) 550-4997 or (900) 565-4997 for province-wide information provided for 75 cents per minute using your credit card. In the Yukon you can get the information free (if you're calling from there) at (877) 456-7623 or make the toll call to (867) 456-7623; once in Alaska use toll-free (800) 478-7675, or from outside the state (907) 273-6037.

Don't Forget

We strongly recommend buying a Ventura (800/688-6439) Light Guard headlight protector -- or at the bare minimum cover your bike's lens and blinkers with clear tape -- since flying gravel is prevalent on the Alaska Highway. These rock fragments smart when they smack against your knees, so consider protecting your lower legs too.

The road also gives forth lots of sludge and dust, so bring along windshield/visor cleaner and plenty of rags. You'll want to carry a full set of tools for your bike plus at least one tire-repair kit. See "The Magic Bag" in our December 1998 issue for the ideal assortment of odds and ends. We augmented the bag with a Progressive Suspension (760/948-4012) mini pump with a gauge for suspension adjustment and a TRK-2 tire-repair kit for each bike. Although the Electra Glide arrived with a Harley accessory tool kit, we would've been stranded when the exhaust system broke if we hadn't carried a CruzTools (831/439-8340) kit, which contained the only baling wire in a 50-mile radius. If you're using electronic equipment buy extra batteries in the "lower 48," including a back-up for your camera. Commodities like batteries and film are hard to come by on the road north, and will cost you plenty.

Once you reach Alaska, goods and services are abundant, allowing you to relax and exhale after the long, exciting ride.

Day Tripping

Anchorage is a particularly wonderful city and a great vacation spot on its own. You can use it as home base and easily venture down the chillingly beautiful coastline to Seward and Homer and maybe even sneak in a boat tour of the glaciers or Kodiak Island. We went on a great loop from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back via the Denali National Park. You have to take a bus into the actual park, so we decided to view it from a distance by crossing the Denali Highway. This is a 136-mile unpaved road that's superbly scenic, but not for the weak of heart. There are many beautiful unpaved roads in Alaska and the toll will be taken directly from your machine.

There are three key things to remember when you're touring Alaska: Eat as much salmon as physically possible; refrain from buying too many souvenirs; and always relinquish the right-of-way to large game animals. Oh, and don't stop too long to dream. We met many long-time residents who were once just traveling through, too.

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