A Weekend in Alaska by Motorcycle

Even in just two days on a single-cylinder motorcycle, Alaska is the adventure of a lifetime. From the December 2003 issue of _Motorcycle Cruiser _ magazine. Story and photos by Bruce Baker.

Modest by today's displacement standards, my motorcycle's 652cc single-cylinder engine loped easily along in fifth gear during the 11.5-mile climb from sea level to the 3290-foot White Pass in Canada's Yukon Territory. The only time I needed to downshift was to lean into the tight curves leading up the steep mountain canyon.

I thought of the changes in transportation that had occurred here in little more than a century. Prior to the late 1800s, coastal Tlingit Indians traveled over this pass on foot to trade with other Indians who lived on the inland side of the rugged coastal mountains. In 1897 and '98 there was a rush to the gold fields of Klondike River, a tributary to the mighty Yukon. People from all walks of life bid their families farewell and caught a northbound steamship up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Skagway. From there they hiked over White Pass, which I so easily crossed today on my motorcycle.

After the Gold Rush, the railroad was the only means of commercial transportation over the Pass until the Alaska Highway was opened in 1948. This magnificent stretch of road provides a unique opportunity for motorcycle travel. From our home in Juneau, Alaska, I boarded the coastal ferry with my '95 Suzuki Savage, strapping it securely to the car deck to enjoy the afternoon cruise up Lynn Canal. It's actually not a canal at all, but one of the most ruggedly scenic fjords along the west coast of North America.

The Suzuki and I were off the waterway with enough time left to ride to White Pass, which rises through a damp coastal forest of western hemlock and Sitka spruce. The pleasant aroma of high-elevation subalpine fir confirmed that I was leaving the rain forest for the drier interior where I'd encounter white spruce, aspen and lodgepole pine. I topped off with gas in the small town of Carcross before riding on to Whitehorse in Yukon Territory to pick up the Alaska Highway.

Whitehorse is a vibrant center of government and commerce on the banks of the Yukon River. It is home to about half of the Yukon Territory's entire population. I've canoed sections of the Yukon and am always amazed at the work accomplished by the old stern-wheeler riverboats, so I took time to ride by the Klondike -- a perfect example of such a vessel that is kept in town as a historical landmark. Also, my interest in the ice age wouldn't let me ride by Whitehorse's Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre without revisiting the exhibits of extinct short-faced bear, Yukon horse, giant beaver (the size of black bears), American lion and wooly mammoth. It boggles the mind to think that just 10,000 years ago these animals ranged this part of the country where people can now so easily zip through on two wheels.

I chose a private campground called Takhini Hot Springs, just north of Whitehorse, as my first night's stop. A good soak in the hot outdoor pool and a quiet night in my small mountain tent seemed pure luxury. In the morning I headed to Haines on the Alaska Highway. This section passes over the bed of what was once Champagne Lake. The shoreline terrace is still visible on the slopes of the surrounding mountains. At Haines Junction travelers can find meals, lodging and gas, which they won't see for the next 152 miles. My Suzuki has a 2.8-gallon tank, so I figured I should carry an extra gallon on this adventure. As it turned out, I averaged 60 mpg, so I never needed to worry.

I spent the second night at the Lake Kathleen campground. It felt good to walk along the shore of the vast lake, to sit back against a driftwood log and contemplate the scene that appears just as it did before humans ever found their way to North America. I need this kind of reality check to put the hectic pace of our modern world into perspective.

Kluane National Park and Reserve covers 8500 square miles. Both the road south to Haines and the highway north from Haines Junction go right along the eastern edge of Kluane Park. Riders who don't mind parting with their bikes for a hike can choose from numerous well-maintained park trails that depart right from the highway. Between your motorcycle, the Pacific Ocean and forested foothills, wild rivers, ice fields that are up to a mile deep and glaciers 70 miles long are all just waiting to be investigated. Out in that wilderness are mountains both named and unnamed, 20 of which top out between 14,000 and 19,525 feet. The park is home to hundreds of grizzly bears, though, so watch your step. You'll also see black bears, Dall sheep, mountain goats and moose. This wildlife wanders up on the road, so riders must always stay alert.

From Dezadeash Lake south, I bucked a stiff head wind. By the time I reached the 3493-foot pass leading down to Haines, the clouds were almost on the ground and it was misty and cold. I motored over the pass on my Savage and down along the road's twisting turns as it follows the heavily braided Klehini River. When I finally pulled into Haines, all I could think about was finding a nice warm restaurant where I could get my hands around a hot mug of coffee. A few hours later I would meet the ferry and once again tie the Suzuki to its deck, this time for my return home to Juneau.

What was a great weekend ride for me is the adventure of a lifetime for most. If you have the spirit, a ride of any length along the Alaska Highway will be memorable. For the best information, check out The Milepost, the bible for those who undertake the journey, at www.themilepost.com, or call (800) 726-4707.

For more descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.