Day 10 / Saturday, June 21, 2008
In the morning, on our way out, we got a glimpse of the old gold rush town before crossing the mighty Yukon River to catch the Top of the World Highway heading to Alaska. This highway in the wilderness goes from Dawson City in the Yukon across into Alaska and joins the Taylor Highway that takes you through Chicken down to the Alaska Highway.
I had read earlier that the Canadian side of the highway was all paved and it was gravel on the American side, but there were large sections of gravel on the Canadian side, which added to the fun. Who wants all paved roads anyways?
The only traffic on here was all the bikes from last night and the occasional RV camper. The view was really interesting in the areas that had no trees at all, because your eyes could see a long ways and there was nothing around besides other gently rolling mountains. They call it Top of the World Highway because it sits very high up on the globe (high latitudes), but the elevation of the road itself wasn't that high, maybe around 5,000 ft or so.
Checking out some of the views of Downtown Dawson City before heading over to the Top of the World Highway and onwards to Fairbanks and Prudhoe Day.
Most of the towns up here were all old gold rush towns, which are pretty much at a lull these days compared to the heydays of yesterday.
A gravel grader with some colorful buildings.
Waiting for the ferry with a bunch of bikers all heading the same way to Alaska.
Enjoying the short ferry ride.
The riders who we tagged along with for the day. Most were headed home to Anchorage.
Looking back at Dawson City while crossing the mighty Yukon River, which we would cross again the next day on our way to Prudhoe Bay deep in Alaska.
The Top of the World Highway, which runs from Dawson City to the border and then connects up to the Taylor Highway. I was told that the highway is paved on the Canadian side and all gravel on the US side, but as you can see, we came across a lot of gravel on the Canadian side. The highway gets its name I think for being top of the world on a map and also because it rides the ridge for a long ways giving a feeling that you're riding along the top of the world/mountain.
Great vistas. The treeless terrain allows the eye to wander far.
I fell back to take pictures and had the highway all to myself.
The road winding its way across the hills.
Taking a break before the border.
Chris checking out the local ruins.
With very little traffic, it felt like the whole road was ours...
…and we rode like that too. No worries about crossing into the other lane, because our vision wasn't hindered.
Snow banks right by the road. This should give an indication that we're at some pretty high latitudes.
A motorcycle winding along the ridge of this treeless landscape, looking far into the horizon...
Besides the scenery, the curves were fun to ride too.
We were told to expect dramatic views.
The border comes up in the middle of some hills and I still find it amusing that one can enter the grand old US of A through some remote little border high up in the mountains. For most visitors and immigrants, it's the airport immigration hall that is their gate to America. The border station is called Little Gold Creek on the Canadian side and Poker Creek on the American side. The border is known among tourists for having the sign that it's the northern most land border in the US.
Before the trip, I called around Alaska's border offices to make sure I could enter with my work visa at this Poker Creek border because to process visas like mine, the border station needs to have finger print readers and cameras to take my picture (yes, I've totally succumbed to being treated this way in order to enter the US). And they need to be able to verify my visa authenticity with the computer database back in the mainland. Being a remote station, they obviously didn't have broadband internet to take care of all this pretty quickly like at other borders, so I had to wait around half an hour for them to use their satellite link-up to send the data back and forth. The border guard was very friendly and said he very rarely has to process these kinds of visas and didn't recall ever having an Indian citizen go through here.
I asked him why some of the signs at the station were also written in German below the English and he said German tourists are the biggest group of foreigners that go across the border. I also learnt over my trip that Germans and other Europeans love to come to Alaska, rent an RV and tour all this great wilderness. Of course we all know that Germans love nature and as Europe is definitely more dense, seeing all this great expanse must be a treat for them. I even read that the German public's love of nature could be stronger than their love of speed, as they are contemplating putting a speed limit on the Autobahn to reduce fuel consumption and in turn their carbon footprint. Sacre-bleu! Whilst I love nature myself, please let the Autobahn remain as the last freeway with no speed limits. Must ride it soon.
Finally I was in Alaska, but the impact of that notion wasn't that great, because I've been in the wilderness for a couple days already, but still the thought of where I was would slowly sink in.
Coming up to the border.
Probably one of the most remote border crossings into the US.
Time zone change.
Solidarity in enforcing the speed limit across the border.
The US side of the border is called Poker Creek and the Canadian side is called Little Gold Creek. As they say, this is the most northerly land border port in the US. Two border agents are on duty here only for the summer. This road is closed in the winter.
I made back into the US of A with my new visa and might be the first Indian to have crossed at this border... on a bike. It took about a half hour to process me through, as they had to use their satellite link up to verify my visa.
Note the entrance sign is also in German. The agent said they get tones of German tourists in the summer, who rent RVs and cruise the wilderness up here, because they generally have a great love of nature.
It's around 40 miles from the border to the old gold mining town of Chicken, Alaska. The route was a nice gravel road, which winded up and down through the hills and views were good. Not to mention, the lovely weather that we were having today. I've read some previous reports, where riders went through here in some heavy freezing rain making it a white-knuckle experience.
Around one corner, we saw a white RV van broken down on the side and stopped to help. There were a few other bikers there already. The couple in the RV was from Oklahoma and their left rear tire blew out and the husband was struggling a bit with the repair. We quickly got to work and Chris was on down on the ground figuring out how best to jack up the van. The couple had never changed a tire on this van. A rider on a full dresser Harley also stopped and stayed till the end to help out. Chris had the situation under the control and I took to directing traffic around the accident. Ever biker slowed down to make sure we had things under control and not wanting to add to the scene, they moved on. Again the only traffic on here was bikers and RVs. The couple was really grateful for us stopping to help them out and we said, not to mention it, we were just passing it on, as this it what any normal person would do.
Chris, being on his first big bike trip, was carrying a whole pannier full of tools and was surprised at the limited amount of tools that I was carrying (I had just enough tools to do important repairs). He had enough to probably do a full engine tear down. He had all his tools in a bag that resembled a doctor's bag and thus he got the nickname of Doctor for a while, as he also helping out others.
Heading to the town of Chicken, Alaska for lunch. Now it was time to starting thinking back in miles.
On this side of the border the road is gravel for the most part, but it's well packed.
We stopped to help this couple from Oklahoma who had a blown out rear tire. They had never changed a tire before and the spare was rusted on the carrier on the back door, which required us to remove the carrier to get the tire off. Took about an hour, but we made sure they were all set before taking off. Just paying it forward. Again, the only traffic on this road was RVs and motorcycles.
Chris reaching under to set the jack.
This was Chris' first real big bike trip and he carried a whole pannier full of tools, which proved handy in helping others. A Harley rider stopped to help out as well.
Remnants of the huge Taylor Complex Wildfire of 2004, near Chicken.
Winding dirt road heading into Chicken.
Soon after, we pulled into the quirky little community of Chicken. The first thing about this place is its name: the story goes that when the post office asked this remote gold mining community for a town name, they figured that with the abundance of ptarmigan in the area, they would name the town that, but since they couldn't agree on the spelling, they settled on Chicken. I bet there's a town called Bacon somewhere.
The only remaining buildings in the area are the gas station and a set of old western stores including a restaurant, a bar, a liquor store, a gift shop and an out house. We caught up with all the other riders that were heading home after the rally last night and we had a good lunch there.
Welcome to Chicken.
Those few buildings down there and a few more is the community of Chicken.
A gold dredge indicating the history of this area. This is one of the few surviving gold rush towns up here. There were lots of ptarmigans (a chicken-like bird) in the area and the early residents wanted to name the community ‘Ptarmigan’ but couldn’t agree on how to spell it, so they just settled on calling it 'Chicken'.
Trying to make you feel better about paying $5.40 a gallon for gas by comparing to what you pay across the border in Dawson City.
Chicken is known as a nice stop on the Top of the World/Taylor Highway and all the riders heading back from the rally stopped in for lunch.
A three-legged dog hobbling about :(
He looks so sad.
Enjoying a nice burger with some local root beer, being served in a gold pan.
Looking across the porches of the different establishments. You could wile away an afternoon doing nothing.
The Taylor Highway from Chicken down to the Alaska Highway was generally scenic and a nice easy ride. Chris and I were heading to Fairbanks for the night as we planned to do the Dalton Highway the next day. Looking at the map before Tok, we figured we'd find a coffee shop and take a little break, but we rode through the small town and didn't realize it was over before we were well out of the town limits. Tok is basically a junction on the Alaska Highway with the Glenn Highway heading to Valdez and Anchorage. This would be the beginning on my loop of Alaska, as I planned to be coming back up the Glenn Highway before heading on south back home.
The Alaska Highway is definitely more scenic further south, because we had some boring, flat, straight bit of road from Tok to Delta Junction, the official end of the Highway. I know it wasn't built as a scenic highway, but there are some parts of it that are more suited to tourism and others parts that are just connecting points A to B.
The paved Taylor Highway heading west from Chicken towards Tok and the Alaska Highway.
I love road signs that have country names on them indicating the remoteness of where you are: "if you head this way, you get to Canada" not mentioning any town names, just the massive country of Canada.
The Harley rider, Ted from North Carolina who helped us with the tire change on the RV. It's great to see Harleys touring about in the wild. And he did all those gravel roads with his standard touring tires, not worrying about air pressures or anything - old school touring.
Ice still breaking up across the Tanana River, near Tok.
Taking a break on a side road after the mind-numbing straight Alaska Highway was putting me to sleep. This part of the Alaska Highway was quite boring and we were just yearning to get into Fairbanks.
While filling up at a gas station in Delta Junction, a police officer in an SUV swung by after seeing us at the pumps and was just curious as to where we were from and where we were going. He said he was a rider too and was from the Pacific Northwest. One phrase that stuck with us was when he was talking about visiting the Lower 48, he said, "Yeah, I'll probably head outside next year." It sounded like he was holed up in Alaska and making a journey to the Lower 48 was a serious undertaking. Well, it is a long ways from Alaska to the Lower 48, but interesting to hear it phrased like that.
We got moving again and noticed that the bad thing about riding in a north-westerly direction at this time of the year was that the sun was directly in our eyes for a long time. Even with a tinted dark shield, I had to hold up my left hand to block out the sun so that I could see the road. Chris saw me doing this in his rear view mirror and suggested I put black electrical tape over the top part of my shield. Phew, that worked like a charm and made a nice difference to my riding comfort.
At the end of the Alaska Highway at Delta Junction. I had planned to ride to the start of the highway on my way back.
From here you could head south to Anchorage or north to Fairbanks and onwards to Prudhoe Bay.
The mosquitoes up here were "this" big. Posing under a papier-mâché mosquito at the visitors center. Honestly, the mosquitoes were huge up here, because they feast so quickly in the short summer. I was using 100% DEET mosquito repellent. Not good for the skin, but good for the peace of mind.
Info about the highway construction. I saw a documentary of the highway construction and truly appreciated the effort it took to make it.
The Alaska Pipeline (called the Alyeska) from Prudhoe Bay is known to all Alaskans, as they get a yearly check from the pipeline and that's a real cross-section of the pipeline.
Heading into Fairbanks.
As we approached Fairbanks, we rode alongside the Eielson Air Force Base and were reminded why the Alaska Highway was built in the first place - to service the military. It's an important part of the local economy and has a major presence obviously due to its strategic location on the globe.
I was really looking forward to stopping in the town of North Pole, which is just south of Fairbanks and see for myself the real Christmas industry, but traffic and construction were getting complicated just around there and we didn't end up finding the big touristy place. However, we did see some candy cane street lamps and could imagine this place all decked out in a few months for the Christmas season. Only in America could you name a town North Pole.
Not sure where to stay in Fairbanks, I called the local BMW service shop, who are very helpful to traveling bikers and got the address of a backpackers campsite right in Fairbanks. After getting a tented-cabin for the night, I asked the desk clerk how significant was the military to the local economy; to which he confirmed the obvious. He also went on to say that numerous foreign military allied personnel were routinely up here at Eielson Air Force Base to take part in training exercises, dubbed Red Flag in F-16s. They were coming up here to fly the vast expanse of Interior Alaska as unconstricted airspace is obviously limited in the Lower 48 and other allied countries. There's also a yearly increase in personnel in the area who come up to take part in the Northern Edge exercise, which is a war game using a squadron of planes as aggressors to provide real-life threats to training pilots. The F-16s based at Eielson AFB are labeled as an aggressor squadron.
The military is also responsible for providing good business to the many motorcycle dealers in Fairbanks.
I asked the clerk how did people manage to survive the bitter winter here. He said you just had to welcome it and learn to with the cold. There's tonnes of outdoor activities during the winter to bring the people out and make it fun: ice craving festivals, snowmobile racing, skiing, etc. For as much as I like warm weather for being outdoors, I also enjoy a great day of adventure in the snow. The clerk said besides coming up here to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), another cool thing about winter is when the temperature drops below -40 F, the light from street lamps appears to shoot straight up without scattering.
Being the actual day of the Summer Solstice, Chris and I headed into downtown as there was a Midnight Sun Festival taking place. The whole city was out on the streets and I sensed a sort of outlaw fringe feeling with all the commotion and the kind of people that were there. We got some food at a local kiosk as the city was setup as a street fair and then tucked in for the night, thinking about the long-awaited run up to Prudhoe Bay the next day.
Stopping by North Pole, Alaska just outside Fairbanks. This is America and Santa Claus is real, at least for kids and in this community, they're all about the Christmas industry. It's very popular in the winter.
At our campsite in Fairbanks, which had many options for lodging from $6 tenting to Teepees and cabins, which we took to get some good rest before heading to Prudhoe Bay the next day.
Our tent cabins that we stayed in for $25 a bed. Not bad actually. We didn't want to set up our tents, because we thought we could get an early start the next morning.
Next: Day 11, Riding the Dalton Highway
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