Ride Report: Day 17

Day 17 / Saturday, June 28, 2008

Saying farewell to Mark, I set off for my last destination in Alaska, Valdez. The Glenn Highway heading east out of Anchorage and going towards the junction of Glenallen is labeled as a scenic highway and it certainly lives up to its name with stunning views of the Chugach Mountains and even a glacier, which can be seen from the highway. Being a major thoroughfare (the only way leading out of Anchorage and Alaska), there was consistent traffic on the road but many others were travelers like me and stopped to take in the sights along the way.

Travelers coming up to Alaska in its beautiful summer don't really experience the harsh winters, which among other things, take a heavy toll on its roads. Frost heaves are a common road issue, where the freezing and thawing of the ground under the road leads to a wavy road surface that can also form cracks. Road construction is improving by accommodating frost leaves into the road design, but there are still roads that need rebuilding and there are some vast stretches of construction on Alaska's highways. These areas usually have a pilot car that guides one-way traffic back and forth.

As is common practice at any road construction, motorcycles are allowed to get to the front of the line and there I met a rider from Atlanta who was on a cruiser and heading back home after a 3 week trip up to Alaska. Amazingly again, I was so worried about running out of gas with my 5 gallon gas tank and here he was touring around with a 3 gallon tank. He did say that he did run out of gas on a few occasions. And people call me crazy.

One major highlight on the way to Glenallen is the Matanuska Glacier, which is visible from the highway. One can also drive right up to the glacier, which is active, moving at about 1 foot per year and it empties into a valley instead of an ocean. It's 27 miles long and 4 miles wide at the mouth. One interesting thing about this glacier is the presence of a weather hole, meaning that the weather is always calm with sunny skies around the glacier, probably due to the massive chilled mass and its reflection of the sun.

Heading out of Anchorage after a day of rest and repair for auDRey. There's technically no Interstate Highway in Alaska but this road in and out of Anchorage and the peninsula is the widest road in the state. I'm waiting to cross those mountains up ahead on my way to Valdez.

I can see why the Glenn Highway is considered a scenic route. That's looking at the northern edge of the Chugach Mountains.

This was certainly a beautiful drive. The mountain peak there with its head in the clouds kept me interested for a long while. Imagine how high it is from its surroundings to create its own clouds, just like Denali...

Beautiful views in all directions.

Now those are what you call mountains.

They were doing some major construction in one section.

It was tough to pay attention to the road all the time because of these great scenic vistas, plus taking pictures of them while moving.

Matanuska Glacier visible from the highway. It's the largest glacier that you can drive up to in your car. It's an active glacier, moving at about 1 foot per year and it empties into this valley instead of an ocean. It's 27 miles long and 4 miles wide at the mouth.

When I arrived at Glenallen, I noticed something obviously wasn't right with the bike as the exhaust end cap was rattling itself loose. It tore itself off the screw that I had put in when I first say signs of this excessive rattling. Something was causing vibrations down the exhaust pipe. The prudent thing to do would've been to find the next mechanic and figure out the problem before pushing ahead. But being a Saturday afternoon, the two mechanic shops in town were already closed and they'd be closed Sunday too.

In retrospect, I wonder why I continued ahead knowing that I had some mechanical issues, but somehow being on the road and not wanting to stop unless there was a catastrophic issue took over me as I was determined to continue ahead. Not wanting to loose the end cap in case the rest of it rattled off, I tore if off its hinge and auDRey was now sounding like a Harley running straight pipes. The engine was still running smooth, and I figured if Harleys can sound like that, it shouldn't be too bad for the DR to be running straight pipes. With that self-assurance I pushed on with my visit to Valdez.

The sign that something mechanical was not right on the bike. The exhaust should not be experiencing this kind of vibration. Since it was Saturday and all the mechanics were closed, I tore off the end cap to prevent it from breaking off while riding and it sounded like I was running straight pipes – really, really loud. But my logic was that Harleys ride with really loud straight pipes, so it can’t be that damaging to the engine.

There is only one road, the Richardson Highway, that heads into and out of Valdez and pretty soon, it was evident that the road and its scenery itself was reason enough to head down to Valdez. I would be crossing the beautiful coastal Chugach Mountain range, which is known for getting the highest average annual snowfall (over 600 inches) than anywhere else in the world; a mighty claim, which is backed by hosting the annual World Extreme Skiing Championships held near Valdez. Besides motorcycling, skiing is my next favorite activity to do in waking hours.

There was very little traffic on the road and the remoteness created a peaceful sensation during the ride, while I took stock in this unique environment that was lush and at the same time stark. The reason it snows and rains so much here is the basic fact that the coastal mountains block the moist ocean air and as it rises and cools, it precipitates on the mountains. The air was so moist that in one valley, I saw for the first time, a complete rainbow in my field of view. Usually, I've just seen a bit of the rainbow arc and a much further distance. Here, the entire rainbow was contained in this small valley and as I looked at the distinct ends of the rainbow, sadly I didn't see a pot o'gold.

While the air is very moist, there still isn't a tropical forest here because the intensity of sunlight decreases the further you move from the equator. This was most evident while looking at some peaks that had a lush green carpet of small shrubs that ended clearly as the snow line started. In places like California, the tree line is preceded by actual trees that stop growing up the mountain due to the cold rather than the intensity of sunlight.

Traveling by motorcycle is rewarding for my psyche as I get to see over and over the simple balance that exits in nature.

Heading off to the fishing town of Valdez, also the end of the Alaska Pipeline, about 110 miles away. This is the only road into and out of Valdez and the scenery itself is worth heading down to Valdez.

It was quite misty as I got close to crossing the Chugach Mountains and I saw this complete rainbow in a small valley.

I've never seen one this close and complete. I saw where the rainbow ended and I'm sorry to report that there's no pot o'gold.

The weather was changing pretty quickly around each corner.

I like how at this latitude it's so clear where the tree line ends and where the snow starts. Those peaks are only about 4,000 ft but the air is quite chilly and being so close to the oceans, the Chugach gets a lot of snow and has the most glaciers in Alaska.

Being so close to the ocean also leads to all this funky weather. Bright sunshine behind dark clouds.

Passing by Worthington Glacier, a frequent stop for tour buses. Since it was getting late, I'd stop by to get a closer look on my way back.

Thompson Pass is the highest point on the road at only 2,678 ft, but in the winter, this pass gets the most snow in Alaska. In 1952-53, this pass got over 81 feet of snow! But in the summer it seems so dull. Heading down the coastal side of the pass, there are poles to indicate where the edge of the road is for the winter months, when the road can be covered in snow.

Getting close to Valdez, the road cuts through Keystone Canyon as it follows Lowe River towards the coast. There were quite a few snow-melt waterfalls, which were just spilling over the top and rushing to the river below, but one fall stood out for its composure, Bridal Veil Falls at around 1,100 ft tall.

In the steady rain, Valdez appeared as a sleepy little town, but is recognized for its importance as a port city for the interior of Alaska along with being known as a fishing port and a heli-skiing base in the winter. The Alyeska Pipeline terminates here, bringing crude oil all the way from Prudhoe Bay to be loaded onto massive oil tankers to be taken to the Lower 48 for refining.

Thompson Pass, the highest point on the road at only 2678 ft, but in the winter, this pass gets the most snow in Alaska. In 1952-53, this pass got over 81 ft of snow! But in the summer it seems so dull.

All those poles are for the winter, when the road is buried in snow.

On the ocean-side of the Chugach.

Entering Keystone Canyon, the last of the mountains before the ocean.

The road got winding and twisty.

Bridal Veil Falls near Valdez, which is over 1,100 ft tall. The name sounded familiar and then I later found out that it's a very popular name for waterfalls as it obviously resembles a bride's veil. There are over 20 waterfalls in the US with the same name.

Looking out across Prince William Sound from Valdez. You can see an oil tanker being escorted by tug boats as this is the terminus for the Alaska Pipeline and from here, the crude heads down to the lower 48. This was also the site of the infamous Exxon-Valdez oil spill of 1989 and the destructive earthquake of 1964, which leveled the old site of Valdez .

Prince William Sound, the water body that Valdez is located on, is recognized for its pristine beauty and was the victim of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989. The spill wasn't the largest in history, but was one of the most visibly damaging spills due to its effect on the wildlife that thrived in the sound. Some estimates say it will take around 50 years for the environment to fully recover from the damages. Exxon spent about $2 billion in the clean up and another billion in settling charges. It also had to settle with some seafood companies, whose business was directly affected as billions of salmon and herring eggs were destroyed in the spill.

What to do? Our current progress of civilization demands cheap oil and we'll have to continue paying the price for accidents like this and others that affect the environment until we figure out a harmonious source of energy for mankind.

I camped at Bear Paw RV park and the tent area was taken over by an adventure tour group. This was the kind of outfit where people flew in from abroad, usually the backpacker kind-of-crowd and the tour van took you around to various sites with camping and communal food provided. The emphasis is on outdoor activities such as hiking, rafting, cycling, etc. The group there was mostly European and a little Australian. I spent the evening at their group site and they found it amazing that people actually rode motorcycles around the world to visit places, rather than rely on others to get them there.

Traveling is traveling, but what makes motorcycle travel interesting to me is the concept of freedom where you choose where you want to go and how long to stay. Of course, the other appealing aspect of motorcycle travel is experiencing the journey of getting to a destination, making the journey a destination in unto itself.

Next: Day 18 - 19, Riding into Tok with Bike Problems

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