Day 18 / Sunday, June 29, 2008
My journey from here on out was set to take an unexpected path. I had planned on crossing into Canada by nightfall and making my way towards Yellowstone National Park. However, it was time for the gremlins to surface.
On the ride back out of Valdez, I stopped by the Worthington Glacier and hiked up to the start of the glacier. Interesting to note how a glacier was simply just frozen water and some soil, yet it seems to have a life on its own craving out the landscape. The weather was much better today as I got to experience the brighter side of the micro climate of the Chugach. The beauty of the snow-capped peaks with their lush green skirts was definitely a better sight under bright sunshine rather than the gloom of the day before.
Stopping by Worthington Glacier on my way back into the Interior.
The Chugach Mountains near the glacier. Elevation is not very high but the high latitudes keep the snow on the peaks almost throughout the year.
The brighter side of the micro climate of the Chugach. It was damp and rainy yesterday and nice and bright today. While the town of Valdez itself wasn't that much to see, the ride down and back is definitely worth coming this way.
Looking out at the Wrangell Mountains from the main highway heading towards Gokona and Tok.
As I pulled into a service station in Glenallen, back on the major route heading towards Tok, I knew that it couldn't be good for auDRey to be running a muffler without the end cap. But she sounded relatively fine and I figured I would at least get to Tok and then have a mechanic there fix up the muffler until I got to Whitehorse (first major city in Canada coming from Alaska).
Past the small town of Gakona, the highway was feeling quite remote and just as I was hoping to myself that nothing would go wrong with the bike from here to at least Tok, the engine died. I checked my battery voltage monitor and there was still around 12.9 volts, so it wasn't an electrical issue. She wouldn't fire up again.
There was a remote gas station about half a mile away and I pushed auDRey along the shoulder into the parking lot. There was an Australian rider on an old Honda Goldwing with his American buddy in the sidecar, who were taking turns riding, and he suggested right away that I look at my spark plugs, since they can tell you what's going on in the engine. It didn't look good as the electrodes of the spark plugs were completely bent in meaning there was no space for the spark to occur and combustion to ignite; that's why the engine stopped.
Something was definitely hitting the spark plugs. I suspected that this might be a resurfacing of my fuel issue on the Dalton Highway. The black residue on the plugs were indication that carbon was building up in the combustion chamber, meaning either there was too much fuel in the combustion (rich) or oil was being burnt due to damaged piston rings.
Not being able to tear the engine apart and have a better look, I figured I should just try and get to Tok where there would be mechanics. The Australian rider said I should definitely get the muffler end cap back on and as I put some JB Kwik weld to hold the end cap to the muffler, he went off into the bushes near the service station to find old telephone wire. How random that he would guess that old telephone wire would be lying around, but lo and behold, he did find a couple yards of it and I set about removing the sheath and getting at each individual copper wire. I made a restraining copper basket that held the end cap onto the muffler and with spare spark plugs installed, auDRey was sounding much better. However, I could already see the pressure from the exhaust was too much for the JB Kwik and it was not going to hold.
I asked the station owner if there was a mechanic nearby to at least better secure the end cap and she said yes there was a friendly pilot named Thumper who also rode bikes that had a handy shop about 10 miles up the road. She said he would gladly help me. Thanking the Australian rider and his friend, I hoped Thumper would be home.
I pulled into a house that had two old planes in the yard and as Thumper came out, I explained my woes and he said he would gladly help me out. His wife June also came out to see what all the fuss was about. Thumper cut up some old Aluminum sheet into straps that he screwed in to the end cap and the muffler. I offered to pay for using his materials and service, but he said not from another rider. He keeps a Harley down in Washington state and flies there often in the summer to ride with June.
Regarding paying for help, sometimes it can be seen as rude to offer payment for people's help as you could be insulting their character. Regardless, I at least make it known that I am very grateful for their help.
This is where the trip started going off-track for me. So I had to remove my muffler end cap the day before, before it ripped itself off and I was running with no end cap. As you can see, I believe the packing material for the muffler has been eroded away. These lightweight dirt-bike mufflers need repacking of the muffling material every 3 months or at least 1,000 miles. I should’ve learned about this before and installed a muffler that doesn’t require repacking, as it doesn’t make sense for touring. Lesson learned.
Just near a remote gas station on the way to Tok, the bike died and I rolled it in to the station and started taking things apart to figure out what the problem was. Good thing I had a spark-plug removal wrench in my tool kit and figured out why the engine was dying – the electrodes were being bent in leaving no room for a spark to ignite the fuel. I had spare plugs and put them in but still hadn't figured out the cause.
I figured not having the end cap on was bad for the exhaust back pressure and with the help of another rider there, I found some old telephone wire next to the station and stripped the copper wire out from it and made a cage to hold the end cap on. I also put on JB Weld on the seam.
The owner of the station said there was an airplane/bike owner a few miles up the road who would have some tools to help me out. I pulled up and Thumper and June came out and offered to help. He's a Harley rider and keeps his bike down near Seattle and flies down to ride often. He also thought what I was doing was crazy but understood and helped me out.
He attached some metal strips to hold in my muffler end cap. What a pleasant couple. The kindness that I came across all over this state has definitely been reassuring in the greater goodness of humanity.
Back on the road to Tok, auDRey was holding up fine and at a scenic pull-out, I caught up with a group of riders on KLRs who recognized my bike from their trip up the Dalton Highway and were concerned as to how I was getting along. The infamy of my snafus were catching up.
Besides all the trouble that I was having, the actual ride up to Tok on the Glenn Highway-Tok Cutoff was quite pleasant. The road hugs the northern border of the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and thus provided some pleasing views of majestic peaks.
On the way to Tok, I caught up with these riders who recognized my bike from their trip up the Dalton Highway and were concerned as to how I was getting along.
The last picture of auDRey in the wild all setup as a DR650 Adventure.
Heading to Tok where the Alaska Highway heads south and east into Canada.
As I got near Tok, I was thankful that auDRey had made it here, but I was counting my blessings too early as she died again just outside the town limits. I found a campsite and decided to do a proper engine tear down and figure out what the issue was before heading off into 400 miles of wilderness to Whitehorse.
Luck be it, just as I was paying for my campsite, Professor Nick pulled in and would be staying at the same campsite. Nick was instrumental in helping me with my tire issues on the Dalton Highway. He was also on his way out of Alaska and he said he would gladly help me diagnose my issues. He said I was definitely very lucky, as whom better to camp next to then an automotive professor who consulted for the Big 3 in Detroit. It's like having an issue with your basketball jump shot and Michael Jordan happens to swing by and show you a few pointers. My despair of this situation was quickly being taken over by hope.
As we setup camp, two Germans staying at the campground were intrigued by Nick's German license plate on his BMW. Nick lived in Germany for a while and has his Euro German plates along with his Michigan plates on his bike. Constantin and his friend were young diplomats with the German Foreign Service, stationed in San Francisco and The Hague, and they were touring around Alaska and Canada in their VW Toureg SUV taking in this great land. They brought the tools they had to offer any help they could.
As I set about tearing down auDRey under Nick's guidance, I explained the things I was doing to Constantin as he was intrigued by all the oily bits of a motorcycle. The spark plug electrodes were bent in again and Nick said we had to have a look to see if there was any damage to the valve train (the valve stems) that could be causing low compression. I unbolted the header and the exhaust valve looked ok. However, the view down the intake side wouldn't be as easy as it was obstructed by the carburetor. Showing his field experience, Nick told me to remove one of the rearview mirrors and use that to look into the intake port. If anything, I was learning a lot from this experience. The intake valve stems didn't look damaged and we saw the valves were also seating properly, so there was no damage to the valve train. Through the open valves, we tried to see into the combustion chamber to see if we could find any pieces that were causing the damage to the spark plugs, but we didn't see much.
Not having the tools to go further into the engine by removing the cylinder head and looking into the piston, we figured the best we could do was put it back together and see how she runs.
While I slowly set about putting auDRey back together, the four of us had some great conversation around the campfire with topics ranging from culture, politics, nationalism, religion, science, gun control issues, immigration, etc. One of us was a practicing Christian, another agnostic and another an atheist and we discussed our views very openly and had good healthy arguments. We didn't solve any problems with the world, but it certainly was pleasurable to discuss. Nick said our grandfathers probably sat around a fire and had some great talks and we hoped our grandchildren would also have the opportunity to sit around a campfire and talk into the night.
The bike died again just outside of Tok and I figured I better strip the engine down and try and find the culprit before heading off into 400 miles of wilderness to Whitehorse.
With luck still running high on this trip, Professor Nick in the cap here happened to stop at the same camp site and pitch up right next to me. He was the one who helped me finally get my tire problems fixed out on the Dalton Highway and I also met him earlier in the trip in Dawson City. I told him I was having engine issues and he said I was certainly very lucky as he's actually an applied physics/automotive professor working with the Big 3 car companies in Detroit. We set out root-causing the problem. The guy in the foreground is Constantin, a German diplomat who was touring around Alaska with a diplomat friend from San Francisco and they offered to help with whatever tools they had.
Nick's ingenuity: using the rear view mirror to look between the carburetor and the intake port of the engine to see the condition of the intake valves. We were trying to see if anything was obviously bent or damaged. We didn’t find anything damaged and not wanting to open up the cylinder head out on the road, we couldn't tell if the insides of the engine were damaged.
With no option besides putting her back together and seeing how she holds, I put some exhaust bondo to better seal the end cap and hoped it would hold. We waited a day for one of Nick's riding friends to show up before heading south into Canada.
Day 19 / Monday, June 30, 2008
Nick was waiting for his friend Matt to finish his Alaska trip as they said they would ride back home through Canada together. Matt was also part of the group that helped me with my tire issue on the Dalton and he was coming back from Homer. Wanting to ride with Nick, in case anything went wrong again, I too waited the day out.
There was a snowmobile mechanic in Tok who suggested that I try running spark plugs that were slightly shorter in case the piston itself was hitting the electrodes and slightly hotter, to burn up the excess carbon residue in the combustion chamber. I also bought some exhaust bondo to better seal the end cap to the muffler.
After a rainy afternoon, we walked over to a local bar and as soon as the local patrons found out we rode our bikes to Alaska, we quickly became friends with everyone. This was the kind of watering hole that this whole remote community revolved around. This was their place to catch up with everyone. The biggest character there was Pete, who's a local motocross champ and loves to ride his dirt bike through the woods. He was really encouraging me to stay a few days and the ride some crazy trails with him. He had a larger than life personality sounding very bombastic on the outside, but became very sympathetic when I recounted all my bike troubles so far.
His friend Mike was an animal trapper by trade. In the winter, he sets traps to catch lynx, beavers and muskrats for their fur and if he has a good season, he doesn't need to work through the summer. If not, he said he would find a job on a commercial fishing vessel. Animal trapping has a long heritage in Alaska and is actually the reason that this area became known to the world first, before gold and oil were discovered here. In the 18th century, the Russians started a fur trade with the natives and this attracted merchants from Europe and America. Prior to trade with the outside world, the natives used the fur for clothing and the meat for food. But with outside trading, they progressed their communities by trading for metal tools and manufactured goods that were not available in their harsh environment.
Through Mike, it was nice to see that the tradition of trading has been passed on from the natives to the White Americans that moved to Alaska after its discovery. Mike looked like a man of the earth, sharing the joys and spoils of his local environment. In this modern age of relentless consumerism, it's refreshing to see that subsistence living still has a place in today's society. All the animals that are trapped are abundant in quantity and are thus not endangered. He said this also helps maintain consistent animal populations as the local government will encourage trapping of a certain species in case its population is exploding, like currently the lynx. The local rabbit species, the snowshoe hare is on about a 10 year boom and bust cycle of its population. People still don't know exactly why this happens, but the rabbits are at their peak currently and I saw them all over the road. Lynx feed almost entirely on the rabbits and thus their population is closely tied to the rabbit's. Once the rabbit population collapses (from eating plants that produce a defensive chemical), the lynx population also collapses and perhaps trappers will trap less lynx in that period.
Over the course of the night, I asked my new friends how they ended up in Tok and was there any desire to move to the bigger cities. Strangely, after a few beers, all of them quietly said that they think something bad is going to happen soon regarding world politics and the state of peace. It sounded like they were worried about nuclear war breaking out. Before this discussion, for being small-towners, I was impressed with the breadth of their knowledge of global current events. They said they read the newspaper and watch the news diligently and are aware of all the bad things being portrayed by the news media. They mentioned how Tok is in a natural valley and they hope the surrounding hills and its remoteness will prevent any nuclear blasts from affecting them. They said this in complete seriousness. The obscurity of Tok was what attracted them here and they encouraged me to consider coming back and joining them. They did mention that having a massive military presence in Alaska was reason enough to believe that in the next global war, they might definitely be in the target of their enemies. Having Russia nearby, with the Cold War not too far away in their memory, might also add to these thoughts.
Now, this is maybe just the result of the news media's priority of mainly displaying bad news as it sells better than good news (maybe Obama can change all this with his infinite hope). Or maybe there is some truth in their thought process. In today's world, if you live in a highly populated developed city, the chance of a random terrorist act affecting you is much higher than if you lived in an obscure small town. I too do wonder why the news media consistently portrays a negative view of the world, which in turn makes the public have a pessimistic view on life. This comes back to Steve's view based on Quantum Theory that thinking negatively might lead to negative events. I'm hoping Mr. Change-We-Can-Believe-In has some impact in this area of society by spreading the message of hope.
Besides the interesting conversation, lots of bravado also ensued. Pete wanted to prove to us that he could do upside down hand-stand push ups and Nick joined in for an arm-wrestling match. He held his own for a good while. The night ended on a pleasant tone and we thanked our new friends for an interesting evening.
That evening, we hung out at the local bar and quickly became friends with these guys. The guy on the left, Pete is a local motocross champ and he loves to ride his dirt bike in the woods. The guy on the right, Mike is an animal trapper by trade. He traps Lynx and other animals over the winter and sells their fur. If he makes good money, he doesn't work in the summer and just relaxes. These guys just totally love the wilderness and their strong small community and they were very jovial.
Pete said he could do handstand pushups and really wanted to show us. Nick is making sure his head actually touched the ground.
And Nick joined in with all the bravado and tried his hardest to upset our man here. Good times.
Next: Day 20 - End, The Journey Ends
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