Alaska bound: “and the horse they rode in on”

The plan was simple enough: pack up the bikes and scoot up to Deadhorse, TV camera crew in tow, cash in on the Alaska reality show boom, and retire to a place where a soft Pacific breeze tickles our toes and twisties encrust the hills. We thought of names like “Alaska State Bikers”, “Biking Alaska”, and “Deadliest Bikers”. Hm, okay, we need to work on the titles a bit. But surely the 49th state has enough juice left for one more compelling show series that we could squeeze some advertising dollars interested in a targeted audience full of self-important snark and frugality…?

Well, at least the dream lives on. Truth be told, we’re a just couple of guys who got three weeks off from work so we could stick our feet in the Beaufort Sea. It will likely be the most north I would ever stand on this planet, unless I get shipwrecked when attempting a circum-navigational route through the Northwest Passage, but that’s for our sequel series.

Brady and Craig

Brady and Craig

Let’s cut over to gear pix and commentary…

Trip gear with the 1200GS
The full spread


Close-up view

Close-up view

Here is the overall strategy…

  • Packed enough clothes for 4 days, and to handle a temperature range of mid-30s to 90s.
  • Electronics: Netbook with Windows 7, Kindle to store copies of documentation, Windows Phone 7
  • Photography:
    • Canon 50D with 17-40L zoom, 70-200 zoom, 1.4x extender, polarizer, extra batteries & storage cards.
    • GoPro HD with assorted attachments
  • GPS: Garmin nuvi 550 (waterproof and has AK maps)
  • Lodging: I hate sleeping on the ground…
    • Warbonnet Blackbird hammock with Big Mama tarp & Yeti UQ
    • If I am grounded…REI HD2, Exped SynMat 7
    • I need a pillow…Thermarest squishy pillow
    • Marmot sleeping bag with Sea-to-Summit silk-cotton liner
  • Kitchen: plan to cook in and eat out about 50-50
    • Alcohol stove for water boiling, fueled by HEET
    • MSR pot set
    • GobSpark™ Armageddon FireSteel (I just love the way that sounds)
    • Becker BK2 knife (this thing is a beast, batons through wood, and you can slice-n-dice tomatoes)
  • Tools
    • Basic toolkit with hex, torx, wrenchs, etc. Can take either wheel off if needed.
    • BestRest cyclepump, patch kit
    • Safety wire (it’s better than duct tape, particularly after my last repair episode)
    • Tool tube holding some of this goodies is tucked under the rear rack
    • Victorinox MUT
  • Assorted odds and ends
    • Aerostich Darien suit
    • Just two pairs of shoes: riding boots and Keens
    • Camelback pak with water
    • Blindfold for sleeping
    • Bike cover
    • 2 gallon fuel can – above placement is just a prop, planned to add the real on the road
1200GS all loaded up and ready to go

1200GS loaded up and ready to go


Let’s ride.


“The silent cartographer”

We wired up a SPOT to a Spotwalla page, which will save the trip route for eternity or until their server funding goes away, which ever comes first.

Here’s our total route for the trip…

  • Green banners are when I punched ‘OK’, typically at the start and end of each day.
  • Smaller orange dots are when we had ‘follow’ on, which fired off a beacon signal every 10 minutes. We discovered that battery life would only last a couple of days when we had this on, so we used it sporadically.

TIP: Spotwalla pages are free, and do not have a termination period associated with them, unlike the pages which come with the SPOT service, which disappear after 30 days. I gave out link to the Spotwalla page to friends and colleagues for remote monitoring during the trip, and family received the more immediate real time notifications – adults got an email, teenagers received a text. (sign of the times!)

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” – Dr. Seuss

This trip has been in my head for 2 years, riding the gentle swell of equipment ramp up and rising through maps, trip reports from other travelers, before cascading into a plan. Here’s how I planned the details…

  • Organization – every restaurant recommendation, place to stay, route detail, bike shop, tips from other ride reports – was copied in OneNote, which comes with Microsoft Office. My OneNote notebooks were then stored in SkyDrive, where they could be accessed by phone, browser, and other locations. Brady used the OneNote web app to read on his Android phone, I used a Windows Phone, and they could also used on an iPhone. I also saved a PDF edition to my Kindle, along with scans of insurance, passport, drivers license, etc.
  • Route planning – used a combination of AAA maps and Streets and Trips to calculate mileage and places to camp. The AAA maps turned out to be excellent workhorses throughout the trip.
  • GPS – Carried a Garmin nuvi 500 with a Migsel mount, both of which turned out to be minor disappointments.
    • The Garmin froze on me at one point, and I pressed down a little too hard to get a link and cracked the screen. Eventually it stopped working altogether and I rode half the trip without a GPS. Although under warranty, Garmin would only replace with refurb’d unit under cost, as it wasn’t their issue. Grr.
    • The Migsel is wonderful design except the mounting screw – it’s an embedded hex which is difficult to get to behind the GS dashboard with my big hands. It rattled loose on the Dalton, and I spent 10 minutes hunting down the washer and screw among the road rocks. I eventually swapped the screw with an external head, which is easier to access and tighten down with Loctite.

Here’s the Excel spreadsheet – AKA ‘the plan of record’ – I used for daily planning, including mileage and camping stops. Anyone is welcome to grab a copy of this, just view the spreadsheet in full sized mode, and use the controls to save to your machine.

We varied from the POR a little bit, particularly in the high mileage days where we just didn’t feel like riding that long. We ended up skipping the Watson Lake and Richardson Highway segments, so no pix or videos later in the ride report.

Here’s a gratuitous shot of my top carry – most of the stuff I carried in my top bag and was regularly futzing with.


The scene: we’re traveling northbound on I5, left lane, just 5 minutes after departure from Brady’s house.

What happened: I glance at my left mirror…the sleeping bag bundle supposedly secured to my left pannier jettisons off the back and into traffic. What?! I punch the hazards, pull the bike over to the far left, out of the traffic lane, and look back.

The bag is sitting in the right tire well of the left lane of traffic on I-5 in downtown Seattle on a Saturday morning. A semi-trunk approaches the bundle, my eyes go wide, and the truck weaves around it without a touch. I start walking fast to the bag. Another car approaches, and goes around it. And another. And another. I’m now parallel to the bundle, wondering how to retrieve it while the cars whiz past. Then a mini-van driven by a mom with her kids in the back completely stops in the lane, waves me to cut over and retrieve the bag. We wave to each other while I scurry back to safety.

Damage assessment: ripped hole in the dry bag, ripped hole in the sleeping bag cover, and the sleeping bag appears to be okay.

dry bag damage

This could have been worse.

Later that night, I secured the hole of the exterior dry bag with gaffer’s tape, and put the sleeping bag in a spare dry bag, where it stayed dry throughout the trip. And the lash down method received extra attention as well, no other similar issues from there out.

I haven’t yet left my home turf and already I had an incident. Doh!

“Welcome to the big leagues”

Nestled here in our own little corner of the country, nicely insulated by mountains from the microwave heat across the middle of the country, I’ve always eyed the province of BC as a polite unassuming neighbor down the street, home to world class skiing and the occasional street riot (no need to shut down internet access for those crowds, just cut off their beer supply).

And then we rode. And rode. And rode. Three long days south to north. British Columbia is not only big, it’s beauty fully merits public declaration on a license plate. It’s geographic diversity ranges across rain forests, mountains, ocean, almost desert, rivers, and 20 square meter islands, and is home to some of the most remote landscape on the North American continent.

Rest stop along the Fraser River

Rest stop along the Fraser River


Start of the Cassiar Highway

Start of the Cassiar Highway


Northbound Cassiar Highway

Northbound on the Cassiar Highway

Video: helmet cam footage from Stewart to the main junction…includes Bear Glacier and a bear crossing @ the 3 minute mark.

Glacier Highway BC via motorcycle.

Cassiar Highway

Still northbound on the Cassiar

“We’ll leave the lights on for you”

A well-spent day brings happy sleep. — Leonardo da Vinci


where we slept montage

A sleep over sampler

Alas, I was only able to use the hammock for three nights. The remainder of the outdoor nights were in the tent on the ground. One and a half thumbs up for the Exped Synmat 7 mattress – plenty of cushion atop gravel and rocks, and a tinge too narrow when sleeping on my back, my elbows would be on the ground instead of the mattress. And I’m not that wide. Really.

With the trip taking place in July, we were treated to a couple of weeks of a 24-hr-a-day light skies, which required a blindfold to sleep at night. Although the sun would dip below the horizon at ‘night’, we didn’t need a flashlight to move around at, say, 1am. Not many stars to look at as well.

“The juice, the precious juice”

Fact of life for anyone on a motorcycle road trip: you’re stopping at gas stations two-three times a day to fuel up machine and body. Range on my 1200gs is about 210 miles, depending on speed and conditions. Brady was able to squeeze out a full 240 miles between Coldfoot and Deadhorse on his F650. I pushed the range limits of my tank a few times…

Odometer reading in Stewart BC

3 miles to spare in Stewart BC

Gas station at Stewart BC

Gas station at Stewart BC: Great view, great general store

And then I made an oopsie: I didn’t top off my tank at the Cassiar/ALCAN junction, thinking I would fill up at Swift River, completly forgetting my notes that the stop had been converted to a maintenance center and had no public services. We discussed U-turning back to top off, and decided to go a conservative 50mph hoping I could land in Teslin on fumes. I made it to 9 miles out before running out of gas. While Brady scooted ahead for juice and container, I grabbed a few shots.

ALCAN Highway

ALCAN Highway

Out of gas

Blue skies and an empty tank

The empty ALCAN

Sky and pavement lane through the forest

“Thar’s gold in them thar hills”

The Klondike Highway out of Whitehorse weaved through dusty construction and short turns. We camped in Twin Lakes campground despite the bear warning…

Twin Lakes campground - bear warning

And then we noticed everyone else in camp was staying in an RV

Twin Lakes campsite

Nice view over the lake, and we were bear-free for the evening

Five Finger Rapids

Five Finger rapids on the Yukon River

Video: short snip of the Klondike leading up to Dawson City…


“I’m on top of the world…”

We landed in Dawson City amid overcast skies, and established camp at Gold Creek RV Park, which is the only campground downtown. A little pricey for a 15x15ft plot of gravel, such is the way for most everything far north in the Yukon, and we needed to catch up on showers, laundry, and connections back home.

Spell of the Yukon

The spell of the Yukon with a fresh coat of paint

Dawson City Hotel

Downtown Hotel in Dawson City

At this point in the trip, we had been fairly lucky with the weather – mostly dry skies with just a few hours of rain on day 2, and we were hearing from riders coming from the north that they were zipping through steady downpours. As the clouds darkened over Dawson, a steady drizzle kicked in and would continue off and on through the next day. While we were prepared for rain conditions, let’s be blunt…camping in the rain dampens the spirit and makes your tent smell. And we were hoping for great conditions for the Top of the World Highway.

Alas, it was not meant to be as you’ll see in the video, which tracks from the Dawson ferry up to the border crossing at Poker Creek.

Top of the World Highway from craig kerwien on Vimeo.

Top of the World Highway

Top of the World Highway

Craig in Alaska

The most northern highway crossing into the US

Poker Creek border crossing

Population 2?

Road conditions were slippery on the US side and along the descent into Chicken – we saw not one but TWO RVs half off the road, right wheels in the gutter, left wheels in the air. The area had received significant rain in prior weeks, and the road had just reopened due to flooding. We lunched in Chicken under a torrential downpour, and then the skies turned blue along the way to Tok and into Delta Junction where we were greeted by the Alaska Air Force…

Alaska Air Force

Alaska Air Force in formation

Delta Junction

Official terminus of the ALCAN Highway