Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Alaska (Part 2)

According to the National Parks ranger we met on our first day in Alaska, there are two kinds of Alaskans: the ones living in Anchorage and the rest. She subsequently added that the real Alaskans do not live in Anchorage… We had indeed met a couple of remarkable Alaskans already, but were now heading for Anchorage to see what she meant. Quite frankly I had no idea what to expect in the State's capital city. We went in with an open mind and not bothered in the least about the stories we had heard; after all we had survived Melbourne… so how hard could it be?  

Our plans for Anchorage, apart from seeing it, were simple. The bikes needed to be serviced and they needed a couple of new tyres, that was all. After all the rain and cold of Canada, we now found ourselves in a heatwave… a heatwave in Alaska! A whopping 35°C! Clear blue skies and the forecast for the next 10 days was pretty much more of the same. Despite all the clever zippered ventilation panels in our jackets, we were sweating. Jeanette had the last laugh!
Her leather jacket, which Mike and me had mocked all the way, without all the fancy ventilation panels, climate control systems and zippers all over the place, worked so much better than ours. 

We left the Worthington Glacier behind and rode up north again, thanks to a very unfair pricing system for motorcycles by the Alaskan ferry from Valdez to Whittier. We had wanted to go through the fjords, but having to pay three full car fares for our motorcycles put an end to that idea. Still, we saw the Worthington Glacier again and in glorious sunlight this time!

The trip from Valdez north to Glenallen is a worthy one too. The Matanuska Glacier we saw on our way to Anchorage is beautiful too, but has a problem. It has to compete with the Worthington Glacier, which is easier accessible. Still, the Glenn Highway follows the beautiful Matanuska river closely and offers beautiful views. It also gave me time to think about the wonderful days riding up to Alaska and the amazing days we have had in this amazing state already. How many people we had spoke to had nothing but miserable weather, while we had one glorious day after another. The enormous distances and the feeling of isolation were beautiful. Hardly any traffic to speak of and all the people we had met were somehow so much more real-life. 

The mosquitos are real too. They laugh about mozzie coils and mosquito repellent. They don't seem to need any sleep either… Closing-in to Anchorage, the Alaskan feeling slowly began to change. The closer we got, the more out of place I felt. We were not even within the city limits yet and already found ourselves on 3-lane highways, with cars everywhere! We hadn't seen busy roads for months! Give me empty roads, bears, beautiful vistas, elk, moose and soaring eagles any day! Luckily just out of Anchorage, Eagle River offers a state park campground in the middle of a forest, to keep me a little bit sane, which was going to be our base for a couple of days, while sorting out what we needed to do in Anchorage.

Alaskan Leather was our first stop as it was described to us as a much better alternative over The Motorcycle Shop. Especially Barb the owner, who we were told was a bundle of joy. Maybe she got out of bed on the wrong side this morning, but… not a smile in sight. The opposite in fact. After 20 minutes of grumpiness and her being unwilling to even order tyres for us, we left. We went to the Motorcycle Shop and found nothing but friendly helpful people…! Avon Tyres were unavailable, unless we wanted to wait for over a week and pay a fortune for them though. I opted for Michelin Anakees instead. A mistake, big mistake. The Anakee 3 is terribly noisy and doesn't have any grip when wet. Another mistake was to take the wheels out of 3 bikes, outside in direct sunlight, during a heat wave...

Alaska boasts to have one of the longest oil pipelines in the world. It's pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez is just over 1280 km long and can, in theory, pump 2 million barrels a day. At the end of the pipeline is Valdez, which has an oil storage capacity of over 9 million barrels. It was therefore somewhat hilarious to find the main motorbike shop in this state to be out of engine oil… but true nonetheless. When it arrived, two days later, they were good enough to let me service our bikes next to the forecourt.

After a couple of days in Anchorage we can confirm that it is indeed very different from the rest of Alaska. It's a bustling town, but once I was used to civilisation again, very manageable. Everything you need is there without it being so huge and congested that you can't get there. It's just right! I even liked Anchorage and managed to get through it, and back, without a GPS! It's the place where most people visiting Alaska from abroad arrive, be it by boat or plane. It was at some stage going to be the start of our trip too.

The shipping company advised against it, too complicated and too expensive they said. I wonder, as the atmosphere is pretty laid-back. We met a Dutch girl that just bought her new motorcycle at The Motorcycle Shop in Anchorage; which was according to her a simple and painless process. The ride from Anchorage to Seward is beautiful. We simply followed the Seward Highway and were treated to fjord-like landscapes, mountain ranges and Moose Pass. 

A full day of nothing but impressive views. Not as quiet as Valdez had been perhaps, but still very impressive and glad we did it.
Moose Pass is a nice place, a funny place. Where else in the world can you eat Moose Nuts? Anything moose related is for sale here, probably even a whole moose itself too? It's a very nice place to stay overnight or simply have a rest, stretch the leg and wander through town. There is also a waterwheel driven grinding stone, for those who want to sharpen their knives and get their own moose...?
We met the wonderful man with the Moto Guzzi California again too. He was still looking for a block of land. What a wonderful person! We hope he has found his block of land by now.

The only disappointment of the day was Seward itself, which is a grubby little place with tents packed everywhere along the shore. We tried to find something half decent to pitch the tent, looked at a campground just outside of town which was covered in beer bottle glass, and decided to ride a bit further back. A local motorcyclist saw us looking at a map, asked what we were looking for and pointed us into the direction of an RV park which is not advertised. Lovely place to stay, good for tents and much much better than the packed tent village in Seward. The next day we drove back towards Anchorage, had lunch near the Tourist Trap along the way (yes it's called that way!) and stayed at the Eagle River side campground again (where we had the last spot...)

The trip from Anchorage up north is uneventful. Slowly the traffic dies out, but there isn't much to see along the way. Not when you've just seen Valdez and Seward anyway. That all changes when you've passed Willow and Talkeetna. Shortly after is the first glimpse of Mt McKinley, if you are as lucky as we were and arrive in glorious sunshine! Nothing quite prepares you for a mountain of over 6000 metres, covered in snow against a clear blue sky! It's base to summit rise is over 5500 metres alone, the highest of any mountain situated entirely above sea level according to Wikipedia. The effect is even more dramatic as the surrounding area is not that mountainous. It's just suddenly there... with a bang! Another moment where I realised just how lucky we were to be able to see this. We met a motorcyclist in Anchorage who told us about the two best view points, but also said 'you have to be darn lucky to see it!' We were! The best view points are not in Denali National Park, but outside on the main road. He was right in more ways than one, more of which later on. The next viewpoint, called north view, is even better. We took again a lot of photos. I'm glad I have the 300mm lens with me too for detail shots. Mt McKinley has that strange effect that once you're there, you just don't want to leave anymore. In a motorhome or camper you don't have to, as it's allowed to stay overnight in the parking area. There are toilets too, but unfortunately no place to pitch a tent, unless you don't need tent pegs I suppose.

We ride towards Denali National Park. A park that has been on my bucket list for many many years. We tried to camp in the campground, but were told it was full. The only available sites were so called 'walk-ins'. Walking in with a bicycle was fine, but walking in a motorcycle was not... We could only park our bikes in the unsecured parking lot 1 mile away... When I asked what the problem was with walking our bikes in, and explained the concerns we had with stuff getting stolen off our bikes when we would have to leave them on an unsecured parking lot, we were told that Denali Park doesn't really like to see visitors coming with their own vehicle... I'm not kidding, that is what she said. She told us National Parks like to see us arrive by touring coach and walk in... 'I've travelled half-way around the world to see this' I said 'and now you're telling me I'm not really welcome because of the way I travel? What happened to the Constitution and Bill of Rights that states: Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country?' The park ranger shrugged, couldn't care and turned away... So did we. 

A couple of minutes later we looked at the sign that told all: Denali has been open for business since 1923... open for business! The only entry (after 15 miles) is via expensive old shuttle busses. We rode into Denali National Park on our bikes as far as we could get, skipped the 'business' part, took the photos and rode out again. A little further south we found a private campground. Denali, because of it's attitude, was a big disappointment. The motorcyclist from Anchorage was right, the best views of the park are outside the park at the northern and southern viewpoint. 

We filled up at the junction and took the Denali highway, which is close to 200 km of gravel. The road itself is not too bad, but the roadworks made up for that… Rock and bull dust filled potholes. Always nice on a motorcycle. The views were right up there though! I wouldn't have missed this road for the world. We met a couple of girls on a bicycle from Switzerland who thought different and wanted to swap our bikes for theirs… I guess it's easier to twist a throttle than standing on the pedals… :-) A couple with a car turned around as well, they thought the road was too rough. In the end we enjoyed the 200 km in absolute solitude, crossed wooden bridges and had a great time! The last approx. 20 km is paved and just where the pavement starts, is a beauty of a state campground.

The Denali meets the Richardson Highway at Paxson, which is a roadhouse with fuel. Arriving at Paxson we found a big hole where the tank used to be… and a bunch of mangled pipes. It had clearly been that way for months, yet nobody we spoke to knew about it. We went in and asked if they perhaps had fuel somewhere else or a temporary bowser. 'No' was the answer and we were told we had to backtrack to a Lodge some 20 miles back. 'That's strange' I thought, 'I didn't see any fuel 20 miles back…' The alternative would have been to continue for another 80 miles… and as none of our bikes have a fuel gauge (grmbl) I had no idea how many miles of that we would be pushing…

So we rode back to the Lodge, were welcomed by a very friendly and very old Indian lady, who explained to me how her pump works; which consisted of a number of levers and handles to pull in a pre-defined order and pay no attention to the price on the pump! It was a somewhat prehistoric pump and I wondered how old the fuel in the tank was… who knows it was still leaded :-) Payment worked on a trust-bases, she simply expected you to tell her how much fuel we used, pulled out her calculator and came up with what we owed her… We should have stayed and had lunch there too! The Richardson highway is a great ride. Swooping corners, beautiful views and smoooooth! 
To be honest, the asphalt in Alaska is in great shape, which considering the winters, is not something I had expected at all. Delta Junction provided us with food and a conversation in Russian… Not that my Russian is any good, but for some reason we found a lot of Russians there. One of them told me in a beautiful Russian accent that Alaska used to be Russian, but the Americans had bought it for 7 million as they were afraid the Russians would have invaded them otherwise… to which he added that it had been a total waste of money as the Russian vehicles wouldn't have made it across Canada anyway!
Shortly after we found a state park campground and called it a day!