by Charles Seguin
In the summer of 2006 my brother Joe and I took a trip to Alaska. We rode old Japanese bikes: Joe’s ‘81 Kawasaki CSR-650 and my ‘80 Suzuki GS-450E. I had just turned 24; he was just shy of 21. We left Minneapolis on August 1st. This was a welcome change of pace as I had spent June and July languishing in a cast from a broken wrist sustained in a motorcycle accident with a driver who had run a red light. We traveled light, carrying a tent, clothes, tools, sleeping bags and little else. How much can you really carry on a 450cc twin? While we carried some tools, properly preparing the bikes for the trip was even more important. My bike got a fresh valve adjustment, new fork seals and springs, oil and filter change, new tires and, most importantly, a new aftermarket stator and rectifier. I had seen the charging systems go out on other Suzuki GS models three times before.
We left Minnesota and rode the high line through North Dakota, Montana and into Washington. Along the way we camped illegally in city parks or in out-of-the-way places near the side of the road. On the third night we were in the mountains near Glacier National Park. We had dramatically misjudged the distance to a friend’s house where we were to spend the night. We pressed on, fighting the bitter cold.
Deer crossed the road at every turn and a few moose threatened to end our trip as well. Joe was intent on making good time and kept up the pace. I limped along, my visor encrusted with bugs and my hands too cold to brake properly. In my haste to catch up with him I gunned it after a stop and laid into the turn only to realize I was on gravel. I went down quickly and banged up my knee as well as the heat shield on my exhaust. Prior to this incident, my bike was clean and in mint condition, a gift from my stepfather on the occasion of totaling my last one. It felt vaguely satisfying to finally have hard evidence that we were indeed on our way to Alaska.
We left Washington State and took a ferry to Vancouver Island where they were in the middle of B.C. days, a celebration commemorating when British Columbia officially became a province. In Victoria, the beautiful capital city of B.C., they had a full symphony that night. The next day we went to the beach and left much of our gear to be washed out by the tide, which comes in fast. Luckily nothing was damaged and we only lost a few socks. This act of stupidity hardly compared to the earlier idiocy that day when I had taken apart and cleaned my ignition for what turned out to be a blown fuse. [always check the simple things first! ed.] Later, we took another ferry to the mainland of British Columbia to begin our trek north into Alaska.
Once on mainland British Columbia, it took us five days to get to the Yukon. The way north is almost all mountains and it is here that the roads get bad. Roads are made in an entirely different manner in the far north. The Alaska-Canada highway, which comprised the majority of our route, is made by a chip-seal method. Basically they just dump oil over gravel, let it harden and call it a road. This particular type of road is hell on tires. I had to change my rear tire 3,500 miles into the trip. Miraculously, we found a 110-size tire at an ATV dealership in Fort Nelson, BC. Later on I found out it was not a miracle; we had mounted a front tire on my rear wheel. This type of road is also dangerous because there are always sections which are essentially gravel over pavement. I can tell you from experience that if you hit one of these patches at 65 mph on a GS-450, you will have to work pretty hard to stay upright. Additionally, these roads are so bumpy they can give you motion sickness if you ride faster than 65 mph.
Aside from road problems, our journey Northward went well. There is easy camping on the side of the road and if there were any authorities that far north, they wouldn’t begrudge you a free night’s sleep like they will in the lower 48. Just before we got into the Yukon Territory, the weather turned into 50-60 degree light rain. This was never enough to soak us, but after 2 or 3 days of it we were quite ready for a little sunshine. While it did not get dark until about 11:30, it is safe to say that it wasn’t sunny for more than a few hours at a stretch while we were in Alaska and Yukon. After a cold and desolate journey through the Yukon, we got our first hotel room of the trip, just 20 miles past the Alaska border. The hot shower that night was a rapturous experience.
Once into Alaska, we traveled through Anchorage, then headed to the Kenai Peninsula. From Homer, a port town at the end of the peninsula, we took a ferry to Kodiak Island, the largest of the Aleutian Islands. We stayed at a friend’s house on Kodiak and ate fresh halibut for dinner. The next morning we left Kodiak and headed up to Denali. While the scenery is ok, it was a bit of a let down as you can’t ride through the park except on bus.
It poured rain all that day and Joe and I decided to look for a hotel. We met three fellow motorcyclists about our age who were taking the same trip as we were. They kindly offered to let us crash on the floor of their hotel room. The most interesting of these three was Jason, a Marine who had rode up on an old Honda Shadow. He had made a luggage rack out of wood and was using a $6 wet suit that he had bought at Goodwill as his primary riding gear. He had also crossed the Alaska-Canada border wearing nothing but his helmet, gloves and boots. That must count for something.
The next day we learned that the rain had flooded our intended route. One lady went so far as to tell us all the roads out of town were flooded. We took a detour through Fairbanks to get to our ferry in Haines. Along the way, we met two riders from Ecuador who were near the end of their trip. They had ridden Kawasaki KLR-650s all around South America and up to Alaska. By the time that we met them they had already been through a claimed 22 countries. They called their trip the Reconquista de los Americas and even had business size cards made up to give out along the way. We rode with them for a couple hundred miles on their detour to Anchorage.
On our way to Haines, we had to ride through the Yukon Territory for a while. When we stopped at the border, I was told that I was non-admissible into Canada since I was a felon. There was only one border guard at this station who had only limited access to whatever records they needed. She saw that I had been turned away from Canada years ago when I had a criminal case open against me. This case had later been expunged and I was allowed into Canada, but her records showed none of that. It took hours of talk before I was finally let across the border with a warning that I would have to obtain proof that the case really was expunged from the record for the next border crossing. We left the Customs station and rode on. While we were looking for a suitable campsite that night, we noticed a wolf on the side of the road was watching us. We pulled over and this lone wolf stared at us with some curiosity before creeping out of sight.
We took a ferry from Haines, Alaska down to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Prince Rupert is about midway on the Western coast of British Columbia. We saw numerous whales off in the distance, as well as dolphins, which would swim right alongside the boat. The voyage took two-and-a half days. One morning I was woken up to a conversation between two middle-aged men who had come up to Alaska on a fishing trip. Among other things, they said that it was a shame someone didn’t cut all the trees in Alaska down (considering what they’re worth) and that when ever they go somewhere they take the easiest way possible. I do not share such sentiments.
The rest of our trip was uneventful. We took a straight route through Canada to Winnipeg, and down from there. We made it home on a prayer, with stretched chains slipping on shark-toothed sprockets. My rear tire was completely bald. My headlight and taillight both went out just before we got into Minneapolis. With no lights whatsoever, I rode in at 10pm, escorted by my brother. Joe’s rear shocks were so shot it made him sick to ride faster than 65 mph.
Our trip was a smashing success. We spent about $3,000 total. We either roughed it and camped, or stayed with friends. Between the two of us, we spent only $300 on lodging for a trip that took almost four weeks. I fully recommend roughing it as much as you are able: more pain = more memories. Other expenses were about $800 on ferry tickets, $150 on lodging, $400 on motorcycle maintenance/tires, $200 on food and over $1,500 in fuel (gas costs $5/gallon in Canada). We changed our own oil, removed the wheels for tire changes and did our own roadside repairs. We believe this to be the cheapest our specific route can be run. Alaska can be done cheaper, but you’d have to take a more direct route and skip some or all of the ferries. You could skip Kodiak Island, but I wouldn’t recommend it.