NOTE Dec 2015: This is an old story…and all the photos are in slide format so haven’t gotten around to scanning them in for over 25 years. Hoping to do that this winter!
Playing Tag with Powerbars
One month from now will mark the five year anniversary of Bill Spearance’s and my tour from Seattle to Fairbanks and I thought I could share some of the antics of this endeavor.
It all really started with a dream of crossing the Great White North by bicycle when I was in high school in 1976. I had just read the National Geographic story of the two couples who had pedaled from Alaska to South America and my mind whirled with the adventure of such a long self-contained journey. At the same time, my grandmother had filled me with the stories of my wild whiskey-drinking grandfather and his exploits working two long stints as a cook and general handyman on the AlCan Highway in 1941-42. It wasn’t long before I had mapped out a route from Minnesota to Alaska and anxiously awaited the end of serving my mandatory high-school time. Unfortunately, too many other decisions pushed the AlCan tour further and further into the back of my mind.
In 1990, Carrie and I decided to marry in the fall. All of a sudden I had the feeling that I hadn’t done some of those youthful adventures I had dreamed about and felt compelled to complete the one thing I could never quite give up on. The Alaska Tour. Why not now? It was spring of 1990 and the wedding wasn’t until September. . . Carrie wouldn’t mind if I was gone for two months or so, would she? It was fine with her with only one condition: Don’t be late for the wedding. OK, with that understanding the only real obstacle was packing. I already had my trusty ’86 Trek 520 with racks and all. Add some Madden bags and the rest was done. But do I go alone? I had done many long solo backpacking and shorter bike trips, but it would be nice to have a friend along. But who could be crazy enough to do such a journey on short notice and a fixed time frame? Bill Spearance, my dearest friend and Capitol Forest rat was immediately ready to go and we are equally matched in the madness department, so the stage was set. Carrie would send our first “care package” with Powerbars, film, and letters from our sweeties to Dawson Creek, BC.
On July 13th, we left from a lakeside parking area at Wiser Lake, WA. Carrie and Nordica had driven us there to save us from the traffic of the city and we all shared some beers at a local tavern for our send-off. We made it all the way to Vancouver, BC that day and then headed north. We choose Highway 99 through Whistler to connect with Highway 97. Little did we know that the Lil’Wat Indian Tribe had made a bold stand against the Canadian government in defense of their resources and had blockaded all roads through their land. The local folks kept telling us to turn around and go back through Vancouver, but that would have added some 200 miles to our trek and we felt compelled to at least try the blockade. As we approached the encampment we could see where the Lil’Wat had built berms across the road and sat armed and waiting for any intrusion. Only tribal members were allowed to pass. We stopped and spoke to an Indian woman who was at a table nearby. She asked us to read and sign their petition and then told us that we could pass through because we were traveling lightly on the land and posed no threat to what they were concerned with. Pedaling slowly and carefully through the rows of barricades and guns we soon were through and quite elated with our good fortune. The added bonus was 80+ miles of gravel road through a wilderness with no traffic! After suffering through a signed 15% uphill grade with our 120 lb. bicycles we were graced with absolute silent beauty for two whole days till we reached Highway 97. The tour was on!
Highway 97 (The Caribou Highway) follows the Fraser River Valley to Prince George, BC and was a pleasant ride with just the changing scenery and our adjustments to life on the road to occupy our thoughts. The days were hot and dry and we spent considerable time lathering ourselves with sunblock and consuming gallons of liquids at every opportunity. We began passing the trademark “Roadhouses” of the North country, basically taverns with maybe some cheap rooms and a sparse collection of foodstuffs, fuel, and not much else. We had become quite accustomed to our ritual of riding and consuming large quantities of food. Near Quesnel, BC while tooling along I saw that my front pannier had unhooked itself on one side, so I reached down to rehook it. Wrong. My left hand was drawn into the spokes and was caught in back of the fork. The wheel seized and all 120 lbs. of bike did a slow endo which left me sprawled on the shoulder in a heap. I couldn’t believe what just happened. I was afraid to look at my hand for fear that I’d lost a finger or broken something. Bill came riding back to me and had a concerned and shocked look on his face. He had seen my waterbottle dumped out around my head and thought it was blood. A moment later I sat up and checked out my body for damage. All my fingers were still there and I could move them. Outside of a few scrapes I was fine. A concerned motorist parked ahead of us and came over. We all stared at the front tire which was now placed well behind the downtube and the fork with it’s reverse S-bend. All I could think of was, “is this the end of the tour?” We’d only ridden about 500 miles or so and I was sick thinking that this could be the end. The driver, Jeff, loaded our bikes in his truck and took us the last few miles into Quesnel. He worked at the local hardware/sports store, which happened to be the only place with any sort of shop that we could examine the bike at.
It wasn’t long before we saw we would need some pretty serious frame tools to fix this. Their shop was set up for Huffys, not customized touring rigs. Bill, the wizard of eclectic repair, came up with a suggestion. We took the frame out to the street and found a park bench where we could put the fork through the slats and then use the frame as a lever to bend it back to something resembling a fork. It worked. We called the Bikestand and they made arrangements to get me a touring fork from Trek and have it sent to Dawson Creek, our next major town at the start of the AlCan. Bill made minute twists and such to get the fork as straight as possible and we hoped there were no hairline cracks hidden somewhere. Little did I know that those repairs would have to do for the next 1800 miles. We thanked Jeff for all his help and pedaled off for the beer tent at Billy Barker Days; we needed a cool one (or three) after that day.
We rode toward Dawson Creek, spending another couple of days battling Bill’s spoke-busting frenzy. We fixed them each time until we finally broke the freewheel tool and Bill had to hitchhike with his rear wheel to some tiny garage shop. I spent the day at Summit Lake, BC enjoying the hospitality of a family picnic and my new seven-year old friend Jenny. Bill finally made it back and we headed for Dawson Creek. In Dawson Creek we decided to spend a few days relaxing and preparing for the AlCan. We set up camp at the Mile “0” Campground and went to the post office to pick up our General Delivery. Sadly, it wasn’t there. What happened? By this time I was really looking forward to a chocolate Powerbar and a letter from Carrie. Well, we’d keep checking back. The new fork hadn’t arrived either. We decided to see all the sights of Dawson Creek and the town made famous by the AlCan. We visited museums by day and spent our nights in the Alaska Cafe with the owner, Charlie, and the local underground scene who took us in with open arms. We met some local artists and a producer who invited us to be in their promotional tourism video for the city. We had interviews and filming sessions and generally felt rather like celebrities for a few days! The Powerbars still didn’t arrive, so we put in a forwarding delivery notice for the package. Early the next day we headed out on the AlCan Highway on our journey to Fairbanks.
We pedaled on to Watson Lake and the great Sign Forest. This site has got to be one of the strangest of the North. Literally thousands of signs from all points of the world, first started by a homesick soldier on the AlCan project. It was at the junction of the AlCan and Campbell Highways on the Liard Plain and a few more miles further would lead us to the Liard Hotspringsa memorable stop to soothe our tired muscles. By this time we were averaging 100 mile days and still had perfect weather. Only my butt was really sore, and I was looking forward to getting a better saddle in Whitehorse.
As we crossed into the Yukon, the ride became more of a wilderness adventure. We saw moose crossing the road, eagles in the sky and all manner of travelers. We met an older fellow who had escaped a organized tour (because they were too slow, he said) and we had an impromptu “race” from campsite to campsite for a couple days. We would pass him on the uphills, only to find ourselves with a flat! He would pass us and chuckle as we used race mechanic speed to get going again. One of the days of playing tag with him brought us almost 125 miles! He beat us to the last spot at Johnson’s Crossing at 11 p.m. and we shared a meal before getting a much needed rest. By the time we woke up at 7 a.m. he was gone!
Whitehorse was one of those places my grandfather had spent a great deal of his off-time, mostly drinking. We decided to stay a few days and see the sights. We set up camp at the funky, but wonderful Robert Service Campground and preceded to search out some of the places grandpa John might have gone. I had brought his cook’s hat with me and I wore it around camp in his honor. We visited the Klondike Sternwheeler which is a completely restored vessel on the Yukon River. Per usual, we checked the post office for our elusive Powerbars but they were nowhere to be found. Weeks had passed and our package kept missing us! The fork had arrived though, through a circuitous route from Trek in Wisconsin to Jim Lazar and onto a friend at the Dawson Creek Cycling Club and finally to Whitehorse. Whew! We borrowed some shop space and put the fork in‹that re-bent one had surely done it’s job (and gives some serious credit to Trek). A new seat, courtesy of Bill’s AmEx card, and I was one happy boy!
Now the final push to the border was ahead of us, leading along the northeast edge of the Wrangell and St. Elias Mountains. We camped one night near Kluane Lake and reveled in the absolute beauty of this area. It was one of the most desolate parts of the AlCan, with few services and great solitude. Which made our meeting two friends from Minnesota at a bakery in Haines Junction quite a surprise! They too had ridden to Alaska (for their honeymoon) and were on their way back to Minnesota. It was a wonderful visit. As our final miles to Alaska approached, we decided to get over the border and spent our first night in the biggest of states. Less than one mile from the border Bill flatted. OK, we can do it we thought, even if we have to push the damn bike! All was soon back in order and we rolled through the crossing, with the border guard asking us if we had snow tires….We rolled up to a roadhouse, where a wonderful woman made us sandwiches and sodas even though she was closed already, we thanked her and spent the night under the stars on the deck of the Tetlin National Wildlife Visitor’s Center.
We awoke the next morning to the most fabulous vista; mist rising from the surrounding wetlands, the sun barely creeping above the horizon, birds calling from every corner of the compass. All we could do was smile, smile, smile. We were in Alaska. Not quite done with the AlCan and still without the Powerbars.
Alaska. We had made the great milestone and were now only 200 miles from the end of the AlCan. The highway actually ends far short of what would be a logical ending in Fairbanks, but that I guess was more due to the existence of a road already so our next destination would be Delta Junction. We rode the next day into Tok Junction, surrounded by the burnt remains of thousands of acres. The trees at this latitude are tiny compared to the old giants of Washington state, maybe 6-8″ in diameter, but were hundreds of years old. Most of them had not survived and smoke still rose from the surrounding hills.
The ending of the AlCan came on a wonderful evening, the sun beginning to set over Delta Junction and the final sign which told us we had just ridden 1523 miles from Dawson Creek. On the left was the Alaska Highway Visitor’s Center and we decided to pull in and see what was there. We stood outside and did some attitude-filled rock n’ roll photos, brimming inside with the thought that we had done the AlCan Highway, officially. It had been 32 days since we had left Wiser Lake, WA, and we were ready to make it into Fairbanks and take a break.
Sometimes the oddest things can happen. Riding into Fairbanks was like a dream come true, as there were numerous coins scattered around the shoulder, enough to get some refreshments and food too! As we tooled into the city, we naturally glided toward the University of Alaska. As we were heading onto the campus, we spied Hot Licks Ice Cream shop, and immediately took a detour to quell our cravings! What a wonderful place, funky people, students, liberally-impaired folks, kids and dogs on the sidewalk; everyone going for the homemade, high-fat ice cream, and the dogs getting whatever dripped on the floor. We felt right at home.
We spent the night in the middle of the campus, tucked into some pines and close to the student rec center, where we could take showers. Fairbanks was a fairly bicycle-friendly city, and we toured around exploring for a couple of days, each morning we stopped for coffee at Hot Licks and returned there each afternoon for ice cream. The post office still had no package for us and by this time we were not amused. Where could it be? Bill knew some folks in town and we rode fifteen miles to their house where we ate some spectacular food and soaked in the outdoor hottub. We helped they with some dry wall work the next day and spent the evening in the unfinished room they were building. We made plans to go to Denali Park and said goodbye.
Moments after leaving Fairbanks, after a solid month of sunshine, the rain began. It was steady and cool, not terrible, but soon drove us to find shelter. We went to a camp called Summer Shades, but they were closed. Fortunately, the owner allowed us to sleep under the collapsed shelter in the center of the camp, the only dry spot in the area. We placed our bags near the edge of the “structure”, in case the roof decided to finally drop. An uneasy sleep followed. The next morning we headed for Denali. On the way we stopped by the town of Nenana where the annual Ice Classic is held each spring. The rules are simple, for $1 pick the date and time of the spring breakup of the Nenana River and the winner takes all. Needless to say, we didn’t place bets for Œ91.
At the entrance of Denali Park is the Visitor’s Center and a fabulous array of natural history about the mountain and the park. Two of the unique aspects of this area are no marked trails and no cars allowed in the park. We camped near the entrance and signed up for the seventy-mile bus trip to Wonder Lake, sans bicycles. The rain continued, as we waited a day-and-a-half for our ride. We locked up the bikes at the Visitor’s Center and boarded the bus with our homemade pannier-backpacks with inner tube shoulder straps. Not the most comfortable, but they were our temporary solutions for exploring the park for a few days. The ride in was amazing, with tundra spanning off in every direction, low foliage covering the ground, and trees growing only near the Toklat River. The skies had been overcast that morning and we were hoping to see Denali (Mt. McKinley), but heard on the way up that the mountain was only visible 50 or 60 days a year. As we rounded a turn about 30 miles from the mountain, she was there. Big. Very big. 20,320 feet and massive about the bottom too. We had been blessed with a view.
The bus dropped us off at Wonder Lake, along with a rag-tag bunch of backpackers. (We of course, in our biking tights and shoes with inner tubes holding our panniers, were by far the most stylishly dressed). As one guy started to get off we heard some loud animal very close to the bus. The busdriver told the guy to get back in and we all stared like prey at the three-year old male brown bear that was ripping apart a mound of dirt to catch some poor rodent. This display of power took any species-dominant ego any of us had and crushed it. We were standing on the same ground. When we finally did get off the bus, we all took an extra glance around for safety, as the bus was going back. We ambled off to a field near the lake, walking until we thought we were secluded enough. We had no maps and just enough food for two days. We popped the tent and made some dinner, taking care not to spill ANY food or wipe our hands on anything. The bears were everywhere, and we didn’t want to be a park statistic. We slept well, even after being awakened by a caribou that was sniffing around the tent. It was there the next morning too, like our camp mascot. We explored and relaxed and the next day awoke to fog. Fog so thick we could see only twenty feet ahead and not really knowing where we were in the first place, only deepened the fact that we may be lost. We knew that Wonder Lake was nearby, so we attempted to find it. We threw rocks and listened for water sounds, then found it. If we only knew which side of the lake we were on. There were no bearings to take so we turned left and followed close to the shore. An hour later we were still slogging through the muck and not seeing anything. Trees came into view and we entered a dense woods, but still boggy. We knew we could be in trouble if we didn’t find a way out. Partially the fear of large omnivores also drove us to keep moving. Walking along, I heard Bill stumble and fall behind me. Hidden beneath his foot was a huge moose rack, ironically the only gift that Nordica had asked he bring back for her. But, being a National Park and all, we decided the photo would have to do (not to mention the weight of it). As we examined Bill’s find we found large teeth marks all over it, and that spurred us to make tracks for somewhere besides there. Finally we made it to the shelters, only to find the bus was not going back, possibly for a few days. It seems a propane truck from Kantishma had swerved to avoid a moose and had flipped over. As the road was only one lane wide the bus couldn’t get through. We all pooled our food and planned for the wait. Finally they decided to drive us up to a half-mile from the truck and let us walk around it to get another bus on the other side. We filed past the odd site and headed back to the entrance camp.
As we loaded up our bikes again and headed out to the George Parks Highway, we realized my bottom bracket had given out. As we had no plan of where to go anyway, (we had only planned to get to Fairbanks, everything else was quite open-ended) so we decided to go our separate ways and meet in four days in Valdez. I went to Anchorage while Bill went over the Denali Highway to the Richardson Highway. I met a framebuilder named Steve Baker who lived in the city who would repair my frame. He let me shower, made me ham sandwiches and replaced my bottom bracket for free. (I did send him money when I got home). He turned out to be a fascinating guy, building strange frames for Iditabike racers with clearance for four inch wide tires. His company was called Icicle Bicycles and he saved me from a long walk to Haines, for which I am still thankful.
To meet Bill in time I decided to ride to Portage and take the ferry to Valdez. I boarded a passenger ferry filled with gawking tourists. The cabin was packed so I stood out on deck in the rain as we crossed Prince William Sound. It was rather miserable out, but not feeling overly social I stayed outside. About three hours into the trip, as I was looking over the port side, an orca breached and I saw the whole display. Only a member of the crew in the pilot house and I were witness to the rare event and my hours of soaking had been worth it. All the remaining guests were unaware of the beauty surrounding them. Their loss.
We pulled into Valdez and unloaded. I pedaled to the town looking for Bill and then onto the “tent city” of fish workers, processor crews and stragglers like me. I set up my tent on one of the flats raised above the mud quagmire and made some dinner. Minutes later Bill and a guy he’d met came ambling up the path and we headed down town to celebrate Bill’s birthday at the tavern where the fateful Exxon Valdez trip had begun. We felt it only fitting that we too followed the captain’s lead and partied till closing. Only thing was, we didn’t have to drive a big oil tanker home. Walking was difficult enough.
After meeting a number of the local folk and enjoying the town, we decided it was time for us to head on to the ferry at Haines. We rode out the next day, which had finally dawned bright and warm after almost two weeks of rain. As we rode to the Tok Cutoff we knew our journey was coming to an end. The temperatures were dropping at night and September was only a day away. We camped a night in Gakona, and awoke the next day to a crisp coating of frost on everything and a group of school kids looking at us. We had camped inside the school’s hockey rink and we thought we were in trouble when the principal came out to talk to us. Whew! We didn’t get detention, but he made us a deal. If we did an all school presentation we could use the bathrooms to clean up. Soon we were wheeling our dirty bodies and frosty bikes into the small auditorium and spent the next hour answering questions and telling the kids about our adventures. It was great fun and we will never forget the one small, quiet boy who stood up and asked, “did you lose any luggage?”
Our time frame for making the ferry was too tight to ride, so we began a systematic questioning of all vehicles that looked like they could take two passengers, two bikes and gear south from Tok to Haines Junction. An elderly couple who we had actually met in Denali Park (they were the summer caretakers at Wonder Lake) decided to give us a ride. They were somewhat apprehensive, but our wit and charm won them over. Until we got to the U.S. border into Canada. It seems some hapless motorist had told them to watch out for greasy American boys who may actually be drug smugglers. Well, our unshaven appearances didn’t help, but couldn’t they see that we had little ability to haul kilos of anything beyond what we already had? They let us out before the border and would wait for us on the other side “if we made it through the crossing”. The border guard didn’t even ask us to stop and we pulled up to Howard and Cleone’s trailer a few miles later. They were so apologetic and relieved the we weren’t the criminals they thought we might have been. With sandwiches and coffee in hand we headed out again.
We caught one more ride before the ferry at Haines, making it only two hours before it left. Enough time to check the post office for our elusive package. Low and behold, it was there!! A tattered, duct-taped box, full of seven-week old letters and Powerbars!! We had struck it rich at last. We grabbed the goods and ran down to have a beer and toast our last hour in Alaska. We boarded the ferry and placed lounge chairs and our bags out on the back deck Solarium for four relaxing days of rainbows, sunsets and napping. We had done it, the Alaska tour was a blazing success and a great adventure…and we kept singing “North to Alaska, go North the rush is on”, our theme song, while we ate those delicious Powerbars….and dreamed of our sweeties back in Washington.
P.S. I even made my wedding on time.
First Published in the Capitol Bicycle Club newsletter 1995