The beginning of the end all started with the Fishhook Fatties. Not me being mean, a self-appointed name given to a gregarious group of riders based in Wasilla, Alaska. Assuming an assortment of paces throughout the first day of our Alaskan road trip saw us skirt northerly around Denali National Park and make camp along Chatanika River in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. As ‘Day ones’ go on any road trip, my expectations comprised no more than finding my stride and settling in.
For sure, I’m a wilderness seeker in lifelong pursuit of natural beauty although nowhere on my radar did I expect my heart to be stolen at first sight by Alaska. Hit with countless chevrons of snow-capped mountains and gigantic glaciers did anything but disappoint. Jagged edges to razor sharp points glowed blue with an endless supply of ruggedness: inching towards wild Alaska we were. Every fibre in my being awake, gripped by the raw beauty and solitude gulped me down whole. The wilderness-seeking habit was going to be well nourished here.
Kicking the side stands up from Chatanika River, a tributary leading into the mouth at our next camp stop, Tolovana River, we first indulged the bikes in Fairbanks for a spot of maintenance. Out of the captivity that can be felt in cities, we all but raced up the Elliott Highway. Our starting point for the 80-mile munch to Manley Hot Springs. A regiment of twin-engine skeeters rushed around us at full tempo. Ditching the motorcycle gear in muggy temperatures, newly exposed skin must have looked ripe for the feasting. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled. Over a hot toddy, the campfire worked its magic as we stoked it like a ship’s furnace, keeping the ravenous two winged assailants at bay.
If you’ve had the stellar good fortune of riding the dirt roads in Alaska, you’ll be all too familiar with calcium chloride—a necessary evil covering a portion of the roads. A stunning road surface in the dry: keeping the dust between slim to nil while permitting one’s wheels to glide over silk. Here’s the but: on par with feeding a gremlin after midnight, when calcium chloride makes contact with water, it becomes soluble. When there’s gravel on top, it’s like riding snot on marbles. And due to its chlorine properties, produces salt which leaves corrosion just chomping at the bit to devour your bike.
Falling out of favour with Lady Luck, the drizzling rain stayed relentless the entire way to Manley Hot Springs. Hah!—we trudged and fudged and fishtailed our way through the sludge with some artful slides thrown in for good measure. It coiled around me, inescapably. It squeezed, I yielded. A slick climb in places, white-knuckle shenanigans in others. Not technical, just slow going without repose; gracelessly. Having located a drier section, I parked the drollness for a sunny interval and went for it at full throttle.
Failing to realize when we’d reunited with the viscous malevolence, I scared myself silly at 60mph as I squirmed too close for comfort in a mire on the corner. “What the….!” I cussed, blown clean of jocularity as my brain failed to engage the speed I was assuming on the slosh—attached to body and bike like a leech. Language went away and for a split second I prayed in a soft high-pitched lament any human listener would’ve termed a dizzy yelp. “Oh my God, I forgot who I was!” eventually emerged.
Those paired to my helmet intercom roared in recognition of the self-induced comedy gold moment. It gave me a lift somehow. It’s mysterious how comfort arrives, the guys calmed my shaken spirit. That’s the Fishhook Fatties for you, full of enormous energy that pops up to inject hilarity into proceedings every mile of the way. Still, definitely one for the great ledger of recorded decisions—a dread concept you nonetheless know in your deepest soul is true.
To all yearnings, the sloppy passage finally ceased. Having prevailed, we struck gold. A Garden of Eden experience awaited us at the end of the Elliott Highway: Manley Hot Springs. Looking like a filthy mongrel caked from helmet to heel in pale mud—what I like to call the gladhearted poverty of life on the road. Cue an indoor tropical garden bearing hanging grapes, Asian pears and native flowers in full bloom. The immaculate paradise hummed thick with colour.
Courtesy of Chuck and Gladys Dart, their spring-fed greenhouse is home to four steaming concrete pools of varying allure in which to soak, unwind and relax the muscles. A tot of honey whiskey took it to an unprecedented level of wonderful and for just five bucks per person made engulfing oneself in this soothing comfort impossibly inexpensive to boot. A heavenly yang after the yin journey to get there.
Manley resident Doug later talked the hind leg off me in the local roadhouse—one of those unforgettable drunk gold-miner chaps, giving it the “biggun” on his Klondike story. With a face full of years, melancoly of a failed marriage draped itself around this guy’s shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. I guess gold can only take you so far. Happily fatigued, rested and relaxed, I let him chew the fat while I sympathetically nodded and smiled, nodded and smiled.
At the heart of the world-famous Klondike Gold Rush, towns in Alaska such as Skagway soon found their place on the map as a gateway to the Klondike after it saw three Yukon ‘Sourdoughs’: George Carmack, Dawson Charlie and Skookum Jim hit the jackpot on Rabbit Creek (now Bonanza Creek) in 1896, a tributary of the Klondike River (near Dawson), leading into the Yukon River.
During the next three years, $29 million in gold was plucked from the ground. Word spread like wildfire of a hotspot where “nuggets could be picked off the creek floor” to a recession afflicted world, triggering an unparalleled bolt of 100,000 stampeders to rush out to the goldfields. Most knew little and less about the 3,000-mile or so trek ahead of them. Perilous journeys that involved uncharted backcountry, snow-choked mountain passes and icy rivers to stake their claim to fortune in the Klondike. For many, it was more about escape from the humdrum, the adventure of a new frontier. Most of us can relate to that.
Winning the road surface lottery, we rode on satin all the way back to Fairbanks where we pitched the Dome Sweet Dome in Healy. Then ensconcing ourselves in the biking bliss that is the Denali Highway the next day. Happiness cartwheeled out of my body going headlong across the tundra.
Later landing in a sea of bikers, Thompson’s Eagle’s Claw Campground at Tok is a popular choice for riders of any discipline. While the place is a forest of intimate snuggeries, the afternoon rapidly became an amphitheater of motorcycle noise, the buzz of reunions and unmistakable biking camaraderie that springs from the fellowship of the road. I crawled in bed under the weight of the sun and solid times happening outdoors, and sank like a stone to the sounds of people laughing, a cathedral choir of laughers. Awaking to a haze of tree pollen mist, the forest at Tok was as enchanting as I’d remembered, its sorcery holding me rapt. The huge spruce trees were shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of morning light.
No snot on marbles in sight, Mother Nature afforded us optimum conditions in which to wend our way over the Top of the World Highway: 187-miles of paved and gravelly road connecting Tok with Dawson. Lo!—the dramatic sight of Mount Denali gave way to not a single whisper of cloud obscuring her. A golden moment, worth about $29 million. Just off the highway, Susitna River ticked our boxes in which to make shelter, choc full of lively trails and rocky water crossings just awaiting our two-wheeled pleasure.
Breaking off from the Fishhook Fatties, we climaxed our journey up the Dalton Highway via Wiseman where we met Jim “Clutch” Lounsbury, a fourth generation Alaskan miner whose grandfather was one of Alaska’s early Gold Rush pioneers and kept riding until we ran out of road. Where there’s pinnacle pleasure, there’s Prudhoe Bay. Reaching the oil production centre from the southernmost tip of Argentina, the farthest navigable point put a somewhat anti-climatic full stop on what has encompassed epic souls and scenery, high highs and a lifetime of firsts over the last two and a half years: 47,500 miles through 21 countries. It rang in me like a bell.
The pulse of the Alaskan road trip to get there, however, seemed to work through my body until I recognized it as music. Absorbing the enlivened rhythm of engines starting, beer cans being popped open and foremost enjoying the company of fellow motorcyclists fancying a piece of the same. The ground seemed constantly astir with a heady conviviality; for me, the Fishhook Fatties seemed to embody the personality of Alaska. Summer days I’ll remember as cloudless, the air gold and pumped with the excitement it quivers. Just like the road to get to our next destination, the memories of the trip will calcify where not a moment experienced left me feeling I hadn’t strengthened existing friendships, forged some intoxicating new ones and deposited in the good times bank. That’s riding with bikers through Alaska for you: I’ve been there and am going back. Make of it what you will.