I would like to say that my ride to Alaska came about from an impulsive desire where I woke up one morning, got on my motorcycle and took off. The reality though is that it came about as the result of a few months of calculated planning and preparation. While I knew a few things about motorcycle touring, having spent most weekends in the past year on short road trips in my native Washington state, I realized that doing a three week road trip in the wilderness would call for a lot of research and preparation.
The first step was acquiring the right bike. While my naked sv650 had tided me over many thousand miles on tarmac, I wanted something that was comfortable for longer rides and capable of being ridden on rough terrain. My choice of bike is limited by my height and short inseam and I shortly zeroed in on a BMW F650GS. It was a popular bike among women due to its low ride height and it had proven credentials for being a good adventure riding machine. I scouted around on the local classifieds to find a likely candidate and after a couple of months of looking, found one that was in the right price range and was already rigged out to be a touring bike, so that the work I’d need to do on it was minimal. I bought the bike a week after I first went and inspected it.
In the following weeks, I proceeded to customize the bike for me. I swapped the seat for the BMW low seat and lowered the handlebars.
The bike rode very different from my sportsbike and it took me a little getting used to. In spite of the low seat, it was still a tall bike and it took me quite a bit of riding and a few drops before I got somewhat used to it. I brought it to a dirtbike class where I practiced riding standing up on dirt and gravel. For someone who had never ridden dirt before, this was really challenging and I found myself wondering a few times exactly why I was doing this and how anyone could call this fun. I was stubborn though and I had a goal in mind. Riding on dirt was just one of the survival skills I would need to have in my pocket if I wanted to achieve my dream.
[As the plans for the Alaska ride got more concrete, I realized that my naked SV650 would not be the ideal bike to bring on the journey. While it has been done before, I discounted the idea for a number of reasons.
The lack of fairings and the lightness of the bike meant that I got easily tired out on longer rides. I found myself needing to stop and take a break every 60 miles.
The smaller gas tank meant a smaller range, which would not be very safe in Alaska and the Yukon where the riding distances between gas stations were occasionally more than 150 miles.
There would be a lot of construction areas meaning unpaved roads with gravel and grade slurry, mud if it had been raining, and a few off-road highways. Even the paved roads were known to have a lot of frost heaves and potholes.
It appeared that I would be much better off on a bike that had off-road abilities, had a larger gas tank and had an established reputation as an adventure bike. I decided on purchasing a BMW F650GS, a bike that I had fallen in love when I sat on it at the dealership. It had everything I would want in an adventure bike - German engineering, a fuel range of 150 miles, fuel injection, dual-sport abilities etc.
I ended up purchasing a 2002 F650GS, which came with all the possible farkles one might need for a trip like this - 40liter Touratech panniers, extra exhaust storage, Fatbar handlebars.
I wasn't very pleased at its power in comparison to my SV650, but it more than made up for it in terms of comfort. The seating position was comfortable enough that I felt like I was sitting on my couch at home rather than riding 70mph on the freeway on a two wheeler. It chomped up miles and I found myself being able to go longer and longer distances before I needed to stop for a break. The fuel injection meant no need to warm the bike up - start it up and it was ready to go! Initially I had some trouble with it because it handled very differently from my sportsbike.]
My planned route was intentionally routed to go through territories least populated by humans and far from the tourist hubs. In my rides, I’d been used to living cheap and staying at the seediest, cheapest places I could find on the road, but it seemed like even this would be a luxury in some of the places I would be riding to. I was also trying to keep the overall costs of the trip down. All of this pointed towards motorcycle camping – a phrase that until then had made me shudder a little for a multitude of reasons – my camping experience was limited to the point of being non-existent, and the thought of loading the bike down with all sorts of extra equipment was a little contrary to my philosophy of riding light with just a toothbrush and a change of shirts and underwear.
It was time to change all that though and so back I went online to read up on what equipment I needed and the following week found me at my local overpriced sporting goods store, clutching a list of everything you need to have while camping out in the backcountry where I proceeded to spend an entire paycheck. My list of essential purchases that I absolutely had to have to emerge alive from the wilderness included an ultralight tent, a sub-zero rated sleeping bag, a cartridge stove, dry bags, a saw, a headlamp, rope, emergency mirror, a water filter, water carrier…
My biggest fear of being out on the road was having to deal with a emergency like a flat tire and being able to handle and fix it on my own. This is a desirable skill for motorcyclists in the best of conditions, and an essential life and death skill in a place like Alaska. While I had tinkered a little with my bike in doing basic maintenance, due to lack of time, knowledge and a place to work on, my bikes had always been serviced by experienced mechanics.
This is where my friend Jasen came in. An experienced mechanic who had worked on bikes for twenty years, there was very little about motorcycles that he didn’t know or couldn’t figure out. He proceeded to coach me on working with my bike and I slowly started learning basic maintenance like changing the oil, adjusting the chain etc. and proceeded to learning how to change and patch tire tubes in case of a flat.
FLYING SOLO OR NOT?
I am by nature a loner. I found an instant affinity with motorcycling because it allowed me to spend long stretches of time by myself. It allowed me to decide when I was ready to interact with people and be social. A short stint of riding never fails to rejuvenate my sense of self and validation. After a few years of riding though, I have often found myself wishing I had a like-minded companion. Someone like myself who needed their own space but with whom I could share the wonders of travel and kick back at the end of the day with a beer and a cigarette, resting and thinking back to a good day’s riding. I didn’t like the prospect of riding with a group of riders very much, but a couple of other people to go with would be perfect.
Finding a riding companion seemed like the hardest part of the preparation. It was easy to go to a store and purchase material things and it was easy to prepare myself mentally and physically. Finding someone who was also enthused about taking on a mad journey like this, who could get time off at the same time, who could afford the expense associated with it and had an up for anything attitude was difficult, to say the least. To be fair, I didn’t look very hard because a part of me hoped that nobody would come along and I would have to ride alone by necessity. And then I happened to have a phone conversation with my friend Sarah.
Sarah Adkins lives in Portland, Oregon. We had been introduced by a mutual acquaintance a few years before and I had been struck even then by the combination of fresh faced innocence and youth combined with a worldly wise knowledge of the world. The soft spoken quiet kid had gone on to become an EMT. She had read the account of my first road trip across the Olympic Peninsula and had written to me about how that had inspired her to go get her own bike. She had quietly acquired a dirt bike and started kicking around on dirt roads. We talked on the phone on and off over the years always making plans to meet up and ride together, plans that never quite materialized.
I jokingly mentioned to her that she should take a few weeks off and ride with me to Alaska to which she said that it sounded like a good idea and she would see if she could get the time off. I never expected anything to come of it until she called back a week later saying that she had gotten the time off and started looking for an appropriate bike. I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it. Here I had been dreading being forced to ride with a stranger. Instead I would ride with someone I liked, whose company I had enjoyed and someone who could hold her own in a tough situation. She didn’t have as much touring experience as I did, but what she lacked in experience, she more than made up for with her stolid up for anything attitude.
She acquired a brand new KLR650 and used it as her commuter over her weekly one hundred mile commute and started gradually outfitting it for the ride.
We met up in Oregon to sit and down and hash out details for the very first time. Together we planned the route and essentials. We joked that we were only really riding with the other person so we would have someone to help us pick up our bikes if it ever went down.
ROUTES, DESTINATIONS AND DREAMS