Editor’s note: Al Wagner loves motorcycles. He was first introduced to Times’ readers in 2010. He hit the road again last month and completed a journey to Alaska and back. An avid writer, Wagner provided this first-person account.
I had been working on completing my list of states to ride motorcycles in for at least the last 10 years. Last summer’s ride to Connecticut, Rode Island and New Jersey, left just one. With the Memorial Day weekend, that gave me a chance to ride for nine days and only use four days of vacation. I just had to ride.
It would have to be a fast, hard ride to make it work. I looked at the list of “Iron Butt” rides and the next one up the list was “2-2000,” two 1,000 mile days back to back.
Saturday morning at 5:16 am, officer Al Prochaska would be my start time witness. I traveled up to Sparta and onto the Interstate, crossing over into Minnesota, and up to Fargo. There were scattered showers all the way. By 1 p.m., Harley and I were at 500 miles. Out in western North Dakota I took a little detour to avoid a shower and the side road was flooded from all the rain. Harley can swim too, and fly!
The oil and gas boom area in western North Dakota was full of trucks, campers and oil rigs of all sizes. I crossed over Canadian Customs into Saskatchewan and found more oil, gas and coal mines. I had logged 1,000 miles by 9 p.m. I stayed in Regina, Saskatchewan for the night. It took me about an hour to find a creditable witness that was willing to verify my mileage, and sign my form and a time, date, and location stamped gas receipt. Yesh! Then I turned on the Weather Channel at the motel to find more doom and gloom. Yesh!
The best cure for the doom and gloom: ride. Since there is no Interstate road system in Canada, and getting gas receipts with an American credit card was such a pain, I decided to give up on the second 1,000 mile day and just enjoy the ride. I headed west through Moose Jaw and I saw one trotting along out in the open. On to Calgary, Alberta, and snow capped Rocky Mountains on the horizon, instead of rain clouds. Up the “Icefields Parkway” through Bannf and Jasper, Canadian National Parks, snow, glaciers, lakes and wildlife all along the road. I reached 750 miles for the day at Jasper, Alberta. I watched the sun go down, and up, on the Rockies.
I recalculated my ride plan and time and decided I had time for a bit of a side trip today. Near Hinton, Alberta there was a sign that had taunted me from a ride up here a few years back: “Scenic Route to Alaska.” Up the “Big Horn” highway, I was going to fix that. I had breakfast and a full tank headed north. Deer and elk, and grizzly bear warning signs were along the road. There’s a road in Nevada called, “The Loneliest Hwy in America.” I had stopped and parked in the middle of it for a picture. This road reminded me of that one. I wondered if I stopped here for a picture if something would come out of the woods that didn’t already have breakfast? Further north was an oil and logging area, and trucks of all kinds. They may run over me, but at least they wouldn’t eat me.
I stopped at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, at the start of the “ALCAN” Highway, a place my Mom and Dad had taken me some 40+ years earlier. With tears in my eyes, I thanked them for my sense of adventure. The ALCAN was built in 1942 during World War II, by the U.S. Military through the Canadian tundra to get supplies to Alaska to prevent an invasion into the North American continent. It was on to Prince George, British Columbia for the night, with more deer and bear along the road.
After a couple hours of riding in rain and showers I stopped at the Harley dealer in Smithers, British Columbia to see if they could do a quick oil change. They told me to be careful on the road ahead. Bear on the road, fantastic scenery, rock cuts, glaciers, slippery wet wood bridges, and the corners will sneak up on you...you will love it! They were right, God seems to make the best parts the hardest to get to. I topped off with gas and a cold turkey sandwich at Kitwanga, at the combination, gas station, restaurant, convenience store, tire dealer and headed up the Cassiar Highway.
I stopped at the border, to savor the moment... I had made it! I rode a motorcycle in all 50 states! After 2,867.4 miles in four days, I WAS IN ALASKA! A lady from London stopped to share taking pictures of each other.
The town of Hyder, Alaska, is a whole other story. It is almost a ghost town, an old mining community, in Misty Fjords National Monument. The only way in is the road I came in on, sea plane or boat into the bay from the Pacific Ocean. I rode down the gravel road a few miles toward the fifth largest glacier in North America. A miner stopped me to tell me the road ahead was still snowed in. I knew that. He must of got a tip from my guardian angel to tell me I really shouldn’t be out here.
I stayed the night and got “Hyderized,” at the “Sealaska Inn.”
The story could end here, but now I have to get back home...
I awake early in the morning to a noise outside. They had told me there were motorcycles torn up in the past by bears. I thought, did I get all my snacks out of the bike? Just big rain drops off the eve dripping on the bike.
I’ve got a long ways to get back home, and a short time to get there. On the same road I had came in on, a 150 to 200-pound black bear made a b-line across the road in front of me. I have hit deer with a motorcycle a couple times in the past and it’s no fun. No pictures of this one, I had a hand full of brakes. I missed ‘em by about 20 feet. I flinched every time a bird would fly now. I stopped back at the Harley dealer to thank them for the advice on the road yesterday. After more fantastic scenery and showers on the road to Quesnel, British Columbia, I stopped for the night when there was lightning and thunder I could hear over the bike.
I wouldn’t say there were no good roads in British Columbia, just none fast and straight. But, the scenery was still fantastic. I crossed back into U.S, customs north of Spokane, Wash. for the night. I still had three days to get home. I had ridden motorcycle in Oregon back in the 80s but didn’t have a picture. There is no good, fast route to get there either, and I decided that would be a good excuse for a ride another day. And there were some fantastic roads I wanted to do on the way east.
Through Northern Idaho and Montana I went. I took over 3,000 pictures during the ride, my camera on a strap around my neck. Most of them were snapped when it wasn’t raining, while I was riding. Near Billings, Mont. it started to sleet, and there was a road I wanted to take south there. I had ridden a couple times before, “Beartooth Pass” at about 11,000 ft. Highway 212 heads south toward Yellowstone. One time in a snow in July. The guy at the truck stop called a ranger station for me; said the pass was closed. Another guy in line said he wouldn’t try that road in a four-wheel drive this time of year, let alone on a motorcycle. These guys didn’t know what I had ridden through for the past few days. I called the Harley dealer at Red Lodge and she said there was at least three feet of snow on the road in the pass, and it hadn’t been plowed. Third time’s a charm! I gave up, and back on the Interstate I went.
My plan for that day was to get to Sheridan, Wyo. After about an hour of riding in the cold and rain east of Billings, Mont., I rode on past the first exit for Hardin, near where Custer had his last stand. My guardian angel must have tapped me on the shoulder and told me it was time to stop for the day. The lady at the motel said it was a good thing I stopped; it would have gotten a lot colder on the road ahead into the Wolf Mountains.
At first light we hit the road and she was right: the rain had stopped, but it was still in the 40s. Through the corner of Wyoming, into South Dakota. I stopped in Sturgis for gas and a couple of token pictures. Black Hills, Badlands, Wall Drug, Corn Palace: been there, done that, I was on a mission. Pictures as I rode on past, wind out across South Dakota. A couple loads of bikes on trailers. Wimps.
I asked a guy on a bike at Sturgis to take my picture and I asked where he was from. He was from Minnesota and asked where I was from, and how I liked the cold and wind. I told him I was from Wisconsin. “Oh, you rode further than I did,” he replied. When I tell ‘em where I had been he looked over his glasses at me and just took the picture.
Across Minnesota, into the corner of Iowa, crossing the Mississippi into Wisconsin. When I went to take a picture of the Fennimore sign, my camera batteries were dead. I was shot too: 16 hours and 1,050 miles of riding that day.
Harley and I had done it! A total of 5,704.9 miles to Alaska and back in eight days. Even crazier? I plan on riding back to Alaska later this summer, with my son. A full 9,000-mile loop through the Northwest Territories and Yukon. More to check off the list.
Then there’s Newfoundland...maybe next summer.