Alone Along the Alcan

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, December 28th, 2008.

There is something about long, open roads and being on a motorcycle that has always appealed to me.

I suppose it's the freedom without restrictions and maybe the opportunity to think and reflect as a result of time on the road that always keeps me anticipating that next road trip. At any rate, it didn't take much to coax me into yet another long road trip on my BMW motorcycle.

My plan was to drive from my front door in Alaska to my dad's front door in Iowa -- around 3,600 miles -- and I had a week to do it. Fall seemed like the best time for this road trip, so as to avoid RV and tourist traffic on the Alcan (Alaska/Canadian Highway) and still utilize the relative long daylight hours of the far north. And of course, getting out of Alaska before it gets too cold for motor biking is always a wise decision.

So, on a Friday in late August I loaded up everything I would need for a week-long journey across the open roads of Alaska, Canada and the lower 48. My plan was to camp out the entire trip and not buy a thing, except fuel for the bike.

After work set out and passed through some of the most amazing Alaskan mountains in this state. As the sun set, I watched the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains light up on the southern horizon. I got in the first 310 miles to Tok, Alaska, arriving just as darkness set in. The sound of geese, far overhead, beating their way south, lulled me to sleep.

Before sunrise I was on the road again and with temperatures in the 40s it was some chilly riding well into morning. This day was full of stopping for road construction. Just when I thought I was making good time, I would be stopped. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the Alaskan and Canadian governments felt the road needed repair.

Just after dark and in the pouring rain, I pulled into a welcome spot, Liard Hot Springs. Having driven this highway 13 times already, I knew of this haven of hot water in the middle of the woods. After a long soak I hunkered down for the night.

Before sunrise, I was on the road heading south. After several hundred miles of spectacular landscape, I arrived in Dawson Creek, the start/finish of the Alaska Highway -- depending on which way you are traveling. There was one woman who talked to me while I was taking a break in this town. A woman in her 80s smiled and said it was getting pretty cool out to be riding a motorbike. But she was glad I was having a good trip. She walked away smiling to herself, probably remembering an adventure of her own from her younger years.

Across Canada I decided to stay as far north as I could, on roads I had never traveled before. I pressed on and felt more at home with each mile I traveled. I was in farm country now as I passed through mile after mile of fenceless wheat fields that stretched to the horizon.  I spent hours driving, not seeing another vehicle. I suspect there are not too many places left on this planet that you can do this. By sunset and with 800 miles behind me for the day, I found a spectacular spot on Lesser Great Slave Lake and rolled out my sleeping bag. This night I slept under the stars and couldn't remember when I'd been somewhere that it was so dark and there were so many stars out.

By morning, there was frost and I rode for several hours with ice on my jacket and bike. By late morning it started to warm up and I was determined to make it as close to Lake Winnipeg as I could. On a map, the road between Lake Winnipeg, Lake Winnipegosis and Lake Manitoba looks like a motorcyclists dream; a long stretch of lone highway cutting through pristine wilderness. This I had to see and so I continued moving east across Canada.

Leading up to this stretch of road I asked in every town, what it was like up that highway? Amazingly enough, no one had ever been up there. One guy even told me I was just asking for trouble by going there.

In the morning, in the pouring rain, I drove that road and I realized I'd made a poor decision. It's not that it wasn't a fine road, but the pouring rain, lack of scenic pullouts, and kamikaze truckers made for an exciting drive.

By nightfall, I was in Minneapolis, staying with an old friend I had been in Boy Scouts with back in Iowa. While reminiscing, I realized that sometimes in life, keeping up with your past is the best way to keep perspective on your present.

By morning I was riding south from Minneapolis on the Great River Road through Red Wing and Winona, Minn., La Crosse, Wis., and Guttenberg, Iowa. Oddly enough, there were sections of this road I had never traveled, and yet, it was some of the most scenic landscape that I traveled on the entire trip.

After five days on the road and 3,660 miles, I pulled into my driveway in Dubuque. As my Dad and his old friend Harold asked about how the trip was, I came to realize I'd just connected my present with my past, by one long motorcycle ride. And then it dawned on me, the best part of this trip, like every other grand adventure, is coming home.

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, December 28th, 2008.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. He can be reached at www.TroyHenkels.com.

Copyright 2008 Troy Henkels