Alaska trip 2007

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Ever since I was a kid I’d always envied those who undertook long journeys to far off places, particularly if a motorcycle or a boat was involved. The likes of Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman, doing their thing in the Long Way Round really stirred my imagination. Their exploits and others I’d read about, would trigger some wanderlust deep down in me to do something more challenging than a bike run to Killarney with a few of the lads on a Saturday. So an idea for a trip in Canada started somewhere at the back of the brain and just kept on growing.

To begin at the beginning, I suppose the idea for a trip to Canada came after my wife and I had travelled there to visit our son in Vancouver in October 2006. We had rented a car for 11 days and toured much of British Columbia. The scenery there was awe-inspiring, and having experienced driving on the roads, I felt the next logical step was to ride a bike there, so the idea grew, and after many hours at the computer, looking up maps, accommodation etc, the idea grew some more.

There were still lots of unanswered questions regarding the trip, but as time went by, things started to take shape. Firstly, I needed a bike to ride in Canada; thoughts of shipping my own out there soon vanished, when I discovered the cost of doing such a thing would have set the budget back. So it had to be a rental! Found what I thought was a good package from a company in British Columbia, they had a great looking website, and the carrot was, they were the only people offering bike rental without excess mileage. Some rental packages required excess after only 150kms (90 miles per day!) I sent a deposit of $200 to secure the bike.

As departure date got closer I tried e-mailing the rental people, but no reply! Tried faxing them, still no reply. Tried several phone calls, same story. So it’s a matter of a few weeks to go and I can’t to make contact with the bike rental people. How do I get around this one? Back to the internet. I’d remembered seeing a website which included my rental people along with other bike rental companies, so I e-mailed Coastline Motorcycle Tours, who were also located near Vancouver, explaining my situation and asking if they had any knowledge of what was going on out there. Their reply was a bit of a shock: They explained they had no knowledge of what was happening, but my query was only one of many they had received. They offered to rent a bike should I require it.

I liked the look of one of the bikes, a Suzuki C50 Boulevard 800cc cruiser with shaft drive. I had to know for sure I’d have a bike to ride before making further bookings, so unable to make contact regarding my $200 deposit already paid, I changed to Coastline. At least they answered my e-mails promptly. So having secured a bike again, I was now in a position to go one step further, book the flights and ferry.

I read a lot on British Columbia and over a period the route started taking shape. The Inside Passage is a narrow stretch of water between Vancouver Island and the coast of BC which appealed to me. BC Ferries had a sailing on this stretch at a much more reasonable rate than the Cruise Liners sailing the same stretch of water. With the possibility of sighting whales, eagles and various other wildlife, I felt why not?

The ferry sails from Port Hardy at the northern end of Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert, which is on the mainland and only about 300 miles from the most southerly point of Alaska, a small town called Hyder! Hyder is a ghost town barely clinging on by its fingernails. It was formerly a gold-mining town in the early 1900s, but now with the mine closed awaiting the price of gold to rise, there’s not a lot happening. Great credit is due to the Hyder community, I honestly don’t know how they survive the long winters up there. Snowbound for half of the year is not my idea of paradise! But they really are a community and tend to look out for one another up there.

Two miles on the Canadian side of the border is the town of Stewart, slightly larger in population than Hyder, this has a more prosperous look about it, with a small airport and hospital; even the roads are paved, but Hyder is unique, nowhere else is like it, and the people there seem to appreciate the effort made by visitors travelling to their town, so they give them an extra friendly greeting. The pubs in town even offer to have you “Hyderised” if you are willing to have a go.

Departure day finally arrived, so I flew from Cork to Heathrow and on to Vancouver, and next morning catching a Sea Plane on to Victoria. Taking the Sea Pplane was also part of this trip of a lifetime, never having flown in one before. I felt I might as well go the whole hog. The plan was to collect the bike at Victoria on Vancouver Island and ride the 300 miles to the Port Hardy Ferry. It looked great on the plan! I made it to the sea plane terminal in Vancouver Harbour, boarded the De Havilland Otter, took off over the harbour with fantastic views over the area in spite of the overcast weather.

On the approach to Victoria however, the pilot shouted something back to the front passengers, and asked them to relay the news to the rest of us. Bad news! We were returning to Vancouver, as the winds were too high to attempt a landing in Victoria. Was the whole trip off? If I didn’t get to Port Hardy that night, the ferry only sailed every other day, so it had to be then or not at all. In fairness to the people at Harbour Air, I had to wait for a few hours but they finally got me out on a flight leaving for Victoria at 1.50 due to arrive around 2.30. It’s just about possible to cover the 300 miles in daylight.

I had been warned not to ride the isolated roads up there in darkness, the risk of hitting a moose or other animal was too great. By the time I had packed my luggage on the bike and paperwork was completed, it was now 3.30pm. Leaving a busy city like Victoria in the rain seemed to take ages, getting to the highway. I suppose I was riding for about an hour when I got pulled in for speeding by the RCMP. I guess they took pity on me, one of them wrote a ticket, but said it would be a souvenir as long as I didn’t get caught again. Needless to say I kept a keen eye on the speedometer from then on. I do have one gripe with the Canadian authorities regarding the speed limits. It changes all the time, you really do have to keep looking for the signs. One minute it’s 90km per hour, suddenly it drops to 60kph, might even drop lower, before increasing again.

It was a long ride in the cold and rain but I finally made it to Port Hardy after dark, so I filled the tank and found the motel I had pre-booked, and was really glad I had already booked the room for that particular night. I was cold and wet and in no mood for going around town looking for a room. Early start next morning a short ride to the ferry terminal, I couldn’t help wondering whether the bike would start after all the rain during the night! That would really leave me up the proverbial creek. I need not have worried, the Suzuki came to life at the first press of the button, and continued to behave in this way for the remainder of the trip. It was then I was grateful to David Graham of Coastline Motorcycle Tours with whom I had been in regular e-mail contact. I’d noticed the bike had been fitted with new tyres. They gave a reassuring feeling on the trip. The Canadian road surfaces were fine, but on a bike on isolated roads, you can’t be too careful.

On the Inside Passage trip from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert, the scenery was spectacular, with the ship twisting and turning following the contours of the shore. In summer the sailings take place in daylight, reverting to night sailings during the winter months. It must be a navigator’s nightmare constantly having to keep a lookout for the continuous course alterations required to steer a ship of this size through what is a very narrow passage at times, particularly at night on the winter sailings. I found it a great help while on board, if the officer on the bridge spotted anything of interest ahead, it was announced over the ship’s intercom, giving the photographers on board like myself time to get on deck to snap away.

I had hoped to spot some whales as they are supposed to be regular visitors to the Inside Passage, however, no luck on this trip! The ferry was 2 hours late docking at Prince Rupert; it was 12.30am when I disembarked, so I was again thankful I had a room already booked. Still no cell phone coverage or internet facilities up there, and the night porter must have been related to Manuel from Fawlty Towers: He too “knew nothing” when I asked if he knew the phone prefix for Vancouver.

I left Prince Rupert next morning at 7am for one of the most spectacular days of riding I have ever had. I literally had to keep stopping to admire the sights all around. It was a beautiful morning, having the road to myself, I felt so privileged at being able to see these sights for myself; the experience was phenomenal, I was literally like a child. Stopping the bike every few minutes to take even more photographs, saluting the rare drivers of any vehicle going in the opposite direction. I really felt like a little boy on his first tricycle.

I arrived in the town of Terrace around 9am so had a cup of tea, then looked for internet access to make contact with the outside world. It was a Bank Holiday that Monday, so I wasn’t sure if the cafe would open at all, but on the dot of 10am the guy from the internet cafe opened up, so ending two days of frustration on my part.

I was so relieved to be able to let my family know that I was fine. My excitement remained for the remaining 250 miles trip that day to Hyder. The road got even quieter as I travelled further north. A couple of hours after leaving Terrace, I spotted my first bear. There he was, sitting on a grassy bank, just ahead of me. Shit! The noise of the bike scared him off into the trees, but I was determined to keep a better look out ahead, just in case I saw another bear sunning himself. Sure enough an opportunity presented itself in a matter of a few minutes, so this time I was prepared. On spotting the bear, I hit the killswitch and coasted as near as I dared, before stopping to shoot the bear (photographically that is).

On to Meziadin Junction, a small Indian settlement located at a T-junction, I felt sure I’d be able to fill up before the resuming the final part of my day’s trip. Found the petrol (Gas) pump, with a sign saying “Closed for the Winter”. Spotted a motorhome with a Jeep in tow, parked in the same area. The couple in the RV were having a meal break. Had a chat with the couple in the motorhome and decided to try for Stewart, still roughly 40 miles away, having been reassured by them that at least they were behind, and could pick me up should I need it.

I got to Bear Glacier, with still roughly 20 miles to go for fuel. Dilemma! Should I stop to take photos, or should I carry on for petrol first? An old rule I had learned regarding photography is, take the shot now! Don’t leave it till later, I had learned this lesson the hard way on too many occasions in the past. I knew the worst that could happen was running out of petrol and the “back up” crew were behind, so I stopped and took the photos before resuming.

I got into Stewart and filled up, then returned to take another look at Bear Glacier. I was fortunate to spot a couple of Bald Eagles in flight, but close enough to see their white patches. My accommodation for that night was in Kathy’s Korner B&B. Kathy is of Irish extraction and plans to travel to Ireland later this year, so she welcomed the opportunity to talk about where to go and what to see when she comes over here. I slept soundly that night having had the most memorable day on a motorcycle I have ever experienced.

Days like this don’t come very often. I have memories from this trip to keep me going for years to come, and as my 67th birthday approaches, I don’t expect to surpass this trip, but, for as long as I can keep throwing the leg over the saddle, I’ll keep trying!

Conclusions… If I were to do the trip again would I do it any differently? I would suggest to anyone thinking of this trip to start from Vancouver and go up country by road first; there are great biking roads up through Squamish, Pemberton, Lilloet and on to Cache Creek (Highway 99). Leave the Inside Passage trip for the return portion. Coastline Motorcycles have depots in both Vancouver and Victoria and it’s possible to start from one and drop off at the other. Booking accommodation in advance has it’s pros and cons. It can be frustrating, riding around a strange city looking for the motel you’ve booked. On the other hand, it’s good to know there is a room waiting if you are delayed along the road. So there’s no right answer to this one.

Safe journey wherever you go!

The photos: 1, DeHavilland Otter Seaplane; 2, Boarding ferry at Port Hardy for the Inside Passage; 3, Inside Passage; 4, 7am Leaving Prince Rupert on Highway 16; 5, Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Terrace; 6, Mezziadin Junction Highway 37; 7, Getting close, glacier country; 8, Hyder, Alaska; 9, Iron Butt riders en route to Hyder; 10, Leaving Hyder.

Gerry Casey

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By Gerry Casey