For the last two days I’ve been cruising my motorcycle across forests, muskeg, mountains and waterways on the Alaskan Highway — also referred to as the Alcan. This road was built by two teams of U.S. Army engineers starting in both the North and the South on March 9, 1942. The road was built largely as a result of the Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands and designed to connect the Alaskan Territory with the lower 48 states. Two months later a small pilot road was open to Army vehicles and within a year a permanent all-weather road — then called the Alcan Military Highway – was completed between Dawson Creek in British Columbia and Fairbanks Alaska. After the Canadian portion of the Alcan was handed over to CAnada in 1946, the Alaska highway was graded, widened and opened to unrestricted traffic in 1947.
The early days of the Alaskan Highway were legendary for the toll it took on those travelers brave enough to tackle it. Today, the road is largely paved and many of the crooked parts and to take on the Highway today is not such the task. However that doesn’t discount the immense beauty, amazing wildlife and the vast wilderness that stretches for more than 1,500 miles to Fairbanks.
Leaving Watson Lake I got caught by a few fellow drivers outside the Gateway Motel looking to strike up conversation about the road and about my WorldRider journey. Then a quick tour of Watson Lake’s infamous Signpost Forest. This is a massive collection of town signs – perhaps the largest collection in the world.
Apparently a G.I. on the crew responsible for building the great Alaskan Highway in 1942 was given the responsibility for repainting the road’s directional sign. He added the direction and mileage to his hometown of Danville, Illinois. And since then more than 40,000 other signs have been added to the collection with town signs, license plates, posters, pie tins, gold-panning pans, mufflers, driftwood and even flywheels stating where the contributor is from and who he or she is. And the forest keeps growing.
“I really admire what you’re doing,” he said while gnawing on a toothpick. After fueling I took a brake to down a hot cup of coffee.
Then Dick Van Dyke approached me. “Do you work?” he asked curiously.
“This is my job,” I replied with all seriousness. “I write, photograph and am an ambassador of good will.”
Not the Dick Van Dyke famous from television’s early days. Nope. This was Dick Van Dyke from Reno.
“That’s really great… good for you.”
Over the next 500 miles Dick and I would exchange smiles and waves as we both meandered down the Alcan. Driving a powerful pick up and carrying a “fifth wheel” trailer, I ran into him and his son at the Yukon River several hours later. Walking over to me with his camera he took a picture. “I gotta tell people what you’re doing.”
A mile or so outside of Watson Lake I realized I was riding without my earplugs. On the side of the road I pulled my helmet off and realized oil was running down the side of my tank, onto my panniers, pants and boots. You might want to call me the absent minded rider with the several bonehead moves I’ve made over the last week or so (wallet in toilet, broken foot, keys rattled off my ignition key ring, etc.) but this time must get the jackpot: I forgot to tighten the oil cap after checking the oil. Fortunately, I pulled over to put my earplugs in otherwise I might have ridden more miles and created more mess. Yet another delay trying to get out of Watson Lake.
Several hours later arriving in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, I buzzed by the old riverboat the Klondike, toured the center of town, grabbed a quick espresso and filled up my tank. Compared to everything I experienced today, Whitehorse wasn’t appealing to me. Just a town along the Yukon with tourist offices, restaurants, coffee shops and I’m certain a rich history. But I was focused on moving on to the more exciting Yukon and Alaskan experience. So onward to Haines Junction.
A Harley rider from Ohio packing up his gear outside my hotel room this morning warned me to “Watch the construction outside Haines Junction,” I could sense the fear and anger in his voice. “It’s real steep and they wet the roads. I told the flag girl I don’t think I could make it. I just went real slow… she told me one or two bikes go down every day. The mud is two or three inches deep and it goes on for several miles.”
I was apprehensive about this all day, but arriving after the construction crew had punched out for the day, the steep hill was still wet but I just waded through the mud and kept my speed and my nerves in check and at the end of the construction zone, I pulled over to gander at the vista unfolding before my eyes and to just relax and breathe. It wasn’t that bad.
That is until I tried to start my motorcycle. You see I turned the bike off at the end of the long stretch of construction. But throughout the several miles of construction I had my electric vest on high, my heated hand grips cranked up and my PIAA auxiliary lights on and of course my GPS. And without the high RPMs of my motor my generator failed to deliver enough juice to my accessories that it started to drain the battery. Top that off with the fact when I hit the kill switch at the end of the construction I failed to turn the key off so for several minutes my accessories were rapidly draining the minute battery of my GS.
The solenoid just rapidly clicked. There was no juice to crank over the started. And the section of road before me was a slight incline. So I stood fifty miles from Haines Junction with a dead battery and a broken foot.
Just than Dick Van Dyke pulled up. “You okay?” I yelled to him my problem. He pulled ahead and he jumped out as I was just starting to paddle my motorcycle up the slight incline. The 60 + year old man from Reno got behind my bike and pushed me until I popped the clutch and engine purred. “I’ll follow you to make sure you’re okay.”
We waved goodbye in Haines Junction as I pressed on toward Beaver Creek and Kluane National Park.