Exploring Alaska's Inside Passage

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July 12th 2012
Published: July 12th 2012
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Thursday 28/06/12 – We said our thanks and goodbyes to Chuck and hit the road, it was an early start as we had to travel 550 kms, and the weather forecast wasn’t too favourable for motorbike riding. The weatherman was right as it rained pretty heavily at times and the wind was funnelling through the mountains quite hard. We headed to Tok via the Alcan Highway and had planned to fuel up at a small town which had basically one petrol station, one house (attached to the petrol station), and one man who was the petrol station attendant. Despite the town including one petrol station and one petrol station attendant, it didn’t actually have any petrol – they had run out a few days ago. He informed us that we could get fuel either 60 miles back towards Anchorage, or 60 miles further on towards Tok; a shame really as I calculated that we had enough fuel for about 40 miles. With no other options we continued on until my bike ran out about 2 miles short of the next fuel stop. Luckily I flicked the tank over to reserve and we coasted into town happy to have made it. We ate our lunch at a picnic table next to the servo whilst being forced to listen to a conversation on the table next to us. The young girl said the word LIKE 14 times in one sentence: “You know like this guy right, he like said to me, like what’s your name? And like I replied…” Needless to say, I didn’t like it.

We arrived in Tok and set up camp at the Sourdough Campsite. Each night they light a bonfire and provide marshmallows. They also have a competition where you have to try and throw a sourdough pancake about 4-5 metres into a bucket (although they called it a ‘BUCK-IT’ (pronounced like George W Bush would’ve said it), every time you missed you had to yell BUCK IT!) Both Kenz and I hit the top of the buck-it but they didn’t go in. If you won, you got breakfast for free the next day (and a few people were successful); it was great fun and the guy running it was a complete whacko.

Many of the other campers were interested in our trip and talked to us for ages, one of them was an Australian retiree who had been driving his RV around North America for the last 10 years. They were all really nice and one bloke from Missouri bought us over some watermelon and a New Testament Bible that had been adapted for cowboys, YEHAAW!!

Friday 29/06/12 – It was another long and wet and windy 650 km day today from Tok to Whitehorse. Despite crossing the border to Canada, it was a fairly unremarkable day. When we pulled into Whitehorse the rain started belting down, it was raining so hard you could only see about 10 metres: fantastic weather to be tenting in. We got all organised, determined to get our tent up in about 4 minutes flat. It was going well until we snapped a tent pole which required a frustratingly lengthy repair job. We finally got the tent up and went into town for some Mexican (back to Sanchez Cantina that we visited last time in Whitehorse) and a pitcher of sangria which was about 1.5 litres (about 1 litre more than we were expecting). It was so wet in the tent tonight that it felt like the air mattresses were floating around, I was half expecting to see some toy boats float by.

Saturday 30/06/12 – The sun was out and the birds were chirping this morning. We hung almost everything we owned out to dry for about an hour whilst we chatted to Ken, a fellow KLR rider that had camped next to us. After showing us over the mods on his bike and giving us some tips on the road ahead, we saddled up for a short and mostly sunny ride to the Alaskan ‘gold-rush’ town of Skagway. There was a 30 km patch of road where we rode through three states and two countries (from the Yukon into British Columbia and then into Alaska). The officer at the Alaskan Border crossing was a really grumpy dude, the sort of guy that has no sense of humour. He even asked us where we were going despite the road dead ending about 12 km ahead at the coast – he didn’t think my wise-crack answer was funny at all. The road up to the border crossing went through a mountain pass that was up at the cloud level. It was really eerie to be riding up into the clouds and not being able to see much except foggy clouds, ice, snow and craggy rocks all around the road.

We rode down the mountain and into Skagway which was hosting two large cruise ships, so the town was in full swing! We went on a free tour which included many stories about its chequered past as a lawless, wild western-style gold rush town. There are a few of the original buildings from 1898 that were still standing, and the rest of the town has been built in the tradition of its history which has resulted in a vibrant and quirky place.

After traveling through Swaziland a few years ago where we visited a glassblowing factory, I had always wanted to try blowing glass myself. We knew there was a small glassblowing shop in Skagway where you could go on a tour and try blowing glass yourself, but it was $200 each – well out of our price range! We went around to check out their shop and the lady told us that tonight they were hosting the Annual Rhubarb festival and if we came back in 2 hours, we could pay $20 and blow our own bauble! How lucky could we be! After an excruciating 2 hour wait (my stomach was a knot of anticipation) we went around and actually got to blow our own glass! It was so much fun and so interesting to be holding molten glass on the end of a pipe and blowing into it. In true nerd style we were the first ones there, so we got to spend heaps of time talking to the artists and checking out their equipment. I made a bauble in the pattern of a whirlwind using the colours white, aqua and green; Kenz made one in the pattern of a feather using white and blue. Mine looks pretty good but Kenz’s looks amazing – the feather was definitely the way to go. I wanted to go back and do about 20 more but Kenz wouldn’t let me. Somehow I don’t think that is the last time I will ever blow glass!

Sunday 01/07/12 – We spent the morning walking around the town; however as the cruise ships had left the night before, most of the shops were shut. I guess the low-rent types (bikers and RVers) don’t spend the money like the cruise ship types. We went to the city museum as it was one of the only things open and learned more about the gold rush. Apparently it inspired around 100,000 stampeders to flock to Canada in search of gold. Around 30,000 of those people actually made it to the ‘goldfields’ (as the horrible conditions caused many to turn back), and of those only about 400 people actually found gold! The ironic thing is that only about 100 people found enough gold to be considered wealthy! When the stampeders crossed from Skagway into Canada, the customs officials ensured all men had one year’s supply of food with them! This resulted in a portion of the mountainous climb to Dawson City being nicknamed ‘Dead Horse Pass’, as nearly 3000 horses died in the first year trying to haul this crazy amount of food up a ravine.

We went to the Skagway Cemetery which started being used at the start of the gold rush (in about 1888). It was situated in the hills near the city amongst a tall, dark overgrown forest – its definitely the creepiest cemetery I have ever been too. There was a famous outlaw buried here (called Jeff ‘Soapy’ Smith) who terrorised the town for a number of years before meeting his demise in a shootout with the local cop on the dock of the city. We were catching the ferry to Juneau early in the morning so we repacked the bikes in anticipation of the early start.

Monday 02/07/12 – I must have gotten out the wrong side of tent this morning – it was a day I definitely won’t forget! Kenz and I woke up and packed the bikes up like a well-oiled machine this morning, we are really starting to excel at packing up our gear. We were required at the ferry terminal at 6 am for a 7 am departure and we had the bikes packed and ready to go at 5:55am. Unfortunately it was at this time I turned my key which was followed by the peaceful, calming, soothing sound of nothing… After swearing, throwing things around and raising my clenched fist to the sky for about 10 minutes, I decided to think clearly and try to get to the ferry ASAP. At first I tried to jump start the bike, but the only set of cables I had access to were suitable for trucks which meant I could get enough contact between the terminals and the cable clamps. With the help of a burly and friendly bystander (and his feeble and grumpy wife), we managed to push start it. Whilst I have roll started bikes before, I had never push started one - it’s not as easy as it sounds as when the bike does start, it takes off and you are running alongside it (or being dragged along) and you have to carefully reach up with both hands to apply the clutch and front brake GENTLY and simultaneously. Anyway, it was about 6:25am at this stage which was no big deal as the terminal was only about 5 minutes away. Anyway we headed off to the terminal, I accidently took a wrong turn, Kenz didn’t see me and kept going, I realised my mistake, did a U-turn and stall the bike (for the first time in about 5 weeks!). I turned the key to the familiar sound of nothing; Kenz was gone and uncontactable. I had to push start the bike by myself (no easy task when the bike is cold, on a flat road, and weighs about 260 kg). We both made it to the ferry quite late, but with enough time to sneak on with the last cars. We must have looked like crazy people, all dishevelled, crazy eyes, sweating profusely, dirty and I was limping and hunch backed - I must have pulled something in my back when push starting the bike.

Some fellow bikers on board must have taken pity on us and they industriously started pulling apart my bike to source the problem. After the seat and panniers being removed, GPS hard wiring removed, break and clutch levers being loosened, engine kill switch being opened up, we conferred and decided that the battery was dying. The ferry trip from Skagway to Juneau (via Haines) was quite beautiful as it weaves around many mountainous islands that were covered in forests and snow. By this time, my back had seized up and I was walking around like your average RV-tourist in Alaska despite being around 40 years younger.

Once the ferry landed I borrowed a set of motorbike jumper leads from fellow biker Mark and jump started it off another battery. To cut a long story short, we spent the next 3 hours riding around Juneau trying to find a suitable battery, all the while not being able to turn my bike off! Finally another fellow biker Dennis found one, bought it and delivered it to us free of charge, what a legend! We added the acid (yes, it’s an old fashioned battery!) and left it in the shop to charge for a few hours overnight. We decided to set up the tent and hit the sack before anything else went wrong.

Tuesday 03/07/12 – I opened my eyes this morning feeling as fit as a fiddle and ready to bounce out of bed to face the new day! Then I sat up. After about 30 minutes of what must have looked like weird geriatric calisthenics routine, I managed to get dressed and out of the tent. I went for a short walk around the camp to stretch my back out before attempting to scale, and then straddle my bike. After jump starting the bike we headed to the shop to pick up my new, fully charged battery that Dennis had kindly bought for me. We installed it and headed into Juneau to check it out. It is the Capital of Alaska, but really only because the government sits here, it only has a population of about 30,000 people. The city is nestled on the side of a mountain right at the water’s edge, and the whole island only has about 70 miles of road! It’s another cruise ship town which has its positives, and negatives. There were 4 cruise ships docked in town which means it was alive with people. We ate some traditional Russian Dumplings for lunch which were fantastic; I was still savouring the taste via belching about 6 hours later! We visited the post office to send the self-blown glass balls home, and then walked around the shopping area of the city. We found a store that sells Russian handcrafted items which had some amazing pieces; I wanted to buy them all!

Wednesday 04/07/12 – In Juneau, they have their Independence Day fireworks celebrations at midnight on the 3rd rather than the 4th of July. They celebrate their Independence from British rule (hint hint Australia!) with massive parades and celebrations on this public holiday. We stumbled out of the tent at 11pm and rode into town which was jam-packed with celebrators. We watched a decent fireworks display at the waterfront surrounded by many drunk youths with American Flags sitting on the roofs of their massive 3 tonne SUVs trying to deafen each other with Kelly Clarkson tunes. It was a truly American moment.

The Independence Day parade the next morning was also great but perhaps even more frantic and wild. Instead of drunken youths causing a ruckus, it was little kids running everywhere trying to collect the lollies that were liberally thrown out of the passing parade vehicles. It was hard to walk anywhere without accidentally kicking these little kids out of the way, they were carrying around huge sacks of candy by the end of the parade. Due to my injured back and old-man status, I had to rely on Kenz to collect my candy; she failed miserably.

The main afternoon celebrations were held at the neighbouring city of Douglas which included another parade (complete with thousands of wild eyed, sugar-possessed children who were frothing at the mouth with rainbow coloured candy-dyed spittle - I noticed they were moving a little slower this time with their bellies, pockets and backpacks already stuffed full), a medieval sword fight, dog Frisbee competitions, running races, and more food that you could poke a chubby American finger at. They really know how to celebrate over here! Fully satiated and with storm clouds a’brewin, we tried unsuccessfully to beat the rain back to our campsite.

Thursday 05/07/12 – We went about 2 kms down the road to the Mendenhall Glacier which we could see from our tent. This is definitely the biggest glacier we have ever seen, complete with a lake full of icebergs and a waterfall. Sadly this glacier seem to be following the trend of retreating at an increasingly rapid rate, however it is still a spectacular site. We hiked around the side of the glacier all the way to its raging waterfall which was really impressive, probably only second in size and volume to Victoria Falls that I have seen. Access was restricted to the waterfall as it was currently flooding and the last 200m of path were underwater. I am not the type to hike all this way and turn back so I scampered up this steep embankment and rock climbed (Cliff Hanger style!) around the cliff face to the foot of the falls. It was a pretty cool climb with the river below me; it was more difficult on the way back as light rain made everything slippery. It was really nice at the falls as I was around the corner by myself alone with the glacier and waterfall; I was later visited by a dog with a lady who wisely brought gumboots. The ranger later told us that the lake was flooding with the water and was rising about 2 inches per hour! They were about to close the walking trails.

I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself on the way back until we got to the car park and I found my bike had fallen over and was laying on its side. Luckily we had parked at one end of the car park and it fell away from the car in the next space. The tyre must have picked up a nail on the ride up here, and whilst on the hike, it had deflated, therefore changing the angle the bike was standing and it toppled over. Bummer. If you have never changed a rear tubed tyre on a motorcycle on the road then I won’t bore/scare you with the details such as brake removal, sprockets, chains, chain adjusters, axle removal and other obstacles you have to contend with before even removing the tyre and fighting with the innertube! About 2 hours, a few cuts and scrapes, copious amounts of dirt and grease, and a packet of girl-guide biscuits later (thanks to the 4th of July parade!), we finally had the bike all back together and working properly (thanks also to Captain Dave who gave me a lift into the servo to pump the tyre up!). I found the offending shard of nail that caused the puncture and hurled it into the bush with great rage and vigour. Needless to say we were the main attraction at the glacier for a while, everyone wanted to talk to us and hear our story. We even made a few new contacts including a guy from Paraguay with the same bikes as us.

After the trials of the morning we decided to cleanse our stomachs and souls with pilgrimages to Subway for lunch and then the shrine of Saint Therese for the afternoon. At Subway we were served by three scary but friendly Latinos that looked like extras from a Tu-Pac video. Saint Therese’s shrine is a small catholic church built around 100 years ago on a small island which includes the ‘Mercy Love Labyrinth’ (no I didn’t get lost, or lucky!).

Friday 06/07/12 – We caught the ferry from Juneau to Sitka this morning. It was a long and monotonous voyage, the only excitement was a pod of 5 or 6 orcas (killer whales) that glided past the boat. Things did get interesting when Kenz had a coffee that was so strong it needed 4 sugars and 4 milks to make it drinkable. Her head did spin for about 45 mins after drinking it.

It was a day of mad-super-crazy rain so we got off the ferry and immediately set up our tent. We spent the evening eating sandwiches in the tent and watching movies on the laptop.

Saturday 07/07/12 – Last night, we heard a bear walking around the camp. He woke me up when he pushed over the rubbish bin that was about 8 metres from our tent. He was so close I could hear his fur ‘whishing’ as he was walking. I made the mistake of waking Kenz up and telling her there was a bear out there – we then both experienced Kenz having a slow and drawn out panic attack that lasted about 3 hours! We were then woken up again (at about 9am this time) by some rednecks standing about 10 metres away from the tent shouting ‘PULL’ and then shooting shotguns at clay pigeons. Yes, you guessed right, we were camped on a shooting range!

In an effort to escape the bears and gun-toting rednecks, we jumped on the bikes and headed into the city of Sitka. It was originally founded by the Russians as the capital of Russian-America and the centre for fur trade and ship building on the continent. The site of the city was fought over by the Russians and the local native population. The majority of the locals here are native descendants who still speak the native tongue as well as English, plus there are still a few Russian descendants that live here. It is now a small city as once the fur trade died, there was no real reason for white people to move here; it is now home to barely 10,000 people.

I bartered our free entry into the huge Russian Orthodox Church that is a reminder of the strong Russian presence in Sitka. The original was built in the early 1800s but was destroyed by fire in the 1960s. A massive community effort saw a replica rebuilt on the site of the original a few years later. We left very impressed, but with our wallets and souls still intact.

The wildlife around Sitka was amazing. At any one time you could look up and see at least 2 Bald Eagles (usually more!) flying around 20 metres above you. Sitka was home to a Raptor education and rehabilitation centre which we visited and learned about how the centre rehabilitates some of the injured eagles to release back into the wild. At the moment, they have one bird (aptly named Lucky) that flew into a plane engine! But they are hopeful he can be released back into the wild. We got lost trying to find the centre and ended up a long way out of town on a gravel road pinched between the ocean and mountain cliffs, it was one of the most spectacular roads we have ridden on. I remember reading somewhere that the island of Sitka only has 17 miles of paved road.

We went to the local Mexican/Pizza/American/Fish and chips restaurant for lunch (apparently you can’t just pick one specialty…). To give you an idea of the amount of food people eat over here I will explain the experience. Firstly all you can drink soda for $2.50, then we ordered a MEDIUM chicken fajita pizza (note: there were also large, extra-large, and ‘fiesta’ sizes). Half of this single medium pizza fed both Kenz and I for lunch, and the other half about 6 hours later for dinner… How could one person eat it all?!

Sunday 08/07/12 – Our friendly bear visited us again last night. I heard some commotion outside the tent again; however I value my sleep so I didn’t wake Kenz up. She got woken up by the breathing of a whale cruising past the tent; we jumped up and watched it cruise past about 20 metres away. What a wakeup call!

We packed up all our gear and headed into town to learn more about the interesting history between the Native Americans, Russians and white Americans that have inhabited the region. The Russian Bishop’s House and cemetery were interesting. There was also a large park next to the town to commemorate the history of the city, it was on the site of the final confrontation between the Russians and natives where the native fort was bombarded by Russian ships and finally overrun by Russian soldiers. The ferry from Sitka to Prince Rupert (on the mainland of Canada) left at 1:30 am on Monday morning, so we goofed around the local library in the evening till they kicked us out at 9pm. The ferry docked early, we rode the bikes onto the ship and strapped them down. We spent the night in the solarium which was on the raised deck across the centre and rear of the ship. It was half undercover, and we spread out some deckchairs and our sleeping bags and slept under the stars with half a dozen other adventurous (tight-assed) tourists.


12th July 2012

Hi Adam & McKenzie, I'm loving the blog: you both write so well. What an adventure! I look forward to further stories. Nada & I both send our love & best wishes.
12th July 2012

Sounds like you having great times.
Not sure about the bears though

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