Motorcycling the North
Almost every make of motorcycle, in every shape and size, has made the trip to Alaska. The most common concern expressed by motorcyclists we’ve talked to along the way was the distance between gas stops. Many were using The MILEPOST® to figure their gas stops in advance of each day’s travel.
Many motorcyclists were pulling trailers and there were no significant challenges to report despite driving many miles of road that included stretches of gravel, potholes and frost heaves. We did meet up with a motorcyclist on the Alaska Highway one year who was on the return portion of his trip back to the Lower 48. He had found out the hard way that he was pulling too heavy a trailer for Northern roads. He had had a miserable time negotiating the frost heaves and potholes that plague some roads.
Lighter bikes are more suitable for gravel roads while larger bikes are definitely more comfortable for long highway trips. If you prefer, you can fly or cruise to Alaska then rent a motorcycle out of Anchorage and skip the extra miles and wear on your own bike. Power cruisers and touring bikes are popular choices, especially with those pulling trailers.
Regardless of what you ride, perform major maintenance on your bike before heading North. If you break down on the road, towing distances to the next repair shop can be several hundred miles.
There are motorcycle repair shops in Alaska and Canada, but you will usually find well-stocked motorcycle shops only in the cities. Many riders prefer the comfort designed models made for touring and these are serviced in major cities, just as they would in the lower 48. For service for Harley-Riders, or just for the location of that next great Harley collectible T-shirt, there is Harley-Davidson Motorcycles in Fairbanks; Denali HD Shop at Mile 37.5 Parks Highway in Wasilla; House of Harley-Davidson and Buell, Alaska Rider and MotoQuest Tours in Anchorage; Inside Passage HD in Ketchikan; Chilkoot Pass HD in Skagway; Taku HD in Juneau; Kenai Peninsula HD, Soldotna; Yukon HD, Whitehorse, YT; and Trails End HD in Yellowknife, NWT.
Windshields are essential to protect riders from gravel and dust. Some bikers also use Plexiglas headlight shields and hand guards. A fairing, while not completely protecting you from rocks, will offer good protection against insects, rain, wind and cold. Case guards are good insurance against damage to the bike should you go down. Consider taking a good competition air filter to improve engine performance and gas mileage. Heated handgrips are also recommended for colder temperatures. A skid plate will help protect the engine from rocks kicked up by the front wheel, and a center stand can be a great help when parking on gravel, fixing a flat or lubing a chain. For additional security, carry a light nylon cover for your bike. Keep your radiator safe from flying rocks with a perforated guard in front of it, as suggested by riders we met on the road.
Gravel roads are rough on tires, and flats are common, so start out with new tires. A complete tire repair kit is essential. Also, bring a valve stem tool, a mini bicycle pump and dish soap to aid in tire changes.
Some northern bridges present challenges to motorcyclists. There are numerous narrow 2-lane bridges, many with metal-grated decks that can be very slippery when wet and have longitudinal grooves that tend to cause motorcycles to sway. Go with the sway rather than fighting it. There are also wood-deck bridges that are very slippery when wet. Slow down when crossing these bridges. Be wary when driving on roads with rumble strips. Some roads will have rumble strips down the center lines so that people who wander into the center of the highway will be alerted to their location. These rumble strips can startle a biker while pulling out to pass a vehicle ahead and cause them to overcorrect. These grooves have been studied and determined to not be a danger in and of themselves for motorcyclists, but when taken by surprise by them, can impact a rider.
We have met many groups of riders out on the road who were having fantastic trips with nary a problem. But there have also been fatal motorcycle accidents caused by moose, cars and rough roads.
In 2012, a rider named Richard Seay, who we had first met, along with his buddy John Conniff, at a rest stop on the Tok Cutoff, emailed us about a serious accident he had on the Dalton Highway (more on that below).
We don’t need to warn experienced motorcyclists about the dangers of the road, but we do need to remind motorcyclists about the unique challenges of riding in the North. As Richard noted in his email to us about his accident, “I have a new respect for the Canadian and Alaska roads.”
Richard’s story: “We were on a 200-mile ride north out of Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle for a photo-op at the Arctic Circle sign. We had rented 3 BMW dual-sport motorcycles for the ride up the Dalton Highway. It was a beautiful day, great riding and the road was in good condition.
“I was leading the group, about 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, when I came up on 4 huge potholes (actually looked like bomb craters). I could not stop in time and there was a motorhome in the southbound lane that eliminated my plan to swerve around the potholes. I hit the potholes and went over the handlebars at 50 mph.
“I am very grateful to the Alyeska EMT who saved my life with his assessment of my injuries and recommendation to get to a hospital promptly. I am really grateful to Alyeska for their EMT treatment and the flight from Pump Station #5 to Fairbanks. Fortunately, I had good medical and vehicle insurance.”
A final word to both motorcyclists and vehicle drivers: Be safe out there! Watch out for wildlife. Don’t exceed the speed limit and be willing to go much slower if conditions warrant. There are quite a few moose-vehicle collisions each year and some stretches of highway are designated Moose Danger Zones. We met a young woman who totaled her car after hitting a grizzly along Kluane Lake (the bear ran off). Be alert for potholes, loose gravel on pavement and other road damage such as frost heaves and deeply rutted pavement that can fatally hinder your ability to maneuver at normal driving speeds.