Pan-American Trail Part One: The Alaskan Highway
Adventure photographer James Barkman sets off toward Alaska on a 30,000-mile motorcycle mission to climb peaks across the Americas
*photograpy by James Barkman, shot on Leica M6 with FujiFilm Velvia 100 and Kodak Ektar 100
The driving rain made it difficult to make out the bike ahead of me at times, and my goggles had fogged up hours ago. I peered through a tiny clear spot in the lens and tried to fight the wind gusts determined to force us off the road. My hands and feet had turned completely numb, and every passing semi truck would send a wall of water straight for us. No one wanted to be the first to give in and stop, each knowing that we still had quite a few days of hard riding ahead and couldn’t afford to waste any more time. I knew springtime on the Alaskan Highway is a force to be reckoned with, but hadn’t anticipated that it would be this miserable.
Talkeetna, Alaska couldn’t come soon enough.
Over the years I had kept in close touch with two childhood friends, Allen and Jeremy, and despite being scattered across the US our dream remained alive—a motorcycle trip from the top of North America to the bottom of South America. Roughly 30,000 miles. In addition to this, we dreamed to do it on dual sport motorcycles, and climb as many classic alpine peaks as we could along the way.
After years of dreaming and scheming we were finally pulling the trigger; our Pan American motorcycle adventure was about to begin. First up would be Mount Denali in Alaska, leaving the 6,000 meter peaks of the Andes mountain range to cap it off. With climbing permits for Denali booked we started counting down the days til lift-off.
Leading up to the beginning of our trip, intensity levels were at an all-time high. In addition to the demand of physical training and general preparation for Denali, I had just returned from a project in Afghanistan, dealt with a winter of mechanical woes (read all about the real #vanlife here), and watched my life savings slip away on climbing equipment and moto upgrades. I’ve learned that real adventures don’t come easy. As a friend of mine once put it, “That’s what makes it an adventure and not a vacation!”
Loaded to the teeth with climbing gear, tools, spare parts, and God knows what else, Allen and Jeremy left Pennsylvania on their late 90’s Suzuki DR650’s the second Allen graduated from college. Planning to meet me in Northern British Columbia, the two made a quick pit stop in Western PA to run the Pittsburg Marathon. Training for the marathon had conveniently killed two birds with one stone, getting them in ship-shape condition for the climb. After the marathon, a 3,000 mile beeline was made across North America towards BC.
I left from Salem, Oregon, kissing my 1976 VW Type 2 van goodbye for the time being, and made a 1,000 mile solo ride to our rendezvous point of Dawson Creek, the official start of the Alaskan Highway. From there we planned to ride to Talkeetna, a small climbing/tourist town from which our plane to the foot of Denali was to fly out of.
Somewhere along Canada’s Highway 1 as I was filling up with gas, stressing about my excessive oil leak, terrible fuel economy, mysterious misfiring issue, and thawing out my frozen fingers, I got a call from Jeremy. “Hey man, we’re in South Dakota just crossing into Canada and will be out of service. We’ll meet you in three days time at Baked Cafe in Dawson Creek at 11 am.”
I’ll admit I was pretty discouraged at the time, alone on Highway 1, soaked to the bone and about as miserable as a man can be. I had doubts as to whether my bike would even make it that much further, let alone the remaining 1,600+ miles to Talkeetna, but kept them to myself.
“Sounds great. Hopefully I’ll make it,” I said half-jokingly.
I screwed my gas cap back on the tank and cursed the Canadian petrol prices. With all the time, money, and energy I had thrown into this climb, I couldn’t imagine coming this close only to miss the opportunity.
Three days later, I pulled into Baked Cafe in Dawson Creek on a wing and a prayer, some 20 minutes after Allen and Jeremy had arrived. I had just ridden over a high elevation pass in freezing rain, but my miserable state of being was quickly forgotten as I thawed out with a hot cup of joe and free muffins courtesy of the compassionate barista.
"A watched odometer never turns.”
Amid the puddles of water and mud that we tracked into the cafe, we shared stories and laughs from the last few days and couldn’t determine who had had it worse. The boys had pulled 500 mile days through the death winds of the god-forsaken American midwest and Canadian prairies. I had ridden through freezing weather and the unending torrential downpour of the Pacific Northwest with fogged up goggles and no music. It’s a toss up.
Each of us had dealt with mechanical issues every day thus far, hunting down misfiring issues to blown out clutches and I still wasn’t convinced mine had the heart to power through the next several thousand miles. Despite toiling on our DRs day and night before the trip, there always seems to be issues that surface only after you’ve left the safety net of home. Thankfully, my misfiring issues ended up disappearing after a roadside carb clean and some diagnostic help from Allen and Jer.
The Alaskan Highway
Of course, our first day on the Alaskan Highway ran us into an unsuspected spring snowstorm. After riding 100 miles through torrential downpour, the rain turned to sleet and the sleet to snow. Loaded to the teeth with all of our equipment for Denali, our bikes were no match for the snow and we were forced to spend two days waiting until the storm passed and the roads cleared. We begrudgingly dipped into our dirtbag budget and bought a nearby cabin motel thing for $120 a night. Yeesh.
Over 1,500 miles to go and not a lot of time left to clock them, our mandatory ranger meeting was scheduled in Talkeetna in three days time and our non refundable flight the next. Of course, there were plenty of other logistics to organize before the climb too, such as food, supplies, and gear. Once the storm passed though, we put such worries aside for the moment, loaded up with as many motel coffee packets as we could fit, and hit the road.
If you’ve ever clocked long distances on a motorcycle, you’ve probably experienced how the miles can pleasantly fly by. The hours can seem like minutes and before you know it you’re running on empty and already have a few hundred under the belt.
However, add a little stress, freezing weather, driving rain, and a tight schedule and those minutes can feel like years. You know the saying, “A watched pot never boils”? Well, I came up with a little saying of my own, “A watched odometer never turns.”
Ironically, my odometer kicked the bucket the first day on the ALCAN, so I suppose one could say my saying rang true.
Thankfully, the drive North wasn’t all rain clouds and mosquito bites. The hours and miles were balanced with breathtaking views and wildlife sightings around every corner. From bison roadblocks, to massive grizzlies, to herds of elk running beside us, Canada and the Alaskan Highway is full of life and beauty. We jumped in hot springs and camped where evening caught us. The further north we traveled, the longer the days became. The sun painting brilliant sunsets that stood frozen in the sky for hours on end.
Alaska at Last
On day 9, we crossed back into the United States of America, kissed the sweet soil of Alaska hello, and headed towards Talkeetna in good spirits. It had been nearly two weeks of riding 500 mile days, but being this close to our goal was almost too good to be true…
Hardly 30 minutes after crossing the Alaskan border, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw Allen slowing down, motioning that his bike had died. Ripping off luggage and gear, we immediately got to work diagnosing the issue, but with no luck. His bike had lost spark and we were still over 400 miles away from our destination. Miraculously, a kind passerby stopped before too long and offered to load up Allen and his bike for a ride to the nearest (and only) town, called Tok. The kind fellow generously bought us a motel room too, in which we spent the night pounding coffee and working feverishly in an attempt to diagnose the issue, but to no avail.
As a last resort Jeremy and I left at 3 am that morning, riding the 400 miles in one straight shot to spend the day scrambling around Anchorage buying last minute gear and food for the climb. Thanks to the incredible kindness of our new friend slash personal hero, Allen and his bike were loaded up once again and driven the same 400 miles to meet us in Anchorage.
Somehow, everything ended up falling into place, and before we knew it we were sitting in an Otter flying over the Alaska Mountain Range and landing at Base Camp on the Kahiltna Glacier. Completely thrashed from the last couple weeks of hard riding, we unloaded our three weeks’ supply of food and gear from the plane, strapped on our snowshoes, roped up, and set off to conquer North America’s tallest mountain.
But that’s another story...