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Alaska: Alaskan Saturday Night

Mile 3070 to 3373

Packing up the tent early, I began the ride out of Dawson City and to the Top of the World Highway. This highway ends at the banks of the Yukon River with Dawson City, so first you have to queue up for a (free) ferry across the river. A shot of our bikes crossing is below, but basically al you need to do is ride up to the ferry entrance (easy to find) and there will be a lane for exiting vehicles, a lane for large trucks and RVs, and a lane for smaller vehicles which you join. On a busy motorcycle weekend like this one there were no opportunities for bikes to skip to the front, and there did not seem to be a need to anyway on a small ferry (maybe there is a difference on busy summer weekends with a line of cars). After the queue, they roll you on in tight packing. Easiest to stay on your bike for the 6 or 7 minute crossing. Then roll right off. Simple.

The majority of the 79 mile route is unpaved. But, on dry sunny day like this one, it is a glorious ride. Picture the spine of a dragon snaking across mountain peaks. You crest hill after hill, gazing down either direction to the valleys below. No trees blocking views. Use care if you do try to pull over to snap a picture (hardly any spots to do so). The only danger I noted on this day was that you are tempted to take the speed up a notch when the road straightens. But there is barely any warning when the twist ahead is a sharp 90 degrees right, running next to a hundred foot drop-off. No safety rails or other devices, just you and open air. They might find your bike in 2 months if you are lucky…

While the Top of the World can be enjoyable, it does finally end. You reach the US border station, wait your turn to be called, and then drive on up. You’ll be asked the typical questions and at least my day the border agent was motorcycle friendly. Past the border station, the Taylor Highway treats you to pavement so fresh and clean you could mistake it for a suburban drive. Of course it does not last more than 20 some miles, but it feels great after bounding over miles of gravel with the bike. Eventually you reach the fork for Eagle versus Chicken & Tok. My route that day veered toward Tok, and I headed left down more gravel roads. The next leg was much tighter and grittier than the Top of the World. Especially the final few dozen miles nearing Chicken. It can still be fun (until it isn’t).

I had not planned a stop in Chicken given my desire to soldier on and find lunch in Tok, but it felt really good to get off the V-Strom after hours of rough gravel, stretch those legs, and refresh. Back on the bike after the mid-day stop, the road further into Alaska cleans up a bit. The scenery is far less spectacular though. After rolling into Tok I headed and to Fast Eddy’s Restaurant to grab a late lunch and plan the rest of the day. For a time I considered making Tok (a town on the far Eastern end of the Alaskan Highway before it exits to Canada) this night’s waypoint since the Thompson’s Eagle Claw campground was the spot all the bikers talked about in Dawson City. Unfortunately I did not book in advance, hoping to stay flexible and find a spot if it worked out. It did not, and as it was only 2pm I decided to trek on south. The map showed a logical stop for a campground after two more hours of riding at Christochina so I hit the road.

The Tok Highway had one stop for construction otherwise nothing major caused a bit of problem on that stretch. Off to the left of the highway, the glacier capped peaks of Mount St. Elias in Wrangell St. Elias National Park loomed into view and I started to consider my next day’s ride. Back in Haines Junction, Terry from Alberta mentioned the old abandoned Kennecott Copper Mine was one of the three places recommended to him for a bucket list of Alaska. I had honestly never even heard of the mine until that point (despite layers of research prior to this trip). I soon was fascinated by its ruin-porn look & feel so it became the next stop on the list before I reached me planned stop in Anchorage.

The Edgerton Highway towards McCarthy and the mine is a long dirt road. After tackling the Dempster, the Poker Run, and the Top of the World this past week, riding gravel was starting to feel a bit more natural. And certainly more interesting than old blacktop. Despite that, all of the prior rides benefited from dry conditions. The weather forecast had a rain event predicted for tomorrow evening. That made me a little more wary of making my stay in McCarthy a long one.

For this night, as I neared Christochina, the cross-wind began to pick up. I stopped for bread and other food items at the Christochina gas station and started to chat with the lady running it. I asked about the Red Eagle Lodge which had rooms & campsites. She said it was a good place, but asked if I was interested in live music. Another 30 miles down the highway, she said, was Gakona. And tonight (Saturday night) the Trappers Den Tavern had a live band. Which quickly made my decision easy since a local bar scene and music sounded excellent.

The cross-winds kicked into high gear every one of those final miles. Outside of some leaning into the wind a few stretches it was drivable, just a bit frustrating. I parked the bike in front of the Historic Gakona Lodge, and was lucky enough to find one spare single room. Another group from D2D on their way back to Anchorage pulled in shortly after me but they had a cabin reserved. The rest of the Lodge was packed with bicyclists on their own two wheel journeys. It was a very nice historic inn, like staying in an old farmhouse. After a little food and catch up on emails, I headed down to the bar to check out the scene.

The Trappers Den Tavern next door was even more interesting than the Lodge. The feel was 1910 log cabin, but the crowd was lively and great to talk to. The ceiling was papered with dollar bills covered with small notes, mementos from the hundreds and hundreds of past patrons. Within a few minutes I started to chat with Ed, who happened to be the master brewer and owner of Gakona Brewing Company. He introduced me to his Gakona beers – Killer Rabbit IPA and Rabbit River Raspberry Wheat - both on tap that night at the bar. Ed had moved from lower 48 (Maine) to Alaska years ago with his family, as many do to enjoy a bit more freedom. He started his company as a side venture with his wife. They received positive press in a magazine for their early craft beers and suddenly were receiving orders from hotels and other locations beyond what they had capacity to fill. So, he was proceeding with a small expansion and excited to see where it would lead.

As the evening progressed the band kicked up the party. They were a local group (the Chris Craig Band), however I will be honest in saying they had some real skills. Practice likely came during the many cold months of the Alaskan winter. They covered a lot of classic rock hits with talent (songs like “Turn the Page”). The crowd slowly filled the bar or milled outside with their cigarettes and beers chatting with neighbors. “Smokey”, one of the local characters, came by to reintroduce himself to me so many times I felt I was his neighbor by the end of the night. Smokey’s dog (or maybe a stray dog, I never figured it out) also made the rounds in and out nudging past the patrons again and again. With the Alaskan summer sun barely setting I did not quite check out at anytime that felt ‘late into the night’, but all the same it was a great Saturday night out in Eastern Alaska.

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