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Monday, July 23, 2012

Valdez to Otter Falls Cutoff

On a long ride such as mine, certain days stick in the memory as exceptional.  One such day was 11 July.  I awoke at the Keystone Hotel in Valdez, Alaska, after a good sleep.  I rode out on the only road out of town, and soon learned the source of the hotel's name.  One rides away from the sea up Keystone Canyon.  It is a deep gorge in the mountains featuring sheer cliffs and long, voluminous waterfalls.  The cool air beneath the morning clouds made me wide awake, anticipating what I might see when I reached the top of the climb.

At the top, I found these views of Alaska. 


 I rode on northward to Tok, where my path would rejoin The Alaska Highway.  Here is a sampling of scenery on the road I was riding.
I reached Tok about lunchtime, where I enjoyed another excellent salad bar at Fast Eddie's.  I then made the decision to ride on, and to make this well-started day my day of departure from the 49th State.  At the final U.S. fuel stop on the highway, I found I had caught up with three couples from West Virginia, all mounted on Gold Wings, whom I had met at the Keystone Hotel in Valdez that morning.  We spoke briefly, as they were bunking at this place for the night, and I planned to ride further, hoping to put the very rough sections of road between the border and Haines Junction, Yukon, behind me while the weather was good, and the sun was at my back.

As it happened, I made good time south-eastward, as most of the potholes had been filled, and the long stretches of new Macadam had been well-packed by the truck traffic in the ten days I had spent riding "the loop," (as the Tok - Fairbanks - Denali - Anchorage - Tok route was called by some fellow riders).  At about 7:00 PM, I was at a small resort community called Destruction Bay, along the shores of the large Kluane Reservoir, which the Alaska Highway borders for many dozens of miles.  I stopped at a restaurant/motel/gas station in Destruction Bay, filled the tank, and inquired of the young man at the register whether there were a room available.  He told me, "We are not full yet, but I am holding rooms for eight motorcycles that have assured me they will be here tonight.  Are you going to have dinner here?"  I told him I would, and he said he'd call the cell number the group had given him and reconfirm their intentions.  "Check with me after dinner," he said, "and I'll be able to tell you for sure."

Over a surprisingly good dinner, I enjoyed a conversation with a couple from the West Coast (was it Oregon?) who were headed up to Alaska to take part in a bicycle race.  Then, I went back to the desk to pay for dinner, and to ask about that room.

"I reached them," the clerk said, "and they assured me they would be here tonight to use the rooms."  By this time, it was after 8:00 PM, and the long Yukon twilight was falling.  "You know that you will end up with unused rooms tonight," I stated as if fact.  He said. "Maybe, but I have promised to hold them for these eight bikes."  "Okay," I said, "I'll ride on to Haines Junction."

It is a long way between motels up there.  I took these pictures as I rode through the evening.

When I reached Haines Junction it was as dark as it gets at this time of year this far north, and the hour was 12:30 A.M.  I stopped at the only motel in sight, and was not at all surprised to see a long line of motorcycles parked beside its rooms.  I went into the lounge, which it turned out had closed at midnight, by law, but where a few young people were playing cards, and the barmaid/motel clerk was having a nightcap of bottled beer.  "We're closed, but may I help you?" she asked.  "I sure hope so," I said.  "Do you have a room left?"  "Sorry," she replied.  "Did those bikers all arrive recently?" I asked.  "Yes," she said, "they took all my vacant rooms."  "I think they had reservations in Destruction Bay," I told her. "I was refused a room there because he was holding them for a group on eight bikes."  "I did hear one of them say something about Destruction Bay," she said.  "Do you have camping gear?  Pine Lake Campground is just five Km. down the road.  I'm sure you could tent there."

I found signs pointing to Pine Lake Campground to the left, and followed a dirt road some 2 Km into the dark night, but not a sign of a campground entrance did I see.  The road ended in a cul-de-sac.  It was 1:00 AM.  I had been riding since 07:00 the previous morning.  I recognized that my inability to locate the campground might be my inability, period.  I found a gravel patch off to the right of this dirt road, turned onto it, put on my full-face helmet to shield myself from mosquitoes,  and still wearing boots, chaps and leather jacket, lay down on the gravel beside the parked Rocinante, covered myself with my tent's rain fly, and fell asleep.

The all-night pumps in Haines Junction.  Tent fly needed folding after serving as a blanket.
An hour and a half later, I awoke feeling somewhat better.  I decided to fill up the tank at the all-night pumps in Haines Junction, and ride on.

Before riding on down the A.H., I snapped a picture of a bright moon over this remote Yukon village.
Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, at 3:00 AM, 12 July, 2012

Some time after 3:00 AM, I arrived at an RV Park called Otter Falls Cutoff.  I decided to salvage what sleep I could, turned in, and pitched my 1967 Gerry Year-Round Mountain Tent in a grassy area not too far from the restrooms.  A voice from beside a campfire a hundred meters away called out.  "What are you doing, riding at this time of night?"  "Good question," I replied. "Come on over and enjoy a warm campfire," said the voice.  "I'll be over as soon as I set up my camp."

Mr. O'Neil of Whitehorse had a roaring fire of round logs burning in a steel campfire hoop, and we sat together on the bench of a picnic table.  We were one camper-truck removed from his, so when he arose to get himself another beer, and to bring one for me, he had to walk around the front of the empty camper.  I watched him do a classic collapse as he tried to make the turn toward his own.  I went over and offered a hand up.  Once on his feet, he successfully negotiated the mission, and returned with three beers, one for me, one for himself, and the one in his breast pocket that I'd noticed when I'd first come to the fireside.  We soon learned that we were contemporaries to within a month, and shared old times for an hour or more.  As the sky began to lighten, we finally went to our separate "homes," and once in the tent, I stripped to the skin to allow evaporation of that long day's moisture, before getting into my sleeping bag.  I took a playful picture to mark the end of a memorable touring day.

In the morning, I snapped one last shot of the place where that perfect day had ended.

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