With bike troubles behind us, I looked forward to testing out the F800 and what better place than exploring along the Denali Highway, a 217 km (135 mi) mostly-gravel road that leads from Paxson on the Richardson Highway to Cantwell on the Parks Highway, or vice versa. Dave and I wanted to do a day hike on Kesugi Ridge, which positioned us along the Parks Highway near Cantwell first. The ridge hike affords incredible views of Denali (Mt. McKinley), which Dave had summited in the spring of 2000.
I’d hiked the 44 km (27 mi) Kesugi Ridge solo 14 years earlier in two long days rather than the recommended 3-4 because of bad weather and the ever-present sign of bears. The whole time Denali was covered in cloud right down to her lowest flanks. I never saw a sign of North America’s highest mountain the whole three weeks I was in Alaska except from over a hundred miles away while I was climbing Mt. Hajdukovich along the Richardson Highway.
This time, however, Dave and I left Fairbanks in full sun. It was Aug. 29, a true Indian Summer kind of day. My F800 covered our first 320 km (200 mi) together with assuring ease; almost like it actually wanted to be part of the adventure! I was soon comfortable with its bigger frame and loved the lack of vibration that had accompanied my 650. The only downside was the seat. I’d had a custom-made seat on the 650, perhaps the best feature on that bike. I missed that seat terribly now and so did my ass.
About 160 km (100 mi) south of Fairbanks along the Parks Highway, we crested a small rise and there she was: Denali in her entire jaw-dropping beauty. We could see every bit of her from the very few slabs of exposed rock near her summit to the glaciers cracked and creviced like an old face then down into the valley below, where the stark white snow contrasted heavily against the much lower, green carpeted peaks in the foreground. I’ve seen a million photos but to see the 20,310 ft (6,190 m) mammoth in person while a faint Alaskan breeze shifted around my face, was truly a moment to remember.
A rare clear view of Denali (Mt. McKinley), 20,130 ft (6,190 m). Photo: Dave Sears
Dave stopped on the side of the road. I pulled over and hopped off my bike then walked over to take photos. I got a few of him standing in front of his bike with his bagged peak in the background. If we were reluctant to leave such a scene, we didn’t have to worry. The Parks Highway offers many uninterrupted views of the Denali on days like this. I had ample time to stare and stare while riding to our hiking trailhead, Little Coal Creek.
In the spring of 2000, Dave and his friend Andy had a successful accent of Denali, seen here in the background. Photo: Heather Lea
Photo: Heather Lea
Somehow it was already 4:00 p.m. and we still had a hike to do. We ate a big snack at the trailhead then secured our riding gear and luggage. There was broken glass around suggesting vehicle break-ins and we didn’t feel super comfortable leaving our gear on the bikes. Dave wandered into the woods with our riding boots and stashed them. For securing stuff to the bikes, we thread a very difficult to cut piece of webbing covered wire through our jacket sleeves and full face helmets then lash that around the frame of the bike with a coded locking carabineer.
For locking our helmets and gear onto the bikes, we use this wire covered webbing, which is very hard to cut through, with a code-locking carabiner. Photo: Heather Lea
Now in light hiking shoes and with small backpacks, we went for a walk. In less than two hours we had the views we wanted of Denali but the problem was the lighting. Although we were stoked it was a clear day, the sun was shining directly on the mountain giving it a very flat, washed-out look. We still took a lot of photos.
Hiking Kesugi Ridge with Denali in the background. Photo: Heather LeaNap time. Trying to wait until sunset for better photo opps. Photo: Heather Lea
Photo: Dave SearsPhoto: Dave Sears
We thought about waiting until the sun set to get better shots but it was only 6:00 p.m. and in Alaska at that time of year the sun wouldn’t set for a few more hours There was a strong, chilly wind and we’d run out of snacks. I suggested hiking back to get our tent and camp stove but we quickly decided we didn’t want to leave our bikes and gear overnight at the trailhead. We hiked down and after making dinner in the parking lot, rode off to find a place off the highway to camp for the night.
Beautiful light hiking back through the forest. Photo: Heather Lea
In the morning, we rode about 65 km (40 mi) back north along the Parks Highway until the junction near Cantwell that brought us on to the Denali Highway, the first highway with road access to Denali National Park in 1957. (By 1971, the Parks Highway had been established.) The Denali Highway is poorly maintained and closed from October to May, with “washboarding and extreme dust” very common. There are no speed limit signs but it’s recommended you drive 48 kmph (30 mph). Like flicking a stink bug off my shoulder, I tossed that advisory aside once it was clear the F800 had much better capability than my old 650 skipping over obstacles like rocks and ruts, likely due to a combination of the 21 inch front wheel, better positioning of the front forks and better overall suspension.
The F800 along the Denali Highway, just doing its thing, looking cool and stuff. (Notice how Dave is still catching up while I’ve had time to park and take photos…). Photo: Heather Lea
Even with our speeds nearly doubled, we still only made it about 72 km (45 mi) along the road until we set up camp. One reason for this was the amount of times we stopped to take photos and stare at the incredible landscape.
Some of the scenes you can expect on a clear, fall day along the Denali Highway. Photo: Dave Sears
Photo: Heather Lea Photo: Heather Lea
The other reason was we were cruising along the gravel when Dave spotted a familiar-looking Volkswagen camper van. It was our friends, Elvira and Ingo with their adorable dog, Perla! We’d met them on our way up the Dalton Highway a few weeks previously. We couldn’t believe the view they had from their camping spot just off the road. We chatted for a while and even though it was only late afternoon, Dave and I decided we’d stay the night there with them as we just couldn’t pass up the chance to hang with friends and stare at the surroundings for hours on end.
Elvira, Ingo and Perla’s home while they travel around the world, shipped from Europe to Halifax. Photo: Heather Lea
The adorable Perla. Photo: Heather Lea
Photo: Dave Sears
Elvira was in the middle of making a delicious cake on their camp stove from blueberries she’d picked in the area. I was very impressed. She had to keep the burner so low so as not to burn the bottom and it kept blowing out. While we all drank wine, she’d pop up and re-light the stove. It wasn’t without great appreciation we ate that blueberry cake a little while later.
Elvira slicing her freshly-made blueberry cake made with berries in the area. Photo: Heather Lea
Yum! Photo: Heather Lea
Yum again! Photo: Heather Lea
From left to right: Ingo, Elvira, Dave and I. Photo courtesy of Ingo.
Elvira and I not getting enough of this view from our campsite for the evening. Photo courtesy of Ingo.
Photo: Heather Lea
While enjoying the cake, I noticed something move out of the corner of my eye. A mere 100 or so feet (30 m) from us there was a moose passing through. He didn’t seem to be bothered about our close range (even though it was hunting season) but definitely wasn’t sticking around for a photo shoot. Nevertheless, cake crumbs, wine glasses and camp chairs went flying as we darted around for cameras. The moose was well off in the distance by the time we got sorted but Dave and Ingo got some good shots.
Photo: Dave Sears
We spent hours sitting around the fire, telling stories and drinking red wine until, freezing, I had to crawl into my sleeping bag. The others stayed up.
Photo: Heather Lea
Photo: Heather Lea
About an hour later, Dave came to the tent to tell me there were northern lights. I did not feel like getting out of my now-warmed sleeping bag but I knew I’d regret it if I missed this so got dressed and headed out. The lights were great. Ingo spent some time giving Dave some pointers on shooting the lights with his camera, which came in handy a few days later when we had an even more spectacular show.
Photo courtesy of Ingo.
Photo: Dave Sears
Photo: Dave Sears
The next morning we said goodbye to our friends thanking them for the fun night and hoping to see them again in Europe. We had left a bunch of our gear at Ed and Jill’s as we were planning to get back to Fairbanks that day to pick up some crash bars, luggage rack and a skid plate for my bike that we’d hoped had come in the mail. Dave had found the luggage rack second-hand, which is great when all this stuff costs a fortune.
The Denali Highway was the first gravel I’d experienced with the F800 and although I felt comfortable under speed, I still wasn’t quite used to the weight and height when the momentum slowed. Dave had pulled over into a little pull-out. When I came in to park beside him, I stalled the bike and started to go over. My foot skidded out on the rocks. I had to jump off and let it fall. I swore so loud and long that swans on a nearby lake fluttered about frazzled and an old couple standing about ½ mile down the road got into their RV and quickly drove off. In a matter of days I’d have had crash bars and my bike would have been protected. Now it probably had a gaping hole in the plastic or a ding in the tank. I couldn’t look. It was like when you cut yourself chopping vegetables and you’re sure if you look your finger will be detached laying on the cutting board in a pool of blood.
The swans ducking after hearing me swear so loud. Photo: Dave Sears
Dave came over and lifted the bike upright. He told me to look. I peeled my fingers off my eyes and saw him smiling. There wasn’t any damage except the clutch lever and foot peg had been minorly tweaked. Yay!
We spent the remainder of the day riding the long haul back from Paxson to Fairbanks.
Riding along the Denali Highway. Photo: Dave Sears
One of the impressive peaks along the Denali Highway. Photo: Dave Sears.
Dave riding along the Denali Highway. Photo: Heather Lea
A lunch break with a pretty sweet view along the Denali Highway. Photo: Dave Sears
Where gravel meets pavement on the Denali Highway near Paxson, Ak. Photo: Heather Lea
In Delta Junction, we stopped to put fuel in the bikes. An older man was filling up beside us. He asked about the comfort level of our bikes on the road and we told him they were quite comfortable (except I was rubbing the feeling back into my ass while saying that). The man said, well they look pretty slick. But you wouldn’t take those bikes on anything like the Denali Highway, of course.
We just smiled. Of course…
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