Nick and Bec Simmonds gave it all up to motorcycle round the world. Here’s their packed motorcycle ride report from the Alaska, northern Canada and Arctic Ocean section of their epic adventure…
Kelowna to McBride
We set off east from Kelowna and friends Rod and Lorrie joined us for the first couple of days riding through the Kootneys. We were heading towards the Kananaskis Park and once we reached the Rockies, we would go north through Banff and Jasper.
It was, however, August and peak season, and this area of Canada was a tourist hot spot. It was stunningly beautiful but as we hit Highway 1 we were surrounded by cars and trucks on a three lane highway filled with diesel fumes and the churning sounds of engines. It was like seeing Coldplay at Madison Square Gardens – you know it’s going to be magnificent, but the world and his brother are there to share it too. But as we sat in traffic on the highway, we realised it might be more likely that we were going to see a start-up band at the local bar on a Thursday night. And that’s when we promised ourselves that if there was an alternative route we were going to take it, even if it meant missing out on the headline act.
We pulled into the small town of McBride for food and fuel. It was a quiet little farming town in the middle of nowhere and not a tourist destination by any stretch of the imagination. But it was us… it’s what we wanted to see on our travels, not the backbone of a country, but the essential little capillaries flowing blood around its body. The café was a converted railway station run by a former navy guy who cooked the best potato hash we’ve ever tasted. The passing trains slowed down as they reached the café to change drivers and food parcels were handed over from the café all while the train kept moving at a snail’s pace.
We ate and listened in on the conversations of the locals next to us with a story of a bear who was raiding their bins every night and their plans to “deal to him.” We loved the town so much that we curtailed our travels for the day and decided to stay the night. We chatted to a local and he told us to pitch our tent in the town park opposite the café and that no one would mind. We fell asleep to a sound that we would come to love in Canada and the USA: the sound of an engine driver hanging onto the horn of his train like his life depended on it.
To northern Canada
Canada is so vast and sparsely populated that there are very few roads, so everyone ends up taking the same ones. However, the traffic quickly disappeared as we rode further north west through towns like Chetwynd with its chainsaw calved art and forgettable industrial towns like Fort Nelson.
One of the things we wanted to do in Canada was kayak on a lake, so we stayed for a couple of days at Muncho Lake and it was stunning! We also visited the Liard Hot Springs and met a group of Mexicans who were returning from Prudhoe Bay. By complete coincidence we would go on to meet their best friends on a ferry between Baja and mainland Mexico three months later. The world is indeed a small place.
We were starting to see a lot of wild life too. Black bears, grizzly bears, caribou, mouse and as we left Mucho Lake we rode through a herd of bison on the road taking shelter from the rain.
We were now a long way from the busy highways…
Welcome to Alaska
Next up was Watson Lake, Whitehorse, Haines Junction and then we crossed the border into Alaska, USA. Now the clock started ticking, because as soon as you enter the USA the 90 days on your ESTA visa starts, even if you pass back into Canada (or Mexico) during that 90-day period.
We stayed the night at a campsite especially setup for motorcycle travellers in Tok. We liked Tok, it reminded us of our hometown in New Zealand. It was simple and unassuming… it was real. There was a range of interesting people with great stories at the campsite. From Mike who lived in Minnesota and was heading to the Dalton Highway on his Harley with a suitcase bungeed on the back, to Pablo from Italy who had been on the road since 2012 on his BMW GS650 Dakar he had purchased in Australia.
We’ll probably mention this numerous times in our updates, but there is something incredibly “can do” about motorcycle travellers. They don’t see barriers, are incredibly positive and a lot of them have circumstances in their lives they are (without knowing it?) running away from, whether that was a failed business or relationship, a loss of a loved one, brush with death or even a stint fighting a war… a lot are just a bit haunted.
To Prudhoe Bay or not to Prudhoe Bay
We took the 4 to Paxson and then the Old Denali Highway (8), a gravel road through the Denali National Park to Cantwell and as we rode through the park we met truck after truck with trailers and 4x4s. We found out later that it was opening weekend for hunting Caribou so everyone was there to fill their freezers for the winter.
Next was the Dalton Highway and Prudhoe Bay. We prepped the bikes by packing heavier stuff low and buying an extra can of fuel each. We had no idea how Bec would cope with the ride given her limited experience so set off with the mentality that if it got too hard we could turn around.
The weather was good and there seemed to be very little traffic with only trucks travelling in the opposite direction and no other bikers. There was, however, an unusually high amount of graders fluffing up the road. Bec then had her first of many (and some bone breaking) falls she was to experience over the next 12 months. Watching from behind, Nick saw her hit a mound of soft and the bike started swerving in larger and larger arcs until… dump. The first thing she did was jump up to make sure no one had seen …of course no one had seen, we were in the middle of nowhere! And with only hurt pride we continued.
Wolves and muddy Harleys
As we were approaching Coldfoot a lone wolf crossed the road in front of us and then turned and watched us pass. It was one of those moments in life that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Once we reached Coldfoot it was cold and raining so we opted to stay in the hotel. We use the word ‘hotel’ very loosely as it was more a hostel set up that constantly smelt of diesel from the heaters and boilers.
When we ate that evening, we found out why there was no traffic and lots of graders on the road – the following day the Dalton Highway was being closed to the North for 24 hours for repair work. Doh! We could have waited it out but the weather was meant to close in and our visa clock was ticking, so the following day we rode as far north as the far side of the Atigan Pass, and then turned round and rode back south.
The further we rode the worse the weather got until the roads turned to slippy mush. And to make matters worse, there was an influx of trucks driving towards us all preparing for the road opening the following day. Then something miraculous happened and we met biker after biker after biker. All of them were on custom Harleys (some without front fenders) and all so happy to be riding the Dalton they were fist pumping the air as they passed us. They weren’t just muddy, they were lagged! In fact, they resembled a motorcycle terracotta army. It really pepped up our spirits and we rode the rest of the way to Yukon River camp with big smiles.
To the top of the world
Now heading east again we took the Top of the World Highway. After passing through Chicken, we took the dead end gravel road up to Eagle on a pure whim. We saw moose prints the size of dinner plates in the mud by the road and piles of purple poo.
In Eagle we filled up with petrol and got talking to the owner who said those droppings were bear shit and went on to offer us a gun for the night when he found out where we were camping! We declined, but there was definitely a lot of snuffling outside our tent that night and we went to sleep holding our bear spray… and breath.
Dempster and bear omens
Dawson City was one of our favourite places in Canada. The ferry ride is an experience as you have to cross a very fast flowing wide river. As soon as the ferry sets off it literally gets washed down stream and has to chug its way back upstream to the other side.
It was starting to get very cold at this point and even with all our merino base layers and sleeping bags we were cold at night. So we purchased a very necessary but bulky blanket.
There were a lot of overland motorcyclists in Dawson. The place is like a bottle neck due to the few roads available to ride and we wouldn’t cross paths with bikers in numbers like this again until we reached the bottom of South America and found the same scenario with one road in and one road out. We got talking to a couple who recommended the Dempster Highway, and while we had never planned on doing it, we said why not and set off.
As we left in the morning mist, we spotted a lone bear walking up the centre of the road in front of us. It was a magical moment and we felt like it was a good omen that we had made the right decision.
Riding to the end of the road – Tuktoyaktuk
It was indeed the absolute best decision! It was an amazing ride and one of our most memorable. As it was the start of September, the autumn colours were in full swing, the sights were beautiful and the wild blueberries delicious.
The first night we camped in the carpark at Eagle Plains. There was a wonderful camaraderie among the other campers there and because we were the only bikers they went out their way to offer us coffee and the use of a heater for our tent as it was -2C that night (thank goodness for the extra blanket).
That night we went to sleep to the sound of a lone dog howling at wolves out across the wilderness. It sounds spooky, but was reassuring to know that a dog was out there warning the wolves away.
The following night we camped in Inuvik and had the best gift. We woke up at 2am and peered out of our tent to gaze at the Northern Lights giving a spectacular show.
The best memory though, was at Tuktoyaktuk and the end of the road. The weather was having a last hoorah the day we arrived and topped the thermometer at a balmy 16 degrees. We set our tent up overlooking the Arctic Ocean and then took a – very quick – fully immersed dip in the sea just to say we had done it!
The whole town was making the most of the weather and partied and fished and rip roared up and down the road until almost 3am. There was one party going on over the bay where they played Creedence Clearwater and Kenny Rogers on a loop for six hours.
It would have been easy to get mad but we wanted to visit their community and see how they lived… and this was it – loud and voracious! This was part of our journey and this was part of their lives.
We turned the bikes around and started on the long road South as winter was not far away. At Carmacks, we went east and took the 4 to Faro and camped along the River Yukon. The next night we camped in Faro where it was so cold our tent was completely frozen in the morning and we found out that sleeping bags rated to -7 means they will stop you freezing to death at -7 – not keep you warm!
We talked for a long while to fellow campers who insisted we must go and see the Nisga lava beds and Stewart to see the glacier. They also gifted us a road map of the USA and Mexico that would become invaluable over the next three months.
The remaining ride along the 4 was an amazing and remote gravel ride of around 400kms to Watson Lake. We saw two other vehicles and so much wildlife along this road including a Wolverine and Lynx. We felt completely free out there in the middle of nowhere by ourselves.
The ride into Stewart was spectacular and on the way into town we saw a glacier, but it wasn’t as impressive as we had been led to believe… but still beautiful.
We had time on our hands in Stewart and decided to check out the bears feeding on fish in nearby Hyder (Alaska). Only once we got there did we realise you had to prebook! But we did spot a gravel road heading into the mountains though, so off we went with no idea where we were going.
After 20kms or so we were stopped by a road worker and honestly thought we were about to get growled at for being on a private road. Nick asked if we had to turn around and he said no and that they were shifting some rocks and the road should be clear soon.
Nick then asked what was ahead and the road worker raised an eyebrow and said a glacier. Nick then asked if it was worth a visit. The road worker’s eyebrow raised even higher as he said, “yeah, it was worth a look…”
The road got gnarlier and steeper and we felt like real adventurers. Wow, if the ride wasn’t worth it, the impressive Salmon Glacier at the end was. So this was the glacier the guys in Faro were talking about. Yes. Definitely worth a detour and a ‘look-see’.
READ MORE: How to Motorcycle to Salmon Glacier
Bye bye Canada
Continuing south, we took a back forestry road called the Cranberry Connector. It was very rural but a lot of fun once it opened out a bit. We rode through the Nisga lava beds and ended up at a campsite 30kms out of Terrace where a couguar did a tour each night using the tree opposite our tent as a scratch pole.
Unfortunately it was time to move on and cross the border into the USA. It was now mid-September and we had been travelling in Canada and Alaska for six weeks and covered a whopping 14,500kms.
Our last night was in a motel near the border of Washington over the top of an apple packing house. The owner insisted we park our bikes inside next to the packing equipment so they would be safe (from who because there was no one here). This was our last example of that wonderful Canadian hospitality.
Canada, we will be back… you are amazing.
About the authors
Nick and Bec Simmonds
We are two 50 somethings who are no longer prepared to wait for the elusive ‘one day’. We have no real plan and are literally making this up as we go. We bought a couple of Honda CB500Xs in Canada and have ridden 58,000kms from Alaska to Argentina, shipped our bikes to Europe and are exploring the rest of the world next. We’re taking the long way home to New Zealand!
Follow their awesome adventures here:
- Insta: @bikespanniersandpassports
- YouTube: Bikes Panniers and Passports
- Web: bikespanniersandpassports.com
And here’s more of Nick and Bec’s articles on Mad or Nomad:
Read more on motorcycle travel in the USA and Canada
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Are you planning a motorcycle trip in Canada and Alaska? Do you have any questions, tips or suggestions? Let us know in the comments below.