John Clarke » Motorcycle travel story

Motorcycle travel story by John Clarke

Thirty-eight hundred miles from Los Angles to the Arctic Circle is a long ride just to take a picture. But this ride is much more than merely a photo opportunity. It is a chance to shake free of all the obligations of work and home. Riding with eyes wide open, looking for the next adventure, long distance motorcycling provides the opportunity to experience life outside of our normal daily routines.

Driving a motorcycle alone, on unfamiliar roads in remote areas, is exhilarating and frightening. It puts the rider at the edge of the safety boundary. Deep down we know that  motorcycling is possibly the most dangerous way to travel. And yet, we seek out the road trip knowing the danger. We know that the long hours in the saddle will test our stamina; the rain and cold will chill us to the bone; and there's the fear that one poor decision or one momentary lapse in concentration will spell disaster. The road trip allows us to face that fear, challenges us to overcome it and allows us to experience the unique satisfaction that comes from completing it. 

I decided to ride my BMW 1150 RT to the Arctic Circle about a year ago. North 34 degrees 08 minutes to North 66 degrees 33 minutes. Sierra Madre California to the Arctic Circle Yukon Territory. 

I bought my silver RT in November 2002 and had 17,000 miles on it as I prepared for this ride. The RT has taken me to Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and most of California. It handled each ride easily and except for a failed speedometer  has been flawless.  The good people at Browns Motor Works in Pomona California do the major service and my friends at  southern California "Tech Daze" are teaching me to handle the routine maintenance. 

The weeks leading to "clutch-out" day were filled with sixty-plus hour work weeks. It is hard to prepare to be away from home and work for three weeks. There are hundreds of reasons that can prevent you from taking an extended motorcycle trip. I dealt with the ones I could resolve and I just accepted the ones I could not resolve. The plan was to leave on June sixth at seven in the morning. You know what they say about the best-laid plans. I was finally ready to "clutch-out" at the crack of noon! So much for an early start. 

I generally avoid freeways and interstates like the plague. But on this ride I wanted to get across the Canadian border as quickly as possible. Knowing that I had to ride some thirteen hundred miles on the interstate, I decided to play a mind game. I could gripe and complain the entire ride or I could take another approach and put the mileage to good use. I decided to use this part of the ride to sharpen my riding skills. Concentration, relaxation, light on the handlebars, proper position, look ahead, anticipate other drivers moves, be smooth, fast and avoid the dreaded radar beam. Mind control. I rode five hundred and fifty-four miles from Los Angeles to Redding California on Friday and six hundred and forty-eight miles to Marysville Washington on Saturday. It's not Iron Butt level riding, but it's not bad for a casual weekend rider.

Good equipment is essential to the success of a long road tour. BMW's RT is a first-class sport-touring motorbike. It is the best bike I have owned. My RT is stock except for PIAA lights, Areoflow headlight protector and Bill Mayer's saddle [BMS]. It never really got dark during my ride due to daylight savings time and the effects of the summer solstice, but the PIAA's improved my visibility toward other drivers. I believe the unusual triangular light pattern created by the PIAA's catches the attention of other drivers, thus making me more visible. The Airflow headlight protector is a must- have addition when riding in the "great north". The many miles of gravel roads in Alaska and Canada will assure that you and your bike will take serious flack. The shield paid for itself on this trip alone. I could not have done it on the "comfort seat". I used the stock seat on my Mexico rides and suffered after two hundred miles. I really got my return on my investment with the Bill Mayer saddle. I rode for sixteen days and averaged five hundred miles per day. It was not only that I was not uncomfortable with the BMS, I actually was comfortable on that saddle, all day, every day!  It is a must for touring and I would not leave home without it. If you decide to buy a BMS try to go to Rock's shop. It's a hoot. Rock is a real character. He is a great guy, seriously interested in fitting you to the product. He is a fun guy to be around and his saddle makes motorcycling more enjoyable.

I managed to break my tinted face shield at my very first fuel stop only two hundred miles from home. I stopped at Hansen's BMW in Medford Oregon for a replacement. They are a great group of folks. Jason is the resident Arai expert and should be the poster boy for exceptional customer service. They hooked me up and I was back on the road.

Sunday, June 8th. I made it to the border this morning. I was on the road at 7:00A.M. Very light traffic and perfect riding weather. There are plenty of farms, trees and good scenery along the way. They combine to create a beautiful morning. I was smoke'n - triple digits - but luckily I slowed to check my map just as I passed a State Trooper running a radar speed trap. Very lucky for me! On through farmland to the border crossing and  immigration checkpoint at Sumas. I did not expect a long delay crossing into Canada. One and a half hours latter I was still being questioned. It went something like the following. While looking carefully at a computer terminal the immigration official asks, " Any trouble with the law in the past? " I respond," No sir." He again looks to the terminal, looks up at me and says, "please go to counter two and the Customs Officer will help you." What do they know that I don't know? They were very professional but they searched everything. " Are you sure you are not carrying any guns, drugs, or excessive cash?"  "Could someone at your home verify that the weapons you own are at your home "? The craziest thing was that I packed a lot of important stuff like my passport, emergency cash, extra key, maps, medications and spare credit card in water proof plastic zip lock baggies. Each time the agents would come across a baggie it would pique their interest, only to be disappointed when its legitimate contents were revealed. Interestingly, they did not know that the RT seat is removable and failed to check under it. And that is where I'd hidden all the guns, drugs and excessive cash! I am only joking about hiding anything, in case any Customs Officers are reading this. At that point I am not in the mood to tell them about the removable seat. Security is important. I know it and I take it seriously. But when forty-foot motor homes are passing unchecked, you got to wonder how much of a threat an overweight, balding, middle-aged, solo motorcyclist could be to the security of Canada. They would not allow pictures of  the bike search. 

It is mid-morning Sunday and it feels good to be in British Columbia [B.C.]
I am cruising from Abbotsford to Hope along the Thompson River. I crisscross the river several times along a well-maintained road. The road has lots of twists and turns and plenty of room to pass slower traffic. The air is crisp and the sky is royal blue. The RT is running perfectly and I finally feel like I am completely free of work and normal routine. In the words of the immortal singer/songwriter James Brown," I feel good, da.da.da..da...da."      

Canadian Highway # 1 runs north through miles of spectacular scenery.  The Fraser Canyon Highway parallels the Fraser River and offers some great riding. The road changes names further north to become the Caribou Highway but the quality of the riding remains the same. The road offers a great chance to let the bike run very fast if you are so inclined. Triple digits are in order for this piece of roadway. Have you noticed that roads that run along rivers are generally great motorcycling roads? I always seek them out when planning a riding route. You do need to be careful and avoid the local wildlife. They come down to the road in search of salt. 

I meet two Harley riders in Cache Creek B.C. Both are from L.A. and live within twenty miles of my home. We get fuel together and talk about our ride up from California. They have ridden to Alaska before so I ask about route options ahead. They are planning to take the Alaska Highway. I am leaning toward the route that follows a westerly direction toward Prince Rupert and then north to the Cassiar Highway. We leave the station together and I ride with them for about fifteen miles but I cannot stand the pace. They are cruisers.  It took them four days to get the same distance that it took me two days to ride. We were not riding the same ride. I twist the throttle, waved good-bye and I am gone. 

I continued north on Highway #97 out of Cache Creek. With the air temperature finally cooling down today - Redding, Portland, Seattle all set record high levels as I past through on Friday and Saturday - I decide to camp tonight rather than stay in a hotel. The tent, sleeping bag and mat take a lot of space and add unwanted pounds to the bike. I need to put them to good use.  I am just south of Quesnel B.C. and I stop at Robert's Roost, a family operated place run by Clinton and his wife. They were having a family reunion. Turns out they are all motorcyclist. There are Harley's, Yamaha's and Honda's. They invite me to join them for drinks and great conversation about bikes, fast roads, and life in British Columbia. As with all motorcycle gatherings, there is ample time allotted for everyone to tell lies about their motoring experiences. One of the guys, after several drinks, says he is related to Willie Davidson - owner of the Harley Davidson Corporation. Maybe he was; who knows? I had a nice evening and enjoyed the company....