Operation Numbnuts: Biltwell’s Motorcycle Excursion to the Arctic Circle
WTF

Operation Numbnuts: Biltwell’s Motorcycle Excursion to the Arctic Circle

September 29, 2022

Proof that all motorcycles are adventure bikes

Words: Bill Bryant
Photos: Geoff Kowalchuk

Many miles to go.

A few days after we landed in Whittier, Alaska, I somehow got out in front of the old bike pack, probably since I had a stock front fender on my 1957 FLH and it kept the muck from completely blinding me. We had started the day at Chena Hot Springs, just northwest of Fairbanks, Alaska. After being on a ferry for almost a week and riding the “normal” highways from Whittier to Talkeetna to Fairbanks, it was a relief to finally be in the shit. This was what we came for. 275 miles in a day doesn’t sound like much but when your motorcycle is old enough to collect social security and the weather is not your friend, it’s a pull. The fog reduced visibility to a few bike lengths, diffusing the view of the booming late August fall color. “The Dalton has had rain for three straight weeks,” a local told us. “Good luck” she said with the authority of someone who has seen failure before. The rain never really stopped, it only changed direction or intensity as we pushed north toward the Arctic Circle. 

 

Unto the Breach

I enjoyed being separated from our group for the first time since getting off the boat. There was no way to get lost—not even in the fog—so I didn’t have to worry about anyone’s navigation skills. It’s just a single, lonely ribbon of highway and the pipeline all the way up to the end of America’s navigable land and virtually impossible to get lost. Rico had a fender on his cone shovel so he wasn’t far behind, and I caught glimpses of him in my mirror and we’d ride together here and there enjoying the freedom. Riding real choppers, Josh and Aaron had nothing up front except the typical bandana on the forks or an improvised mountain bike fender that didn’t do much to stop the face-pelting destruction as the mighty Dalton evolved from asphalt to gravel, to snotty brown mud and back. Alone I could go at my own pace but I realized the gap between us might be getting bigger. Sure, our overbuilt chase truck The Pig was bringing up the rear with enough parts and tools to fix nearly everything, but nobody wanted to wait on that or be left alone. 

Calm before the storm.

At the Yukon River there’s a fuel station and cafe with workcamp trailers where you can rent rooms. Kalen and the guys on Pan Ams were up ahead and left a bike on the edge of the highway to signal where they had stopped for lunch. In small packs, our riders all crossed the slick bridge over the massive river and filtered into the cafe for hot coffee, a bowl of chili, maybe a slice of fresh pie and some friendly banter with Trish, who recently moved to the area from Georgia and has a Facebook album called "Tall men of Alaska". She didn’t ask me for a photo. Tanks and bellies full, we only had about 120 miles to go to reach the night’s destination with the comforting name: Coldfoot. 

 

Hauling Ass on the Haul Road

One of the good things about riding this far north is how late sunset is. When the sun doesn’t go down until after 10:00PM we got in later/warmer starts than usual and could push further into the evening without the added stress of finding camp in the dark and all the problems that would bring in this terrain. 

The Dalton is called the “Haul Road” by locals and the drivers who earn a living on it. Made famous by the Ice Road Truckers, World’s Most Dangerous Roads, and America’s Toughest Jobs TV series, it is the lifeline for ferrying supplies to the oil fields in Deadhorse, 500 grueling miles through the real wilderness above Fairbanks. Originally closed to the public and used only as a pipeline supply route, The Dalton opened in 1994 as a Scenic Byway and has been attacked by adventurous types ever since. Contrary to what people from warmer climes might think, truck traffic increases in the winter when the road is frozen because it’s slightly more predictable than summertime rains, which often close the highway completely.  A typical summer day on the Haul Road sees about 150 heavily laden trucks hauling ass through this vast wilderness dragging doubles packed with drilling supplies, fuel, and everything else required to run the operation in Deadhorse. Navigating these rigs up the grades in slick mud and pouring rain is not for the inexperienced or weak, and unaware tourists who pull to a stop in the middle of the road to watch caribou are among the biggest hazards to the men and women who earn a precarious living on this route. We were well aware of this before starting the trip and we took the rigs and drivers into consideration at every stop. Not only out of empathy for them, but for our own survival. Who else is going to be on that road and offer assistance in a life threatening situation? Only those same truckers. 

Thankfully we didn’t run open primaries. 

The Pan Americas made easy work of the Dalton. 

Fog slowed things down a bit.

About 60 miles from the Yukon River and half way to that night’s stop was the official Arctic Circle. There’s a small turnout so tourists can exit the highway safely, shoot a photo at the sign, or use the pit toilet and trash. On a normal day it would be fairly unremarkable other than its location. On this day, after enduring the rain and mud it felt like we had accomplished something just to be there. Rico and I pulled off and decided to wait for Aaron and Josh. Geoff and Flynn, our video and photo team, were riding with them too, but on more capable Pan Americas, so we worried slightly less for them. We cooked up some coffee on a Jet Boil and discovered the Camp Robber birds who like to land on you and beg for snacks. Kalen pulled in no worse for wear, and I waited back at the highway to make sure the boys made it. Eventually I heard the heavy metal hammers of a straight-pipe panhead chopper climbing it’s way slowly up the sloppy grade to our rest stop. When Josh came into sight he looked like he had been spray painted with lumpy chocolate from head to toe and was chugging along in second gear trying to see through mud-soaked eyes. Even though he was getting close, I could tell he couldn’t see me. Hell, he couldn’t see, period. I jumped out in the highway to get his attention and he started slowing down but still couldn’t stop without passing me by. His only words as he trudged past me was “I’m… Cold…” He says it was “My… Clutch…” because he could no longer shift, but either way the grime and fatigue were real. 

Josh got blasted.

Aaron earning it. 

Eventually, Josh rolled off the highway and idled up to the rest area. Aaron arrived a few minutes later in a similarly sticky coating, but only after draining the water out of his carburetor and improvising an air filter with a beanie donated by Flynn. The fog was replaced by a light drizzle as we continued north towards Coldfoot, with views that were vast, empty and gorgeous. We made so much racket that wildlife was sparse on this route. In a quiet, warm 4x4 there is probably a lot more to see. We stuck together for the rest of the route and slowly inched our way towards fuel and rest. 

Beanie pre-filter actually worked. Goggles and glasses not so much.

Good, clean fun!

Front fenders rule. Rico’s bike wasn’t much worse for wear at the Arctic Circle.

Kalen making it look easy on her Pan Am.

Northernmost Tavern in the USA

At Coldfoot we met back up with “The Fast Team” of Otto and Davin on Pan Ams. This camp provides shelter for truckers and travelers before the last stretch of the Haul Road to the top, just before Atigun Pass, the tallest grade on the route. We rented simple rooms in the trailers for the night; no sense pitching wet tents in the rain on the eve of the hardest leg on the trip when hard shelter was available. 

When the fog lifted, the scenery came to life.

The Pig earned its keep en route to Coldfoot.

Soaked and stoked in Coldfoot. Wonder how many panheads have been here over the years?

While we were offloading gear from the bikes, The Pig came chugging into camp in all its bright orange and checkered glory. Driving this beast was its own adventure for Yeti and Yolo, who’d flown in from their 4x4 outpost in Iowa for the chore. Yeti is the type who enjoys the hardship of a true adventure and I can’t imagine a more capable pilot for this rig. Outfitted with everything required to keep our 13-soul expedition moving, the demilitarized US Army LMTV had been transformed from basic troop carrier into a mobile workshop, bike hauler and life support vehicle. While we all carried what we really needed for a couple days of riding on our bikes, The Pig hauled the really valuable stuff that’s hard to find in the true middle of nowhere. Extra clutch plates? Check. Fuel Pump for Pan Am? Got two of ‘em. Primary belts? Many. Spare tires? A whole rack. Add in a 12v fridge, stove, generator, welder, more tools, dry food, way too many spare parts and an awning to work under and you’ve got the ultimate survival machine. When it survives.

Ultimate chase driver, Yeti.

By Coldfoot, a crack had materialized on the CAT 3116’s timing cover—a known design flaw that haunted us at least three times since we built this rig. Of course we didn’t bother to bring a spare since it’s not the kind of repair anyone can do on the side of the road. The cam has to come out, plus the radiator and all the components on the front of the engine. The fix on a trip like this is to add oil regularly and to keep an eye on the pressure gauge. We brought 15 gallons of extra engine oil and picked up more along the way to keep The Pig in service. 

Bill’s favorite mod to the panhead was the canvas crash-bar covers JD made up at the last minute. They worked great in the wet and muddy conditions.

The Coldfoot Camp is an experience unto itself. Photos of the Polar Bear who once wandered into camp and other fond memories hang on the rustic walls and a simple but welcome buffet awaits weary travelers. The bar on site is the furthest north tavern in America, and sells souvenirs with one of the best logos ever proudly emblazoned on them. We ate, drank, and purchased a few minutes of wi-fi to check the weather again for the last leg to Deadhorse the following morning. The problem wasn’t so much riding in the rain or the gravel—we were all used to that. The real issue was the unseasonable soaking the road had been through during the summer. Had a couple dry days been scheduled, we could have laid over and waited for a better weather window but with no such luxury we decided on an 0900 start and hit the hay.

Great place for a drink! 

Pig topped off with oil, bikes prepped and bellies full we headed north once again. We kept a bigger interval between bikes to keep from showering each other with mud and gravel and so everyone could move at their own pace. Pulling over in a safe spot when we saw trucks in the distance allowed them to pass without the stress of us being in the way. We passed Wiseman (not named after us) and though we couldn’t see much through the fog, we knew that Atigun was just ahead. Once through that, the weather looked like it cleared up substantially so we just had to make the pass. This is an area where truckers call each other on CB radios for frequent updates on road conditions and to alert each other about their locations to avoid ending up in tricky spots at the same time. The Pig was on this channel and doing the same. At the true beginning of the grade I pulled up to find my son Flynn, our videographer, standing alone on the side of the muddy highway with his Pan Am buried up to the axles in tundra a few yards away. He was shook but OK. Seems he slid off the mud trying to give a truck most of the road and got spit into the ditch and up into the hillside. We helped him drag the bike back onto the highway as more riders and Yeti caught up. Luckily there was a turnout we could go back to within eyesight and we got off the highway to reassess the situation.

Right about where we turned around. 

Aaron draining water out of the float bowl on his Super E. 

Time for a new chain on the Pan.

Davin and Otto, who were well ahead of where Flynn flew off the highway, turned around to advise our assembled team that weather was substantially worse as the grade climbed north. It was an easy decision and no argument was made. Davin and Otto, our two most experienced riders, would continue on. They had enough fuel, their Harley adventure bikes were totally capable, and they thought they could do it safely with only two riders and bikes to worry about. The rest of us turned south for the first time in two weeks. After topping off in Coldfoot, we agreed to make camp at the Yukon River where we had stopped for lunch a day earlier. We stopped again at the Arctic Circle and this time Yeti pulled in with The Pig and set up a hasty kitchen in the drizzle while we played with the Camp Robbers and talked about the day’s adventure. We lined up at Yeti’s hot water station and made dehydrated backpacking meals and coffee. With only 60 more miles to go and weather improving slightly, the mood lightened. Fog was in and out and the views when it opened up were invigorating after the previous struggle. We laughed and joked and fist pumped our way through the hills and valleys until we pulled into the welcoming gravel lot of the Yukon River Camp. More chili, more coffee, a couple beers and a roadside camp complete with wolf tracks and bear scat finished off a long day while we all wondered about the other two. With no service or wi-fi, there was no way to know if Davin and Otto made it or not, but we figured they did. 

Camp Robbers were a treat.

Kalen got dive bombed for gold fish. 

Yeti and Yolo about to set up the hasty hot lunch station. Such a morale booster. 

The next day seemed easy and we enjoyed the twisty roads, even with the wheel-swallowing pot holes and gravel patches. The same hazards from before existed now, but our mindset was different after our experience on the Dalton and we navigated it at a slower pace and with less anxiety. As our weary, muddy band of idiots pulled up to the first traffic light in Fairbanks, a girl riding in the opposite direction stopped at the same light. She was wearing a Lane Splitter helmet and we all erupted into a silly fist-pumping mob of mud-soaked hoots and waves. I’m sure she had no idea what all that commotion was about but we were just stoked to be back in civilization and to see one of our own products in use right at that threshold was the icing on top.  

Blue skies above the fog were welcome while they lasted.

Clean-up in Fairbanks.

This is not an appropriate use of a vintage Harley-Davidson.

Josh has some detailing to do…

Kalen, the fearless navigator and professional bar hunter, found us a cozy local pub to hole up in so we could shed some layers, eat yet another meal and find out what happened to Otto and Davin. A quick peek at their Instagram and text messages answered the question on everyone’s mind—they made it to Deadhorse and were on their way back down. We decided a nice bed in a riverside hotel was in order and after taking the bikes to a local car wash we set up gear to dry in the sunshine and moved in for the rest of the day. It wasn’t long before the dynamic duo pulled in and declared victory. While it was a slight bummer that only two of our crew made it all the way to the top, we were energized by their accomplishment and felt like we had all been challenged by our own attempt. Reveling in the sunny weather it was a fine day even if I did have to share a small bed with a large man at the end of the night.

The two champs made it all the way to the top!

Getting There

At this point we were 1200 miles into the trip since offloading from the ferry in Whittier seven days before. We started the ferry portion of the journey in Bellingham, WA, and that was the only reservation we had to make for the entire trip. The boat was not going to wait and we knew we had to be there early and ready to go so anxiety was running a little high. The Pig had been trailered to Seattle and was dropped at our friend Thom’s house. Otto and JD drove a van and trailer full of bikes from SoCal to Bellingham, dropped them off at a campground, then swapped the van/trailer combo for The Pig. Just shy of making it to the camp it blew a water pump gasket and showered everything with antifreeze. Off to a good start already! The rest of us were flying in and we linked up with a couple rental cars and got to the camp. Aaron rode his chopper up from SoCal and made the trip with zero problems. Kalen had started on her Pan Am in Key West, FL, with a stop in Sturgis to give lessons on how to party. Resourceful as always, Otto found a heavy equipment shop in Sedro-Woolley, Washington and linked up with the owner, Red. He proved to be invaluable and helped with the water pump, and again later in the trip when we crossed back into the USA. There’s a magic to life on the road and needing assistance. Somehow, if your karma is just right, the universe delivers a guy like Red and we were lucky to find him. We test drove the truck, blew the gasket for a second time and with Red’s advice just used 3M “Right Stuff” as a sealant without a gasket and it is still holding today.

Harley-Davidson Pan Americas ready for launch! 

The Pig gets stuffed. 

Come Sail Away

After getting everyone together in one place for that first time, we were all buzzing. Going through gear for the millionth time, running to town for more shopping and wondering aloud what the boat and then the trip would have in store for us. We loaded four bikes inside The Pig and when we got to the ferry terminal a few hours early the next day we put another two on the loading deck on the back. This was our little hack to avoid paying for those six motorcycles and it actually worked. Yeti and his girl Yolo successfully got the LMTV inside the well deck of the Kennicott Ferry while some of us walked on and others rode into the ship and secured their bikes. We made it. The single deadline of the excursion had been made. Two pans, three shovel heads and a half dozen Harley adventure bikes all tucked inside, ready to sail.  

The Kennicott

We ate pretty much non-stop on the ferry. 

The views from the starboard side were hard to beat until the weather finally drove us indoors.

The Biltwell village on board the Kennicott

The Kennicott is not a cruise ship. Its goal is to efficiently ferry passengers and equipment through the inside passage, stopping at ports along the way to pick up and drop off humans and vehicles, many times at ports inaccessible by roads. The route winds through the islands, hugging the coast much closer than the more touristy vessels, and when there was no fog the views were sublime. We spotted otters, seals, dolphins, bald eagles, grey whales, and orcas, plus many isolated lighthouses and fishing and hunting cabins which could only be reached by sea planes or boats. Food on the boat was more than adequate and we spent four days watching the scenery go by, reading, eating and playing cards in the small bar that opened after dinner. We made friends with many of our fellow travelers and they all wanted to know our story since The Pig, the bikes, and our general scruffiness were atypical sights on this journey. Several other boat passengers were embarking on similar journeys, and we enjoyed sharing stories with them every time our paths crossed on the AlCan, at a hot spring, or some similarly desolate location.

Being eager to camp, we set up on the starboard deck where we would have the best view. This spot would also prove to have the most weather. We didn’t mind the rain and fog but once the wind kicked up, one by one we moved into the solarium or mid-deck that was open on its sides, but had a roof. Stories from the crew about unattended tents being blown overboard once we left Alaska’s inside passage for open water had us all in the shelter of the solarium on the last night. We had quick excursions at ports like Ketchikan and Juneau but couldn’t offload a bike or do much real exploring. 

 

Hitting the Beach 

Our final ferry stop, and the true starting point for most of us, was Whittier, Alaska. It was pitch black and pissing rain at 0430 when we docked and quickly scrambled off on foot and on bikes. The Pig rumbled off and we began ransacking it to unpack the bikes, get geared up and finally get on with it! The ferry ride was fun but also a battle with boredom and every one of us was itching to move under our own power. 

Ready to roll out of Whittier.  

The only way out

It wasn’t as scary as it looks but there also wasn’t much margin for error on a motorcycle. 

Whittier is on the windward side of a steep mountain and only accessible on land via a one-way tunnel. It runs one direction at the top of the hour and the other direction 30 minutes later. Occasionally a train goes through it, so there are tracks right down the center of the single lane. It is 2.5 miles long and has jet engines inside to suck out the exhaust. On a motorcycle, the train tracks—soaked with water brought in by previous vehicles and dripping from the rocky ceiling—were a particular concern. All we had to do was keep it ‘tween the rails and everything would be fine. Of course, it wasn’t as difficult as we expected and we all made it through without issue. The Pig was a bit squirrelly on the tracks and barely made the height requirements (we definitely checked beforehand) and Yeti squeezed it through unscathed. Onward!

First thing we did was find breakfast at a swanky resort and then head to Anchorage Harley-Davidson where we loaded up on free coffee and topped off our never-ending supply of gear. The rustic little town of Talkeetna was our first night on Alaskan soil, where a friend of Kalen’s knew a guy who owned a pot dispensary in town and lived in a cabin on the grass runway used by bush planes. He also happened to be a pilot with his own bush-prepped 1947 Cessna 140. His airplane was as glorious as a well-weathered knucklehead in its simple, rugged style, and Joe generously let us camp in his yard and even threw a party with live music that night. WTF kind of score was this? Being a freshly minted private pilot myself, it was like winning the lottery on day one. We went for a flight and Joe even did a touch and go one of the many gravel bars in the area and he let me fly for a bit. I could have stayed here for the rest of the trip and been satisfied at this point but bigger challenges lay ahead and we had to move on after spending a whole day enjoying the town and doing a little maintenance on the bikes.  

1947 Cessna 140 

Camp set-up just off the runway at Joe’s property

Rouser putting in work on the Pan Ams.

JD racing the Cessna. Joe won this one.

Operation Dry Socks.

Eager to burn some miles we headed from Talkeetna to Chena Hot Springs, about 350 mostly rainy miles. Although mostly obscured by fog, the views around Denali were spectacular. We camped at Chena and enjoyed soaking our bones in the springs and went through our nightly maintenance rituals. The Pig, old bikes and Pan Americas were all prepped for the big pull north and we all felt ready. Up until that point we had been on very typical highways with plenty of rain but nothing overly challenging. We knew of course, that wouldn’t last. 

Davin with a freakish display of energy. 

Team photo at the ill-fated Igloo Hotel on the way to Fairbanks.

Southbound and Down 

After the adventure of the Haul Road and linking up with Davin, Otto, Yeti and Yolo in Fairbanks, we headed for a campsite on a small lake about 100 miles southeast. We were at about 1100 miles in since offloading from the ferry. While the truly challenging stuff was behind us, we still had another 2500 miles to get back to the US border. With no particular plans or reservations, we’d consult the weather and decide the next day’s ride collectively so everyone knew the night before what the proposed mileage and destinations were. Some days it was a light and relaxing 150, some days we made 300+. 

End of the day rituals kept the old bikes on the road. 

Mmm, Yeti’s camp cooking can’t be beat.

This photo says so much about the trip. 

We generally cooked and ate in one spot and put up tents in another

JD and Rico. Rulers!

Typical campsite activities. 

The next camp was in Tok where highway 1 meets the AlCan. That night we all double checked our border-crossing paperwork: COVID docs, passports, shotgun permits and arrest records. The border wasn’t as bad as we feared, and only took a couple hours due to some shenanigans one of our guys was involved in 20 years ago. Cleared to go, we hauled to Destruction Bay. It was much more beautiful than its name implied. The campground was inside a small fenced area to protect its inhabitants from bears, which was weird but slightly comforting. Living up to its name however, Destruction Bay attacked. Yolo fell out of the back of The Pig, nearly into the camp stove with boiling water and landed on her head. Thankfully she was fine and didn’t ruin dinner. Next a battery we had on a charger decided to explode so that was exciting, but it didn’t kill anyone or start a forest fire. The next morning when I started my crusty, trusty old panhead, the generator was howling. It was pretty cold out so we decided to see if it got better as the bike warmed up. About 100 miles out from Whitehorse it quit and the battery was toast. After installing a spare and firing it up, my voltmeter said the generator wasn’t charging. No surprise, really, but the input shaft on it had to get hacksawed off to eliminate the howl. We pulled the headlight bulb to reduce the draw and kept moving. Once in Whitehorse we settled in at a local pub and the chase team pulled up with two full-sized car batteries. Out came some stuff from the milk crate I had bolted to the rear fender, and in went the car battery. I ran longer wires to connect it the ignition and pulled the tail light bulbs. The Pig had a 12v charger so my plan was to just charge the battery at the end of the day or swap out for the second one if need be. After the successful pit stop in front of a dive bar, off we went. It lasted the entire trip this way.

All day, every day.

Just before Destruction Bay

Even modern bikes need attention. The only thing the Pan Ams used up was chains and rear tires. 

Clutch rebuild in Sourdough Camp, Tok, Alaska.

The Pan Am guys got in a little off-road action.

It really doesn’t get any better than this.

D-Bay. 

Aaron on the move.  

Aroura Boreawesome

We stopped at the sign in Delta Junction to goof off for photos, then continued on to Teslin which isn’t really a town but has a workcamp hotel similar to Coldfoot. This stretch from Whitehorse to Teslin was classic Yukon and we enjoyed the ride and the wildlife and other distractions. Rico almost got killed by a herd of bison, I saw a grizzly bear and Josh’s transmission came completely unbolted from the frame. The Pig was puking so much oil, Yeti was stopping about every hour and topping off a gallon or so. This turned into a long day. Since my bike had no lights of any kind, I rode next to Flynn’s Pan Am with its awesome Baja Designs lights and we rode into the night for the first time on our journey. We were rewarded by the sight of a huge grey wolf crossing the highway in front of us not far from where we found Kalen’s bike at the highway indicating she’d found a place to stop for the night. 

Goodbye squealing generator, hello car battery.

The old bike bunch almost 2000 miles deep.

The Pig doing what it was built to do while the Northern Lights go off. 

About 1800 miles in, this is where the CAN part of the AlCan highway dips back and forth from the Yukon to the border with British Columbia, Canada. By this time Josh’s panhead had the same generator issue so the second car battery went into his EXFIL-80 bag. That night we all had work to do on our bikes. The Pig wasn’t the most reliable vehicle, but boy when we needed a mobile mechanic’s set-up, nothing could beat it. Lights and tools came out and we set to work about 10:00 p.m. in front of the crusty little hotel. Luckily there were no other guests to bother because we were definitely not quiet. The kicker shaft on my bike sheared at the pinch bolt groove so I did my best to weld the arm on. It wasn’t pretty, but this fix lasted the rest of the trip. About an hour into the work session someone noticed the sky. Looking up over the hills that parallel the highway, the Northern Lights were putting on a show. Flynn ran in and got the other guys who had already retired and like true southerners, we lost our minds. Nature’s rave continued for a couple hours while we finished repairs, had some beers and Geoff studiously took portraits with the dancing green glow in the background. One of the longest days rewarded us with one of the best of nights. Such is life on the road.

Bill and son Flynn under the magic glow.

JD and his ridiculously cool shovelhead in the Northern Lights.

Alcan transmission at your service.  

Wild Hogs meet Wild Life.

RIP, PIG

The next day was relatively short but eventful. Liard Hot Springs was the sight of a gruesome black bear attack in the late 90’s but is also a beautiful hot springs and has a nice campground where I camped a few years ago. I had played up the tranquil beauty and very real bear danger enough that everyone was pretty excited to see it. About half our team arrived first and we negotiated camp sites for our large group. In talking to one of the rangers, I got the backstory on the famous and deadly bear attack. His take on it was that the rogue bear had been allowed to rummage in the town dump. Eating processed foods had rotten the bear’s teeth and gums so it could no longer hunt as it was designed to. This led it to become a problem bear with a tragic end for it and the people that encountered it about 25 years ago. Today there is an electrified fence that goes around the camping area, though it does not cover the lower hot springs and the boardwalk that leads over the boreal swamp to it. The upper hot springs are permanently closed because of the number of bears still in the area. The same ranger told me the fence was about two years old. Before the fence, he said, the park rangers would put down about ten bears a year who would wander into the camp looking for careless trash or camp management and quickly became habituated to the easy food. Since the install of the fence, zero bears have been put down in the area. 

Lounging in Liard Hot Springs didn’t suck. 

Across the highway was a log cabin hotel with a few rooms and a campground. We were not allowed to stay in tents there (bears) but we ate all their pie, drank gallons of coffee, bought some wi-fi and became friends with the generous ladies who ran the joint. It also became the last place where The Pig moved under its own power. 

The Ladies of Liard treated us so well!

Teamwork makes the dream work.

Sneak peek of Otto doing a little R&D on the upcoming 395 off-road helmet.

Get ‘er, Bud

Yeti and Yolo had limped the wounded orange beast into camp but we moved it over to the cabin area for a better place to work on it. The timing cover leak was hemorrhaging 10-40 like a sucking chest wound and the air-activated fan clutch decided to eat itself. This was complicated by the fact that the air brakes work off the same circuit. Calls the next day determined it would be two weeks before parts could arrive to fix it and we were right at the end of summer and and about 1000 miles north of the US border. Ugh. I will summarize because this part could easily be its own book. Our four-wheeled, 10-ton chopper was dead in the water. Yeti and I tried in vain to find a tow truck for the LMTV and a rental van to haul essential gear and supplies. Yolo used her magic powers of persuasion to find a tow truck with a courageous driver willing to tackle the task. He even flat-bedded a rental pick-up and agreed to haul it back to Fort Nelson once he delivered The Pig to within spitting distance to the border. Yeti pulled the front drive shaft and the rear was hoisted on a “stinger” and hauled south. This was neither easy nor cheap. We knew it was a risk when we started, and The Pig will get rebuilt and return to service. Paul the tow truck dude was a gas and we learned “Get ‘er bud” from him and it’s become part of our daily vocabulary since.  

If we had to be holed up somewhere for a couple days, Liard was as good a spot as we could have hoped for. Had we been stuck in Coldfoot, smart decisions would have been much tougher. Yeti had already volunteered to live in Alaska long enough to fix it and drive it back but nobody wanted that, except perhaps the wild man himself. We loaded up and hit the road to Fort Nelson for a night in a Sleezy 6 hotel and a proper hot meal or two. The ride along Muncho Lake was one to remember. Josh’s primary chain had given up the ghost and the one we brought as a spare was the wrong size. His pan chop had gone south in the back of The Pig and he got cozy quick on the spare Pan America we brought along for just this kind of situation. He was a little sad, but the heated grips and awesome power and handling of the modern machine quickly dried his tears.   

Old and new headed in the same direction. 

Like hobos riding the rails, a free camp spot on a river feels like paradise.

Note the firefighting helicopter to our right.

If you’re wet, they’re wet. Bill brought his portable Big Agnes garage tent to keep the pan happy. 

Fort Nelson had a population of about 7000 two years ago according to our bartender. In 2022 that was down to about 2000 because of an oil field closing and you could feel it in the town. But kids are kids and when Flynn ran into a couple of local teens at a liquor store, they were impressed by his Pan Am. 

“Nice bike, eh. Reckon you can do a onie?”

“Uh, what? Oh, a wheelie? Not really. At least not on purpose…”

“Reckon you could if you wasn’t such a wussy, eh?” 

“Uh…”

“Shut up Jimmy. Every friggin’ time! Sorry 'bout him, his head's fucked!”

Maybe it’s not that funny to read, but Flynn’s rendition of the exchange kept us in stitches the rest of the trip. 

We exited the AlCan at Ft. St. John. After lunch in town we met a local dude who’s working on an XS650 chopper and planning to make the El Diablo Run next year. Get ‘er bud, see ya soon!

 

Easy Money

Our next-to-last night in BC we camped remotely on a gorgeous river between two piles of bear scat that wasn’t a day old. Apparently we hadn’t learned much but we kept the snacks and trash to a minimum and had a great time enjoying the scenery and hanging out without worrying about other campers.

Aaron Mason in his natural habitat.

Oh, Canada. 

Another day of easy riding through bucolic pastures and mountain passes put us in around Boston Bar, along the Fraser River. We wondered about The Pig and by this time Yeti and Yolo had split to cross the border with it and return the rental. By the end of the night they had accomplished the mission and Red had sent a rescue truck to retrieve it from the border and store it at his compound. The people you meet on the road, right? 

 

Infamous

We idled up the the US border crossing and the guard knew in advance exactly who we were. We must’ve looked like pretty worn out by that time and after eyeing my passport the US Border Patrol agent said to me, “Ah—you’re the guy who owns that orange monstrosity.” I happened to be standing next to my bike in front of his booth on a pile of kitty litter that was soaking up a rather large puddle of what looked like 10-40 oil. “Uh, yessir, that’d be me. Sorry about all that”. He looked at me and the rag tag riders queued up behind me and said “How on earth do you know all these guys”. “That sir, is a long story and I’d rather just push my bike into the USA and get out of your way if it’s all the same”. A disapproving head shake and I had my passport back and was now only 1500 miles from home but it was a perfectly sunny day in northern Washington and we had about 50 sublime twisty, back-road miles to go before we got to Red’s.

When we started this trip we agreed to something that has become a bit of a mantra on larger adventures like this: We’ll start friends and end friends and whatever happens in the middle we will just work through. When people are exhausted and cold, you really get to know them. Twenty-something days with 13 people, it was incredible to me how well we all got along the entire way. Not only did we manage to survive the stuff in the middle, but at the end of the day I think we are all better friends for it.

Back in the US of A

Epilogue  

Getting home was as complicated as getting to Bellingham had been at the start of our adventure, but most riders took the opportunity to cruise back at their own pace and enjoy the unseasonably warm and dry weather in the PNW. Aaron rode his shovel back for a total of 6200 mostly trouble-free miles—his battery died about 10 miles from home. Kalen, who had ridden from Key West, met up with her boyfriend somewhere around Wyoming and trucked her personal Pan Am back with about 9,000 new miles on the digital odometer. Flynn and Geoff flew back and started compiling photos and video clips immediately. Yeti and Yolo flew back to Iowa to prep for their next excursion while Josh, Rico, and I drove the Biltwell team rig home to SoCal with most of the junk and our bikes. The Pig showed up a few days later on a lowboy and is currently cleaned up and in dry dock while we decide its next move.

 

MASSIVE THANKS to all our friends and sponsors who pitched in to make this adventure happen:

@bajadesigns
@bespokepost
@bigagnes_
@biltwell
@chatterboxusa
@claybourne_co
@dragspecialties
@flyingmonkeyfabrication
@harleydavidson
@hdpanamerica
@heatwavevisual
@hibondmodified
@ironfirebrewing
@metzelermotousa
@motionpro
@oldrosetattooca
@pacificobeer
@pciraceradios
@rouserworks
@russbrownmotorcycleattorneys
@sandmbmx
@sideburnmag
@sscycle
@themancalledyeti
@thorogood_usa
@whiteknucklerbrand