Editor’s Note: In this third and final installment of the three-part series, Operation Numbnuts: Mission Accomplished, Biltwell’s Bill Bryant picks up from Part Two: Starting the Journey smack dab in the middle of nowheresville USA. Learn more about the rest of their trek, the many two-wheeled adventures shared and their successful return trip home that marked the completion of one remarkable and unforgettable trip.
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.
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.
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.
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+.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
Biltwell would like to give a MASSIVE THANKS to all their friends and sponsors who pitched in to make this adventure happen: