Take an easily stressed father-of-three, clueless about camping and mechanics, whose furthest previous ride totalled 200 miles, and give him a priceless gift.
Add a friend, unfulfilled dreams and some of the planet’s most diverse and dramatic scenery, and Warren Henke and his Tiger 800XC were about to turn dreams into reality.
“We’d talked about doing it for 15 years, but when my mate Mike’s dad died and left this trip unfinished on his bucket list, we planned like we were going to do it, then amazingly… we did.”
They blitzed 6,800 miles through Alaska, saw 30 bears, whales and wildlife, watched glaciers into the ocean, climbed America’s tallest mountain, rode and camped in every element, and braved pavement, dirt, rocks, gravel and mud as slick as ice. Here is their diary…
“The ingredients for adventure had to include challenge, stress, exhilaration, pain and pleasure, to be thrown out of our element to experience new things. The adventure must be cursed and questioned alongside moments of breathtaking beauty.”
After packing and fitting new tyres, we take the three-day Bellingham to Haines ferry into the heart of Alaska. I stress about overpacking until we pull up behind a 70-year-old lady in leathers on a trike finishing a 25,000-mile trip.
The wind and rain makes tents flap and snap onboard and then directly beneath us, a few feet from the boat, a humpback surfaces, sprays and disappears. Mountains like black shadows disappear into clouds.
It’s dark and quiet… except for the churning engine. We push through the dark, narrow, pitch-black canyon, lighted buoys the only guide.
I wake to an Alaskan glacier. We’re in the middle of a massive bay, surrounded by giant snow-capped mountains and waterfalls.
Ten minutes off the ferry we see our first two grizzly bears, lumbering along a river looking for salmon.
The 160 miles from Haines to Haines Junction, sharp peaks break the horizon as we lean into biting wind, constantly adjusting to stay upright, mind and body focused, tense and tight. Everything is about the moment – I let go of fear, stress, the past, the future, to focus on the challenge.
Then we turn on to the Alcan highway, an adventurers’ road I’ve glamourised my entire life. We log nearly 400 miles, through clouds of tiny flying piranha (mosquitos), wind and rain before pressing on.
Cold and wet, Mike doesn’t want to back down on our vow to rough it, but a snapped throttle cable means I don’t hesitate at the warmth of a Red Eagle Lodge cabin in Chistochina, where I email ahead to the Triumph dealership in Anchorage.
After swapping the throttle cables, we ride in silence. The Motorcycle Shop is awesome – they went out of their way to make me a priority.
We’re exploring the Kanai Peninsula, first to Homer and my jaw keeps falling open as alpine meadows and grey peaks fly by.
Homer’s shoreline is bathed in sunshine and dotted with couples, families and fishing poles. I stretch out while Mike takes a walk on the beach. I later found out this is where he put his father to rest, his ashes now forever a part of this amazing landscape, having finally completed his motorcycle trip to Alaska.
On a fjord tour from Seward we drift next to massive cliffs where the chatter of thousands of birds drowns out all other sounds. Sea lions spar on the rocks, porpoises dance around our boat and puffins dive. Six-foot-long otters float on their backs, soaking up sunshine. Humpback whales spout and dive. I see things that have fascinated me all my life. Then, my main reason for this tour: a visit to a glacier, a monstrous 600ft wall of ice, slowly breaking apart in skyscraper-sized chunks that crash thunderously into the water in a show of nature’s power. I also need to see Mount McKinley. Air taxi takes us there. Ice, snow and giant walls of stone. Jagged granite peaks. Deep blue crevices. We fly past 1,200-foot sheer cliffs and land on the Eldridge Glacier at about 7,000 feet.
I step away from the plane and as I turn in a slow circle, my eyes fill with tears. Mountains shoot into the sky, giant cliffs around me. The snow is blinding white. It is so quiet, no wind or sound. I take several heavy breaths, close my eyes and just bask in it. After a stop at Denali National Park, we hit Denali Highway, a dirt road that cuts across the belly of Alaska between Fairbanks and Anchorage. What use is an adventure bike unless you get it dirty, right? We ride 300 miles today and it feels like 1,000. We are 20 miles from Chitina, where the road to Kennecott requires an expert level of riding skill. I’m not an expert.
Why do I do these things? Because they are exhilarating and once I’ve done them, I feel like a million bucks!
Brutal. What began on sunny pavement has morphed into dirt, rocks and mud as slick as ice. The Top of the World Highway is everything we hoped… another spectacular display of Alaskan wilderness. My heart thumps. I slide. I make crazy S curves.
Once I’m on the wrong side of the road when a truck comes around the corner. Another time I slide to the edge of the mountain and can’t get traction, yet somehow we finish safe.
I’m making this sound miserable, but challenges like this force me to be in the moment, 100% focused, to set aside my fear. Forced into situations like this, we do amazing things.
There are two main routes through British Columbia – the Alcan and the more remote Cassier. On the Cassier, the changes are immediate, with autumn hues, bears everywhere and ramps across rivers.
On a civilization-free stretch, we meet a British rider solo on a Tiger 800XC he’d bought in Anchorage, making his way to Argentina. I totally want to do that!
I feel happiness, wonder, excitement, brotherhood, passion, curiosity, pleasure. No stress, no worry. My life is good. I have wonderful family and friends and have enjoyed many fantastic experiences.
The drive south to Hyder and snow-capped mountains rise on both sides, while we weave through the lush green forest of the canyon floor.
Rivers gush over massive cliffs and spill off granite peaks in huge, misty waterfalls. God designed this canyon for riding. Flipping back and forth through twisties and weaving my Tiger through the canyon is bliss.
We head up the dirt road to the glacier for some off-roading. At times I ride a foot and a half away from the edge of the road, looking 1,000 feet down, while over the peak we drop to a rocky creek.
My heart races as I rev the engine, thinking how stupid I am to risk a problem so far up in the mountains. But it’s one of those things I have to do and I’m overthinking it. I stand on the pegs, gun it and my Tiger flies across like a sleek cat, losing no traction over the rocks and slicing through the water like butter.
Just 500 miles from home now and I can’t say this has been the trip of a lifetime because I plan on expanding my boundaries, challenging my comfort levels and seeing new parts of the world again and again.
Heavy traffic in Vancouver is the first harsh reminder of home, but I’m OK knowing that my vices are waiting to pounce on me because I also know my collection of experiences and memories will be with me forever. I am not the same person I was before.
I travelled nearly 7,000 miles with my friend. I wouldn’t call it a vacation. It was a lot of work and often quite uncomfortable. But it was incredible, meaningful and an awesome experience. An adventure. A gift