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Stupid Motorcycle Tricks


By the third week of the trip, we've got our answers down. As the ferry personnel point us towards a corner of the ship ("Good place to tie down.") we field the questions:

 

"Cool bike. What is it?" and, "You're doing what with it?"

Copyright: Ed Readicker-Henderson.What we're doing with this motorcycle that looks, sitting still, like it's breaking several important speed laws, is island hopping Southeast Alaska. The towns of Southeast, spread out on a chain of islands more than 500 miles long, are tiny, but they're connected by the Alaska Marine Highway, and they all have logging roads fanning out in every direction.

When you live on an island, there's a palpable feeling of a desperate need to go somewhere. And so you drive.

"Thirty-two miles of paved road," we're told when we stumble onto a party of local motorcycle riders in Ketchikan, the second largest city in Southeast.

They dish us up some prime rib cooked on an open fire, and ladle out the juicy secrets of biking in Alaska. Number one: if you wait for it to stop raining, you might as well stay home. Number two: mud washes off.

Southeast Alaska is the home of the Tongass National Forest, the largest in the U.S. Technically, the Tongass is a midlatitudes rainforest, which means the trees are thick and dripping with water. Ketchikan gets over 150 inches of rain a year; Sitka, on one of the outside islands, is relatively dry with only 100 inches. Four sunny days get the locals talking about a drought, and angry editorials from the "Friends of Rain" society fill newspaper op-ed pages.

On the plus side, the temperature is always mild: sixties in the summer, rarely dropping below freezing in the winter.

Bound up by sea and rain, the landscape of Southeast is lush, like the ultimate terrarium you dreamed of owning as a kid. We see it in bite-sized chunks, measured out by roads: Ketchikan's 32, Sitka's 14, Wrangell's 20. The distances are too great to walk, too short to bother with a car, and perfect for the bike, which swoops through the curves and puts us in the forest and the changing patterns of light.

Copyright: Ed Readicker-Henderson.On dirt roads, we swerve around bear scat, slam on the brakes for Sitka black-tailed deer, and once, parking the bike, hear shouts of "WHALE!" from nearby picnickers.

The humpback whale, about 35 feet long, is right off shore, feeding in the water's sudden drop off. The whale surfaces just long enough to breathe; a vapor jet shoots up, then the curve of the whale's hump barely breaks the surface before the animal is gone, leaving no ripples.Anywhere we stop, we get a crowd. My wife leaves the hotel late one evening to get something out of the saddlebags, and finds a group of 20 kids from the local high school gathered around the motorcycle. The machine's lines are a sure conversation starter, not that people in Southeast need much reason to talk. The area's population is young - average age around 27 - and transient. Almost everyone came here from somewhere else, and they're ready to accept you, no questions asked.

Copyright: Ed Readicker-Henderson.Two nights after hanging out with the local motorcycle club, we get invited sailing with the yacht club. The technology terms change, and the ropes and sails are quieter than the bike's engine, but again the food and conversation are great, and we're interrupted only to watch 50 bald eagles dive for scraps outside the fish processing plant.

The birds look every bit as regal as they do in National Geographic. Their only problem comes when they get ambitious and grab into a fish that's too large to lift. The eagle's talons lock under pressure; once they've grabbed something, they're stuck with it until the pressure releases. When a 20-pound bird tries grabbing a 40-pound salmon, it can mean some ruffled feathers. The eagle does a header into the water; the fish wriggles out of its grasp.

As we float past, it sounds like all the other eagles are laughing at their wet friend.

Of course, the eagles have to share their fishing grounds with people. A large part of Southeast's economy is based on fishing, from the commercial fishermen who go out in their skiffs and trawlers, to the tourists who spend an average of $930 to catch a king salmon, $230 to catch a halibut.

We head out on a 28-foot boat from Prince of Wales Island, a place where the ferry only goes twice a week, but which has more road than the rest of Southeast Alaska combined, thanks to the thousands of acres of clearcut. Driving, you pass through deep forest, and then huge areas that look like the world after the bombs fall. Commercial logging has stopped in most of Southeast, but it will take another 400 years or so for the forest to get back to what it was.

A seal pops up in front of the boat to find out what's going on. Further off, eagles, gulls, cormorants, loons, a half-dozen species of duck, and LBGs - little brown guys that seem to be everywhere but in the bird book - bob, float, fly, drift, and sit on the beach screaming at each other. Nearly 150 species of birds use Southeast as a migratory flyway.

The fishing lines drag in the water all afternoon without a single bite, but the crab pot is full, and after dinner, with daylight that lasts until 11 p.m., there's plenty of time to get back on the bike, to catch the ferry to Sitka.

Sitka was once the Russian capital of Alaska. The very first thing the U.S. did when it took over the territory was build a tenpin alley for bored troops. But the Russian legacy remains: the main road splits around an onion-domed church, and there's supposed to be the ghost of a Russian princess in the graveyard.

Copyright: Ed Readicker-Henderson.Sitka has one of the few sandy beaches in Southeast; most Alaskan beaches are covered with kelp-draped rocks and barnacles. But here at low tide, the white sand looks like California on a perfect winter day. Sand dollars, arranged edge-up in short lines, wait for the tide to return. Sea urchins and anemones lay exposed on the rocks.

When the Russians came here, they found Southeast Alaska to be a land so ludicrously rich that there was no word for hunger in the local Tlingit language. The Russian names on old maps almost all mean some variation of the word "storehouse." It's still as rich today, perfect for the naturalist or the sybarite looking for a five-star hotel.

There's seven miles of road between the town and the ferry terminal. We load the bike and head out.

When You Go:

Alaska Marine Highway
Call toll free 1-800-526-6731
Or visit them online www.akferry.com

Copyright: Ed Readicker-Henderson.

Anywhere we stop, we get a crowd. My wife leaves the hotel late one evening to get something out of the saddlebags, and finds a group of 20 kids from the local high school gathered around the motorcycle. The machine's lines are a sure conversation starter, not that people in Southeast need much reason to talk. The area's population is young - average age around 27 - and transient. Almost everyone came here from somewhere else, and they're ready to accept you, no questions asked.

Copyright: Ed Readicker-Henderson.Two nights after hanging out with the local motorcycle club, we get invited sailing with the yacht club. The technology terms change, and the ropes and sails are quieter than the bike's engine, but again the food and conversation are great, and we're interrupted only to watch 50 bald eagles dive for scraps outside the fish processing plant.

The birds look every bit as regal as they do in National Geographic. Their only problem comes when they get ambitious and grab into a fish that's too large to lift. The eagle's talons lock under pressure; once they've grabbed something, they're stuck with it until the pressure releases. When a 20-pound bird tries grabbing a 40-pound salmon, it can mean some ruffled feathers. The eagle does a header into the water; the fish wriggles out of its grasp.

As we float past, it sounds like all the other eagles are laughing at their wet friend.

Of course, the eagles have to share their fishing grounds with people. A large part of Southeast's economy is based on fishing, from the commercial fishermen who go out in their skiffs and trawlers, to the tourists who spend an average of $930 to catch a king salmon, $230 to catch a halibut.

We head out on a 28-foot boat from Prince of Wales Island, a place where the ferry only goes twice a week, but which has more road than the rest of Southeast Alaska combined, thanks to the thousands of acres of clearcut. Driving, you pass through deep forest, and then huge areas that look like the world after the bombs fall. Commercial logging has stopped in most of Southeast, but it will take another 400 years or so for the forest to get back to what it was.

A seal pops up in front of the boat to find out what's going on. Further off, eagles, gulls, cormorants, loons, a half-dozen species of duck, and LBGs - little brown guys that seem to be everywhere but in the bird book - bob, float, fly, drift, and sit on the beach screaming at each other. Nearly 150 species of birds use Southeast as a migratory flyway.

The fishing lines drag in the water all afternoon without a single bite, but the crab pot is full, and after dinner, with daylight that lasts until 11 p.m., there's plenty of time to get back on the bike, to catch the ferry to Sitka.

Sitka was once the Russian capital of Alaska. The very first thing the U.S. did when it took over the territory was build a tenpin alley for bored troops. But the Russian legacy remains: the main road splits around an onion-domed church, and there's supposed to be the ghost of a Russian princess in the graveyard.

Copyright: Ed Readicker-Henderson.Sitka has one of the few sandy beaches in Southeast; most Alaskan beaches are covered with kelp-draped rocks and barnacles. But here at low tide, the white sand looks like California on a perfect winter day. Sand dollars, arranged edge-up in short lines, wait for the tide to return. Sea urchins and anemones lay exposed on the rocks.

When the Russians came here, they found Southeast Alaska to be a land so ludicrously rich that there was no word for hunger in the local Tlingit language. The Russian names on old maps almost all mean some variation of the word "storehouse." It's still as rich today, perfect for the naturalist or the sybarite looking for a five-star hotel.

There's seven miles of road between the town and the ferry terminal. We load the bike and head out.

When You Go:

Alaska Marine Highway
Call toll free 1-800-526-6731
Or visit them online www.akferry.com

Copyright: Ed Readicker-Henderson.