November 6, 2013, Category: Alaska, Travel

Hyder, Alaska: one of the top spots for seeing bears. Things don’t go as expected, but we aren’t disappointed. Many highlights on this last jaunt into Alaska before the final road home.

Day 19: Hyder, Ak

Check out the novel: Trudge On, Soul

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The icy wilderness of Alaska is the perfect place to lose yourself. But Warren doesn’t want to lose himself. He wants to lose someone else.
The book, Trudge On, Soul, is the result of three long years of late nights, critique groups, and editing. If you haven't read the blog, I'd suggest you stop reading and at least click here to read the preview chapters of the book. The blog and pictures have spoilers and the book is a much better read. Think of the website as a documentary, and the book as an engaging movie. Triumph Motorcycles did an article on my Adventure here. A Photo Album of the trip is available here. Click here if you want to jump to the start of the blog with an index of each day.

The Adventure Continues...


WP_20130903_008When I zipped myself into my tent last night, the sky was clear, pitch-black, and brimming from horizon to horizon with a dazzling array of stars. I had stayed up as long as I could, hoping to see the Northern Lights, but I needed a good nights sleep for the big day ahead.

But once inside my tent, I found myself still fighting my droopy eyes because I couldn’t abandon what the night offered. Out of the quiet darkness, shrill, magical cries of loons floated out from across the lake. And every few minutes from high above, a sudden outburst of honking as a skein of geese flew over us. How could I let sleep take me away from to something so amazing? (Incidentally, I learned while writing this entry that geese are only a gaggle when on the ground.)

DSCN0916And because of that, I woke up late the next morning. I stepped out of my tent into warm sunshine and then, thanks to Mike, enjoyed a delicious, hot oatmeal breakfast. I was fascinated by Mike’s unique method of extracting water to prepare food. It was obviously an advanced yoga technique and out of my humble respect for his spirituality, I didn’t ask questions. Instead, I quietly snapped a few pictures and left him to his morning ritual.

While researching our trip during the summer, I had read about a “Bear Viewing Paradise” in a little Alaskan town called Hyder. Originally, this was too far off our path to consider a side trip. But taking the Cassier Highway had changed things and now it was a mere 40 miles out of our way. Today was 100% allocated to watch bears eat salmon. I imagined a large grizzly poised at the edge of a small waterfall, a maw full of teeth open, waiting for a salmon to fly up from the swirling waters below. Today I would get this picture, I was sure of it.

We figured we’d spend half of the day on our jaunt into Alaska and decided that instead of breaking camp, we would relax and enjoy another evening at Meziadin Lake. Not only did this mean another marvelous night sky, it also meant we didn’t have to strike and set up camp (hooray!).

We also planned to do a quick ride up the mountain to the Salmon Glacier, an off road adventure outside of Hyder. I removed my luggage and only took the smallest right pannier with my tools and cameras (which I attached as a top case, an awesome feature of the Givi Trekkers). We left most of our gear at the campsite, which meant my bike considerably lighter and ready for some serious fun in the dirt.

IMG_2929At 10:00, we left on the 40 mile drive but hadn’t been riding more than a few minutes when we had to stop. The scenery was seriously amazing and we couldn’t just zip past without taking some extra time to appreciate it. Nobody had told us that the drive to Hyder alone was worth the trip. Snow-capped mountains rose on both sides as we weaved through the lush green forest of the canyon floor. Warm sunshine on the glaciers created rivers that gushed over massive cliffs and spilled off the granite peaks in huge, misty waterfalls.

IMG_2917At one point (part of which is captured in the GoPro video), the road weaved back and forth while a river thundered on the left and sheer granite walls rose on the right. God must enjoy motorcycles because he designed this canyon specifically for riding. And a biker must have designed the road because it was made for flipping back and forth through twisties. Weaving my Tiger through the canyon was sheer bliss. I love that my bike can feel so sporty on the pavement and then turn on a dime and dig through the dirt when I want it to. I could have ridden up and down the chasm all day long. The 40 miles ended in a flash and we arrived in Stewart way too fast.

DSCN0959Stewart and Hyder are sister towns a couple miles apart. Stewart, the Canadian sister, is the larger of the two with several stores, bars, a gas station, and hotels. Hyder, the little US sister with an attitude, is a much smaller town with a population of about 100 (in the summer). Because this is a dead end road, there isn’t even a US Customs office. You roll right into the USA without having to be accused of buying your wife a cheap bracelet. You do, however, have to go through Canadian customs on your return, so don’t forget your passport.

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Hyder was closed. Yes, the town. Tourist season had ended and the main buildings (along a single block as you enter town) were boarded up. We drove through what almost felt like a ghost town. We weren’t sure where to go but given that there was only one way, it wasn’t a problem. We followed the road out of town and into bear heaven; meadows, swamps, creeks, thick grass, berries, and forest. A sudden image popped in my head of a bear dancing and spinning through the grass while singing “The Hills Are Alive, with the Sound of Music….” (Three weeks on the road can do strange things to the mind.)

It was a true bearadise. And to Mike’s horror, I began to repeat the words that had seemed to curse us as we drove through every other bear heaven, “Now if I was a bear, this is where I would live–.”

“NOOOOOO!!!!” He yelled, trying to to stop me  (imagine it in slow motion, his voice long, low, and drawn as he tries to cut off my words before the horrible curse can be uttered).

IMG_2826But it was too late. The words had been spoken. The singing bear died out like a scratched record and fizzled into nothingness. We rode in silence, afraid of saying anything that might make a bad situation worse. Had I invoked the bearadise curse, even in Hyder, Alaska?

I shook it off. Of course we would see bears. The curse was nothing more than urban myth, obviously a figment of our imaginations. Slowly the singing bear returned. I was so excited when we pulled in to the Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site that my heart was pounding. There were fancy RV’s and Vans parked in the lot with huge decals sporting words like “Photographer,” “Filmmaker,” and “Wildlife Researcher.”

“This is it!” I told Mike, unintentionally using my kid on Christmas morning voice. He responded with just as much excitement and like two brothers staring at a room full of presents, we looked over the area.

There was a visitor’s center to our left and wooden walkways that stretched in both directions, separating us from the river. An array of photographers stood next to tripods that supported long lenses all pointing out to the river at all the bears (that we couldn’t yet see because we had to pay the admission to get inside).

Photographers travel from far and wide to come here for bear pictures. One of the motorhomes covered in images of cameras and animals was from Holland. I pointed at it and looked at Mike, shaking my head in a resounding yes. He grinned back. Neither of us had to state the obvious, that you know you in the right spot to see awesome bears when people travel halfway around the world to come here to get their pictures.

While I fussed with my topcase and geared up with my cameras, Mike went and paid his $5 admission and returned with a sour look.

“They haven’t seen any bears today. They said it has been really slow for several weeks now.” His eyes burned with fire, obviously blaming me for invoking the curse.

I smiled and laughed at his weak attempt at humor. Then in a serious tone I said, “Don’t kid about the bears.” He grunted and walked away.

Even when I paid my $5 and the ranger confirmed Mike’s claim, I still refused to believe. I came here to see bears, we saw 19 bears yesterday alone, of course we would see bears. We don’t come to Hyder, Alaska and not see bears!

IMG_2828We walked through the gate and from the deck, looked out at the river. Dead fish littered the shore and their pungent smell hit me in a putrid wave of rotting flesh. No problem, for bears I can keep myself from gagging. I searched the shoreline. A splash caught my attention and my eyes darted to the right to see a salmon flipping and jumping, his attempts to shake free of the weakening grasp this world held him with. A dark fear started to creep through me and I pushed it down.

I asked several of the photographers how it was going and they confirmed what I did not want to hear. No bears. The day before one had been spotted around 5:00, but for the last few weeks it had been really slow.

One guy told us that it hasn’t been the same since they built all the fancy walkways along the river. He thought maybe it was just too much change for the bears and it would take some time before they got used to it and returned in the numbers everyone was used to.

WP_20130903_031Despite the lack of bears, the relaxed atmosphere was peaceful and everyone spoke in hushed reverence. The only sounds were occasional splashing from salmon and muted clip’clops as people walked along the wooden walkway. Photographers are by nature patient, waiting sometimes months for the right shot. This group was no exception and seemed content reading books, daydreaming, or talking in hushed whispers. It’s the nature of being a photographer.

I’ve sat at water holes for hours waiting for lions in South Africa. Curti and I drove for days searching for cheetah. I can be patient. But waiting all day for an off chance at a bear wasn’t going to work for me today. If we had a week, I may have sighting along the same lines as the two grizzlies we saw in Haines. But my shot of a bear catching a salmon in the air was obviously not going to happen. This was not the place for that type of picture.

IMG_2834I suggested to Mike that we bail on the bears, head up the dirt road to the glacier, and have some fun off-roading. He liked that idea. We could always pop back in and check on the bears on our way back through. Maybe we’d have better luck later in the day.

I thought we’d zip up the mountain and back down in a couple of hours. Nope. We spent most of the day up there. Not only was the drive was longer than I thought (twenty miles along a decent dirt road that wound up the mountain), but we had to keep stopping to admire the landscape and hike around. It was a total blast and the scenery was dazzling.

You would think we would get tired of all the spectacular scenery, I mean, over the past three weeks we have been in some amazing areas. But looking out at mountains like this never got old. Glaciers, jagged peaks, and thick forests, might be sounding like a broken record, but I like to think of it as that amazing song I replayed over and over as a teenager because it meshed perfectly with my soul. I’ll never tire of these mountains.

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The gorgeous day contributed to the splendor. We missed out on some incredible views riding into Skagway and across the Top of the World because of the fog and clouds. But that was all part of the adventure and I wouldn’t want to change it. Just the same, the blue sky and warm sunshine today was welcomed with open arms. At times I rode a foot and a half away from the edge of the road, looking 1,000 feet down at the glacier resting on the bottom of the canyon. Outstanding!

WP_20130903_035We stopped at a rusty old viewing platform that was mounted on the edge of the mountain, probably in the early 1900’s from the looks of it. I climbed up to get a better vantage point and it creaked and swayed with each step. I tried to convince Mike to join me but he wasn’t confident it could support the two of us. He may have been right.

The extra fifteen feet of vertical boost it offered had a minimal impact on the view, but the thrill of standing on a swaying rickety platform over a deep ravine was priceless. And there was no way I’d pass up a golden opportunity like this. I walked to the very edge and let loose the jug of strawberry crystal light from earlier that was now trying to bust out of my bladder. Like I said in an earlier post, Mike and I ranged in emotional maturity from a low of 14 to a high of 19 years old. At this moment, I think I was about 15.

DSCN0935Mike took his turn on the platform and initially tried to deflect my unrelenting harassment to take his own leak into the canyon. He eventually caved to the pressure but his resistance had delayed the process enough that, halfway through, an approaching vehicle made him scramble to cut it short.

We continued our journey and, at the top, feasted our eyes on the Salmon Glacier. It came down the mountain and split, a small splinter to the right and the main part moving down the canyon we had just ridden up. We also chatted with a nice couple that was enjoying wine, cheese, and classical music on one of the tables perched on the viewpoint. He was touring on a Vstrom like Mike’s which was currently parked down in Stewart. They had come up in her van, and as it turns out, had only met a few days ago. I wonder if they are still touring together.

cREEKWe continued over the peak and started to drop down on the other side where we found a side road that dropped into a valley. It wasn’t as smooth as the main road and had a more adventurous look, so we decided to explore it. At the bottom, a huge smile crept across my face when I saw it crossed a rocky bed and a stream. I had been telling Mike since day one that we had to do a river crossing and now my chance was sitting in front of me. Now, this wasn’t a river by any stretch of the imagination. It was a small creek (and rather tame at that). But nonetheless, it was water that needed crossed. But despite its mild nature, I was a little nervous. Not so much for the water, but for the rocky area in front of it.

On my CRF250, I wouldn’t think twice. I’d zip up, down, and sideways on it. But this was my Tiger. And with street tires. What if they lose grip, spin, and I dump it? What if I’m in the water and she sucks a mouthful into the engine? My heart raced as I rev’d the engine thinking about how stupid it was to risk a problem so far up in the mountains. But it had to be done. It’s just one of those things I had to do and I was overthinking it. I stood on the pegs and gunned it.

WP_20130903_055My Tiger flew across it like a sleek cat. I didn’t lose traction over the rocks, sliced through the water like butter, and flew up the trail on the other side. Then I turned around and came back down. It was thrilling and I felt like a million bucks (even though I couldn’t have even charged spectators a dime for it). Honestly, it was a rather meager accomplishment from the outside. But for me, it was something I had wanted to do, was a bit scared to do, and I executed it flawlessly. What you don’t hear in the GoPro footage is me cheering like I’d just won the Superbowl when I came back across.

IMG_2900We parked our bikes and hiked in for a better view of the Glacier and could see where it calved into a Lake. We didn’t see any actual calving, but it was still really cool. It was starting to get late or it we might have hiked down the canyon for an even closer look. Instead, we went back to the bikes, rode back to the main road, and drove until we couldn’t go any further because it was blocked. In all, it was only about 20 miles from Hyder. But a long 20 miles.

IMG_2911The ride back seemed to be a lot smoother. The other side of the road either had considerably less washboards and potholes or we had just become desensitized to them. Regardless, we made good time and stopped to check on the bear status. No bears. The only excitement during the day had been one quick view of a wolf in the mid-afternoon. Mike and I decided our choice to explore the glacier was the right one. The day had been a blast.

One guy told us if we wanted to see bears we should go to the city dump in Stewart because they are always hanging out there. As a teenager, when my brothers and I had to take a truckload of garbage to the city landfill we called it hell. “Yup, mom wants us to go to hell today.” It was stinky, hot, dusty, and just plain sucked. Apparently bears prefer hell to paradise, no wonder we kept missing them.

DSCN0961As we rolled into Canada we chatted with the friendliest customs officials on our entire trip. Then we discussed looking for the dump but decided, instead, to drive out onto the wharf. On the way, we saw a nice grizzly barreling across a meadow a hundred yards off the road. Mike was a bit concerned about the woman jogging along the road, but she didn’t seem to care in the least.

When we stopped for gas in Stewart, my bike wouldn’t start. No problem, I waited five minutes and tried again, that trick always worked. Again, it sputtered like the battery was dead. I waited ten minutes, same thing. I felt sick. We still had 900 miles to get home and there wasn’t a motorcycle shop anywhere in the area. And all my personal belongings were 40 miles away at the campsite. I sat on my dead tiger, stewing, while Mike grabbed some groceries. I don’t know how long I sat there, but when he came out it fired up and I decided not to turn it off again until we arrived at the campsite.

IMG_2962Rather than my original plan, of really soaking up the ride back through motorcycle canyon, I made a beeline for our campsite. I tried to push the stress aside and enjoy the trip, but it was difficult. We stopped a few times but I couldn’t shut off my bike and hike around like we had planned. It was also later than we had hoped and the sun had dropped too low to get the pictures of the waterfalls I wanted. But despite the setbacks, it was still another dreamy ride. Again, that road is made for motorcycles. And to smooth over the rough edges, we came across a mother bear and two cubs. Even though I couldn’t turn off my bike, we sat and watched them from a distance for a good ten minutes.

DSCN0973-002Just before dusk, an older Tiger rolled past and we waved him down and suggested he take the camping spot next to us, which he did. He was on his way to Arizona and the three of us spent the evening chatting and sharing stories.

Our evening was spent much like the one before, beginning with mashed Potatoes and something for dinner. Then we sat around the campfire way into the night, admiring the sky and feeling quite small in a massive cosmos.

Click here to continue to day 20…


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4 thoughts on “Day 19: Hyder, Ak

  • By jeremy - Reply

    Can’t wait for more!

  • By Rick - Reply

    I’ve really enjoyed your trip so far. I just bought (about 4 weeks ago) a new 2013 V-Strom 650 and it’s the most fun I’ve had on a motorcycle in decades. I’ve ridden, on and off road, for about half a century now (I’m 64), but this is the best of all worlds, it seems for me.
    I live in North Idaho and have been hesitant to continue riding when I would see the inevitable “Pavement Ends” sign. I’m looking forward to my own adventure touring. Sounds like you had a blast, and to have it with a friend is really a bonus. I look forward to hearing more of your adventure, and have even considered a similar trip myself, we’ll see, but for now I’m loving every moment through your lense.
    Your descriptions are quite vivid, and your personality seems very similar to my own, I too have a tough time letting go and enjoying the moment, and seem to enjoy an experience more when I look back at it than when I’m actually in it … always worrying about what if … it’s a mindset that certainly has it down sides, but it may also be why I’ve been “lucky” (and safe) when many of my contemporaries no longer ride due to injury or other misfortunes.
    I really appreciate the time and effort you have and are putting in to document your trip, it reads like an exciting novel (to me), I also have a long reverence for the “AlCan”, and although I’ve been to Alaska (1998) on a “cruise”, I don’t feel like I’ve experienced it to quite the intensity that you have … I’m sure it has to to with not having had a throttle in my right hand, eh? My lifelong phrase has been “if you can’t twist the grip, it ain’t worth the trip!”
    Take care and keep it coming 🙂

    Thanks again
    Rick (misterfixit2k)

    • By Warren - Reply

      Thanks a ton for the feedback, Rick. And I like your slogan. I have sure had fun writing this summary. I appreciate knowing there are people out there like yourself who have not only taken the time to read it, but actually enjoy it!

      It has been a lot of fun to relive it as I review my pictures, journal, and video. I’m tossing around the idea of riding to Costa Rica for my next motorcycle adventure. Maybe buy a used KTM 650, sell it once I’m down there, and fly home. That one is at a couple years away at best as my real life tends to demand a few things of me 😉

      • By Rick - Reply

        Yup, you’re still in the middle of “making a living” … I’m “retired” although sometimes I just refer to it as “unemployed”, seems the same, except for the social security check.
        If you buy a used KTM don’t forget the “doohickey” see the following post, scroll down to entry #35 … (but the whole thread is well done)
        http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=925753&page=3
        Take care,
        Rick

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