Catching a Dream On A Ride To The Arctic Circle
Chris Campbell is an advertising account director at Fallon, an ad agency based in Minneapolis. The agency has a provision for its employees—pretty progressive really—allowing employees after three years of employment to take an extended vacation. Campbell's choice: a motorcycle trip to the Arctic Circle.
I’ve always been drawn to the last frontier: the unknown; the underexplored; the underappreciated.
I have, since I was a kid, devoured stories about the ALCAN 5000, the brutal road rally through Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. I remember reading Car and Driver’s story about pounding a brand new Corvette, loaded with extra fuel, wheels, tires and some driving lights to get through it. And I’ve seen any number of Discovery Channel shows that featured the Klondike. I was hooked.
I’m 30-years old. I’m married to a wife who is out of my league. We’ve got a crazy Springer Spaniel. I work in advertising. I create stuff that annoys you—ads that interrupt everything from your Sunday football game to your newsfeed on Facebook. And yet, I love what I do. And Fallon, my agency, loves its employees – so much so that they have a sabbatical called Dream Catchers. They give you extra vacation time and bonus money to go catch a dream.
My dream, or at least the top thing on my clichéd “bucket list,” is riding to the Arctic.
I searched long and hard for the motorcycle that would be my trip-mate. I spent hours reading reviews on www.advrider.com for tips and suggestions. Harleys and Hondas aplenty, sure. But I couldn’t shake the Bimmer. There are better bikes, and certainly cheaper bikes. But this is what I wanted. I landed on the BMW F700GS. Plus, if you start telling an experienced biker you are going to the Arctic Circle, they will often finish your sentence and guess that you are taking this bike before you tell them. It’s practically a default choice for a rugged tip like this. This bike is the equivalent of opting for a Jeep Wrangler for the Rubicon Trail.
The F700 is an enduro bike that features an 800cc 75-horsepower parallel twin with standard anti-lock brakes. Fully laden, it would still be able to achieve 55-mpg. Then, it was on to the option list. Every available option--heated grips, electronic suspension adjustment, automatic stability control and more.
By the time it was ready, the bike had more electronic gadgets and safety equipment than my first car – a 1989 Toyota Cressida. Then, I spent time kitting it out: rack and panniers, auxiliary fuel, hand guards, engine guards, bash guards, headlight guards. On and on. This was feeling not so much like a trip as much as a second wedding. Next time, I need a wallet guard.
Going It Mostly Alone
Originally, this was planned for me to meet a handful of guys I know, rally together and make this adventure happen. Slowly, the attrition began. "We’re having a kid." "I’m moving." "I’m changing jobs." "We’re getting a divorce." Eventually, it was down to me and a buddy from Aspen who was going to meet me halfway, and we’d ride a few days together.
There is a moment that comes on a trip like this when you say: “Screw it. I’m going alone, and it’s going to be freaking great.” So, I took off on my own: North through Minnesota and North Dakota; into Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. The first few days were spent traversing the Canadian Glacial Plains, and A&W Root-beer stands for three consecutive lunches. It’s enough to make you crave a salad and a bowl of pasta. I spotted the Aurora Borealis while peeing beside my tent. But I wondered if I was going to start talking to a volleyball on this trip. WILSON!
Then it happened. Approaching the northeast portion of Jasper, the road did something it hadn’t in the previous four days. It turned. It finally turned. Thank God. And there were things other than fields of wheat to look at. There were mountains. Snow caps. Lakes. Streams. Rivers. My outlook, which admittedly still had Minneapolis somewhat visible in my mental rear-view mirror, on this whole trip sky rocketed. It became awesome.
And it only continued to get better. Deviating from the Cassiar Highway into Stewart, British Columbia, I spotted Bear Glacier, its icy toe seemingly just a few yards from the road. An actual black bear, a large one, gathering a meal, quickly became aware of my presence. Throttle, please. Then the Pacific Ocean, spotted from the mosquito infested shore of Stewart.
Karoake, Shots and Stories
Continuing north, the bike and I started on the Klondike Highway into Skagway, Alaska. Then, an unexpected game of Frogger with the aimlessly wandering cruise-ship sheep, and hanging out with locals for Karaoke, shots and stories. A ferry from the fjords of Skagway took us to the quiet town of Haines, AK. I rode way too late into the night looking for a prime place to camp until I found one quiet spot that while giving me a show of stars like none other, had me sleeping fitfully and fearful I was to be amuse bousche for a bear.
It's Getting Real
Hitting Anchorage, an actual city with 24-hour gas stations was like finding water for an empty canteen. Be aware that gas stations on this route can be 200-miles apart and frequently closed. This was my big pit stop, and the opportunity I needed to switch to knobby tires, change the oil, and adjust my suspension. Now, it was going to get real in a hurry. It was time for the gravel, dirt, mud, silt and generally nerve-wracking sections, that I knew were coming and were going to test my mettle.
I sit in an office all day, and the place has its own unlimited soda fountain, gourmet coffee maker and catered meals on what seems likes a daily basis. My ass was going to be sore, and I knew it. I’d hit gravel before. There were plenty of patches and pock marks along the Alaskan Highway. But this was legitimate, professional grade, punishing dirt and gravel. There was over 100 miles on the Denali Highway ahead of me. And more than 150 miles more on the "Top of the Highway." And, finally, the 500+ miles I knew was coming on the daunting Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle.
But first, I was looking forward to me rendezvous with Mike, the buddy from Aspen, whose company I was beyond thrilled to have. Going it alone would have been doable, but nothing beats a buddy on the road behind, in front or next to you when you are this far from home in rugged, lonely, cold unfamiliar places.
Surely People Die
We took off in a plane the size of a tortilla for a flight tour of the Denali range, including a glacier landing. We landed on a glacier, on a mountain. I didn’t know you could do that in a plane. There is joy both about the sight of Mt. McKinley and the fact that we’re still alive. Surely people die doing this.
Denali was a great highway to experiment, learn really, off-pavement riding. The knobbies were incredible. They give you so much confidence. They cut a path right over the hairiest stuff Denali dished up as a road. This is where I’ll let you know, that prior to this trip, I owned a café racer and a sport-touring bike -- on which I had a total of about 5,000 miles of riding experience. Kind of crazy, and probably not all that wise. I should have done my off-road learning closer to home, but there are things that we have to do stupid, right? Otherwise, what’s the point?
Cars Not Seen For Hours At A Time
Riding the Top of the World Highway is how I’d imagine it is to ride in Scotland or Northern Ireland-minus the drunks, men in skirts (not that there’s a problem with that) and sheep. There are beautiful rolling hills, mostly smooth gravel, and not a car not seen for hours at a time. We ferried across into Dawson City, which was gearing up for a folk music festival. So there was a bunch of trustifarians camping in a van down by the river. We managed to find a tent site and gear up for the next day’s ride-- our venture to the Arctic Circle.
No End in Sight
I’ve read countless tales about the Dempster Highway, and feel like I know what to expect. It’s beautiful and treacherous. Those who have gone before us instruct to pray it doesn’t rain. They tell you we’re crazy to ride it. Some make you think it’s not worth it. Everybody says to bring all of your balls.
About 35 miles into it, I really don’t get it. This is just dirt and gravel. This is cake. But then the drizzle starts. Then the rain starts. The damn rain starts. And this rain is awful, the kind of rain that makes you think you are going to die from rain. Can you die of rain? The road crews up here coat the road in calcium chloride, thus reducing dust during dry conditions. The problem with that genius idea is that calcium chloride absorbs the water and creates a slick slime. What’s that like? Picture mud with oil on top of it. Seriously. And now, we are approaching a bunch of serious hills with heavily weighted bikes. And I’ll remind you that I am an amateur rider. It’s worse than any road condition I could imagine, and with no end in sight. And no gas station for over 254 miles. This is that moment when you remembering the people who have done this who said…”Nah, it’s not worth it.”
As if on cue, Mike’s bike, a Kawasaki Versys starts having problems. The oil light is illuminated despite there being plenty of oil. We fear that the pump is going. He ditches the bike roadside and hitches a ride to Eagle Plains, a town of--wait for it--twelve residents. There is a gas station, a road-crew headquarters, “hotel” and campsite. And the Gateway to the Arctic, from Eagle Plains, is just a mere 22 miles to the Arctic Circle. I continue on alone, and I’m thinking, “Shit…is Mike the lucky one?” Just a quarter of a mile up the road is an abandoned BMW R1200GS. A bit more up the road is an abandoned Suzuki V-Strom. Then, I spot a freshly rolled and upside-down Ford Econoline. I later find out, the BMW rider said, “screw this,” one of many who has made that call. The V-Strom rider had lost the rear end, gone down and was hit by a rabbi driving a Lincoln Town Car. Seriously, a Town Car? He was a bit sore, but nothing permanently lost or damaged, well minus the totaled bike. The van had lost control and rolled carrying an expedition camping trip. All completely fine. Still, there is something about this place that is starting to feel like the Bermuda Triangle of internal combustion.
Roads of Slime and A Broken Bike
After fifty horribly long miles alone over horribly slimy roads, I finally spotted the relief that was Eagle Plains. Stopped to fill up on much needed gas and Diet Coke. I check in with Mike, who’s been on a satellite phone with Good Samaritan for the past hour and a half. Remarkably, they are going to tow his bike, all covered under their free towing plan. We’d later find out that the tow would have cost over $1,500. He nodded knowingly, encouraging me to finish out the remaining 50 mile round trip to the Arctic Circle. My only thought—“Push forward.”
A Sign In The Middle Of Nowhere
The rain had mercifully let up, but the “road” of slime persisted. The sun began breaking through, as if just for me, and beckoned me to—it sometimes seems odd to say it out-loud—the Arctic Circle. I’m fairly certain I cried, but at that point I was so wet, dirty, slimy, muddy and generally knackered that it’s hard to distinguish between Canadian rain-drops and Minnesota tears. It took me fourteen hours to ride about 285 miles. Do that math. But I’d done it. I’d hit the Arctic.
There is no orchestra waiting for anyone here in case you are wondering. There is no Welcome Center with cold beer, hot eats, showers and Hooters waitresses. There’s no NPR reporter with a microphone waiting to hear my thoughts. All things considered, it’s really just a sign in the middle of nowhere, you, your head, your bike and a sense of accomplishment that you can carry in your soul for the rest of your life.
The trip back, as is always the case, seems shorter even though I’m riding some of the same miserable road surface. Mike and I split off. He had to have diagnostic work done on his bike, and me? It sounds anti-climactic, but, having stuck my mental flag in the Arctic Circle, I’m thinking practically now. The ad man with the smartphone is already creeping back into my conscience, which is too bad. My thought: I gotta get back. Plus, I'm genuinely missing my wife.
The road-signs fly by as I hit Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff, Icefields Parkway, Glacier National Park. I had multiple 600-plus mile days, and way too many close encounters with deer to suit me and the bike. There was also a town drunk stumbling into my tent asking for a blanket or to “share my tent.” There was sleeping with a machete after the town drunk stopped by. No, I didn’t bring a firearm, though I’m sure many do. Battling 50-mph crosswinds and hail through Montana and Wyoming is a literal shit-storm nobody wants to do, but, like I said, I gotta be getting back. I can’t help but chuckle at the guys dressed as pirates on Harleys throughout South Dakota.
Sleeping With A Machete
The trip back, as is always the case, seems shorter even though I’m riding some of the same miserable road surface. Mike and I split off. He had to have diagnostic work done on his bike, and me? It sounds anti-climactic, but, having stuck my mental flag in the Arctic Circle, I’m thinking practically now. The ad man with the smartphone is already creeping back into my conscience, which is too bad. My thought: I gotta get back.
The road-signs fly by as I hit Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff, Icefields Parkway, Glacier National Park. I had multiple 600-plus mile days, and way too many close encounters with deer to suit me and the bike. There was a town drunk stumbling into my tent asking for a blanket or to “share my tent, an encounter that had me sleeping with a machete. No, I didn’t bring a gun, though I’m sure many do.
Battling 50-mph crosswinds and hail through Montana and Wyoming is a literal shit-storm nobody wants to do, but, like I said, I gotta be getting back. I can’t help but chuckle at the guys dressed as pirates on Harleys throughout South Dakota.
And the, just like that, I’m back home in the Starbucks and Target laden suburbs of Minneapolis, into the arms of my smoking-hot wife. The last few days were the toughest. I was mentally and physically exhausted. In motorcycle adventure circles, this is known as “horse galloping to barn syndrome.”
I accomplished a lot, and stuff I hadn’t done before to any great extent. Camping. As lame as it may sound, I had not really camped before, so sleeping outside looking up at unobstructed stars, and getting along without a roof over my head for most of three and a half weeks was a big deal for me. I mostly made my own food. I looked forward to building a small fire each evening. I fixed and maintained my own bike as I went along, which I don’t have to do in the cushy life I lead back home. But there is no choice on the road, and I had to figure stuff out, like how to realign the handlebars after you drop the bike in a parking lot. I got dirty, stained, soaked, covered in slime, wind-blown to smithereens, battered, chapped, hailed on, ogled by bears and a drunk I would like to forget. I finished quasi-bearded. My baby-ass hands became nicked, callused and gashed a few times. I lost the feeling in my right thumb. My nails are cracked. And most of my cuticles became a bloody mess.
The whole thing made me feel like a man. A different kind of man than the one I am and have to be back in my life in the office with a never-ending soda fountain. For a while, I wasn’t a guy who just makes ads for a living. I was a guy going to the Arctic Circle to find something, and not that damn sign in the middle of nowhere. I found something, but only I will ever know what it is.
Poking Death A Little
I thought about dying more than I ever have. Every day. As I looked at my cuff, my emergency contact and medical info prominently displayed, I was reminded that I was poking death a little. I traveled 8,500 miles on a bike at times when I was beat tired and my reactions compromised, but also by going into the middle of no-where where help can be a far-away joke on roads that I wouldn’t drive my car on back home.
I thought of death every time I pressed the “track” feature on my SPOT personal satellite beacon that was tied to Search and Rescue. I had to tell my beautiful wife prior to my trip that Do Not Resuscitate was my request. That’s a hard conversation to have before you head off to do something a man doesn’t have to do. As I heard every day from folks, “be careful out there, so-and-so died last week; he hit a deer/moose/RV/the side of a house, and he was riding a BMW also.”
And that led me to write my own eulogy. As I wrote, I realized that guys would now be hitting on my newly widowed wife and saying things like, “at least he died doing what he loved.”
That's BS. It wasn’t what I loved. It was just something I did. In fact, I saw so many inspiring and life-changing things, and all I have are some crappy photos and my jotted-down journal entries. While it was certainly incredible to do this on my own, I would have loved to make and share these memories with my wife, my family, or at least my friends who I thought would join me.
Loving Life and My Wife More Than Ever
The culmination of the highs – landing on a glacier, the triumph of reaching the Arctic, nature’s pure majesty – and the lows – the empty feeling in the stomach when you’re at the cusp of losing control of the bike, hours of battling wind that’s constantly pushing you off the road – led to a lot of realization.
New-found respect for nature. While I do drive a Chevy Volt and recycle, I’m not a tree hugger. However, seeing what an increase in global temperature has done to glaciers is a pretty powerful thing. I was absolutely astonished at the splendor of nature and hope that we make the right decisions as a society so future generations can be just as blown away as I was.
I have more than I need. I live in an always-on society. I can use Amazon Prime from my iPhone and have nearly anything delivered to me in a day. I have a 3,000+ sq ft house for just the two of us. I have closets full of clothes. Pantries full of food. For over three weeks I subsisted with only what I could carry on my bike with no luxuries except the opportunity to take the trip in the first place. We live in a time of excess. I could easily halve my worldly possessions and still live an extremely comfortable life.
Renewed relationships. Being alone or solo for most of this trip taught me to appreciate everything that I have, not just the abundance of gas stations and food options, but the compassion of friends and family. As chick-flick as it is, I love my wife more now than I ever have.
Most of all, it’s given me an insatiable desire to explore and learn new things. Since coming back, I’ve tried to do something new nearly every weekend, be it gearing up and doing a 26-mile trek along the Superior Hiking Trail to a weekend away from distractions with my wife, camping along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. I am tackling carpentry projects that I normally would have hired out. I am working to get my body in peak physical condition.
My only though now is what I’ll do next that I haven’t done before, and do as much of it with my wife as I can.
Chris Campbell is a suit with Fallon Worldwide, an ad agency headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn. Among its clients are H&R Block, Nestle-Purina and Travelers Insurance.