Alaska – The Crash

After we checked into our lodgings near Paxson, the plan was for those interested to do a few miles on an “easy dirt road” to Maclaren Summit, which has a nice mountain view.  I’m no expert dirt biker, but have done enough dirt roads that I feel comfortable standing on the pegs and navigating them.  I don’t get crazy with my speed and maneuvering, but I don’t panic either.

We headed out from our lodging and soon were on the unpaved section of the Denali Highway.  I was the fourth out of five riders and the front three quickly left me behind.  I was used to this by this point and knew that it was important for me to ride my own ride, at whatever pace I feel comfortable.  There wasn’t much car traffic so I knew I wasn’t holding up a line of people by simply going the speed limit.  A couple times I thought about stopping to turn around and head back.  I couldn’t see the group ahead of me and the person behind me was long gone from my sight too.  I finally decided I was going to crest this last hill and turn around; that’s when I spotted the other three bikes parked at the summit

The last rider in our group arrived shortly after and seemed unhappy about having been left, as I was. We took in the views, took some photos and even had a prairie dog come see what we were all about.  Pretty soon the rider who arrived last headed back since she felt she was the slowest of the group.  Shortly after that two others took off, leaving myself and one other rider.  We headed back pretty closely behind the first group but I never saw them again.

I estimate that we were about half way back when I came upon an RV that was traveling awfully slow in front of me.  I checked for oncoming traffic and seeing none decided to pass the RV on the left. Next thing I know, the RV is coming closer and closer to me until I was at the far left edge of the road and the RV is right there too!  I admit that I panicked knowing I was about to be hit I probably grabbed the brakes hard.  That’s a bad idea on dirt and gravel because the front end went into a wobble.  The last thing I remember is thinking “oh **** this is bad, now what do I do?!”

Apparently I flew quite a distance from the bike and landed face down, unconscious.  The rider behind me came to my aid as did at least one other person.  The RV continued on as if nothing happened, so I have to assume they never saw me.  Since the rest of my group was so far ahead they had no idea anything had happened.  There went the possibility to capture the RV’s license plate!   An ambulance was called and a medical helicopter, plus Alaska state patrol.  Since we were so remote, it was at least 2 hours before they all reached me.  I am very fortunate that more folks stopped to assist and they were able to use a ladder to carry me up the embankment I landed on while I waited.  It had been getting cold pretty quickly on that hill.

Trying to fly

I landed pretty far from the bike – these ladies are on either side of me as I lay on the ground.

I remember bits of conversations while I laid there.  I remember the kindness of total strangers who offered up blankets to keep me warm and those who kept me talking and awake as I likely had a concussion.  I also remember my tour guide saying she was going with me to the hospital.  Another call from her boss conveyed that would not be happening and that I needed to figure it out on my own.  Maybe it was the head injury or the emotions of the whole experience, but I felt scared and overwhelmed.  I was already confused, I didn’t know what was going on and now I was going to have to navigate this on my own too.  As it turned out, there was barely room in the helicopter for me, my camera bag and one packing cube of clothes, so there was no way she could have gone anyhow.

One person that stopped to “help” sticks out as being decidely not helpful.  As I lay there on the ground obviously in pain, this person came over to me and said “you know they’re going to cut your gear off at the hospital, right?”  I couldn’t help but notice the sneer in the facial expression and the tone of voice.  I may have had a concussion, but I’m still aware!  I next heard one of the EMTs tell that individual to leave.  I’m not sure why they thought poking me about having my gear cut off was necessary, but they did.  Now it strikes me as a very cruel and strange thing to say to someone.  I suppose some people just despise motorcyclists.

Soon I heard a helicopter in the distance and the EMTs made sure I was covered with a blanket so I didn’t sustain further injuries as the helicopter tried to land on the gravel road.  Dirt and gravel went flying from the rotors and the photos show quite a dust storm! The pilot didn’t like what she saw there and took the helicopter back up and moved a bit further away.  After the EMTs from the helicopter checked me out,  started an IV and traded my helmet for a neck brace, I was loaded into the regular ambulance and driven a short distance to the helicopter.  The people taking care of me said it would feel very strange to be loaded into the helicopter, like I was going to fall to one side, but they assured me I was safe and they had it under control.  I’m glad they warned me because as I lay on what felt like a very narrow support, I was convinced that I was about to slide off and land on the road again.

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Helicopter 1st landing attempt

Thankfully the helicopter ride was uneventful, at least for me.  I was flown a couple hours away to the ER in Palmer, Alaska.  I heard the hand off from the helicopter EMT to the trauma team and remember him saying they had to give me something because my vital signs took a turn for the worse.  The trauma team was very careful, but efficient with removing my gear and no scissors were necessary!  After checking me over, the doctor sent me for a CT scan to see what was broken or damaged.  Until the scans came back there was not much they or I could do.  I couldn’t even get up to use the bathroom!

Around 2 AM the CT scans came back and the ER doc came in to say he had no idea how I was alive, let alone escaped this crash with nothing broken.  He was sure something had been overlooked and proceeded to check my hands and feet again to be sure.  He then told me that my Klim riding gear and my Shoei helmet had saved my life!  I think at that point, I just broke down in tears of gratitude.  Again.  Since the rest of my group was hours away and it was after 2 AM, the ER staff let me stay there for the rest of the night.  The nurse even brought me some food, water and a Coke since it had been over 12 hours since I’d eaten.  I’d never spent the night in the hospital before, but I can tell you there is very little sleeping in a trauma center!  By then I was just grateful that I didn’t have to figure out where to go at 2 AM in a city and state I was not at all familiar with.

Around 6:30 the next morning as the staff was preparing to end their shifts, one of the nurses brought me some coffee, took off all the monitoring devices and helped me pack up my things so I could leave.  I had no plan about where to go or what to do next.  I was obviously not able to ride and the bike was hours away anyhow.  I didn’t yet know that the bike was damaged enough it couldn’t be ridden anyway.  I looked into flying home early and it was over $1,000 to change my ticket.  I enlisted a friend to help me find a hotel in Palmer so I could get some sleep, but none were available until after 3 PM.  Calling some rental car agencies turned up nothing either.  I truly thought I was going to be stranded in the hospital lobby until I could get a flight home the next day!

A couple of hours later someone suggested an app that allows people to rent out their own cars.  I checked and found one that was near my location, but was not available until the afternoon.  I completed the reservation and then on a whim sent the owner a message and asked that he contact me if by chance the car became available sooner.  As luck  would have it, it was available soon after.  I wasn’t even sure if I could or should be driving, but in that moment, I just wanted out of the damn hospital.  I was exhausted and hungry, but I needed a plan for the day that didn’t involve trying to sleep in the hospital waiting room!  I picked up the car that morning and started the journey to Valdez to catch up with my group.  I’ll write about the rest of the trip in another blog post.

It has now been 18 days since the accident.  The bruises are slowly fading.  The muscles are slowly healing.   When I was healed enough, I saw my massage therapist and acupuncturist to work on realigning and releasing muscle tension.  There is improvement but nothing is normal yet, so the journey will continue.  Next week I am seeing a chiropractor to see how far out of alignment my bones are and what can be done to remedy that.

A couple of well intentioned people have suggested that I stop riding after this experience.  I can tell you that most certainly will NOT happen.  I have discussed with my riding partner what the plan is once my body has healed.  I will return to riding in my time, at my pace.  I trust my riding partner implicitly and I know that he will push me just a little as I am ready to be pushed.  I also know that if I have a melt down, he’ll be there to support me and help me find my love of riding again.  While I hope that I never have another accident, I know that life is not without risk.  I am so exceptionally grateful to be here, I can’t say that enough times.

Alaska – Day 6

Chena Hot Springs to Paxson – approx. 240 miles

As we left Chena Hot Springs, the blue skies quickly gave way to rain clouds, again.  After riding all day to Fairbanks in rain, I felt like I was pretty prepared.  Little did I know that this day would bring rain like I have never experienced before!

Our first stop of the day was at North Pole and a group visit with a Santa Claus that darn near made me believe again.  He was quite jovial and had an answer for each of our endless questions about his flying altitude, where are the reindeer and does he wear a helmet and protective gear!  At first I felt a little silly going to see Santa at my age, but I have to admit, it was a fun stop.

We also encountered our first real road construction this day and were waved to the front since there was a pilot car.  I don’t recall ever experiencing this before, but apparently the road construction folks in Alaska want motorcycles at the front so that the pilot car can see if a bike goes down and assist them.  We rode a long stretch of dirt behind the pilot car with most of us standing on the pegs for stability and control.  It wasn’t difficult riding, it was just different and for me, it was good to be on the dirt again, using those skills I don’t use often.

After we left North Pole, the skies opened up and we experienced rain such as I have rarely even driven in, let alone ridden in.  I was very grateful for my goretex gear and have to say that it help up admirably!  We had a planned lunch stop at a picnic area near a lake which is probably amazing on a sunny day.  On this day with the torrential rain coming down, we all took cover under the eaves of the building that contained the outhouses!

We decided to press on to our next gas stop in Delta Junction and see if the rain would let up so we weren’t also eating lunch in the rain.  As luck would have it, there was a laundromat right next to our gas stop!  I have never seen so many biker ladies pile into a laundromat so enthusiastically before.  We all dried our riding jackets and other layers to get some relief from the cold.  We even became the topic of a couple photos with all the bikes parked outside, surely people wondering what could we be doing?  We had lunch right there in the laundromat while everything dried – no fancy lunch stops for this bunch and I know that I was just thrilled to have warm clothing again!

The afternoon was wearing on me and then we came to a pull out to gather the group together again.  As I turned left into the parking area, I noticed the view and my jaw literally dropped!  I could barely park my bike I was so excited to capture this view.  At the same time, my tour leader saw the joy and amazement on my face and captured an incredible shot of me!  At last, I felt like I was seeing Alaska!

We stopped one last time at a scenic overlook and our tour leader reminded us that this was likely our last spot for cell phone service for about 24 hours.  We were that remote and I was excited about it!

Once we arrived at our lodgings and unloaded our bags from the chase truck, most of us headed out for a little dirt riding on the Denali Highway.  It was about 15 miles out to a scenic overlook and we wanted to check that out and be back in time for dinner.

In that moment, I had no idea what lie ahead for me.  It’s going to take me a while to write the post about it, so I am going to say simply that I am ok.  I’ll save the rest for the next post.  Please, bear with me as I work through the emotions that seem to leap to the surface as I describe what happened on that gravel road . . .

Thanks for reading!

Alaska – Day 5

Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs – 212 miles

After the downpour of rain on our way into Fairbanks and that entire evening, it was so nice to wake up to clear blue skies and sunshine.  We only had 60 miles to go to our next hotel stop, but there were a few side trips planned for this day!

First we rode over to the Large Animal Research Station and learned about musk ox and reindeer!  I had no idea this could be so interesting and the guide that we had was very personable and super knowledgeable about these animals, their habits and their history.  While we were there it suddenly started to rain very hard and thankfully there was a shelter for everyone to duck into.  I thought we had gotten the rain out of our system the day before but I guess not.  Thankfully this didn’t last long and the sun returned quickly!

Our next stop was the Alaska pipeline which was actually kind of cool to see.  I imagined it to be much larger than it is, so that was a surprise for me.  I was also fascinated by the informational signs that told about the history and how the pipeline is maintained.  This is definitely something you won’t see in the lower 48!

After that, we still had time to burn so we took a detour to a nice, twisty paved road for some fun riding.  This was the first time that the group started to split up a bit where the faster riders took off on their own.  I’ve been struggling with how to write about this and finally decided that I’m going with my perspective and not speculate on what others were thinking.  I don’t want to be unfair to them and I honestly don’t know what other people thought about this day.

For me, this was an uncomfortable 50+ miles of mostly being alone in Alaska on a road I am not at all familiar with.  I overheard one rider say to another that the two of them had been doing 100 mph for a while on that road; I believe the speed limit was 65, but I know it was not more than 75.  I know I was doing in the 70-80 mph range and when I felt unsafe, I slowed myself down to where I felt more in control.  I have always been taught that everyone needs to “ride their own ride” and I reminded myself of that many times that day.  It reinforced, again, that I’m done with group riding.  If I’m going to be alone, then I’m going to be alone.

After a gas stop and the group coming back together we headed down the last road that would take us to Chena Hot Springs for the evening.  This road, we’d been warned, had damage and places where the road would dip and heave due to road construction and freezing temperatures that cause the asphalt to buckle.  Once we were on that road, where there were no turn offs to get lost on, everyone was able to take off on their own if they wished.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this bothered me and I have realized that I prefer group riding where we look out for one another and the group stays together.  I felt very alone in an unfamiliar place and I was not as comfortable with it as I’d like to think I would be.

Once we checked into our hotel and got unpacked a little it was time for dinner.  The resort was quite nice and I wish I had more energy left from the day; I would have liked to spend some time enjoying the hot springs.  As it was, I could barely keep my eyes open and this introvert was tired of people for the day.  I went back to my room after dinner and was asleep before 9 PM.  It turns out that extra sleep would come in handy because while I couldn’t have known it, the next day was going to be long and eventful.

 

Alaska – Day 4

Talkeetna to Fairbanks – 270 miles

Have I ever mentioned that I dislike riding in the rain?  Well, this may have been the day that cured me of that.  Actually, I used to find riding in the rain a bit scary.  Over the course of this summer, and especially this trip, I have had little choice but to push through the fear and keep moving forward.  Maybe that’s been the best thing for me.

As we left Talkeetna the skies were cloudy and before we were out of the city, it was raining.  I keep a riding journal about my trips and on this day I said “I was most surprised when it wasn’t raining.”  That’s the best description I can give you!  We rode past Denali which I was so excited to see but we were surrounded by fog.

I didn’t take a single photo on this day because it was just rain and fog all day and I decided it just wasn’t worth it.  We spent a little time at the Denali National Park visitor’s center and had lunch plus learned a bit about the history.  I also hit up their sticker section so I can add another one to my bike.  I have decided my rule on bike stickers is that I have to have ridden in that place, whether on a rental or with my Sassy.  I have friends who are more strict and will only place stickers where they have been with their bikes, but I decided this works for me.  What’s your take on this or does it even matter to you?  I’m always curious to hear what other folks have decided!

Our tour guide told us that this first part of the trip was the most boring.  I tend to agree with that now that I have finished the trip.  I promise you that the posts become much more interesting from here on it.  I would even go so far as to say that there is something coming you won’t expect.  I certainly didn’t . . . until next time, thanks for reading!

Alaska – Day 3

Anchorage to Talkeetna – 167 miles

This was the group’s first day of riding together and as we gathered in the parking lot at the tour company, I could feel the nervous energy.  This made me even more glad that I had arrived early and  had a day with my rental motorcycle.  It was the same BMW F700GS that I own and ride at home, but every bike has its quirks.

On this morning we took off and soon the nerves started to dissipate.  We rode maybe 20 miles away to Mirror Lake and stopped for water, gear adjustments and just breathing.  It might sound funny, but it’s amazing how the group energy affects everyone.

Our next stop on this gorgeous day was Independence Mine State Historical Park near Palmer.  The views from this old mine were stunning and I’m sure my phone photos don’t do it justice.  We had some time to explore the area, stretch our legs and have a snack.

Independence Mine

View from Independence Mine area

After this we headed toward Wasilla and a date with some puppies!  I had no idea there were puppies on this tour, but we had a planned stop at the Iditarod Trail Race Headquarters in Wasilla.  Apparently when these folks have puppies, they like people to stop by and spend some time with them so that the puppies become socialized to many different people.  Say no more, here I am to help with that mission!

Once we had our fill of snuggling puppies and watching the older dogs run, we got back on the bikes and headed for Talkeetna.  The ride from Wasilla to Talkeetna wasn’t super exciting, but we did see a group of photographers on the side of the road in time to determine they were photographing a moose!  Since we were riding, I didn’t get a good look at it, but it would end up being the closest moose sighting I would have on this trip.

Once in Talkeetna we had a little time to kill before we needed to head over for our airplane ride!  It has started to rain a little as we walked toward the air strip and while we had reservations to land on a glacier near Denali, I knew it was a long shot, due to the weather.  Everyone was disappointed that wasn’t going to happen but the kind folks there explained that Denali had been socked in clouds the past several days.  Instead we had a grand tour of the south mountains and so many glaciers that I lost count.  I do love to fly so this may have been the highlight of the trip for me!

After our flight, we went back to Talkeetna for some adult beverages and food before walking back to our hotel.  I’m pretty sure I was asleep within moments of arriving and that is the last I remember until the alarm went off the next morning.  It was a full first day, but a very enjoyable one as well.

 

 

 

Alaska – Day 2

All around Anchorage!

When planning this trip, I intentionally came in the day before the tour kicked off so that I could have some time to take the bike out and explore Anchorage a bit.  Our group was scheduled to meet for dinner that evening and I wanted a little extra time to settle in and adjust.  After arriving so late the night before (or, so early that morning), it ended up being a great decision.

At the time I made all my arrangements, I had no idea that a friend from the PNW tour last summer was also on this trip.  We discovered each other a week prior in the private social media group that had been set up for the members of this tour.  Being in early allowed us to spend some time catching up and we even had time to ride a bit together!

During the PNW tour the year before I had told my tour mates about the Tour Of Honor and so my friend joined me in visiting a couple of sites in Anchorage.  I’d thought about doing these at the end of the trip, but finally landed on the day before.  This ended up being another wise choice and I’ll explain that in a future post.

After we hit up the two Tour Of Honor sites in Anchorage, we took Alaska Highway 1 south until we were ready for lunch.  We stopped for some photo ops and kept saying wow, we’re in Alaska!  We had a lovely ride along the coast of the Cook Inlet.  We’d hope to travel all the way to Hope, Alaska but sorting out the rental bikes took longer than anticipated, but was time well spent.

Alaska Highway 1 south

View of the Cook Inlet

That evening the entire group came together for the first time.  There was a lot of laughter and speculation about what we’d be seeing in the week ahead.  After dinner we all headed back to the hotel to catch some sleep and prepare for the adventure the next day would bring!

Alaska – Day 1

Day 1 – travel from Denver to Seattle to Anchorage

Once I booked my Alaska tour and the trip had enough people registered to be locked in, it was time to think about airfare.  I knew it was a long trip and would be expensive, but I didn’t know just HOW expensive!  I finally settled on a flight with a layover each way to make it more affordable for me.  As I was heading for the Denver airport, a text came in that my flight was now leaving 30 minutes later than scheduled.  My layover was only 60 minutes in Seattle.  Gulp.  I started to question my choices in saving money on the flight.  As we sat on the runway in Denver, an announcement from the pilot: there was too much traffic coming into Seattle and we were going to delay our takeoff another 20 minutes.  Oh boy, 10 minute layover now!  Yikes!

I tried to put all of this out of my mind and just relax for the flight.  Nothing I can do anyway, right?  I can’t fly that plane and the pilots were doing the best they could to get us to Seattle safely.  As we started to prepare for landing in Seattle, the woman across the aisle from me asked the flight attendant about connecting flights.  It turns out she was on the same flight I was scheduled on into Anchorage.    What annoyed and amused me about their conversation was the passenger asking if the connecting flight would be held since we had left late and then been delayed again.  The flight attendant looked at her and said of course not, it’s not OUR fault.  Now wait just a moment here!  I could only shake my head at that.

Upon leaving the plane, we found there was no airline representative waiting for us in Seattle.  The lady across the aisle looked at me and said is that good or bad?  I had to assume it was a good sign that we were not all rebooked.  Regardless, my suggestion was we make a run for the next flight and cross our fingers.  Within minutes there were 10 of us from the Denver flight sprinting to the next gate.  I was surprised to find the flight there and the door still open when we arrived despite it being only about 1 minute to the scheduled take off.  As more and more passengers came on the plane, I learned there were at least 25 people on the flight from Denver that were on the same flight to Anchorage as me.  Ahhh, now that is enough people to make an airline hold a flight!

I was so grateful to be on the ground safely in Anchorage, but it was nearly 3 AM in my time zone.  I had been awake for 21 hours and I was feeling every minute of that.  I guess the chaos of the day had finally caught up with me because I found it nearly impossible to sleep on either flight.  Luckily my suitcase came quickly and I called the hotel shuttle for a pick up.  A few minutes later, there was the shuttle and I was on my way.  Oh, but you knew it couldn’t be that easy, right?

The shuttle brought us to the hotel and I remember thinking hmmm, this isn’t quite what I was expecting for the big pile of money I paid.  Then I chided myself for being so judgmental and decided to just get some sleep.  Except the front desk had no record of a reservation for me!  A few more questions and we realized that I was at the wrong hotel!!  Aggghhhhh!  The “correct” hotel has a similar name and was just a short drive away.  The very patient shuttle driver assured me this happens all the time and she insisted on driving me to my actual hotel.  In my sleepy brain I was eternally grateful for her kindness because I’m not sure I could have navigated those streets on my own at that point.

Once I had my room key at the correct hotel I vaguely remember dragging my suitcase in the door, texting the group that I had arrived and that was it, I was asleep at last.  The real adventure would begin the very next morning!