The sign is in bold black letters, and reads: "Stop. Authorized vehicles only." So we stop. We are in an Indian reservation called Mentasta Lake. Riding on the Alaska Highway from the Canadian border, we were heading southwest from the town of Tok on Hwy 1 until we came across this turn-off onto a lonesome, narrow, side road. Promising! It's 10 p.m., and still early enough by Alaskan standards to find a place to pitch our tent. The phenomenon of the midnight sun makes one day seem to last forever, a nice change from the hectic world we left behind. Up here, in the great north, we have not yet come across anyone complaining about not having enough time. It's the beginning of July and the sun never really sets. An abundance of light and sun does the weirdest things to your inner clock. Last night, we found ourselves wide-awake at three in the morning and craving a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs.
An Indian woman steps out of the door of one of the low wooden houses. She seems a little surprised to see the two strangers on iron horses, but noticing our confusion now that we have to rethink where to pitch our tent, she greets us with a wide grin. Smiling always helps to break the ice. We take our chances and ask her if she knows of a place to camp for tonight. "Oh, there's a beautiful spot down by the lake. It's only ten minutes from here," she says, pointing towards the narrow gravel road lined with bushes behind the sign. "Watch out for bears. It's the salmon run. And if someone should ask you, say that the village elder allowed it." We thank her. Nodding a goodbye, she disappears into her home. Although we take her warning seriously, there are bears all over North America. Why of all the places in which we have camped should they frighten us here?
One mile through light forest takes us to a crystal clear river that empties out into a lake shimmering in the low evening sun. Thousands of blazing red Sockeye salmon crowd the waters. What a grand sight! No guidebook, only fate could have led us here!
We quickly pitch our tent on a knoll by the river, on the theory that if a bear should decide to visit us after all, at least we would not be blocking his direct route to the water. This proves to be a wise decision. Ramona wakes up at 2 a.m. when she hears a loud splash in the water that's different from the noises of the jumping salmon. What would that be? Usually, bears approach soundlessly, an incredible act for such a heavy animal - grizzlies can reach a weight of 880 pounds and a shoulder height of 5 feet. As quietly as possible, Ramona tiptoes halfway across the wooden bridge, the continuation of the dirt road we had come in on, to check out the sound. Unbelievably, a soaking-wet grizzly emerges less than 20 yards away. He briefly looks at her, where she stands stock-still on the bridge, and walks back into the woods. Peacefully sleeping in the tent, I had not the slightest idea about what was going on outside until she awakens me. Under our breath, we discuss what to do. Our provisions are all safely stored in the Touratech aluminum panniers on the motorbikes. As far as guns go - well, we carry a Swiss pocketknife. No bear spray either. Under these circumstances, we decide not to go back to sleep. Paying respect to the grizzly and his territory by moving our tent seems to be the wise decision, and we ride away.
A few hours later, we follow the scenic Glenn Highway along the glaciers of the Chugach Mountains to Anchorage - a typical city, except that you can go salmon fishing in the middle of town. Many a clerk on a lunch break joins the fishermen at the mouth of a small river to catch dinner.
From Anchorage, we ride north to the next highlight of our trip: Denali, as the Native Americans call it. According to our map, North America's highest peak should be right in front of our noses. But we don't see a thing. A thick layer of clouds hides the mountain, as it does 255 days out of the year, according to information signs. So we decide to wait, giving our KTMs a rest, and camp near the town of Talkeetna.
It turns out to be well worth it! The next morning, Denali appears under a cloudless sky, we would like to believe only for us. Later, when we ride by it on the Parks Highway, the distance of 40 miles seems like only a stone's throw away. No wonder, as this is the highest freestanding peak in the world, rising some 20,000 feet above its surroundings, which are close to sea level. Compared to Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak at 29,029 feet, Denali rises 5,000 feet higher than Everest does above its surrounding highlands in Tibet. Mesmerized by the view of Denali, we spontaneously decide to set up camp by a clear river in the foothills and watch the spectacle that is the sun setting over the mountain.