Joining a band of motorcyclists on an annual run to Hyder, Alaska, we rode north from Edmonton to celebrate Ron Ayres's 1998 feat of smashing the Iron Butt record (riding to 48 states within 10 days) in what is now called the 48 Plus! Iron Butt Ride. Making it to 48 states plus Alaska in a time of 7 days and 20 minutes, he received an assist on the final leg from a group of Edmonton riders who offered themselves up as sacrificial lambs. Running as an advance party, sweeping ahead for possible speed traps, they helped ensure that Ayres finished the ride and established the record.
On a sunny weekday morning I meet up with Harold and his fiancée, Norma, on their BMW K1200RS. It's their first trip to Hyder so I lead the way out of Edmonton, westbound on the Yellowhead, Highway 16, happily anticipating the pleasures of this first tour of the riding season.
The provincial capital of Alberta, Edmonton has a metropolitan population nearing one million, but traffic is light today. Everyone is hard at work in their offices by now, and although we'll be forced to cruise west on superslab for the next few hours, the sun is shining, my BMW R 1150 RT is running sweetly, and we're bound for Alaska! After a long winter and my annual battle with PMS (Parked Motorcycle Syndrome), I'm very glad to be on the bike with the pavement rolling beneath me once again.
The mixed-farming operations surrounding Edmonton soon give way to thickly forested mountains. Never having ridden with Harold and Norma before, I hold my speed close to the posted limit. But at our first stop for gas in Edson, halfway to Jasper, I check in with them and ask if the pace is okay. "We could go a little faster," Harold replies.
Jasper National Park
Now riding at a nice sport-touring rate, we get into the foothills and undulations of Hwy 16, starting our ascent into the Canadian Rockies.
As we reduce our speed at the entrance to Jasper National Park, I'm amazed that no matter how many times I visit the crown jewel of Canada's national park system, it remains a source of astonishment. The panorama of rugged, snow-capped mountains is glorious. No wonder so many visitors venture here from around the world. The largest of the Rocky Mountain preserves (4,200 square miles), Jasper National Park was established in 1907 to combine conservation and, with the arrival of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, tourism. Part of the UNESCO Canadian Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, Jasper is still pristine, crowd-free, and decidedly non-commercial compared to its glitzier counterpart, Banff.
Inside the park, the posted speed limit drops because one of the best reasons to come here is to see the wildlife, and a variety of creatures seem most casual about our incursions. They graze at the side of the road and park themselves on the road, oblivious to traffic; and when you try to make them clear off by blasting the horn, the animals usually react with bored "Who the hell do you think you are?" attitudes before getting back to doing whatever it is they were doing without moving a hair. It's common to see elk, moose and mountain sheep from your vehicle. A ride through the park is highly recommended, but watch out for inattentive drivers. At the first sign of any nearby animal you can count on many of them recklessly stomping the brakes to get a snapshot.