Alaska by motorcycle: Unique experience bears uncommon hazards
By Airman 1st Class Peter Reft, 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 16, 2013
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- It's the middle of summer and motorcyclists continue to travel as many routes as possible throughout Alaska before the short, four-month riding season comes to a close.
Daylight still illuminates the landscape well past 10 p.m. and while riding long stretches of highway with sparse traffic, it can be easy to forget just how many hazards can quickly turn a joyride into a nightmare.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, per mile traveled, motorcycle riders are nearly 30 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a traffic crash and five times more likely to be injured.
In Alaska, even non-fatal incidents, such as engine failure, can eventually lead to life-threatening circumstances. A trip to Anchorage, for example, is roughly 400 miles with portions of isolated roads.
"You have got to prepare and have a plan before making a long trek," said Col. Jay Aanrud, 354th Fighter Wing vice commander. "Your capability for support isn't the same as it is in the lower 48. There are plenty of areas where you're not within walking distance of a gas station. You're not within towing distance or cell phone range."
Base safety officials agree motorcyclists should also be aware of how incidents can occur in Alaska, even when doing everything correctly in safety and preparation. Animals unique to Alaska, such as moose, mountain goat, bear or caribou, can suddenly present a rider with danger.
"On our trip up the Alaska-Canada Highway, one of the riders hit a goat as we came over a hill, flipped his bike, broke his collarbone and went off the side of the road," Aanrud said. "He was an experienced rider; he wasn't speeding, and was riding within the criteria that we encourage as group riders."
"Sometimes a goat just happens to be in the middle of the road," he added.
If riders are unsure of their own riding ability or are in need of riding guidance, they can participate in mentorship group rides. Mentorship rides give riders at all stages of ability and experience the opportunity to ride in a group, learn safety and bike care tips from each other and just enjoy a ride with others around Alaska's rugged beauty.
Staff Sgt. Devon Ellis, 354th Fighter Wing ground safety, is one of the base's organizers for mentorship group rides.
"[The best thing about group rides] is camaraderie between riders old and new," said Ellis. "No matter how long you have been riding you can always improve on something. New riders can benefit from the experience of older riders."
Active duty riders can also utilize free safety courses endorsed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. New riders seeking to obtain their motorcycle license can bypass the Department of Motor Vehicles road test by successfully completing an MSF course. Classes are held every week at Fort Wainwright.
U.S. Air Force traffic regulations require experienced riders to recertify their MSF training every five years.
"The worst thing is teaching somebody who's been riding for 20 years, and everything they do is wrong and they don't realize it," said Jason Miller, MSF rider coach.
Miller has been riding for seven years and understands real-life riding situations. He ensures the class participants receive the most effective training, and recommends motorcyclists in Alaska refresh their training more often due to the longer winters and shorter riding seasons.
"Your bike is sitting for eight and a half months in the garage," Miller said. "You get on the bike for the first time and you realize really quickly a lot of that muscle memory of where things are and how to move kind of goes away after that long."
Motorcycle safety classes are held until September and are free to active duty service members. For more information, contact Ellis at 377-4260.
For additional information about licensing, registration, insurance requirements and rider safety in the state of Alaska, visit http://www.dmv.org/ak-alaska/motorcycles/. For detailed information on road conditions and alerts, visit www.highwayconditions.com/ak/.