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An adventure rider’s tale: From New Ulm to the edge of Alaska

Tom Buker and son Tanner braved constant exposure to the elements, isolated roads and damage to their bikes to make the near 8,000-mile motorcycle journey from New Ulm to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and back

September 9, 2012
By Daniel Kerwin - Sports Writer , The Journal

NEW?ULM -When Tom Buker and his son Tanner started planning a motorcycle trip to embark on together, they didn't want it to be just an average run-of-the-mill type of experience.

As keen adventure riders, their goal was to find a challenge for themselves that would test their motorcycle skills to the limit, something more off the beaten path than either of them had experienced before.

With that in mind, they decided on a trip that would take them from New Ulm all the way to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Prudhoe Bay is the northernmost point in Alaska, located well inside the Arctic Circle.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Wes Taylor Photography
Tom Buker (right) and son Tanner stand in front of their BMW GS motorcycles just before departing New Ulm in early June for a trip to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

They completed the trip earlier this summer, taking off in early June for a trip that lasted around three weeks.

"Instead of doing a whole bunch of short motorcycle rides, we wanted to make one pretty substantial one," Tom Buker said. "It took us about two years to plan for it. We decided, 'Well, we'll drive to the end of the American continent - what's the furthest northern point you can reach in America?' So that's Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, that's where the road ends, that's the Arctic Ocean. Your next stop is going to be Russia, so you can't go any farther."

In order to make such a daunting trip, Tom and Tanner had to plan extensively to account for a variety factors. On the way to Prudhoe Bay, they would pass some of the most remote stretches of road anywhere in North America, first traversing South Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan before entering vast uninhabited wildernesses in British Columbia, Yukon Territory and Alaska.

"There's nowhere you can experience that remoteness in the lower 48," Tom Buker said. "You can get to places in the lower 48 states where you think that you're remote, but when the nearest town is 250 miles away, that's when you know that you're seriously remote."

Throughout the trip, Tom and Tanner relied heavily on the ability of their bikes to handle to the task. They carried basic supplies for quick repairs, but if one of their bikes suffered a serious setback, it would in effect bring a premature end to the trip, since ordering replacement parts in some of the remote towns they passed through would take at least a week, if not more.

To ensure that mechanical problems would be as unlikely as possible, they rode BMW GS motorcycles, a model that has been tried and tested for adventure riding in harsh terrains on almost every continent in the world.

However, the harsh roads still took their toll on the bikes.

"Even our bikes, which were kind of designed for that, they really got beat up pretty bad," Tom Buker said. "We're going to be spending this winter repairing some things on them."

Each bike suffered a fair deal of damage, from broken blinkers to detached panniers (the metal compartments on either side of the bike used for storage). Tanner had the unfortunate of having one of his panniers break off on the final stretch to Prudhoe Bay, one of the most remote parts of the journey.

" The most memorable part [of the trip] would be probably getting to Prudhoe Bay with my broken pannier," Tanner Buker said. "The road going going up to Prudhoe Bay... there were these huge dips. My bike kept hitting the dips, and my pannier is on a frame that is bolted into my bike, and the bolts actually broke, so I'm driving down the road with my pannier dragging behind me."

The pair spent their nights at camp sites, bringing along just the bare necessities for camping so as not to over-encumber their bikes.

They had no set schedule and didn't plan a specific route, sometimes riding well into the early hours of the morning when they reached northern latitudes where the summer sun never set.

"One of the things that was really tough for us to deal with was once you get that far north, it doesn't ever get dark," Tom Buker said. "We'd be out riding around and we'd say, 'Oh, man, I'm getting tired,' and you look at your watch and it's 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, but it's broad daylight. You've got to be kind of careful with that. We did some pretty long days that we probably shouldn't have done, but you just keep going because it never gets dark."

The pair got their toughest stretch out of the way right from the get-go. Though Tanner - now 18 years old - has been riding dirt bikes since he was little and got his motorcycle license at 16, he had yet to go through the initiation of an "Iron Butt" ride, which is accomplished by riding more than 1,000 miles non-stop over a 24-hour period.

After leaving New Ulm, Tom and Tanner traveled 1,105 continuous miles in 19 hours, which left them arriving in Saskatchewan in the early hours of the morning. The rest of the trip they averaged closer to 400-500 miles a day, putting just less than 8,000 miles on their bikes by the end of the trip.

"I guess it was just different than always riding in a car," Tanner Buker said. "The mental aspect of it, going that far north, and the sleep deprivation that he put me through - it was just different riding a motorcycle than being in a car because you're out in the elements a lot more."

By spending almost all of their time either on their motorcycles or at camp sites they were constantly exposed to the elements. A particularly wet June in western Canada made for some muddy conditions on some of the dirt roads that they traveled and even set their trip back three days when they became stranded in Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, for three days when the highway through to Alaska was washed out.

While on the road, Tom and Tanner encountered post-card caliber scenery around almost every turn. They had to be cautious of roaming wildlife, from Dall sheep and moose to wild buffalo, black bears, wolves and grizzly bears.

They also encountered an interesting array of people, from people taking on similar challenges (they met a pedal biker that was headed to Prudhoe Bay after starting his journey at the southern tip of South America) to a woman that grew grapes in a greenhouse and managed a hot springs in northern Alaska despite living inside the Arctic Circle.

"That's probably one of the best parts of the whole trip is the interesting people you meet along the road," Tom Buker said. "That's the whole thing about adventure riding, you're getting off the beaten path away from where tourists go. We met some very interesting characters."

Tom - whose previous longest trip was around 3,000 miles - said that he hopes to do the trip again someday, potentially changing the route to focus more on Canada's Immuvit road. Tanner is hoping to test himself again as well, mentioning the Dakar Rally as a potential challenge in his future.



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