From Prudhoe Bay to Key West, Orlando’s Tom Wert takes the ride of a lifetime
In all, Wert logged 11,500 miles crossing Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic Circle on a motorcycle
Work-life balance for Orlando attorney Tom Wert has meant climbing Mt. Rainier, hiking the Continental Divide Trail, or pedaling a bicycle across Death Valley.
“All my life, I have done adventure trips,” Wert said. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of completing a task that is very hard to do, that few people would even consider doing.”
This summer, the Dean Mead shareholder and veteran Florida Bar board member challenged himself by riding a motorcycle from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Key West.
“We basically did it in three weeks — 8,500 miles,” Wert says of the run, which he completed with his wife, Cat, on the back, and 100 pounds of gear strapped to the frame.
And that was just the return lap. In all, Wert logged 11,500 miles crossing Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic Circle.
Wert worked up to the feat over the past few summers by touring California and the Southwest, rides that took them to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and other national parks.
Wert knew that getting to Alaska and back would require special gear. So, he bought a 2022 Harley Davidson Pan America 1250 Special.
Sleek and powerful, the nearly 600-pound rocket is also versatile. The manufacturer says it’s built for “riders who see touring as detouring.”
“It’s the largest engine that Harley Davidson has ever put into a motorcycle, it’s 150 horsepower,” Wert said. “It’s got a lot of torque, and it can ride very nicely on a dirt road.”
But when it comes to “adventure bikes,” strength doesn’t always translate to endurance, Wert learned to his chagrin.
More on that later.
Wert told a riding buddy earlier this year he was determined to conquer Alaska’s Dalton Highway and crown the victory with a dip in the Arctic Ocean.
“He goes, ‘Okay, but you really shouldn’t do that by yourself.’ It’s the most dangerous road in North America, for lots of reasons. Weather, trucks, wildlife. It’s just a bad road.”
The friend introduced Wert to another rider, a commercial pilot and U.S. Army veteran. Mike Pascalar is another Harley Davidson Pan America owner, and he didn’t require much arm twisting to take the trip, Wert said.
“The nice thing about Mike going with me is, he knows everything about that motorcycle,” Wert said.
Another Wert riding buddy who lives in Atlanta, Bill Haggerty, promised to join the team in the Yukon. Wert flew to Spokane June 8 to launch the expedition.
Pascalar’s wife trailed the riders in a support SUV for the first part of the journey.
“We went up across the border into British Columbia, past the headwaters of the Columbia River, near Radium Hot Springs, in British Columbia, then east over the Continental Divide to Alberta, Lake Louise, and then followed the Icefield Parkway north to Jasper,” Wert said.
The scenery, with its towering waterfalls, was breathtaking, Wert said.
“One of the largest glaciers in North America, south of Alaska, is in between Lake Louise, near Banff and Jasper in the Columbia Icefields,” he said. “The melt from the glacier flows into three different oceans — the Atlantic, the Pacific, and Arctic.”
They rode by a famous wilderness lakefront resort, known for its float planes and fly fishing, before pushing north to the Yukon River and Dawson City.
“It’s the epicenter of the Klondike gold rush,” Wert said. “We went to the place where they found the first gold nugget, it’s called the Discovery Claim.”
They lingered for a day to take in the sights, soak up the history, and meet up with the Atlanta contingent. The reunion with Haggerty didn’t last long, Wert said.
“Bill and two other guys went riding in the mountains around Dawson City, and Bill crashed and broke his leg in three places,” Wert said.
After being treated for his injuries, Haggerty flew home.
“So, Bill did basically five days of really boring riding across the country from Atlanta, and then broke his leg,” Wert said.
The trip would only get more challenging.
The Dalton Highway is featured prominently on the reality TV series, “Ice Road Truckers,” Wert notes. In the summer, the road is 415 miles of mostly mushy gravel.
The nearest gas station can be 200 miles away, and every passing truck kicks up fusillades of sharp rocks and clouds of choking dust.
Some paved roads in Alaska aren’t much better, Wert said.
“Frost heave” turns them into moonscapes. Even well-maintained highways can be hazardous. Wert remembers a sign notifying drivers that 300 moose have been killed this year. Each year in Alaska, an average of 800 moose die in motor vehicle collisions, according to Alaska transportation officials. At 1,200 pounds, a typical moose weighs twice as much as Wert’s Harley Davidson.
“The most terrifying thing for me on this trip was literally hitting a deer, or a moose, or an elk in the road at night,” he said.
The closest call was crossing Atigun Pass, Wert said.
Nearly 5,000 feet above sea level in the Brooks Range, along the Continental Divide, the road is unpaved and bordered by 20-foot ditches.
An innkeeper warned Wert that a slick layer of mud mixed with road treating chemicals could make Atigun too dangerous to attempt. The riders pushed on, hoping conditions would improve.
“Sure enough, we get to it, and it’s slippery, like ice,” Wert said. “You’re wrestling with your handlebars to keep your front wheel straight, and you’re fishtailing on the back.”
The only decent traction was in the oncoming lane, Wert said. The riders prayed that there were no trucks behind the next blind corner.
“I’m thinking, I’m just going to have to ditch it to the left off the road, or ditch it to the right, into the mud,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out, which is the softest landing, and how do we avoid getting hit by the truck?”
Their luck held. By the time they made the return journey, crews had cleared the hazardous ooze.
As they approached Prudhoe Bay, Wert remembers the wind beginning to bite. When he reached the beach, the water was frigid, and incredibly shallow.
“You could see the ice packs all around, it’s just above freezing,” he said. “I had to kind of plop down to get fully submerged — for about one and a half seconds.”
For the return trip, Wert decided to attempt the “IBA Ultimate Coast to Coast Challenge.”
The event is sponsored by the “Iron Butt Association,” a U.S.-based organization “dedicated to safe, long-distance motorcycle riding” that claims more than 85,000 members worldwide.
Begun in the 1980s at the Montgomeryville Cycle Center in Pennsylvania, the group welcomes members who complete a variety of challenges. Entry level is a 1,000-mile, “Saddle Sore” challenge that must be completed within 24 hours.
Outside of Fairbanks, Wert’s prospects for qualifying began to dim.
A tire blew near the bottom of a hill, and when he stopped to attempt the repair, Wert couldn’t get the tire to separate from the rim. Soon, an Alaskan on an ATV stopped to offer help.
Kelsey the good Samaritan was heavily armed.
“He’s got a rifle on his back, and he’s got a .44 under his arm,” Wert said. “He’s a roughneck from the oil fields hunting grizzly bears. He was a great kid.”
Kelsey stuck with the tire change project for the entire three hours, Wert said.
“The Alaskan people are so nice and helpful,” Wert said. “It’s part of their culture to help others in need because it’s the only way to survive out there.”
Not long after, Wert stopped at a barrier to wait for an official to escort them around a construction zone. When he noticed his engine sputtering, Wert decided to limp back to Fairbanks and search for a mechanic. The layover turned fortunate, Wert said, when he spotted a hand bill announcing a “Goldpanner’s Midnight Sun” baseball game.
A tradition since 1960, late-night game is played entirely without artificial lights.
“There are 3,000 people at this game, and that’s a big crowd for Alaska,” Wert said. “They actually do a four-jet flyover with F-16s.”
The first pitch went out at 10 p.m. By 1:30 a.m., young children were taking a ceremonial lap around the bases, Wert said.
The next day, Wert returned to the motorcycle dealer and decided he couldn’t rely on the Harley to get him from Alaska to Key West. Wert made arrangements to have it shipped and decided on the spot to buy a replacement.
His new BMW R 1250 GS, also an “adventure bike,” got him to the Conch Republic in plenty of time to qualify for the Ultimate Coast to Coast Challenge.
But in addition to the 30-day time limit, and strict documentation, IBA rules require riders to begin and end the trek on the same motorcycle.
Wert is still hoping to convince an IBA official, who happens to live on Merritt Island, that an exemption is in order.
“I don’t understand why [completing the trip on the same motorcycle] would make a substantial difference,” Wert said.
Asked if it was worth the effort, risk, and significant expense, Wert didn’t hesitate.
“We’re going to do it again in two years,” he said.
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