Adventure and travel writing

The Death of a Battery in Alaska, by Steve Van Bakel


  The bike was fully loaded and I was anxious to get on the road and put some miles between me and Calgary. But first I had a couple of quick stops to make. The first was just bringing the bike to the front of the house so that I could say goodbye to my daughter. Then, a quick run around the corner to get gas and hit the bank for some pocket money. It was after the third cold start that I noticed that there was a bit of a lag between hitting the ignition and the engine turning over. When I left the bank, I threw my leg over the bike and hit the ignition, I was greeted with a couple of clicks but not enough power to turn the bike over. 

I tried bump starting the bike a couple of times but had no luck by myself in a flat parking lot with a fully loaded bike. After parking the bike, I ran home to get my vehicle and booster cables. Of course, nothing is easy when you are in a hurry so I had to strip all my gear off the bike to reach the battery posts for boosting. Once the bike was running, I drove it home, parked it with the engine still running to charge the battery, and then ran back to get my vehicle. Through this whole process I was trying to determine exactly what had happened to the battery. Did I leave the lights on too long? Or was the battery that came with the bike finally giving up the ghost?

With the bike still running, I reloaded my gear and decided I would take a chance and hit the road for Alaska. I figured if the battery was still dead the next time I stopped for gas, then I would head to the nearest Harley dealership and pick up a new battery. 

As it turns out I had no problems for the next couple of days, which was quite a relief as the northern roads to Alaska were pretty sparse of traffic or help in late September. Eventually I attributed the battery fail to leaving the lights on too long or something. At least that's what I had convinced myself until I found myself in Skagway, Alaska where I was doing a lot of quick trips with no open roads to really charge up the battery. The battery was starting to lag again on my last day in Skagway and I wondered if I was going to need a new battery. I checked around and found that the nearest Harley dealer was in Juneau, Alaska which was my next stop on the trip. I just had to make it there.

I had to leave for the ferry at 4am the next morning so I asked around town to see if there was a tow truck that could give me a boost if I needed. No such luck in a remote tourist town on the final few days of the season. I was left hoping that my battery had enough life left in it for a couple more starts.

There weren’t many people in the campground that late in the season but there were enough that I didn't want to wake everyone up with starting the bike that early in the morning. So I pushed it out to the street where I knew I was going to have to give it one good start to turn the engine over. The first attempt to start the bike failed and my head began to fill with thoughts of pushing the bike all the way to the ferry. And do it fast enough that I wouldn't miss the boat. I waited a minute, crossed my fingers and gave it one last try before I had to start pushing. Surprisingly, the engine roared to life and a smile spread across my face.

I made it to the ferry in lots of time so I left the bike running for forty-five minutes to charge the battery up. Unfortunately, I shut it down just twenty minutes before they wanted me to start boarding, and when I went to start bike again, it was dead. I was being waved onto the ferry so I had no choice but to push my bike to the ramp. As I was coasting the bike down the metal ramp, I had the stupid idea to try another attempt at bump starting the bike. Not a good idea on a metal ramp, that was a little wet.  It was only by sheer luck that I kept the bike upright thus saving me the humiliation and hassles of dealing with a dropped bike as well as the battery issues.

One of the ferry operators, also a biker, offered to help me boost the bike once we got to Juneau. In preparation, I stripped all my gear off the bike so that we would be already to boost it once we arrived. This turned out to be a wasted effort because as luck would have it, the bike started without a boost once we got to Juneau. I wasn't taking any chances and headed straight for the Harley Davidson dealer, anxious to finally get a new battery and end the hassles.

I was greeted at the parts desk by a very friendly Service Manager by the name of Henry Wilson. I explained my predicament and he had to break the bad news to me that he had no batteries left in his inventory because they don't stock them that late in the riding season. He must have seen my face drop because he instantly came up with a solution. "I have a spare battery back at my place," he said. "I'm not sure how much life is left in it but you're welcome to have it." I jumped at the offer because anything was going to be better than the battery I currently had. Henry took down the information on the hotel that I was staying at and promised he'd drop by once he had time to run home and grab the battery after work.   

As promised, he showed up right on time, helped me put the battery in the bike, made sure it worked, then turned down my offer to pay him or buy him dinner for his generosity. Throughout the rest of my trip, I said a silent thank you to Henry every time the bike started. Especially in Sitka, Alaska where it would have really sucked to be dealing with a dead battery during some of their torrential down pours. The battery lasted into the next year before I had to replace it but as soon as I got home, I sent Henry a thank you letter and Harley Davidson t-shirt from Calgary Harley. 

Experiences like this have taught me that motorcyclist truly are a close-knit group, looking out for each other like family.