Steve Cain, BS ’76, this summer took time off from his job as a disaster education specialist with the Department of Agricultural Communication to ride his motorcycle from Indiana to the Arctic Circle and back, raising money for the fight against multiple sclerosis along the way and beyond.
Failure was never on their minds as Steve Cain and his son, Ryan, planned their motorcycle rides to the Arctic Circle for a cause.
Steve Cain (left), a communications specialist for the College of Agriculture, and his son, Ryan, a San Jose–based architect, pose with their motorcycles at a roadside rest area after entering the Arctic Circle. As they had lunch there, they met two groups of visitors, one that included a man from Bloomington, Ind., who did some teaching at IUPUI. They laughed about the chance meeting of Hoosiers in such a remote spot. (photos provided by Steve Cain)
That was at least until the day Steve, 56, left his home in Indiana and set out on the round-trip journey of 11,000 miles, an adventure that would last for five weeks.
“A cousin asked me if I’d thought about what I was getting myself into,” Steve said. “It never hit me until about 7:45 a.m. the day I rode away from home. The question slipped into my mind: Can I do this and live to tell about it?”
The idea for the trip started when father and son rode motorcycles with their wives in Ireland in 2008. During dinner in an Irish pub and after a few glasses of wine, the Cain men challenged each other to ride the length of the Americas from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. To be practical, they would break the trip into two parts: ride to the Arctic Circle in Alaska in 2011, then in 2015 ride from San Francisco to Tierra del Fuego, the latter trip a distance of more than 7,000 miles.
The cause for the trips came in 2008, when Ryan’s wife, Katelyn, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Ryan and his stepmother, Kathy, came up with the idea of raising awareness and money for MS. It became known as Cain’s Cause, and they created a website for it (www.cainscause.com). By the time they left for Alaska, the Cain’s Cause Facebook page had 257 “Likes” and 300–700 views daily.
Adhering to the plan, Steve got on his 1500cc Kawasaki Vulcan motorcycle in Round Grove, Ind., on July 16 to start his trip. But just before he left, he wrote on the Facebook page: “I reflect on the fact that in two days, if I am lucky, I will cross storied Route 66, Lincoln Highway, and will parallel the Lewis and Clark Trail. I will travel the Badlands to the Rocky Mountains. I ride a steel horse that needs no rest at the end of the day, but I surely will.”
That same day Ryan, 31, left from his home in San Jose, Calif., on his new Triumph Scrambler. The two planned to meet two days later in Fairmont Hot Springs, British Columbia – about 100 miles north of Idaho – and complete the trip north together.
Steve rode quickly through the Midwest, covering 1,650 miles in two days. Ryan, however, ran into trouble when his motorcycle blew a piston 100 miles east of Portland, Ore. Ryan alerted his father to the breakdown by a text message. “Thoughts of failure began to enter my mind,” Steve said. The success of the trip was in jeopardy.
The next day, the two agreed that Steve would continue on and that Ryan would do whatever it took to catch up, even if it meant flying to Anchorage, where they had planned to spend some time with Steve’s wife, her mother, and Ryan’s wife and her parents, who were vacationing there.
Portions of Alaska were broad vistas of breathtaking beauty linked by crumbled, muddy and slippery roadways that also took the Cains’ breath away from time to time.
But Ryan struck a deal with Triumph in Portland. Instead of getting his motorcycle fixed – that would take weeks – he traded his motorcycle at no extra cost for a new Tiger model that had just been introduced to the U.S. market. After a delay of four days, Ryan was on his way to meet his father at a new rendezvous point at Carlo Creek, about halfway between Fairbanks and Anchorage in the Denali National Park. The dream was still alive.
Meanwhile, Steve was facing his share of difficulties. “I was floundering in British Columbia with more than the usual amount rain and cold in the Canadian Rockies,” Steve said. The tips of his fingers felt as cold as the glaciers he passed, even with two pairs of winter gloves. He thought perhaps he wasn’t tough enough to finish the trip. He intended to camp out that night, but a campground was sold out. So he got a room at a hotel – with a warm shower.
The next morning, he watched the weather and waited to ride until about 10 a.m., when it warmed to 8 degrees Celsius (about 46 degrees F). In one day, he went from riding in 100-plus heat-index days in the States to crossing the border into Canada and coping with winter weather conditions. He hadn’t expected that until he reached the Arctic Circle.
Once in the Yukon Territory, with some 3,300 miles under his belt, the weather began to improve. Steve could see patches of sun breaking through the thick clouds, and temperatures climbed from the mid-40s to the low 60s – a big difference on a motorcycle going 60 mph.
But the roads fell apart. Steve lost an extra tool kit that shook loose from the bike somewhere along the hundreds of miles of gravel and broken pavement road between appropriately named Destruction Bay and the Alaska-Yukon border.
In the end, both Cains agreed that the trips they took separately to Carlo Creek were just what they needed. To fight the elements, the miserable roads and the mindset of a trip this difficult alone – and to succeed – gave them confidence.
From Carlo Creek, they rode together for the remaining seven hours to the Arctic Circle on the mostly gravel, mud and broken pavement that is part of Dalton Highway, also known as Haul Road, that runs to Alaska’s north coast at Prudhoe Bay. Steve described the stretch as “slime with a few inches of loose mud on top of a slightly harder packed mud.” To Ryan it was like “riding on a porcelain floor with two inches of toothpaste on top.” By mile 10, Ryan had prayed about a dozen times that he would not slide into the back end of his father’s bike.
Steve reached a point of no return at mile 18 and pulled off the road. They had enough gas to make it to the next station 45 miles north or turn around and go the 100 miles back to Fairbanks. It had taken the pair just over an hour to go 18 miles, and it was 12:30 p.m. At this pace, the next gas station was still two and a half hours north and the Arctic Circle six hours away.
On top of that, it appeared they wouldn’t return to their base in a dormitory at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, 205 miles south of the Arctic Circle, until long after dark. It didn’t get dark that far north until close to midnight.
It was time to assess their situation.
“Dad, I won’t blame you for turning around, and I will never hold it against you if you do,” Ryan told his father. “But it has to be your call.” Steve’s response was just what Ryan wanted to hear: I don’t want to turn around. Let’s do it.”
They continued north. Before they hit mile 20, they were back on pavement. Nothing so hard had ever looked so comforting. At mile 60 they saw a gas station tucked next to the legendary Yukon River, churning full of the same rains that had turned the nearby roadways into a muddy mess.
“It looked like the chocolate river from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Ryan said.
They filled their tanks and didn’t blink at the price of $6.50 per gallon; they were happy just to be there.
For the last 60 miles to the Arctic Circle, the Cains rode intervals of mud, gravel and broken pavement.
Some bikers the two met on Haul Road didn’t make it to the Circle. In the last 100 miles, they saw some bikers turn around and head south, their bikes not equal to their dreams. Some left their bikes to be repaired. One rode away in an ambulance after a crash.
The Alaska Pipeline snakes along the Dalton Highway, also known as Haul Road, leading to the Arctic Circle. Note the camera on Ryan Cain’s helmet.
Although the Cains made it, reaching the Arctic Circle turned out to be less than the “Eureka moment” each had hoped for. Steve expected more than an interstate highway rest stop with two toilets, a few picnic tables and a brightly colored sign that read “Arctic Circle.”
Still, they pulled over in the wilderness and raised their arms in a victory celebration. Then they ate a late lunch of rehydrated food. Ryan had beef and rice, and Steve, chicken and rice, a meal Steve had carried with him from the Walmart store in West Lafayette, Ind. But it was a satisfying meal at the time just the same.
Compared with the solo rides north, the ride back seemed simple and not so much of a challenge. It wasn’t the long, uncertain and lonesome ride that each endured alone, and average temperatures were about 20 degrees warmer.
That the Cains accomplished something unique didn’t hit Steve until he made it back home on schedule on Aug. 20. “When I told other motorcyclists that I took my cruiser to the Arctic Circle and back, they were often incredulous,” Steve said. Cruiser motorcycles are not made for the roads he traversed.
“It wasn’t that one huge, unseen chuckhole, bump or broken road that I had expected to break me or my bike,” Steve said. “It was the accumulation of 20,000 chuckholes, bumps and broken roads that took its toll.”
There also was the physical toll on Steve. He had chronic neck pain and stiff fingers from gripping the brakes, clutch and throttle for 700-mile days.
But the Cains had seen nature at its biggest and boldest. They rode their motorcycles to the tops of mountains and glaciers, skirted mirror lakes, crossed meandering streams, sliced through pristine emerald forests, and marveled at glacial rivers, brown and turquoise blue. They saw bears feeding along a 300-mile stretch of road in British Columbia. Dark brown moose with golden hair across their backs scampered away from the noisy motorcycles on roads in the north country.
With nothing but open road before them, Steve and Ryan (right) found a nice stretch of pavement going southeast from Fairbanks en route home.
Steve wrote of the endless beauty on Facebook: “Rather than shoot for a goal for the day, I viewed and pondered every mountain, every switchback in the road, and every cloud and burst of sun rays in the sky for their own value.”
That they raised $4,500 in the fight against multiple sclerosis made the trip extra special. About $1,200 was generated during fundraisers at motorcycle dealerships in Portland and San Francisco, which hosted celebrations for the Cains on their way back. They raised the bulk of the remainder through the Cain’s Cause website. To help get the word out about their cause, Steve left fliers at places he stayed along the way.
They also received donations from fellow bikers and others they met on the road. During a stop at a restaurant at Destruction Bay, they met a biker who told them his cousin has multiple sclerosis. He gave them a $20 donation to Cain’s Cause.
The Cains’ goal is to raise $10,000. Fundraising through the website will continue until they return from South America.
Although Steve has another son and two daughters, they won’t make that trip, either. They don’t share their father’s and Ryan’s enthusiasm for motorcycles.
“The only thing that could make the next half of the trip more exciting is if the rest of the family could ride, too,” he said.