Bismarck man to ride motorcycle to Arctic Ocean
BISMARCK — Rob Keller knows how to plan for danger.
Formerly the public information officer with the North Dakota National Guard, he embedded with combat units on two missions to Iraq after 2001. There, he planned for soldiers to write dispatches from the military bases and reporters from major media organizations to embed. Most recently, he was the PIO for Morton County during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
"I'm used to doing all types of planning, military planning. It's our nature to do planning and pre-execution checks," he said.
So, it should be no surprise that Keller has spent two years gearing up for an epic motorcycle journey down one of America's most dangerous roads.
"Even this ride, if I make this decision to go this route, it could have a second- or third-order effect," he said.
On July 1, Keller, 65, will take off with his younger brother, Jody, and friend, NDNG Maj. Rusty Romans, on an 8,000-mile loop from Bismarck to the Arctic Ocean.
The 30-day journey will take the trio across Montana, through Glacier National Park, up to Banff, across British Columbia and the Yukon to Alaska. There, they will hop on the famous Alaskan Highway, which runs from the Canadian border to Fairbanks and was built in a single year during World War II to carry military supplies to Russia. Rob and Romans will then ride the "Haul Road," a treacherous gravel path up to Deadhorse, an oil town on the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay.
That final 400-mile loose gravel road is a "bucket list" ride for many so-called adventure riders. Rob is expecting to see caribou, reindeer and bears. But a simple rain could coat their motorcycles with mud and dirt. And snow, which could happen at any time of year, would shut a mountain pass, forcing them to turn back.
If they make it to the Arctic Ocean, they're going to jump in, if only for 30 seconds.
"We gotta do it. We gotta jump in the Arctic Ocean," Rob said.
The route back to Bismarck will take them past Mt. Denali, to Seward, on a ferry all the way to Bellingham, Wash.
Rob is taking a lot of precautions. First, he's riding a specialty adventure bike, a BMW R1200 GSW, with knobby tires. And it's "all the gear, all the time," which for motorcyclists means a full-face helmet, padded clothes, an emergency satellite communicator, LED brake lights and heavy gloves. Rob once ran 65 mph into a deer and said he would be dead or alive without a face would he have been unprepared.
Most importantly, he's not doing it alone. Several years ago, he took a solo trip to Alaska and some back problems from his 26 years in the military caught up with him. His back gave out while setting up a tent after days of biking.
"I know what my limits are now," Rob said.
One of his fellow riders, younger brother Jody, a welder from Denver. As brothers, they're pretty different. Jody considers himself "a spur of the moment kind of guy." Whereas, "Rob is a big planner," he said.
Jody said he's mostly excited to see the scenery and history of this last frontier. Plus, he just loves the feeling of being on the bike.
"It's just a different sense of being," he said. "Just like that old adage of Harley riders, if I had to explain it to you, you wouldn't understand."
And it's also something of a last chance. He has rheumatoid arthritis and doesn't know if he can ride much longer.
"It's been on my bucket list forever to ride to Alaska. I'm just sad I waited until I'm 62 years old," Jody said. "If I don't do it now with Rob, I'll probably never get the opportunity to do it again."
Rob is no novice to long-distance motorcycle rides. In fact, he has gone on more than a dozen such adventures, and he's certified by the Iron Butt Association, an exclusive club for people who have ridden at least 1,000 miles in 24 hours.
"It's kind of like the adrenaline. Riding a motorcycle, that's why you see a lot of military riding motorcycles. It replicates the adrenaline flow you experience in combat," he said. "Riding is the only thing that clears my mind."
In a brotherly way, Jody sometimes has to tell Rob to slow it down, he said. Once in South Dakota, Jody told Rob he wanted to pull over. Rob sped ahead and had to turn back to meet them at the gas station, Jody recalled.
Aside from the adventure, Rob is also using this trip to fundraise for CRY India, a nonprofit supporting education, health care, safety and food for kids there. He will carry a stuffed animal named "Buddy Barrel" and, when people ask about it, he'll tell them about the donation campaign. In addition, kids at his church will be trying to help him raise $8,000 to correspond to his 8,000-mile trek while he's gone.
"It's a way for me to give back," he said. "It's not just about me riding; it's about enjoying the great outdoors and using my skill sets and ability to raise money for a worthy cause."
To follow Rob's adventure, subscribe to his travel blog at www.mytb.org/robkeller.