KENAI — As engines rumbled, gasoline pumped and the prayers started to flow, Bert Heitstuman said he was confident the Kenai Peninsula is a generally safe place to ride motorcycles.
But that’s not to say a biker’s worst nightmare can’t come true at any moment.
“I had a woman here last year look right in my eyes as I was coming down the highway and she was coming out of a parking lot,” he said. “She looked right at me and pulled out right in front of me. She says, ‘Well, I didn’t see you.’ Lady, you looked right in my eyes.”
A few minutes later, Heitstuman, a Kasilof resident and a road captain for the Kenai Peninsula chapter of the Harley Davidson Owners Group, and his motorcycle were blessed last Sunday during the annual Biker Blessing ceremony at Kenai Christian Church.
More than 50 cycles filled the church’s lot after coffee, doughnuts, and the traditional morning service. Cyclists lined up two-by-two for their blessings — an extra insurance policy, of sorts, in hopes of easing their minds as they take to the Kenai Peninsula and Alaska roadways this summer.
Last year there were four motorcycle fatalities on the Peninsula — the most of any area in Alaska, according to statistics provided by the Alaska State Troopers. There were 10 fatalities total in the state making it the deadliest summer for motorcyclists since 2003’s 12 deaths.
Since 2002, 86 motorcyclists have died on Alaska roadways, 11 of which were on the Peninsula. Over the last decade, 31 percent of motorcycle fatalities occurred in Anchorage, 20 percent in the Matanuska-Susitna area, 15 percent in Fairbanks and 12 percent on the Peninsula.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre declared May as Motorcycle Awareness Month at a recent borough assembly meeting surrounded by representatives of the Alaska Bikers Advocating Training and Education, Gold Wing Road Rider Association, and the Harley Owners Group.
Heitstuman and Kenai resident Susan Fore agreed there is almost always a motorcycle death or close call on the Peninsula each summer. Fore said some of the blame rests with the general driving public’s distractions or failure to watch out for the oftentimes hard-to-see motorcycles.
“Look and then double look,” Fore said.
But, it’s a two-way street and motorcyclists must also be safety-minded.
“Even as riders, we have to pay more attention,” she said. “If they start slowing down, then back off. Get off their butts. I have no problem hitting that brake and throwing that hand up.”
“If you get in that blind spot and they can’t see you, that’s your fault,” he said. “I did that and the car decided to change lanes and pushed me into the center lane.”
Heitstuman said cyclists are already on the road. His group rides on Wednesdays, but before each outing they take a moment to talk about safety, road conditions and possible hazards.
Kasilof resident David Bivens, who goes by Hambone, said he’s noticed more and more cyclists on the Peninsula and in Alaska in general during the last decade. The Kentucky native who serves as Northwest Regional Director for the Iron Order motorcycle club said he usually attends a blessing each year.
He noted many of the law-abiding group’s members also attend blessing ceremonies around the nation.
“They get to see who you are, they get to see your bikes and get to know you,” he said. “A lot of people believe that the blessing of the bikes helps protect you against any hazards or anything. Of course there are a lot of hazards here in Alaska with moose (and others). People aren’t looking for bikes right now because it is still cold.”
Bivens said the blessing fits with the tradition of considering travel by two wheels and open air a spiritual act in itself.
“You’re free — you’re like the American eagle,” he said. “You get on the bike ... you’re in the wind, you’re enjoying it and it relieves any stress you have.”
But, then again there’s always the risks. Bivens said he was almost run off the road once by a woman on her cellphone and a close friend of his was killed by a drunk driver in Tennessee. He said he appreciates any extra help the blessing provides.
“People in cars, they can run over a bike in a heartbeat,” he said. “Run them off the road, anything. They need to be aware. It helps everyone out.”
Information from: Peninsula Clarion, http://www.peninsulaclarion.com