Riders of the Rain forest

Dedicated bike fans

Posted: Monday, July 04, 2005

Juneau, a city of 30,000 people, has 926 registered motorcycles. No road out. Some 223 days of rain annually. Nine hundred twenty six motorcycles.

One recent evening, a band of six riders cruised through town on their Harley Davidsons and a Suzuki. Each motorcycle weighed at least 650 to 700 pounds, their silver frames shining in contrast to the gray sky. The engines roared as the riders cranked their throttles. With their sunglasses, black leather jackets and chaps, the riders were modern cowboys on their steel horses.

"You feel the freedom, the independence," said Greg Thompson, a taxi driver and a motorcycle instructor. His first motorcycle was a dirt bike his mother won at a bingo game when he was 6.

"You don't drive in cages," said Thompson, who rode a silver Suzuki Bandit 1200 S.

The air had a fresh, earthy smell. Mountains and roads unfolded like wide-screen televisions. Wind stroked their faces as the motorcycles charged on.

Roland Harris, who rode a red Honda Shadow Sabre with dark red flames, said riding helps him forget about his problems. "You have to focus on the road," Harris, 39, said.

"It's the best therapy," added Charles Brady, who works with at-risk children at Juneau Youth Services. Both Brady and his wife, Shelly, have their own Harley Davidson - his is a Heritage Classic in silver blue and diamond ice; hers a Dyna Lowrider in yellow and indigo.

Despite Alaska's merciless weather, Alaskans love motorcycles as much as a beautiful sunny day. Alaska has one of the highest per-capita rates of motorcycles in the nation. According to a 2003 report by Motorcycle Industry Council, there were 4.5 motorcycles for every 100 Alaskans.

Exactly for Alaska's remoteness, a Virginia company arranges a cruise ship tour for Harley Davidson fans to the state every year. The tour is called "Hogs on the High Seas." The cruise ship passengers have a rally at every port where the ship makes a call.

On Thursday, a total of 400 Harley Davidson fans from Europe and the Lower 48 came to Juneau on the cruise ship Serenade. Local riders took them for a ride to the Mendenhall Glacier.

"I ride my bike all over the United States," said one of the riders, Dave Binghan of Long Island, New York. His Harley name is "Bull Dog," after a Bull Dog Saloon in Montana. "There are only two states I haven't been to (before): Alaska and Hawaii."

Binghan said he has made all kinds of friends through his hobby. "It's the only thing you need to start friendship," he said.

"General Lee" Lee Weemhoff lured his wife, Deb, with his Harley Davidson. Deb said she was attracted to Weemhoff because he had the only Harley Davidson outside a bar.

Juneau's riders are not only hospitable but also active in charities.

Juneau's three motorcycle organizations - Southeast Alaska Panhandlers M/C, North Star and Alaska Bikers Advocating, Training and Education - often raise money for nonprofits or raise awareness about bike safety. The Panhandlers' annual toy run attracts hundreds of riders to collect stuffed animals for Bartlett Regional Hospital.

"We are not banditos," said Kenneth Brewer, president and chief executive officer of SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

Also president of Juneau ABATE, Brewer leads motorcycle rallies in Juneau. They hit the four corners of the borough, from Thane to the end of the road and both ends of Douglas Island.

It's a custom to honk when they pass the Taku Harley Davidson shop downtown.

"We all have friends working there," Brewer said. "We want to say 'hi.' They have to work. We get to play."

Juneau riders also have their motorcycles barged to the Lower 48 or other parts of Alaska for road trips. The Bradys are planning to ride one of their motorcycles from Seattle to Houston.

"It's 2,500 miles," Charles Brady said. "Our butts will hurt."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.

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