Haggard and burly men wearing leather jackets stood in a circle around a war memorial in downtown Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, listening to stand-ins for the state's top politicians, who declared May Motorcycle Awareness Month. Various motorcycle clubs -- Alaska Vets, Green Knights, and Rig Riders -- came out to the 10th annual Bike Blessing and Ride on Saturday, despite rain and snow. The harsh weather dampened the attendance, however.
Women and children populated the crowd, too, and biker families bowed their heads as Richard Irwin, the event's big wheel, prayed for a safe riding season that featured with less snow and warmer temperatures.
The cyclists' leather jackets shined from melted snow and hair flattened as three speakers addressed the crowd. First, a representative of Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan spoke about the dangers of riding in Alaska due to weather and road conditions. Commuters of all kinds were encouraged to beware while traveling Alaska's roads this summer.
Not to be outdone, Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt, speaking on behalf of Gov. Sean Parnell, declared motorcycle awareness month for the entire state. Schmidt intended to ride his motorcycle to the event, but he changed his mind after waking up and discovering snow on the ground.
"Great day for motorcycle riding," he said, and the crowd voiced its agreement. "You guys that rode today, you're the real deal." A woman in a bright orange Harley Davidson jacket and a man covered in black leather from head to toe exchanged a brief glance, smirking all the while.
Although the bikers appeared unimpressed with the unsolicited flattery, they cheered the one statistic Schmidt shared: There are more registered motorcycles per capita in Alaska than any other state.
Then the commissioner proceeded to tell the crowd how dangerous those bikes could be on the road -- that 80 percent of Alaska's motorcycle accidents are fatal, or that motorcycles account for 11 percent of fatal roadway accidents even though they make up only 3 percent of the nation's registered vehicles.
The motorcyclists weren't deterred. After the blessing, many riders cleared out, revving their engines and taking off on slick roads.
Start your engines
City Church, located in south Anchorage, started the annual motorcycle party years ago in its parking lot. The event outgrew the parking lot, and the church decided to take its idea citywide, Irwin said. The church partnered up with Alaska Bikers Advocating Training and Education, the motorcycle nonprofit commonly referred to as ABATE.
The two groups took the event downtown to the city's park strip. The first year, about 450 people showed up, said event coordinator A.Z. Suarez. But the crowd grew every year, and these days some 1,000 motorcycles line Delaney Park Strip the first Saturday in May most years.
"It's a big deal," Irwin said, even though only about a tenth of a normal crowd showed up.
This year, winter won't leave Alaska and when the big day arrived, snow was falling. That snow turned into a slurry of large snowflakes and precipitation by afternoon and made a final shift to rain by evening.
About 100 bikes sparsely populated the park strip for an event that takes six months to plan, Suarez said. Irwin blamed the weather -- but the simultaneous christening of the USS Anchorage lured people away, too.
Irwin said he was disappointed by the small turnout. During the event's 10 years at the park strip, snow fell only one other time, but the weather didn't detract from the purpose of the blessing.
"It's our way to just pray for people in the city," he said. "Summertime in Alaska, everybody is out and about, and people often don't pay attention to motorcycles that are out. There's a lot of hazards in Alaska that aren't such a big deal other places."
Those include narrow, heavily trafficked highways stretching north and south across the state, wildlife that may step in-front of motorcycles and other vehicles and, of course, weather that can bring snow in May.
As Irwin spoke, the Alaska Vets Motorcycle Club rolled down the street, with dozens of bikers created a "rolling thunder."
Join the club
Leading the pack was Wayne "Weird Wayne" Manning, president of the Anchorage chapter of the club as well as the Alaska Coalition of Motorcycle Clubs, Inc., which fosters understanding among the state's various motorcycle clubs. The members of Alaska Vets sport black leather jackets and vests. Their club symbol, an illustration of a raven, is stitched on the backs of jackets. The raven's colors represent the five branches of the U.S. military, and the bird rests on a field of black, under "ALASKA VETS" in red lettering. The black represents mourning. The red, bloodshed.
Weird Wayne and his crew hung around the event's tents after the blessing, and the riders didn't appear to mind the rain. The Vets had the most visible presence at the event. Ask how many members are in the club, and they answer "enough." The organization works to help Alaska's veterans, raising money and awareness of former soldiers' plights.
Manning said being in a club is different in Alaska. Everyone gets along, he said. The state is a utopia for motorcyclists compared to the Lower 48, where club members don't have the freedom to ride alone without the fear of running into rival riders. He described the biker blessing as "a really good gig. It brings people from the different clubs together. It really speaks to Alaska's no-animosity policy."
Of course, motorcyclists elsewhere in the U.S. ride more frequently, he said. But Manning said he rides year round using a Harley Davidson with an attached sidecar and studded tires.
Alaska Vets member Abel "Brother Abel" Gonzales said riding in Alaska is no more dangerous than riding in the states. He noted that some riders in California probably aren't riding at the moment, either, due to massive wildfires.
And riding in Alaska has its benefits. "The country's beautiful," Gonzales said.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com