If you're ever in Alaska on a fishing road trip, there's a good chance you'll drive right by Black Bear ATV Adventures when you cross the Susitna River Bridge at mile 105 on the Parks Highway.
While heading north, look to your left and you'll spot two large parked trailers; one with a porta potty and a second hauling a dozen or so Yamaha 450 and 350 Grizzlies.
Black Bear ATV Adventures specializes in wilderness ATV tours that can be taken by first-time riders along the Susitna River and Rabideaux Creek. The trips average three hours, with an optional eight-hour adventure that covers 65 miles in the Petersville gold mining district against the foothills of the Tokosha Mountains, at the base of Mount McKinley--known locally as Denali.
Life as an ATV outfitter sounds like a dream business for many riders, and in the case of owner Roger Cafton, it's a dream come true.
Finding the Route and Right Quad**
"We started nine years ago with Argo's doing marsh tours to watch moose. It has taken some refining, but we have our trips designed efficiently and our clients really enjoy the experience," said Cafton.
During late evening rides in August, adventurers often encounter grizzly bears at one of the nearby creeks. And although the moose don't charge the trail riders like they did during the Argo days, wildlife sightings are big motivators for his clients. However, refining the company's tours was easier than refining the equipment.
Cafton has tried every major wheeler on the market and has learned what the clients like, and what ATVs are the most cost effective to operate.
"After the Argo's, we went to Honda's; and although the drive trains were bullet proof, the electrical problems were just too frequent. Arctic Cat was another brand we trialed, because a dealer close by could service the machines. However, the ride was actually too soft in the models we chose. Although we never encountered a problem, the clients felt like the machines were tippy. Unfortunately, Polaris machines were problematic and Suzuki's were in the shop more than we liked," said Cafton.
In the last few years, the company has settled on Yamaha Grizzlies 350 and 450 autos without power steering.
"We have barely ever had a problem with any of the Grizzlies. The oil is changed every two weeks, and the other fluids are replaced once a summer. They've been outstanding in the dependability department, and the clients feel the ride is comfortable and stable," Cafton said.
Most of Cafton's clients are older, 45 to 70 years old, and the majority has never driven an ATV in their lives. The company often receives gratifying comments with many riders saying they had so much fun that they'll go home and buy an ATV.
It's rewarding work to take riders into the wilderness, and Cafton said they'll keep taking riders as long as they keep coming to Alaska.