Sheriff, major return from 7,000-mile charity ride
Motorcycle trip from Alaska benefits Special Olympics

LAWRENCEVILLE - Nearly running out of gas, wild animal encounters and missing your chance to cross a national border might not be the tales most tell when they return from a multi-week trip, but for the sheriff and his fellow travelers, he said these things made it an adventure.

Nearly 7,000 miles later, Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway and Maj. Mike Powell returned to the county Monday after a three-week-long charity motorcycle ride from Alaska to Key West, Fla.

The two embarked June 17, flying to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to begin their trek with 39 other motorcycle enthusiasts as part of the 2007 Iron Torch Ride to benefit Special Olympics of Georgia.

The group raised approximately $160,000 as of Wednesday, about $50,000 of that raised by the Sheriff's Department, for the Olympics and are still taking donations on the department's Web Site at www.gwinnettcountysheriff.com.

"It was a great cause and a great way to raise money," Conway said. "I really thank Ed Christian, a Kennesaw detective, who arranged the trip. Ours was the largest group to ever complete the ride. He (Christian) had to keep up with everyone and I tell you trying to keep up with all of us was like trying to herd cats."

Glad to be back, Conway and Powell said they had a great time and described the trek as anything but ordinary, with obstacles every step of the way.

"That gravel was brutal," Conway said of the rocky first 500 or so miles of the trip. "There were places where you had to drive in the truck tracks because the gravel was so high elsewhere. And even in those tracks you had to avoid baseball-size rocks."

In addition to bouts of harsh terrain and drastic changes in weather, plus bear, moose and reindeer sightings, the duo dealt with long days with not much time for sleep before the next day's ride.

"In Prudhoe Bay the sun was up 24 hours a day and you get to Canada and dusk doesn't hit until 10 or 11 at night, Conway said. "We didn't sleep much."

The two said some of the largest obstacles of the trip were keeping their gas tanks full while traveling in remote areas and coming to the Alaskan-Canadian border only to find the border closed.

"We almost ran out of gas five times," Conway said. "Once we stopped and this woman had half a gallon of gas in her lawn mower gas can and I bought that from her until I could fill up. There's not a lot open in these small towns. Places would close early. One place refused to sell us gas after hours. Another time we found a place that was closed, but the woman inside opened everything so we could fill up."

Conway said he and Powell also arrived at the border too late to cross on the day they had expected.

"There's about a four-hour time difference and when we arrived it was too late to get over," Conway said. "So I called my wife and she got on the Internet to find us a place to stay that night. We actually did that a couple of times."

Among the long days, miles of road and battling physical exhaustion, both said the trip gave way to once-in-a life time experiences and sights.

"At one point we topped a hill and came up on a herd of about 100 cattle with the cowboys and all herding them," Conway said.

Stopping in several cities throughout Alaska, Canada and the United States, Powell and Conway said the support from community members who heard of the group's efforts was also profound.

"The Special Olympic athletes that greeted us at each of the three locations was just wonderful. In Memphis, Tenn., each one had a sign with each of the bikers' names. They were very appreciative," Powell said. "And so many others would greet us and say thank you."

As for a favorite stop on their trip, Powell said he couldn't choose.

"The scenery was so good from one end to another, I don't know if you could pick," Powell said. "There were so many great places and interesting people."

Conway said the people were his favorite part of the trip.

"The neatest thing was in Great Falls, Mont. This old rancher was up on his truck clapping with his hands overhead as we rode by," Conway said. "It was really great to see that type of support. That was the neatest thing of the whole trip."

As far as plans to take the trip again, Conway and Powell said it was a one-time deal.

"It's crazy to do it once. It's just stupid to do it twice," Conway said.