This Entry is Like This

I’ve been reflecting a lot on my own suffering.

Suffering, as I am coming to learn, is an all-encompassing word for the painful emotional component that I allow my day-to-day difficulties to possess.

Suffering, then, is the component of my struggles with which I can theoretically find peace.

So, when I say that I’ve been reflecting on my own suffering, what I really mean is that I have been thinking a lot about the emotional worlds that I’ve been stepping into while dealing difficulties of living in this world.

And consequently, I’ve been thinking about the process of stepping out of those worlds.

How does this happen? It certainly does. The objective facts of life’s challenges remain unchanged from one minute to the next. Yet the experience of living with them can change so dramatically and so rapidly. I can be soaring over them. Yet I can also be crawling through them.

So, meditation. The endless process of reflection, examination, and release of emotions.

Yet emotions are often wrapped up in thoughts and ideas. And these ideas, the ideas I have about what is going on in my world, they are powerful, and are not easily relinquished.

So, meditation. The endless process of reflection, examination, and release of thoughts and ideas.

What gives thoughts so much power? Why can a harmful idea cement itself so certainly that, even when its content is intellectually known to be poisonous and detrimental by its thinker, it can still justify its presence? What is preventing its release?

I have learned that I can easily hang on to poisonous ideas, because at least they are something. It is difficult for me to accept that the struggles of life might not have a reason, or might be out of my control. A poisonous idea is a reason, if not a sufficient one. It is an explanation, and, importantly, it gives me a sense of control.

Of course, this control is an illusion, as is the objectivity of the explanation. Everything changes. And to believe that I have or can have complete control over the day-to-day difficulties of life, to believe that I can somehow craft a world in which such difficulties and such changes are non-existent, that is a poisonous idea.

That is suffering.

So, again, meditation. What are the stories that govern my life? What do I subconsciously define to be me, outside of which I react with aversion or revulsion? Is this definition suitable? Is it in need of revision? Is it even necessary?

Improvisation

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How does one get themselves and their bicycle from latitude 68 to latitude 48? Preferably in a jiffy with the onset of winter imminent?

Well, there are many ways, some easy and some hard. When I first began sorting out the logistics of this trip, I concluded that there were two flights I would need to get home successfully: one from Inuvik to Dawson City, and one from Dawson City to Vancouver. With those in place, I was able to carry out all of the really exciting preparations without distraction. Purchasing those tickets was a mere triviality, one that I would deal with when the time came. Now, that time had come.

You dear reader, have surely already concluded that I did not choose this method. It somehow felt inappropriate, anticlimactic, and I just wasn’t ready to be sitting on an ordinary couch in a familiar room wistfully staring into a blank wall. Not yet.

So what happened?

September 1, 2014

Inuvik

I spent the day answering emails and messages. We went fishing on the Mackenzie River – a labyrinth of waterways, and I caught my first: a pike! The weather was just great. It was so sunny and dry. The late afternoon sunlight teased subtle shades of yellow from the tall grass on the riverbanks. Huge, dead trunks rested here and there, evidence of just how high the river delta rose during its peak performance. We saw Grizzly Bear footprints. Riding in the fishing boat, watching the world drift by like a diorama, it was a peaceful time.

He was born a ramblin' man.

Looking for bear paw prints.

The duct tape patch is more meaningful than any boy scout badge.

Scruffy gentleman.

It was hard to believe this area would all be flooded in half a year or so.

A thoughtful spot.

September 2, 2014

Inuvik – Dawson City

Early in the morning, Xavier and I started our search for a lift south. For that is what I (and he) had decided was the most interesting way back to paved roads and power lines. Once in Dawson City, where we would part ways, I would search for another ride further south, and he would continue west towards Anchorage, Alaska, a route that, incidentally, had him retracing many of the kilometres I had covered prior to our meeting.

Our first stop was the local campground, which was pretty much deserted. At the advice of a tourism agent, we put up notices at both the visitor’s centre and post office. Then we sat and waited, for what else could we do? While we sipped coffee at the Mackenzie Hotel, the waitress informed us that a friend of hers was also intending to head south today. The connection sounded promising, so I left my contact information with her, sharing an optimistic glance with Xavier. Meanwhile, we headed out to the highway to try hitchhiking. Again, no luck, but it was better than sitting and waiting.

After about an hour, we went back into town to check for messages. A lady working at another nearby hotel flagged us down, thinking that our departure from and reentrance into Inuvik were indicative of bike problems or injuries. Even after we assured her of our (and our bikes’) health, she insisted in inviting us into her hotel lobby where she offered us juice, cereal, and wifi.

A message came, and we had gotten our ride to Dawson. We were going to leave in a couple of hours. Sweet!

However, two hours turned into six, as our chauffeur could not seem to decide what he needed to prepare before leaving. Pack this. Pack that. Have a smoke. Drive to the gas station. Charge phone. Smoke. Eat some pasta. Smoke. Drive back to the gas station. Drive to the store. Drive back home for whatever. Would we ever leave??

Even when we finally did leave, it was painfully slow. Stop at a food truck. Smoke. Stop at Mackenzie River. Stop for phone calls. Smoke. About every 10th cigarette was a joint, by the way, and by the time we were out of town, I was feeling the beginnings of a contact high.

His white-knuckle driving couldn’t distract Xavier and I from the fact that there was snow in the Richardson Mountains. We had skirted winter by two or three days.

This was one of many smoke breaks...

Snow!

Near midnight we arrived at the Arctic Circle, where he proceeded to exit the vehicle and dump a giant bucket of ice water on himself while I filmed him. Those of you familiar with the “Ice Bucket Challenge” will know what this is about. For those of you unfamiliar, check this out. I couldn’t really fault his heart in all this, but I was beginning to seriously question his sanity. Now he had the shakes; whether it was from the cold or from the substances he continued to suck into his body, I’m not sure. More smoking. More joints. Faster driving. God help us.

At this point, the Northern Lights became visible for several hours, the first time I’d seen them since what seemed a lifetime ago on the Top of the World Highway.

At around 5am, we cruised into Dawson City, where he fortunately let us crash in the hotel he was sharing with his brother. I’m sure my legs were shaking when I finally stepped out of his truck for the last time. It was one of the sketchiest hitchhiking experiences I had ever had.

September 3, 2014

Dawson City

Because of our late arrival, I was out of commission until around noon. What finally brought me back to reality was the resonant chorus of two exceptional snorers.

Xavier and I gratefully paid $50 each for our ride from Inuvik, and then we headed for Alchemy, the coffee shop that was full of so much character. It was closed for winter-proofing, though. Ah yes, winter. It was a warm and slightly overcast day, and, even though we passed through a snowstorm on the Richardson Mountains just the previous evening, winter still seemed a far off and insignificant problem. Yet there were other telltales of summer’s close: a school bell ringing, a dramatic drop in tourism. It felt so weird to be revisiting a place we’d been only two weeks earlier. So much had happened since then, and now, back in Dawson, it was as if the entire Dempster experience were a dream. The modernity of this quaint heritage town felt alien.

While we sate having coffee, a gal approached us, fresh off of a bike ride from Whitehorse, looking to hitchhike to Anchorage, as the weather was getting too cold for her to continue. I saw Xavier light up at the thought of more company, and I considered joining them. It was so difficult to imagine heading back into the regular world. Maybe I could connect to the ferry line in Anchorage? I mulled it over and realized that I needed to head south, and quickly. The warm weather in southern BC would soon come to an end, and I didn’t want to miss it.

For the rest of the day, we were three instead of two. Krisztina joined us for lunch and a trip to the tourism info centre. She was currently staying with Dawson’s only Warmshowers host, and soon so too were Xavier and I. This was a real treat since we were going to be staying in a propane-heated cabin in a still-active gold mine.

Later in the cabin, I encouraged Krisztina to do the ride, to brave a bit of discomfort. I knew that, if I were in her position, I would feel very frustrated with myself if I were to succumb to the elements. But then, at what point does resolve become stupidity?

September 4, 2014

Dawson City – Whitehorse

I woke up at 5:30 am. Amazingly, a kind lady at the tourism info centre in Dawson had worked out a ride to Whitehorse for me. Shelley was part of a ten-person team heading to Skagway to take part in a relay race from Skagway to Whitehorse. She graciously drove 15 km down the dirt road to Goldbottom Mine and picked me and my bike up.

As we drove down the Klondike Highway, I realized just how much better my detour had been. Perhaps vehicular travel dampened the effect of the Yukon wilderness?  No, I think the Klondike Highway was simply quite remote and generally less remarkable than the Alaska Highway. It was funny when we zoomed past the occasional truck stop at 100+km/hr. If I were cycling, those places would have been mandatory rests!

Shelley dropped me off at a bike store in Whitehorse where I could finally take care of my rear derailleur pulley, now worn down to a circle with barely discernible nubs. I also changed my pedals. My new gold platforms were quite stylish.

In the bike shop, I met Cathrine, a beautiful woman who’s bike was identical to mine: an olive green Surly LHT. She was on the brink of a long bike tour, possibly an indefinite one. Perhaps it was a personal reinvention, since her two kids were now completely independent. She was very friendly, and I was feeling confident, so I asked her if I could camp in her backyard. It turned out that she was a Warmshowers host! Now that was a coincidence. After she gave me her address, I went grocery shopping and email checking, both at places I’d done the same things at my last time through. Had it really only been a month? It felt like years. Travelling fills each day with richness. Even now, I am surprised by how serendipitous and life-affirming nearly every experience I’ve had has been. What a world.

I brought a bottle of wine to Cathrine’s place. Her house was in complete disarray, and I realized just how much truth there was in her earlier allusions towards upheaval and personal reinvention.

It felt a privilege to be in the presence of someone so committed to changing the course of her life. The moment of decisiveness can be such heady excitement, but the follow-through can be such drudgery. We are all here in the real world, caught up in strictures that we both acknowledge and ignore. Personal revelation requires us to scrutinize and disassemble them. This can hardly be considered glamourous work. So when I saw sprawl of papers, books, old furniture, etc. in Cathrine’s house, I didn’t just see an unruly mess. I saw the now irrelevant trappings of an old life lying in waste. It was beautiful.

September 5, 2014

Whitehorse – Skagway, 115km cycling, 70km hitchhiking

Cathrine was an unbelievable cook, and both dinner the previous night and breakfast this morning were fantastic. I departed her place with my panniers stuffed with leftovers and other goodies. It was pouring rain, but I had booked my ferry from Skagway to Prince Rupert. I’d learned that it’d been wet in Whitehorse for many days, and it didn’t look to be letting up soon. I couldn’t afford to wait it out.

Despite the downpour, I was in a great mood. Last time I had ridden this route, the wind had been so terrible. Today felt effortless. I put on some tunes and savoured the adventure of it all.

Not 20 km down the road, a car passed me and pulled over. It was my hosts from my first stop in Dawson! They had been in Whitehorse now for five days, delaying their trip down the Stewart-Cassiar because of the intense rainfall. Another improbable connection. When I told them of my intentions to shuttle down to Prince Rupert via the Alaska Marine Highway, they told me that they were thinking similarly because of how late in the season it was. Perhaps I would have company on the ferry?

I rode to Carcross without stopping, never ceasing to be amazed at just how much easier the road was without the wind. Well, not completely without: the rain let up for the last 20 km, and then of course the wind picked up. There was no winning with this highway.

Occasionally, when the clouds lifted, I would see a familiar hill or lake and be overcome with melancholy. Fall was now well underway here, and it was as if I were venturing into a sepia-saturated dream of my previous visit here. Summer, and with it my incredible ride into Northern Canada, was coming to a close. I was about to leave the Yukon Territories. Surely, this was but a “à bientôt,” not an “au revoir.”

My second Autumn.

Retracing my memories on the way to Carcross.

I arrived in Carcross early in the afternoon, stopping briefly at the massive lake nearby before heading to the visitor’s centre. The employees were all unfamiliar, but the were just as friendly as before. I was able to thaw my feet, charge my phone, and sip on warm black tea while I thought about where I would spend the night.

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A familiar scene.

I glanced at the weather forecast for Carcross/Skagway and shuddered: flood warnings for the surrounding area and wind gusts up to 70 km/hr. Carcross was already windy, and though it wasn’t raining at the moment, dark clouds loomed all around. I suddenly became worried about being stranded and missing my ferry, a feeling exacerbated by the ominous warnings of the tourism agents:

“It can get incredibly windy here.”

“This is the wettest summer on record.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Thanks guys…

With these thoughts in mind, I decided to try hitchhiking as close to Skagway as possible, riding into town a day early. I didn’t want to risk the entirety of White Pass in an onslaught of wind, rain, and fog. I had already ridden the route, so I didn’t feel too guilty in doing this.

Because of the previously mentioned relay race from Skagway to Whitehorse, traffic along the Southern Klondike Highway was plentiful, and I was picked up within an hour. They drove me as far as Fraser, about 12 km shy of the summit. As we reached the alpine boundary, I knew I was going to be in for it. The van was shaking in the wind, and nearby wisps of cloud slithered swiftly through the valley.

It took at least 90 exhausting minutes to reach the summit. It was some of the worst weather I had ever experienced. The wind was possibly stronger than forecasted in Skagway, and visibility dropped as I climbed into the clouds. Even my easiest gear seemed insufficient as I crawled along the shoulder. I was glad for my strong lights, and I hoped that drivers would be on the lookout for crazy cyclists.

When I finally started to descend, I was greeted by the strangest sight: runners, tons of them. Of course! The relay. They were dressed in wild costumes, some of them nearly naked. A nearly constant stream of support vehicles were following them up the pass, offering support and snapping photos.

Most of the runners ignored me, but a few offered smiles of solidarity. We were all a bit mad to be exposing ourselves to the elements in such atrocious conditions. Some of the support vehicles called out in support of me on their megaphones. It was quite dark at this point, and even the customs officer couldn’t keep a straight face when he saw this soaking wet cyclist waiting patiently in line to cross the border into Alaska.

Finally in Skagway, I headed to the hostel, a decision I’d made about 10 numb fingers earlier. First though, I swung by the library, which was surprisingly still open. The same dude – Doug – was working, and he offered up a spare bedroom for the following evening.

The hostel, at $32/night, wasn’t cheap, but I had recently been reflecting on the sheer volume of generosity and hospitality I had received, from free hotels to free cabins. It felt right to give back. That said, I was glad it was only going to be for one night.

The Final Frontier

~370km (~4460km total)

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Thursday, August 28

Eagle Plains Lodge – Rock River Campground, ~77km

I was awake just before six, well rested and rearing to go. I walked around the lodge, feeling incredibly privileged for what looked to be another beautiful day. The fog that clung to the valley floors was already beginning to clear, and the morning sun was just starting to creep over the sleepy RVs, tents, trucks, buildings, and bicycles.

Bob continued to be an incredible host. He made fresh coffee for us in the morning, along with several pieces of toast. He then filled our panniers with protein bars, energy goos, and cookies on the pretence that he “just didn’t need all that food.” If the brilliance of the northern autumn was nourishment for our senses, then encounters with people like Bob were nourishment for our souls. He was a man with transparent and honest face, uninhibited enthusiasm, and a genuine desire to be good to others.

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A shot of the gentlemen.

Eagle Plains Lodge sits atop of a long ridge that forms the southern border of the Eagle River valley. Beyond the river, the last hills of the Eagle Plain merge with the foothills of the mighty and ancient Richardson Mountains. Their beauty was simply beyond what I could have imagined, and when my eyes chased the Dempster as it snaked into and out of that valley before disappearing in the final remnants of the unglaciated plains, I felt so satisfied about what I had done and what I was about to do.

There was a sign on the highway warning of muddy roads ahead. No surprise, since it had rained for most of the previous night. The 8km descent to Eagle River was a treacherous one over loose gravel and mud. I rode the brakes the entire way down. The ascent out of the valley was similarly surfaced, and it must have taken at least an hour to finish.

But when we finally did summit, the fog was gone, the sky was clear, the sun was high in the sky, and the western wind kissed our faces. The Richardson Mountains now loomed even closer.

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Nearing the Richardson Mountains.

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No worse for wear.

More ups and downs for the next 20km or so, some big and some small. The road surface had significantly improved since we left the valley. Vast fields of blazing tundra covered most of the plain now, a sea of amber veined with magenta, auburn, and crimson.

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Nearing the Arctic Circle.

Just before click-post 406, we arrived at the Arctic Circle, where there was a rest area looking over the now prominent Richardsons. All that lay between us and their soft domed peaks was a sweeping valley of tundra that slowly gave way to scars of lichen as it rose. This was truly another world, an anachronism from prehistory. I mean, the world is of course very old, and each jagged crag and gaping fissure bears witness to its tumultuous and violent past, but this place just breathed it. Everything was unfamiliar and unscathed, as if left in a state of primordial preservation. It was a land wrought with mathematical purity and sculpted with supernatural precision. Welcome to The Arctic.

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Picnic time at the Arctic Circle.

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Posing.

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Surveying.

We followed the foothills for the next 40km until we reached the Rock River Campground, the last Yukon territorial park along the Dempster. We learned from another camper that we had just passed through the muddiest section of the road, yet for us it had been almost completely dry! Considering the stories we had been told by other travellers about the near impassability of this road at its worst, we had been incredibly lucky, not just today, but overall. I wondered: if I had left but one day earlier or later, would my ride have been different?

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Climbing out of a hole in the earth.

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A bit of perspective.

The campground shelter was yet another oasis. A swift river gurgled nearby, and the much taller spruces nestled around it and its valley were an effective shelter from the wind. We were two happy cyclists, dry and secure.

Friday, August 29

Rock River Campground – Fort McPherson, ~106km

Definitely a cold night. I pulled my food bag down off the bear-proof contraption from which it hung, and it was covered with frost. Nonetheless, cold nights are clear nights, and the morning, now well underway, had retained that clarity. There was not a cloud in the sky. It was time for another gorgeous day on the Dempster.

Xavier again set off 5-10 minutes before me. Once leaving the campground, I climbed out of the densely forested river valley and was soon back on the endless fields of tundra. I was approaching Wright Pass, the highway’s highest point through the Richardson Mountains. The land was so open, so spacious, that my sense of scale was obfuscated. The road was visible as far as I could see, a filament of silver among fields of gold.

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Nearly the entirety of Wright Pass.

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Time to stop for some glamour.

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Looking back down the ascent.

The ride to the summit was one of the more difficult climbs on the Dempster. The road was steep and unrelenting. Once I reached the top, my sense of satisfaction was mingled with confusion, for where was Xavier? I had not seen him in well over an hour, and I would typically pass him on ascents such as the one I’d just completed. I asked southbound travellers if they had seen any cyclists. Nope. So, he must have still been behind me…but how?

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No man’s land? Hanging out in between the two borders.

A northbound truck confirmed what I suspected: Xavier was behind me, about 15 minutes by car (at least an hour by bicycle). He had turned the wrong way out of the campsite! Though I was frustrated at having to wait for nearly two hours at the summit, I knew that he would be feeling pretty dumb, so I suppressed my annoyance by focusing on the sheer ridiculousness of my predicament. Here I was, alone on a mountain pass in the Arctic, exchanging messages with another cyclist by way of happenstance couriers. Several of the passing motorists had even offered me coffee to stay warm, and when Xavier finally did arrive, I was being treated to a sandwich in the back of a camper.

We still wanted to make it to Fort McPherson, some 86km away, so we wasted little time breaking during the next few hours of riding. Unfortunately, the road surface had immediately deteriorated once we had arrived into the Northwest Territories. What was previously hard-packed, dry mud was now loose, golfball sized gravel. Downhills were precarious, as my bike became highly unstable if I went too fast. Uphills weren’t much better, as even the mildest grade required me to drop into my easiest ring and crawl along slowly and deliberately.

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In the midst of the Richardsons.

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Winding through the east-northeastern boundary of the mountains.

At last, we exited the Richardsons and descended into the Mackenzie Lowlands. The tundra was now behind us, and in its place was a light forest of spruce and bitch. Our sunny day looked to be rapidly coming to a close, as ominous rain clouds now dotted the sky.

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Not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, my tires, which up until this point had felt unnecessarily robust, came into their own. I dropped the pressure down to about 30psi (from 70psi), and cycled as if I were on pavement.

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Descending onto the lowlands.

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Uh oh: trouble brewing up ahead (and behind, as it turned out).

We crossed the Peel River on a cable-powered ferry. At this point, the thunderheads were amalgamating into something large and fierce. It was only a matter of time until we were in the midst of them, but for the moment, we were dry.

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Midway Lake: empty for nearly the entire year, save for a few days at the beginning of August, when an annual music festival takes place.

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Looking back.

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Thunderheads continued to develop.

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No avoiding them.

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Packing up after the Peel River crossing. The sky was now dark nearly all around us.

The final 12km into Fort McPherson were a painfully slow battle against a menacing headwind. Once we arrived, we found everything closed, all the more frustrating due to the fact that we had pushed for the town solely to resupply.

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Not the most reassuring sign.

There was a community centre in town that was open, and we were allowed to prepare our dinner there, a good thing, too, because the sky was now churning. After dinner, we realized that we were in a bit of a fix. The storm was now on the brink of whatever it was preparing to unleash. Not a drop, flake, or stone had fallen, but the sky teemed with inevitability. Camping within the town was impractical, as there were mischievous kids roaming the streets whom I’d learned from other travellers couldn’t resist antagonizing strangers such as ourselves. Camping outside of town was no longer viable, as the cloud cover had hastened the night’s onset, and we needed to stay close to resupply the next day.

At a loss, I asked a local radio host, on air from within the community centre, if there was any nearby shelter in which a couple of cyclists might take refuge. She made a few phone calls and informed us that we could stay in a nearby church. Wow!

Just as the rain started coming down, we arrived at the church. A boarding teacher was also living there, but he had not been informed about our arrival. I can only imagine his confusion and anxiety at discovering two hooded strangers frantically jiggling his doorknob under the cover of darkness.

Once he learned who we were and what we were doing, he completely warmed up to us, offering full use of the church facilities and pantries. Dalweet was from Ethiopia and was teaching math and science at the local school, and he was happy to share with us what the church was sharing with him.

Sheets of rain ripped across the church, rattling off the windows and roof in a riotous din. It was a real squall. We had again found ourselves with fantastic luck and timing.

August 30, 2014

Fort McPherson – Rengleng River Pullout, ~92km

It continued to rain all morning, but we had fortunately been given permission to stay in the church as long as we needed. We hung around for a while before hunting around town for a wifi connection, still not forthcoming.

We lucked out at the local inn, where the lady running the place gave us wifi access and some complimentary coffee. These random acts of kindness were becoming so frequent that we were starting to make jokes about where we might next encounter them.

It wasn’t until 1pm that we left town. The rain was nearly gone, and, though I had misgivings about riding in the cold and unpredictable weather, Xavier wanted to push on and ideally make it to Inuvik the following day. Tsiigehtchik, 57km away, was our initial plan, and, although it initially seemed a conservative goal, it soon looked to be a surety, because the entire stretch of road between Fort McPherson and Tsiigehchik was a soupy mess of fine coarse gravel, requiring frequent cleaning stops in order to avoid complete drivetrain destruction. Every now and then, a larger pebble would work its way into the chain or between the cassette cogs, and I could almost feel it grinding away at the drivetrain with each rotation of the pedals.

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Nearing the Mackenzie River/Arctic Red River confluence, between which is nestled Tsiigehtchik, directly ahead, a small community we ultimately passed by. Dempster North lies across the river just out of the frame to the left.

A ferry at Mackenzie River operated on a  counterclockwise triangular route encompassing Dempster South (our location), Tsiigehtchik, and Dempster North. When we arrived, the ferry was berthed at Dempster North, and Xavier had to wave his French/Canadian flag for a good 15 minutes before the operator finally noticed us.

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Trying to grab the ferries attention.

One of the ferry crewmen let us sit in a small crew cabin just off the car deck for two rotations of the route, giving us an opportunity to warm up (my feet were numb) and make some food. Oh…he also gave us some coffee! It turns out he knew the teacher whom we stayed with in Fort McPherson, a coincidence not so uncommon up here, where the entire population sometimes felt like one big community.

Feeling energized, we decided to do another 34km late in the day. Now well into the delta, the road was often perfectly straight and flat for long stretches, reminding me of many roads through the prairies. Boring for some, perhaps, but I was briefly transported to another time, another tour, and a flood of good memories washed over me.

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After not riding for 30-40 minutes on the ferry, hills like this are a welcome sight. Summiting them will warm up even the chilliest cyclist.

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Northern prairies.

The penultimate day of a tour is often the best one, I’ve discovered. Life is still just the road. “Normal” routine and duties haven’t yet become a reality, and blissful recollection doesn’t feel like a selfish indulgence. Of course, I wasn’t even close to that reality. I still had to get home. Even so, with one more “official” day on the road, I allowed myself a personal pleasure: I imagined that the ride might never end, that perhaps the Dempster Highway had a secret extension, either west to the northern limit of the Rocky Mountains; north into the Arctic archipelago over impossibly large bridges; or east into Nunavut, Canada’s largest and least populated territory.

A few turns of the road later and I was out of my reverie. We had reached Rengleng River. Time to camp! There were maybe five other vehicles already there. Before we knew it, we were sitting around the campfire having beers and stir fry with locals from Inuvik taking advantage of the season’s final long weekend. Serendipity on a cold night on the cusp of winter.

August 31, 2014

Rengleng River Pullout – Inuvik, ~94km

Cold morning. It took about 45 minutes of cycling to warm up my hands (even with gloves). For some reason, I was in a hurry. I listened to music, for only the third time on this tour, to help pass the morning more quickly. I remembered this feeling from other restless days. Even thought the distance was easily manageable, I couldn’t help thinking of the constant click posts, steadfast reminders of how little or how far I’d travelled. It didn’t help that the terrain was unremarkable. There were no distractions or interjections to break the day into digestible chunks. Just endless road and forest. A few turns, some small hills. Boring.

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Boring? Sometimes, it’s all relative.

We stopped for lunch about 60km into the day at a territorial campground. Their shelters were even nicer than those in Yukon campgrounds, though I imagine that it would have been far more difficult to discreetly camp in them, as all NWT parks thus far had had a full-time gate attendant.

Lunch was a light and silly affair. Our spirits were high, and the smallest incident drove us to fits of unrestrained laughter. Only 34km remained. We were going to make it. Conquer the Dempster. Our optimism was now iron-clad. 34km. Doable in any circumstances. And the sun was coming out. We were going to finish in stye.

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Inuvik lies just over that distant hill.

10km out of town, the ~725km of unpaved road gave way to asphalt. What a luxury! Only a few more turns now. A few more hills…

We arrived in Inuvik and spent some time setting up good photos at the “End of the Dempster” poster board. The first person to greet us was ironically from Pennsylvania, and his thick accent and drunken behaviour were a hilarious surprise. Welcome to the northern limit of road access in Canada!

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Finish line!

The second person to greet was also from away: a Calgary gal who just moved to Inuvik for work. In fact, she had also just completed a X-Canada bike tour this summer (though she had traversed the longitudes).

In Inuvik, we connected with a friend of Xavier’s for a place to crash. Of course Xavier would have a friend from France who just so happened to be volunteering in Inuvik! One final serendipitous coincidence to conclude his and my travels together. We all went out for celebratory beers at a local dive. Suddenly, life was ordinary again. We were just a few more blokes having a few beers in a ubiquitous establishment. Why wasn’t Inuvik remarkable? Perhaps it was a town cursed with the romantic allure of its location, and no matter what it offered, it wouldn’t be able to live up to the anticipation that its eight day approach generated. Perhaps a journey like ours along the Dempster was simply utilitarian for many, and the magic of our ride wasn’t some intrinsic property of the route.

I guess the most challenging of finishing a Big Ride is coming to terms with the “ordinaryness” of life off the bike, not being constantly saturated with the richness of the undiscovered. The ride was not six hours old, and I was already feeling suffocated by the day-to-day realities of the lives of others.

Yet the ride wasn’t over. Not yet. I still had to get home. Somehow.

Strange Lands

~415km (~4090km total)

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Friday, August 22

Dawson City

There was an RV park in town where I was able to do a load of laundry, something desperately needed. Residents and foreigners alike wandered in and out of the building during the several hours I was there, and they were almost always curious. The city was clearly a tourism hot spot during the summer, but even the locals seemed genuinely interested to chat with “yet another” cyclist coming through town.

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Downtown Dawson City

Soon after I had stowed away my now dry gear, a massive rainstorm rolled through town. Events like these had been common this summer, though highly unusual for the area. I wondered what that meant was in store for me as I headed north. The weather had definitely been getting colder, especially at night. This, coupled with the sporadic rain showers, left me fretting about my preparedness. Was I leaving too late?

I ended up shipping my bike shoes home in favour of a more rugged and weather-resistant pair of Merrell hikers, and I finally located a water filter, something I had been looking for ever since leaving Haines Junction.

I had dinner again at Klondike Kate’s, this time with a Swiss girl whom I met at Alchemy – a local hip organic cafe – earlier in the day. After dinner, we went down to Bombay Peggy’s to share a few drinks. At some point during the evening, I decided it would be a good idea to sit down at the pub piano and show the crowd what’s what. Unfortunately for me, the bartender was of the mind that the only good ruckus was revenue generating ruckus, and so my act was quickly silenced under the pretense of it being too loud for the residents living above the bar, even though said bartender had no problem when things really picked up later in the evening.

With a bit of a buzz on, we left the pub in search of the Aurora Borealis. Would I get lucky twice? The conditions appeared to be perfect – no clouds and frigid air – but the lights never made an appearance. Perhaps it was for the better. With eyes fixed heavenward, it’s easy to miss what’s around, and the outskirts of Dawson City, where we eventually ended up, were the perfect place for a thoughtless, meandering stroll. Just to the southwest, the Klondike River merged with the mighty Yukon, and, back towards town, the Midnight Dome loomed black behind the the city lights, a featureless void swallowing up much of the horizon. Across the river, I could hear the odd car zig-zagging down the last serpentine kilometres of the Top of the World Highway.

Leonie drove her car back to her campsite and I trailed along on my bike, grateful for yet another chance to share a camping space.

Saturday, August 23

Dawson City

The day began again at Alchemy Cafe. This time I opted for breakfast along with coffee, and I was not disappointed. Pricey, yes, but exceptional. I had been having some issues with my rear derailleur, and I was clean out of chain lube, so I had thrown out a request to the Facebook bike touring group for some assistance, hopefully in the form of a Macgyver-like solution to my mechanical woes.

Barely an hour after my request, I received an answer from a guy who, along with his wife, had just ridden south from Inuvik along the road I was soon to take.  He had lube! It was a fortunate coincidence that he was still in town, and, not to be content with merely offering some mechanical assistance, he offered me a floor to crash on for the evening. Excellent!

I spent the day traipsing around Dawson City with Leonie; this included a trip to the local farmer’s market, where I had one of the best carrots I’d tasted in recent memory. Once we parted ways, I started seriously investing in groceries for the next four to six days, for tomorrow, I was to be off. I had met a dude from France, Xavier, who was also heading up the Dempster. It seemed too serendipitous to pass up the chance for a riding buddy, and, while I had misgivings, I cast them aside in the spirit of spontaneity.

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They’re making markets for anything, these days!

This deserves a little elaboration, for a reader might think, “What misgivings? Surely an experience such as yours is one only bolstered with companionship?” (does anyone still talk like this?) Let me explain. For the entire tour thus far, there had been two focal points: the Top of the World Highway and the Dempster Highway, each of them looming largely in my peripheral vision whenever I pulled out the map. Of course, the thought that the entire odyssey was about only those two roads, while perhaps even being enough to inspire this adventure in the first place, was one, thankfully, completely shattered by the overwhelming majesty of Canada. Every road, from the imposing and inspiring Stewart-Cassiar Highway to the graceful and temperamental Haines Highway, offered an experience wholly unique and compelling. These thoughts were borne of long reflection, though, and while I was in Dawson City, I was a man preoccupied with his own solitude. The mornings and the evenings, those were for strangers and fast friends, but the daytime on the road, that was MY time. My gears were free to spin without having to mesh with others. Now, Xavier, was a threat to all that. I worried about the “purity” of my experience, if you can call it that. I think the risk of these thoughts is that they can become self-fulfilling prophecies, for a minor misgiving can easily develop into the rift that it foretells, and since all these musings were ultimately based on one logical yet decidedly pessimistic premise, that Xavier and I would clash, I shoveled them aside and embraced my new companion, for here were we two, about to head down an impossibly remote path into an untamed land. Surely our mutual insanity would be the sustenance of our bond.

Back in Dawson, I was now filled to the brim with provisions, and all that I needed to do to conclude the day was stop by the local hostel, whose owner was an experienced bike tourist who could possibly help me with my derailleur problems, and rendezvous with my hosts for the evening…whom I could not find. In fact, I had stopped by their address many times throughout the day to touch base, and, though I saw their bikes on the porch, they were nowhere to be found.

Deiter, who ran the hostel, could unfortunately not help me, and it looked like I would be heading out of town with a slightly maimed drivetrain. Damn. Of all the worries to have on the road, the bike should never be one of them!

Just when I had about given up hope of finding my elusive hosts, they hollered at me from down the street. Seems their day had been just as packed as mine. I was grateful to finally meet up and chill out for a bit.

Spending as much time as I did in Dawson, I still didn’t feel that I had a good picture of the place: its history, its pedigree, its economy. Yet in spite of that I knew that I loved the place. Dawson is a perfect mix of old and new, of careful preservation and progressive modernity. There is but one paved road in town, and there are countless old but well-preserved buildings still in use. Shop signs all have a personalized charm, and there are wooden slatted sidewalks lining every street. Tour guides, dressed in traditional garb, mingled with wide-eyed travelers adorned in the latest and greatest. The young and the young-at-heart were both well-represented. It was a shame that so many of the businesses were summer-only, as this was a place where I would love to live and work. The winters would be legendary, though, and it was already cold.

I slept in the middle of an empty room, a brief moment of solitude before the big ride. Well, maybe not solitude, but I do enjoy injecting a little intensity into the menial. After all, is anything truly menial on such a grand adventure?

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Church in Dawson

Sunday, August 24

Dawson City – Tombstone Campground, ~115km

Before meeting with Xavier, I stopped by a gas station to fill my gas tank and pick up a coffee to sip on and warm up. It never ceases to amaze me how universal some societal tropes are, in this case the morning gas station coffee rush, complete with all the usual characters. The annoying yet endearing man who lingers behind the counter to chat with the attendant; the woman who can’t find her needlessly exact change; the man who manages to make the coffee area look like a hurricane went through it: they were all present. Perhaps I was just more attuned to these particular niceties, having worked at a gas station for many years in the past.

About 10am, Xavier and I set off. I was incredibly excited. Even though the Dempster was still 40km away, I couldn’t help but look for its inevitable junction around every corner, thinking that perhaps my senses were misconstruing the passage of time and that I was already very near its looming Left Turn.

Soon enough, we arrived at the junction and broke for lunch. Looking down the road, I wondered how it was possible that such an inconspicuous gravel road had enough momentum to make it all the way into the arctic. In my mind, dead end roads begin deteriorating the moment they leave the “main drag,” and this highway was in rough shape already! Tales of tire-shredding shale and endless flat tires rolled through my head.

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Xavier and I at the start of the Dempster.

And we were off! About 500m of pavement, a bridge, and then a dirt road for 736km to Inuvik. My first major impression: the road wasn’t so bad. It was just a matter of finding a good, dry, pothole free line. This wasn’t always straightforward, but it wasn’t a big chore either. It helped keep me in the present, a nice antithesis to the click-posts, spaced every 2km, that served to constantly remind me of my progress (or lack thereof).

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The end of the pavement.

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Yikes!

Sights and sounds were for the most part reminiscent of those throughout the rest of the Yukon. Fall was well underway now, and yellow, red, orange, green all shared equal real estate among the boreal forest. There was no wind, and the silence was breathtaking simply breathtaking. Only after I became accustomed to it could I pick up on the activity around me: chirping birds, buzzing bugs, and a distant churning river.

As we headed north, the Tombstone Mountains, an offshoot of the Ogilvie Mountain Range, rose out of the horizon. We were heading uphill for the majority of the Dempster today. Not until tomorrow would we reach the mountain pass at the far end of the campground we were aiming to camp at in the evening.

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Approaching the Tombstones.

The mountains soon enveloped us, and, as we entered the Tombstone vale, the full extent of Fall’s onset in the north became clear. Vast swaths of red bushes painted the high foothills, and small clusters of yellow birch trees accented the green spruce, which, at higher elevations, jutted out from the rocky slopes of the mountains like thorns.

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Finding the groove: the ideal spots on the highway were the tire tracks worn smooth by the infrequent yet consistent traffic.

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Getting closer to the mountains.

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The North Klondike River pulled up alongside us for part of the way today.

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Nearing the campground now. Patches of sun belied the storm that was heading our way.

Just as we arrived at the campsite, a storm rolled through. The Yukon campground shelter saved the day. In short order, we had a toasty stove going along with some fantastic camping food: Lipton’s Sidekicks, rice with srirracha sauce, pancakes with butter and jam, hot chocolate. We were almost too warm, if you can believe it, for the mosquito netting lining the perimeter of the shelter prevented much of the heat from escaping.  Rain pelted away on the roof, and I felt luxuriously comfortable. Xavier was an upbeat and enthusiastic riding partner, and our paces were different enough that I got some solitude after all. Things were panning out well.

Three more days, weather permitting, as always, to Eagle Plains. Day One of the Dempster Highway had come and gone. Was I already used to the gravel…?

Monday, August 25

Tombstone Campground – Engineer Creek Campground, ~125km

We awoke early, around 6:30am. It was cold in our shelter, for the embers we had left burning the previous evening had long since gone out. Soon, however, we had the place toasty. Outside, the last drips of an overnight rainfall were hanging off the shelter’s eaves.

We were on the road by about 8. Well, Xavier was, and I followed about 15 minutes later. Straight out of the gate, I was greeted with an 8km uphill significantly steeper than the casual grade thus far. I knew this was the summit of the pass, though, so I wasn’t bothered. As I climbed, the sun briefly peaked out, and I looked back at the Tombstone Mountains. They were covered in a dewy sheen, reflecting the subtle morning rays. Restless fog banks diffused the light. The world was waking up.

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Looking back towards the Tombstones.

After the climb, I caught up with Xavier. We were in the Blackstone Uplands. Huge fields of tundra swept away and up to the Blackstone Mountain Range to the west, a northbound chain of the expansive Ogilvies. This was one of the first moments that I really felt to be in a completely foreign world. The road meandered on a slight decline over the uplands, and we made good time for the first half of the day.

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A brisk, clear morning in the Blackstone Uplands. But it wasn’t to last…

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The Uplands, set ablaze by the blankets of fireweed.

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Looking west towards the Blackstone Range.

Soon, the promising early morning sun had all but vanished, and we were riding through a steady drizzle. A headwind that had started around 11 picked up intensity as we approached the Taiga Range, the northern edge of the Ogilvies. These huge mounds of fractured limestone, a byproduct of water erosion and frost cracking, resembled massive piles of gravel. Their stability seemed improbable, yet brown lichen covered much of their surface, and even spruce had found purchase for their roots.

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All smiles on the Dempster.

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Meet Xavier.

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A brief steeper downhill section gave a sense of perspective to our journey.

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Preparing for the worst in the empty world.

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Definitely not meant for cyclists.

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Horses. At first, they appeared to be wild, but we soon came across tracks on the side of the road that wandered off down a long driveway towards a lodging of sorts.

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Peace.

Just as the rain was picking up, the road took a sharp left and climbed for 7km, taking us out of the weather system and bringing us over Windy Pass, or Foggy Pass in our case, as visibility was near zero.

It was about 40km to Engineer Creek Campground, and we decided to go for it. I was glad we were once again on a steady decline, as the headwind, gone for the previous ascent, was back. We passed the  time playing 20 questions and pumping ourselves up for the warm shelter forthcoming.

5km from the grounds, we passed a road grader at work. The road immediately became a sticky, soupy mess. My front tire began rapidly picking up mud, which my fender cleaved off to either side, creating a profile not unlike that of a boat ripping through the water at speed. So THIS was the road we were warned about!

Mud was in everything when we arrived, and I spent an hour cleaning my bike thoroughly. If the night would stay dry – the rain had now stopped – then the road should be much better tomorrow. Because it was fresh that evening, the newly covered surface had yet to be sufficiently compacted by heavy traffic, which is what makes it passable for thin bike tires.

Dinner was so satisfying: more Sidekicks with some pepperoni and cheese, a pasta bowl donated by some nearby campers (along with a salmon and cream cheese bagel), coffee, and more pancakes. It’s amazing how quickly the frustrations of the day evaporated. We were, ideally, two days out from Eagle Plains, the next service stop. I was already feeling recharged.

It felt a bit strange to spend the entire day seeing traffic pass by maybe once per hour only to arrive at a well-populated, bustling campground. Against the flow, I think. This land was getting wilder and stranger, and now, here we were, back in some kind of civilization, albeit a transient one. Tomorrow, we would surely be wild camping, a chance to at last to let the true wildness of this rugged and untamed land settle into us as we settle into it.

But civilization is not without its virtues, and as we prepared to doze, drunken campers serenaded us with some Bob Dylan-esque campfire music, complete with acoustic guitar and harmonica. They also gave us some moose stew. A perfect evening.

Tuesday, August 26

Engineer Creek Campground – Dempster Highway km#279, ~85km

Free food given to us today:

1. 2 granola bars, 2 beer, 8L of water

A large log that we had left smoldering was still glowing, and we had a roaring fire in no time. Oats for breakfast with peanut butter. Not bored of this yet, as long as there’s some sugar. Nothing warms me up faster than warm food.

The road was dramatically improved from the previous evening, a major relief. Unfortunately, fog kept things pretty dismal. Even the massive and confounding limestone gravel mountains seemed uninteresting with their pointed conical peaks obscured from view.

The first 50km were very flat. We were now following the Ogilvie River, which presented itself shortly after we left the campground. Its northbound current was swift and turbulent, and for a time I let my mind follow it on its trip into the arctic, growing and quickening as it was joined by ever more small creeks until it merged with the Blackstone River, then the Peel River watershed which flooded into the lumbering Mackenzie River, and, finally, the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean, a journey far more intricate than mine, and probably twice as far, despite the closeness of our final destinations.

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Dismal morning.

Faint patches of blue sky enticed us all morning, but the fog was unrelenting.

The major challenge for the day was the accurately named Seven Mile Hill, our ascent onto the Eagle Plain. Much of the hill was being graded at the time, and it was a slow crawl for several hours. There was one false summit followed by another 2km or so of climbing until we finished it. When we reached the top, we were rewarded with a great panorama: to the southeast, a final glimpse of the northern end of the Ogilvie Mountains, and to the northeast, gentle hills leaping off into the distant horizon flecked with a sparse forest and shrubs.

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Looking back down the Seven Mile Hill.

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A little ways yet to the summit.

As we at lunch at the rest stop, the clouds shifted around, slowly revealing the complex beauty of the barren, distant range and bringing richness to the fall colours. It was up here that we received another gift of food: 2 beers, 2 granola bars, and 8L of water, courtesy of two separate truck and trailer combos. Nice, curious people as always.

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The Northern Ogilvies.

Onto the Eagle Plains now, the ups and downs kept coming in a style reminiscent of the Top of the World Highway. The road condition also deteriorated enough to make the uphills even trickier and the downhills a frenetic and jittery joyride.

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Sunshine on the Eagle Plains.

The late afternoon light was transforming the mountains into something magical, and we ended up setting up camp a bit early so we could have the epic view as our backdrop. Xavier constructed an ingenious tarp shelter to deal with the unpredictable weather, and it seemed to be erected not a moment too soon, as the sky, still clear to the south, was cooking up something ghastly to the northwest.

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Dudes off their bikes.

Another great five or six course dinner, and I was feeling quite pleased with myself, because my food was going to last until Eagle Plains, where my food cache was.

RE: the food cache

Back in Dawson City, across the street from the main visitor’s centre, was the Dempster Delta Northwest Territories Visitor Centre. They offered a service – amazingly for free – to travellers heading up the Dempster Highway, specifically cyclists: one could prepare a box of food and give it to the folk at the centre to be picked up at Eagle Plains Lodge, some 376km up the Dempster, and about half-way to Inuvik. Apparently, people (presumably in cars) regularly made the trip into the Arctic circle, and it was not a problem at all for them to carry an extra box or two of food along with them.

So my food cache, complete with all sorts of goodies that I’d completely forgotten about, was waiting for me a mere day away, and I had food to spare. In fact, earlier in the day, a driver passed me (Xavier and I were a ways apart at this point) on the road today, and he greeted me like so:

“Are you Joe Campbell?”

“…Yeah.”

“I have a box of food with your name on it. It was sitting in Dawson for three days before someone thought to do something about it.” (major paraphrase)

…so I suppose the system with the info centre isn’t rock solid, but at least I knew that my food certainly waiting for me a down the road! I had wondered if I might meet my courier, though I didn’t expect it to happen only one day out from Eagle Plains Lodge.

The ominous clouds ended up drifting us by and settling over the mountains to the southeast where they unleashed their fury. Incredibly fortunate we were, though I was curious to see how effective our shelter would have been.

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Idyllic camping.

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Perhaps we should’ve tried for sponsorship?

The evening’s close was one that completely eclipsed many before it. Just a gentle breeze, a near 360 degree view, cooperative weather, and a deep feeling of satisfaction were all that kept us company. 300km from Dawson City, and I had never felt more at home. The chilly northern wind did occasionally remind me of winter’s imminence, but that was another problem for another day.

Wednesday, August 27

Dempster Highway #279 – Eagle Plains Lodge, 90km

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Fog in the valleys.

A perfect morning.

The sun, just over the eastern horizon, was still covered in clouds, but they were quickly thinning and scattering. The nearby valley was blanketed in fog, the same fog that had been with us the previous morning. The Ogilvies stood steadfastly in the morning light, their subtle details enhanced by the play of the shadows.

The clouds moved away, and the day was warming up! We were off by about 9am due to a “sleep in” until 7:30. The first 10-15km were slow going. This section of the road was direly in need of treatment, and it often felt like I was travelling over an endless washboard.

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Trying terrain.

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Nearing a couple of milestones: the halfway point of our trip and the Arctic Circle.

Things eventually smoothed out (take that with a large grain of calcified, Dempster Highway grade salt), and we were able to keep a consistent pace over the rolling hills of the Eagle Plain. By midday, it was quite warm, 20 at least it felt. We stopped for a picnic at a large, flat pullout. Cotton puffs of cloud provided occasional relief from the heat, and there was a gentle, cool breeze. This was clearly the ideal time to tackle the Dempster Highway. With the inevitable and often swift onset of winter, it was surely a riskier proposition, but the rewards were becoming clear. Not a bug was to be heard, and in a place where the mosquitoes were often described as being “clouds” or “swarms” during their peak season, our circumstances felt positively deluxe.

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Picnic.

As we neared the lodge, we were given a brief glimpse of the Richardson Mountain Range from the top of a particularly large hill. Unreal. Barren peaks resembling frozen sand dunes lined the entire northeastern horizon like an ancient, petrified desert. And that was were we were headed. Yet how would we navigate towards the range and over it? How steep would the hills be? What about the vegetation? The wildlife? I couldn’t wait for the next day, if only just to answer these questions.

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The remains of a somewhat recent forest fire.

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Ok.

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A first glimpse of the Richardsons.

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Fall enroaching.

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Planted by someone with a sense of humour.

In Eagle Plains Lodge, we caught up on emails and electronics charging, and we gleefully picked up our self-administered care packages. My brand new jar of Nutella was a sight for sore eyes, as was my replenishment of Sidekicks, a favourite for the road.

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And yet no grocery store…for shame!

We made dinner by the RV park shower under a large awning. A good thing too, because rain soon swept over the area. Perhaps this was a nightly occurrence this time of year?

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Looking northeast towards the Richardsons Mountains.

The rain soon passed, and, as the sun set, I went out to a nearby viewpoint looking to the northwest. I saw the road winding away into the open tundra: tomorrow’s road. Exhausted as I was, I couldn’t wait to be on it again, exploring the world, one pedal stroke at a time. Where does this kind of excitement come from, this kind that arises when the ambitious adventurer is presented with his lot? I don’t know if I have the answer, but I do have a lot of time to think about it.

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A miraculous sunset. Look closely, and you can see the road following a gentle crest near the northern border of the Eagle Plain.

Tonight we camped behind an RV owner, Bob. What a man! He was so enthusiastic about exploration and adventure, the kind of guy whom you want the privilege of being next to during campfire stories. His eyes gleamed with excitement as he heard tales of our respective journeys and shared some of his own. Before we dozed off, he also served us an exceptional glass of wine.

Again the rain came, but this time we were safely stowed away in our tents. Bob had given us access to his RV to store our food, as the hostess of the hotel had warned us of a mischievous Grizzly in the area. I read a page or two from I can’t remember what before my eyelids would stay open no longer. A stillness came over me as I thought about my life, my decisions, everything that had led up to this moment. Surely there were a few ill-advised missteps,  a few unavoidable mistakes, and countless good, old-fashioned fuck-ups, but these were the spackle of my soul, and look where they had placed me, in the midst of something compelling and grand. At that moment, my life was one without burden and without consequence, one of complete freedom.

Weather permitting, we were four days out from Inuvik. Would our luck hold?

Into the Wild

~469km (~3675km total)

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The northern terminus on this map should say “Dawson City,” but Google Maps, in its infinite wisdom, decided that, because the Top of the World Highway is now inaccessible from Alaska (closed for the season), it will not connect communities on either side of this highway, yet still allow travel along its entire length. I’d take Google Maps road data in northern North America with a large grain of salt at this time of year.

August 17, 2014

Beaver Creek – Lakeview Campground, ~86km

After a longer sleep than anyone has any right to, I headed down to the hotel office for complimentary coffee. Bob and Karen, my culinary benefactors from the previous evening, were there visiting with the staff, and they had prepared a gift basket for me, which included several freeze dried meals. As if they were not content with the heaps of generosity they were already sending my way, they then took me off on a tour of a local museum-in-progress, curated by a Sid, whom I had met the previous day at the Beaver Creek Visitor’s Centre. He had converted his garage into a cornucopia of Alaskan and Yukon memorabilia, including several antique cars, left over from the Alaska Highway construction and the Chisana Gold Rush.

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Sexacycle touring?

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Sid’s Museum

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Old tobacco tins.

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Posing with the RCMP. It’s hard to look too serious with one pant leg shoved into a sock.

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Old wagon wheels.

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Bob and Karen (and me), fast friends in Beaver Creek.

I left Beaver Creek around 1:30pm after a heartfelt goodbye. The road towards the Alaskan border at the 141st meridian was flat and boring, but I could see distant thunderstorms – two of them – closing in. They reminded me of those I had frequently come across while crossing the prairies the previous summer, those milky blue-gray voids perched uneasily on the horizon.

The sum total of their fury amounted to a few drips across my back as I arrived at the border to Alaska. At first glance, the 60ft wide clearing of trees that extends seemingly indefinitely to the north and south, marking the 141st meridian and the border between the USA and Canada, might seem needless, even reckless. However, when compared to the often contentious north/south border that “generally” runs along the 49th parallel, this one is quite inoffensive, feeling like more of a north-south connection than a east-west restriction. The International Boundary Commission governs the maintenance of the clearing, and it is spruced up every 25 years, a process shared by Canadians and Americans. There are no plans to put a fence along the clearing, owing largely to the fact that wild animals don’t generally have citizenship (or, at least, they don’t honour it).

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Staring south down the 141st Meridian.

One thing that did immediately change when I crossed into Alaska was the highway surface. The chipseal immediately became glorious, buttery-smooth asphalt, and it remained so for the rest of the day. After a mid-afternoon beer at a border shop, I rode on into the Tetlin Wildlife Reserve.

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On the left, Yukon chipseal. On the right, Alaskan asphalt.

For the last 46km of the ride, I felt like I was perpetually climbing, which surely wasn’t the case, given that Beaver Creek and Lakeview Campground were at nearly the same elevation. The road wound through the wilderness like an errant seam on a large quilt, with nearby hills gently protruding into pleasing, symmetrical shapes. The view to the right of the road was generally obscured by these hills, but, to the left, they occasionally parted to reveal a massive, rolling valley that terminated far south at the Alaska Mountain Range.

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Smooth Highway heading west along the Alaska Highway.

Just before I arrived at the campground, a massive black bear casually ambled across the road about 30ft in front of me. I didn’t even have time to react, but it clearly wasn’t interested in meals on wheels this evening. I was glad to see that black bear behaviour was still predictable, even up here.

Some folks camping near me gave me more free food. How many days in a row had this happened now? They also gave me plenty of water, as the campground water pump (the main reason I had chosen to camp here), was broken at the moment.

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A beautiful sunset at Lakeview Campground.

The weather teetered on the edge of rain (or sun, depending on your attitude!), so I made sure my gear was covered and my tent was secure before drifting off to the sounds of countless unfamiliar bird calls.

August 18, 2014 

Lakeview Campground – Tok, ~98km 

I hastily downed breakfast and packed up my gear, sensing that rain wasn’t far off. Northway Junction wasn’t far down the road, so I stopped there for some coffee before tackling the bulk of the day.

Rain soon came, and with the headwind that had picked up, it made for a tough day, sensory deprived ride. I remember gray skies, green/yellow forests, wind, rain, and not much else. I found the best way to cope was to periodically check to see if things were getting worse (numb feet/hands, condensation in clothes). I figured, as long as the misery was constant, I could deal with it.

At one point, a guy with a camper stopped just to make a joke about my predicament. That was it. Seeing him smiling away, munching on a granola bar, using my misery for amusement was just a bit ridiculous, but at least it was someone to talk to. Chinese tourists also stopped to take a photo of me. They didn’t even get out of their cars. Crazy guy, they must have thought. At this point, I was hardly in a position to argue.

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Today’s scenery in a nutshell.

By the time I hit Tetlin Junction, the rain had finally let up, but the persistent headwind ensured that my final twenty kilometres of perfectly flat and straight asphalt where a major chore.

After hitting up a restaurant and grocery store, I happened upon a campsite that was charging a mere $11 for occupancy of an arctic tent for the evening. It didn’t take much for the owner to convince me that this was the best option in town for accommodation. She also owned a nearby hostel and invited me for pizza there, where I met another cyclist who had been waylaid in Tok for the last several days. He was in the midst of a multi-year expedition with no end in the near future.

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Cycling pals in Tok.

As I lay in the massive tent, I reflected on my trip, on how far I’d come and how far I’d yet to go. Three days until Dawson City, and another five or so until the Dempster Highway, weather permitting. I’d been travelling for about 1.5 months, an amount of time that, for others, the man I met at the hostel for example, would only be the beginning of their trip. Maybe, for the first time, the end of my trip felt physical and real, a bit too close for comfort.

August 19, 2014

Tok – West Fork Campground, ~102km 

I awoke from another fantastic sleep, and I was told that I would need it, as the Taylor Highway was a real quad-buster. Sure enough, after backtracking about 20km to the Tetlin Junction, I was immediately greeted with three miles of steep uphill, followed by two miles of downhill.

This ratio of up to down continued for the next 45km or so, with no hill being less than 1 mile long. As the road ascended, it rose above the surrounding hills, and the view opened up in every direction, surely a hint at what the Top of the World Highway was soon to offer.

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At the summit of one hill looking towards the summit of the next.

Thankfully, there was next to no wind, and this combined with the relatively light traffic provided a contrasting peaceful backdrop to the physical onslaught of the highway. If I listened carefully, I could hear cars a minute or two before they passed me, their tire noise fading in and out as they rounded the corners of hills still invisible to me.

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Big views along the Taylor Highway.

There’s something so wonderful about the huge, sweeping curves of gently rolling hills, especially when viewed from a road that seems created for their appreciation. Each rounded bend introduced several more, constantly encouraging me to keep going, to keep discovering the hidden delights of this utterly foreign landscape. It made choosing a break time challenging: “Just at the bottom of this hill” easily became “Or at the top of the next hill” many times.

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Nearby rainfall.

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Thankfully, the road veered away from these ominous looking clouds.

It turned out that the highway was approaching a pass of sorts, right along the upper slopes of Mount Fairplay, an ironic name considering the peak was home to a nasty looking rain cloud. Fortunately, the rain didn’t last long, and when the sun finally peaked out afterwards, it was stronger than ever.

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Roller coaster cycling.

The final 14 miles were nearly all downhill. I arrived at the campsite and learned that it was no longer free, as the only two year old website for the park had indicated. I didn’t have any money, so I set up camp, intending to explain my predicament to the park attendant should the need arise.

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Expansive vistas can often skew one’s sense of perspective. When I first saw the rainfall, I was worried. Then I saw where it was landing, and I relaxed a little.

A pair of Swiss bike tourists – father and son – pulled up next to me soon after. They were quite friendly, and they offered to share much of their food with me. They also offered me one of their tarps that they weren’t using, something that I hadn’t even considered thus far on my trip. Seeing them set up theirs between some trees beside their campsite, it now seemed obvious as to the benefit.

There were no mosquitos at the campsite – frost must have arrived and left some time ago – but the no-see-ums were being quite the pests. It’s interesting to observe the differences in their behaviour, especially from the safety of my tent. Mosquitos seem content to just hang out on the mesh and bide their time until this unsuspecting camper emerges. No-see-ums, on the other hand, are fidgety buggers. It’s as if they’re checking the mesh for weaknesses. Whatever the case, they haven’t found any holes in the tent so far…

August 20, 2014

West Fork Campground – Top of the World Highway Mile 1, ~78km

It rained on and off all night, and the morning air carried in it that kind of humidity that promised precipitation. I hastily packed up (I was becoming quite good at this) and had coffee with the Swiss dudes before setting off.

The road to Chicken was full of ups and downs. I don’t know what it is about cold, damp air, but it makes everything feel disgusting, and it makes me feel like my sweat has the consistency of swamp water.

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A view of the next hour or so of riding.

Sure enough, the rain came, though I wasn’t far off from Chicken. Just before entering the bustling community (population: 30), the pavement ended, and the wet gravel felt like sticky tape to ride over.

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Chicken is one of the last gold mining settlements in Alaska. Ptarmigan roam the area, and early settlers wanted to name the community for them but couldn’t agree on how to spell their name. They settled on Chicken (a bird they resemble) to avoid the embarrassment of a misspelt community name.

While staying in Chicken, the sun came out, so I hung around for several hours and hung all of my gear out to dry while I gave my drivetrain a thorough once-over. I came across a pair of hitchhikers in the town; one of them was planning on hitchhiking from Prudhoe Bay (and the Arctic Ocean) all the way to the South Pole!

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In this photo: 25% of the town of Chicken.

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Bragging rights.

After three or so hours in Chicken, I headed off with a few silly souvenirs. The gravel was good when dry, which it was when I set off, and passable when wet, which it soon became again. Because it rained. Again. The sky was filled with lumbering cumulus clouds that never revealed their true colours until they were nearly upon me. At least I could be sure that any rainstorm would be short lived.

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Truly remote cycling. The weight of the wilderness was almost palpable around here.

I made a quick pit stop at Walker Fork Campground and was very tempted to stay, given the unpredictable weather and increasingly rough road surface. My initial plan to make it to the Yukon border, another 60km away, seemed a tad ambitious now, but I decided to go for it anyway. Soon after I left the campground, a truck and camper combo drove by me slowly, seeing if I needed anything. As a matter of fact, I did: toilet paper. But I was not just given that lowly peasant paper, I was given the crème de la crème of south of the border sanitation: baby wipes. Sometimes, it truly is the little things.

The final 4 miles of the Taylor Highway were a rough and steep climb, but I knew that the first 13 miles of the Top of the World Highway were recently paved, so I pressed on. As I reached the Jack Wade Junction, I received my first glimpse of the TotW Highway, snaking its way over mound after mound, far into the distance. I paused to savour the moment. It was completely silent. There was not even a hint of wind, and the more dangerous of the cotton-like cloud clumps were quite distant now. This highway had occupied a near-mythological place in the figuring of my trip since I had first learned of it. Its name, surely one of the most evocative in the world, right up there with the Silk Road, spurred my imagination whenever it was brought up, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that a myth was becoming a reality as I rolled past mile 0. The perfect condition of the blacktop pavement added to the effect.

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The last hundred metres of the Taylor Highway. The construction sign up ahead indicated the start of the brand new (2014) asphalt surfacing.

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Anachronisms at the top of the world.

About a mile down the road, I stopped to take set up some photos and was soon greeted by a cyclist coming from the opposite direction. Iohan and I chatted well into the evening, and it soon became apparent that neither of us wanted to cycle much further. We pitched our tents on the side of the road and revelled in the awesomeness of our impromptu campsite.

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Iohan and our makeshift campsite along the side of the road.

I woke up at 1:30am (now pretty much a routine with my leaky sleeping pad) and remembered that there was a slim chance of seeing the Northern Lights at this time of year and at this latitude. I slowly unzipped the vestibule and peered out into the not unpleasant night air, but there were only clouds. Or were they? I stepped out for a better look and realized that the clouds, stretching across the sky from horizon to horizon, were glowing, shifting, shimmering. The Northern Lights! I was completely mesmerized. Bands of green and purple rippled like curtains in a solar wind. How was it possible, I wondered, that phenomena so impressive, so massive, could be witnessed by us mere humans with no averse effects? Like rainbows, they seemed to exist purely for the appreciation of sentient creatures everywhere, a convenient by-product of symmetries embedded deep within the natural laws. At times, they seemed so close I could touch them, and I momentarily had a vision of my minuscule silhouette standing, arms outstretched, like some Neolithic proto-human enraptured in pagan supplication. That evening, I slept with the gods.

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The Northern Lights.

August 21, 2014

Top of the World Highway Mile 1 – Dawson City, ~125km

I was on the road at 9:45am, Alaska Time. I knew the day would be tough: “No flat riding. All up and down,” Iohan had said as we parted ways. It was a chilly morning, but not sub-zero, but cold enough that I layered up. Reaching Canada customs required ascending yet another 4 mile hill, and by the time I was at the border, I was toasty…and soaked in sweat. I guess there’s no avoiding perspiration sometimes.

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Back into Canada. See the end of the pavement ahead? Apparently, this highway had been surfaced in chipseal at one point, probably when it was initially constructed, around 1955.

I met three cyclists almost immediately after crossing back into Canada, but the weather was still quite cold and rain was not far off, so conversations never lasted long.

The TotW Highway was an incredibly challenging yet memorable experience. The highway curved around hilltop after hilltop, revealing expansive vistas to the north, south, and sometimes both at the same time. Frequently, I could make out the thin, unpaved road snaking its way along impossibly distant features. The perspective was so foreign that I often saw hills so far into the distance that their grades appeared impossible to climb due the perspective compression. It was a little unnerving, but they usually turned out to be quite manageable.

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Thrilling corners along the TotW Highway.

Near the halfway point of the day, I summited a completely ridiculous hill, well over 10% and covered in loose gravel. My cadence dropped into the single digits as I mentally grouped pedal rotations in the hundreds to cope with the punishment. After reaching the top, I rolled my haggard body to a nearby rest stop (brutal hills always seem to have some reward out here), stuffed my face with about 2000 calories and collapsed for a spell. Several RVs were nearby, and the silence that had been with me for much of the day was unfortunately occupied by diesel generators.

The caravan soon headed on, and I knew that I had to as well. Luckily, I was through the steepest hills, but the road was never truly flat, as the many cyclists I’d passed had foretold. The weather had also improved significantly, and I was feeling much more confident than earlier about making it to Dawson City.

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Looking north. The mountains visible in the distance form the southwest border of the Ogilvie Mountain Range, which gradually curves to the east as it comes down from the Arctic. The Tombstone Territorial Park, along the Dempster Highway, resides within this range.

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Are we there yet? Tuckered out yet happy.

After hours of plodding on, one kilometer marker to the next, I reached the final 14km descent into Dawson City. Pavement soon appeared again, and what a gift it was! I had to catch a free ferry across the Yukon River before entering Dawson City proper, quite a piece of work itself, literally ramming into the riverbank to facilitate loading and unloading. The Yukon moved at an impressive speed, and watching the ferry navigate the current effortlessly was quite entertaining. I was reminded of high school math problems involving relative velocity.

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The beginnings of a long sunset.

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A sight for sore eyes (and legs).

Finally in Dawson, I felt like I had stepped into the past. This place felt authentically like everything that Skagway was trying to be. There were no false fronts here. Everything was completely charming and attractively rugged, with only one paved road through the town.

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Dawson City limits.

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Looking down the main drag.

I had dinner with a friend whom I had met on the Taylor Highway two days earlier, and while we were scarfing down some excellent food, the rain started coming down in buckets commanding the attention of everyone inside. Locals told me that this constant rain was highly atypical for what is normally an arid climate.

I ended up hanging around the tourism centre for its wifi hotspot so long that I missed the business hours of a highly recommended nearby hostel. Luckily, my friend had a campsite in the nearby campground that he had offered to share, so I scooted over and set up my gear in the pitch black nearly on autopilot. It was time for a couple of days off, the first since leaving Whitehorse almost two weeks earlier.

A bit more of the Alaska Highway

~292km (~3206km total)

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August 13, 2014 

Haines Junction – Destruction Bay, ~105km

I woke up to rain, or rather, to evidence of rain. Large drops beaded on the fly surface, but nothing had leaked inside. Maybe my tent wasn’t leaking after all? I carefully exited my tent as to not disturb the 150-odd mosquitos that had taken residence in between the mesh and the fly. When I finally did remove the fly, the spectacle of the insects rising into to air reminded me of doves being released at the Colosseum in Rome.

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Climbing out of the large valley.

I was now on the Alaska Highway again. I spent the first 16 kilometres climbing out of the enormous valley that had given me such an amazing view the previous day. To the southwest lay the Saint Elias Mountains and the Kluane National Park & Reserve. I had originally thought that the Kluane Reserve was simply a game reserve (and indeed, the land immediate next to the road was a wildlife reserve for some parts of the highway), but it was also a mineral reserve, and the colours of the visible ranges spoke to an area of rich geographic diversity.

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The Saint Elias Mountain Range

The slopes facing me were mottled with yellows, browns, and greens. Veins of marble or marble-like minerals scored the surface, occasionally blotted out by bits of glacial ice formations. Clouds churned about the peaks before dispersing to the north. For a land completely absent of visible wildlife, it felt very active, a feeling perhaps encouraged by the gentle gusts of wind that introduced themselves as I kept climbing. Small tufts of grass jutted out of the increasingly dry soil, and shoulder shrubs barricaded the gangly spruce forests. Sometimes, the change in climate can be so gradual that I only notice it when I stop to reflect on particulars.

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Rich, pastel colours in the mountains.

Not wanting to risk a similar supply shortage to that on the Haines Highway, I had loaded up my panniers with what reasonable sustenance I could find in Haines Junction, which, with the absence of an actual grocery store, turned out to be pretty expensive. That said, I now felt completely comfortable with however little or however much progress I made, as I had food to last many days.

I eventually came up Kluane Lake, one of the most expansive vistas yet. The Saint Elias Mountains were now directly to the left of the highway, whereas the lake was to its immediate right, its still, turquoise waters giving off a near-perfect reflection of the surrounding terrain.

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Nearing Kluane Lake.

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Along Kluane Lake.

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Kluane Lake from another angle.

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Closing in on Sheep Mountain.

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Poor Daniel…he had been riding against my wonderful tailwind for at least a week, but he was still in good spirits. We met at a point on the road where a dangerous cross-wind threw the turbulence caused by passing RVs directly into us, pushing us away from the road, thankfully.

The wind was much stronger now, and the ride along Kluane Lake towards Destruction Bay required little effort. As I sat in their bar thinking about whether I might continue on a bit further or call it a day, I received an invitation to play rugby with some students working at a nearby Artic Institute Research Station. It seemed silly to subject my body to such punishment while on tour, but then I thought of what a great memory it would be, a serendipitous coinciding of wild adventure and familiar recreation.

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Wet, sandy rugby along the lake. I did actually play, for the record!

Thoroughly worked and exhausted, I came back to my bike and headed down the road to the nearest clearing sheltered from the still-persistent wind. If the weather continued like this, I would be practically freewheeling to the border of Alaska, a few days away.

August 14, 2014

Destruction Bay – Alaska Highway km #1796, ~112km

A nearby Canadian flag flapped viciously and pointed northwest. I smiled at my continuing good fortune with the weather since leaving Haines. I backtracked a little ways to the nearby restaurant and downed a little bit too much coffee before I left.

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The highest peaks in the St. Elias Range were still covered with snow.

The morning just zoomed by. I had toyed with the idea of making it all the way to Beaver Creek initially, since the road was so effortless and the tailwind was so strong, but locals in Destruction Bay had warned me that conditions along the highway were awful nearing Beaver Creek. Potholes became more frequent, and patches of unpaved road started to appear. Soon, the paved sections became unusual. Combine this with the fact that the wind had (rather suddenly) changed direction and that storm clouds were now moving in, and you have a recipe for rapid goal reevaluation.

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More Yukon glory.

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Interesting shapes in the spruce forest.

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Unfortunately, they were closed.

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Abandoned cabins along the Alaska Highway.

I looked at my Alaska Highway information sheet and saw that there was a bakery a mere six kilometres down the road. Thoughts of baked goods, coffee, and shelter filled my head. Just as the rain began to really come down, I arrived at the rest stop and realized that it was closed, and probably had been for quite some time (either that, or it aged rapidly upon closure). I made a mental note to send an angry email to the Haines Junction visitor’s centre about their out-of-date information sheet (NOTE: I never did this). Another five kilometres down the road was a Yukon Territorial Campground, so I headed there, hoping it would have a cooking shelter (at this point, I wasn’t aware of how standardized their campgrounds were). Sure enough, it did, and I was soon drying off and warming up next to a roaring stove.

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Wetlands

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One of the last good views of the St. Elias Mountains.

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An abrupt change in the weather.

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Rain closing in.

As the afternoon went on, the rain let up, and I thought again of my idea of getting to Beaver Creek. A family pulled in to use the restrooms, and we talked for a while about our respective travels. Before they left, they loaded me up with a huge plate of food, including homemade buns, far superior to the slowly aging day-olds I had been living off of since leaving Haines Junction.

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A generous donation from passing travellers.

My visit with the family had taken me into the early evening, so I decided that I would get to Beaver Creek the next day. I headed down the highway until I found a pullout with some flat space. I saw a porcupine on the side of the road, but that was the limit of my wildlife exposure. Well, that, and the mysterious splashes I kept hearing in the river nearby.

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Searching for a campsite at sunset.

August 16, 2014

Alaska Highway km #1796 – Beaver Creek, ~75km

I woke up to a frosty tent, the second one since several weeks ago between Watson Lake and Whitehorse. Unfortunately, I was in the shade, and so I couldn’t wait for the sun to dry out my tent before packing up.

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Crispy tent.

The splashing that I had heard the previous night was still going on, and curiosity got the best of me. After venturing down to several clearings by the water, I saw that it was beavers swimming back and forth from the shore to a dam. One less mystery left in the wilderness.

I rode conservatively this morning, taking care not to break a sweat, a good habit to begin forming, I figured. The road winded through a large wetland valley before breaking north through rolling hills of forest. The trees were looking smaller now, still primarily spruce and birch.

The warnings of the road conditions proved completely true. I had assumed that, as a cyclist, I would be able to dodge the worst of the damage, but I discovered a new foe: corrugated gravel, where the only manageable speed is “as slow as possible.” Construction picked up as well, and I was soon being smothered in dust by endless streams of dump trucks.

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Looking north. Somewhere (way) in the distance is the Top of the World Highway.

I came to a construction zone that didn’t allow cyclists to ride through. My options were either to wait until construction concluded for the day in about five hours, or take a ride in a pilot vehicle for 8km. The thought of waiting on the side of the road next to an active construction zone for the rest of the day did not appeal to me, so I sucked it up, unloaded my bike, and tossed everything in the back of the pick-up truck. The lady who gave me the ride was very friendly and obviously loved her job, driving back and forth all day along various construction projects. I guess a beautiful landscape can do that.

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Autumn is coming…

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The first traffic light that I’ve seen since Whitehorse, and it’s in the middle of nowhere!

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The scale of the forest diminished significantly in the wetlands.

Speaking of landscape, I think I can articulate what it is that moves or compels me about travelling through the land. It is when I feel that I can somehow comprehend the shape of the world through the road, both the big, sweeping gestures and the subtle imperfections. In these, I feel a little bit closer to understanding my relationship with the planet. I think this is why certain things move me like they do: distant road lines over distant hills, descents into expansive valleys. I can look into these scenes and imagine my little bike, vanishingly insignificant, a small black dot drifting along a filament of silver through a vast sea of green. I’ve read that our brains are incapable of comprehending the size of the universe, that, at a certain point, the large numbers cease to have any tangible meaning. I wonder, are we even capable of understanding the size of our own planet, of the hills on the horizon that form the boundaries of our comprehension, of the endless networks of rivers, creeks, streams, that transverse these boundaries, connecting unfathomably complex ecosystems?

I arrived in Beaver Creek and realized that I was completely exhausted. I needed a lifeline, so I took one. My parents had offered to treat me to exactly one night in a hotel at some point on my trip. It was a welcome change from my tent, especially since I hadn’t slept completely through the night is as long as I could remember. Thanks, family!

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The most western community in Canada, a real boom town with a population of 103 as of 2011.

I treated myself to spaghetti, and shortly after three others, in true roadhouse style, joined me at the table. One was an archaeologist working at a near by dig, and the others were an old adventurers from Washington state. We shared good conversation, and when I got up to pay for my food, I learned that Bob, one of the two adventurers, had covered the bill. The frequency of these generous acts, and their sheer unlikeliness – had I arrived thirty minutes later, they likely would have had a seat and we’d never have met – has convinced me that the world is friendlier, kinder, and more serendipitous than any news station would have you believe, and every time I come face to face with this realization, I feel a tremendous desire to pay it forward somehow, even though my means to do so are severely limited.

The hotel checkout time was “whenever,” so I planned on leaving well into the morning. There was a free campsite a mere 86km down the road. It was time for a warm, uninterrupted sleep!

Course Correction

~242km (~2914km total)

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August 10, 2014

Skagway – Haines, ~6km 

Exhausted and slightly hungover, I headed out into Skagway early in the morning to find my bike and buy a ticket to Haines, AK. I had heard that Haines offered a significantly less tourist-centric experience than Skagway, as they only allowed one ship per week compared to Skagway’s 28. The rain was not letting up, unfortunate because I imagined the town, and the entire area in general, would have been beautiful in a way reminiscent of Stewart and Hyder.

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Waiting for the ferry to give us the go ahead to load. I haven’t had many issues with ferry services thus far, but I didn’t appreciate that my ticket, all of $30, included a $15 surcharge for “bicycle storage,” which was nothing more than some wall where I was instructed to lean my bike. Support straps weren’t even available, though it didn’t matter because the water ended up being quite calm.

The terminal was packed. The route to Haines was part of the Alaska Marine Highway, which took travellers south down the panhandle into various Alaskan coastal communities, and, should they choose to make a real cruise out of the experience, all the way to Bellingham, Washington (just south of Victoria, where I started). Being around all these people and hearing the prevalence of thick American accents, I felt worlds apart from The Yukon Territories and the rest of Canada.

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Serious business in the ferry terminal. Is this kind of severe signage really necessary?

The ferry was rain delayed. Well, it was more due to the fog. Did I mention it had been raining? Rain. The panhandle was really living up to its rainforest reputation. On board, I took full advantage of the complementary showers. I don’t mind being wet, as long as it’s on my own terms!

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A single cruise ship pokes its nose out from Skagway’s Harbour. As much as I don’t get the appeal of cruise ships, I felt bad for those hoping for an enjoyable, scenic coastal Alaskan experience.

I hastily pedalled into Haines and found a gazebo to make dinner underneath. Then my stove pump broke mid-meal preparation. After troubleshooting, I realized that it was beyond my current means to repair. The wind was picking up as well, and the gazebo was offering less shelter than it should have been. Haines had a comprehensive outdoors store, so scurried down a nearby trail until I found a suitable clearing for my tent. At this point, everything was getting wet, and I discovered that my tent had a small leak at the top of the vestibule on the seam. Good news comes all at once, it seems!

August 11, 2014

Haines – Mile 33 Lodge, ~55km

A coffee at the nearby Bamboo Restaurant quickly became pancakes and hash browns. The rain had let up for the moment, but the overcast sky promised otherwise. I hoped it would hold off at least until I could fix my stove and get some distance behind me.

Finally, around 11am, I hit the road. The ride out of Haines was as easy as can be. I was pedalling directly beside a river with a slight tailwind. The view would surely have been nice had it not been for the low clouds and fog. Occasionally, a small clearing in the fog, high in the sky, would reveal tiers of trees stacking upwards, reminding me that I was travelling through something grand. I guess it would have to do for now.

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A dreary ride out of Haines.

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“Honey, you’ll never guess what I paid for the reservation. There weren’t any photos of the place, but I just have a good feeling!”

Gradually, the road pulled away from the river. About 10km from the Mile 33 restaurant, the rain started coming down in buckets. What I initially planned on being a quick drying off/warming up break turned into a full-fledged meal.

I met four ladies who were on the first day of their Golden Circle tour. They were taking it easy, and this lodge was to be their first stop on the trip. They allowed me to use their cabin to dry my tent and sleeping bag, still wet from the previous evening, but as the weather kept getting worse, they extended their offer to allowing me to sleep on the floor of their cabin. “One of us snores,” they warned, but that hardly made the decision difficult.

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Foul weather friends.

We played various card games for the remainder of the evening. In the restaurant, they had gotten the forecast for Haines for the next few days. There was a slim chance that the weather would clear up soon. Looking out the window at the drops pelting down on the road, I wasn’t feeling optimistic, but stranger things had happened. One day at a time.

August 12, 2014

Mile 33 Lodge – Million Dollar Falls, ~100km

We were all up early. Gleaming through the windows was warm light. We looked outside and saw patches of blue sky. The forecast had changed from the previous ominous predictions, and the chance of rain was now at 50%, reducing to 10% later i n the day. My spirits immediately rose, and I packed up quickly and said goodbye to my generous hosts. Though they were nearly ready themselves and wouldn’t be leaving much later, I knew that our paces would be quite different.

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A magical morning along the Chilkat River.

The next 20 or so kilometres were uphill. I passed again through British Columbia before reaching the Yukon and the Haines Highway summit. Clouds still obstructed much of my view of the surrounding mountains, but every now and then a craggy peak would poke out of the sky. Near the summit, the trees disappeared completely, giving way to shrubs, bushes, and small collections of miscellaneous foliage. Despite the alpine climate, there was a relaxed and peaceful quality to the surrounding countryside.

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Climbing towards the Haines Summit.

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Taking a breather before the rain catches up.

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Low-lying clouds along the Haines Highway.

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Stormy weather, road work, and huge crags.

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Hanging out at the summit.

Just past the summit, I came across a green cabin that I’d heard about from other travellers. In fact, it was my intended destination the previous day before the weather deteriorated. Now, I decided I would have lunch there. “The Nadahini,” it was called, presumably named for the nearby Mountain peak bearing the same title, and it was full of character. There were guest books extending back many years, and each of the four interior walls was covered with messages from all kinds of restless wanderers. In one corner was a wood stove, and, on the opposite wall, there were two bunks. A shelf contained emergency candles and an assortment of canned foods. From the guest books, I got a sense of the people who’d been here previously: the weary, the vulnerable, the returning guests, the surprised vagabonds, the renovators. Each entry was a small glimpse into the lives of strangers. This shelter had been a lunch break for some and a life saver for others.

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The Nadahini.

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Cozy accommodation for two.

Just as I was leaving the cabin, my hosts from the previous evening rode up. As tempting as it was to stay and camp with them (they were done for the day), I wanted to get another 50km under my belt. The tailwind beckoned, and my food supplies surely wouldn’t last another two days to Haines Junction.

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The alpine boundary along the Haines Highway.

I think it’s time to give up the thought, “this is the best scenery I’ll ever see on this trip.” Every day is such a surprise. Today was no exception. Along the backbone of the St. Elias Mountain Range, I rode through a massive and shallow valley alongside a network of small and large streams all making their way north through huge fields of long grass. Each new turn in the road revealed more valleys and more peaks, each with a subtle uniqueness, enough to send my eyes searching through their details. Aside from the barren peaks, the rolling hills looked a lot like Ireland. These borderland ecosystems were almost unreal in their synthesis of seemingly disparate climates.

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Sitting, observing, absorbing.

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More along Haines Highway.

When I say that a landscape inspires, I’m not exactly sure what I mean. I suppose I mean that it causes a flourish of creativity (or, at least, the desire to be creative) within me. Today, I thought of poetry, and an imaginary conversation with no one in particular where my answers to questions, in their vague wistfulness, captured a bit of my present emotional state:

“Where are you?” “I don’t know.”

“Where are you going?” “I’m not sure.”

“When will you finish? “I haven’t decided.”

I guess I was one for three at the moment. I realized today (maybe “rediscovered” is a better word) that I am completely content in that uncertainty. In fact, I think I long for it. It must be one of the reasons that I don’t like having a computer on my bike to remind me of my exact position. To feel alone, displaced, removed from the regular flow of things, it must be a common goal of travellers around the world. Ironic that I get that feeling on a very deliberately created highway that is certainly not going to send me in the wrong direction anytime soon. Perhaps I am just slowly shedding layers of security. Maybe, in the future,  a remote and nearly traffic-free highway will not be enough, and I’ll no longer seek the security of the road.

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Verdant valleys in every direction (and storm clouds to keep me on my toes).

I made it to Million Dollar Falls, another Yukon Government campground, with time to spare. In the cooking shelter, I met a couple from Kamloops, BC who were travelling out of the back of their truck. They had been similarly seduced by the Yukon. We shared dinner and warmth next to the stove. Just as I was about to head off to camp somewhere off the highway, another camper offered to share his site with me.

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Million Dollar Falls.

Now, I had had this idea, of camping in a great big field stretching off towards foothills and mountains. I saw spots like this today, but I had always wanted to get a little bit further to ensure that I would make it to Haines Junction tomorrow. Sometimes, progress is important, and that’s ok. When I am presented with offers like these from complete strangers, I feel conflicted, most likely because I have romanticized the notion of pure self-sufficiency. If the last several days have taught me anything, it is that complete autonomy is not necessarily the be all and end all of bike touring, and the road ahead would be filled with opportunities to experience solitude more thoroughly. Tonight, I was so tired that this conflict lasted all of five seconds. Sometimes, what I am offered is what I need.

August 13, 2014

Million Dollar Falls – Haines Junction, ~90km

I woke up at 4am to the sound of rain. Somehow, I had the presence of mind to run out of my tent and cover my bike. When I got back to my bed, I realized that my sleeping pad had lost some pressure. I quickly re-inflated the pad and shoved this problem in the back of my mind until I could actually deal with it.

Around 9am, I was up again. My tent was so wet that I headed to the cooking shelter to dry it off. My campsite companions came by soon after to wish me well. I didn’t hit the road until around 11:30am, and, just as I was pulling out of the campground, the four ladies who I’d seen sporadically over the last couple of days pulled in. They were already done for the day, and I was just getting started!

The first three kilometres were uphill. It was very humid out, and rain again felt imminent, but the wind was strong and in my favour. I knew early on that I hadn’t eaten enough. I had half a bag of granola to last me until Haines Junction, 86km away. Oh, and some ramen if things got really desperate, but I really didn’t feel like pulling out my entire kitchen in the middle of the day.

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Probably an RV heading my way.

After nearly 40km, my stomach was getting grumbly. I was exhausted, but nearby rainclouds moving in my direction made the idea of stopping unappealing. There was a hostel not far off where I figured I’d be able to buy some food, so I held out for it.

After asking the owner what I could buy, I was GIVEN a huge free meal of salmon, beets, tomatoes, potatoes, and a garden salad. I was floored at his generosity. Leftovers, he said, but it felt like a fresh main dish.

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Restless horses in restless lands.

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It’s always amazing what you’ll find in the middle of nowhere.

This meal lasted me to Haines Junction, past more incredible scenery: Dezadeash Lake, Kathleen Lake, and the St. Elias Mountains, which were now to my left. The wind definitely played a role in how easy remainder of the ride was. In fact, the wind felt otherworldly. The silence was never silence. In the background was constant rustling, gusting, shimmering, as if nature was acting with consciousness. You know you’re in the good graces of the land when your spit keeps pace with you when it leaves your mouth.

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Dezadeash lake.

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Leaving Dezadeash Lake.

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Kathleen Lake.

Just before I arrived in Haines Junction, the land opened up into an overwhelmingly massive valley. Descending into the valley, I was at a complete loss for words. I felt like Eustace Clarence Scrubb when he was sucked into a painting in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

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Approaching the massive valley wherein lies Haines Junction.

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The final descent into Haines Junction.

After stopping by the visitor’s centre, I stopped by the local bakery. The bakery (and the visitor’s centre), was incredibly modern. In fact, the entire settlement felt contemporary. And yet there were no true grocery stores…I managed to score about eleven “day-old” buns from the bakery before reconnecting with the Alaska Highway on my way out of town. While I was doing my laundry at a motel, a local had told me about a great field for camping just a few kilometres down the road, but when I learned of the field’s equine occupation, I looked elsewhere.

It was now getting quite dark, and my definition as to what constituted a camping spot was rapidly expanding. Another five minutes of riding, and I spotted a relatively flat patch of grass next to the highway. While setting up my tent, I managed to attract every remaining mosquito within 100km. Tomorrow’s problem…

Sidetracked

~185km (~2672km total)

August 8, 2014

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Whitehorse – Southern Klondike Highway km 102, ~80km

I started late today. I was finishing up a blog post (my last blog post until the trip’s conclusion, in fact), and Carcross, my intended destination, was a mere 80km away. Once I looked outside, however, and saw the trees giving way to the wind, I remembered that excellent tailwind that accompanied me on my ride into Whitehorse and how I was now going to be travelling in the opposite direction. I was surely in for it, but I hoped that, once I reached the junction towards Carcross, about 25km east, that I would be riding with, at worst, a cross wind.

If you take a look at the map (which I obviously hadn’t done in some time), you’ll see that I was clearly mistaken. This was the hardest day of the trip so far, easily eclipsing those days heading west from Watson Lake. The headwind was constant and gusty, at least up to 60 km/hr. Somehow, I managed to remain mentally composed; even the obnoxious motorists, with their needless honking, aggressive passing, and excessive speeding, didn’t phase me.

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Minimalist road signs.

The scenery was (very) slowly becoming more impressive as I headed south, a relief because with constant onslaught of wind, I was initially questioning this detour. The road eventually settled into a deep valley, great for scenery but even worse for the wind.

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Approaching the northern end of the coastal mountains.

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Windy selfie.

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Beautiful scenery along the Southern Klondike Highway. That’s the aptly named Emerald Lake to the right.

I eventually inched my way into Carcross (historically, Caribou Crossing), but not before coming through the Carcross Desert. At approximately one square mile, it’s the world’s smallest desert, though, in it’s purest sense, it’s not a desert at all but a series of sand dunes formed by glacial processes during the last ice age, at least ten thousand years ago.

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The Carcross Desert. In 1992, the Yukon Government attempted to protect the desert, but locals opposed the idea, preferring instead to use the sand dunes recreationally (ATV trails were all over the place).

Carcross was obviously benefiting from the enormous amount of traffic the cruise ships into Skagway generated. The town was immaculately preserved. I learned that they received around one thousand guests from the cruise ships daily. It’s not hard to see why, as their town centre is also the main station for the White Pass railroad route, a popular and scenic trip from Carcross to Skagway.

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Looking east to Nares Lake. This lake is actually an arm of the much larger Tagish Lake, which extends another 100km to the south.

The wind stayed strong well into the evening, so I made dinner in a shelter behind the visitor’s centre before heading about 5km further south to find a spot to camp. I wasn’t too concerned about wild animals at this point (when did that happen?), but I hoped that locals would leave me be, as I wasn’t completely concealed.

August 9, 2014

Southern Klondike Highway km 102 – Skagway, ~105km

I “slept in” until about 8am today. I skipped breakfast, as I was too paranoid about a major headwind developing if I waited too long. I scarfed down some bread and granola pedaled away not more than 30 minutes later.

 

The wind did pick up, although it was far less severe along the shores of the Tagish and Tutshi Lakes. The scenery was breathtaking. The road hugged the shore, giving an unobstructed view of the surrounding slopes, which were dominating every horizon. Run-down mining paraphernalia was occasionally visible from the road, along with many cement structures reminiscent of those found in old artillery fortresses along the coast of Vancouver Island.

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Old cement structure beside the highway, ornamented with local flare.

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Looking back along Tagish Lake. Rain was never far away today.

Once I left Tutshi Lake, the landscape transformed once again into a kind of alpine boundary wasteland. Wind-beaten Douglas firs barely reached 10ft tall, and vegetation seemed to be fighting for its existence among the boulder-strewn land.

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Near White Pass, along the alpine/subalpine border.

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Ditto.

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Tough trees dealing with their lot in life.

Rain was on and off for most of the day, and decidedly on once I reached the final 14-mile descent into Skagway. Skagway, a town of just under 1000 people, felt very tourism oriented. Jewelry stores were everywhere, which I later discovered were owned by the cruise ship companies. Speaking of cruise ships, I was fortunate that I arrived on a day where only one was in port, as the town, I learned, transforms in a northern Disneyland during peak activity, receiving around 900,000 visitors during the summer.

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The summit is just around the corner!

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It’s all downhill from here.

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Competition must be hot.

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Downtown Skagway.

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Window Shoppers.

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Any guesses as to what’s on the other side of that sign?

A couple days ago, in Whitehorse, I had met a guy who was riding the Golden Circle on his unicycle. He was heading back to Skagway, where he worked with an outfitting company, and he had offered me a couch to crash on when I arrived. We eventually connected for more than a few drinks, and I spent the remainder of the evening trying to remember where I had locked my bike (the hostel, it turns out) before finally passing out on the couch.

 

The Windy Way to Whitehorse

~452km (~2487km total)

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July 29, 2014

Watson Lake

Today was uneventful, as most of my days off usually are. I wrote a bit in the blog, sent a few emails, and prepared for a Skype interview. It’s interesting just how much less I accomplish on my riding-free days.

RCMP employees aren’t permitted to work in Watson Lake if they have children who are going to school (presumably elementary or middle school). As drastic as that sounds, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t an overreaction to an isolated event. If not, it certainly casts a dark shadow over this town.

I can’t get a read on Watson Lake. Locals, like the woman I am staying with, speak highly of this place and its small town charm, but the prevailing atmosphere is one of idle restlessness. Aside from the signpost forest, I haven’t come across anything even remotely charming. I wonder how deep I would have to dig to unearth the essence of this place.

I went for a walk by a nearby pond and met Cory taking shelter in a gazebo. He was cycling from Banff to Anchorage, the entire length of the Alaska Highway. Cory’s background was in ultra-light, long distance hiking, and his bike reflected his efficient mentality. His frame was carbon fiber, and he was carrying on it two panniers, a tent, and a fishing rod, along with a backpack that he wore. Compared to my tank, his bike looked like that belonging to a day-tripper, but he had already made it to Watson Lake, so it was clearly working for him.

After exchanging a few words over a beer, we decided to set off together the next day towards Whitehorse, where our paths diverged. I was looking forward to some company.

July 30, 2014

Watson Lake – Alaska Highway 1062, ~80km

Before leaving Watson Lake, I explored the Signpost Forest a bit more. Some were evidently crafted with care, and others were hastily thrown together. Travellers from all over the world had left a sign in the forest, so I decided to make my own.

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If you’re ever in Watson Lake, look for a tree with signs on it. Look down, and you should see this sign. I’m not even sure if I could find it again.

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The Signpost Forest.

As we made our way back west down the Alaska Highway, we realized that it was going to be a slow day. Blowing directly against us was the strongest wind that I had experienced thus far. The sound was deafening, and it blocked out all other senses.

Today, I had the first real sense of the “larger than life” feeling that the Yukon Territories provincial tagline boasts. The largely dark green and uniform spruce forest was so uniform, so consistently dense, that far off hills looked like bunched up throw rugs. It had that sense of massive geometric symmetry that landscape in lower BC also has, but it seemed gentler, the rise and fall of the hills, the hillcrests. Everything felt gradual. The road meandered down a sensible line between some mounds, over others. No climbs were too steep, a land of restrained yet grand beauty, and a road that respects it, cleaving very little in its path. Little summits often revealed stunning vistas with incredible depth: hills piled upon hills with the road often visible well into the distance, probably an hours worth of travelling at this speed.

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Looking west down the Alaska Highway. Welcome to The Yukon.

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Looking to the west. The truck pulling a large 5th wheel trailer represents one of the bigger problems with cycling on this highway: the traffic. It’s not congested, but RV drivers are notoriously impatient and unaccommodating to cyclists. Their near complete self-sufficiency is also one of the reasons that so many gas stations, restaurants, lodges, and campsites have had to shut down up here.

It was a comforting sight, drawing me out of the constant guessing game regarding my progress and right into the world: the chipseal and its frost heaves; the shoulder and its unpredictable condition; the yellow-green wild grass yielding in the wind; the quivering young birches. These are the things that I had to focus on in the absence of dramatic landscape shifts brought forth through a reasonable pace.

We camped it a pullout by lower Rancheria River, about 20km past Big Creek Campground. The wind was still wild, and it helped keep the bug level down.

After we set up and made dinner, I looked around. The place was luxurious: a fire pit, a flowing river, a level, dry clearing for the tents. Seeing it all together was so satisfying, and I realized that such an experience was at my fingertips every evening with just a little bit of effort.

I stared at Rancheria River, an impressive body of fast-moving water. My mind wandered up it, to smaller streams, creeks, rivulets, little waterfalls, then into rain showers, or snow melt. I looked up at the sky, filled with big, lumbering clouds drifting steadily to the east. I was struck by all of the momentum at work, huge processes following long established laws. I guess that when travelling, I am sometimes in sync with these processes, and everything is effortless. Other times, I’m at odds with every force, and I have to claw my way against the momentum.

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Camping next to Rancheria River.

Later, in the tent, I lay there looking out of the vestibule into the warm light of an endless northern sunset. The sky was clear. It wasn’t too warm or too cold. There were few bugs. At this moment, I felt back in sync. The world and I were both settling down for the evening. This was good.

I just hope the wind lets up tomorrow…

July 31, 2014

Alaska Highway 1062 – 1164. ~102km

I slept well last night, better even than in the Dease Lake hotel in BC. The air was cool and comfortable. I didn’t really feel like getting up, but we both agreed the previous evening that an early start would be prudent, as the wind would be at its weakest then.

Soon enough, the western wind was out again full-tilt. I thought more about momentum. I guess I’m just trying to come to terms with the weather, be it wind, rain, snow, etc. It’s all trying to reach equilibrium, to resolve an imbalance in potential energy. In that respect, it’s a BIT easier not to take each blast of wind personally. Maybe this should be self-evident, but sometimes, when every corner rounded, to the left or to the right, brings with it a new fierceness to the gusts, it takes a bit more than physical resolve to hunker down and deal with it.

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Not impressed with the wind.

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Radio tower along the Alaska Highway.

After an incredible lunch at the Rancheria rest stop, we headed out into calmer wind. It was noisy but a little less intense. We came across two tourists heading east who were ALSO experiencing headwind. Put two cyclists on any road, and point them in opposite directions; they will both swear to the wind. It should be an adage.

We cycled the last 40-50km in completely calm weather. With the wind gone, every brief pause on the road was completely silent. If only it were always so easy!

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The Continental Divide! At this point, water to the east ultimately makes it way north via the Mackenzie River, spilling into the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean, whereas water to the west eventually joins the Yukon River on its journey to the Bering Sea in the Pacific Ocean. We crossed the divide at one of its lowest points, and I would be crossing it again several more times, all along the Dempster Highway.

The landscape continues to impress. It feels so incredibly large. Cresting hills is a delight. When I see the thin silver ribbon of road lining distant, disconnected hilltops, I search for a path among the vast seas of green, and the ultimate reconciliation of what I guess and what the road reveals never fails to satisfy me, even if I’m completely wrong in my imagining.

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Searching for the highway along the horizon.

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Heading home! Kidding. The Alaska Highway crosses the border into BC several times after it reaches the YT.

We cycled quite late looking for a good campsite, and when we finally settled down, it was next to a small, quick-moving creek upstream of a culvert. Dinner tonight was pasta, peanut butter, and Dorito nacho crumbs. I was running out of food. Thank god we were stopping at Teslin tomorrow. I think I found a way to “manage” the mosquitos: a scarf, toque, waterproof jacket, long pants, and long socks. I still haven’t found a way to make my tent less appealing to them. By time I retired to my sleeping bag, they were crawling all over it. Tomorrow’s problem…

August 1, 2014

Alaska Highway 1164 – Teslin, ~80km

There were large drops of condensation on my panniers this morning, possibly frost from the previous evening. I’d recently learned that one or two good frosts would take care of the mosquitos, so I didn’t mind the cold so much. We made breakfast with next to no bug problems, another good sign. I was also finding dead mosquitos everywhere: in my pockets, in my journal book, in the occasional spoonful of food. I guess I can’t be too picky about how I receive good news.

Surprisingly, the ride today was quite boring. The way the road cut through the countryside, much of the surrounding landscape was obscured. For today, the Yukon was nothing more than the highway, the clearing surrounding it, and the spruce trees uniformly bordering it on either side. However, as a result of this sudden enclosure, there was very little wind, a major relief after the last few days.

Today, we met a couple who were walking from Inuvik, NT to St. John’s, NL, a journal of approximately twelve thousand kilometres that they intended to cover in about 1.5 years. They had spent about one month covering the Dempster Highway, a major achievement in its own right. They spoke of extreme resource rationing, troubles with mischievous kids in small towns, and also of incredible beauty and ruggedness. I’m not sure if I could ever be convinced to walk as far as they were, not down the side of a road. Check out their blog!

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Two bad-ass walkers. The blue tupperware container and the contraption carrying it were picked up in Whitehorse, meaning these two walked the Dempster Highway and most of the Klondike Highway with only (large) backpacks. Look closely at the gal’s left hand, and you’ll see a small mouse in her palm, affectionately named Skuttle.

In the afternoon, the temperature climbed into the 30s, making the final 6km climb (and then similar descent) towards Teslin a real chore. What made it especially frustrating was knowing that Teslin, named for the lake it was built next to, was at water level. Who builds a road so far up when it must come down immediately after? Some road planning algorithm somewhere needs recalibrating.

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Wild strawberries along the Alaska Highway. They may be small – no bigger than a blueberry – but they pack a punch. Their smell would often waft up onto the road, practically guaranteeing a quick snack break.

In Teslin, went for a dip in the dirty lake after dinner at the local restaurant. Cory and I camped in different locations, me in the backyard of a warmshowers host, and him down some road near the town centre. The thought of cycling down a 3.5km rough gravel road simply to camp in a backyard didn’t appeal to Cory, but I felt a bit obligated, having contacted them previously and set things up. We planned to meet at the grocery store in the morning.

August 2, 2014

Teslin – Alaska Highway 1352, ~110km 

Condensation will form on any cold surface when the air is sufficiently humid, the reason being that colder air cannot hold as much water as warmer air. Combine this with the fact that a sleeping person, in one evening, will expel as much as one litre of water into the air, and you have a recipe for one wet tent in the morning. This is what had been happening for the last few days, and it wasn’t too much of a problem to deal with, as the sun eventually warmed things up enough for me to pull out the tent and dry it.

“But what if the tent gets soaked and the sun doesn’t come up the next day to dry it off? How long can I keep pitching a wet tent until everything is just soaked?”

This was the thought that drove me to putting my tent up the previous evening without the fly. I figured that my sleeping bag would be quite enough to keep me warm, considering it was rated to -10C. While it did indeed keep me warm, the lack of tent fly meant that its surface also became quite cool, so as my body kept giving off heat and my breath kept filling the air with moisture, my sleeping bag gradually collected water on its surface. I think if there were a slight breeze, this wouldn’t have happened, as the ventilation would have mixed my humid breath with the comparably dry air outside, but when I woke up in the middle of the night for a pee, I discovered that the surface of my sleeping bag was soaked. Unacceptable! At that point, I decided that water on the tent fly was a small price to pay for dry everything else.

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There’s no such thing as an empty calorie when one burns 6000+ per day. That said, I can’t recommend eating this all the time.

I packed up my wet gear in the morning and set off towards the grocery store to meet Cory. We flew along the Alaska Highway until Johnson’s Crossing, a massive bridge spanning Teslin River. There was a near ideal rest stop on the west end of the bridge, complete with wifi, a shaded deck, and comfortable chairs, so we stopped for several hours to wait out the worst of the midday heat.

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Recumbent tourist by Johnson’s Crossing.

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Tourists heading south from Prudhoe Bay, AK. They had started a couple of months ago. They told of endless daylight and clouds of mosquitos (yikes) north of the Arctic Circle.

Back on the road, we climbed steeply for a while before settling into a very gradual grade, one that must have lasted for at least 20 more kilometres. Scenery remained pretty unremarkable until late in the day, when the land started to open up again. About 10 kilometres past Jake’s Corner, we found a no-name campsite tucked off the road next to a stream. We were only a few hours of riding from Whitehorse. It felt pretty significant.

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A lone, young tree is a metaphor for…?

August 3, 2014

Alaska Highway 1352 – Whitehorse, ~80km

I woke up just before 7:00am to find that Cory was already packed up and about to head off. Maybe he was excited to get to Whitehorse as well? I can’t blame him. Even on his route from Banff along the Alaska Highway, this was the first modern city in quite some time.

I followed him shortly after. The sky was slightly overcast, but there was next to no wind, one of the benefits of cycling early in the morning. We met briefly at Marsh Lake but continued to ride separately until Whitehorse, where we agreed to rendezvous at McDonald’s, something that we had talked about pretty much since we started riding together.

For some reason, I was in a hurry as I pedaled towards Whitehorse. The scenery was unremarkable once I left Marsh Lake, and I was too concentrated on reaching Whitehorse – a significant stop on my trip north – to pay attention to the subtleties that had previously enraptured me. Plus, a tail wind had picked up. A significant one! How could I not take advantage of this?

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Home of the only McDonald’s in the YT. Priorities.

I like the feeling of approaching a big city. There’s a steady build up once the first sign indicating the city limits is crossed. First a billboard or two shows popular restaurants in the town (heading: FOOD), then ones with popular hotels (LODGING). Finally, the whole gamut of remaining available conveniences is displayed (SERVICES). In smaller towns, these luxuries fit on a single billboard, so seeing billboard after billboard boasting convenience after convenience, well, it builds anticipation. Add all this to the fact that I was approaching the midpoint of my tour, and perhaps you can understand why I in a bit of a hurry.

I arrived in Whitehorse, and the first thing that struck me was how normal it felt. Clearly, the build up was more related to the sense of accomplishment I felt rather than the appeal of the city. There were a few odds and ends around the perimeter that stood out, such as an old steamboat or some animal carvings, but on the whole it felt decidedly modern and a bit underwhelming. It even had a “box store” zone, something ubiquitous in many larger towns I travelled through on my last tour, and something that nearly cancelled out any small-town charm that may have remained from the city’s infancy.

I made a bee-line for McDonald’s where I found Cory well into his McMeal. We chilled out for a while before figuring out what we might do for the rest of the day. This was the conclusion of our travelling together. He was going to head directly west towards Haines Junction, and I was going to go camping for a few days before heading south towards Skagway (but ultimately to Haines Junction, just from a different direction).

We decided to head down to the tourism information centre for kicks. Once there, we met two Québécois girls who had just finished a tour from Anchorage, AK to Whitehorse. We teamed up for the rest of the day, hitting up the local recreation centre (complete with a huge waterslide, rope swing, sauna, steam room, hot tub, etc.), the Laundromat, and finally dinner alongside the Yukon River, where two more Japanese tourists joined us.

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Dinner time for six cyclists. The guy on the left is Ryohei Oguchi. He was several years into his world-wide bike tour. If you search for his name online, you’ll get a sense of this humble man’s incredible adventures.

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Cycling pals in Whitehorse.

I felt a really strong sense of the bike touring community today. It’s not like this is the first time that I’ve met other cyclists and had great conversations (as previous entries can attest to), but there was something about sitting with all of my new friends, with our cooking gear sprawled out along two conjoined picnic tables, that made for a warm, family-like experience. The two Japanese cyclists said goodnight early and headed off to camp together (no doubt to enjoy conversing effortlessly in their native language), but we set up our three tents along the Yukon River. Sometimes, the way things come together is so unpredictably awesome.

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“Stealth” camping along the Yukon River.

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Sleepy time.

August 4-7, 2014

Kusawa Lake

What midpoint of any trip would be complete without a few days’ respite? That’s exactly what I had. Friends of mine from Victoria whom I hadn’t seen in at least eight years had been living in Faro, YT for the last several years, and, happily, they had some time off.

After saying goodbye to Cory, Gabriella, and Joëlle, I went back to McDonald’s to chip away at my blog and wait for my friends. They soon arrived, and, after a camping food load-up at the grocery store, we took off towards Kusawa Lake, some 60km west down the Alaska Highway and 20km south down a dirt road. The lake, in fact, was situated directly between the two highways that I was soon to ride: the South Klondike Highway (from Whitehorse to Skagway) and the Haines Highway (from Haines to Haines Junction).

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Kusawa Lake. Sandy beaches like this one adorn its shores, and the clear glacial water can be used for swimming and fishing.

I think, at this point, it’s worth mentioning just how awesome Yukon Government Campgrounds are. For $12/night, campers have access to a cooking shelter, free firewood, and outhouses, all maintained constantly, even in the middle of nowhere. Additionally, Yukon residents can pay a nominal yearly fee of $60 and camp as much as they want. This is very fair, considering what is charged in provincial campgrounds in BC (often upwards of $20), which charge for firewood and generally don’t have any cooking shelters. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the park staff in the Yukon are incredibly accommodating to cyclists, often waiving the fee on more remote roads, such as the Dempster Highway. I spoke with one employee who told me that, while it wasn’t “officially” allowed, cyclists in a bind could probably take cover in one of the cooking shelters if the weather put them in a bind, something I definitely kept in mind.

The next three days went by in a blur. It was great to have so little to do, just reading, cooking, swimming, conversing, entertaining kids, making fires, etc. Oh, and an emergency run back to Whitehorse to get an axe wound stitched up. All in a day’s work, right?

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Scowl for the camera!

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All stitched up (not my leg, for the record).

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Bike tourist as furniture.

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Happy campers.

When I finally arrived back in Whitehorse, I loaded up on groceries and headed up Two Mile Hill to meet my warmshowers host. We watched the movie “Never Cry Wolf,” which included footage from along the Southern Klondike Highway, near Skagway, and the Dempster Highway, near the Tombstone Mountain range. It was a good way to get motivated after five cycling-free days.

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“I come bearing gifts.”

I slept in a trailer in his backyard. It was quite cold outside. On Kusawa Lake, the nights were warm and blustery, making those early morning frosts along the Alaska Highway feel like a distant memory, but, with the knowledge of how much further north I still had to go, I realized that I couldn’t bank on comfortable evenings like that for much longer. I was ready to hit the road, and, funnily enough, head south for a couple of days, back into BC briefly, and then again into The Last Frontier, Alaska.

Yukon, ho!

~665km (~2035km total)

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July 24, 2014: Stewart – Bell 2, ~160km

Up early in the morning, yet on the road late. I spent the dawn hours dawdling, as I’ve noticed I have the habit of doing. I wandered around the town looking for some sort of distraction, even though I knew I had a big day ahead.

Bell 2 appears on the official (read: pricy) map of BC as a small yellow dot, a mark that the legend defines as a settlement of 500 or less people. What I should know about this map now is that this dot is often used as a general indication of some collection of services, whether or not there is a community built around them. In the case of Bell 2, the “services” are a giant lodge, complete with a helipad and helicopters for more affluent tourists. The cyclist-relevant services are a fridge stocked full of generic saran-wrapped foods and canned drinks, a free public washroom, and breakfast and lunch buffets that would make a dietician blush. I’m not sure which of these tugged at me strongest, but I had made up my mind that Bell 2 would be my destination for the day. Maybe I just wanted some conversations to cap off the ride.

The ride back up 37a towards the Meziadin Junction was a breeze, literally. I hadn’t experienced such a tailwind in some time. The idea that I was, for the most part, gaining elevation as I left the Pacific Coast was distant. I cruised by the scenery, only realizing how much I remembered from the ride in when reintroduced to it on the way out. It was truly gorgeous, and I was grateful to be riding it twice.

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One last look at Bear Glacier.

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Swiss cyclists on their way towards Stewart.

I arrived at the junction and couldn’t resist editing the blog just a bit since there was available wifi in the construction zone close by. I do this so many times, often with little things: consistent formatting, subtle rewordings, etc. I often wonder if, when two people who have read my blog have a conversation about it (it’s the dream of every writer, I’m sure, amateur or professional, to have his words talked about, even if in derision), they will discover some crucial aspect of their respective interpretations, some little nicety (a subtle rewording perhaps) that struck a resonant chord with either of them, differing so wildly that it were almost as if they read two separate accounts.

It was now around 1pm, and I had about 90km to go. This was good. A manageable haul to finish off what would be my longest ride of the tour yet if successful. Just past the junction, the road started climbing and climbing. For nearly 20km, I was trending upwards, with only the occasional dramatic plunge to a creek crossing (always paid for and then some with an equally steep yet twice as long ascension back to the average grade) to break up the onslaught. And it was getting hot. I no longer feared rain, but the black flies and horse flies swarmed around me during my slow, predictable pace.

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Two women on their way from Anchorage. The gal in the foreground had the most decked out bike I’ve seen so far, complete with a carbon fibre belt drive.

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Japanese woman also on her way from Anchorage.

There was a marked change in the landscape today. My long climb eventually placed me on some sort of plateau, and I was able to see well into the distance in every direction. I had wondered if my departure from the coastal mountains of Stewart might be the end of such vistas, but I was decisively proven wrong. To the west, the low foothills nudged up gently from vast, flat carpets of spruce forest. Further west, they nudged higher. And further, higher still. Up, up until they eclipsed the tree line, revealing not the gruff, stress fractured granite peaks of the previous coastal crags, but a more ferrous, dirty horizon, full of pleasing geometry and subtle watercolours. A landscape not of violent collisions and concessions, but of agreements and accommodations. Balance, symmetry. Occasionally, forest valleys would extend further, between two massifs, far west towards the coast, and then suddenly an austere, snowy peak would rise, disconnected from the landscape, impossibly far away and impossibly large.

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The subdued mountains along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. From this distance, the brown slopes looked like tilled soil.

 

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Inside a fishing/trapping/hunting cabin just off the highway. All of the walls looked like this one. The cabin was tucked away around several bends down an inconspicuous gravel road, so word must get around among travellers about this place.

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A meadow, forest, and snowy peak. One of my last views of the coastal mountains until Skagway, AK.

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Indecisive weather often makes for great views, as in this case. The rain ultimately moved to the northwest.

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The great open road.

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Fireweed, spruce, and lush mountains. Common sights along the Stewart-Cassiar.

As I neared Bell 2, I ran into J-P (I would rather abbreviate his Italian name than spell it incorrectly), an older tourist also heading up to Inuvik. He was straddling his bike and talking to some young travellers, wearing a raincoat, underwear, and not much else. We reintroduced ourselves, having met previously in Stewart the day before. He seemed mighty impressed by my achievement, a distance that took him two days. Then again, he was twice my age, and his bike, I’m convinced, weighed nearly twice as much.

We ended up camping together across the river from the lodge in a gravel pit, and I soon learned that J-P was a bit of a bike touring legend. This was his fourth trip to Inuvik, though his first time along the Stewart-Cassiar. He had travelled on highways that only just barely existed: in northern Quebec (like, really northern, just east of Hudson Bay), Labrador, as well as all of their offshoots into the wilderness. He spent his time off the bike working for IBM and perusing through satellite images, exploring new frontiers and new possibilities.

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J-P, an eccentric and accomplished touring cyclist. Who needs pants, anyways?

He was loud, outspoken, and a real hoot to spend the evening with. He shared with me some of his 50-odd day’s worth of freeze dried food, so I decided to pass on the expensive buffet at the Bell 2 Lodge. I watched with amusement as he paced around the gravel pit, assessing the rocks, the grade, the water run-off potential, searching for the perfect place to pitch his tent. This man knew exactly what he was doing, and I felt pretty awesome whenever he made a favourable observation towards any piece of gear I carried. I figured that we wouldn’t be riding together much the next day (if at all), so I chatted with him well into the evening. When at last I retired to my tent, he was only just preparing dinner. He lived at his own, comfortable pace, riding well into the evening and sleeping until near noon most days. He was an eccentric and adventurous man, comfortable in his own skin (and sometimes, only in it).

Intermittent rain pattered against my tent fly as I unwound inside and reflected on the day. I had seen seven bears, each of the encounters being as uneventful as can be. I had met seven other cyclotourists, and I was camping with another. The scenery had undergone profound transformations. What would tomorrow bring?

July 25, 2014: Bell 2 – Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park, ~120km

I was awake at 7. It was cold and damp, and it looked to rain. I had planned on making breakfast with my own stock, but after cleaning up in the lodge bathroom, the warmth of the dining hall and the $15 buffet proved too irresistible. Plus, they had wifi, and though I had failed to convince them to let me use it the previous evening (it was only for guests), I thought I might try my luck with a different staff member this morning.

I stuffed myself with sausage links, pancakes with strawberries, fried potatoes, croissants, and several cups of black coffee. I was determined to get my money’s worth. With a little pathetic pleading, – “my parents need to know I’m alive!” – I was able to obtain wifi access, but I was surprised how stingy they were. I guess satellite-based Internet access is low bandwidth and can be quite temperamental.

Back across the bridge, J-P was not even out of his tent. It was now nearly 11am, and I was ready to hit the road. Leaving turned out to be difficult. Every time I would say goodbye, he would start off on a tangential story with some ultimate piece of wisdom at the end of it. If it were a particularly strong anecdote, he would pause, look off into the distance as if addressing the whole world, and raise his voice, filling the gravel pit as if it were an amphitheatre. Amusing as he was, I was quickly becoming irritated, probably more due to my own procrastination than at his extended pontification. Either way, Kinaskan Lake, my intended destination, was about 120km away, and the day was already well underway. I inched my way closer and closer the highway, stopping briefly in polite gestures of acknowledgement. Finally, we said true goodbyes, and I hurried away before any more inspiration took hold of him.

I followed the river early on. The weather couldn’t make up its mind. The damp road spoke of rain nearby, but it was sunny over me. This indecisiveness in the weather had become a common thing since I left Terrace.

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Rain?

Soon, the road left the river and climbed for many kilometres until I reached a rest stop near an air strip in the middle of nowhere. Most times when I stopped at these rest areas, another traveller would come by soon after – car, camper, motorhome, or otherwise – and we would share brief stories, the wheres and the whats, the conventional travelling script. Soon after I arrived, I saw a car, and began anticipating the conversation, readying my script. But the girl hopped out, warily glanced my way, and said nothing. Weird. Usually, I at least get a “hello.” Her hatchback sped off, and a trucker pulled in not long after. He was coming south, and I queried him of the road ahead.

“Any cyclists?”

“No. Lots of hills though.”

“Probably mountains, eh?”

“It’s pretty flat for a while.”

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Mobile washing machine.

Well, shit. My mood took a turn for the worse.The day looked to have nothing in it that made the previous day so memorable. It didn’t help that the weather was yet again being incredibly fickle. Too hot for a rain jacket, yet too cold for anything else when the wind gusted. I quickly withdrew into my mind, maybe trying to wring something positive out of an old memory, trying to salvage the day. To knead the past into the present.

The trucker was at least partially right. The road kept climbing. The going was slow, and with no real shoulder since Bell 2, the ridiculously fast drivers whipped by me impatiently and possessively. At least I could hear them well in advance. My world shrank to a 20ft sphere surrounding my bike. I rarely looked up from the ground. I tried to focus on the present, on my surroundings, but all I saw was negative: garbage on the roadside, potholes, road kill.

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Constant climbing.

Finally, I reached Burrage Hill, complete with an elevation profile of the coming road. Maybe it was seeing the next seven or so kilometres laid out, but something changed within me. The hill was important enough to name, so it snapped me back into the present. The challenge looked to be significant, requiring more than just a passive cyclist. Bring it on. I summited and was treated with the most incredible 25km of road so far.

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Hills with names always make me a little nervous.

Immediately to my left, the forest dropped away into a valley. My eyes swept over that valley, tree by tree, until it rose into ferrous peaks similar to those I had seen yesterday. Mountains were one thing, but the sheer space, the openness of the place, gave a sense of scale not found so far on the trip. I searched through the landscape, inspecting every crevasse, every subtle shadow, resolving the depth, trying to comprehend the world around me. In some places, I could see at least 50km away, and yet it wasn’t via some disjunct peak thrusting out of the formless horizon. It was through continuity. A vast blanket of greenery connected every feature of the land, from the smallest hillock to the largest prominence.

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A roller coaster ride. Beautiful scenery in every direction.

To say that I was moved would be an understatement. I had never before been so profoundly affected by a landscape. Accompanying the sheer natural beauty of the place was the overpowering sense that I had somehow earned it. Some part of me had been yearning for this, whatever this was, and emotions welled up until I was completely overcome with joy. I would stare away, checking my course along the road, and then I would stare back, and the entire process would repeat, starting deep within my belly, spreading out to my shoulders and hips, down my arms and legs, into each finger, each toe. An extended frisson. “Let this land fill you up,” a friend of mine had said on my last bike tour. Finally, I understood what she meant.

I saw seven bears today: three young boys, and a mother with three cubs. In the latter case, the mother didn’t seem to pay me any heed, whereas the cubs stood on their hind legs to get a good look as I passed. I didn’t sense aggression in any of the encounters, but I didn’t feel like pushing my luck for a few photos.

I finally arrived at Kinaskan Provincial Park – free for cyclists! There were hardly any bugs, and each site was impeccably maintained. I washed myself off in the lake and retired to my sleeping bag after conversing briefly with my camping neighbours. Loons called. Fish jumped for flies and plopped back into the lake. Otherwise, not a sound. No mosquito buzz. No cars.

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Camping at Kinaskan Lake.

July 26, 2014: Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park – Dease Lake, ~125km

It was a brisk morning. The sky was overcast, but the air was crisp and fresh. I donned all of my layers: bike shorts, long johns, convertibles, t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, fleece, and jacket. It was probably overkill, but this felt like a good opportunity to see how effective my layering was in colder weather. Surely the weather would warm later in the afternoon, but who’s to say how long that would take, and, if the previous days were any indication, the sky would throw fits of indecisiveness before settling into whatever it felt strongest.

“Don’t forget to look back,” the park operator had said before bidding me goodnight the previous evening. Today I would be heading inland, well away from the coastal mountains, and climbing as I went. The view behind me was supposed to be astonishing. The peaks receding into the southwest horizon would give me a strong sense of accomplishment as I neared the Stikine River valley, and, after it, Gnat Pass, the only major pass I was to encounter before entering the Yukon Territories. At about 1250m, Gnat Pass wasn’t exactly a quad-buster, but I didn’t want to take its challenge lightly.

Aside from the constant climbing, it was a pretty uneventful ride early on. The morning seemed to belong to smaller creatures: squirrels playing chicken on the road, swallows patrolling their nests, caterpillars shimmying along the shoulder. I suppose they were all trying to get their daily errands out of the way before the bigger creatures staked their territorial claims.

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Testy road workers along the highway.

I stopped just outside of Iskut in a cafe to warm up. The lady running the place, I learned, was from Watson Lake, my next intended day off. Upon hearing of my trouble finding a place to perform a Skype interview there, she offered up her house, currently occupied by her daughter. What a fortunat stop Iskut turned out to be! Sometimes it amazes me how the haphazard decisions made along the road, like an impulsive decision to break for coffee early in the day, can coalesce into an arrangement as good as anything organized in advance.

 

Looking back towards Kinaskan Lake.

Climbing away from The Kinaskan Lake valley.

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Clearly someone made a mistake laying this km marker. I must have been bored, because I found it hilarious.

The climb towards Gnat Pass turned out to be pretty mellow. The first five kilometres ascended steeply, but the road then settled into a milder grade. I crested several false summits before finally arriving at the true pass. As I made my way through the highlands, I came across a farm, smack in the middle of nowhere. Horses were grazing in pastures surrounded by protective forests, and, further away from the road, a lovingly maintained house sat near Gnat Lake. A nearby stream made its way leisurely through rich fields of wild grass. The entire property felt displaced from the environment around it. Here was someone’s little dream, on the top of a small mountain.

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Horses grazing near Gnat Pass. There’s even an old pickup on the property.

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Finally reaching the summit, the highest point on my route until the Top of the World Highway, in Alaska/YT.

About 2km from Dease Lake, two mutts approached me on the road. They were barking with exuberance. I stopped, observing their reaction. They continued to approach me, albeit slightly less aggressively. I looked around. No cars. I picked up a stone and chucked it across their noses. That seemed to do the trick, and they bounded away in search of the stone amongst the shoulder shrubs, nipping at each other as they went.

Dease Lake was practical if a little underwhelming, being the only major service stop along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. All of its conveniences were spread out along a service road running parallel to the highway: a grocery store, restaurant, gas station, and tourist shop. It was very pragmatic. Vehicles of any size could pull in and pull out without much fuss. Parking lots were large, unstructured, and pocked with potholes that could swallow a careless cyclist whole. I carefully meandered around the shops, looking for god knows what, and eventually ended up in the restaurant, lured by the promise of “free” wifi. Little did I know that I had only just beaten the evening rush, and I was soon kicked out so that others could take my seat.

I continued to wander around, and as I neared a local hotel, a motorcyclist approached me.

“You ok?”

“I think so, yeah. Just searching for an internet connection.”

“Well, you need anything, just let us know,” and he pointed to a group of bikers that he was preparing to have dinner with.

This was a very kind offer from a complete stranger, and as we continued chatting, I learned that he and every member of his motorcycle touring gang had passed me at some point during the day. I was the only touring cyclist they had seen on the road, and now here I was, in the flesh. They were very curious as to what kind of crazy man would ride the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (at the time I didn’t feel like mentioning just how many cyclists I had seen on the road), and what began as a gesture of support turned into an invitation to (a second) dinner and a free hotel room.

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Hanging out with the Brazilian motorcycle gang. Half-cut at this point.

What a luxurious evening it was! I took a BATH, then a shower. I slept in a bed at least three times as large as my sleeping pad. I browsed trashy TV on the satellite connection. Was I still on a bike tour?

July 27, 2014: Dease Lake – Jade City, ~115km

I stayed in the hotel until 11am, check-out time. I was determined to squeeze as much out of my free hotel room as possible.

The road out of Dease Lake was rougher than I was used to on this highway. Heading away from the lake I travelled over a 10km section of gravel, and when I finally hit chipseal again, it felt as smooth as butter.

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Riding along Dease Lake late in the morning.

I have been very lucky with storms since leaving Terrace. Most of the time, they are moving north with me, but I always seem to be riding beside them or following them. Occasionally, a dark gray cloud will span the entire northern horizon, only to dissipate as I get closer. Today was no different, and though I wore my rain jacket just in case, I always managed to stay away from the full force of the weather systems.

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Stormy weather just down the road.

An uneventful day today. I felt like I was changing climates. The air was noticeably dryer, and the landscape more stretched out. Trees didn’t grow as high on the surrounding hills, and the yellowing grass along the side of the road suggested a more arid environment. There was very little traffic on the road, a vehicle passing me once every five or ten minutes. In the long intervals of windless silence, I found I could tune my ears to tinier sounds, like crickets, cicadas, or bumblebees.

The surface of the road was noticeably rougher, even after the gravel ended. Gone were any attempts at traffic demarcation. I had as much of the road to myself as I wanted, and no shoulder marking to suggest that I might be overstepping my bounds. The road, stripped to its bare essentials, added a great deal to the feeling of isolation I was already experiencing with the significantly reduced traffic.

I risked drinking the water (untreated) from a fast moving creek once again. I find that small gestures like these make me feel good, regardless of their apparent irresponsibility. I think it’s trust, kind of like how I don’t bother wearing my bear whistle around my neck anymore (rest easy, I still carry it close by, just not at the ready). I’ve lowered my defenses just a little in a gesture of solidarity with the untamed community. Wild animals don’t seem to be interested in me, and maybe, just maybe, they accept my intent to pass through their land respectfully and unceremoniously. And I appreciate that, and I feel like trusting the crystal clear water flowing through the land is the best way I can show that. Maybe I should make a sign?

DEAR WILD CREATURES, THANK YOU FOR NOT PARTAKING OF MEALS ON WHEELS. LET’S SHARE A DRINK. MEET ME DOWN BY THE RIVER, BUT MAYBE STAY ON THE OTHER SIDE?

It’s obnoxious, really. Treating my water shouldn’t detract from my experience on the road one bit, aside from possibly adding the inconvenience of having to wait for the chemicals to react completely. Yet, when I take that first hesitant sip, swoosh it around in my mouth a bit, and finally commit to swallowing it, I feel a growing confidence is my ability to assess the land and its resources. I am able to see the world for what it is and act accordingly. And maybe, if I can, others can as well, and there is still a place for man in the uncivilized world. A place of instinctive purity, if that even exists.

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One of the Cassiar Mountain peaks, close to Jade City.

I made it as far as Jade City today, nothing more than two shops sitting off the highway on either side, one a restaurant and the other a jade store. The shops straddled a nearby junction that headed about 10km northwest towards Cassiar, a now abandoned and disassembled town (and the place from which the highway received half its name). There were some free campsites just off the main property with picnic benches and not much else. I wasn’t complaining.

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Hopeful mosquitos.

 

Shortly after I had dinner and packed it in for the day, a huge downpour swept over the land. For the first time since leaving Victoria, I worried about my tent’s climate rating (three season), but it performed admirably, my home away from home.

July 28, 2014: Jade City – Watson Lake, ~145km

I was standing in the Jade store, warming up and checking emails, when I heard behind me, “Hey Rose! I’m just going upstairs for a few minutes. There’s a guy in here drinking a free coffee and using the free wifi.”

I turned and looked at her. She looked at me.

“[Rose] is just helping the paying customers outside.”

…and with that, it was time to leave.

I powered through the first 70km. There was little wind, and I was motivated by the thought that I would be leaving BC today, and, more importantly, finishing off the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. BC feels almost too big to comprehend in its entirety. Departing my home province feels abstract, like border crossings usually do. I look back on my passage through BC and I automatically break it up: Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, etc. This highway, too, feels like a piece separate from the others, but it has been the biggest one so far, and, unless I’m mistaken, the biggest one until I reach the Dempster Highway. In many ways, I liken this highway to the stretch of Highway 17 around Lake Superior in Northern Ontario, from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. On the map, they both looked remote and daunting. Motorists spoke with unease about their traffic, wild animals, and challenging terrain. But they were both incredible experiences, full of the kind of serendipity that gets under your skin and cements itself in your consciousness: life-affirming and soul-enriching.

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Looking east from the highway, about 60km out from the YT border.

I usually try and ignore road signs until I’m about to conclude a day. Today, when I saw southbound signs, I turned back and look at the names on the signs, places I only recently visited: Dease Lake, Stewart, Kitwanga. Each name brought back a flood of memories, some directly linked to the towns and many more from the endless expanses of road between them.

Near the border of the Yukon Territories, the road passed through a recent forest fire (in 2011). The smell of burnt wood was still in the air, and scorched pine trunks stacked to the horizon. A real wasteland, but beautiful in its own way. The road got progressively worse, almost as if the road engineers stopped caring as they connected with the Alaska Highway at Junction 37. It became a twisting mess of potholes, blind corners, and ridiculous grades. Hardly a pleasant way to finish things off.

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Forest fire remains.

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A final look south to British Columbia.

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Junction 37, where the Stewart-Cassiar Highway terminates at the Alaska Highway.

I cycled about 25km east towards Watson Lake. I had arrived in time for my interview the next day, and I had a place to stay. I realized early in the evening how exhausted I was, and I was looking forward to a day off.