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.

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2 comments

  1. Hey, I’ve just recently read about that route, featured in the Yucon Arctic Ultra, a winter marathon. I’m a cyclist myself and was wondering if you have any contact to reach the Cory you mentioned. Touring cyclists on carbon roadbikes are rare, and I happen to be one of them. I am always happy to find more likeminded, crazy people.

    If you do happen to have his contacts, could you please be so kind and send them to me?

    Good luck with your tour. 🙂
    Martin from Germany

    1. Hi Patrick,

      I do have his email, but I haven’t heard from him since we parted ways, even after sending him some photos, so I’m not completely sure if it’s accurate. I can CC you on an email to him, though, and hopefully, then you will be able to stay connected.

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