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?

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12 comments

  1. spectacular photos and descriptions. loved reading every word. and since i havent seen you for so long, it made me feel close to you which is awesome.
    much love from
    Mom

      1. An overnighter in Denali. I lucked out and saw the mountain on a clear morning. The Glenn Highway from Anchorage to the Matanuska Glacier. Then a train from Anchorage to Seward, where I spent two days riding back up along the Seward Highway. They each had completely unique challenges and rewards.

  2. Hi Joe, awesome to read your experience and the photos….wow! I want to make that trip with someone and, like you, I would like it to be as mosquito-free as possible. I’ll take the cold over those little carnivorous vampires!
    Thank you for the letter and photos from Korea. We miss you and think of your journeys often.
    I’m just n

  3. ….oops, continuation. I’m just now in the process of building a new custom build from a Surly Disc trucker I ordered, a nice maroon colour. It will have some interesting parts on it. I’ll send you a photo when it’s together!
    Take care Joe
    Sally

    1. Ah! You decided on the Disc Trucker! Not a bad bike, if I may say so. Did you have a chance to give one a solid test ride? Maroon is the colour I would haver chosen were it available when I purchased mine. Gorgeous.

      I’m so glad my letter made it. Hope your Christmas and New Years were great. Tell John to check Whatsapp every now and then. 😉

      Joe

  4. Joe,
    It was my pleasure to have met you and Xavier at Eagle Plains. Riding a bike to Inuvik on the Dempster highway is just plain insane! You will treasure what you achieved immensely when you get as old as i am. My desire is the same as yours but i have to do it with more comforts. Just a fact of age.
    In my opinion, you have a future as a writer if the music career doesn’t reach its potential. You are able to descrlbe your adventure in such a way that is so entertaining i can’t stop reading. Really looking forward to the finish to Inuvik.
    I made it to Inuvik and hired a bush pilot to get me to Tuktoyotuk. It was simply fantastic. I am already feeling the pull to go back again. I keep telling my wife she’ll love the Dempster. But alas, she refuses to go. I’m not sure what to do because i cannot imagine never experiencing the Dempster again………..
    Maybe some day we will meet again,
    Bob

    1. The memories have well settled now, yet sometimes one will return as vividly as if it were yesterday. Glad you’re enjoying the read…if you go back far enough, you’ll find my previous bike trip, across Canada east to west!

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