Improvisation

Map

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.

blog-6

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.

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2 comments

  1. Ok, I will post a ‘Mom’ type comment. Since you have been gone I have watched my I-phone video of you at the White Pass summit too many times to count. It helps me feel like you aren’t so far away. And it is part of this particular entry!
    Love the writing, and would love it more if you were closer to home.

    1. I’m so glad that my White Pass summit antics are a continuing source of good energy for you! 🙂 I sometimes watch the video as well and laugh at the sheer ridiculousness that was my predicament that evening.

      Love you lots, and missing you especially today, on Mother’s Day.

      Joe

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