Author: touringjoe

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.

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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.