Alaska Highway

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.

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!