Yukon

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.

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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?

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…