The Great Dempster Dive 06/30/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, arctic circle, bear, border, camping, canada, dawson, dempster highway, ferry, insects, inuvik, mountains, northwest territories, rain, wind, yukon
The wilderness swallowed me up for two weeks and spit out a sweaty, starving, smiling fool. What a ride! The Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Dawson was a gravel and mud slug fest, but with so many incredible moments in between I can only count myself lucky to be on the other side.
Computers (and showers) were at a premium in the Far North, but I kept a journal so I could share the day-by-day happenings of the road. Here it goes:
Tuesday, June 16
After being cooped up in Inuvik for so long, I made a teeth-grind beeline south and cleared 133 km on the first day. The first 25 km south of town made me seriously consider what I’d gotten myself into, because the gravel was three inches deep and I could not, for the life of me, get any traction on my back wheel. I didn’t even clip my shoes into the pedals until I’d been on the road for an hour.
The landscape up here is from another world. All I see, for infinite miles, are stunted spruce trees and flat bog. Welcome to the Mackenzie Delta.
It’s mosquito heaven, and they swarm around me in a buzz-suck cloud whenever I stop to catch my breath. It’s like a 50′s drive-in B-movie, only with less high-heeled screaming.
No one would hear me anyways. Besides a few large trucks, I’ve been passed by only a handful of vehicles all day. Lots of dust and rock showers, but that’s par for the course.
Saw a lone caribou today!
Thursday, June 18
I lingered briefly in Fort McPherson after spending the night behind a shuttered church. A microcosm of the town, I suppose. People here are guarded and I had trouble getting more than a terse hello from anyone, including my waitress, when I paid $12 for a $5 breakfast.
Outside the restaurant, I saw, etched into a metal pole, the words, “I Don’t Love.” Yikes.
I pulled out of town just after 10:30 a.m. and headed south towards the Peel River. The ride was stunning – flat ground, sweet-smelling trees and enough sunshine to carry me through the day. The ferry ride across the river was exciting, as far as ferry rides go, and I pedalled, grinning, to the mountains on the horizon.
Mountains. They were in every territorial map and brochure I saw, but they were always in the distance – a dreamy accent on already beautiful vistas. It never occurred to me that these massive outcroppings of rock might actually need to be crossed. On a bike.
The climbs were gut-busting and I swear my tongue was hanging out for most of today’s 93 km. But the view from the top! Lush native grasses and freezing streams traced their way down the treeless mountains. It was so rugged, so unbelievably wild that I half expected to see Marty Stouffer running by in his trademark flannel shirt.
A few kilometres from the Yukon border I stopped to catch my breath and pretend I wasn’t starving. Amazingly – and this is why I love the road – a wonderful woman pulled up in her 4Runner and told me she’d biked the same highway in 2000.
She invited me into the vehicle, out of the raging wind, and said she’d made supper for me because she appreciated (pitied?) the life of a cyclist. A pot was produced and voila, I was eating fresh salmon and buttered potatoes! Even angels drive SUVs.
Across the border the wind was so bad and the road so treacherous that I couldn’t safely make it to the nearest campground. I was literally getting blown off the road, so I put on my vagrant hat and camped behind a Department of Highways water truck parked at the side of the road. It blocked the wind wonderfully and I slept like a baby.
Friday, June 19
Tired and in my city state of mind, I decided last night, for whatever reason, that locking my bike to the water truck was a good idea. This morning I awoke to the gravel-growl thunder of the engine starting and my heart lept out of my mouth. I dashed out of my tent in my long underwear and waved frantically at the truck driver. In the end, he thought it was all quite funny. Hilarious.
I made the final push to Rock River and camped there for a rest day and a chance to wash the stink out of my clothes. It was scrub city in the river, but in the end I smelled like a human being again.
Saturday, June 20
The ride today left me utterly exhausted. I cleared 76 km, all uphill, then collapsed into my sleeping bag. Some of the climbs were insane and it dawned on me, for the first time, that I might not be able to finish the highway. An ugly thought after so much planning and anticipation, but it snaked its way into the back of my mind and wouldn’t leave.
Along the highway, a fat cat camper and his snack laden wife pulled up beside me to ask where I was going. Dawson. Where was I coming from? Inuvik. He snorted and said, “You’re an idiot!” I smiled politely while picturing him hanging from an imaginary hook and then cycled away.
It was a good motivator. The guy pissed me off and I biked angry for the rest of the day. I cruised past the Arctic Circle and made my way to Eagle Plains by nightfall.
It’s a community of exactly 14 people, but it has a lovely hotel and restaurant. I ordered a gargantuan bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, fries and bumbleberry pie with vanilla ice cream. Then I phoned my folks, stumbled over to the campground and blacked out until the morning.
Sunday, June 21
I got about 20 km south of Eagle Plains and the sky opened up with enough rain to turn the road into gravy. Pushing my gear uphill through the mud was nearly impossible, so I found a place in the bush and set up my camp for the night. It was the only spot for miles that wasn’t surrounded by bear tracks or scat.
Still, I spent most of the night with my sleeping bag pulled over my nose, imagining all the ways a grizzly might eat my head.
The mosquitoes were beyond comprehension. I’ve gotten so good at killing them that I can actually snag them out of the air with two fingers. Ninja biker!
Monday, June 22
I woke up happy to be alive! Seriously. I walked in circles so the bugs couldn’t eat me while I downed breakfast. Then I hit the road and, feeling stronger by the day, was able to attack the countless ups and downs of the so-called plains.
A few hours into the day I spotted what I thought was a caribou and its calves. It was trotting down the highway in my direction so I inched forward and took out my camera for a picture. But it kept coming, and the closer it got the less it looked like a caribou. It wasn’t until it turned and that I realized I was playing chicken with a moose.
Finally, when the trio were 20 meters from me, the cow stopped and caught my scent. She was suitably unimpressed and let loose a terrifying growl and started stomping one of her front hooves. It was an oh-shit moment like no other because I had absolutely nowhere to go. The road was narrow and I was blocked in by dense bush on both sides. All I could do was slowly back up, which calmed the animal a bit.
Then my gear clicked. She snorted again and turned to head into the trees. Taking a wide berth around her exit point, I got over the next hill like my back wheel was on fire.
I hit Ogilvie Ridge by mid afternoon and then enjoyed the rare reprieve of a descent from Seven Mile Hill. The bottom of the hill was a jaw-dropping array of sparkling streams and creeks. With the sun shining and fish jumping all around me, I enjoyed my lunch and then headed for the campground at Engineer Creek.
The road to the camp site started out perfectly flat – the first prairie-like land I’d seen on my travels. I thought it was an awful tease so I tentatively continued south. But it lasted for the next 50 km, which I flew over in under two hours! It was a shot in the arm for my confidence and marked one of the first times I went to sleep after my head hit the pillow.
Wednesday, June 24
I woke up in a mud puddle and fell asleep on top of the world! I was rained out at Engineer Creek for the past few days, but that gave me a chance to rest my legs and fatten up as much as possible. The visitors that came through the campground made that easy.
One fellow, a white-whisker rancher type, invited me into his camper where “the wife” made us salami and cheese sandwiches. I had two while we talked about things from their lives that I’ll probably never see: shotguns, cougars, grandkids, all sorts of stuff.
Later a mother and son pulled up to share a picnic lunch. My first impression of them was exceedingly poor because the maternal half let a million moquitos into the cook shack when she came in to say hello. So, I readied my blood for another donation-by-the-drop and we settled in to a great conversation about our lives – hers in Vancouver and mine from the Prairies.
When they started eating I gracefully left to filter some water from the creek. But when I came back, the son had filled up a plate of some of the most delicious food I’d seen in ages. Smoked salmon, avacados, grapes, chocolate, orange crackers and White Zinfandel wine! And for me! I politely declined at first, but they insisted, so I dug in. It tasted better than I can possibly describe, especially after my constant breakfasts of oatmeal and dinners of rice.
Soon the strange purple-night of the North appeared, and with it a grizzled rigger from Alberta. We shared a smoke and I spent the rest of the night looking out at the rain, in love with the mountains.
Thursday, June 25
It took two summits and 123 km, but I made the final uphill push to Tombstone Park by mid evening. The skies again threatened throughout the day but I managed to skirt around a downpour with a bit of luck. Sometimes you wait for rain, sometimes it waits for you.
The views from the top of Windy Pass and North Fork Pass were stunning, and even though I was tired, I felt so fortunate to be traveling through such an amazing country. If those of you reading ever have the chance to visit the North, just go. It’s like nothing else in the world.
The descent from North Fork Pass was wild and I came within a whisper of 66 km/h as I blew past the campground. I didn’t care – it felt like I was biking on clouds and I wanted to enjoy every second of it. The 2 km climb back up to the park was only a bliss tax.
Friday, June 26
I left the campground impatiently because I desperately wanted to be in Dawson City. Civilization. It was starting to rain when I left but I figured I could outrun it or at least tolerate the wet. What I hadn’t counted on was the cold.
After only 20 km I was drenched from head to toe and shivering so badly I thought I would catch my death. I hunkered down in the bush for awhile, but looking down, I saw a soggy dead mouse and decided that perhaps this wasn’t the spot for me.
I could have biked back to Tombstone but that seemed like defeat. I kept going and eventually came upon an old hunting shack. Nobody was around, so, though I’m not proud of this, I eased my way inside using a few of the lock picking tricks I acquired as a kid. I only did it because I was frozen, I swear.
The cabin had an old wood stove so I dried my clothes and prepared to leave when, of course, the cabin owner showed up with a someone’s-been-eating-my-porridge face. I bounded outside to say hello and explain my situation and he nodded, even offering to let me stay the night if the weather didn’t improve. It didn’t, so I slept the night under the faded watch of a Virgin Mary poster and the warm glow of a spruce wood fire.
Saturday, June 27
I left the cabin around six in the morning to take advantage of the first blue skies in days. I sailed down the final 50 km of the Dempster and turned off at the junction to Dawson just after lunch.
It was weird. After nearly 750 km and a hell of a pile of sweat, I was headed for Dawson, just like that. The final 40 km into town made my days on the road seem like a blur. Onward and upward.
Dawson is a mecca for all things tourist, which turned me off at first. I’m a tourist too, of course, but I certainly don’t fit in with the portly Americans wearing “Yukon’t Beat the North” ball caps with the price tags still attached. Virtually all of them drive behemoth RV’s and experience the wilderness without ever setting foot in it.
To each their own.
My disdain for RV’s knows no bounds, but I have developed a trick for dealing with them. They always have silly names, compensatory names to give their owners the illusion that they’re somehow exploring something more than gas stations. The trick is this: Put the word “anal” in front of the RV name and let the hilarity ensue. So far I’ve come across an Anal Fun Seeker, Anal Explorer and Anal Four Winds. Love it!
So that brings us to the present. I’ve been bumming around Dawson for the past few days, hiking around the mountains and meeting the locals. It’s a neat town with tons of history and I’m lucky to have the chance to explore it.
I’m also lucky to be heading to Alaska via the Top of the World Highway. Tomorrow!
Tags: camping, canada, dempster highway, inuvik, northwest territories, repairs
Though I was trying my best to keep a bright face, the last few days of piddling around Inuvik got to me. It was damned near impossible to feel any real sense of accomplishment when my only daily goals – besides waiting for my bike part – were to find a town pin and sew the butt back into my pants.
Things finally came to a head yesterday, and I marched right down to the North Mart and bought some bread and cheese slices. I was feeling sorry for myself and I needed comfort food. But here’s a valuable lesson from the North – feel sorry for yourself all you want because nobody else cares. Case in point: I neatly unwrapped the cheese slices and turned my back to light a fire when a crow the size of a family dog swooped down. It grabbed all my cheese in one bite and flew across the lake, mocking me all the way.
So, lesson learned. I threw a coat of stiffener on my upper lip and tried to make the best of my predicament. I realized that if someone had asked me a month ago if I’d like to be “stuck” in Inuvik, eating great food, breathing fresh air and getting tons of sleep, I’d have jumped at the chance. No sense in whining about it now.
I guess my change in perspective worked, too, because this morning I woke up to a guy whispering through my tent, “Are you the bike fella? I’ve got a part for you.” And though these words have never escaped my lips before, I, in my inarticulate relief, blurted out, “Oh thank you, Jesus!”
Thank you, indeed.
Now I’m off. Simple as that. I biked up to the northern edge of the Dempster Highway this morning, snapped a quick photo, had a bit of a cry, and now I’m on my way to who knows what. I feel like a little kid! I’m grinning from ear to ear and nothing, short of lightning bolt aimed at my helmet, can possibly wreck my mood. The next stop is Fort McPherson, about a day’s ride down the highway.
The north country 06/13/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bus, camping, canada, inuvik, northwest territories, repairs
It took 38 hours on a bus and six more in the air, but I finally made it! I walked across the rainy tarmac at Inuvik’s airport just after noon yesterday and I’ve been exploring the town ever since.
What a place! I hadn’t even set up my camp yet when the local newspaper arrived to snap my picture. Apparently I was selected as the Visitor of the Week. I thought it was a big joke at first, but the mayor came to shake my hand – on camera, of course – and offer me a gift basket from local businesses. Among other things, I now have an over-sized Inuvik T-shirt and a coupon for a free hair cut on Main Street. Crazy.
The reporter, only a year or so older than me, asked if I had any plans for the evening. I shrugged at my little camp and said no. Two hours later I was sitting in his friend’s apartment watching game seven of the Stanley Cup finals, eating homemade bacon cheeseburgers and drinking Pilsner. Then, after ragging on Cindy Crosby for awhile, we piled into a cab for the four-minute jaunt to the Trapper’s Den.
Now that’s a bar where you want to watch your drink. And your back. In Regina, folks say “excuse me” and contort their bodies into all sorts of weird shapes to squeeze around you. Here they just run over you. Grunts are optional. But that’s okay – I can fit in pretty much anywhere as long as I know the rules.
The crash course in all things Inuvik was important, too, because it looks as though I’ll be here until Sunday or Monday. I somehow managed to forget (or lose) the top cap for my bike’s handlebars. I can’t ride anywhere until it gets fixed. I thought it would be as simple as ordering a new cap from a bike shop, but no one up here carries the part. In the end, after about a dozen phone calls, I had no choice but to order a brand new stem from Whitehorse. It’s kind of like buying a new lamp when the bulb burns out, but what can you do?
Luckily, I have a few things to keep me busy until the part arrives. The Whitehorse airport staff confiscated my camp fuel and bear spray, so I need to track down some sort of replacements.
I also have to stitch the crotch back into my shorts. I realized, somewhere between BC and the Yukon, that a certain part of my anatomy was dangling awkwardly from the front of my khakis. Sewing isn’t exactly my forte, so it should be an interesting experience.
Hope to be on the road in a few days – I’ll update again when I can!
p.s. Did I mention the sun never sets here?!?
A cubicle kid no more 06/06/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: canada, inuvik, northwest territories, work
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Funny how a night that calls for a pint of Guinness ends up banging the table shouting for more schooners at the Plains.
But what a night! Sunshine, drinks and enough gristle-and-gossip work banter to stamp out whatever pang of sentimentality I had when I left my SGI cubicle for the last time.
Now it’s only forward, on to something I’ve dreamed about for what seems like ages. I’m officially unemployed, technically homeless and crackling at the prospect of finally setting off on Wednesday.
Wednesday! My trip was always described in fuzzy indefinites – sometime soon, maybe next year, this summer, around June. Now it’s Wednesday. Five days away.
I know it won’t actually sink in until my skinny butt is hurtling towards Whitehorse in a Greyhound, but I do feel a certain rush of excitement I unconsciously held back until now. I didn’t want to jinx this, didn’t want to leak my anticipation for fear it would float away, and my trip with it. Focus is what has gotten me to this point, but today I’m allowing myself some fool-grin daydreams of what’s to come. I close my eyes and I’m there already.
Let’s be honest, though. For better or worse, my imagination has always had too many plugs in the socket . . .
I sometimes build things up too much and then, amazingly, I get disappointed. All I’ll venture at this point is a feeling, the moment when I roll out of Inuvik and look ahead at the sky, hear the trees slow dance in the breeze and take in that first breath of incredible northern air. Freedom.
Of course, it could be raining and I might get splashed with mud by a logging truck instead. Que sera, sera . . .