Smoke and mirrors 08/11/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, british columbia, canada, cassiar highway, forest fire, health, yukon
As I was leaving Teslin, I remember seeing a bulletin on the post office wall that said asthmatics should avoid the forest fire smoke and, if possible, shut themselves indoors. “Ha,” I thought to myself, “I can bike through anything. Forest fires be damned!”
So . . . that really didn’t work out for me.
My first day back on the road was awful. My sinuses felt like they were going to explode and everything – my eyes, my teeth, even my hair – was throbbing as I wheezed down the highway. It was the worst head cold I’ve ever had and it went from zero to green-snot in a matter of hours.
After 40 km, it was all I could do to get myself to a day-use camping area and set up my tent in aching slow motion. I stared dead faced over my supper and collapsed into my tent for the next 13 hours.
Thankfully, the smoke from the Teslin fire cleared a bit overnight and I awoke feeling slightly better. I still couldn’t breathe out of my nose and I had to pee so bad I could barely tie my shoes, but all in all things were looking up.
And so was I. As I took my morning leak and tried to focus my too-much-sleep Cookie Monster eyes, I saw a grey wolf padding its way down the river below my camp site. It stopped on a grassy sandbar and peered downstream for about a minute before crossing back over the water and disappearing into the trees. I stood there, pants unzipped, for a lot longer, and I think now, just as I did then, that that wolf was the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen in my life.
Seeing it gave me a charge and I set off with a renewed sense of energy. I had to honk the goo out of my nose every 10 km, but by the end of the day I’d made it 120 km, all the way past a tiny village called Rancheria and right to the coziest gravel pit you’ve ever seen.
From there it was just a short dash to the Yukon / British Columbia border and the junction of the Cassiar Highway. I could be a blustering liar and say I gritted my teeth and turned south with aplomb, but of course that wouldn’t be true. The fact is that the Cassiar intimidated me since day one of my trip and every time I saw it glowering up at me from my atlas, I quickly turned the page to look at anywhere else. Delaware, for example.
I don’t know why. No one actually told me the Cassiar was tough. But somehow over time it evolved in my mind into a 740 km stretch of flying monkeys and apple-tossing trees. The moment I crossed over the border, I set up camp and hid in my tent. I was slightly tired and the Cassiar, I thought, demanded nothing but superhuman strength.
Or not. When I departed the next morning, I found that the lion in my head was actually a kitten and more importantly – in keeping with the feline analogy – I had been acting like a pussy. The highway wasn’t scary at all. There were some hills, of course, but for the most part the ride was actually quite pretty.
I’m in Dease Lake right now, just under 500 km from the Yellowhead Highway. Later today, I cross the continental divide for the fifth time, and from there it should be smooth sailing south. Bit by bit, I’m slowly making my way back to the Prairies . . .
A few pages from the journal . . . 08/05/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, border, british columbia, camping, canada, cassiar highway, couchsurfing, forest fire, heat, hostel, tok, usa, whitehorse, wind, yukon
It’s been ages since I last updated and so much has happened that I hardly know where to begin. I think a person matures at an accelerated rate on the road, and when I think back at me cursing the sky, shivering in Glenallen, it seems like a different life in someone else’s sweater.
The road from Glenallen to Tok was mostly flat, and since the weather was cool, I covered about 200 miles in only two days. There were some breathtaking spots along the way, though the one that sticks out most in my mind now is an enormous valley near Mentasta that was so wonderfully silent that even my soft whistle rang off the mountain walls. I got lost in the echo, imagining what I’d be doing at that moment if I hadn’t got on a bus back in June, and I felt so very fortunate.
In Tok I again stayed with the Marshall clan at their newly opened campground. This time I slept in a converted military tent that was referred to, rather optimistically, as a hostel. It was $2 cheaper than a camp site and the cot was a nice change after sleeping on rocks and branches for so long.
Joining me in the tent for the evening was a gal named Justy who was on the lam from Californian authorities for, as she said, “every charge they could think of.” I didn’t care much about all of that. Instead, my lasting memory of her is that she snored like a buzz saw and scared the devil out of me when I found her wandering around the Tok city limits sign the next day. I don’t know if she was on drugs or just taking a piss, and I didn’t stop to ask.
Down the highway I went, with thoughts of the Canadian border bouncing around my tiny head. What I didn’t realize was that American and Canadian customs aren’t in the same spot on the Alaska Highway. Exhausted and dizzy, I creaked my way to the border around 9 p.m. and was greeted not by a border guard, but by a big green sign that said, “Canadian Customs – 20 miles.” So I biked 20 more miles in the dark, finally arriving at the guard station at 11.
And there I stood until 11:20 while the mosquitoes sucked every drop of energy from my legs. The guards were busy tearing apart a U-Haul and little biker boy kind of slipped between the cracks. The bugs were so bad that I frenzy-slapped one leg and then the other, back and forth without bothering to look down. For all of that, I was really hoping for some intense light-in-your-eyes interrogation from the guard, like the kind you’d see on a 70′s New York crime show. What I got was:
“Do you have any firearms or explosives?”
“Did you buy anything from the Duty Free store?”
“What’s a Duty Free store?”
“Okay. Have a nice trip, sir.”
After customs, it was only a few kilometres to Beaver Creek, where I found a random picnic table and set about making my supper. As I was boiling my rice, a squeaky shadow emerged from nowhere and my list of wildlife seen increased by one. I was face to face with a four-year-old on training wheels.
He pedalled right up to my toes and asked, as though he had keys for the local jail, “What’s your name?”
I said my name was Mike.
“Did you know my name’s Tucker?”
I said I didn’t know that but I was glad to meet him. I don’t think he heard me, though, because he was busy giving my bike the once-over and climbing on the picnic table, asking what I was making for supper, if I liked rice, what colour of rice I ate, how many times I stirred my rice, etc. etc.
As we discussed the finer points of my diet, Tucker’s father came along with his older son. After I explained my trip to them, he introduced himself as the head chef at the local hotel and gently hinted that the evening’s leftovers might be more appetizing than my boiled rice and lentils. Five minutes later, I was sitting in a staff mess hall, glugging down glasses of milk and eating chicken fingers, breaded fish and vegetable stir fry.
The trio told me I was camping behind the hotel, and since I didn’t have the energy to argue, I fell asleep on a soft field of moss 30 meters from the parking lot. I slept like a rock.
It didn’t matter much, because the next day was simply unkind. It was hot, hilly and there was a gritty headwind knocking me around on every pedal stroke. I went all of 20 km before I realized I was having no fun whatsoever. I slipped into a territorial campground and sat by the lake, picking gunk out of my eyes and banging my socks together like two dusty chalk brushes.
That was the end of the line for me. I took off my helmet, grabbed my cook pot and headed into the bush to pick blueberries. Picking (or perhaps eating) berries always seems to cheer me up, and on that day I was in serious need of some purple on my fingers.
When I returned to the shore, blueberries in tow, I met a German couple – he fishing without success and she hand washing laundry – and also a wiry Irish fellow named Barry. He was cycling from Anchorage to San Francisco before setting off for Australia and southeast Asia.
We talked for awhile and since he had no water filter, I offered him some purifying drops that I’d never used. Barry invited me to share his camp site and a half bladder of red wine that some other campers had given him the night before. The treat was finished in short order and we sat there looking at each other until he, in his one-of-a-kind Irish accent, suggested we go back to Beaver Creek to buy more wine.
So we did. We biked back over the 20 km that had frayed my body earlier that day, and then we made our way back to the campground – two fools with cheap wine in double-bagged white plastic. We stayed up until three in the morning talking about little things, stupid things that only two people living on a bike could really understand. I fell asleep with my shoes as a pillow and a huge grin on my face.
The next morning I left in a great mood, and thank goodness. Any sour thoughts I had would have pickled in the incredible heat that glared over everything for the next several days. The closer I got to Whitehorse, the further the mercury rose, until finally, near Kluane Lake, it inched over 40°C. All I could do was hide in the shadow of a rest stop outhouse and wait for the sun to slide behind the mountains.
The rides to Haines Junction and even Whitehorse were kind of a blur. I was strung out from the heat and the grime of the road, and by the time I arrived in the capital, all I could do was sit on a gas station parking meridian and suck on a Slurpee. Watermelon. Mmm mmm.
In Whitehorse, I stayed with a CouchSurfing host who took me out to catch the final show of a band called The Whiskey Dicks. They blasted Celtic rock in a sticky, seedy bar that was so hot you could barely breathe. Everyone in the place was dancing like mad, covered in sweat and booze and smiles, and if you stopped for a moment to take it all in, you’d swear it was beautiful.
At that same bar, I met a lady from Teslin who asked me to drop in to the town’s Visitor’s Centre when I passed through. It took me two days of cycling through smoke so thick it seemed like a dream, but I made it to the reception building yesterday and met up with Bev. We talked for a bit, but she had to go back to work so she invited to come to her place for dinner later that night.
And what a night! Before I could even sit down I had a bowl of moose stew in one hand and a Budweiser in the other. We sat on her back deck for hours and hours watching the full moon peek over the hills and make its sleepy arc across the waters of Teslin Lake. When I finally closed my eyes, my stomach ached from laughing so much. I fell asleep in love with everything, and nothing in particular.
That brings me here, to this moment. Thanks to Bev and her Tlingit hospitality, I’m stocked with a ton of fruit and dried salmon for my journey. Today I hope to make it to Swift River, then it’s off to the Cassiar Highway Junction and south, to British Columbia . . .
Run for the border 07/02/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, border, canada, mountains, tok, usa, yukon
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When they say The Top of the World Highway, they’re not kidding! I left Dawson on Canada Day morning and spent the next 10 hours sweating and swearing my way up an endless barrage of hills. The scenery was amazing unless I looked between my feet, where the lunar-like road was either cracked beyond recognition or littered with tire-killing stones. Tough going up and tough coming down.
The ride to the Alaskan border was uneventful for the most part. Lots of dust and plenty of vehicles to kick it into my face. Making it all worthwhile, though, was a drop-dead German lady who stopped to give me water and tell me about the scenery. I mostly just nodded and stared at her sun dress.
I arrived at the border at 9:30, which would have been great if customs didn’t close at 9 p.m. Still, I thought it would take me half the night to get there, so I wasn’t at all disappointed about arriving late. It gave me the chance to camp right at the top of the mountain without a single vehicle passing by. I ate my supper on the hillside, watching the sun fade between green slopes and frozen streams. Too beautiful for a picture.
This morning I woke up around 10, quickly packed my camp and hit the road with a gut full of oatmeal and optimism. I wanted to cross the border and get close to Tok, but in the back of my mind I knew that would probably never happen because the terrain might be tough. And it was.
I only pulled out 75 km today, but I made it over the worst roads I’ve seen so far. The Taylor Highway was no better than the Top of the World, and how I didn’t get a flat tire or a bent rim is still beyond me. Just one more reason for me to be in love with my bike, I guess!
One view that really struck me was a burnt out forest with beautiful fireweeds pouring from the ground. The lush valley and winding stream below were unbelievable, and even though I was halfway up a hill I stopped to take it all in.
People often ask me why I bike, how I can be grinning like a fool, covered in dirt with sweat streaming down my sunburned face. The truth is that I’d pedal all day for views like this. They’re sublime – tingling jolts of cosmic energy that hit you right between the eyes. Amazing.
Tonight I’m camped out at a little town called Chicken, Alaska. It’s a stop on the road for tourists, but the people here are fantastic. The guys in the restaurant made me a towering Swiss cheese hamburger with potato salad and let me use the Internet for as long as I wanted. And just now, a few minutes before closing, they gave me a slice of leftover cherry pie! Ain’t life grand?
One last thing before I go: Thanks so much for all your wonderful blog comments and e-mails. I’m having the time of my life but I often think of the amazing people back home. Your encouragement means a lot, so please keep it coming.
Tomorrow, to Tok . And the road is paved!
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!