Going to the Sun

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It was good to get some maintenance done on the Triumph and a bit of rest, but I felt like I was losing inertia sitting in one spot for so long. I needed to get on the road and start the trip south before some project around the house cropped up and cost another day. I probably could have picked a better weekend to leave.

I hit the highway on the first Saturday of the long Heritage Day weekend, when the entire population of Alberta piles into their vehicles and gets on the road. I travelled amidst a constant stream of RVs, trucks pulling fifth-wheel trailers, boats and jet skis, motorcycles (both ridden and strapped in the backs of trucks), and minivans with smeary back windows loaded to the rafters with luggage. I felt like we were all travelling the same direction. It turns out that we were. Northern Montana near the Glacier National Park region is terribly popular at this time of year.

I arrived in Whitefish, Montana at round 8 o’clock PM. The first signs that it might be tough to find a spot were the “Full” signs at the campgrounds on the outskirts of town. The motels flashed “No Vacancy” signs at me as I rode past. I was turned away at each successive place and ended up riding to the next city of Kalispell. Eventually, I paid $150 for a room in one of those timeworn motels that advertises “Clean Rooms!” as a selling point.

I woke early and headed for the Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park. This iconic ride has been taunting me for years. I’ve driven past it half a dozen times and every time it has been too late in the season and snowbound. Since I first saw stunning photos of its impossible curves I’ve had the desire to experience it for myself. It didn’t bode well when the story on the front page of the Daily Inter Lake was about the two to three hour expected delays on the road due to holiday crowds and the fact that half of it was closed due to forest fires. I decided that I’d come this far and crowds and fires or no, I would ride whatever portion of the road I could.

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Joining the parade of holiday traffic, I rode toward the park past the strip malls on the outskirts of town, into the country side and through the dusty clouds kicked up by combines working fields in the dry summer heat, and toward the mountains on the horizon. I rode through small towns and past innumerable churches (many of which seemed to be of the “fire and brimstone” variety) and so many roadside memorial crosses that I actually passed a man selling roadside memorial crosses out of the back of a truck. Soon I pulled through the front gates of Glacier National Park.

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The Going to the Sun Road is a vertigo-inducing ribbon that winds its way through the park, clinging impossibly to the sides of cliffs and climbing its way to the clouds. The guardrail is stone and only a foot or so high, thus the high riding position of the motorcycle put the soles of my riding boots just about even with the top. The sensation was akin to flying and one of exhilaration and height-induced wooziness. The urge to crane my neck to admire the scenery was kept in check by the mental image of the motorcycle sailing over the rail and into oblivion. Even with the crowds, it was well worth it. I would love return to visit the closed portion someday, although I think I’ll do it in my car and on a weekday.

Rest and Repairs in Canmore

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The trip to Inuvik and back was 7,720 km (4797 miles) roundtrip. It took 90.5 hours of time on the motorcycle and burned 110 gallons of fuel. I travelled through four Canadian provinces and Alaska, through three time zones to the edges of two oceans and I’m right back where I started in Canmore, Alberta. It feels like a lot of miles to cover to get back to square one, but here I am. There is a little work to do before heading south. And then I’ll be on the road again.

The plan is to spend a week and a half here to get some much needed and well-deserved maintenance done on the motorcycle, get some rest and take care of some last minute items. I’ll need to finalize the insurance for the Triumph and myself, get some prescriptions filled for malaria meds and take care of some general housekeeping before locking up here. I’ve reevaluated my gear inventory and packing strategy and will be doing a bit of streamlining. And even though I’m already itching to set off, these necessities need tending to, so I plan on making the best of it and enjoying the relaxing view from my porch for a few days before hitting the road.

I’m shooting for an August 1st departure when I’ll be heading across the border to Montana. I have an interesting engagement to attend there in Kalispell, an idyllic mountain town famous for its pristine location, clear mountain air and propensity to attract survivalists, Neo-Nazis, and doomsday prepper types. I will certainly keep everyone posted on that.

A Foggy, Funky Outpost

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I had few opportunities to take photographs during the last few days, as I’ve been riding in a mass of frigid, wet fog that followed me across a full third of the continent. I ran into this weather system at the Yukon-British Columbia border and ever since I’ve been pelted with rain, smothered with cold and damp fog and blasted by icy winds. I chose to ride through it rather than wait it out because I didn’t relish the idea of biding my time in a cold, wet tent at a campsite nor did I feel like spending $150 a night to sit in a crummy motel room watching paternity test results on the Maury Povich Show.

This trip is not designed to be a masochistic exercise in testing my capacity for discomfort. I simply aim to see part of the world from a unique perspective while encountering interesting people and cultures along the way. It’s just that I decided if I was going to be miserable anyways, I might as well be making some miles.

At one particularly blustery point in the ride, I began cursing the conditions out loud. The weather gods then decided to send a hail storm as punishment for my insolence. Luckily, I was able to duck into a gas station-cum-fireworks stand run by a proprietor with a wispy and unsettling moustache. The shop also housed a disturbingly large selection of axes, mattresses, glass and ceramic antique figurines, and fiberglass septic tanks. However, the weather was bad enough that I felt more comfortable in a room full of axes with Mr. Creepy-Moustache-Man than I did out of doors. I waited until the hail reverted to regular rain and got on my soggy way past mountains I couldn’t see.

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The high point of this trip was a 70-kilometer detour that I took to the town of Hyder, at the southernmost tip of Alaska’s panhandle. While sitting at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson earlier in the week, I met a couple travelling by RV from Arizona. All three of us were members of the “Sourtoe Club,” an exclusive and close-knit club where membership is gained by drinking a shot of whisky with an actual severed human toe in it. Because of this common and repellent bond, we struck up a conversation.

They mentioned the town of Hyder, saying that it was well worth the diversion. After visiting, I have to agree. The road to Hyder, The Glacier Highway, runs between the sheer cliffs of an amazing canyon on a gradual downhill slope to a narrow armlet of the Pacific Ocean and a port full of floating harvested timber and deep enough for bulk carrier cargo ships. The route winds along past rapids and close enough to glaciers to hear the sound of rushing glacial meltwater.

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Hyder is unique in its close association with the neighboring Canadian town of Stewart, British Coumbia. There are no American Customs required to enter Hyder, the preferred currency is Canadian, the residents celebrate Boxing Day and Victoria Day and, with a population of only 87, the children of Hyder attend a Canadian school. It was still rainy and misty, but a few degrees warmer and well worth the trip.

After spending the night in this peculiar American outpost, it was back on the road in the rain heading toward Prince George, B.C and continuing onwards toward my Canadian base and initial starting point of Canmore, Alberta.

Lost Bags and Lost Balance

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I temporarily misplaced a few items in Dawson City. I phrase it that way only because that sounds less boneheaded than, “I left my bag containing all of my camping gear sitting in a parking lot and rode 40 kilometers before realizing it.” By the time I realized my mistake and rode back to town, it was gone. I figured it was gone for good and some lucky hiker or hobo would soon enjoy sleeping under the endless Yukon sky in an MSR tent, swaddled in a North Face sleeping bag.

In case it did turn up, I left my name, contact number and description of the bag with the hotel, RCMP office and visitor’s center. Unfortunately, it was a relatively new number and I transposed the last two digits. When I returned to Dawson from Inuvik with still no word on the bag, I had pretty much written it off.

I decided to ask at the hotel desk upon check out anyway.

“Oh, Yes! A grey duffle bag, right?” the manager said. “We filled your message inbox. It’s at the police station.” A good Samaritan had turned it in, and there is now a very confused Alberta resident wondering why the Mounties and some hotel in the Yukon are so certain that he’s lost a duffle bag.

I rode over to the RCMP office to pick it up. On a Saturday morning, there was nobody there. I tried the doorbell with no results. I tried the office number on the door with no results. Eventually I picked up the yellow hotline phone and the ringing was answered by a polite and cheerful female voice, 550 kilometers away in Whitehorse. The Whitehorse dispatcher informed me that she didn’t know when they would be in at the Dawson office, but it would be some time today and that the officer on call was for emergencies only. She let me know, in the most polite and cheerful way possible, that reuniting idiots with lost luggage did not fall into the “emergency” category. I left a correct number and she assured me the officer would call when he arrived at the office.

Since I now had another day to kill in Dawson, I decided to take the ferry across the Yukon River and ride the aptly named “Top of the World Highway” which runs along the crests of the mountains above the tree line to the most northerly land border station in the United States at Poker Creek, Alaska, population three. When I returned to civilization, there was a message from the RCMP officer on duty informing me that he was in the office and my gear was waiting for me.

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I roared out of own early the next morning, eager to make it to Whitehorse in time for dinner and drinks with my friend Dana who was still there gearing up to walk the same route I had just travelled by motorcycle. I stopped for gas at a tiny Hamlet called Stewart Crossing and was swarmed by a mass of mosquitoes, bees and black flies as soon as I removed my helmet. I quickly fueled up and pulled out of the gas station in a hurry to avoid the bloodthirsty swarm. When I snapped my visor shut, however, I found that I had inadvertently trapped a huge black Yukon beetlebug roughly the size of a sparrow inside the visor with my face. Not knowing if this particular insect was of the stinging/biting variety, I immediately pulled over on the soft shoulder across from the gas station.

I flipped up the visor and swatted at the bug, knocking the snap-in lens out of my sunglasses. As it went sailing away towards the grass, I reached out to try to catch it, losing my footing in the soft sand of the shoulder. Down went the bike, sending me rolling ass-over-teakettle down an embankment where I came to rest on my back at the bottom of a ditch. I rose, dusting myself from the impromptu slapstick routine, to see a hitchhiker staring at me from the road. This was: a) highly embarrassing, and b) fortuitous, as I now had an extra set of hands to help right the bike.

“It is not easy to hitchhike here,” he said in a thick French accent. “There are many bug.”

Determining that the only damage was to my ego, we quickly had the bike back on two wheels. I thanked my hitchhiking friend and, while I was unable to offer him a ride (as if he would have even taken it after the uncoordinated mess he had just witnessed), the least I could do was offer him the use of my bug spray.

He waved as I rode off, shouting, “Have a good road!” He may have simply incorrectly conjugated “ride,” but in any case, I thought that sounded almost poetic. Despite the comedy of errors that was the previous two days, I decided I would heed the advice and have a good road.

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The End and Beginning of the Road

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I was near the Yukon/Northwest Territory border, still well north of the Arctic Circle, with eyes focused on the gravel road surface, when I spotted a dark shape, a large dark shape, out of the corner of my left eye, moving fast against the scrubby green tundra. I turned my attention away from the road long enough to identify it and realized I was looking at ursus arctos, a North American grizzly bear, moving at a full run toward the road and on an intersecting course with the motorcycle. I let off the throttle and eased on the brakes very carefully. Burying the front tire in gravel and dropping the bike would be bad enough, but doing so in the presence of a wild 600-pound apex predator could be catastrophic. This mass of fur and muscle glanced over briefly and passed at a full sprint not 15 yards in front of the bike. Passing close enough that I could see the sunlight reflecting off the individual hairs of its dark honey-colored coat, the bear raced away off the right side of the road, moving with powerful strides across the meadow as I motored past close behind. Then it was gone. I swore into my helmet in an expression of relief, awe, and fear. It was just one last surprise the Dempster Highway had up its sleeve.

I had left Inuvik several hours earlier in a raw cold, but at least it was dry. I had reached the northern terminus of my journey and now it was time to head south. The sun eventually broke through and the highway that only days before had been a nearly impassible morass of mud had transformed into a beautifully traversable, albeit rough, dirt and gravel track through the arctic landscape. I knew that the dispiriting crucible of a road it had been only a few days before lay dormant under this exterior, waiting to awaken again when the rain comes. For now, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had somehow proved my worth on the trip up and now the Dempster was cutting me a break on the way back down.

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I retraced my route, passing the Yukon border, then the sign demarcating the Arctic Circle at 66° 33’ N, past the lonely outpost of Eagle Plains, and up and over the Ogilvie Mountains, arriving in Dawson City, Yukon 12 hours after setting out. With its gold rush style wooden buildings and dirt Main Street, it felt like entering the Emerald City after so many hours of lonesome road.  I’ve now officially started my journey southwards on the Panamerican highway.

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I’ve been as far as the road will allow in one direction and now it’s time to work toward the distant goal at the other end. I’m glad that this exhausting and technical part of the ride is behind me. It is one major challenge out of the way. The challenges ahead are sure to be many and varied, but I will always remember the challenges of the far north with special sentiment.

Like the run-in with the grizzly and, indeed, the road and region itself, it was immense, beautiful, humbling, awe-inspiring and more than a little frightening.

Top of the World

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I’m on top of the world at the moment! Well, not technically the very top, but to get much farther north from here would require either dog sleds or a nuclear submarine.

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The town of Inuvik, population 3,400, lies two degrees above the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. The next closest city, Dawson, lies 774 kilometers to the south down the dirt and gravel Dempster highway. That’s roughly the distance between San Diego and San Francisco and, with the exception of a few tiny settlements, there is virtually no population in between except for the caribou, grizzly bears, arctic foxes and other creatures adapted to survive in these unforgiving climes.

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The town is built on permafrost and one of the notable features of the town is a network of corrugated steel conduits built above the ground called the “utilidor system,” designed to prevent the city’s water and sewage systems from freezing. Incidentally, the Dempster highway is also built on an insulating layer of gravel between 3 and 7 feet thick to prevent the road from heating up and sinking. During the summer, ferries cross the Peel and MacKenzie rivers. During the winter the rivers become ice bridges. During the fall and spring, while the ice is freezing or breaking up, the town is cut off by road. The sort of ingenuity that conceives of systems to keep sewage from freezing and roads from sinking into the tundra is characteristic of the people that live up here. It is, after all, a survival trait. Another survival trait appears to be friendliness.

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During my brief stay, I have found the residents of Inuvik, predominantly Gwich’in meaning “one who dwells,” and Inuvialuit which means “the people,” to be tremendously friendly. It’s not unusual for a stranger to strike up a conversation on the street or in line at the grocery store. It seems people don’t remain strangers very long in Inuvik. It makes sense to have good relationships with one’s neighbors in a place with mean low January temperatures of -31° C (-24° F) and 30 days of polar night every winter.

The local history is colorful, to say the least. There was the “Lost Patrol,” a doomed patrol of Mounties that set out in 1910, resorted to eating their dogs and yet still perished only miles from the safety of Ft. McPherson on the Peel River. It was also the home of Albert Johnson, the “Mad Trapper,” subject of a bizarre manhunt involving 9 men, 42 dogs (dogs are a big part of life up here) and 9 kilograms of dynamite.

I plan on getting some rest tonight, getting up early and heading the only way there is to head, south, on one more trip down the Dempster Highway.

The Devilish Dempster

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I have been blessed with the opportunity to drive or ride some of the world’s great roads; the Pacific Coast Highway, the Great Ocean Road in Australia, Colorado’s Peak to Peak Highway. They have all been spectacular and all are indelibly etched in memory. The difference between those roads and the Dempster Highway is that I never felt any of the others were making a sport of kicking my ass. Even the Tail of the Dragon at Deal’s Gap, North Carolina, with its 318 turns in 11 miles and its “tree of shame” festooned with shattered motorcycle parts, is a walk in the park compared to this gravel hosebeast.

The first 100 kilometers were smooth sailing over dry hardpack. In fact, I found myself needing to slow down in order to conserve fuel to make it to the next services 350 kilometers away.

“This is a piece of cake,” I thought to myself. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about.”

Then I hit the potholes. Then the mist and fog start. Then, while ascending the Ogilvie Mountain Range the mist develops in to a full-fledged downpour with fat drops that turns the road surface in to a sludgy mess the consistency of porridge with grape sized stones thrown in for good measure. Factor in the arctic wind and the conditions are downright awful.

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Just when I think it’s think it’s as bad as it’s going to get, then comes the heavy equipment. Massive graders, saddled with the sishyphean task of maintaining the road surface, leave foot tall berms of rocky muck in the center of the road. The only way to get around these yellow monsters is to ride the motorcycle through the gravelly gunk into the left hand lane, causing the bike to yaw and slide in nerve-racking and deeply unsettling ways.

Despite all of this, it is awesome.

Started in 1959 and completed over a period of 20 years, the Dempster crosses a region called Beringia, over mountain ranges, through valleys and past moraines formed by millions of years of advancing and retreating glaciers. Huge piles of sand and gravel, deposited by retreating glaciers, rise from the valley floor. The road follows the Northern Yukon River valley for a time and crosses the ancestral lands of the Hän, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit peoples. When not white-knuckling it though a mud patch, the views are phenomenal.

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So now here I am sitting in the Inn at Eagle Plains, 40 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, with 350 kilometers more yet to go before reaching Inuvik. Then I must turn around and drive back down this hellacious and beautiful road.

I’m looking forward to it.