TOK TO HAINES JUNCTION – 22nd to 26th June
6 Tok to wild camp north of Northway Junction – 82km (447 total)
Weighed ourselves with loaded bikes at weighing station – Robert and Paul 300lbs and me a lightweight 260lbs (+-20). Gentle undulations, deserted towns, wide views to St Elias range, other cycle tourers (Dirk 33,000km and all of Africa to go and an elderly German couple), slow broad rivers
7 Beaver Creek, Yukon, Canada wild camp – 113.4km (560km)
Icy rain, border crossing into Yukon, Canada (my first time) and sunshine. Moose, trumpeter swans, ducks
8 North of Bonjek River wild camp – 113.8km
Mosquito territory, Koidern River Lodge quirky cuppa, Pickhandle Lakes, undulating ice-heaved roads
Mother bear and 2 babies, Lynx?, beaver
9 Destruction Bay wild camp – 97km (771)
Short beautiful leg of old Alcan Highway beside river (near Kluane Wilderness Lodge), long dusty roadworks, headwinds!!!, huge pizza reward at Destruction Bay
10 Haines Junction - 110km
Beautiful dawn ride marred only later by wind. Mountains, wildflowers, glassy Kluane Lake
Having spent a few days cycling with Paul, we spent a long time at Tetlin Junction, outside Tok, trying to decide which path to take – the shorter, more beautiful route as originally planned or the longer, more historic (gold mining) loop via Dawson City and Whitehorse to spend more time with our new chum. At the extensive and deserted former lodgings and café (sadly unstocked with pie and beverages) at Tetlin Junction, we delayed the decision, crawling around the buildings, taking photos, snacking and chatting with an overloaded German cycling couple in their late 60’s (?). We pondered why such establishments are now deserted and can only conclude that with the vast majority of travelers now moving about the countryside in vehicles with more features and fittings than a basic home, the need for cosy timber cabins and log-filled hotels are out of vogue.
Once we had agreed on the most reasonable scenario and with no other excuse to delay our decision any longer, Robert and I decided to stick to plan A, with the promise of fine mountain views, a more direct line to the ocean and the promise of a live music gig for some much-needed culture in Haines Junction.
We eased our bodies back into cycling mode, adjusting saddles (sore knees), adding saddle padding and adjusting loads as we cruised with pleasant tailwinds through new landscapes (ever-present spruce and wildflowers the common thread). Parts of us exposed to sun have begun to get a golden glow (Robert more than me) – fingers (not protected by cycle mitts), wrists and faces from the cheekbones down. Belgian Dirk who’s been on the road for over 2 years and 33,000km was looking pretty weathered from the sun and wind so I’ve made a note to keep layering on that oily natural suncream and lip balm on such long-sunshine days and have almond/jojoba oil and coconut oil to rehydrate my very parched skin after a day in the weather.
Preparing meals, stashing food bags and setting up and packing up camp are all becoming smooth rituals.
During our first bout of real, cold rain, following a short, beary walk down to a lake, we sought shelter at the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge information centre. According to the chirpy national parks guide, cyclists lunching inside the very picturesque centre is not uncommon, especially with hot water on tap for warming beverages. Coach loads of tourists filed by and asked questions about our journey, intrigued or admiring.
With a tailwind, aiding an escape from the icy, cloudy weather of Alaska, we crossed the border into Canada late in the evening and cycled until 12.30pm (1.30 Canada time). As we passed the welcome to Canada signs (after obligatory photos), the sun came out, the wind dropped and despite the loose, gravel road the easy cycling, sunshine and the scenery inspired us to keep going. Leaving the US was a complete non-event – noone to check or stamp my passport. Canada, on the other hand, warmly welcomed us 27 km down the road and gave me a stamp for my collection.
Snowy mountains, strings of mirror-flat lakes edged with reeds and complete with ducks with ducklings, large white Trumpeter Swans and, at one, a large male moose made me fall in love with Canada as I imagined I always would. Canada’s pavilion at Brisbane’s World Expo 88 was my favourite of them all and on first impressions, I knew I wasn’t going to be disappointed. “Larger than Life”, the Yukon’s slogan, couldn’t be more appropriate – with size of the broad glacial valleys, high peaks, expanses of wetlands and mosquitoes.
Campgrounds in Canada thoughtfully provide a cooking shelter – open, roofed structure with wood heater in the middle and picnic tables. Beams are sufficiently high for bear resistance and the shelters can be used to sleep in in emergencies (mosquito protection essential). Pit toilets don’t sparkle in Canada like they do in Alaska but their often-broken insect screening provides some protection from the sometimes ferocious mega mosquitoes.
Roads in Alaskan interior and the Yukon suffer from the effects of permafrost – frozen soil beneath the thin layer of humus and vegetation. As roads heat up, the permafrost can melt, causing huge potholes, cracks and big dippers in the road surface. All drivers complain of this and signs and bright flags warn of the worst patches. As cyclists, we barely noticed the effect with some of the bigger ripples adding interest and fun to an otherwise unchallenging road surface. Road works with long gravel stretches abound at this time of year, making cycling dusty and tiring and potentially hazardous with stones thrown up by inconsiderate RV drivers. One friendly woman truck driver pointed out a 6km diversion to avoid one stretch, along the old Alcan Highway, beside the broad, beautiful river. Without the traffic, there was an abundance of small birds and there was a heavy honey scent from new flowering bushes along the narrow road. We cycled up the middle to reduce risk of unexpected bear encounters and pass several beautiful camp spots.
Photo of Dorothy by Jungle Ling
We encountered a few interesting characters on our journey to Haines Junction and beyond. One unplanned stop, in the always-important search for pie, at the Koidern River Lodge, at mile 1164, felt like we’d stepped into a comedy act. The untidy yard, decorated at the fringes with an abundance of fake flowers stuck in the dirt, didn’t look too inviting to most, despite the “open” sign, but curiosity had to be nurtured. Inside, with the TV blaring out “The Simpsons”, our hosts were hard to spot amongst the Aladdin’s cave of stuff for sale – rocks, trinkets, food provisions (dubious age), pots and pans, books and scruffy chairs under 40 years of dust.
Dorothy and Frank remarkably resembled Miracle Max and his wife from “the Princess Bride” (without the Jewish noses) and bickered in the same hysterical way. They had pie! Rhubarb, my favourite. Dorothy cleared some of the old cups and books off the dusty tablecloth, muttering about threats of divorce over The Simpsons and her husband’s untidiness after their long marriage. They joined us for a cuppa and talked of the changes along the valley. Our brief time with them was one of the highlights of local encounters to date.
Robert spotted a beaver, enjoying the fast-flowing river and I think I saw a lynx (something of that size). The biggest highlight was a mother grizzly and her 2 cubs crossing the road – my one and only sighting of a bear for over 2 weeks of travel.
The last legs of our ride to Haines Junction, from before Burwash Landing, approaching Kluane Lake, reminded me of Patagonia. Headwinds flattened us and our concentration went from enjoying the scenery to watching the distance tick over to 1km on our bike computers when in the lead or keeping an eye on the back wheel of the leader, with heads down to reduce wind resistance. We averaged 7km/hour in tight formation and made a quick decision to eat, camp and
Quote for this leg of the trip from poet Robert Service:
There's a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There's a land--oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back--and I will.
It's the great big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It's the forests where silence has lease;
It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace.
-from Spell of the Yukon