For two days leading to Watson Lake my snack stops consisted of dry pasta and some coconut I had left. I was not going to let that happen again and loaded the Dummy with multiple pounds of chocolate in all its glorious forms. Sue and Barry also treated me to a couple of ziplocks full of the best jerky (moose) I have ever tasted. It was the perfect roadside snack.
Leaving Watson Lake my spirits were at the lowest of the trip. Being alone for long periods of time and the daily cold grind were weighing on me, and the frostbite on my toes was a constant worry. The forecast for the day was -5 so I decided to put on the lighter boots. But the temperature was -15 and my feet were cold. I stopped at a restaurant at the junction with the Cassier highway and changed into warmer boots and put on some long underwear. I ordered some nice warm soup. As I sat slowly eating my soup I was hoping that a truck would come along heading south. I fantasized that I would ask the driver to put my bike on the back and head toward Vancouver. Fortunately, my wish did not come true and no south bound truck appeared. I reluctantly got back on the bike and headed out. Eventually, a combination of warm sunshine and warmer feet buoyed my spirits.
Soon the cycling became down right enjoyable. And shortly after the sun descended over the horizon, a full moon ascended to re-light the way. Riding in the moonlight was a nice change from the dark and clouds that had been my constant companions on night rides, where the road ahead is not visible beyond the reach of my headlight. Cycling in the dark had long since lost its luster. Having no idea when a hill is going to end can get frustrating.
Full of energy, I rode till 9:00 p.m., only stopping when I came across a pull-out where I could set up my tent.
I toyed with continuing to ride into the night, but unsure of where I would find the next place to camp (deep snow had virtually eliminated the prospect of camping in the woods), I decided it was prudent to stop. My campsite was at the bottom of a valley near a creek, which meant that it was five to ten degrees colder than the high points on the road either side of it. This phenomenon, which seems more pronounced in the north, makes regulating body heat (trying to stay warm without becoming too warm and sweating) very difficult. As you climb the hills and work harder, the temperature climbs with you. Then on the descent into the next valley you are wet from the climb, not pedaling hard, if at all, the wind is whistling by, and the temperature is plummeting as you lose elevation. Descents are not the pleasant rests that they are in the summer. I came to dread them more than the climb to reach them. The climbs are at least warm. The nicest stretches of road became the flat bits: constant speed, not working too hard but hard enough to maintain warmth.
The next morning I woke to a day full of promise: an early lunch in Rancheria before continuing over yet another continental divide was the plan. The skies were clear, the wind negligible, and some highway workers filled my thermoses with water. But Mother Nature’s plans trumped mine as they had numerous times before. Once I had finished breakfast and was packing up my tent, the slight breeze blowing from my direction of travel had gained strength, and at one point threatened to carry my tent away with it.
Instead of settling down once the system of clouds overhead had passed, the wind only gained strength throughout my ride. It was by far the strongest wind I had faced during the entire trip and it was relentless. Halfway through the day driving snow was added to the mix, stinging my eyes as I pushed against it. Even on the downhill parts of the ride, pedalling hard, I could barely get my speed over 10 km/h. There was simply no opportunity to take a break from pedalling while on the bike. I stopped often to rest the legs. A couple of times I crawled through waist deep snow into the trees to get a respite from the wind. It was 4:00 before I pulled into the lodge at Rancheria. In over 5 hours of turning the pedals I had managed a paltry 37 km.
To say the least, I was ecstatic when I finally reached the lodge at Rancheria and was out of the cold and wind.
I was even more excited to learn that the warmth at the hearth of the lodge was eclipsed by the warmth of the welcome I received there. I ordered dinner and drank lots of orange juice and pop for which they would not accept any money. Then they insisted the I stay at the lodge free of charge. To top it off we watched the Canucks game and they plied me with beer.
I learned that the lodge is powered by a small run-of-stream hydro system fed by the water from a lake nestled in the mountains above. If that were to fail, the diesel generators would consume $11,000 of fuel monthly, making the lodge an uneconomic venture without micro hydro.
Shortly after I woke, daylight revealed a fantastic view from my room of a snow-covered lake behind the lodge. I tried to imagine what it might look like in the summer.
When I made my way over to the restaurant, I learned that the temperature had dipped to -30 that night and had not warmed significantly. I was offered another night in the lodge but declined as the forecast promised temperatures in the minus forties by the weekend. I wanted to be safely holed up in Whitehorse before the really cold front moved in. I would be repeatedly warned of the impending deep freeze and the need for haste over the next few days.
To get to Whitehorse I needed to pass over yet another continental divide. How many ways can this continent be divided, I wondered as I climbed?
After the climb, the road again meandered south of 60 as if unsure that it was fully committed to crossing that arbitrary barrier that separates the known south from the exotic north that captures the imagination of most Canadians. I was back in British Columbia for the fourth time on this trip. Psychological barriers aside, the roads just seemed better maintained on the BC side.
That night I found what looked like a staging area for travel into the forest on what seemed to be seismic lines. Whatever the purpose, the ground was smooth and the snow had been plowed perhaps three snowfalls ago. Clearing a spot for the tent was easy and lighting a fire would have been a possibility if I wasn’t so intent on getting into my sleeping bag and closing my eyes for the night after a long day on the road.
The temperature was below the -20 that the digital thermometer on my bike computer decides it can no longer provide a number and instead substitutes two dashes. I pulled out the overbag for the first time and slipped it over my sleeping bag for added warmth. There had been a few nights at similar temperatures where I had been cold in the sleeping bag alone leading to fitful sleeps.
At some point during the night the temperature rose to -5 and I awoke in a sweat and quickly pulled off the overbag and opened up the sleeping bag. I was managing to generate enough heat to melt the frost that had accumulated on the ceiling of the tent resulting in a cold shower of water droplets every time the tent was disturbed.
The choreography of getting out of the sleeping bag in the morning always followed a similar pattern. It was at first a methodical performance where each movement was measured and slow, trying not to touch the walls and bring down an ice shower. But with each misstep the urgency to get dressed and put a barrier between me and the cold and falling frost increased, finally building to a crescendo of “I need to do this quickly and get the the hell out of here.” This morning the stakes were higher as the ice crystals had become big water droplets.
Having extricated myself from the sleeping bag and tent, I needed to start the slow process of melting snow for the day’s water. No one had pulled over to fill my thermoses the day before, as they had so often done in the past, and all my thermoses were dry. My stove decided to act up after I had made breakfast. I went through all the necessary steps. Filled, refilled, pumped up the gasoline canisters, but still I had little luck. It’s these little inconveniences that put things into perspective. This small device stood between me and water. I wasn’t in desperate circumstances but what if I were? In the end I was able to get the stove to work in short increments. An hour and a half had passed before I was able to get the water I needed, with the added bonus of smelling like gasoline from all the fiddling.
The day’s ride turned out to be very pleasant. The 15 degree jump in the temperature coupled with a nice tail breeze made for easy riding and much greater speeds. Since the previous day had been a long one, I was able to get to Teslin while it was still light. Finishing the day not riding in the dark was a pleasant rarity. I pulled into the Yukon Hotel and the cook at the restaurant offered to buy my dinner if I would put the money I would have otherwise spent towards a night in the hotel, which I eagerly did.
The next morning the breeze that had helped propel me forward had turned into a strong tail wind. It felt as if I was flying along Lake Teslin for the 50 km it took to get to Johnson’s Crossing. The Crossing turned out to be a definite turning point in the day, a negative turning point. The first 50 km were sublime, completed in less than two hours, while the last 50 would take another five.
The wind had left my side (or more precisely, my back) and began actively plotting against my advance, fickle are its allegiances. Added to that, pain slowly returned to my right knee halfway up the hill out of the Crossing. After 30 km, I was in agony. Each pedal stroke with my right leg brought tears to my eyes. And unlike the knee pain that had me sidelined earlier in the trip, getting off the bike and pushing it offered no respite from the pain. Walking really hurt too. Resting frequently only meant that the first few pedals strokes on the right did not hurt as much but the pain quickly returned. I tried to use my right leg only as a means to bring the left pedal around, such that my left leg could do all the work. But even this diminished the pain very little. How I wished that I was clipped into my pedals so that I could pull up with my left leg and let it do all the work. I considered getting off the bike and duct taping my left boot to the pedal so that I could at least pull the pedal around for the next down stroke. But standing in the cold in one sock foot and mounting the bike from the “wrong side” made the idea seem unworkable. I was sure I would fall down with the bike on top of me. I had no choice but to continue on to Jake’s Corner in agony. The only consolation was that the last 20 km was mostly downhill.
I reached the gas station and restaurant at Jake’s Corner at 6:00 and ordered the dinner special, which turned out to be pretty tasty and filling. After dinner I called my Couch Surfing host in Marsh Lake, 17 km further on down the road. I mentioned the pain in my knee and that as a result it might take me a while to complete those 17 km. I secretly hoped that he would offer a ride. Unfortunately, he did not have access to a vehicle at that point. I procrastinated a little longer in the restaurant and then set out. I was not 500 meters down the road when John pulled up with a neighbour in the neighbour’s truck. I was ecstatic. We loaded the Dummy on the truck and headed down the road.