The Island

The morning of Sunday December 2nd I was finally back on the road for part 2 of my ride to the Arctic Circle and beyond. With a deadline to catch a ferry from the north of Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert the following Saturday, I was eager to get on the road. The previous four days had been hectic, getting the Dummy ready, putting the final touches on the kit, and saying goodbye. I only managed 4 hours sleep on Saturday night.

A number of people agreed to ride part of the way with me and we all met at Market Crossing in south Burnaby before proceeding over the Queensborough and then Alex Fraser Bridges to Tsawwassen. Some people also came to see me off. It was nice to have surprise visits from James, Erin and Brian. Seth, Michael, Don and Rick accompanied me to the ferry, while Peter, Paula, Michelle and Dennis came all the way to Nanaimo.

The day started off overcast with sunny breaks (about as perfect a day as one could expect this time of year). We took the ferry from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay and then rode to the Mill Bay Ferry to reduce the number of kilometers and avoid the Malahat. I had a little knee pain early, which now always sets off alarm bells, but it did not seem to persist. Both Peter and Dennis tried out the Dummy, Peter for a few hundred meters and Dennis for several km. In fact, he was off like a shot and we only caught up to him again as we neared the Mill Bay ferry.

Day 1 with group - taking ferry to Mill Bay

Paula, Peter, and Dennis with the Dummy – taking ferry to Mill Bay

Then the rains started and we pulled into Duncan completely soaked. While we were eating dinner at the hotel, the police showed up to serve a warrant to one of the hotel guests. The nonchalance with which the clerk grabbed the keys and took the officer to the person’s room made me think that this was a regular occurrence at this place. Meanwhile, Michelle lost her wallet. She says it made an emotional day, more weighty. Luckily it was turned in the next day, just a bit lighter, lacking a few bills.

The next day we had a relatively short distance to Peter’s brother’s place in Nanaimo so we took back roads to make it longer and enjoy riding through some idyllic country. It was another rainy day, however, the scenery through Crofton and Chemainus to Ladysmith did not disappoint.  Thanks to Kevin for putting up a bunch of dripping wet cyclists for the night.

From Nanaimo I was on my own. Michelle, Peter and Paula headed back to Vancouver and I had a reasonably long way to go to get to Courtenay. On Peter’s advice, I decided to take the old island highway and very much glad I did. The riding was fantastic with lots of nice small towns and limited hills. After struggling a bit for the first few days I felt like I hit my stride as I rolled into Courtenay full of energy.

The route from Courtenay to Campbell River was relatively short and dry. I got into Campbell River early with the sun shining. I took a closer look at the bulge in my front tire. It had been a persistent worry since about halfway through the first day, sending a slight bump with every revolution of the wheel. It looked worse than the last time I checked and I decided to take advantage of the sunny weather and replace it with my spare. That leaves me with no spare until I pick up my stashed tires in Whitehorse.

Bulge in front tire

Bulge in front tire

Leaving Campbell River, I was not expecting to see any civilization until Woss. The road turned inland and the hills began in earnest. But, just as my stomach started to rumble at the top of a hill, I came across Sue’s Place restaurant. Sue bought me lunch but would not let me take her picture.  Delicious.

Delicious hamburger from Sue's Place - Campbell River

Sue’s Place

I rode past Sayward and well into the night but I did not manage to cover half the distance to Port McNeill (I was hoping to do 120 of the 200 to McNeill). I consoled myself for my lack of progress with the notion that I was at a high altitude and that most of the climbing was done (I was so very wrong). I found a rest stop and set up my tent for the first time this trip. I decided that even though it was December there might be bears about so I left my food away from the tent. That just invited a smaller critter to chew through my pannier and have its fill of bread.

Some Critter got a meal out of my pannier.

Some Critter got a meal out of my pannier.

I was up early to get a jump on the day and get to Port McNeill before too late. I awoke to ice on my tent and snow all around, the first snow of the trip.

First Snow

First Snow

I later learned that the the local ski hill had 11 feet of fresh powder for opening day. Fortunately, at lower elevations the precipitation fell mostly as rain. My hope of few hills and lower elevations were to be dashed. And almost immediately it was back to dragging the Dummy up and up. At the end of the day the altimeter read the total elevation gain as nearly 1,000 meters.

I rolled into Port McNeill and the Bike Shed shortly after 6:00, 11 hours after setting out. My host for the evening was Ryan, the mechanic at the Bike Shed. I was greeted at the door with an offer of warm food and cold beer. He also wanted to put the Dummy up on the stand to have a look. It got a thorough cleaning and complete check over. The wheels were true and remained well tensioned (thanks Seth), something that is a constant concern for me, given the number of hubs, rims and spokes that I go through. Ryan added a new cable and housing for the rear derailleur, and a fancy one at that: with a Gore-Tex sheath to keep the water out. The next morning as I was leaving the bike shop I broke the chain in the parking lot. Ryan quickly fixed that and had me on my way.

P1010332

When I am on a new road on a bike I always look forward to stopping at points of interest and reading the vignettes. On the ride up the Island I got to see a couple superlatives, and not the type one might normally see in towns on the prairies, like the biggest Easter egg or the Canada goose statue, or some other human made big something-or-other. The first was a picture of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion with a view to the place where it happened (Seymour Narrows – Ripple Rock). The explosion was set off to clear a shipping lane. A tunnel was drilled from nearby land to two underwater pinnacles, the tallest of which at low tide was a mere 3 meters below the surface and had claimed numerous vessels and lives. 1,400 tons of explosives were placed in the tunnels.

Ripple Rock then & now

Ripple Rock then & now

The second was the world’s largest burl, found on a spruce tree harvested near Port McNeill (circumference of 45 feet).

World's largest burl

World’s largest burl

My island ride came to an end as I arrived in Port Hardy. It was four hours before the ferry was set to depart. I went to town to find some food and then backtracked the 8 km to the ferry. From here I headed north.

Into the belly of the Northern Expidition

Into the belly of the Northern Expedition – I’m heading north

Into the Dark, Part II

It’s nearing the end of November and in a week I will once again be attempting to ride my bike to Tuktoyaktuk, this time a little wiser and with some small but important equipment changes…

One of the main problems derailing my ride last winter was frostbite on my toes. The extra thick socks and the felt insole I added made the boots a bit too snug and the resulting numbness hid frostbite that was developing. I decided to change from my hiking boots to a hefty pair of mountaineering boots, good for the cold temps and large enough to give my feet breathing room.  Unfortunately, getting size 49 boots was a challenge as no one in North America seemed to have any on hand.

Frostbite in Whitehorse

Mountaineering boots

Puss and boots

Despite the frostbite on my toes, it was actually the cold in my hands that posed the biggest ongoing challenge last winter. Theoretically, I was aware that my body would divert blood away from my extremities in an attempt to keep my core warm, but experiencing it was an eye opener. I was constantly frustrated at how long my hands would take to warm back up, after stopping on my bike for only a brief time.

The winds also added an extra bite.  For instance, the day I rode into Rancheria, I found my hands virtually useless when trying to eat something in gale force winds.  I would eat a portion of food, then jump up and down or run around, then take another bite, and repeat this until I had enough to stave off the hunger. As soon as I was done, I’d jump back on the bike and get going again. The problem was not so much a matter of equipment, as I have a number of mitts and gloves, but more about how I transitioned from bike to rest. For this trip I will use handle bar mitts, so that my hands will be protected from the winds and I can use lighter gloves while riding and avoid heating up and getting sweaty. When my hands are cold they will be inside the mitts, and when they are warm I can take them out, without having to stop.

I’ll test out a USB charger that replaces the top cap and is linked to the dynamo hub through the steer tube. A few other changes include a new -40 rated down sleeping bag (again difficult to find a long size)…

trying out the new sleeping bag

and a new rear rim.

Broken Rim

Broken Rim

New back rim

New back rim – said to be ‘bomb proof’

So, with all my equipment packed back up, I’ll be heading out on December 2nd. I will ride up Vancouver Island to Port Hardy and then take the ferries to Prince Rupert, Juneau and Skagway. From there I will bike over the infamous White Pass toward Whitehorse and pick back up where I left off last year in Jake’s Corner.

The staff at Cap’s Bicycle Shop in New Westminster will be joining me on the first two days. As well, anyone who would like to join in on any portion of the trip as we ride from Vancouver to the Tsawwassen Ferry and then from Victoria to Nanaimo, (with a hotel stay in Duncan), is invited to come along for the ride.

We are meeting on Sunday, December 2nd, at the Market Crossing Starbucks (Market Crossing & Marine Way, Burnaby) at 9:30am, to make the 1:00 ferry to Victoria.

Flirting with 60

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 fully loaded.

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.

Rare sunshine

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.

Camping at a road side pull out.

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.

Arriving in Rancheria

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.

Doing some renos to prepare Rancheria Lodge for the summer season

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.

View

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?

"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds." -Edward Abbey

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 Dummy spending a rare night indoors.

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.

Climbing from Johnson’s Crossing

Climbing from Johnson’s Crossing in the falling snow

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.

John Striker - Host in Marsh Lake

John Striker - Couch Surfing Host and knee saviour

Buffalo or Bison

I decided to take a day off at Liard Hot Springs after six days on the road.  It was proving harder to put kilometers under the wheels of the Dummy than earlier in the trip.  Hills, icy roads, colder temps, and headwinds were taking their toll on daily distances.

I started out down the highway when I noticed that the drive train was making a strange noise.  I looked down and saw that I had broken one side of another link on my chain.  I turned around and headed back the two km to the lodge at Liard Hot Springs.  This time I decided to replace the entire chain (I picked one up in Fort Nelson).

Broken chain

Broken chain

I had been hearing about the Liard Buffalo for weeks:  “They are monsters, some weighing 2,000 pounds.”  “They hang around on the road cause they like the salt.”   “they will not move for anything.  You just have to wait for them to leave the road.”  How would they react to a lone cyclist when a 50 ton semi does not phase them?  Needless to say, I left Liard with a great deal of apprehension.

Bison Herd in search of salt on the roads

Mmmm salt.

I was not 10 km down the road when a guy I met at the lodge drove back to warn me of a herd on the road 5 km ahead.  He offered to put the bike in the back of the truck and give me a ride through the danger.  I told him of the importance, to me, of riding every meter under my own power and I asked if he had some time and if he would wait where they were for me.  He agreed and I met up with him 5 km ahead.  He would drive along side me and at any sign of danger I could jump in the truck.

My escort through herd of Bison

My escort through herd of Bison

It turned out that bicycle is much more scary to a bison than a semi and the sight of me sent them running for the ditch.  Thank goodness the instinct of flight is much stronger in herbivores than the instinct to fight.

For the next 200 km I encountered bison.  They would run along side the road at approximately the same speed as me until they found a clearing in the woods to run into.  At one point I “chased” three for a couple of kilometers until I hit a down hill stretch where I could out run (ride) them.  This was somewhat disconcerting as I wondered if eventually they would decide they could not out run me and turn to confront me.  I slowly passed them. A couple of kms further up the road I looked back.  Now the the three were on the road and still running, towards me.  Had the chaser become the chased?  The hill ahead meant that they could catch me if that was their intent.  I struggled up the hill looking back every minute.  Eventually they gave up their pursuit, or whatever it was that led them to continue running.

At times I was startled when a lump of snow in the ditch started to move then got up and ran into the bush.  The guy below barely acknowledged my presence as I stopped to take his picture.

Bison near Liard River

Bison near Liard River

I was treated to a colourful display as the sun slowly descended the evening I left Liard.  Colours here contrast sharply against what is a very black and white world.

Fiery sunset in a black & white world

As I have made my way north the increasing snow cover has made camping in the woods a difficult prospect (dragging my gear through waist deep snow is no fun).  I have therefore had to find alternative camping sites.  Mostly that has meant camping in rest stops, but these offer little protection from the wind.  In Coal River I camped behind a lodge that was closed for the season.

Camping on way to Watson Lake

Camping in Coal River

In Contact Creek I camped near a gas station.  It was nice to get out of a cold tent and warm up in the store straight away.

Camping in Contact Creek

Camping in Contact Creek

From Contact Creek I made my way to Watson Lake and my Couch Surfing hosts Barry and Sue, and their dog Robie.

Barry and Sue, and Robie

Barry and Sue, and Robie

When I took off my socks, I suddenly realized that I had been careless with my feet.  They had been numb for days.  I managed to get frostbite on three toes without feeling a thing.

Frostbite

Frostbite

Spent the next few days in Watson Lake worrying about my toes, preparing for the next leg of the trip, and seeing the sights.  The most famous of the sights is the Signpost Forest.  The guy at the Northern Lights Centre said it is the largest collection of stolen public property in the world.

Signpost Forest

Signpost Forest

I was also treated to a winter storm.  Love them.

Watson Lake

Watson Lake

Before I left for my next leg of the journey I made sure to stock up on 7 days of food and extra treats, as the snacks on my way to Watson Lake had run out, and during the day I was munching on dry pasta.

Leaving Watson Lake

For the next stretch of the road I will be heading to Whitehorse, passing through Rancheria, Teslin & Marsh Lake.

Lonely Road

I said my goodbyes in Fort Nelson after a few days with some great people.

Saying goodbye to Richy

The weather had taken a turn for the colder since arriving in Fort Nelson.

Leaving Fort Nelson

Thirty kilometers into the ride the road split into two.  My road would would take me to Whitehorse, the other turned north toward oil and gas country. I took the road less traveled and less “looked after”: bare pavement was replaced by icy patches and I felt more alone with the much reduced traffic.  I also started the slow climb to Steamboat.  I was leaving the foothills behind and heading back into the Rockies.  That night I found a spot to camp in the woods, which was harder than before as there was a lot more snow and the trees were closer together.

The next day I headed towards Steamboat mountain.  I was sure that I was at the top four or five times before I actually was.  The weather was nice, providing the opportunity to take some short breaks basking in the sun (an opportunity that has been all to rare on this trip).

Climbing up Steamboat Mountain

Climbing up Steamboat Mountain

When I finally reached to top, I pulled into the brake check area and asked a truck driver if he had any water that he could give me.  Sure enough my thermoses were filled and I was ready to coast down from the pass.  The weather (temperature) does interesting stuff in this area.  Instead of getting colder as you climb, it warms up.  On either side of Steamboat the temperature was -15 to -20, whereas at the top it was -5.  I was told by locals that this is normal (always warmer at the top).  The raising temps and the steep inclines meant I was wet when I got to the top and as a result, cold during the descent.

A couple of hours after dark I was at Tetsa River Services: a camp ground with cabins but mostly just gas in the winter.  I asked the owner, Ben, about a place to stay.  He immediately went and turned on the heat in a cabin, cooked me dinner (mmm ribs), then made me breakfast in the morning, and gave me one of his world famous cinnamon buns (I had heard about them a few times earlier on the road from various people). One of the many benefits of cycle touring is that you can enjoy billion calorie treats with no regrets.   He would not accept any money for the above, including three root beers and a bag of chips.

The next day I was on my way up to Summit Pass, which at 1,267 meters, is the highest point on the Alaska highway.  Summit is meant to be easier than than Steamboat, but with a monster headwind it wasn’t.  During my many shorts breaks I headed into the bush to get out of the wind.

Seeking Refuge from Headwinds

Seeking Refuge from Headwinds

I was most decidedly back in the Rocky Mountains.  However, they look quite different than when I emerged from them heading out of Jasper.  Not sure if it is the northern latitudes or simply a lack of a medium to grow in on these mountains, but few trees grow above a certain level on the mountains here.   And some have geometric lines that look suspiciously like the hands of people were involved (did the ancient Egyptians get this far north?).

Pyramid (?) Mountain

Pyramid (?) Mountain

A tree line of sorts

A tree line of sorts

The descent from Summit was nice. After the initial steep inclines it leveled out to a slow decline over many kilometers.

Descending from Summit Pass

Descending from Summit Pass

I spent that night at Toad River Lodge, home to a massive hat collection nailed to the ceiling.  The sign reads: “hat count: 8075”.

Hats in Toad River Lodge

Hats in Toad River Lodge

The next day I started out with the ambitious plan that I would ring in the new year relaxing in the Liard River hot springs.  Headwinds and lots of hills derailed those plans.

World of black & white along way to Liard

A world of black & white

It was not till New Year’s day that I was in Liard.  When I got there it was dark and there were only three other people at the springs: the guys from the band that played the New Year’s bash the night before. I was hesitant to get in as it would mean getting my swim trunks wet and then having to figure out how to dry them at -20. So ‘au naturel’ was the solution.  I think it was as nice alternative to the traditional new years polar bear swim. The guys offered beer and the water felt divine after days of biking.

Camping at Liard Hot Springs

Camping at Liard Hot Springs

The next morning the guys from the band were back and I set up for another day in Liard before heading back on the road toward Watson Lake.

Fresh out of Liard Hot Springs

Fresh out of Liard Hot Springs

Solstice

Given its solitary nature, this trip is as much an internal journey within my head as it is physical challenge for my body. Long days alone on the bike provide ample opportunity for introspection.  However, a subplot of the story of my trip is to witness a slice of life in the north, meeting people with lives very different from my own.  And during this leg of the trip I felt I had reached the north.  It hit me particularly when an eight-year-old girl pulled up to a gas station I was stopped at in Pink Mountain, on a snowmobile with her five-year-old brother on the back.  She has been driving snowmobiles since she was four.

Snowmobiling near Pink Mountain

Snowmobiling near Pink Mountain

This part of the world is rich with oil and gas and jobs and money are plentiful.  I met a rig worker named John who recently got out of prison and says that he managed to get this job only because he is willing to work over Christmas.  He is planning on saving the money from the job to check himself into rehab.  Dustin is a first nations youth who is set to turn 20 in a few weeks and on his reserve that means he will receive a $100,000 payout for oil and gas royalties.  When I asked him what he planned to do with the money, he answered: “give it to my girlfriend.”

It is also interesting to see the reaction of people to my trip, both good and bad.  The overwhelming majority of the reaction has been positive and generous.  From people opening up their homes to me, to people stopping on the highway to ask if there is anything I need.  (I almost always need something to drink).  One of the more interesting gifts I received I found as I reached the top of a hill.  I saw two small silver packages at the side of the road standing up in the snow.  As I approached I wondered how they ended up there, standing up.  I was not sure if they were full or empty.  It was not till I had passed them that I realized someone must have left them for me.  Thanks anonymous GU donor.

Mystery of the GU

Mystery of the GU

The negative reactions to my presence on the road are most normally seen when vehicles intentionally do not leave much room between themselves and me when there is no oncoming traffic.  But at the restaurant at Mile 53, where I was having a hot chocolate I overheard a table of young men talking about me.  The word “jackass” was used.

Looking at the maps before leaving Fort St. John, I was unsure what the road ahead might bring. But I was glad to see that they have made improvements to the highway since the picture below was taken.

Historical picture of the Alaska Highway

Historical picture of the Alaska Highway

I knew the gaps between towns and stores would get larger and larger. I prepared myself for days on the bike and in the tent. But lo-and-behold fifty or so kilometers on my way I came upon a nice restaurant with a  fire and wifi access. It was too tempting and I stopped to warm up. The battle for kilometers started. Warm  fires and food pose a particular challenge to my progress.

I found a nice spot and camped near Pink mountain. When I was setting up camp I noticed some wolf prints in  the snow. Interesting but not worrisome.

On day three the winds were fierce. They started at 60km/hr and worked their way up to 90km/hr. I was constantly battling the gusts which pushed me off the road and into the ditch a few times.

Battling against the wind

Fighting a head wind

I was quite happy when I came across a work camp in Buckinghorse River. I jokingly asked about rates for people biking to the Arctic and got an offer I couldn’t refuse. The folks at the camp went above and beyond. It was a great antidote to a day that had me pretty demoralized.

The next day I planned to get most of the way to Fort Nelson. It was Christmas eve. The weather cooperated and it was a beautiful, dry and completely wind free. After about 120kms I decided I was feeling good enough to make it all the way. I arrived in Fort Nelson to my host Richy and his two basset hounds around 10:30.

Bertie

Bertie the Bassett Hound

Richy invited me along for Christmas dinner with friends (the Vandersteens). I had a great time with great people and great food. I also got to touch base with Michelle and my family later in the evening.

Christmas dinner in Fort Nelson

Christmas dinner in Fort Nelson

The winter solstice arrived during this leg – which usually means the days will be getting longer. But as I continue Northward I should outpace the increasing daylight. I have enjoyed biking at night; it is quiet and the moonlight has  its own particular feel to it. But I have to admit, the novelty of riding in the dark is starting to wear off.  I realize I prefer to see the end of the hill ahead and not just 50 feet in front of me.

I’ve had a chance to rest once again and now will head northwest to Watson Lake and Whitehorse. I  suspect the gaps will be longer on this route but I’ll be keeping my eyes open for nice camping spots and camps where ever possible.  I am particularly looking forward to Liard Hot Springs.

Back in British Columbia

Entering BC

Entering BC

The name of the game in Grande Prairie was laziness: not good for me to have a big TV in front of my bed, I get distracted.  In my defense I was fighting off a bit of a cold, with a nasty cough, and Myles and Esther were complicit in my lethargy with their “you can stay as long as you like” and “if you stay, we are having X for dinner”.  Then the day I was packing up to go, it was raining, and just could not do it.  I convinced myself it was OK as the next day I would go directly to Dawson Creek (originally I had planned to split it in two days).  My laziness was rewarded once again with a great day of cycling under a big blue prairie sky. I was a little sad that this will be the only day of prairie riding this trip. 

Road to Dawson Creek

Road to Dawson Creek

For the first time in weeks I had some towns between my start and end points. I took full advantage, stopping for some hot chocolate and French fries in Beaverlodge. On the way out of town I encountered a big scary beaver that must be their mascot. I never did find out his name, if he has one.

Beaverlodge's giant beaver

Beaverlodge's giant beaver

When I reached Dawson Creek, the pizza was almost ready at my Couch Surfing hosts Jen and Dan’s place. They have hosted a number of touring cyclists, including a French guy who was circumnavigating the globe completely on his own power: pedalling the Atlantic and paddling the Pacific.

The next day started with a strong headwind, knee pain and a cough. The latter two left early while the former eventually morphed into a cross wind.  Dawson Creek is Mile zero on the Alaska Highway and looking at the sign with its big “0”, I couldn’t help feeling like I was just getting started.  It is the sign post of a new beginning I suppose, as the trip gets more adventurous and I leave “civilization” behind and enter the true north where people carry extra jerrycans of fuel and winter survival gear in their vehicles; where I have to carry 4-5 days of food on the bike and enough gasoline to cook it and melt snow for water (it has never been heavier).

Mile 0

Mile 0

As the day wore on the landscape and rivers provided a nice distraction from the relentless wind.   I got to see the mighty Peace River, something I had been looking forward to for a long time.  All of these big northern rivers eventually feed the Mackenzie, which I will cross as I approach Inuvik.  As I watched the water under the bridge I threw in a little twig I had in my pocket and thought “you will get to Inuvik before I do”.

Kiskatinaw River

Kiskatinaw River

Overlooking the Peace River

Looking longingly at the Peace River

I arrived in Fort St. John early as the distance was short this day.  My hosts Lyall and Sheila had dinner plans at Sheila’s cousins and I was invited along.  And what a dinner it was.  I am not sure if they were impressed or horrified at my ability to put away food (the roast was cooked to perfection), but I think I managed to eat as much as everyone else at the table, put together.  I even managed to get full for a few hours, no easy task when I am cycle-touring.

Dinner in Fort St. John

Dinner in Fort St. John

I would like to give a special thanks to Lyall and Sheila Insull, and Lori and Steven Petrucci for their extremely generous donations to my trip.

Today I leave for Fort Nelson, I might have less access to the internet and will most probably be updating by SPOT and phone calls as I will be mostly camping from now on.