On My Own

The day after I said farewell to my mom at the airport, I once again headed north out of Buenos Aires.  I was expecting to be able to put in some big kilometre days.  I soon disabused myself of that notion when my ambition came face to face with heat and fat tires. At the end of the second day when I was looking for a place to stay, I spotted a sign for a hotel.  The sign showed 5 different room rates from Regular at 125 pesos to Presidential at 350 pesos (10 to 29 USD).  Those looked like good prices so I went further on.  I found out later that it was a drive thru and I was supposed to talk in an intercom.  Eventually I found myself in the laundry building for the hotel.  I thought it odd that a small hotel would have such extensive laundry facilities.  There I found someone and he explained that people did not stay overnight in the hotel but that it was an hourly hotel.  I told him I understood but he insisted on miming what people did in the hotel. I found another hotel that did have rooms you could stay in overnight.  The next morning I woke to a severe thunderstorm and strong winds so I spent the day in the hotel.  But the following morning was cool and cloudy.  I only got 200 meters when I got hit in the leg by a rock from a car.  At first I was not sure if it was thrown or came off the wheel.  But after thinking about it for a while I concluded that it must have come off the wheel based on where it hit my leg. image It also hit the iPod in my pocket and now I can’t turn it on or off.  So I make sure I use it everyday so it does not shut itself off. At this point the service road beside the freeway ended so I was forced to ride on the shoulder of the freeway, which was fine other than…. image That at night I camped at the back of a gas station and had a great view of the sunset from my tent door. image The next day I rode to Rosario and got my first flat of the trip. image The main reason I had decided to go to Rosario was because I had an invitation from a fellow cycle-tourist who I knew from Facebook.  The instant I met him at the gas station where we agreed to meet, I liked him.  Marcelo and his girlfriend Patricia had been running all over town getting ready to become cycle-nomads.  They had sold all their possessions that did not fit in their panniers and were to leave four days after my arrival.  They have no plans to ever return to Rosario and are going to ride all over the Americas. image I accepted their invitation to stay a day and we rode all over town finding last minute items for their trip.

Jake’s

The White Pass had been weighing heavy on my mind ever since I decided to take ferries to Skagway. The day I decided to leave Skagway there were headwinds gusting to 60 km/h. So when Nick offered to drive me up to the top of the pass, I said yes. I ended my trip last year at Jake’s corner, 80 km short of Whitehorse and that is where my trip needed to begin anew. I was not against taking rides to get there.

Nick and Buddy. My ride up to the top of the White Pass.

Nick and Buddy. My ride up to the top of the White Pass.

The scenery on the way up to the pass was spectacular.

The Sawtooths

The Sawtooths

The sun was shining bright and the pass had an otherworldly feel to it, completely white, its name apropos.

P1010488 Despite the extremely strong winds on the way up (I got out a couple of times to take pictures and was nearly blown away), at the pass and beyond it was dead calm and the temperature was a relatively mild -20. I looked forward to a nice downhill ride into Carcross (short for Caribou Crossing I later learned).

P1010534 At the border they were a little surprised to see me coming over the horizon. The Canada Customs officer said that until a week before she had never seen a cyclist come through in the winter, and now she had seen two. A week earlier a Japanese cyclist had been through on his way to Whitehorse.

While I was riding down from the pass someone had driven up from Whitehorse to take advantage of the beautiful sunshine to get some pictures. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he also managed to shoot a couple of me cycling down from the pass. All the great pictures he shot that day can be found at Explore North.

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Coming down from the White Pass

Coming down from the White Pass

The downhill parts of the ride turned out to be pleasant, but the flats and uphill bits proved hard to turn the cranks. As the sun ever so slowly descended towards the horizon (it was barely above it to begin with), the tops of the mountains were illuminated in fuchsia.

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And the moon rose.

Sunset moon rise

Sunset moon rise

Descending from the pass that old weather phenomenon, temperature inversion, where the temps are higher at higher elevations on a mountain was alive and well: the further I got down the hill the the colder it became. I got a little frost nip on my back as the layers would part when I leaned over on the bike and a wee little raw purple spot on my nose. Neither were serious but both were a concern. I needed to figure out a way to cover my back. There was also one point that I thought that the cold radiating through the seat might have caused a little frost nip on my nether regions (fortunately it did not).

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When the sun had pretty well set and I was about halfway to Carcross, someone pulled over to ask if I needed anything and if I needed a ride. We quickly got the gear off the dummy and into the truck and tied the Dummy to the roof. The Dummy was relegated to the roof twice in one day. By the time we got to Carcross it was -37 and I was shivering. I called my host, Laura, from a gas station and was soon warming up in the shower. That night I had a feisty little sleeping companion.

Grizzly the attack kitten

Grizzly the attack kitten

The next day I added a sweater to the layering and I tied a shirt around my waist to hang down under my pants. It served the purpose of covering my back and added a couple of layers between me and my seat. I put on a second pair of underwear as well and I exchanged my neck warmer for a full balaclava. I got a late start and resolved to hitch-bike to Jake’s corner. I was about 8 km down the road when Shane pulled over to offer a ride. I had told the gas station attendant in Carcross that I was looked for a ride to Jake’s and Shane answered the call.

Shane

Shane

Shane spent the entire time telling me how I was going to die on the Dempster Highway. He definitely had me scared by the time we reached Jake’s. The taxidermied polar bear with the big teeth in the restaurant did nothing to allay my fears. Standing right beneath it, the top of my head was well below its shoulders.

Polar bear I had finally reached my ending point from last winter’s ride. I tried to dry my things on the radiator while I had my second dinner there (the food is quite good). I noticed that they had taken down the racist joke about immigrants from the bulletin board. Things were looking up. Once I had eaten and dried off a little, I made my way to John and Susan’s at Marsh Lake, who I had stayed with last winter.

It was -37 into a head wind and the crank was extremely hard to turn. Despite the the temperature, I was overdressed and sweating profusely, but I only had 23 km to get to the Judas Creek subdivision. I kept thinking that I would be appropriate to be listening to Judas Priest on the iPod, but alas I did not have any.

P1010583 That night I had a good conversation with Susan and a friend she had over. I meet so many interesting and generous people cycling in the winter.

The next morning I set out with only 70 km to get to Whitehorse and a warm bed, but overnight the north breeze had turned into a strong north wind, a head wind. I took one sweater out of my layering and set out. Before I even got back to the highway, one of the brackets holding the front rack broke on the corrugated road. I took off the pannier on that side and strapped it to the back and continued on.

Front rack bracket

Front rack bracket

The temperature was again in the -30’s and with the wind chill said to be the equivalent of -43. I wondered what my speed, especially on the down hill parts, would add to the wind chill rating. The riding was extremely frustrating as I was making very little progress while working hard. My bike computer does not work in those temps so I had little idea how far I was actually getting. I constantly overestimated the distance, and every road sign with the distance to Whitehorse was a major disappointment. I think that I yelled at every sign that I passed, calling it a bloody liar.

On the upside, Murray Lundberg, the guy who had taken pictures of me near the White Pass two days earlier came out to take some more pictures. When travelling alone it is hard to get pictures of me on the bike and to have a professional photographer take some is a real treat.

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380669_10151345937205605_1016456982_n Someone else stopped to offer assistance and I got some water and talked to him for a few minutes.

My frustration with my lack of progress boiled over and I pushed harder trying to make up distance. But that meant that I was wet from sweat. At one point my shirt froze to my belly. Every stop to grab a drink or bite to eat would quickly result in shivers, even if less than a few minutes. The net result is that I do not stop until the hunger and thirst seriously hamper my progress, and I can no longer stand it. It is a bit of a vicious circle. I have resolved to be patient and try to slow down no matter the conditions, to take my time, even if it results in extremely slow progress. I also need to wear less clothing, essentially so that I am cold all the time on the bike and don’t sweat as much. It is a disheartening thought.

As I got closer to Whitehorse I was also getting a few leg cramps so would often jump off the bike to do a bit of stretching and then jump back on or walk the bike for a while. I wondered if the cramps were somehow the result of being a little dehydrated.

I had heard that there was a gas station and restaurant a ways out of Whitehorse, so when I saw the lights where Highway 2 meets the Alaska highway I expected somewhere to stop, eat and warm up. What better place to put a gas station than the intersection of two major highways? As I got closer I realized the lights were for a semi-enclosed kiosk with post boxes inside. I needed to stop and eat something even though I dreaded the shivers. I did pull in and someone from a house nearby had seen me and came out to ask if I wanted to warm up. Thank god. I went in, ate some of my own food, some of theirs and drank lots of their tea. They had a pug dog that had just given birth a few days prior.

Three-day-old Pug puppies.

Three-day-old Pug puppies.

I stayed way too long, partially hoping the wind would die down as darkness set in and partially because I just did not want to get back out there and continue my struggle against the wind. Eventually, I forced myself to go back out and found that if anything the wind had picked up, but was heartened by the fact that I was fully fed, watered and somewhat dry.

About 2 km down the road a guy with what I mistook for a South African accent pulled over to talk. He said that he had a house a kilometer down the road and asked if I wanted to stay there for the night. Without any hesitation, I said yes. I was only 16 km from Whitehorse but I had had enough. He slowly, very slowly drove down the highway while I followed behind until we reached his house.

He and his wife were actually from New Zealand but moved to Canada over 30 years previous so maybe I can be forgiven for mistaking the accent for South African. I never told him I first thought he was South African. We talked and laughed late into the night and they turned out to be really fantastic people.

The next day there was still a head wind but it was significantly less than the day before. With only 16 km to Whitehorse and fresh legs, the ride was fairly pleasant. I rode straight to the bike store (Icycle Sport) as the Dummy was in serious need of some attention. All that water from the ride up Vancouver Island (it rained every day) did some damage that did not become apparent until the extreme cold. I had had to take apart the derailleur in Skagway to get the pulley wheels unseized.

I can’t think of anywhere better, maybe in the entire world, to get advice on extreme winter cycling than at Icycle. They have the extreme winter temps, and Whitehorse is the type of community where all sorts of people ride in those extreme conditions. There are also a number of snow bike races. People race fat tire bikes on trails where they normally hold dog sled races. Jonah, the manager at Icycle, did a lot of work on the bike and charged only for basic maintenance. The main thing that needed work was the bottom bracket. When he took it out it was clear that water had gotten into it. Likely the culprit behind the slow turning cranks.

Water in Bottom Bracket

Water in Bottom Bracket

He replaced the BB and used winter synthetic motor oil (0 W40) instead of grease. When I rode the bike to my hosts, Karl and Holly’s, the next day the cranks turned so much easier in the cold temps. By reducing the effort required to turn the cranks, I hoped that this would go some way towards decreasing my sweating on the bike. I also replaced the chain with one that I had with me, or 1 1/2 to be precise.

The first night I was in town, Holly and Karl took me out cross country skiing with some of their friends. Fortunately, Karl has the same size feet as I do and had extra boots and skis.

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Whitehorse is such an active community. Most people I met had been on long bicycle tours in different parts of the world. Lots of others have done long traverses of nearby glaciers. I was just excited to see a glacier on this trip. Karl and Holly were in the throes (maps covering the floor) of planning a 12 day traverse of the Juneau glacier for early April. During the Christmas break they were off to Juneau to do some reconnaissance on the route off the glacier. What might be considered exceptional in other places is pretty common place around here.

I procrastinated as long as I could in Whitehorse hoping for the forecasted better weather that kept getting pushed further and further out. It has been one of the coldest winters in a long time in the Yukon. While I was in Whitehorse, some of the places I would be travelling through in the near future were reaching temperatures that gave them the distinction as the coldest places on the planet at those moments. The temperature in Dawson City, for example, reached a bone chilling -49 while I was in Whitehorse, and stayed that way for a few days. Brrr.

In fact, my route north takes me through the coldest part of Canada in winter. The all time record lows in Canada are in this area. Anywhere north and/or east of there may have lower average temperatures but does not have the extreme cold temps. It has something to do with the river valleys in the mountains and trapping the cold. Paradoxically, the same areas have the extreme high northern temperatures in the summer, except they are not as extreme. Needless to say, I was praying the weather would break.

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.

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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

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 on the Road

Saturday Dec 3rd I was back on the road to Hinton. I started out from Jasper with a dry highway and renewed vigour after a couple of days off.   Not too long into the ride my knee started to hurt and it started to snow. I pushed on hoping the pain was just a momentary issue, and would work itself out. But, that was not the case. I had to relent and get off the bike.

Ride into Hinton

Riding into Hinton

Rocky, my host in Hinton met me along the route and we went to his place. Here I rested and re-assessed the situation. I had been prepared for all of these challenges…bad weather, icy roads, decapitating polar bears (yes…this was mentioned in a forum). But my knee acting up, my body rebelling against me…well that was something I suppose I put to the bottom of the list.

I decided the best course of action was to give my knee a rest. Erin and Jeff (my sister and her husband) put me up at their place in Jasper. (Or more accurately perhaps, put up with me). Resting admittedly, isn’t something I am good at. I’d prefer to be in motion. At rest I become…well…restless.

Acupuncture treatment for ailing knee

Acupuncture treatment for my ailing knee

Sean FitzGerald at Jasper Physiotherapy generously volunteered his services and worked on my knee. I got the go ahead to get back on my bike at the end of the week, but with the caveat that I needed to put less kilometers on the road. So Friday I headed out. The ride was fast, with the winds furiously blowing across Jasper Lake and pushing me along. In three hours I was in Hinton. My knee, unfortunately aching once again.

Beautiful mountain views from Jasper out to Hinton

Beautiful mountain views from Jasper out to Hinton

Jolene Albrecht of Shan Wellness in Hinton gave me acupuncture and even met me on her day off to give me a second treatment. Once again I decided to look at the bike set up. I had suspected it might be my boots. There is a whole science to setting up yourself properly on a bike and each person’s physiology changes that set up. The wrong shoes, seat height, foot position, can cause a dangerous misalignment. The 420lbs I’m pushing doesn’t help either so I do keep an eye on my cadence, keeping it high. I’m crossing the potential culprits off the list systematically.Today, I am removing the pegs from one side of my right pedal to allow for more foot movement, hopefully taking pressure off the knee. I’ll test this out next, as I venture on toward Grande Cache.