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