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.
The scenery on the way up to the pass was spectacular.
The sun was shining bright and the pass had an otherworldly feel to it, completely white, its name apropos.
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).
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.
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.
And the moon rose.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.