Dawson Overland Trail: Braeburn to Whitehorse

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Arriving at the Braeburn Lodge on the North Klondike Highway, I meet two cycletourists on Petaluma-made Bruce Gordon BLT tourers.  Unable to finish their monstrous (and locally famous) cinnamon roll, they’d left half for me as a motorist had told them I was coming.  I sipped some coffee and wandered about, reading some nearby signage regarding local history.  In fact, the signage was describing an overland route between Whitehorse and Dawson, and a bicycle was pictured alongside.  And, the Trans-Canada Trail symbol was present.  Excitedly, I inquired in the cafe about the trail and was told it was quite nice, and that it would surely route me to Whitehorse.  “Is it rocky and rooty?”, I asked, to avoid a jarring experience.  Not so much, I was told.  I couldn’t think much else to ask, other than for a $9 cinnamon roll.  I was just about out of food, planning to have been in Whitehorse later that day.  Throw in a bag of Lay’s potato chips as well.

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Upon arriving by boat at the Alaska coastline and hiking up and over Chilkoot Pass, fueled by gold fever, there were several ways to Dawson.  Whitehorse was a major stopover along the way for would-be miners and marked the first junction with the mighty Yukon River, at this point only 80 miles from it’s headwaters in the coast range.  To the gold bonanza in Dawson, downriver travel on the Yukon during the ice-free summer months was the best way to prospective riches.  Homemade timber rafts could manage the few rapids along the way and eventually, large wood-fueled sternwheelers were the preferred mode; mostly, the river flows like the Missouri– wide, flat and swift.  In winter, travel on the frozen Yukon is possible, but during the shoulder seasons an overland trail was developed for horse and carriage, dogsled or sleigh, or foot traffic.  The Dawson Overland Trail was the first “road” to connect Whitehorse and Dawson, and was eventually a motorable route.  The White Pass and Yukon Railroad company was contracted by the Yukon government to construct the trail, and they operated mail and freight services to Dawson along the route.  Since that time, a modern road is in place along an alternate, shorter route.  Anymore, the Dawson Overland Route is a rugged section of trail, of ATV and snowmachine width. It has been loosely maintained as a part of the Trans-Canada Route and by a local snowmachine organization.  While signposts suggest travel by horse, bicycle and ski, I suspect that winter travel by snowmachine and dogsled are recommended.  Cross-country skiing and fatbiking in winter might provide relatively simple passage, considering snow conditions.  In summer, it’s a wet muddy mess with plenty of water– a good time for a horse, perhaps.  And with a bike in summer?  Only if you like wet feet and carrying your bike.

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Aside from an initial stream crossing to access the trail, the route begins plainly enough though classic boreal forests– and relatively tall trees for this area.  Running along at eleven or twelve miles per hour, this was much like Divide riding without the climbing.  A few small stream crossings impressed me enough to photograph, until I’d crossed almost a dozen and quit unpackaging my camera and removing my shoes at every trickle.  I forged ahead with wet shoes, a reality with northland travel.  More often, the water was nearer to my waist than my knees and I was becoming a bit concerned that I might never make it to Whitehorse.  At least, not today.  I’d have to find the rhythm of “overland” travel, as opposed to the humdrum highway riding I’d become accustomed to.

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Climbing away from the water table onto small glacial features made for faster riding.  Predictably, every time I dropped back down to the moist grassy two track, water and mosquitoes were close as hand.  Sixty millimeter tires rode surely over saturated ground, and did not suffer from groundsuck, that maddening vacuumous feeling of having your tires stuck in the mud.  Still thinking of reaching Whitehorse in a day, I was relieved to find a small cabin maintained by the Yukon government and the local Klondike Snowmachine Association.  Respite from drudgery and mosquitoes and the theoretical threat of bears– mostly psychological– I retreated for the night into the wild as it felt an actual step back in time.   Grateful for shelter in such challenging terrain, I started a fire to dry my things and to prepare the last of my lentils and pasta; I was out of alcohol for my stove.  I read and washed in the stream and dried myself by the fire and dreamed of living in such a place, at the junction of two small valleys in a tiny cabin.  The views from the outhouse were a thing of fantasy, with distant peaks enshrouded in fog.  The peaks were unfamiliar, not picturesque– simply mountains.  Come morning I’d decided there are too many places to go and I’ve no experience hunting or fishing, so I’d have to move on.

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I expected the trail to be more rideable as I approached Whitehorse on the second day, but I was almost immediately knee deep in beaver ponds.  Industrious and intolerant of heavy-handed human engineering, the beavers reengineered their home to include “the trail”.  With their usual sensible approach, beavers build along the contours of the land; humans build straight through it, up and over in a conquest against the land.  Beavers work with the land, no matter if you’ve built a trail through it.  After wading through a shallow pond, the outflow followed the path of the trail, which had become a stream.  Walking downstream with the bike at my side, I followed.  The blue markers found along the trail are from the annual Yukon Quest 1000, an endurance dogsled race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks.  In addition to Trans-Canada markers it was easy enough to find the trail.  Only a few side trails tempted me and I got off course only once, when a Trans-Canada sign had been disrupted and was laying face-down in the dirt.

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Approaching Little River and the Takhini River, the terrain undulates though a sandy substrate interspersed with soggy bottoms.  Water and mud covered bike, rolled in sand results in something akin to a sugared cookie.  There are better ways to treat a drivetrain, but finally sandy tracks turned to a narrow hardpacked road which had seen more recent motorized traffic.  Out of the thick, I sprinted onward with delusions of a quick ride into Whitehorse, which would surely open it’s arms to a weary traveler like me.  Twenty or thirty miles later (how could I have miscalculated?), I was staring down trucks and tourists outside a supermarket where bananas and avocados could be had for just a few dollars.  Not so many miles, but a long way from my cabin I reckoned.  If this is Whitehorse, this will have to do.  Some bananas and avocados and a half-gallon of milk later I was bemused at the swampy smell of my sneakers and the infestation of mosquito bites on the limited real estate of my sunburnt arms.  I am back in town and plugged wirelessly, Google mapping my way down the Cassiar to prepare for the road ahead.  And the cabin and the swamp is behind me, but not without an itch to return.  There is a lot more to explore up in the Yukon.

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Further Yukon explorations:

Dawson Overland Trail, maintained by the Klondike Snowmobile Association

Dempster Highway to Inuvik, the northernmost road in Canada

Canol Road (Charlie Kelly’s Canol Road expedition, 1985); two Yukon cyclists will attempt this route into the Northwest Territories later in the summer, unsupported.

Whitehorse area trails, most trails are well-signed locally.  Over 300km of maintained trails are accessible from town, cared for by four full-time city employees.

Montana Mountain area, near Carcross for some epic mountain bike rides

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14 thoughts on “Dawson Overland Trail: Braeburn to Whitehorse

    • I’m expecting to see about a thousand little black bears, at least that’s what I’m hearing. I’ve got to get moving; I’ve got a friend flying into Missoula in three weeks. TIme to hit the pavement and cruise.

    • Ha! You love carrying your bike through the mud. I’m amused at the number of times I would have enjoyed fat tires in the past weeks. Recently, I said “the first thing I’ll do is ride 2000 miles on pavement”. Rather, I’ve ridden almost half dirt roads and trails in the last few weeks. Perhaps I should have committed to fat tires all summer. Little did I realize what kind of riding opportunities I would encounter. I’ve still got my eye on the Canol Road…

    • It certainly put the nail in the coffin for a pair of shoes that had been kicking around since before the Divide last year. A few shoefuls of beaver pond will do that.

      Cass and I are still targeting MX sometime this winter, perhaps when the University of Bike Travel lets out for winter break. He’s eyeing a lightweight Mukluk build as an all-round fatbike/29er. Still available in January?

      Do you curse your Large Marge rims as much as I do, or have I just gotten soft? Climbing isn’t the joy it used to be. Descending is still great.

  1. Love the piece on the Overland Trail… I’m planning on doing it in early June 2013. Is there much in the way of route finding issues? I see in your photos that there are a couple of forks in the two track sections. Thanks, and have fun in Mexico!

    Linus

    • Linus, I reached the Braeburn roadhouse and finished half a cinnamon roll left in my name by several touring cyclists from Juneau (a couple of old guys on Bruce Gordons: https://gypsybytrade.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/real-touring-bikes-yukon/). As I rolled out of the parking lot I spotted the signage for the Trans-Canada, etc. I inquired inside and bought another $9 roll and a bag of Lay’s chips. I was told the trail would be easy to follow.

      The trail was perfectly pleasant for a while, with a few small stream crossings. I travelled about 1/4 mi in the wrong direction at one point due to a misplaced trail sign, but quickly suspected my mistake. With a relative abundance of Trans-Canada and Yukon Quest trail signs, it is easy to know if you have lost the trail, even if I was doubting myself at times. I found a lot of flooded trail, in which the two-track had been replaced by muddy beaver ponds and streams. Not perfectly easy to find the trail always, but it worked. The cabin is about 1/2 between Braeburn and the dirt road on the south side (Whitehorse is another 15 mi by road).

      Are you planning to ride the whole route from Dawson to Whitehorse? If I had known ahead of time I might have done more. I am happy to have caught the last section however. It was one of the more “wild” adventures of the summer.

      Btw, a friend is sending posts from Mexico which I am happily hosting for y’all. I am living, working, and riding in New Mexico for the winter.

      nicholas

      • Hey Nicholas, Thanks for replying! I did not see it right away, hence the delay..
        I did not realize the route went all the way to Dawson; I was only aware of it going to Braeburn… The more “off road”, the better, however, I’m going pretty heavy with racks n panniers… It’s a big trip. I’m a bit concerned with being able to get thru the watery sections with heavy bike. I’ll have to do more research on the remainder of the route to Dawson.

        Cheers!
        Linus

  2. Thanks for the write up. I wonder if there is any chance this thing could be ridden all the way to Fairbanks following the Yukon Quest trail route? I cannot find any information online regarding trail conditions in the summer.

    Mike

    • I haven’t seen anything more than I saw from the ground. I’ve done a few web searches and come up with nothing. I suspect it is impossible by bike, and even by foot would require a lot of wet, overland trail.

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