Two nights in the Yukon, and beyond

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It’s time to get moving.  A day off in Whitehorse has become two-and-a-half days of supermarkets and new shoes, some singletrack and a new SRAM PC-950 chain.  You should have smelled my old shoes, which have almost a year of touring and commuting engrained within.  If you recall, I posted an open invitation a few months ago to join me at any point along the summer, which I entitled Open source touring.  I listed my approximate plans, asked for suggestions and ultimately, for riders to join me.  Sean, an internet friend and real life acquaintance from the 2nd Cycles co-op in Tacoma, WA will be joining me in Missoula on July 22 for some Divide riding.  He’s got close to two months time and has a highly capable bike with 2.3 Kenda K-Rads(!), so we’ll likely dig up some cool dirt riding along the Divide and then in Colorado, perhaps en route to Utah.  Ever ready for adventure, Lael will be flying into Denver for my birthday in late August.  The plan is to ride the Colorado Trail or assorted dirt routes to Utah– a trio above treeline.  The catch: she’s got the Cannondale Hooligan, which might have to turn into a real mountain bike in Denver somehow.  Likely, we’ll sell the Hooligan and source a capable used mountain bike.  I’m still dreaming of getting her on a fatbike for the fall, but I’d have to build a lighter-weight version of the Pugsley she rode this winter.  When the bike is essential transportation, you don’t complain about frame and rim weights, but since the snow has melted and such a bike is more of an overgrown XC mountain bike, it’s not easy to grab a fatbike over a more lightweight steed.  Before you point fingers about being weight conscious, try commuting ten miles a day on Large Marge rims and fat tires.  Lael did it at 7:30 AM every morning this winter, and never did it rain or shine.  It was cold and dark every morning.  She’s earned something that rides nice.

Google Maps tells me it’s 1800 miles to Missoula and I say I’ve got 22 days= 81.8 miles/day.  Alright.  I’ll be in Missoula soon enough.  Reminds me a bit of what I was doing last year, riding to the start of the Divide from Maryland.  I ride more to get to the Divide than I actually spend riding it.  Somehow I’ve biked over 1500 miles and am still less than 800 miles from my starting point in Anchorage.  Somehow, about half has been on dirt roads.  It’s time to quit touring and start biking.

Leaving Dawson City at 8 PM about a week ago, I encountered a mass of smoke emanating from wildfires somewhere up north on the Dempster Highway.  Surrealistic night rides are my favorite; riding down the middle of the lane on empty roads at 1 AM in midnight sun wildfire surrealism is even better.

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Moving south, away from the fire.  The sun, of course, is to the north at this time of night.

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In Whitehorse, I met Tristan at the Icycle Sports bicycle shop.  Nearly a small warehouse, the shop is well stocked and rents space to a coffee roaster that operates a small coffee bar.  Bikes and espresso– just about perfect.  Tristan will be in Banff around August 1 to ride the Divide, and beyond.  He shared a sampling of local Whitehorse singletrack with me, including the famed Yukon River Trail on a sandy embankment above the river.  The city has four full-time employees building and maintaining trails, and it shows.  Each trailhead has a fully legible signboard with route descriptions, difficulty ratings and a map.  Each trail junction features a micro map indicating the trail name and difficulty.  These facilities seem obvious, although I’ve never seen anything quite as refined.  Whitehorse has well over 300 km of signed and maintained singletrack, right out the backdoor.  Other dirt rods and trails go further, especially with local knowledge.  A borrowed full-suspension Marin smoothed out some of the more challenging downhill routes.  None are pictured here; as you can imagine, I was heavily invested in gripping the handlebars and avoiding obstacles.

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Thanks Tristan.  For three consecutive years he has planned to ride the Divide, but three (annual) collarbone injuries have kept him grounded for the summer.  Last year’s incident broke a steel Salsa El Mariachi frame.  He’s currently riding a Niner SIR 9, a Reynolds 853 steel 29er, although he’s most often found atop a burly Cromag steel hardtail all-mountain bike.  He’s a “seat down” kind of guy and pedaling the Niner all day on the Divide will take some practice, not that he doesn’t have the legs for it.  If he can keep his wheels on the ground for a few more weeks, his Divide dreams will become a reality.

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Finding a good campsite in Whitehorse isn’t hard either.  Cross the river and head uphill on some singletrack for some great views and secluded spots; this one is just behind the hospital on the Hospital Ridge Trail.

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The Taylor and the Top of the World

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Tok to Tetlin, the Taylor Highway and the Top of the World Highway to Chicken and Eagle and Boundary and Dawson City.  Nonsense are the names of things around here, but there are only two roads into Alaska and this is the one to take.

The Taylor Highway was built to access the rural mining communities at Chicken and Eagle, and to connect them to Tok and the rest of the world.  The Top of the World Highway, once called Ridge Road, connects these and other mines to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory across the border.  Both roads are spectacular.

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The road from the Tetlin Junction on the Alaska Highway to Chicken is roughly paved, and features some good climbing some long fast descents– it’s a great road ride.  Chicken to Dawson is about a hundred miles along ridgetops and as you approach the border surface water becomes scarce, save for some melting snow.  The road rolls relentlessly atop mountains and is mostly dirt, despite some failing efforts at sealing the surface.  Grunt climb, fast descent to the next climb, BMW motorcycles everywhere and fuel trucks at 90 miles an hour.  A motorcycle rally in Dawson flooded the roads with two-wheelers and friendly motorcycle-style waves: two fingers casually down to the left to an oncoming rider, or skyward with the left hand like a turn signal when passing (or being passed).  Lael loves giving the “motorcycle wave”.

Leaving the bustling Alaska Highway behind for the road to Chicken, the Taylor Highway begin by climbing from the Tenana River valley.  No services for 67 miles.  Perfect.

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Chicken is quite an attraction for summer motorists, although the real story in Chicken is gold.  Mining activity is found up and down every creek, and generators can be heard humming in the bushes to operate equipment.  A real life miner makes his own jewelry for sale as a way to maximize profits.  Even on a bad day of mining, he’ll end with about $500 in flakes.  Maybe gold mining in Chicken is in my future?

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At Chicken the surface turns to dirt.  Hopscotching drainages, up and down, the road finally turns up toward the US-Canada border to Dawson City.  Superlative, as they say– the views, the road, and the riding.

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Close your eyes and hold your breath when these things are comin’ down the mountain.  These fuel trucks travel even faster than the motorcyclists as they drive this road every day.

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I had come from Chicken and at the Jack Wade Junction, a left turn leads to the end of the Taylor Highway in Eagle.  I stay the course to the Top of the World:

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Just a small dot on the map, there’s not much more to Boundary than an airstrip and this cabin.  Extensive mining can be seen in the valley below.

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Sunburnt shoulders are evidence that summer has finally arrived.  In my favorite touring shirt, a cutoff cotton Velo Orange t-shirt depicting a 50.4 bcd crank, I grunt and groan up to the Canadian border into headwinds and marble sized raindrops.  Despite their size, thunderstorms developed all around but I managed to stay dry once again.  The Canadian customs agents ask the usual questions.  Dressed in my Sunday best, or my “dirtbag jersey” as I call it,  I give the usual answers:

Anchorage, Alaska.

New York, Washington, Florida, Maryland, Alaska.

To Montana.

Yes, really.

No, I don’t have family or a job in Montana.

Actually, I’m going to Arizona.

Yes.  Really.

It’s a snow bike.

Yes, really.  All winter.

Oh yes, the Germans have lots of stuff.  I swear it’s all here.

This is the tent.

Thirty-nine dollars American, but a couple thousand in the bank.  Well, more than a couple.

Bank statements?  No.  Sorry.

Last time…I entered at the Thousand Islands Bridge and exited Ontario at Sioux St. Marie.  Then again at Wild Horse and Rooseville.

Hmmm, I just like the Canadian countryside.

Ok, bring a bank statement or ATM receipt next time?  Thank you, sir.

Next time I’ll be sure to bring bank statements and Ortlieb panniers full of stuff to facilitate passage.  Maybe some sleeves will help too.

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Looking back.  They say the Alaska Range is visible on a clear day.  The road reaches a maximum elevation of 4127 ft, which is higher than Maclaren Pass on the Denali Highway.  In fact, this is the second highest road in Alaska.

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And on the night before the solstice, I camped on Top of the World.  This is all the darkness you get these days, which is a dream on a bike trip.

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I’m becoming quite attached to some of the new Revelate gear.  The Gas Tank is quite handy on the bike and the “Pocket”, which I use in conjunction with a waterproof compression sack, is easily detached.  For a quick trip away from the bike the shoulder strap helps keep all my essentials close at hand– Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez, a fully-charged can of bear spray and my camera.

The Surly Pugsley hybrid rolls well on dirt roads at about 20psi, although the Big Apples are a bit unsure on pea gravel.  However, the smooth tire rolls like a dream on pavement.  I’m hoping to procure a Marge Lite rim to build a lighter rear wheel.  Absurd wheel weights are killing me and fat-lite is the way to go.  There’s no reason to be riding a forty pound bike with thirty pounds of gear.  I’m not sure of the actual figures, but I can assure you the bike weighs more than my kit.  I’ve sent home three pounds of cold-weather clothing and rain gear from Dawson and I’m tuning the bike for a full summer of lightweight travel.   As much as I’m enjoying Alaska, I’m looking ahead to some of the more challenging riding ahead– I’ve still got the Colorado Trail on my mind and am planning to fit 45North Husker Du tires in Montana.  Is a 65mm singlewall rim such as the Marge Lite suitable for touring on rough surfaces?  Nobody seems to know, but given the quality construction and the doublewall sections in the corners, I think it’s up to the task.  I’ve become obsessed with tire volumes and the weights of things, specifically fatbike wheels.  A 690 gram Surly Marge Lite sounds a treat to my knees.  I like climbing, but I’d like it much more with the Marge Lite.

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The bike, the gear, the wheels, the packing, and the food–it’s all getting sorted out after a few weeks on the road.  The legs are coming along too, although not where they were last November.  My kitchen on the road and the Alaskan pantry: raisins, peanuts, oat meal, coffee, lentils, pasta, peanut butter, honey, salt, pepper, garlic and curry powder.  Add fruits and vegetables when available, and cheeseburgers and ice cream in town.  The plastic water bottle is filled with alcohol to fuel the “Penny Stove”.  Fabricated out of beer cans, stainless steel bicycle spokes and aluminum ducting, I’ve been using this design for almost three years.  I’ve built a handful for others, but have only required two for my travels.  The first one was made from the Heineken keg-shaped cans, which are no longer available.  The current stove was made in Steamboat Springs, CO last fall on the Divide.  Trailside, it was made with a small Swiss-army knife.  The blue enameled steel camping mug has been with me since the summer of 2009, and is a personal luxury.  I’ve also begun to fill the 64 oz. Klean Kanteen when surface water is less plentiful or spoiled by mining activities.  Cradled in the Salsa Anything Cage it is held securely even on the most rattling washboarded descents.  Just be sure to tighten those straps!

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A final push to Dawson on the third day is rewarded with a long descent to the Yukon River and cold beer in town.  The river is crossed by the free George Black ferry and Yukon Gold brew from Whitehorse flows like water in this real-life frontier town.  This is also the start of the Dempster Highway up to Inuvik.  Some other time.

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