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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The bus

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When a motor vehicle dies in Alaska, it does’t go anywhere– there are old trucks and buses scattered all over this land.  This Ford school bus is situated just a mile from the Nabesna Road on the Tok Cutoff (Glenn Hwy) behind the Midway Grocery in Slana, AK.  Jay and Debbie Capps welcome cyclists by the dozen every season, allowing them to camp on their property or spend a night in “the bus”.  Power and propane are luxuries to a touring cyclist; a cassette player, a dinner table and a drip-coffee maker are divine.  With a selection of groceries nearby and a propane stove, creative home-cooked meals are possible and I finally sampled a can of corned beef hash that I’ve been seeing in rural groceries for four years.  Augmented with lentils and curry, it was a treat.  I stayed in the bus the night before my Nabesna adventures and again on the night following.  I drank a lot of coffee; read John Steinbeck’s account “About Ed Rickett’s” who was the real life “Doc” from Cannery Row; and got lost in Neil Young’s Harvest on a worn cassette tape.  I think Neil was a road guy like us.

“Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick-up
Take it down to LA
Find a place to call my own and try to fix up
Start a brand new day

The woman I’m thinking of, she loved me all up
But I’m so down today
She’s so fine, she’s in my mind
I hear her calling'”

“Out on the Weekend”, Neil Young, Harvest, 1972

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The aura of goodwill and kindness extends to the handwritten notes on the walls:

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And assorted memorabilia from past bike trips:

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Be sure to stop in Slana at the Midway Grocery.  Our welcoming hosts, Jay and Debbie:

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Nabesna Gold Mine

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The color and geometry and antiquity enamored me.  Located on a small tract of private land within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the Nabesna Gold Mine is a charicature of frontier industry.  It would never have been recreated this well by historians and set-artists, but the contrast of order and chaos is exactly what it would look like if it had been.  A 42-mile dirt road penetrates the park from the north to the settlement of Nabesna.  There, a muddy two-track takes you the additional four miles to the gold mine at the end of the road, which was abandoned back in 1945.  I tip-toed and shutter-clicked around the decaying structure, careful not to awake any ghosts or critters.  I put one foot forward with half my weight, testing floorboards and stairs and ladder rungs.  And when I was done I walked briskly back to my bike, stopping for a few extra clicks of crusted ferric sediments, a broken window and the orderly disorder of rusting barrels.  The circus left town on this place; I left just as quickly,

One of only two roads into the largest national park in the United States, the Nabesna Road is under-visited, largely due to the rough dirt road and multiple stream crossings which thwart most two-wheel drive cars and larger RV’s when the waters run high.  Additonally, there are no tourist facilities at the end of the road, such as in McCarthy.  By bicycle, the road is quite rideable but offers enough challenges to come home hungry at the day’s end.  There is another small gold mine near the end of the road only a short hike away.  See my post on biking the Nabesna Road.

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