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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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