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 BIKE TO THE KLONDIKE

(Pictures with blue borders are linked to larger images, click to view)


Click for map of route
 Following in the wheel-tracks of the old
Klondike gold miners, ANDY BINNS crossed from the windswept ice-caps of Alaska to the T-shirt and shorts country of the Arctic

"Howdy Congratulations on reaching the Arctic Circle. This certificate, awarded by Yukon Tourism, grants you all the rights and privileges of the North."

 

 You can experience the lure of the north with Golden Hill Travel
Fully supported bicycle adventures in the Last Frontier.

At noon I stopped pedaling. My front wheel had crossed the imaginary finish line at 66'33' north of the Equator. The temperature was 65' degrees with a light easterly wind. I felt incongruous wearing only shorts and T-shirt in this most northerly of climes. The Arctic is supposed to be cold!

This was not what I'd expected, and neither was the grizzled figure in top hat and tails posing as the 'Keeper of the North'. His spiel was well practiced and once given, the Keeper shuffled back to the comfort of his motorhome.

It had taken 10 days to ride the 1,185km from Skagway, Alaska, the start of my tour. My plan to retrace the route of the last great gold rush would take me the length of Canada's Yukon Territory, to the Arctic Circle, and through some of the leas inhabited areas of North America.

In 1898, upwards of 30,000 people headed for the Klondike, a small percentage of whom used the newly invented 'Klondike Bicycle'.

A description from a newspaper at the time reads: 'The plan is to load it with a part of the miner's equipment, drag the vehicle on wheels for 10 miles or so. Then the rider will fold up the side wheels and ride it back as a bicycle, to bring on the rest of the load.'

On my Klondike Bicycle, a Trek 7000, the side wheels were replaced with panniers that contained everything I would be needing for the next six weeks.

Assisted by a fierce tail wind, I left behind the lush forest of the coast for a landscape of glacier fed waterfalls and deep gorges. To the east could be seen the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, and below the highway 1 could trace the trail worn by the feet of thousands of gold crazed stampeders. The pass itself was shrouded in cloud and the temperature plummeted.

MOTOR HOME MANIA

Away from the coast on the Canadian side of the mountains clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine accompanied me as I rode past small lakes and stunted trees, surrounded by snow capped mountains: a biker's heaven. My spirits were high with visions of a cruise to the Arctic Circle.

At the junction of the Klondike and Alaska Highways my sense of solitude and well being was shattered. Convoys of motor homes and trucks encouraged me to take a side road overlooking Miles Canyon.

North of Whitehorse, the capital and only 'city' of the Yukon, the landscape changed into one of rolling forested hills. The highway cut a narrow corridor through the endless poplar and spruce forests, and the temperature soared to 85'F. The prevailing wind settled into a northwesterly; a sobering thought , headwinds all the way to the Arctic Circle.

Morale reached an all time low when I was struck by a dose of the rumbly jumblies. Every bump sent spasms of pain through my stomach. After a while I discovered the cause: I had been filling my water bottles from hand pumps in the campgrounds and only after putting water in a pan saw that it was the colour of coke (closely resembling the Yukon River).

I met few other cyclists and when I did, talk centered around food: "You must stop at the Braeburn Lodge for cinnamon buns. They are huge!" Momma's Kitchen for hotcakes." "How far to the next store?" The word ,store' had to be interpreted with care, as many of my selected supply points sold only souvenirs, T-shirts and a small selection of candy bars. So it was that I set out on the Dempster Highway with three days' supply of food. The menu read: chocolate, crisps, chocolate, crisps...

FIRE FIGHTING

The Dempster stretches 740km north from the Klondike Gold Fields to Inuvik in the heart of the Mackenzie Delta. It is unpaved and subject to temporary closures from land slips or forest fires. At one point I had to do my Red Adair bit, stamping out some flames close to the highway.

After 73km I reached the Tombstone Mountain Interpretive Centre. Pinned on the wall was a list of the previous day's wildlife sightings: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, squirrels, wolf, grizzly bear and two cubs.

Above the centre, the highway climbed to North Fork Pass which at 1,289m was the highest point of the journey. At this altitude the boreal forest is replaced by shrub tundra, meaning extensive views west to Tombstone Mountain, over 40km away. With only a limited supply of food I was grateful for the long daylight hours that let me cover about 140km a day. Some evenings I didn't make camp until after 11. Making my way over Windy Pass in the Midnight Sun was an unforgettable experience, as was the descent through a steep sided canyon whose crenelated walls plunged the road into darkness.

From the Ogilvie River the Dempster climbs 1,000m to the Continental Divide and the area known as Eagle Plains. This is a misnomer for a high mountain valley that divides the Ogilvie and Richardson Mountains. The highway follows a roller coaster route snaking back and forth along the crest of the divide. Dwarf spruce, the height of a man yet over 200 years old, survive in this hostile environment where the heaving of ice-rich soil has created 'drunken' forests of trees leaning at all angles.

Remaining high meant panoramic views, but also no water. After 130km of hard riding I was tired a worried. looking ahead there was no sign of the highway descending and with no water left it looked like a dry and thirsty night ahead. I couldn't have been more wrong! The heavens opened. Rain bounced off the road and transformed its clay surface into glutinous mud. I stopped at the first clearing and pitched my tent. Within half an hour puddles formed around and under my tent, and tent pegs popped out of the ground as I searched for rocks to keep my camp from floating away. I collected enough runoff from the tent to fill two water bottles, cook dinner, and have two cups of coffee! In bear country it's not advisable to cook inside the tent and food should be stored away from a camping area, but I took a chance and convinced myself that even a bear would be taking refuge.

The next day, to the accompaniment of a grinding chain, I crawled along to the Eagle Plains Motel. Rather than camp next to the motel I descended to the Eagle River where my only company was the ghost of the 'Mad Trapper of Rat River', who was killed at that spot after shooting three mounties.

Reaching the Arctic Circle was a major milestone in my progress north. I had originally intended to stop here and retrace the Dempster south to Dawson City, but I felt like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road, lured north by the highway which stretched enticingly to the horizon.

The 1,000m high summit of Richardson Pass marks the Yukon/ Northwest Territories border. I caught a brief glimpse of a wolf as I descended into the NWT.

That night, I made camp in a high tundra basin nestling between mountains silhouetted against the Midnight Sun. Snow patches lingered on in shady hollows and less than a metre beneath my tent the ground was permanently frozen. To prevent melting of the permafrost and future subsidence, the Dempster is elevated. The extra height combined with a slight breeze meant fewer bugs, and I sat on the road to eat a restful supper. Restful that is until a motor home pulled up alongside. A middle aged couple, their voices brimming with excitement, spoke in unison: "Have you seen the bear?" With a mouthful of macaroni cheese I shook my head. "A grizzly just off the highway. A magnificent animal and it's headed this way!" Wolves and grizzlies. Why couldn't they have just driven past?

A narrow winding canyon provided the exit from the mountains and the route back to Dawson, a fascinating place still with many of its original buildings. Some have subsided and tilt at crazy angles. More recent buildings have false bottoms and are elevated on stilts to avoid melting the permafrost.

During my stay it rained three days solid and the dirt streets turned to mud. The Dawson residents looked on as their already short summer slipped away.

ROMANCE TO REALITY

An original guide to the Klondlike offered some pertinent advice "Remember, success follows economy and persistency on an expedition like yours." Time to wrench myself away from the flesh pots of Dawson.

I began by completing a 95km loop through the Klondike goldfields in search of the romantic sounding place names that drew yesterday's miners and today's tourists: Bonanza Creek, Gold Hill, Cheechako Hill, Discovery Claim. Today the harsh reality of the Klondike is a legacy of environmental destruction: hillsides stripped bare for fuel and building materials remain scarred by gullies that channel mud and silt into the creeks; water courses have been altered or in filled with gravel waste from dredging; the area is littered with scrap yards of rusting machinery, some of which is still in use.

Mining for gold continues in the Klondike, and claims are jealously guarded. 'No trespassing' and 'private land' signs are rife. I had the distinct impression that it was not wise to linger.

From Dawson I boarded the Yukon Queen for a cruise down the River Yukon to Eagle. The small town has changed little in the 87 years since Amundsen stopped here to relay news of his successful attempt on the North Pole.

The road out of Eagle was unpaved and an unknown quantity. The best map I had seen was drawn in blood on a piece of moose hide! This notable cartographic achievement was accomplished by Nimrod, the local dentist, and now hangs in the Eagle Museum.

At the frontier community of Chicken, resident population 39, I visited each of the three adjacent stores and was served by the same man , as I walked around the front he passed through a connecting door.

There were no shopping crowds in Chicken. I followed the Alaska Highway south through the lakes and mountains of the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. Although I could see snow on the mountains temperatures on the road reached 40'C. Back in the Yukon Territory the highway passes through Kluane National Park and the St Elias Mountains, home of Canada's highest peak Mt Logan (5,950m), and the world's largest non polar ice cap. In the park there are a selection of routes that can be followed by mountain bike. Be warned though there are some horrific tales of close encounters between bikes and bears!

After that I chose to leave my panniers at Sheep Mountain information centre and ride 10km into the wilderness before hiding my bike in the woods. I took three days to hike the Slims River Trail and ascend Observation Peak for the awe inspiring views of the Kaskawulsh Glacier. On the way down I was fortunate enough to see a grizzly - at a comfortable distance! My bike was where I'd left it and thankfully undamaged; how would bear damage look on an insurance claim?

The crossing of Alsek Pass was made into an epic of endurance by headwinds gusting at over 95km/hr. My speed was down to 5km/hr and that was on the descent! That night I lay awake listening to the creaking and groaning of trees. Then I heard a groan that sounded ominously close getting louder and louder. A sudden crack sent me leaping out of my sleeping bag to witness a tree come smashing down only feet from my tent. On another occasion I was awakened by the sound of someone or something tampering with my bike. I unzipped the tent and came face to face with a coyote gnawing on my rear wheel! After a lot of shouting and rock throwing I managed to convince it that mountain bike tyres are not a new line in breakfast foods.

People assured me that the final leg over the Chilkat Pass to Haines is exceptionally beautiful, but with visibility down to 10m, the most memorable stretch was the long descent to the Yukon/Alaska border. I had my passport stamped for the fifth time before following the Chilkat River to Haines where I caught the water taxi to Skagway.

Travel in Alaska/Yukon is ideal for the cyclist looking for wilderness and adventure. Add to this a rugged, fascinating history and the natural hospitality of the northern people, and you have the elements of that mysterious lure of the north that has put so many people under ' The Spell of the Yukon'.

There's a land where the mountains are nameless

And the rivers all run God knows where

There are lives that are erring and aimless

And deaths that just hang by a hair

There are hardships that nobody reckons

There are valleys unpeopled and still

There's a land - oh, it beckons and beckons

And I want to go back and I will.'

Robert Service

You can experience the lure of the north with Golden Hill Travel. Fully supported bicycle adventures in the Last Frontier

 

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