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Northern BC, Yukon and Alaska June '14

Written by Matthew Fox. Posted in Round the World 2013 - ??

After 22 uneventful hours on board the Northern Adventure we offloaded back on the Canadian mainland into the port town of Prince Rupert, we found a hostel close to the touristy part of town, Cow Bay (where the cruise ships dock and is full of quirky touristy shops and also the Breakers Pub where we had a pretty good dinner). At the hostel we decided to save a few dollars and camp in their garden and were up and on the road the following day heading north.

 Suddenly our riding was changing, as on Vancouver Island there were only a couple of hundred kilometres maximum for us to cover in any one day, but now we were looking at daily riding distances of up to 500km to get us to Watson Lake  and the Yukon Territory in 2 days. We aimed to follow the Stewart Cassiar Highway all the way with a brief detour via the Nisga’a Lava Fields on the Nisga’a Highway and then use cut through to Cranberry Junction and then get back on to the Stewart Cassiar. The ride out of Prince Rupert was beautiful, following the Northern bank of the Skeena river with views of snow-capped peaks in all directions the only word on could use to properly describe the landscape is big. Then after 130 km of riding east we turned on to Highway 113 towards the Lava Fields.

The Nigsa’a Highway was taking us inland further away from the sea than we had been for some weeks, the sun was shining and the temperature was rising as we headed up the road. There were beautiful lakes and more snow-capped peaks all around. After 80km we stopped for lunch at the north end of Lava Lake. During our lunch stop it was time for the second of our every 500 mile chain, oil and bolt checks. We were stopped for around 45 minutes and then on our way.

We weren’t sure what to expect riding through the Lava Fields or even how we would know we were riding through them; however when we saw the dark brown lumps of rock it was then obvious where we were. The best way we can describe the fields are to imagine a freshly ploughed field but each furrow is between 4 and 6 foot high. The lava beds here date back to 1750 and are the remains of Canada’s most recent recorded eruption.

After riding through the Lava beds and the lands of the Nisga’a first nation we headed North East along the Nass Forest Service Road which was well maintained but had a few pot holes. Matt was in his element along this road, with Liz describing it as following a very fast moving dust cloud, this was by far the most enjoyable gravel road of the journey so far. 

By the time we got on the main artery of the Stewart Cassiar Highway it was approaching 6pm and our thoughts turned to looking for somewhere to camp, our map told us there was a provincial campsite just before Mezidian junction only 80km away, however we were 150 km behind our 500km target for the day. The ride to the campsite was without incident until about 20 km before our overnight stop we noticed a large brown head rise from the undergrowth on the right hand side of the road, it kept rising and must have stood at about 8 feet tall, it was our first sighting of a grizzly bear. Needless to say as much as we wanted to we decided not to stop and admire the magnificent creature.

Our night at Mezidian Junction was our first night of battling with the mosquitos that really take no mercy on tourists, we did learn that the lovely cooling vented patches on our Forcefield action shirts are great for keeping you cool whilst riding, but not so good as mosquito protection as the blighters can bite right through them.

The following day we were up early and hit the road, a miscommunication between us made Liz ride 5 km in the wrong direction when she didn’t see Matt pull in the petrol stop after he had turned around after missing it, our helmet coms were off at this point to conserve battery.  Other than that the major theme of the day was the cold, as we spent most of it winding our way through mountain ranges, and needing tea every 150 km to warm up. The undoubted highlight of the day was the section known as 40 mile flats (a plateau at 1200 metres above sea level) that was the run to our last fuel stop of the day at Dease Lake. This area was pretty relaxed in terms of riding but the wonderful crisp air filtered through our nostrils made us feel we were about as far from the civilized world we had ever been.

We camped some way short of our intended destination (Waston Lake) in fact 250 km short of our intended destination, Matt had estimated that we would be able cover around 500 km a day, but it emerged that between 300 - 400km was a much more realistic figure as Liz felt here muscles tire on the longer rides. We had our first properly wet night in the tent that night, the heavens opened about 30 seconds after we got the tent up, so we dived for cover. An hour later we realised that it was going to rain all night, so it was either go hungry or get out of the tent and make dinner. Luckily the campsite had an undercover area where we were able to cook our dinner and chill for a little while, after dinner there wasn’t much else to do other than get down for the night as see out the rain storm.

When we arose from our slumber the sky and rain had cleared and we continued our journey north, we had decided that we were only going to do the short hop to Watson Lake. As we came to our only planned fuel stop of the day we found that the place was closed (this is the problem with overlanding on a bike with only a 12 litre tank, we find we have around a 220km range so anything over 180km is a bit awkward). Our journey was 250km that day, but we do carry an emergency 5 litres and this saw us arrive at Watson Lake with no major need for alarm. The riding, however, was absolutely fantastic as we crossed the Cassiar Mountains and the Continental Divide after this though the vegetation changed. The lush green pines became spindly and less green the soil was more of a sand than the dirt we had been riding past. Another noticeable change in the area was riding past the sites of the 2011 and 2012 forest fires at the northern end of the Stewart Cassiar Highway. The vegetation was a small row greener trees by the side of the road and then just burnt tree trunks behind it.

We made it, latitude 60 and the Yukon border town Watson Lake was only a further 20 km down the road, however the Stewart Cassiar had claimed a victim, Matt’s front tyre, it was a very aggressive Kenda tyre and there wasn’t much left of it by the time we got to Watson Lake. We, however found a superhero in the visitor centre who arranged for a new tyre to be dropped at the weigh station in Whitehorse (500 km away and the only town in the Yukon big enough to have a motorcycle dealer) where a trucker stopping at it would pick up and drop at the weigh station in Watson Lake. The following morning the tyre was there waiting for us.

That morning was spent changing the tyre, and another casualty was taken, our tyre lever. Matt had almost mounted the new Heidenau K60 and there was a ping: the tyre lever broke (we do have to, however, commend Motion Pro for their customer service, as a few weeks later a brand new one was waiting for us in Whistler). We went to the truck stop up the road they didn’t do bike tyres, but they knew a man who did. 10 minutes later Matt and the tyre were in the chap’s workshop and 15 minutes later the tyre was fitted. 

The tyre debacle had taken us all morning and it was close to 2pm by the time we left Watson Lake, so we split our journey to Whitehorse into two sections and camped just past the halfway point at Teslin. Our original plan was to take the Robert Campbell Highway (700km of dirt), but Matt in a rare moment of common sense decided this was not a good idea now our ability to repair a puncture was compromised and we took the Alaska Highway. In comparison to the Stewart Cassiar the Alaska Highway is pretty boring as it is wide and open, it does get a little bendy as it crosses the Continental Divide, but for the most part is pretty fast and steady. There was, however, a little section that made the hairs on the back of our neck stand up. In the Yukon they don’t repair the road like were used to back home, they take the top of the road off keep the road open all be it only allowing people to travel one direction at a time and then eventually put the top back on. There was a section about 100 km past Watson Lake where the top of the road had been taken off exposing a few kilometres of soft earth which had also been soaked. We had this very soft wet dirt to navigate and every time we built up a bit of momentum it threatened to pull the bike into a nasty fish tail.  June is the month that they do all the road repairs in the Yukon after the post winter thaw, so maybe not the best month to go.

The following day it was an easy ride into Whitehorse and we were there well before lunch time. We camped in the Robert Service Campground and walked into town, past the SS Klondike and explored the provincial capital and the largest piece of civilization we had found since Campbell River on Vancouver Island. We used the time to stock up on supplies and sink a few of beers from the Yukon Brewery. We both agreed that there was something special about these beers and put it down to how clean the water is in the Yukon.

The aim was to take 2 days riding to Dawson City, which was our ultimate goal to this part of the trip and then we were going to take 2 days off the bikes as our wedding anniversary was coming up and we fancied a few days rest, as it would have been 7 days straight riding and it was time for a break.

We headed north on the Klondike Highway, which we both loved as it easily meandered around hills and river valleys amongst absolutely stunning scenery and true wilderness areas. We saw our first moose along this stretch, but it appeared to be pretty camera shy, as by the time Matt got his camera out to get a picture of the animal that to us represents the northern wilderness it had hidden in the bushes.

Our lunch stop was at Carmacks and we ate our lunch of bread rolls, laughing cow cheese and pepperoni sticks outside the small cafe come post office which was owned by a lovely couple who were in the middle of renovating it. The building was an ex-police station that was built in anticipation of the construction of the Klondike Highway in the earlier part of the last century, however, once the road was built it didn’t actually pass the location of the police station so it ended up being picked up, moved to Carmacks and became the post office. 

A little bit before our camping stop at Moose Creek something strange happened, we had separated as often we ride at different speeds, there were two lads by the side of the road as Matt rode past one of which was clutching his chest, and the other lad explained that he had crashed his motorbike off the road into the trees. They asked Matt to help and they were insisting that Matt got off the bike to help. However, something didn’t read right as they weren’t trying to flag down either of the two cars that passed by, which could transport the lad if he was hurt, and there was no evidence of a bike coming off the road into the trees (skid marks or disturbed vegetation on the side of the road). Matt decided to ride off into the next town, Liz passed by a few minutes later and noticed the two lads give her a weird look. If you ever read this and were genuinely hurt we apologise for leaving you behind, but our instincts felt this was the best action to take.

Moose creek campsite was another place where we felt our main purpose was to feed the local mosquitos, however, they were much bigger than other mosquitos we had encountered. They were over half an inch long with yellow and black stripes on their back and you really felt it each time one fancied a bite to eat. It was a case of get covered up, get repellent on and still you got bitten. As we were packing up the tent and bikes in the morning Liz could be heard shouting expletives, as she got bitten over and over again. 

It was a short ride to Dawson through awesome scenery the following morning and Liz had already earmarked where she wanted to stay for our anniversary, Bombay Peggy’s. At the turn of the last century this was one of Dawson City’s infamous brothels and is now guest house themed with Victorian décor and pictures of the former professionals who worked here. Bombay Peggy’s was named after Margaret Vera Dorval, who was one of the building’s notable owners when it was a brothel days (she was known by to locals as Bombay Peggy). We booked in although it was way out of budget, but we decided a splurge every once in a while is ok.

Dawson is an interesting city, it has been left with dirt streets and wooden sidewalks to preserve its early 20th century gold rush theme. The town went from nothing to boom and bust in the space of a few years as prospectors came and struck it rich in 1896. More and more prospectors came, but many failed to find new gold sites. It seems the people who really made it rich were the madams of the town’s brothels and the entertainers in the gambling halls. There are still gold sites outside the city, but most of these are owned by large mining corporations now.

We had almost 3 days off the bike in Dawson, of course we both joined the River Rats by drinking a Sourtoe cocktail, according the certificate we know entitled to win any drunken disagreement with anyone who has not joined the River Rats. We spent a couple of nights on the sauce and met some great people such as Fabio who had been given two weeks by his wife to ride his motorcycle north from Calgary, he was definitely making the most of this and also Harrison Brown who was putting us to shame by cycling a push bike through North America and visiting a whole load of folk festivals.

 

Our rest soon came to an end and it was a 300 km hop to Tok in Alaska via the Top of the World Highway. This 300 km stretch was stunningly beautiful as it meandered along a ridge line peaking at around 1300 metres above sea level, with gravel sections and tarmac sections all a couple of kilometres long. Just before we got to the border at Poker Creek there were some road works, the top of the road had been taken off leaving an incredibly soft layer of dirt for us to ride. This left us with two choices: ride in the rut left by the vehicle in front or the soft section in the middle which sent the back wheel fishtailing all over the place. This eventually defeated Liz and Lola who needed to have a lie down just near the end of the road works.

We had been warned by another biker in Dawson that the 20 km after the Alaska side of the border was in terrible condition with fist sized loose rocks on the top surface. It was nowhere near as bad we had been warned, the rocks were fist sized, but there had been enough heavy RV traffic and rain to bed the rocks down into a firm(ish) surface, so our pace dropped a little but we negotiated the stony ground with much more confidence than we expected. It was another 180 km to Tok, where we intended to camp that night with most of it being on dirt road, but we were in Alaska in June, so we didn’t need to worry about riding at night, because there was no night.

After a stop in Chicken, an outpost “town” which had a few petrol pumps and a general store we arrived in Tok just before 8pm and found Thompson’s Eagle’s Claw Motorcycle Park. For an extra $5 we spent the night in an ambulance so we didn’t need to erect the tent. We spoke to the other bikers: a couple of guys from Oregon and the president of the Swiss XT500 owners club (who was riding a BMW GS). The Swiss chap came to talk to us because at first glance he thought Roxy and Lola were XT500s.

It was the following morning that Matt noticed that Lola had an oily fork leg, this was a bit of a problem, as Matt had been through much of the bike with Gabriel (the genius who runs Zen Overland), but had run out time to do a fork service. To add to this we were not sure which bikes in Canada had been sold with Paioli forks so did not know where to get the correct oil and dust seals. One thing we did know, however, was that the only place we were going to be likely to find anything was in Whitehorse 700 km away. We made the decision to head straight to Whitehorse rather than go to Haines and catch the ferry to Skagway.

The next day we covered most of the ground to Whitehorse making it Haines Junction, the riding wasn’t plain sailing as the 150 km stretch after the border back in Canada on the Alaska Highway is built on top of permafrost (a thick layer of gravel that insulates the marshland below keeping frozen and the road from sinking to the marsh) this creates a phenomenon known as frost heaves. Every now and then the road has a few woops it, Matt was loving this and was up on the pegs trying to get Roxy in the air, reality was she was carrying too much weight and the woops weren’t quite steep enough, Liz rightly so was being much more cautious and was riding within her own abilities.

We rode until almost 10pm (with us still being well north of the 60th parallel it was still blue skies) when Liz’s throttle cable snapped just 6km from Haines Junction. Matt took off the panels to get at the throttle body on the carb only to find that the frame on the CCM is built in an awkward fashion which meant he couldn’t get either a screwdriver or socket on one of the bolts holding the cover in place. A few minutes later the local Mountie passed by and asked us about the situation, we explained, 15 minutes later he was back with a trailer and half an hour later we were checked into a motel!

With some manipulating and jiggling of the plastic a new throttle cable was installed the following morning and it was only 160 km back to Whitehorse. When we arrived we pulled into the Honda dealership that had been so helpful getting a tyre to us in Watson Lake, but unfortunately they couldn’t source any fork seals for us. While we were there we noticed that Roxy’s rear tyre had next to no tread left, so we asked what they had in stock, the only thing they had left that would was a fairly narrow Kenda K270, but we knew it would get us back to Whistler.

We camped again at the Robert Service Campground on the edge of Whitehorse and planned to visit Skagway the following day, before starting our journey back on the Alaska Highway. Liz was still concerned about Lola’s fork leg and although Matt was pretty confident that the springs were strong enough to get us back to Whistler, she was uneasy about the ride back. We had seen everything we intended to on the ride up north and to all intents and purposes had been told that the Alaska Highway is a pretty dull ride back. Then an idea hit us the Alaska Marine Highway. Liz was sold on the idea of getting a ferry right away.

We did some calculations and worked out that it would cost us about double to sail back on the Alaska Marine Highway than it would cost us to ride back, but it would get us back to Whistler around 5 days earlier than riding would and if Liz’s fork didn’t get us home then we would be stuck with a much bigger recovery bill, so we took the ferry.

We got to Skagway on Saturday afternoon and we discovered that one the ferries, the one that we would be due to take us was in a dry dock in Washington. The ferry that would be sailing was much smaller and we weren’t guaranteed a spot and even if we got on the ferry there was no guarantee of a spot all the way through. This meant we could end up being stuck on any of the islands on the Alaskan Pan Handle, as our tickets would be only issued on a port to port basis. Our only hope was to wait for the deckhand to say that he would get us on board for the whole trip and for that we would have to wait until when the ferry docked on Monday. We decided to wait until Monday and 1 hour before the ferry was due to sail we were given a spot on board and the credit card took a massive hit. We set sail at 5pm Monday afternoon to arrive in Bellingham at 8am Friday afternoon.