Friday, 26 October 2012

Day 115 to 116 – to Dawson City, Canada

14 to 15 July    Kms travelled – 30,708

I must be getting old, or perhaps I had become accustomed to the limited alcohol input over recent months travelling, but I awoke at my usual early hour in Whitehorse, Canada, with a distinct headache.  I only had a couple, honest!  This, however, meant I simply rolled over and went back to sleep!  It was gone 9 when I finally did emerge, pack the bike and hit the road.  I felt somewhat better minutes later when I passed a group of around a dozen BMW GSs gathering in the car park of another motel on the outskirts of town.  At least I had beaten them to it, I thought, as I turned off the Alaskan Highway onto the Klondike Highway (2) north towards Dawson City.  There´s gold in them there hills!  We just had to see whether Canada would serve up another pan of golden riding.

But it wasn´t long on the road before the group of BMWs caught up and, with the appropriate waves, rolled by one by one.  I could see they were on an organised ride, with much stickerage advertising Eidelwice Expeditions – that well known name for global motorcycle adventure tours.  It was also not long before the heavens frowned and it became time to adopt the wet weather posture.  I had been tallying up the amount of rainy days I´d encountered to date, with only 4 in total out of my 115 (so far) being of distinct dampness.  So with that perspective, I decided to make the most out of it and enjoy the run up into the wilds of the northern Yukon.

While much of the scenery was of a similar vein, it was on the whole quite pretty and had a stark beauty about the place, only enhanced by the scale of the countryside.  Similar thoughts to those I had had in parts of South America, but here we were able to feast on more hillsides and trees.  And, in fact, it wasn´t long before the sun was peeping through again, only to leave patches of heavy showers for the remainder of the morning. 

The road offered a varying degree of rider enjoyment, from patches of tough slog, to wonderfully curvy fun bits.  From top notch tarmac to rough patches of chip sealed road, which is where the local authorities spray a sticky compound on the surface then dust the road with a layer of chippings,  which they then leave for the local traffic to bed in.  Fine if you have four wheels, but it made life interesting for this two wheeled traveller.  Each time I came to a patch of chip seal I was unable to gauge whether the stones were already fixed, or whether I was about to encounter something akin to a gravel road – with all the different handling characteristics that entailed.  So I adopted the approach of slowing at all surface changes just in case.  As I said, some parts were a tough slog but progress was being made. 

I was also playing leapfrog with my BMW friends, as their differing pace and fuel/food/loo needs resulted in us passing each other on a number of occasions.  And each time with the appropriate courtesy shown to fellow like minded Adventure Bike Riders, as nods and waves were exchanged to speed each other on our respective ways.  At a rest break I happened across another ABR (KLR650) who had just descended the much praised dirt covered Dempster Highway from inside the Arctic Circle at Inuvik.  A relatively local rider from Alaska, he was able to regale me with tales of mudded out road, tricky river crossings (they had had a whole month of rain in June which had only subsided the week before), and wondrous sights as we mutually admired each other’s chosen steeds.  A 5 day run for this experienced off road rider, he had found the route particularly challenging this year...  but nevertheless leaving me with the sensation that I was again passing and leaving undone much that should be done. 
He also warned of a 2 km patch of bad road ahead that had just been completely relayed after nature´s destructive force had taken its toll.  The road was back in place, but a firm surface was not.  A deep and extended trench of small loose stones beckoned and threatened in equal measure.  No turning back, I was already on the edge of Klondike country and the call of Dawson City with all its colourful history drove me on. 

Forewarned is forearmed as they say, and I soon recognised the area he highlighted as evidence of recent road workings was clearly visible – so were the loose stones, which had already been driven into ruts and ridges to some extent by heavier vehicles.  Memories of Ruta 40 in Argentina exploded into my mind, not least due to the remoteness and lack of traffic on the road (it seemed I had finally left my BMW colleagues behind).  I lowered my tyre pressures and braced myself for an uncertain ride.  No Patagonian winds to blow me off course this time, thankfully.  But in no time at all the road dived into a steep curving decline which made it difficult for this (still) relatively inexperienced off road rider to maintain traction through driving the rear wheel, while running at a speed which didn´t take me over the edge on a bend.  I almost lost it once, but on the whole came through the stretch with a smile of relief and renewed sense of achievement.

I was then rewarded further after some distance with the sight of giant mounds of pebbles lining the side of the road and the now widening river valley.  At each turn the road improved and signs of human presence started to crop up.  I later realised that I was, in fact, seeing signs of man´s impact on the local landscape throughout this final stretch to Dawson.  The pebbles had not been thrown up over the years by some sort of flooding river, as I had thought, but by the gold machines which floated in the shallow waters digging up the river bed and discarding this goldless waste in impressive style.  The scale of the operations in its heyday must have been incredible.

And then I was rolling through a small industrial estate, over a bridge, through a narrow gorge, and into a town that appeared to have been frozen in time for a hundred years (or at least built by some sort of Hollywood operation then left to the weather to age).  The streets in Dawson City are not paved with gold... in fact they are not paved at all!  Aside from the main road which runs along the side of the Yukon river, bypassing the town centre and linking with the river ferry on the far side of this relatively small patch of flat land, the streets are paved with mud.  I immediately pictured the mud fighting scene towards the end of that tongue in cheek western movie, Paint Your Wagon, and rode into town with a smile.

It was, however, a smelly and tired smile.  In my bid to get north while my time on the road remained, I had found myself without a single piece of clean clothing remaining.  My bike suit, frankly, stank to the point that even I winced each morning when getting dressed...  so imagine what my helmet liner was like!  I felt the need to reinvigorate myself and enjoy the delights that this almost fantasy place offered – and when I was presented with a 2 night deal at the El Dorado hotel, the decision was made.  A rest / laundry day was scheduled, with some strolls along the raised wooden boardwalks...  howdy pardner!

If you ever get to Dawson, and I hope you do, you should stay a few nights.  This is a real life town, not a tourist resort, with an active year round community despite its far remote location.  It retains both the look and feel of the frontier as old builds are maintained, and new builds are required to fit with the gold rush decor.  Stacks of history too, as you wander round visiting the museums, bars and shops, most of which actively seek to hang onto the past.  You can even visit a brothel, which was tolerated by the town´s authorities until surprisingly recently (no, don´t worry, it is closed now!). 

She really did have a diamond tooth!
But a write-up on Dawson would not be complete without a mention of Diamond Tooth Girtie´s gambling saloon.  There, for a $10 season pass to gain entry, you can sup the local brew, grab a tasty bite, try your hand at poker (or other such gambling temptations) while taking in the live period show, three times nightly.  Think back on those old western movies again, and picture the saloon shows with can-can dancers, variety singers and dashes of cheeky humour - yep, just like that, and done remarkably well.  Then as you finally leave at 2 in the morning, you can wonder at the land of the midnight sun with brightness akin to a cloudy day back home.

Lots of bikes came and went during my all too short stay, the vast majority of which would now be classed as Adventure Bikes, coupled with lots of conversations with their respective riders.  I was, however, heartily impressed with a Harley Ultra rider who had followed me into town having ridden that great lump of metal through the tricky stony patch a way back.  His heart visibly sank when he learned that the road leading away from town on the other side of the river was no longer maintained – and comprised largely of dirt and stone.  But he resolved to press on.  The Top of the World Highway was the route to Alaska...  and that challenge loomed as my head hit the pillow for the 116th time.              

Thought for the day
Nerves and perhaps even a dose of fear were running through my mind these days to the extent that they might have caused me to take pause in Dawson.  I was becoming fearful of the road ahead and nervous about the bike´s performance, particularly the front tyre which was no longer gripping as it should (it had been on there since Peru).  I was worried about how I was holding up, as aches and pains were surfacing with each passing day (including the return of my South American back pain), along with a general profound tiredness.  I was worried about my remaining time...  would it be enough?  I was getting anxious about the logistics of my return, with my preferred option of finishing in Anchorage no longer being economically viable, I would now have to get back to Seattle (more time...  more miles).  I realised 116 days away was too long as I tried to manage a deep underlying homesickness unlike anything I had previously encountered. 

The trip was nearing its conclusion, but it was now also getting really hard.  I was determined to press on, but I could not stop these constant negative thoughts from invading my mind.  I had come a long way in mind... and in body, but could I finish this (what now seemed to me for the first time) massive solo challenge?  Was the Top of the World Highway leading to the most northerly border crossing in the Americas...  a road too far?   

Hand on heart; I was really afraid that it was...

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