We’ve now arrived in Whitehorse, which at 22 000 people or so, is the Yukon’s largest settlement. While the setting is idyllic (its local singletrack comes highly recommended by Alaskan riders), Whitehorse itself sprawls out far beyond it’s charming 50s-fronted downtown, with the delights of McDonald’s and Wallmart rearing their corporate heads in welcome. Not that we had much time to take it all in. No sooner had we arrived and tracked down the organic bakery, than we were invited for dinner and a place to rest our heads with Marlynn, a French Canadian who’s lived here since the late 80s. There, we feasted on a delicious homemade dinner (real food and wine!), with her environmental educationalist/folk musician husband Remy, and their biking skiing outdoorsy kids. We were also joined by Parisian Sibylle, in town researching and interviewing for a UN film on climate change; our touring bikes had caught her eye as she’d done her own year long bike ride some 10 years before. Sibylle’s last project, 6 Billion Others, was with the incredible aerial photographer Yann Arthus Bertrand.
Its about 660km between Tok and Whitehorse along the Alaska-Canada Highway (the ALCAN). After the roller coaster of the Dalton Highway, the ride itself was refreshingly easy going, paralleling the mighty St Elias mountain range almost all the way here – a long string of jagged, snow capped peaks rising high above the broad valley floor, nurchuring some of the biggest glaciers outside the polar regions. Plans for the ALCAN were long in the pipeline, but the Great Depression of the 30s put them on hold. It wasn’t until the attack on Pearl Harbour in the WWII that construction went ahead, with the highway completed in 1942 and running at over 2200kms long.
We’d toyed with the idea of spending a rest day in Tok, but despite our tired legs there wasn’t much to keep us there; a rain storm that lashed down on the tent gave us a good excuse to lie in. Back on the road, we made the most of the strong tailwind to head onto to Northern Junction, were we met a group of 40 young riders from Texas, who’d ridden their road bikes from Austin in 70 days to raise awareness and cash for a cancer charity – on apparently the world’s longest annual charity ride. Texas to Anchorage is a long, long way and amazingly, most of them had never really cycled before, having bought bikes for the trip.
From here, it was just a short hop across the border, crossing into the Yukon at Canada’s most westerly settlement, Beaver Creek. Mountains loomed close to the road, covered in forest like a pelt of winter fur. And it certainly feels like winter is drawing closer. The morning were fresh and chilly, and the days were becoming shorter – from an average high of 21 hours of sunlight a day in June, the Yukon dwindles to ‘just’ 16 hours in August.
With so few places to resupply, almost every cyclist travelling the ALCAN will end up stopping in at Jim and Dorothy’s roadhouse, and probably the vast majority will have had a pretty bizarre experience. A cantankerous yet endearing old couple (the moment I walked in through the door, they recounted how they’d lambasted a German cycling couple just the day before for dripping water on their carpet), they’ve lived in the Yukon for some forty years, and their shop is a confusing accumulation of knickknacks and brickabrack – rocks, decorative spoons, stuffed toys, 2nd hand books, popcorn, paintings. You name it, you’ll find it.
After several days of rain and overcast skies, the sun lifted our spirits and showed the Yukon at its best. The road conditions were fairly flat, allowing us ride up to 70kms by lunchtime. These days we’re getting early starts; we’re generally on the road by 8.30am, giving us plenty of time to chill out at lunch, take breaks and stop for photos, and still cover 120-130kms a day.
In Destruction Bay, we caught up with Dave1 and Dave2, both of whom we’d met on the Haul Road. Dave1 was contemplating whether to buy a can of ravioli for breakfast, but settled on a pint of milk, which he gulped down before setting off again. Dave2 was already long gone – he’s planning to be in Argentina in a year, so doesn’t have too much time to sit around and chat. Good luck to you both – hope to see you on the road again!
We’d planned to push on all the way to Haines Junction, but Dan spotted a trail leading down to Sulphur Lake. Too good to resist. So with 125km on the clock, we pulled in for the night.
Haines Junction came and went, a scenic, tranquil settlement surrounded by mountains, just a flightseeing tour away from Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak. As you’d expect from its name, there’s not much to it. Turn left, Alaska. Turn right, Whitehorse. Best of all, its bakery was in a league of its own, with wifi access, platters of cheap Day Old food and a bohemian air. There, we met William, a quietly spoken individual also heading by bike to Latin America. William had a slightly sorrowful expression; the last couple of weeks of riding alone seem to have taken their toll on his spirits. By his own admission, he also needed to get in shape. He’d only planned the trip a month before leaving, and had already shed 35lbs from his 255lb frame.
I always enjoy the instant connection with other tourers – we’re all experiencing similar highs and lows, sharing the same joys and frustrations that come part and parcel of bicycle touring. We suffer on the climbs, lament the headwind but draw inspiration from the beauty of the surroundings and the perfect pace that bicycle travel affords. Among others, we met a Dutch couple on Santos bikes, and fell into easy conversation, swapping notes and experiences.
Soon after, we encountered the once dripping-wet German couple who had so infuriated zany Jim and Dorothy back in their roadhouse. Although I didn’t have much of a chance to get to know the real Harold, I could see why he might rub some people up the wrong way. Hours and hours on the road can sometimes impinge on social skills. Striding over towards my bike, he looked with obvious disdain at the suspension fork.’ No’, he said, tutting noisily and grimacing openly, ‘this is no good.’ On the whole, I actually agree with him. Suspension forks aren’t designed for touring and running fat tyres and a rigid fork is often the best and most reliable option. But it did seem an odd way to introduce yourself. ‘It’s nice on the corrugation and useful for mountain biking. Works for me, ‘ I added, which it does. ‘Hm. Each person has their own way’, he finally conceded, despite the obvious folly of such a concept. Tourers can be a strange bunch… and I include myself in this, naturally…
From Haines Junction, we escaped the culinary clutches of the bakery by late afternoon, camping some 50km down the road. The last push to Whitehorse was eased by a soundtrack of storytelling from The Moth and This American Life podcasts on the MP3 player – if you haven’t heard any of these before, they’re well worth downloading.
Along the way, we past Canyon Creek Bridge, built in 1903 during the big gold rush that lead to the construction of the wagon road to Whitehorse – out of which, in turn, sprung the roadhouses and communities though which we were passing. On and one we pedalled, through the Takhini river valley where the waters run rich with salmon and the coastal mountain range to the south gives way to the uplands of the Yukon Plateau.
Our friendly tailwind gave us a helping hand, almost leading us right to the bakery where Marlynn welcomed us into her home with real generosity and spontaneity. And so it is that we’ve now spent the best part of a few days treated to wholesome food, a warm home, family life, movies, live music, clean clothes and great conversation. Nat, one of their three sons, even took us on a chilled out ride around the local trails, a spider’s web of flowy, rooty singletrack (like the Blues Brothers trail), the perfect compliment to a couple of weeks of loaded touring.
This evening, Dan has rustled up a trifle for desert (after our lovely salmon dinner) by way of thanks, as we prepare ourselves to finally leave this wonderful family and take to the road once more.
Within a couple of days we should be back in Alaska, overnighting in Haines (not to be confused with Haines Junction, on the Canadian side), ready to bob our way along the Marine Highway to Juneau, Sitka and beyond.