Sunday, August 17, 2008

Up to the Artic and Down to the Lower 48

Well, inevitably I eschew the opportunity to abide with my fellow bikers and indulge in keg - throwing and slow bike riding contests. All the Alaskan Stout must have put some iron in my blood, as I find myself drawn North, into the big, wild country, as strongly as a needle on a compass. The road out of Anchorage opens up and the forest starts to thin slightly as big areas of muskeg open up the view. Just outside Trapper Creek I catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley or Denali (the big one), encased in its gleaming carapace of glittering ice at more than 20,000 feet. It is the jewel in the crown of Denali National Park, more than 6,000,000 acres of wilderness, 1,000,000 of which are glaciars. There is only one sealed road at the park entrance for 16 miles, and less than a hundred miles of designated dirt roads.

I rapidly get to the Visitor's Centre and secure a campsite at yet another fantastic National Park Campsite. I am off in the walk - in camping section, surrounded by trees and away from anyone else and yet only 10 minutes walk away is a General Store with wireless internet access. I enjoy an evening reading, eating and drinking next to my fire until it approaches 3am and the natural light is just to dim to make out the characters. Up the next morning and drowsy in my tent, which I have draped with my tarpaulin to provide a little more shade from the almost constant daylight, I am confused and then aroused by a munching sound outside. Slowly and carefully, tooth by tooth, I open the tent door a smidgen to make out a large brown beast, feeding a couple of metres away. They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, but I believe the moose is the ugliest creature on the face of the earth. With a long, knobbly face, accentuated by a goatee beard, attached to a gawky body that seems to have been constructed from the biological parts bin. The bulls I saw on the roadside, were certainly magnificent, with their enormous crown of antlers, which I was told later in a bar somewhere, always have 14 points on each side. This was certainly true of all the ones I saw subsequently. Despite the strong smell and cloud of flies following it too, nonetheless, to see this female so close, chomping at the bushes where my clothes are drying, was a lovely start to the day.

After camp coffee from my fab Italian coffee pot and some fruit and nuts, I head off to climb up Mount Healy. It was great to stretch the old legs, as the distances up here are enormous. This, along with the long hours of daylight, inevitably mean a lot of time in the saddle recently. Mount McKinley was shrouded in cloud, but the climb was still enjoyable and afforded a couple of interesting encounters along the way. At the top, I met 2 friendly ladies from Oklahoma and we start chatting. I soon realise their reason for bing friendly, as they explain they are on a evangelising trip in Alaska. After a little more probing, I realise that this is a big business recruitment campaign. Their "church" has more than 20,000 members, all of whom pledge a tithe of their earnings to the church and they receive a bonus for every new member they sign up. They were staying in the expensive Park Lodge and seemed amazed that I would openly declare that I am an athiest and question them to consider what Jesus would be likely to think of this degree of commerciality in their church.

Driven off the mountain by the Christians, I skip down the hill and after 15 minutes meet, Sandy, a solicitor from Edinburgh, lying across the trail. It soon becomes clear that he was not taking a breather, but had in fact stumbled, fallen and broken his ankle. Checking that he was comfortable, had food, water, plenty of clothing and some anti - bear, chili spray, I headed back to the Ranger Station at the entrance as fast as possible. Excited by the prospect of getting a helicopter to guide the Rangers to the spot where Sandy was, I was disappointed, and confused, to have that dismissed by the man in the Boy Scout uniform, saying that they didn't have an helicopter available, so would I be able to help out with a gurney instead!? After some clarification, it became clear that we were talking about a taking a stretcher back up there to pick up Sandy, which we did, humping the gear up the hill, where Sandy was being harassed by the God - squad press - gangers. We rolled him on to the stretcher and slowly ferryed him down the hill, sending him off to Fairbanks in an ambulance. It was interesting to be part of the "rescue" and chilling to consider that if he had been in the "back - country", Sandy would have almost certainly ended up as bear - bait.

Another long day ended with some more of Alaskan Ales finest and a tub of Cherry Garcia from Ben and Jerry's. Up late, I had a leisurely breakfast and a ride out to Savage River, at the end of the road, passing bears and moose. At the bridge over the river, there was still ice on the surface, despite it being mid June. There was no clear view of Mount Mckinley, but a great glimpse of Silverthrone, her smaller sister peak through a gap in the clouds. Off and out towards Fairbanks, whose approach was announced by the enormous, satellite dishes at the University of Alaska. I checked in at the College Inn, which seemed frequented by seasonal workers and so was a cheaper option at 40 USD a night. Walking around, there seemed to be lots of Russians and Russian influence in Fairbanks. I saw one restaurant offering a double Stoli with breakfast, something which I decided not to go for, as I had resolved to head up the Dalton the next day. It was also clear, that the population of Alaska must double in the summer. You can spot the local cars, who saty through the winter, by the electric cable and plug hanging from the engine grill. There are sockets outside most shops and bars, where the cars get plugged in to keep the engines from freezing solid in the winter months.

Difficulty sleeping in the now constant daylight and lots of noise from revellers in the paper - thin hostel walls, meant that I was quite late leaving Fairbanks. Pretty quickly, the State Capitol, disappeared and I was out into the back country and catching my first sight of the Trans - Alaskan pipeline. Carrying 88,000 barrels of oil an hour, the pipeline is punctuated by regular perpendicular radiators, which carry the heat away from the oil and reduce the pressure inside the pipeline, and along with it, the danger of an accident. Good job too, as the pipeline is fairly regularly shot at, either by protesters, or more like, drunken locals desperate for some entertainment, as the road follows the pipeline for most of the way, as it was originally laid as a service road to the well - head, more than 450 miles away at Prudhoe Bay. The Haul Road runs 414 miles from the Alaskan interior to the North Slope, crossing the Artic Circle on the way and following the Trans - Alaskan oil pipeline. It is the most northerly road on the continent and was built in a staggering 5 months in 1974. It was a private trucking road for the first 20 years of its life, until the Alaskan legislature voted to open it to the public in 1994 for 12 months of the year. It is mostly dirt and gravel all the way, although it is seen to be safer in the winter, when it becomes a solid, consistent trail of ice.

The dirt and gravel starts straightaway, and was made slippery by the rain and my street tyres. After 50 miles it descends to the Yukon River Bridge, the only place in Alaska that the river is spanned. Wooden Decking was slippery in the rain and the calcium chloride residue and rocks used during the winter to keep the ice under control. After just over 50 miles or so, the road starts descending into the Yukon Valley, switchbacking across the dirt and the "gravel", with some stones as big as softballs. The heckles on my neck start twanging as below me, I see a triple - articulated lorry below me, with an enormous tractor behind it to push it up the hill. Clearly, there was no way the driver could stop, as the tractor kept going all the way to the top, so its driver could get back and pick up his next ride. I pulled over to the side as close as I dare and waited for the leviathan to rush past, pluming rocks and dust behind it. Other such encounters along the way broke my foglight and bruised my thighs and ribs as the spinning rocks arced through the dust towards me.

After squirming up the north slope of the Yukon, I get into a good riding rhythm again, relaxing slightly, enjoying the gradually opening scenery of the tundra, filled with summer colour. A few hours later, I hit the Coldfoot Saloon, where the last petrol on the road is until Deadhorse. I enjoyed a Glitter Gulch ale and a greasy burger on the balcony overlooking the idling trucks - at least the diesel fumes kept the flies away. After setting off again, a while later the sparse taiga turns to persistent tundra and the trees are no more. I now have a starkly clear view of the saw - toothed Brooks Range, seeing herds of caribou tracked by wolfpacks in such piercing clarity ahead of me. Then the last climb up through the jaw - jangling corrugations and unstoppable trucks of the Atigun Pass and on past the legendary Gobbler's Knob, feeling increasingly like a Frodo and Sam approaching Mordor, as I head closer to the North Slope.

The weather has turned windy and misty with a cold, drizzly sleet as I arrived in dystopian Deadhorse, blocking any hope of seeing the Artic Ocean. This terminal town consists entirely of aluminium warehouses, truck repair yards and portakabin - buildings. There are 2 hotels in the place - The Artic Caribou Inn and the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. No rooms and no food were available in either, the only difference between them is that one is marketed at truck drivers, hence the porno mags on sale at reception and the other has latte coffee for sale, for the tourists. There was a bar in the latter, which served the consistently excellent Alaskan Ales, with which I greedily slaked my thirst. I rapidly fell into conversation with some oil workers, who introduced themselves as "roughnecks", but who seemed to meet my stereotypical image of rednecks, so instead I thought of them as Deadnecks. Soon as bored by them as they were by me, my journey and their surroundings in general, I started talking to some Inupiat indians at the other end of the room. They dismissed the oilmen as "cheechakos", someone trying to survive their first year in Alaska.

These guys were much more interesting, their gentle humour and slow calm conversation, interspersed with their tongue twisting terminology was getting increasingly challenging. Some of the most challenging was to do with the "snacks" they took me out to their truck to share. First up was "muktuk", presented in various greasy jars, which I first took to be full of pickled eggs, an impression reinforced by the smell. Instead, the jars contained a variety of pickled boiled or raw whale skin, flesh or blubber, which apparently to the aficienado, had quite distinctive tastes between them. To me they tasted like lardy tripe. Then for dessert, we shared what they called, eskimo ice cream, which came from a filthy coolbox and consisted of surprising light whipped animal fat, berries, seal oil and shredded caribou jerky. Ben and Jerry had nothing to worry about from these blokes as I can't remember having a mouth so coated in animal fat since eating pie and chips on a day - trip to Bridlington in 1989. The boys were heading home and I realised that it was gone 2am and I had no bed for the night. I went back for a final cleansing ale and pushed my bike around the back, pulled my scarf over my face inside my helmet to keep the flies out of my face and lay down in the dirt and slept like a baby.

I was woken a few hours later by some scuffling and rustling noises. Fearing grizzlies again, perhaps attracted by the rubbish bins at the back of the bar, I pulled my scarf off my face and warily opened one eye. Unable to focus, I opened the other eye and was relieved to see a couple of rascally racoons sifting through the rubbish. In a mood of whimsy, I named them the Lone Ranger and Tonto and enjoyed watching them, whilst I was pleasantly surprised how well I felt, apart from the salty, lardy mucus sock that lined my mouth. Remembering that the "beach" on the Artic Ocean was 8 miles from Deadhorse "town" and that the barmaid said that I had to apply for the oil company tour the day before for "security clearance", I woke up to realise what a one - horse town this was, and as the name suggested, that nag was dead. So, I decided to try a new direction for a change, after 7 months and more than 40,000 kms heading pretty consistently north, I got on my bike and tried south for a change. I was surprised how I didn't feel hungry until I got back to Fairbanks around 8 hours later, I guess because the amount of fat I had eaten the night before was so calorie - laden. Nonetheless, I check back into the College Inn and go straight out for an Alaskan Salmon Bake and then crash until the morning.

Next day I head out onto the Alaskan Highway towards Tok. The Alaska Highway was only built in 1942 as a result of the perceved threat of a land assault by the Japanese after Pearl Harbour. Remarkably, it took little more than 6 months to build the more than 1,500 mile long hard - topped road from Fairbanks to Dawson Creek. Before that, the rivers in the summer (Yukon, Klondike and the like) and dogs in the winter were the main form of transport. I stopped in Tok at the Grizzly Bear Cafe after a couple of hours of travelling alone on the road for most of the road. Enjoying soup and a sandwich, a whole bunch of bikers, mostly on adventure bikes turned up. They were a friendly bunch of almost 200 bikes on the Dust to Dawson, 48 hour off - road run from Anchorage to Dawson City across the border in the Yukon Territory. The Top of the World highway to was all dirt and it was great to be riding with other bikers for a while. We passed through the Gold Rush settlement of Chicken, Alaska. Allegedly the town was supposed to be named Ptarmigan (the local prairie chicken / grouse which surrounds the area), but the locals couldn't spell it so settled on Chicken instead. It also made me chuckle that the next town along the road was much more heroically called Eagle.

Felt psychologically great to ride through Chicken and on to Eagle, although the metaphor was ruined when I had to double - back to continue on the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City. Met a bloke panning for gold and eventually came down from the plateau to see Dawson City down below across the swirling Yukon. Crossed the swirling Yukon this time on a ferry and met the remnants of the Dust to Dawson run from Anchorage to Dawson City. More than 150 bikers were there at the midnight Main Street meet and a good atmosphere ensued along the wooden raised boardwalks and bars. Riders at the Dust to Dawson were also planning big trips of their own on their adventure machines. I was curious as to whythey were so often limited to North America. Turned into bed as the sky darkened approaching 3am and headed out the next day, passing the turnings for the Dempster HIghway to Inuvik and later the road to Yellowknife and the Great Slave Lake, objects of desire for a future trip. The road was long down to Whitehorse, but I was spurred on by the D2D crowd and the thought of seeing Lena in Houston in less than 2 weeks, I also wanted to get to Watson Lake relatively early, hopefully in order to avoid the crush on accommodation that had forced me into a more expensive hotel in Dawson City. The Alaskans and Canadians I have met have been some of the friendliest and most helpful people that I have met on the whole trip.

Up in the morning to find that someone had left a sweet on my bike and then onto Whitehorse through stormy weather. Past the turning onto the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, no doubt a better North Slope destination than Deadhorse, I was chasing the storms being whisked in from the Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes to the north - east. All these late, light nights are taking their toll, but I slept very well last night in my dingy and dark motel room, which was perfect. It's been somewhat shocking for me to catch some of the US television news this week and to see how the role of women in the presidential election has descended into a staged catfight between the respective candidate's wives and discussion on what they were wearing and what charities they are involved in. It was hard to believe that until a week previously, America was seriously considering the possibility of electing its first woman president. It is hard to believe how advanced the US is in lots of ways, but how it is also so retarded in others. I was online again at the Stratford Motel again in the sleet of Whitehorse, in anticipation of receiving the missives from Lena's tinklig digits and her sparkling conversational wit.

Walking along the riverside in Whitehorse was lovely and the Klondike was the most magnificent of all the steamships I had seen so far. Once again this morning, someone had left a sweet on my bike. I then got back on my bike, conscious that I had less than a fortnight to get to Houston in time to meet Lena. It was the worst riding weather yet from Whitehorse to Watson Lake - sleet, hail and driving rain all the way, which made the gravel sections and the wooden plank and steel - bottomed bridges particularly difficult to negotiate, as well as making the potholes invisible as they quickly filled with rain. Suffering from sensory deprivation too as all the colours and shapes bleed into shades of grey, sound is drowned out by the pinging on my helmet and there are absolutley no smells whatsoever. Also, despite wearing several layers, eventually the rain seeps through and my extremities get colder and colder until I am shivering and my teeth are chattering. The worst part is the area between my arsehole and bollocks, my "tisner" seems to be the collecting area for the cold water and feels like some sadist is constantly applying an ice cube to that most tender of regions as the miles rumble by.

Passing the turning for the Cassiar Highway and reaching Watson Lake, I stopped at the cleanest, newest and cheapest place in town, the Historic Airport Lodge for 65 CAN, run by Michael, a very welcoming if fastidious German bloke who insisted shoes were taken off before entering. I trudged back down the road in the pelting rain to see the milepost forest and then stop in Bee Jay's Truck Stop, the only place open at 7.15pm on a Sunday Night. The vegetable soup followed by liver and onions with mashed potato was just what I needed despite the fact that "cafe" came after "Diesel, auto repairs and tires (sic)" on their roadside hoarding and only just above "propane" in the list of services they offered. The place was run by grandparents and grandchildren, who seemed to treat the place as their living room, with the CBC equivalent of Radio Two playing "light music" in the background. I snorted when Gershwin's "Summertime" came on as I looked out over the puddled yard being lashed with torrents of rain through the misty window. I was entertained by the interplay between the family members, the visiting truckers and the locals but even more by the discovery of a publication previously unknown to me.

The June edition of the "Truckspeaker Newsheet - published every month in the free enterprise market with no grants or subsidies in Penticton, British Colombia", was a literary revelation. Along with journalistic gems such as the headlining "Incorporation is the Only Way for a Trucker to Go", ads for "The Cat's Ass Electronics. Do you suffer from lack of power and fuel economy in your semi - engine? Try our performance modification. Money back guarantee (a true inspiration in web design if you care to check it out)" and a plethora of brilliant jokes. For example, the following, sent in by a reader from Fort Nelson, " A thief in Paris planned to steal some paintings from the Louvre. After careful planning he got past security, stole the paintings and made it safely to his van. However, he was captured only two blocks away when his van ran out of fuel. When asked how he could mastermind such a crime and then make such an obvious error, he replied "Monsieur, that is the reason I stole the paintings in the the first place. I had no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh". This was followed by the epilogue, "And you thought I didn't have De Gaulle to send this to your paper did you. Well I figure I have nothing Toulouse!". But, the very best thing about the whole experience was that, for me, it represented a genuine slice of life from the post - Gold Rush Yukon and will stay with me longer than the pristine paint of Dawson City's saloons and the beached "Klondike" at the roundabout in Whitehorse.

The next day, in the chill of the early morning torrential rain, I rode past Contact Creek, where the two crews of the Alaskan Highway met in September 1942 after starting from Delta Junction and Dawson Creek respectively. It is more than 1,000 km from Watson Lake to Prince George, where I aimed to be by nightfall, whatever the weather. It started out really foul again, all the way through the continental divide, very cold and very wet. Then it slowly started to improve to showers and eventually full sunshine. The wildlife came out too - an enormous bull moose and a black bear running along the side of the road just before Fort Nelson (it had nowhere to go for a couple of hundred yards due to the elevated roadway), a bald eagle and a swarm of flies as I stopped for a call of nature. I pulled over on a deserted forest lined road, desperate to go. I quickly fumbled with my 2 pairs of trousers and was in full flow when I noticed the big buggers swarming around me. By the time I had finished they were inside my undercrackers and helmet and biting like hell. At the end of the day, I had red angry bites all over my hands, in my pants and inside my helmet - with a lumpy, bumpy head and neck in a line 3 inches from the edges and openings.

I was surprised by the rapidly approaching dusk, despite it only being 9ish, the sun was skimming the western horizon in a long and low sunset. My south east trajectory and the last few days of bad weather had meant that I hadn't seen the sun from my new global position for a while. The benefit though was a gorgeous golden glow to everything . I love riding in the sunlight of early morning or late evening. It sounds very egotistical, but riding along and seeing your own shadow, especially as you go through corners, is a great thrill. I come off of Highway 97 and onto 29 through the lovely Peace Valley, on through Hudson's Hope and pushed on through Chetwynd too, enjoying this section so much that I forgot to stop for petrol. I eventually made it to Mackenzie to a truck stop run by a friendly Korean family who were shutting up for the night, but didn't seem to mind re-opening for my 15 dollars of petrol. I pushed onto McLeod Lake, gilded by the rapidly descending sun and was soon into Prince George. I went straight to the motel I was in before and fed - up with constantly removing and replacing my boxes, all of which had broken plastic catches and required lashings of lashings to keep them on, I left my bike as it was outside the window, and went in for a shower. Nowhere else in the world apart from North America would it be possible to be fed and watered, with a bed and quarters in less than an hour after getting off the bike. By contrast, I was so fed - up of the stupid BMW boxes - leaking, falling off and the time it takes to pack and re-pack, that I just left them.

As I left the next morning, I felt as though I was leaving the wild northwest and as a brief visitor, I would have to say that Alaska, the Yukon and northern British Colombia, in that order, are simply stunning. This is probably because of the combination of great mountains, lakes, forests and coastlines too, but most uniquely, they were respectively the last places definitely in the Americas and and probably in the world too, to have been touched by the hand of modern man. Only for around 100 years or so (slightly more for lower British Colombia, slightly less for upper Alaska) has any significant human impact been registered on the landscape. It really shows. Even when viewed from the road, there is an untouched, pristine nature to the far North West which is tangible and simply beautiful beyond words. What makes us feel so arrogant to believe that we, or the generations that follow us, have nothing to learn from such fantastic and unusual creatures that live here - from polar bears to ice worms? These areas must be protected at all costs for the sake of the human race and our appreciation of the wonders of our planet.
Raining again, I was heading east for Banff and gradually into better weather as I skirted the town and headed onto the Icefield Parkway. The Canadians penchant for self - promotion was immediately obvious as the road was subtitled as the most beautiful in the world. It was gorgeous, with craggy, snow - capped peaks all around in a constantly changing vista of superlative proportions. At the heart of the National Park is the the Columbia Icefield, the meltwater of which flows into 3 oceans, at the heart of which is the Athabasca Glaciar. When I got there, I got a great camping spot right opposite, pitched my tent and shared a chatty evening and some wine with a couple from Holland on bicycles before the snow drove us into our tents. The next day I woke up to a chilly 4 degrees inside the tent and decided to stay for a day's hking and climbing around the Glaciar. I really enjoying stretching my legs and filling my lungs after a hard few days of riding, with some close encounters with Mountain Sheep and enjoying some long distance Grizzly Bear viewing across to the opposite valley. Next day I pack up and turn off the Transcanada HIghway and head south to the US border, away from Medecine Hat and Moose Jaw and excited about heading into the lower 48 and to meeting with my Lena in Houston.

1 comment:

lena said...

tell us about the special coin you got as a reward for being sooooo helpful with the gurney !