December 30, 2009

Day Two

This will be a test of emailing blog posts using my blackberry, so excuse the tyops. I loaded up and left Edmonton around noon on the 29th and stopped in Hinton to see my friends Dave and Joan and their kids.

It was snowing in the morning and the snow did not stop until Chilliwack when it turned into rain. Nothing like driving through the mountains on icy roads with blowing snow.
What a gong show. The van is an absolute pig to drive when the roads are less than perfect, but we made it to Vancouver, unlike the little red car that was planted into a drift like a dart, or the upside down pick up truck by Hope. I made it down the Coquihalla by getting behind two Tim Horton semis, the thinking here that if I was going to lose it, I would end up buried in donuts as opposed to flying off the mountain.
D&J & kids were driving to Edmonton to see Avatar, hopefully they had a better trip, but I doubt it :-)

December 28, 2009

Bad Planning!

As I write this the temperature is -14 C,  great weather to start on a bike trip.  Originally I was supposed to be gone in the fall, running from winter and returning in time for summer in Edmonton.   One delay led to another, and I finally decided that if I was going to leave around Christmas, I might as well stay for the holiday...  One of the delays will be a Hawaii cruise leaving San Diego on the 21st of January with my 85 year old mother, my brother and his wife.

Obviously I won't be leaving Edmonton on two wheels.  The bike and I will travel by a disposable booster  rocket-van to somewhere I am able to ride.

The booster van will fall back into Canada piloted by my Nephew Adrian who needs to move his stuff from BC to Ontario.  

The bike pod, is a combination loading ramp and skid that will hold it with its front wheel removed as the bike is too tall to go in the van.  The last month I have been preparing everything, bike checked, maintenance done, oil spark plugs, filters, lubed everything, van checked, rider checked, vaccinated, papers in order.

I have no idea what I will encounter, how I will go, or what I will do when I get there.  The local health authority has given me shots and advice, the auto club has supplied me with health insurance and an international drivers license.  The internet has provided me with lots of advice.  South or Bust!

The ultimate goal is to reach the tip of South America, Tierra Del Fuego, which if do make it, I probably won't reach around the time that winter arrives in the southern hemisphere. Bad Planning!

I will be maintaining this blog on my trip, posting pictures and reports, so keep checking, I will endeavor to post weekly, given internet availability.

December 25, 2009

It's where I live

Edmonton in October
As I intend to share this blog with the people I meet on my travels, this post is about Edmonton, my home for the past 20 years.

Anyone reading this can view the Wikipedia entry on Edmonton Alberta and find out how many people live here, where it is, and lots of other information, so I will talk about what it is like to live here.   In many ways Edmonton is a typical North American new city.  Edmonton became a city in the early 1900's, before that it was a Hudson's Bay fur trading post and a few farms.

In summer Edmonton is suburban every-city, with nothing to distinguish or define it from its cousin cities in Canada and the US.  Edmonton like most  North American 20th century cities is all about cars and traffic, a collection of suburban islands surrounded by an asphalt swamp of parking lots, shopping malls, low rise industrial parks, copy cat chain stores,  motor hotels and restaurant franchises. Close your eyes and turn around, you could be in Abbottsford, Moncton, Orlando, or Yorkton.

 In Canada a few cities stand out, Toronto is smug in the knowledge that it is the center of the known universe, Vancouverites will modestly tell everyone they live in one of the three most beautiful cities in the world (never the 'most'), Montrealers have style unmatched on this side of the Atlantic, Calgary has its cowboys, rednecks and mountains, and Edmonton has winter.

Edmonton is Canada's northernmost southern city, if that makes any sense.  Edmonton calls itself the gateway to the North, which it is, but the true north is on the other side of the gate.

What defines Edmonton  for we who live here is our relationship with winter.  We hate it, OK, I hate it.  Winter usually starts in October, (by that I mean serious winter, Mexican or Californian winter starts in June :-)  In what is late fall by the calendar,  Edmontonians expect the first blast of cold weather.  Today, (Dec. 14) at 4 PM it has warmed up to -25 C.  (That would be about -13 F).  This morning the temperature was -36 C.  It does not get down to the minus 30's all the time, but we can expect that it will get this cold for at least a week or two some time between November and April.  The temperature is almost always between 0 and minus 20 C, overnight temperatures typically -18 or so, and it will stay that way from the end of October to mid March or later.  Not until early May do we see green again unless we visit the Muttart Conservatory indoor gardens.  


We do not get a lot of snow at any one time, but everything that falls will remain until Spring.  No matter how warm it gets in the very short day, the temperature will fall below freezing at night, and the snow stays where it sits, unable to melt during the brief moments of above zero temperatures.

If the temperature is going below -20 overnight cars and trucks will have to be plugged in.  All our cars have a block heater installed, which is a simple heating element like the one in an electric kettle inserted into the engine's water jacket.  When the heater is plugged into household current it will keep the engine and its fluids warm enough to start.   A car that is not plugged will be difficult if not impossible to start, depending on how cold it gets, it is also very hard on an unheated engine  if it does start when temperatures are extremely cold.

When Edmonton has a cold snap, such as today, it is usually because an arctic high pressure zone has moved into the area.  This means that severe cold is usually accompanied by clear skies and little wind.   As the high moves in and the temperature begins to drop, it will usually snow a bit.  When this happens the snow is a light and dry powder that makes a lousy snowman.   But the result is a pristine white blanket that covers everything and makes the city look bright and clean.   A light fog appears in the morning, the result of the all the chimney exhausts that keep Edmontonians warm.  The fog is actually ice fog, its particles are tiny ice crystals.

There is a sun dog in my alley, a small shortened rainbow that appears when extreme cold, bright sun and ice vapor mix.

 While Edmonton is cold, the people who live even a little farther north or even anywhere in Saskatchewan or Manitoba would laugh.  Just a few miles out of Edmonton the temperature will go to -40 when it is in the -30s in town.   In the real north, winter is when stuff gets done.  It is difficult to impossible to build roads on permafrost and muskeg, but  trucks can drive on frozen rivers, lakes and swamps.  Those who live by mountains can ski or risk their lives 'high marking'  their snowmobiles (not everybody makes it), in Ottawa they can skate on their canals, in Quebec city they celebrate with a snow man.  Edmontonians book trips to Cancun.


ps; we have the best summer in Canada  Yay! 

October 18, 2009

Cheap Thrills

There are people who ride bikes because they like to ride bikes and there are people who ride bikes because they like to go fast.  I  fall into both categories, but as I grow older, I am leaning more to the former.  

Go fast bike riders will sooner or later find themselves on the race track.  Back when I was more of  a go fast kind of guy I did a bit of road racing, racing on a paved track with left and right turns.   Not much needs to be said about my not so illustrious racing career other than I  never earned a kiss from the trophy girl.   The one thing that always stay with me though, is that it was the most intense fun I ever had on a bike, and perhaps off one as well.  Oh, one other thing, I never wrecked more bikes and bike parts racing than before or since.

Mercifully for my bank account and bikes, my career was cut short by having all the nearby tracks made sacrificial offerings to the great god Urban Sprawl.    But where there are racers there is always a way,  new tracks located just out of reach of the developers.   But by then I had transitioned into a semi responsible citizen with young to rear and grass to cut, no longer able to pass the racer test (the ability to flush large bills down the toilet with no regrets).

As the kids grew up and the grass grew down, a new race track opened a few miles away.   I dusted off my RZ350, a newer and much improved version of the RD400 I once raced and participated in a few track days,  not racing, but you are on the track and you can pretty much go as fast as you like so long as you only pass people on the straights.  Problem with this was that the RZ was slow on the straight but unbeatable in the corners.   So back to racing where you can pass anywhere you please.  In order to race, I needed to attend race school, as it had been 20 years since I had raced last.   So early one cold April morning I headed out to attend race school.

It was a total disaster.  I had neglected to replace the antifreeze in the RZ with water (a race track requirement, coolant spills are super slippery).  While I was running around borrowing tools, finding water, etc. etc. getting all stressed out  I was missing out on valuable instruction.  I got my bike on the track with my group long gone, and while I was trying to catch up, the bike stalled because I forgot to turn the gas back on and the choke off.  By the time I got it going again, I was totally messed up and ended up dumping the bike in the hairpin.  Damage to the bike was light but it was out of commission, and my little finger was about 90 degrees west of where it usually sits.  They have a great emergency room in the Fort Saskatchewan Hospital, friendly staff, while you wait service.  It didn't take them long at all to pop my dislocated finger back where it belonged, but by then the race school was done, and my chance to race that season as well.    I took it as sign from somewhere and put off getting back into racing.

Not long after, I met this guy, Ross Elliot, through work, and we discovered a mutual interest in old bikes.   Ross was involved in organizing vintage flat track racing.   Flat track racing is held on oval dirt tracks that look like a horse track, which they probably are.  Every self respecting Alberta town has a rodeo grounds with some kind of oval dirt track used for various rodeo events like chuch wagon races.   The town of Thorhild Alberta is no exception.  They made Ross an honorary citizen so that he could represent  flat track racing as a genuine fake Thorhildian on town council. 

My riding and racing had been restricted to pavement, the highest form of motorcycling.  Pavement riders look down a bit on their dirty cousins, riding in fields and old gravel pits being reserved for those who are unable to get their class six (motorcycle) drivers license because they are not old enough, or are unable to pass the test.   But because it was my new buddy Ross, I figgered what the heck and rode out to Thorhild to watch a flat track race anonymously in order to avoid the declassé thing.

Talk about bringing back memories!  Just like when I amateur road raced, the few scattered fans are the ones that the racers drag along with them, so it is all about racing and not about the show.  Everyone is free to walk the pits and watch what is going on there.  Pit drama is at least as entertaining than the racing.  At least half of the racers are almost my age.  A good few of the bikes I see look they were found in a back yard covered in bird poop, reincarnated as red neck racers.  There are  also bikes and set ups that are considerably more upscale as well, but nothing that compares to the gold plated excess one encounters at road race meets.  Racing that is cheap, ain't that an oxymoron? Hmmm.

The racing was fun to watch too.  Of all forms of motorcycle racing, flat track and its European cousin, short track may be the best suited for actual spectating.  The entire track is visible from the stands, rarely the case for other forms of racing.   I wasn't thinking about racing myself, but the Thorhild flat trackers are pretty ardent proselytizers.  Nevertheless  I manfully resisted the temptation for at least two more races.  Problem was that I had never raced in the dirt or even rode much in the dirt.  I had recently acquired a dual sport bike which has off road roots, but I got it for riding on unpaved roads.  Sort of like that dirt oval track out there.  So if I raced I could improve my gravel road riding skills!

As it happened, I also had a bike that might be good for this.  A found in backyard on ebay old CZ motocross bike.   The guy who sold it to me had already scraped off the bird poop.  

The flattrackers also have practice days, so what the heck, I loaded up the bike and headed for Thorhild.  My intention was to just get out there and see what it was like.  I was not going to race anymore.  Especially flat track.  If you have ever seen it, a flat track race is quite a show.  No front brakes allowed.  At one time even back brakes were not allowed.  When you turn (always left) the rear tire slides out, and you put your foot down and slide the bike around the corner.  I had done this many times on the street and usually it ended with a dose of road rash.   Tires sliding = pain, to self, bike and wallet.  As it turned out it wasn't so bad, no crashing, but neither was I pulling the lurid slides that the skilled flat trackers were laying down.  A seized clutch ended my day, but I did have fun.

The next season with a new old ebay clutch I was out for another practice day.   Practice is Saturday, racing on Sunday.  I had to say what class I was racing in, so I chose Sportsman, the beginner class, but planned to skip the actual race.   I was getting more comfortable with flat tracking, but the bike was running poorly, this time it was carburetion.   When I found out that there were only three entries in Sportsman, I figgered, I should probably race, as it meant I was guaranteed a podium finish.  I took the bike home and tried to figure out what was wrong in carburetor land.

I have to say that it was with much butterflies I showed up the next day.  I was still of half a mind to bail.  The bike seemed to running better.   Off I went.  This would be my third day on a flat track and I was racing.  Fortunately, in sportsman class the competition is not too stiff, and with three riders, there was a lot of room on the track.  I started badly and the other two guys pulled away.  I managed to keep the bike going without stalling it, and was actually catching up to them.  Right then it all came back to me, I was no longer just trying to stay on the track and on the bike, I was going to pass this guy!  Yeah! this is what it's all about, the thrill of victory, the agony of having your engine splutter to a halt just as you make your move.  I was back!

My carburetor woes had not gone away.  I did finish the first heat, but the bike would start for heat two.  I loaded up and went home.  But when I showed up for the next race, I learned that I had gotten third place anyway.  My first podium result.  I shall return.

October 15, 2009

All the way to Hudsons Bay; The gravel road tour.

The North Saskatchewan River flows through the center of the Edmonton Alberta.  The entire river front and most of the river valley in the city is park.  Edmontonians, including me, spend a lot of time watching the waters of the North Saskatchewan flow eastward.  I would take my boys down to one of the many parks bordering the river, and whenever we threw sticks and stuff into the water, the boys wanted to know where it would end up.  I alway said it was going to Hudson Bay.  The North Saskatchewan was once the original Trans Canada Highway for the Hudson's Bay Company's fur traders.

Few Canadians have stood on the shore of Hudson Bay. It is a defining feature of our Country.  A vast inland sea that covers more than 10% of Canada.   I wanted to see  Hudson Bay for myself after throwing all those sticks in the river.  I had considered doing it the old way, paddling all the way in some kind of boat or canoe, but my preferred method of travel is  motorcycle. 

My newly acquired KTM 640 Adventure is well suited for touring on the kinds of road I would encounter.  Light weight and long travel off road suspension to handle any kind of road.  Givi luggage easily adapts to just about any motorcycle made.  With some racks from Motech, the bags snapped right onto the KTM looking like they were meant to be there.    This would be my first experience on gravel road touring.  I had toured some on pavement, the previous year I qualifed for the Iron Butt Saddlesore 1000 and  Bun Burner 1500 on a round North America tour, but that is another story.  That one ended me with wondering if there were any roads uninfested by nose to tail 18 wheelers, hence the gravel road thing.

I went for day trips locally to improve my off pavement riding skills.  We were ready.

I plotted a route that would allow me to stay mostly on unpaved gravel roads and take me through the same country the fur traders travelled, more or less following the Saskatchewan Route.  I discovered that there is no road to Hudson Bay.  The closest a road gets is Gillam Manitoba.  To get to Churchill, my destination, I would have to (a) ride through the bush, (b) paddle one of the rivers, (c) take a plane or (d) a train.   I opt for d, keeping option a open.  My brother worked in the nickel mines in Thompson in his student days.  When I shared my plan to see Hudson Bay with him, he had been thinking about going back to see Thompson, so we decided to visit the Bay together.  They would be coming from Eastern Ontario by car.  We  reserved seats on the train for August 8.

July 30, 2007 was D (departure) day.  From Edmonton I go to Cold Lake, and cross into Saskatchewan, at Meadow Lake Provincial Park.  Most Canadians think of Saskatchewan as billiard table flat with only grain elevators to relieve the monotony.  A place, as the old joke goes, where you can sit on your front porch and watch your dog run away for the next week.  Northern Saskatchewan destroys that stereotype.  Pristine lakes and endless forests untouched by urban development.  Here  is the beginning of the Boreal Forest, the world's largest land based ecological zone.  The Boreal Forest is a ring around the top of the world, through Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Russia and Scandinavia broken only by ocean's that separate Eurasia from North America.

Up till Meadow Lake I had been on pavement.  In Meadow Lake I head for the great unpaved.  The first problem I encounter on unpaved roads in the hinterland is that the only people using them already know where they are going, so signs are sparse.  I got myself lost and found several times and ended up losing a lot of time.  That night I stayed in the campground at Flotten Lake, a place I had visited before.  There is a road that heads north from Flotten Lake towards Canoe Lake, and I had always wanted to see the end of it.  The sign says the road is closed.  I asked the campers what was up, and they thought it was washed out, but that I could probably make it on the KTM.  The road is about 90 km and eventually meets up with the main road to Canoe Lake.  As it turned out I probably could have made it in a Chevy Impala, but still it was nice to have my first expedition on the KTM end up successful.  Nice to have a road all to one's self.

I stop at  La Ronge that night.  La Ronge is the gateway to Saskatchewan's North.  The road north ends here, to go farther you have to take a bush plane or boat.  The town is located where the Montreal River flows into  Lake La Ronge, it has always been a transportation center.  Formerly for the fur trade, today for tourism, mining and mineral exploration.  Float planes are  landing and taking off from Air Ronge. 

The modern bush plane  looks like any small  commuter type plane except that they have stand on two canoe size floats in water instead of wheels on a runway.  I watch as they load one up with all manner of freight including what appears to be a washing machine.  If you have ever carried a washing machine up the basement steps you know how heavy they are.  I am sticking around to see how this will end.  I have heard the stories about how the old bush pilots would have to tie their planes to a tree on the shore so they could rev up the engine until it was going to pull the plane in half and then cut  the rope with a knife so they would have enough power to take off before they crashed into the opposite shore.  Bet they never carried a washing machine.  No drama here though,  the plane left the dock and wound up its turbo prop with roar and pretty much leaped straight into the air.
I take some pictures of a group of kids jumping into the river.  To me it looks like the people are living with the land but still enjoying the benefits of 21st Century, and doing it very well,  but have not given the land or their lives over to technology.

I stay overnight, but I have to move on.  I am anxious to arrive in  Thompson in time to join with my brother Rene and his wife Shirley and the train to Churchill.   
   From La Ronge I travel all gravel and dirt roads through virgin forest.  The KTM floats over the gravel and dirt roads.  I get  comfortable with the roads and become a connoiseur of the unpaved road.  Another old Saskatchewan joke is that Saskatchewan is Cree for bad roads.  If it isn't it should be. 

Gravel roads are maintained by constantly grading them.  On a freshly graded road the gravel is loose and thick.  The bike skates about on the loose stones, and if the front wheel falls into a thick layer of gravel it may start to shake wildly from side to side, a gravel induced tank slapper.  Just when you are sure you are going to dump the plot, it finds digs its way out, straightens up and carries on.  The trick is to relax the grip on the bars.  Fighting a tank slapper will only make it worse and you will dump it.  Slowing down carefully helps, or conversely speeding up to the point where the front end rides on top of the loose stuff.  This is risky on  a narrow road.   The best gravel road is one that has not been graded for a while.  The gravel piles up in the center and the outsides of the road leaving car tire wide bare strips of hard pack that is as good as pavement.  Some roads are just plain dirt, no gravel at all.  These are the best unless it has been raining.  When a clay dirt road gets really wet it is slippery as ice. This time you are going to go down.  Tires load up with mud, all forward motion ceases, and gravity takes its toll.  This would make a great you tube video.  Man vs bike mud wrestling.   Ride the grassy shoulder if you can.  If you don't have real knobby tires you will probably have to wait until the road dries or turn back and find another route.  The Saskatchewan dirt is more sand than clay, so the tires don't load up, you just sink down and do the tank slapper thing.  Wet gravel on the other hand is pretty much like dry gravel except less dusty, which is a good thing.  A dry gravel road can be extremely dusty, which is not a big problem unless you are behind someone.  The dust will be thicker and impenetrable, worse than the worst fog.   If you are in this situation, and you cannot pass, it is better off to pull off  until the dust has settled and all traffic has gone by.  Riding the loose stuff requires a lot more concentration, which is fatiguing, add to that reduced speed if you are chicken like me, and you will have to allow for making less daily progress than you would on pavement or good hard packed dirt.  I find my average speed is between 80 and 100 kph dropping to between 60 and 70 when things get loose.

Everywhere I go people are surprised to see that I rode there all the way from Alberta.  One guy I meet on the road works in the oil patch and tells me has a Harley in a town nearby, which he only rides around town, he is driving  a 4 by 4 pickup, which is pretty much all you see on these roads.  He can see how easily I handle the roads on the KTM, and I can tell he is thinking about his choice of bike.

Flin Flon, the next major town after La Ronge, is on the Canadian Shield, the dominant geographic feature of the Canada's northern interior.  The shield is granite rock scraped bare by the glaciers of the last age covered here and there by a thin layer of soil and vegetation.  All that rock is a storehouse of minerals.  Flin Flon is a mining town, copper and zinc.  The giant smoke stacks of the smelter dominate the horizon long before you arrive.  In Flin Flon everything is built on an uneven foundation of solid rock.  Roads and houses  have to conform to the land, quite a change from the prairies where everything has been laid out with a ruler, tee square and bulldozers that can only go straight.    An unused mine shaft deep underground is being used for a government run marijuana grow-op, for medicinal purposes :-)  Way to go Canada!

 The next day I meet up with the same Hudson Bay Railway that will take me to Hudson Bay in a few days time.  The road from Flin Flon to Thompson and Gillam follows the railway.

Churchill was one of the great Canadian government mega projects of the 1930's, but not as well known or successful as the east west railways, the St. Lawrence Seaway or Trans Canada Highway. 
The Government wanted to build a major port on the Hudson Bay and use it to transport prairie grain and northern minerals through the Bay to the rest of the world, exchanging thousands of miles of land transportation for cheaper sea transport.  The weak links were land transport to Hudson Bay  and 6 months of ice covered bay.   The rail line uses conventional wooden ties and steel rails.  Extreme cold causes steel to shatter like glass.  Temperature fluctuations from very hot summers to very cold winters plays havoc with the road bed.  Wooden ties rot. Permafrost, swamps, rivers and lakes to cross or go around.  A white elephant, the railroad got passed from one rail line to another after the government lost interest, each milking it for its meager profit, none investing in upkeep.  It looks bad, but someone is working on it.  The maintenance vehicles are wearing New York State license plates.

I reach Thompson by mid day, days before I am to meet my brother and sister in law, and get on the train.  I decide to push on to Gillam that same day and see what there is to see.   The 300 km to Gillam is all upaved except for a few miles of pavement at both ends.   The country here is flat,  the trees are like sticks, this is the muskeg, also known as moose pasture.  There is a thick swampy mattress of vegetation everywhere consisting mostly of peat low shrubs and reindeer moss, which is not a moss at all but a shrubby lichen.  The trees  would barely make broom handles.  The topsoil is so thin over the permafrost that trees lean in all directions, the slightest disturbance knocking them about.  The Russians call this the drunken forest.

It has rained recently, there are puddles on the road, but where I ride the sun is shining.  The main road is fine, nice hard packed and no dust.  I pull off about halfway to visit Split Lake where there is supposed to be gas and accommodations.  I arrive as some kind of carnival is being set up.  The town is pretty much booked up, and nobody has time for an old guy on a motorcycle, so I head back to the highway.  The road in and out of Split Lake might be the worst road I have ever encountered before or since.  There are so many potholes they touch each other, and all are of them are full of water.  The bike handles it OK, but is not happy about it, and neither is the rider.  Fortunately it is only a few miles.

When I get to Gillam the sun is going down.  There is room at the inn.  I spend the next day exploring Gillam and the surroundings.  Gillam sits behind a number of huge dam and hydroelectric projects.  The power generated here is sold to users in Southern Manitoba and the USA, thousands of kilometers to the south.

Gillam is a company town for Manitoba Hydro, but there is plenty of private business to serve the needs of the Gillamites (Gillaminians?).   Manitoba Hydro employees are mostly skilled technicians, if you squint Gillam could be a suburb in any southern Canadian city, the difference being that is 300 kilometers of treacherous road to the next suburb.

A small mall has all the conveniences and necessities.  The largest and most imposing building in town is the railway station, built in a day when the train station was the most important building in any town.  Despite its remoteness, a 21st Century moment occurs when the town's only gas station locks its doors all morning because their data line went down, which meant they were unable to sell anything, thanks to our brave new world of computer network retail management.  Fortunately service was restored at noon, or I would have been unable to leave.

It does not take me long to decide that an overland bike trip to Hudson's Bay would quickly end in disaster.  While the KTM is a highly capable bad road bike, it is too big and heavy for true off roading, and I don't have the skills.  The country is too wild and hostile for a 'cidiot' unfamiliar with survival in the bush.  The land surrounding the Bay at the Nelson River Estuary is a National Park, but it would be more accurate to call it a preserve.  Casual travel is not encouraged.  The black flies are everywhere and they are hungry, not to mention the Polar Bears.  As someone who's wilderness experience was restricted to National and Provincial (State) Parks I am sobered by how hostile to city people (me) this country is.  In summer it is an impenetrable bog populated by endless hordes of hungry insects.  I don't want to imagine being here in winter when the temperature is 50 below in either scale and the wind is howling with nothing to stop it between here and the North Pole.  I say this not to discourage anyone,  I encourage everyone to see it for themselves, but this is the true wilderness,  hard country,  Bambi and Peter Rabbit never lived here.  I suspect that all truly untamed wilderness is the same in its own way, whether it be jungle, desert, or the plains of Africa.  If you want to understand why we humans live in cities, towns, and tamed countrysides, come and see what the alternatives are.

I return to Thompson to find a room and wait for my brother and sister in law to arrive.  Thompson is the site of  several underground nickel mines and a smelter.  It is also Manitoba's northern administrative center, government is also an important industry.   Thompson has a well deserved reputation as a rough town, but not, as I discovered, because the miners are drinking and carousing in the bars.   Most of the miners are settled in long timers who have survived  many layoffs and are now marking time for pensions and retirement.   Everywhere I go in Thompson are clumps of young people doing the sorts of things idle youth do all over the world, pissing everybody off.  It is not often that I am nervous walking the street in broad daylight, but in Thompson I am a little nervous, especially when I walk past a scrum of 30 or so a few feet from my nice motor hotel and hear, 'Pass me the pipe!",  I am thinking this is probably not the peace pipe.

On the plus side, the Thompsonites have done a great deal to keep their town looking nice.  Typically a northern town will look scruffy to southern eyes, when it is freezing cold most of the year, it is easy to let outside maintenance slide.  Northern buildings tend more to the utilitarian than the architectural.  Extreme cold and long arctic nights means buildings have more wall and less glass.  One solution to the unimaginative exteriors is to cover the featureless walls with huge murals.  A medium rise apartment building sports a wolf head mural that covers one side of the building.  Painted and decorated wolf statues complete the wolf theme all through town like those painted cows in other cities.   All the familiar food and retail franchises are represented.  Even a mine building has been turned into a giant canvas celebrating its own history.

While waiting for my brother I was investigating what to do with my motorcycle while I complete my trip to Hudson Bay.  I visited the local motorcycle/ATV dealer, they store their outside stuff behind a barricade of chain link and razor wire that would be overkill at a maximum security prison.  Hmmm.  I spoke to somebody there who told me I they would store my bike and gave me a cell phone number to call when I needed to lock it in, I suspect this is someone who may change their mind later.   The train station is located in an industrial area which looks to be completely unsupervised most of the time.   A private campground on the edge of town parks vehicles for train travellers and  provides a shuttle service back and forth to the train station.  When it came time to board the train, the ATV dealer had closed, and I was unable to reach my contact, so I opted for the campground, as did my brother with his car.  An excellent choice as it turned out.   The campground is a family run operation, from their home in the grounds, so there would always be people around.  The KTM is parked in view of the house and one of the campground owner's sons, a fan of dual sport motorcycles, takes personal charge of watching over my bike. 

My brother and sister in law and I do the Thompson tour.  My brother visits his old haunts, and we arrange to tour the Inco nickel processing plant.  The Inco tour is very cool.  We are seeing the smelter and how the ore is processed after it is mined.  Ore is crushed,  melted in crucibles, dissolved in toxic looking green liquid and deposited  electrolytically as medallions that vaguely resemble half size silvery turtles candy.  The whole process including smelting is done electrically,  it was the nickel mine in Thompson that kick started the hydro electric damming of the Hudson's Bay watershed. 

The train trip was supposed to only be about 20 hours, so we had declined a private cabin with beds, as we wanted to see everything anyway.  The train was  about 8 hours late.  We were supposed to board at noon and arrive in Churchill the following morning around 7 AM.  Instead we left at about 7 PM and it was late in the afternoon of the next day that we arrived in Churchill.   I had already noted the poor condition of the tracks when I had followed them on my motorcycle.  The track was so bad that the train rarely exceeded 16 km/hr (10 Mph).  I had my GPS with me, so we always knew exactly how fast we were going.  However, 10 miles per hour is a perfect speed for sightseeing, and traveling by train is a very pleasant way to travel.  The cars and seats are roomy, you can stand up without hitting your head and you can walk around.  Meals are served in the dining car in high style.  The food is excellent.  The train is operated by VIA Rail, Canada's national passenger train service, but the tracks are not, the tracks are owned the Hudson Bay Railway who are owned  by Omni Rail.  The result of all this Gordian complexity is a railway that is in terrible shape.

Something about train travel makes passengers gregarious,  pretty soon everybody knows everybody in their car, where they are from and what they are doing.  We had interesting mix of travelers on board.  One couple was on holiday from their regular job, living and working in a research station in the Antarctic (!!!), taking the busman's holiday to extreme.  They were going to have to go immediately to the airport when they got to Churchill because the lateness of the train messed up their schedule, leaving them with no time in Churchill.  There were kayakers and canoeists who were here to paddle in the rivers and creeks of Hudson's Bay.  One retired gentleman fom the US was fulfilling his goal of riding every passenger train route in North America.  A Winnipeg dad shepherding bored teens was showing them the Canadian North, but the only thing that held their interest was emailing and texting their firends back home.  Maybe 20 years from now they will be talking about the great trip to Churchill they had with their dad, but probably not this summer.  

When we finally arrived in Churchill around 7 pm, we went straight to the rooms we had booked.  Our rooms were actually good sized one bedroom apartments, with a small kitchen, large living room and a loft bedroom and bathroom.  Very nice accommodations.  Up here the nights are long and light, even in August, so we still had plenty of time to explore.  Churchill is a deep water port, but the port looks almost abandoned, a few small work boats and some abandoned rusty relics.    Seemingly far more important is tourism and northern administration.  There are a lot of government buildings, including offices for Nunavut, the newly created territory that was once recently the eastern part of the Northwest Territories.   There are also weather stations, research stations, military installations,  and a large airport.  There are plenty of roads and vehicles, but the roads don't go anywhere except back to Churchill, just like the domed town in the "Truman Show".  Every restaurant in Churchill is excellent, they are staffed by trained chefs, mostly in their twenties.  There is a large population of 'twenty somethings' in Churchill, mostly from the south, university educated adventure seeking types.  Another group, like the owners of our hotel, are the young retired, 'fifty somethings' who have taken their savings and are operating tourism related business.  In the distance I see a guy without a helmet riding what appears to be a mid to late 60's Harley stripped down bagger .

The main tourist attraction of Churchill are the polar bears.  Twice a year, fall and spring, the polar bears come through Churchill on their migration to and from the ice covered bay.  In the middle of summer there are few bears, and we did not see any, although there were supposed to be a few young males hanging around.   Polar bears are unpredictable and dangerous when hungry.  The residents carry double barrelled shotguns when bears are around.  We are told that polar bear will kill and eat humans if they are hungry.  'Do not feed the bears' has a more personal meaning here.   During the migration tourists are taken out on all  terrain mobile campers, tundra buggies,  a cross between a school bus and a monster truck.   Tundra buggies are about ten feet off the ground, and completely self contained.  A flat tire might be troublesome though.

Instead of bears we see the beluga whales.  Beluga whales are about twice the length of dolphins, which they resemble.  They are in the Churchill River estuary to feed on capelin, a herring size fish.  The belugas are everywhere, they can be seen from shore as they surface to breathe and  dive below the surface again to feed.  We go out on a tour boat to watch them.  Before we leave we are given a short introduction to the biology of the Beluga.  Beluga, like dolphins experience their environment through sonar, they emit high pitched squeals and use the echoes to locate and observe what is around them.   We go out in the water, and are soon surrounded by beluga.  They appear to be oblivious to our presence in the way that cows feeding in a field are aware of but ignore human trespassers.  They are busy, and they don't care about us much, but you sense they are watchful just the same.

The boat also takes to the site of a British fort that had been destroyed by the French.  The Fort fell victim to the rivalry between England and France in the 1700's.  Not long after the fort was built, it was captured by the French, who spiked and broke the cannons, and leveled the walls.   Parks Canada was restoring the site, but many of the busted cannon were still  scattered about, looking pretty good for 300 year olds.  

Things that get left in the arctic seemingly last a long time.  We came across the remains of a crashed airplane near the airport.  Other than the numerous bullet holes from local hunters, presumably after the fact, it all looks pretty much like it had just crashed.  Shiny but broken engines are still amongst the litter.   The plane has been sitting there for over 30 years.

 There is no forest here just a tree here and a clump there hiding behind a large rock.  Churchill is on the edge of the tundra, which looks like a clipped lawn or a cow pasture, but is actually small shrubby plants a few inches high.  There is a lot of bare rock. 

There are walking trails, but they have warning signs indicating that strollers will be eaten by bears.  We take a chance anyway, we are hoping to see a bear, but we don't.  We do see a bear trap, a section of culvert on trailer wheels with a door that slams shut on a bear that tries to take the bait.

We are to leave on the next train out.  This time the train is even more late.  A freight train has derailed somewhere between Churchill and Thompson.  A common occurrence, and the single track must be cleared before anything else can move.  We finally leave, but  track troubles are not over.

 We end up sitting in Gillam most of the next day.  Better to wait in the station then in the middle of nowhere.  Fortunately somebody has arranged for those interested to tour the generating stations at the dam.  I go, and am glad I did.  Our tour guide is a technician.  This means we get a highly informative tour from someone who knows what they are talking about.  She also takes us places that I suspect any professional tour guide wouldn't dream of taking a tour group.  At one point we are standing underneath the rotor of a spinning generator that is pushing 140,000 horsepower worth of electrons down a few half inch thick wires to Minnesota.  We are all crouching because if we stood up it would take our heads off.  We learn that a technician was killed that day checking the transmission wires by leaning out of a helicopter hovering beside the wires somewhere in the middle of nowhere.   We take our electricity for granted, if you ever get a chance to stand on top of or underneath a 600,000 pound spinning generator rotor, do not miss the opportunity.  You can feel the power by the way it shakes earth around it.  The energy it creates is keeping the lights on Manitoba, Minnesota, North Dakota and Northwest Ontario.  Impressive stuff.

We also learn of what Manitoba hydro had to learn to neutralize as best they could the effect on the environment of damming huge rivers.   More projects are underway.  One impression I get after seeing the amount of water just one river flows into the Arctic Ocean, I will never again be able to take seriously the claim that there is (or will be) a water shortage.   

The tour is over, the track is clear, and the train departs Gillam, still at 10 mph though.  Travel schedules, connections and reservations for those who have them are ruined.  The staff on the train are apologetic, even though it is not their fault.  Passengers get treated to free meals by the train staff.  Neither me or my brother has a schedule so we enjoy the extra time.  The train trip to Churchill has been well worth while and I would recommend it to anybody, just make sure your schedule is totally flexible.

My return to Edmonton was uneventful.  I chose a slightly different route back that put me through more southern and populated areas, but still in the north central parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.   A little south of Thompson, muskeg is replaced with deep soil, big trees and old timey looking farms with big red barns green fields.  Nipawin Saskatchewan is the nearest thing to time travel to the late 1950's.   Everybody in Prince Albert knows what a KTM is and thinks they are cool.  All the gas stations are gone from the small towns of north east Alberta.

This was my first trip to what I consider the real north.  I don't have to travel very far to see the boreal forest, it is in the river valley a few blocks away.  But Edmonton is the last city of the south not the first city of the north.  The north is still untamed frontier, there isn't much left on the planet, but there is still a lot more of it up here.


September 24, 2009

Return from the Demptser; Going Home

It rained on and off all night at the Ethel Lake campground.  Who knows what time it was when I got up?, it is always light, even here,  hundreds of kilometers south of the Arctic circle, but I suspect it was early as the only other person up is the fisherman in the next campsite.  All night long he had kept me awake  with his really loud coughing up a lung smokers cough.  The fisherman was a Quebecois living in the Yukon since the 1970's.     We talked a bit, the fish weren't biting..  I don't like fish, so I never developed the passion for catching the smelly  slimy things, but we all must have our activities to break our routines.

On the Klondike Highway there are plenty of rest stops maintained by the territory,  basic no need to flush outdoor toilets, picnic tables and interpretive signs to tell you what you are looking at.  This one had been decorated by graffiti artists.  I had seen the same style and the logo 'just one' in Ross River.  I don't know why people get all wound up about graffiti, especially if it is well done.   I have a theory that all those ancient cave paintings and petroglyphs we revere are actually stone age graffiti. They are hidden deep in caves, so their dads wouldn't find them and make them clean them up.   If these crappers are ever excavated by  archeologists thousands of years in the future,  people and other lifeforms will travel from all over the universe to gaze in awe at the wonderful art.  That is, if the fascist park wardens don't scrape em all off. 

I arrive in Whitehorse about noon, it is the day before Canada Day (July 1) and the party is on.  I pull into the first motel at the edge of town.   I have to go the bar to register for a room.   The bar is full, and by the look of things the patrons have been here for a while.   Drinking is a major sport in the north, it seems that everywhere I go the people working in the restaurants, hotels and gas stations have a bit of glow on, 24-7. 

I have good intentions of doing Whitehorse, but end up crashing in the motel bed instead for 14 straight hours.  Watched some cable TV and slept some more.  I felt much better the following morning and loaded the bike and headed downtown.  Whitehorse was preparing for the Canada day parade, some of the streets were barricaded, and people were setting up folding chairs on the parade route.  Downtown Whitehorse is  fake rustic surrounded by typical northern utilitarian steel sided rectangular buildings.    All the big box stores and fast food franchises, including those that serve over priced coffee are here.   The public buildings are Ottawa Modern, and quite nice.   I am not homesick for urban sprawl yet, so I leave town ahead of the parade.

As I am heading south on the Alaska Highway I encounter more and more bikers heading north.  Most are Americans about my age, heading for Alaska.  When I came three years before it was all class A motorhomes towing Lexuses (Lexi?).  This time the motorhomes are few, but bike travel is still affordable.   Some of the bikes are loaded down like the Clampett's Model T when they headed for Beverly Hills.  I marvel that they made it this far, as some of them pay little regard to weight distribution, frame design or physics.   Maybe half are Harleys or fake Harleys. the rest are mostly Gold Wing style tourers  and dual sports.

Most are travelling in groups of three or four, but at the motels and restaurants the groups add up to dozens.  We all swap war stories.

 The Alaska Highway zig zags between the Yukon and British Columbia borders a few times before the Yukon is finally left behind.   The northern BC portion of the Alaska highway is the most scenic part, in Canada anyway, and much of it is provincial park.

On the trip back I see nothing but bears.  I probably see more bears on this stretch than all the other times I have encountered bears on the road combined.  One bear is in the middle of the road as I round the curve, and he is not going to move!  I get closer and closer but he just ignores me.  Finally after the beeping my horn a few times, the bear decides to get off the road at a leisurely pace.   Most of the bears I see are grazing something or other by the road side, some kind of bug or berry in season I suppose.  Most are half grown as well, probably sent packing by their mothers to make room for baby brother and sister.

There are some nice curvy bits of highway here.  One of the great pleasures of motorcycling is soaring through a twisty road, leaning the bike over as far as it will go.

At one of the gas stops I meet brothers, one riding his bike from Fort St. John to visit his brother who owns the gas stop and restaurant.  They tell me I should go to the Liard hot springs.  I take their advice.

I had been to Banff hot springs and Radium hot springs, which are basically a regular outdoor public swimming pool, except that the water is hot.  True, they are heated by underground hot springs, but that is no more obvious than is your water heater in the basement when you take a bath.  The Liard hot springs are different.  First you walk quite a distance over a board walk over a sort of  swamp with exotic year round vegetation because the water keeps everything from freezing.  The hot springs themselves resemble any mountain creek, but hot as a hot tub.  The closer you get to the underground source the hotter the water is.   Very cool, er hot.  Well worth the stop.

After Fort Nelson, the trip is pretty much over.  Now we are east of the Rockies and on the prairies even though we are still in British Columbia.  From here the road is pretty straight and a bit of a slog.  I land in Edmonton on July 4, as surprised as ever when returning from a long trip, that everything still looks the same.

 The End!

September 23, 2009

Riding to the Arctic Circle (part 3)

Not very far down the Dempster highway is a campground, and the 'Dempster Interpretive Center'.   I had only just arrived on the highway, but here was a stop with picnic tables, a rare luxury.  The lady running the interpretive center was rounding up people for a guided nature walk.  A naturalist was going to tell them about the local plants.   I passed, as I just wanted to sit, have some coffee, have something to eat and get psyched for the ride.  The interpretive center lady lends me a guide book on the highway.  She says I can bring it back on the way back, but it does not take long to read, so I return it right away.

When I travel on back roads or remote areas, I always carry some food with me.  Motels are scarce, and don't always have vacancies.  I don't adhere to a schedule and am prepared to camp in a nice spot, should I stumble across one.  Always having food allows me stop whenever and where ever I want.   I typically carry enough food for a few days,   plus, in remote areas once should always be prepared .   A few days food does not take much room if you carry the right stuff.    The hiking store sells food in pouches, just add water, the dollar store sells food in pouches, just add water.  I get Uncle Ben's wild rice and veggies or maybe tomato sauce and pasta in a pouch, a stick of dry salami, a block of cheese, a 'loaf' of Ryvita (a cross between bread and a cracker),  a can or two of beans, stew, chili and a box of granola bars from the grocery stores along the way.  This does not take up much room in my top case, and I could probably live on it for a week if I had to.


While I am vegging at the interpretive center, Mark and Evelyn roll in on a BMW 650 GS, a German cousin to my Austrian made KTM.  They are from Inuvik, and are returning home from the Dust to Dawson rally.  We chat a bit.  Mark bought the BMW a few years back and rode it to Inuvik.   There are no dealers there, but Mark has a friend who gets his bike fix by fixing Mark's bike for no charge.  A symbiotic relationship if there ever was one.   We will pass each other on the road to Eagle Plains, the next and only gas stop on the Dempster before Inuvik.

The Dempster is truly spectacular.  The road runs between two ridges, and from time to time climbs on top of one of them.   The vegetation is low and does not obscure the view.  Farther south trees are tall and close the road creating the effect of a tree tunnel with little to see.  Up here nothing gets in the way of the view.  Added to that is the total absence of anything man made beyond the road itself.  Off in the distance is a small lake still covered with ice.

Farther on I ride by what looks like a gravel mountain.  Weathering has broken up the mountain surface into little pieces. 

Stunning vistas.

  The unpaved road blends with the landscape like no paved highway can, with all its painted lines reflectors and bill boards.

Tundra is a dense mattress of plants growing all over each other, none are more than 12 inches high.

Eagle Plains is about half way up the Demptser, and about 30 km from the Arctic Circle.   There is a gas station (the only one), a garage,  a  motel and campground.  I opt for a room with heat and a soft bed.  I am really tired.  There are quite a few bikes here.  Mark and Evelyn arrive on their BMW.   The motel bar is large and empty, two sides are all window, it is like sitting outside but warmer :-)  It is  daylight all the time so you lose all 'feel' for  time.   You eat and sleep when you feel like it instead of what the sun is telling you.  The staff at the hotel have imposed some limits though, I am told I need to get dinner before 7:30 if I want a cooked meal.  I am reminded of the "Restaurant at the End of the Universe" in the "Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy" series.  This is the restaurant at the end of the world where the sun never sets.

The people I meet tell me the road from Eagle Plains to Inuvik is not as scenic as the part I just rode.  They also tell me how nasty the road gets when it rains.  The weather has been all cold, low teens C.  I am really tired.  I decide that I will stay in Eagle Plains an extra day and turn around and start back, leaving Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk for another day.

The following day I rest up.  The Arctic Circle is only a short distance down the road, so I grab my camera and head out.   There is a roadside monument.  I join a German couple touring in a rented motor home and a gentleman from Alberta in a camper at the marker.  We pass our cameras around so we can get pictures of ourselves.   I return to the motel and set the alarm for midnight in case I fall asleep again. 

June 28, midnight pacific standard time (not daylight savings) the sun is completely below the horizon, but only just.  It is still full daylight, there is no darkness in the sky anywhere.

  The next day, warm and rested, I head south again.  A few hours out of Eagle Plains there is an abandoned BMW K1200, a sport touring bike like my old FJ.  What was he thinking!  I stop and quickly see the problem.  Flat tire.  Large street bikes have alloy wheels and tubeless tires.  This set up is pretty trouble free, but if you do have trouble you will need a tire shop to fix it.  You can't fix a tubeless tire by the side of the road unless you have a tire machine and an air compressor.  There was no rider, he must have hitched a ride, and will be coming back for his bike with a truck.   A couple from Georgia riding matched Kawasaki KLRs, the Japanese cousin of my bike, also stop.  They trucked their bikes to Edmonton and rode the same route I did, but up the regular Klondike highway route.  I tell them about highway 4 and they think they might try that for the trip home.  As for me, I will stick to the paved route this time.

Going the other way on a road, pretty much any road, is like seeing a whole new road.  Everything looks different going the other way.  This is good because I am easily bored.    The Dempster was equally awe inspiring going back.  The vistas here are definitely worth the trip.   However, I had to admit to myself it would have been just as great sitting behind the wheel of a heated motorhome with one of those huge picture window sized windshields.  Being in the wind is not all its cracked up to be when the wind is blowing cold non stop.  It never did really warm up, every day of the trip I rode wearing all my gear and my Helly Hanson arctic long johns.
On the bike I wear a a nylon 3/4 length motorcycle touring jacket (Joe Rocket), denim shirt over sweatshirt over T shirt, rain/wind over-pants from an outdoor store (Marks Work Warehouse) with side zips all the way up each leg so I can put them on over boots, jeans, Helly Hanson arctic long underwear bottoms, thick socks over thin socks, engineer style high boots, and cold weather motorcycle padded gloves with gauntlets.   When the boots are well dubbined, this outfit keeps out the wind and the rain when I am on the bike.  As it gets warmer, stuff comes off and goes into the saddle bags, but not this time.
The KTM offers pretty good weather protection for what it is, a dual sport bike.  The short windscreen breaks the wind, and the wide and deep gas tank protects me between waist and ankles as well as any touring fairing.  The thing that is missing is that slidy thing you crank to the right for heat, along with a fan control to  blow hot air in your face at  force 9 like I have in my truck, and oh yeah, windows that roll up.   I am beginning to wonder if I am too old for this extreme stuff.  I have been riding steady for six days with a one day break, but it seems harder then when I did it before.
It is pretty hard to continue feeling sorry for yourself when the sun sort of comes out and there is all this scenery to look at.

I haven't seen a lot of wild life yet, a moose or two, a caribou and lots of deer.   I don't even try to take animal pictures on the road, for one, they are moving, usually rapidly, and so am I.  Even if they are standing, they will be gone by the time I have stopped and fumbled my camera out, turned it on, and waited for it to 'boot' and two, I don't think it is a real good idea to chase wild animals around waving a camera.  Especially if they are bears.  Bears that lose their fear of humans will end up getting shot.  I can't feel too sorry for the morons that get mauled because they got too close to a bear and did something silly, they usually survive, but the bears will be hunted down and killed.  My camera has 20X zoom, though, which lets me take great close ups without getting close up, but there is still the problem of stopping, unpacking the camera, etc. etc. when there is a roadside encounter.

After the Dempster is behind me and I am back on the Klondike Highway I pass by the Ethel Lake turn off at a good time and spot to call it a day.  Ethel Lake is 40 km down an access road barely worthy of  the name.  As you enter there is a sign that says "Abandon all hope all ye who enter here".  I went down that road to the campground on my FJ 3 years back and it was an unpleasant and scary experience.  On the KTM it was still a horrible road, maybe even more than before, but it was a blast to shoot down on a competent bad road bike.   I arrived at Ethel Lake just as it was starting to rain a bit, scattered showers.   I quickly set up my tent and had a look around.   The campground was almost full (about 15 spots).  It was as I remembered, like a post card from Canada's North, it could have been North anywhere, from Newfoundland to British Columbia.  Boreal forest, small lake with rocky shore, a guy fishing from an aluminum boat, and the obligatory Loon patrolling the water.  A golden eagle flew into a tree, and let me try out my 20X zoom.  Worked just fine, woohoo!


 End part 3.