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 30, 2009
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.
December 28, 2009
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
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.
October 18, 2009
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
September 23, 2009
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.
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.
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.