September 21, 2009

Riding to the Arctic Circle part 2.

It was drizzly and cold as I left Ross River in the early AM. The dreary weather continued for most of the day.  From Ross River to the Klondike highway is another approximately 400 km, but about 80 km along the way is Faro.    Faro was the location of a huge open pit lead-zinc mine.  They have turned one of the old ore carrying monster trucks into one of those statue display things that small towns like put up.

Faro is about the same size as Ross River, but quite a contrast.  Martha Stewart has no fan base in Ross River.  Faro has paved roads, and many houses that would not look out of place in lower suburbia.  To be fair, Faro  was until recently a prosperous mining town and had a population in the 1,000s.  There are also a lot of empty houses in Faro, the population having shrunk to about 400.  The Faro-ese are going after the eco tourism trade.  There is a population of Dall sheep on the edge of town.  There is a blind a few miles out where you can go to observe them.  It was still drizzling and cold when I got there, and I suspect the sheep were all hiding in caves knitting sweaters for themselves.  Whatever, I didn't see so much as a mutton chop.

After Faro the weather starts to improve, it is now sunny but still quite cool.  Highway four follows the Yukon River to Carmacks, where it meets up with the Klondike highway that will take me to Dawson City.  Along the way is a marker and a sign describing the Columbia Disaster.  Click on the picture you will be able to read the story.  It sounds like a plot for the three stooges or trailer park boys, except that people were killed.

 
Highway 4 from Faro to the Klondike highway is mostly all paved, which was a nice break after all the gravel.   Just before I joined up with the Klondike highway I pulled off the road  to have coffee from my thermos and a snack from my hoard of road food.  As I was checking my by now very worn rear tire, I noticed a nail had buried itself into the treads.  I pulled it out, and was greeted by the sound of air hissing.  Oops.  Fortunately I was prepared, having brought all the tools I needed to remove and replace a tire and a spare inner tube to replace the holy one.   I always pack tire irons and spare tube on my travels, but had never had to use them, and was beginning to wonder whether I should lighten my load and leave that stuff behind. 

It was easy to fix the tire, easier than installing the tire in my garage almost. No mosquitos in the garage and instead of an air compressor, I had to pump up the tire with one of those small hand held bicycle pumps.  That took a bit longer.

By now I was cold and tired and looking for a place to stay.   Watson Lake and Dawson City are popular tourist destinations, and finding accommodations can be a challenge, especially if you wait too long.  I was still about 100 km from Dawson, and it was about 4 O'clock.  I had been to Dawson before.  It is a high end tourist trap.  The upscale kind where they sell you hand made artifacts of natural materials instead of gaudy trinkets made of plastic, but still a tourist trap.   About a ten to one ratio of stores selling overpriced souvenirs and hiking gear to regular store stuff.

As one approaches a popular tourist destination in the empty Yukon,  road side motels start appearing about 100 km before you get there.  The cabins at Moose Lodge are one such.  A nice warm little cabin to yourself with battery powered lights and a propane stove.  Just the ticket.  After resting up take a walk and smell the flowers.  Don't leave home without your mosquito repellent.





The Dempster highway starts about 20 km before Dawson Creek. there is a large gas station, store, restaurant etc. at the junction, but I ride into Dawson for a look around.  I had been sharing my tire woes with some other riders I met on the road, and one of them told me to go find 'Dick' at the downtown hotel in Dawson City, as he has some kind of tire thing going for motorcycles.

I arrive in Dawson to catch the tail end of the Dust to Dawson rally, apparently an annual event organized by a group of Alaskan riders.  They ride to Dawson via the top of the world highway.  I had been on this road on my previous trip, and it is a beautiful ride, well named, the road is mostly unpaved, but it is hard packed and easy to ride.  Most of the rallyists were on dual sport on-off road type bikes.  The whole town had been taken over by old guys wearing colorful synthetic fiber riding gear,  riding practical dual sport bikes loaded like camels, just like me.  Not Sturgis, nary a tattoo or bared breast, for that matter, there weren't any breasts, covered or not.   Took the wind out of my sails, here I thought I was doing something different, turns out I am only part of a large crowd!

 

Dawson City is a theme park in all but name (and corporate ownership), 'Klondike World'.  For those who don't know the story, the Klondike was the site of the great gold rush  of 1896-98.  A few local prospectors made a major gold strike, and when word got out people from all over the world came to the Yukon to get in on the action.    To get to the Klondike they had to travel by ship to Skagway Alaska.  Once in Skagway they had to climb up the side of a mountain, at the top of which was the Canadian border and Sam Steele of the Northwest Mounted Police.   To reach the Klondike, they went through the White Pass or Chilkoot pass, a thirty five mile climb, some of it straight up, over which each klondiker had to get a ton of supplies overland, or the police wouldn't let them into Canada.   Rafts and river boats carried them the rest of the way to the Klondike about 400 miles.  By the time they arrived  the gold had already been found, but there was this non stop party going strong in Dawson City. And  the party is still going strong.

Other than the few miners who actually found gold, the real beneficiaries of the gold rush were those who supplied the wants and needs of the Cheechakos (rookies) and Sourdoughs (those who survived the Yukon and stayed on).   The gold is long gone, but the flow of  Cheechakos looking for a Yukon adventure continues.   As ever, the merchants, restauranteurs, hoteliers and dancing girls of Dawson City are pleased to serve.

I was eager to get to the Dempster, but I had to find Dick, at the Downtown Hotel and talk tires.  As it turned out Dick had an assortment of half worn and new tires, one of which could be made to fit the KTM should it become necessary.  The tire was little better than the one on the bike, but it would get me home if I needed it.   Mingling with the other bikers I heard plenty of horror stories about how ugly the Dempster could be for a bike.   I had had a fairly grueling trip of non stop cold wet weather all the way from Edmonton.  I was almost ready to turn back, but the sunny weather and knowing that a tire lived in Dawson made up my mind.  This was supposed to be the start of my adventure but I was already feeling burnt out.

Before I left I poked around in the gay nineties themed tourist traps looking for something that would be uniquely Yukon.  I found it too, one of the Yukon's best exports besides minerals  remains literature.  I picked up a few books with local stories, printed locally.   Since the gold rush delivered Jack London and Robert Service to the Klondike, the Yukon has inspired excellence in writing and writers.  Pick up a local newspaper, apparently the residents also appreciate good writing because that is all you  will find, well written local articles interspersed with highly literate articles from quality magazines and newspapers from the more populated part of the world.  Quite a change from the typical big city papers that appear to be the unnatural offspring of a weekly supermarket tabloid and a bargain store flyer . 

Dawson behind me, I backtrack the 20 km or so to the start of the Dempster.  The  highway is actually an unpaved densely graveled berm placed over the permanently frozen ground (permafrost).   In the summer a small portion of the upper surface thaws, which allows plants on the surface to grow.  The lower part stays frozen year round.  This is the opposite of more temperate climates where the top layer freezes in winter, but the lower layer remains permanently unfrozen.   Building roads on permafrost is tricky, because the pounding from traffic will cause differential thawing and freezing, which in turn leads to major problems in keeping the road intact.

As far as riding or driving goes, the Dempster as I experienced it is almost as good as a fully paved road.  It was cool and damp, no dust but not wet enough to be slippery.   As with highway 4, I was looking at a 400 km stretch with no services of any kind.  The total length of the highway is about 800 km (500 miles) to Inuvik, where it ends.  Inuvik is on the Mackenzie River Delta about 100 km from the Arctic Ocean.  On the Arctic Ocean is the port of  Tuktoyaktuk, which is only accessed by land during the winter on the ice roads that are built and maintained after freeze up.  My original plan was to go to Inuvik and see if there was some way to get to Tuk, by air or boat when I got there.




End Part 2 -to be continued.

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