September 19, 2009
Riding to the Arctic Circle (part one)
The arctic circle is the point where the sun does not go set in summer or come up in winter, for at least one day... I used to think that it was 6 months of daylight and 6 months of darkness, but you have to go to the north pole for that. At the Arctic circle you will have one 24 hour period with no sunset, on June 21, the summer solstice.
The arctic circle would be my destination as I left Edmonton in late June, 2009. To get there I would travel up the Alaska highway to the Yukon, and from there to Dawson City, where the great gold rush of the 1890's happened, and then up the Dempster highway to the arctic circle.
I had been up the Alaska highway and to Dawson on a motorcycle before, so I knew the way :-) My first trip was on a street oriented sport touring bike, a Yamaha FJ100. It was fine most of the time, but definitely out of its element when going got rough. The AK highway and the highway to Dawson can be travelled on just about any kind of motorcycle, but there were all these unpaved roads, (here be dragons) that I just had to ride by.. Actually, I didn't ride by one, road leading to a campground (Ethel Lake) that turned out to be 40 kilometers of sheer terror.
This time I had a different bike. I had traded the FJ for a KTM 640 Adventure. This bike was made for nasty roads. It is also a touring bike, with a huge 27 liter tank which meant I would not have to stop for gas for at least 500 km (300 miles). This turned out to be important.
From Edmonton the end of the Demptser at Inuvik is 2003 miles (3200 km) according to Mapquest. Thats a lot of miles, straight north. I would be passing through Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
To put this in perspective, going 2000 miles east would just about put me in Toronto, or to go 2000 miles south, I would be between El Paso and San Antonio Texas. Why go up there when I could be going to the center of the known universe, or even to Texas? Here's a clue. The population of the Yukon is 30,000. Northwest Territories 41,000. No people! No traffic. No trucks. (well fewer anyway). A perfect trip for a misanthropic old fart.
There is a fair amount of traffic on the Alaska Highway, being as it is the main road to all points north, including of course, Alaska. But even so, it does not compare to the freak show that summer travel is in the more populated parts of the continent. Also what with the economy crashing and all, the usual AK highway holiday traffic had fallen off considerably. It was quite bad for the gas stations and restaurants on the highway. Just about every second one had closed its doors.
The Alaska highway used to be a major adventure, and it still is, but more along the lines of a Disney adventure than the real thing. The road is completely paved, barring the occasional stretch of road reconstruction.
Everybody stops in Watson Lake to see the sign forest. People from every part of the globe have placed a sign from their home town Watson Lake's sign forest park. It all began in 1942 when homesick US soldiers put up sign posts pointing to their home town along with the distance. This was common in most US army posts far from the big PX during WWII, but in Watson Lake the tradition continues.
Just to back up a bit, I had installed new tires on the bike in Edmonton before leaving. There are very few bike shops in the North, (lots of Snowmobile dealers tho), and none past Whitehorse. Most smaller dealers don't stock tires anyway, they order them as needed. So a major concern was whether my tires would make the trip. The type of tires an Adventure touring bike such as the KTM uses wear out quickly. My tires were already showing signs of wear by the time I got to Watson Lake. Maybe they would wear better on their natural element, dirt roads.
So I took highway 4, that is what I came up here to do! From Watson Lake to Ross River is 400 km, with no services (no anything else either) until Ross River. This alone would turn back most motorcycles. My old FJ needed gas every 300 km. No probs for mr. KTM though. Riding 400 km with no resting places to have a coffee and a donut would eventually cause problems for the old fart riding it. Of course I was carrying a thermos full of coffee, and a saddlebag full of nutritious junk food, but the pleasure of being able to sit down and relax in a heated coffee shop, full of lovely waitresses and ugly truck drivers turned out to be an important factor in making time on the road.
Gravel and unpaved roads are also more challenging than riding on pavement. Plenty of rocks and trees to look at, as well as the odd abandoned car. I almost got run off the road by a huge tractor trailer hauling god knows what, going hell for leather towards Watson Lake. If I had of been in a car I probably would have ended up in the ditch just like the little silver car I saw. Guess he wasn't expecting anybody else.
Things to do in Ross River. Go for a walk down the world famous Ross River Suspension Bridge, which crosses, the un-eponymous, Pelly River. Wave at the friendly people who wave back at you. Watch the ferry take trucks across the Pelly River. (On the other side is the Canol road to Norman Wells). Take pictures of spectacular scenery. Go to bed.
To be continued.