An early winter stomp up in Northern BC at Kwatini Creek in search of skiable snow produces little snow but a great hike up Kwatini Canyon past the old cabin there and into the alpine… complete with a mountaineering finish. A perfect day marred only by me pretty much destroying my brand spanking new (first time wearing) Arcteryx bibs…😫😢
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn” – John Muir, 1901.
Getting on the road by 10:00 am or so following town chores and paying bills, I am happily cruising up the Haines highway and northbound for the Yukon and beyond. I approach the Eagle Preserve at 20 mile and the engine alternator idiot light comes on… funny, never saw that before on this truck. I pull off the road and pop the hood for an inspection. Using a volt meter, I check voltages of the battery with both with the engine running and not running. A nominal voltage of 12.4 with the engine running indicates that the alternator is not doing it’s job. In fact, it has shit the bed… Reluctantly, I turn around and baby the 30 year old Toyota back to town to re-group. Pulling into the parts store, I am amazed that they have one in stock. 142 bucks and two hours later, I have the alternator installed and the last bolt tightened and I am on the pavement rolling north once again.
At the Canadian the border, there is a length of vehicles waiting I have never seen here before. After an hour wait, I am flagged in and questioned. I am asked to exit the vehicle and wait inside while my car is searched, which the Canadian border cops do with abandon. Again, I have never experienced this before. Another hour and I am free to go after they come to terms with the fact that I have nothing to hide. Two hours to get into Canada. I am beyond happy to have the Chilkat Valley behind me. Driving over the Haines Summit and into the high country sees me smiling and as the Yukon border comes ’round. I am washed over by an array of mixed feelings; most of me is extremely happy to be on the road and rolling away from Haines, but part of me dreads the inevitable slash of loneliness that will undoubtedly come in short order. In fact, as I near the Tahkini River, the dreaded sensation enters me, invades my space and riddles my ravaged heart with bullet holes. I shuffle this back to a place of inner strength that is there for survival reserves and continue. Â I get to the Tahkini and make a fine camp there; it was a familiar camp as I had spent time there on past trips. The evening colors around 1 am filter the sky orange and pink and patches and fills my heart and soul with much needed color and softens the dramatic episodes within me. I sleep.
I awake to the warmth of sunshine and something splashing in the river. I pack up and pull out onto the Alaska Highway again heading towards Whitehorse. These feelings I cannot seem to shake and I hope that once past Carmacks or Dawson, they will fade. In Whitehorse waiting for the Fireweed Bookstore to open, I am accosted by a pair of drunks jabbering nonsense at me. Soon, my maps and food are purchased and I am driving the wide open spaces of the North Klondike Highway bound for Carmacks. A torrential rain storm ensues. The roadway becoming a slab of dangerous water; I slow down but other traffic does not. I won’t be bullied by these vehicles and I pull off when I can, but it is up to them to pass if they wish to drive at unsafe speeds. Camping that night in the Taiga forests among Aspen and Willow, tiny yellow birds flutter my camp and a Red Squirrel chirps in the forest nearby. These trips, when I am by myself, which is 95 percent of the time, tend to promote moving along, bound for a destination and goal. It is sometimes difficult to just set back, especially these past weeks, as the creeping dreaded sensations that have filled me lately prevail when I have come to a stop. So I simply keep moving. Regret is futile, and yearning for an undeniably uncertain future is equally so. I have no past, and working toward the future like some kind of mystic jewel seems pointless; I simply am. My heart and desire are too big for this world and most cannot deal with my intensity and passion… the heart is the only guiding force. Chalk it all up to a lifetime of amazing experiences. I am the wind…
The morning sees me drifting closer to Dawson City; nearing the Klondike river at the entrance to the mind bogglingly beautiful Dempster Highway, I spot a pair of bright blond Grizzlies grazing the grass on the side of the highway. So beautiful these magnificent creatures; I often wonder what attracts them to the highway like this… is there something that grows only near the road that they find edible and tasty? I pass the Dempster and head to Dawson for fuel and a snoop around and maybe a nice espresso drink. It had been 4 years since I had been to Dawson, and not much had changed. That is a good thing. Dawson is a gem in the far north to me; it is a place of historical significance, color and interest. I get an Americano at the lovely Alchemy Cafe and soon I am back down the highway the 25 miles to the start of the Dempster. My plan is to hike into Grizzly Lake in the Tombstone Mountains and spend the night there, taking photographs and shooting video. But when I get to the trailhead, there is a notice that the trail is closed. This is the second time that this happened… I was here in 2013 to not only hike to Grizzly Lake, but to also ride the Ogre all the way to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Neither happened on that trip. After pedaling for three days, the road was washed out north of the Ogilvie River, and I was forced by the road crews to turn back. The Grizzly Lake Trail was closed due to high Bear activity in the area at that time; this time it was closed due to heavy snow still on the ground. So in 2013, I stashed my backpack under a rotting Spruce log and continued my bike trip up to Deadhorse and beyond. But today I was in my truck, bound for who knew where. I walk into the forest and immediately locate the pack I had stashed 4 years prior, and skedattled up the gravel Dempster to my favorite section. It is a place where the second of three continental divide crossing occur on the Dempster. A place north of the Blackstone River in the Taiga Range; birth home to Engineer Creek, Mountain Goats, Grizzly Bears, and Caribou. I am looking for a peak to climb in the area, and a ridge leaving the pass right from the road directly on the continental divide leads to an un-named summit of perhaps 6,000-7,000 feet. I decide on it, but first I wish to continue north and do it on the way back. A couple miles down the road is a beautiful alpine canyon situated directly at tree line with the headwaters of Engineer Creek flowing through it’s guts. I find a wonderful camp and set down upon it happily. Glassing the slopes nearby, I spot a heard of a dozen strong Mountain Goats, including several babies who seem to be happy to be jumping around and playing wildly amidst the high and treacherous slopes they are perched. This area north of the Blackstone in the continental divide country is by far my favorite part of the Dempster experience. Late that night, perhaps around 1 am, I awake with a yearning to leave the tent and go on a “night” stomp. I exit the tent and walk across the road and disappear into the muskeg and Taiga. Tussock tundra appears and I run as fast as I can towards a barren hillside, where Willow Ptarmigan scatter. Being spontaneous is what sometimes drives me, for better or worse. It is simply fun, and nothing beats the sensation of just making a snap decision and going for it. I look out over the alpine valley I am in and it occurs to me that every Human on this planet is going through some form of struggle largely unknown to the rest of us. I am not alone…
With my cup of Green Tea in the morning, I make a toast to the South, East, West, and of course, the North in thanks and offering of gratitude. I drive north again, this time paralleling the Ogilvie River at at point further that I got on my bicycle in 2013. A Grizzly slowly walk across the road in front of me a couple hundred meters off and disappears into the Taiga, and more Ptarmigan flutter about at road’s edge.
Many miles after leaving the high country, the road drops into river valley’s and enters First Nation native hunting lands. The Dempster at this point climbs to a high point on Ogilvie Ridge, where unobstructed views of the Ogilvie and far, far off, the Peel River, heading to the great und vast McKenzie River flowing to the Arctic Ocean. The road continues along this high Taiga bench for many, many miles. It is dry up here. And exposed. And monotonous… till finally Eagle Plains comes around where I gas up the Toyota and continue on. Soon the Arctic Circle appears and beyond are the rounded tundra summits of the Richardson Mountains, which, in essence are an extension of the British Mountains in the Yukon which are an extension of the Brooks Range in Alaska. The Richardson’s are unique in three ways; They are the final continental divide crossing on the Dempster, dumping all water from them on the northeastern side into the Arctic Ocean, they form the border of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and they are the last formidable geologic uplift barrier between the interior and the arctic plains of the Canadian “north slope”. Beyond which lie the extremely remote communities of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. The road travels directly north along the western escarpment of the Richardson’s for many miles, traversing some of the most incredible Arctic scenery I have ever seen; in fact it equals the Brooks Range in beauty and remoteness. Although it is not nearly as big as the Brooks, it is even more remote really. Soon the road turn east and climbs over Wright pass at the final continental divide and crosses into the Northwest Territories. This place is absolute magic. It is quite chilly here, this far north at the continental divide. The last time I was in a similar place was in 2013 on the summit of Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range on The solstice at midnight. It was cold then too… The road continues through the Richardson Mountains, revealing tundra, high peaks, wild flowers, and wild rivers. After descending the last great decline out of these magnificent mountains, the Canadian Arctic slope appears in the distance, extending for hundreds of miles to the McKenzie Delta. I pull off the road, some 30 kilometers into the Northwest Territories and notice the immense trail of numerous Grizzly prints decorating each side of the road. At night these massive creatures must use this road as a path. There are more Grizzly prints here than I have ever seen anywhere in my life.
Finally, after saying farewell to the NWT’s and wishing to continue on to the Arctic slope, but becoming increasingly paranoid about the 30 year old Toyota Truck’s engine with a quarter million miles on it, I turn back and drive back to from which I came. Passing once again the Arctic Circle and gassing up in Eagle Plains again, a few hours later I am back in my favorite and stunning alpine valley north of the Blackstone River. I am exhausted and plan on a peak climb in the morning. In the tent, I sleep like a dead man.
After crossing a short bit of tundra in the morning, I begin climbing up the class 1-2 talus of the ridge line to where it nearly flattens out but continues in a westerly stretch for about a half mile before the final summit pyramid rises abruptly and ends. After 4 hours from the truck, I stand on the unknown summit and marvel at the other peaks around me and the strange and unknown alpine valley’s that separate them. I decide to descend a different route in order to walk out one of these valleys following a creek where I hope to see signs of animals. The decent was treacherous; some of the loosest scree and talus I have ever encountered kept my attention level extremely high and after considerable time and effort, I find myself at the head of this glorious alpine valley, flowing within it the beautiful little creek mentioned. On the way down valley, I see no animal prints of any kind, but spot a pair of caribou antlers lying in the tussock. The are from a small and possibly younger animal, with part of the skull still attached; taken down by wolves I imagine. After a bit I am back at the truck and I blast off again, this time bound south for Dawson, where contrary to my intentions to keep this an alcohol free trip, I decide to duck into a tavern and have a beer. I order my beer and when I go to pay for the beverage in U.S. dollars, the First Nation’s woman in the chair next to me starts ridiculing me for being an American. She proceeds to stick her finger in her mouth indicating forced vomiting, therefore expressing her displeasure. I tell her, “I’m not American, I’m Alaskan”; she was not pleased and continued the harassment. After a bit, I told her she didn’t know me and that she was a no good judgmental SOB (as it were). I left my lone beer sitting there on the bar and left. All I wish for is friendship, love, and understanding – hard resources to find on this here planet. Later, at a makeshift camp, the cops show up to kick me out, but tell me where I might go for a low profile and free bivy.
That night, I toss and turn and sleep eludes me nearly completely. Tomorrow I will ferry across the Yukon River and drive the Top of the World road (AKA the Ridge Road) and into the deep interior of Alaska. I had ridden this road on my bicycle a few years ago and found it to be one of the toughest rides in the north. I’m happy that the old ‘Yota and me will be traversing this together this time.
A bit early in the season still, but an escape from town and into the Yukon seems prudent, so I pack the truck with food, water, and gear, point it north and fly up the Haines Highway towards the border. Once past said political nonsensical imaginary line in the sand, I am cruising the upper corridors of the Haines Summit area and whisping down into the interior. I am surprised to find the great and vast Aspen stands here are just now beginning to bud with no leafing yet having occurred. I see three Black Bears between Haines and Haines Junction today… they are out foraging and the roadsides seem to attract them; for whatever reason I do not know.
My mind and heart are a wreck and a good stiff hike into the Yukon wild is in order; I have chose to explore the Slim’s River West trail, which travels up the Slim’s to it’s source at the toe of the enormous Kaskuwalsh Glacier and until recently, was the source for the Yukon’s largest lake – Kluane Lake. The Slim’s native name is A ay Chu, but the english name comes from the name of a horse who got stuck in the river’s quicksand and subsequently died. Poor ‘ol Slim. The Kluane region of the Yukon is much more than just a beautiful and vast place. It is a place of ancient history, eminent cultural treasures of the Kluane, Aishihik, Tutchone, and Champagne first nation peoples, and has been for thousands of years. It is also an enormously beautiful and mysterious place that holds the northern hemispheres largest non-polar icefields, including the remote and seldom seen Mt Logan, Canada’s highest peak at 19,551 feet above sea level. Recently, due to glacial retreat of the Kaskuwalsh, the Slim’s River has changed it’s course and now no longer empties into Kluane Lake. In a short time, the mighty lake has already lost a great deal of it’s holdings.
I head to the visitor center in Haines Junction to buy a map and get some info; an enjoyable and slightly flirtatious conversation with the Kluane woman who sold me the map reveals that the Slim’s River West trail has been closed down due to high Grizzly activity in the area. Apparently, a large boar Griz walked right through two hikers kitchen just a couple days prior. She informs me that the Slim’s River East route is in fact open, but I may have difficulty with route finding this time of year and especially since the geologic upset in the area recently. I ponder this briefly and I am out the door heading north to find my old campsite up on Bear Creek Summit. I had last camped here in 2011 while riding my Ogre up from Moab. A lovely little spot amongst the White Spruce and Aspens with views to the west of the Kluane front range, and to the east, the low sub arctic hills of the vast and wild Dawson Plateau. Later, after my supper of Turkey and avocado sandwiches on home made sourdough, I set up my trusty tent and then set on the tailgate and crack open a beer. Something is amiss here; my mind is struggling, my heart bleeding. I realize that my passion, intensity, and perseverance tend to drive those away that I wish to hold close. This set of traits works great for backcountry trips, mountaineering, and all out survival, but seems to be of little help regarding people. My constant need for self expression seems to always do more harm than good. At 49 years old, I still seem to be learning life’s hard lessons. I am as tough as nails, but have a tender heart; a winning combination it would seem, but it is not always so. I come from a place of only love, but my execution seems constantly in need of improvement. I fear not the furry four legged creatures of this planet, but fear greatly the hostile and unpredictable two leggeds. Melancholy grips me and I am unable to enjoy my surroundings…
I crawl into my tent and ponder the coming the midnight sun. There seems to be too much of it these days. I wish for winters return so I may fold myself into it; all this sunshine is nurturing my sadness. The Slim’s seems a far fetched notion at this point and my alternate, Mt Decoeli is still under much of winters snow. All I feel now, here in my tent is emptiness and without hope. In a flash, I pack my shit into the back of the decrepit Toyota and pull onto the Alaska Highway, and head home.
One of the key players from my “new” life in Alaska as a home owner has been largely absent these past two years. It is something that sparks my soul and makes precious life even more so. It is something to maintain a youthful and vibrant self and outlook. It is spontaneity. Seems these last many, many months, every move in my life needs to be planned, calculated, examined, and inspected, largely taking any playfulness out of it. Spontaneity is what makes trips and adventures youthful and fun.
Spontaneity is what I crave. Adventure is what I crave.
I wake up Monday morning, 4 days before my planned departure date for my two week bike ride into the Yukon. I am not feeling it; I want to go now. I dress for work as usual, but hope that my employer Dave and the rest of the crew will see fit to set me free upon myself so I may leave right away. Everyone at work gives me the thumbs up, wishes me well, and I drive home casually with a grin on my face to pack the bike, smoke some Salmon, shop for supplies, and relax a bit.
The next morning I awake and am totally ready: everything is in order, Angela is coming by at 8 for some coffee and I will hit the road. It is raining a bit, but hey, it’s Alaska in the summer, that’s what is does here! I’ll be out of range for the next couple of weeks; when I return, I’ll do a full write up and photo share here on JRB.
The bicycle know to me as the Surley Ogre has been on hiatus for some time now…over two years in fact. Like a horse put out to pasture, she has endured this lengthy time situated in the garage amongst the miter saw, planer, router, and other tools of construction. Not fitting in with these apparatus, she squeals and begs for a letting of road miles. In anticipation of an upcoming trip upon her to the mighty Yukon and beyond, I strip the old gal down to her bones and a cleansing and rebuilding ensues.
It has been far too long since the Ogre and I have embarked upon the open road together, and in a quick fit, I work out a stretch of time off from work and make preparations for us to engage the Alaska Golden Triangle; Riding from my house in Haines to Haines Junction to Whitehorse to Skagway. A 360 mile loop through the northern panhandle and into B.C. and the Yukon, ending back in the good ‘ol AK in Skagway, where a quick ferry ride home ends the adventure. With plans to leave on the 29th of July, and returning on the 13th of August, I must say that these bicycle trip are certainly not about the bike. Or even riding them. These excursions are about being there. Or more precisely, being out there and taking in the tundra, mountains, rivers, and wildlife. If I was in shape and looking to make some quick time, I would theoretically make the journey in six or seven days. I think not. I intend on going slowly and enjoying the vast and wonderful summer in the North. Summertime in the regions of Alaska, Northern B.C., and the Yukon are stuff of fantasy to me. It is a time of exploding life and glorious exploration. There is nothing better on Earth than summer in the North.
Having a couple of weeks lead time to the trip in question, I head out to test the newly constructed Ogre for a quick 20 mile excursion up the wonderful Haines Highway, and as luck would have it, a spectacular day of temps in the 70’s, glorious sunshine, and the glaciers of the Chilkat’s shining brightly.
The old girl, spaced out from many months at pasture, bucks wildly when I attempt to pedal forward. After a rough patch, we hit our stride and suddenly it’s just like old times.
As out of shape as I am, I am looking forward to that big nasty climb up Chilkat Pass and into the Yukon I love so much. Two weeks and counting…