Northbound: Leaving Haines and Into the Far Yukon

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.  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.

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Tahkini River… Yukon Territory
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Klondike Woods Camp

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Tombstone Mountains, Yukon

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Blackstone River Ice Pack

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The Blackstone uplands and the start of the Taiga Ranges

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The Dempster Highway

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The View From Ogilvie Ridge
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Eagle Plains

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The Beginning of Canada’s Arctic North Slope
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Grizzly Tracks, Richardson Mountains, Northwest Territories

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The Un-named Peak North Of The Blackstone Uplands

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Caribou Antlers

 

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Success and Failure on the Dempster

After a relaxed evening camped on the outskirts of Dawson, I get my nylon ghetto packed up and myself into town for the prep errands necessary for the Dempster Highway. Make calls, update website, buy groceries, get package together to leave at Interpretive Center for a passer by to pick up and drop off at Eagle Plains. Out of town by 3:30 pm… Pedal the 25 miles back to the Dempster I had ridden yesterday.

About 5 miles from the Dempster, a monstrous thunder storm ensues, dropping copious amounts of rain along with it. At the Dempster junction, there is the Klondike River Lodge, but it has unfortunately burned down this last winter. I figure it will at least serve me to stand under the fuel pump overhangs and dry off a bit.  The storm rages on, and a French-Canadian Man pulls up in a ragged truck, just to make sure I am not in peril. I assure him I am fine and away he goes, heading south.  The storm continues to increase it’s fury, and I find myself gaining courage in investigating the seemingly abandoned trailers across the compound. The trailers are empty, dry, and warm. But I am apprehensive about invading someone else’s space even if they are clearly not around. So I stick to the porch… and drink up some of my precious beer supply-next beer, Inuvik.

About 8:00 pm, the storm passes over and I decide to roll on down the Dempster a bit and find my home for the evening. An old gravel pit will do just fine, and I camp.

The following morning is glorious.. I feel so lucky to be here now. It is early in the season and I am positive I am the first and only cyclist on the Dempster this year.  I pedal across the North Klondike River and dive into the Dempster.  Rolling through the upper Yukon’s boreal forests and into the heart of the Tombstone Mountains, I stop at the trailhead for Grizzly Lake, where I stash a backpack I have been carrying all this time in order to make a 2 or 3 day trip into the wilderness.  I had planned on doing this now in fact, but there is way too much snow too contemplate. Besides, the trail has been closed due to flooding. I hope this is not an omen of things to come. So, for now, I stash the pack in hopes of hiking in to Grizzly Lake on the way back from Inuvik.

On down the road, I stop at a fine little stream and strip down for a wash. Suddenly, an unexpected tour bus rolls past, slowly at first, I am standing there naked and wet and grinning and waving. The driver accelerates quickly in order to avert his touron’s eyes from the crazy, blasphemous Mountain Man, who is grinning shamelessly at them.

I pedal most of the steep climb of North Fork Pass to the Tombstone Mountain Overlook. At 4800′, it is the Dempster’s highest summit. I camp here due to it’s spectacular views and shoot a time-lapse of an approaching storm, moving over Tombstone Mountain and Mt Monolith.

I awake the 2nd morning to clear skies, but that changes very quickly. However, the weather manages to hold for several more hours, and I am able to pedal on, unmolested by the rain. Over the last bit of the summit, and crossing the Continental Divide, I am thrown into a world of fairytale peaks surrounded by tundra.

The Dempster Highway is the northern most road in Canada, and one of the 2 northern most roads in North America, the other, being the Haul Road (Dalton Highway) in Alaska. Like the Haul Road, the Dempster also crosses the Arctic Circle and additionally crosses and enters the largest river delta in Canada, home to the 10th largest river in the world and the third largest in the western Hemisphere: The McKenzie River. It ends at the community of Inuvik, Canada’s northern most village accessible by vehicular land travel. It is a dirt and gravel road that traverses 500 miles, one way, some of the most intense wilderness one can encounter.

Eventually, I pass through a small,yet majestic little range called the Taiga Ranges, a beautiful set of high alpine mountains, with the Dempster passing through it’s boreal forests, river valley’s, and above timberline area’s, where Marmots and Collared Pika’s chirp as I wheel past. It is stung scenery and I climb the 2nd pass of the Dempster, Windy Summit, at 3500′, and down it’s back side for a ride of many miles through more forest and unbeatable mountain scenery.  The Ogre glides silently northward, as if a giant magnet is pulling us both, onward and into the Arctic.  I see a moose, then another. Then a Blackie, then a Hare. Then I spy a Golden Eagle, a first for me. Ptarmigan’s are squawking at me, no, singing to me as I move into their turf. I see wolf tracks, then tracks of the moose it is following.

It begins to rain, briefly, but stoutly, and after 76 dirt road miles today, I pull into Engineer Creek Campground which is closed, and I utilize it’s cooking shelter to dry off, cook supper, and get re organized. Fantastic Dolomite cliffs festoon the nearby ridge, known locally as Sapper’s Hill. I find out that the road up ahead is washed out and closed. My only hope is that a bicycle and it’s operator might find a place to wiggle past said washout, and pedal dance onward.  At the moment, I am just about one quarter of the way to Inuvik; if I can keep up the pace, I’ll have made the trip in 8 days. Then there’s the return trip.  Backtracking has always been tough for me and I’m sure that the return trip to Dawson of 500 miles will be no less challenging. Ultra long distant travel via bicycle has it’s ups and downs like anything. The biggest struggle for me, at times, is simply the mental willpower to keep going, when you haven’t had a decent meal in 4 days and your stock is low, everything you own to wear is filthy and your body stinks like hell and you are sore everywhere, especially the backside. Did I mention the rain? Everything is soaked, including your tent and sleeping bag, not to mention you. But I love it, really. I love being in these places that it affords. It is an experience similar to that of multi day big wall climbing, where, one is immersed into the vertical realm for days on end, complete with it’s discomforts. This is no different, except that there is no fear factor, really, not when compared to scaling the big stones.

I decide to sleep in the abandoned campgrounds’ screened in cooking hut, and investigate the road damage in the morning.

I awake, and feel as though I have had a stay at the Hilton, and have a leisurely breakfast and pack up the Ogre in a nice, dry, state. However, 2 1/2 miles up the road, the entire trip changes course. After crossing the Ogilvie River, and passing the “Road Closed” signs, I am greeted by a man in a pickup, who pulls up next to me.

“Can’t You read?”.

Yes Sir! I CAN read, Yep!

“Can Ya’ swim?”.

Uh, Yessir, I can swim too!

“Well, that’s what You’ll be doin’ on up ahead, cuz The Ogilvie is runnin’ across the road now. I can’t let You pass on till the water drops and we can do repairs. I might be later today, but it might not be. Best you hole up back at that campground and settle in. I’ll let you know when the road is open”.

He was very firm on this and was not about to let me pass, so I turn tail back to the cook hut and here I now sit, writing and waiting. Even if the road were open, I would be cutting it very close on food, as I do not believe my food package ever made it out of Dawson, since no one is heading this way due to the washout and it being seriously early season. In fact, the river’s are half froze over still, and the lakes are too.  If the road does not open by tomorrow morning, I will have no choice but to high tail it back to Dawson, get re grouped, and head for Alaska.  This is a major disappointment for me as I want to see this Canadian Arctic soo badly…

Sometime later, a pickup with 4 nice folks from Idaho drop in and inform me that the road crew has told them that the road will be closed for at least 2 or 3 more days. I must turn back. The only question is how…Even though my short stint with this part of the Yukon has been thwarted, I am thrilled to have seen even a little of it. I have seen enough to know just how glorious it truly is and I shall return. I toss my bike into the back of their truck, and what took me 3 days to pedal, flies by at warp speed and I am deposited back into the land of Robert Service and Jack London; Good ‘ol Dawson City.  I drop by the Interpretive Center, and there is my food box, still waiting.

Off to Alaska…

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