16 August 2017: Big Horn Hotel, Watson Lake to Big Creek Government Campground (63 km)
We really liked the Big Horn Hotel. It was just relaxed and a little worn around the edges, like us! We had a great rest day in the town, doing nothing and enjoying being indoors. We left this morning around 10:00 am as we had only a short ride to our first Yukon government campsite. This is the Yukon equivalent of the provincial parks we had stayed in in other provinces. They are really good value as it costs only $12 for a site, first come first serve, and although they have outhouses and no showers, they do have other things like shelters, hand water pumps, and so on. The weather was good but cloudy and shortly after Upper Liard a passing motorist alerted us to something ahead on the road. What we heard was "There's .....just up ahead". I assumed it was not bear as my ears are finely attuned to that word, and so on we went, peeking in the bush for whatever it was. Suddenly just ahead a mother black bear and cub loped across the road in front of us. We stopped and they stopped, just curious. When they saw all was well they disappeared into the bush on the roadside. We are always amazed at the luck of wildlife viewing. These encounters are so brief. As soon as the animal is gone you would never have guessed it was there. We saw this with the bison herd, even an animal as large as that just vanished before our eyes into the forest.
The Alaska Highway from Watson Lake to Whitehorse is described as "well maintained". We are pleased to hear it! The surface is still quite rough chip sealed which is tiring on the body but a good surface. We enjoyed our first proper Yukon vistas today. It is beautiful up here. We picked a campsite near the river and had a VERY cold swim. We felt very tired for some reason this afternoon and had a nap. We have packed our food bag in the bear lockers provided and have left the stumpies out for the night. The campground is almost full but the other campers are quiet. School goes back at the end of the month so you don't really see families and kiddies around anymore. Just the stalwarts like us.
17 August 2017: Big Creek Government Campground - Bushcamp Swift River (82 km)
We woke later than usual and heard some noises in the bush. Also there was a small berry filled turd next to our picnic table. Hmmm, what had been poking around our site? We chatted to the Yukon Parks guy who came to clear the self-registration box and he was so interesting. He would have been in his 60's and had never lived in a town. He works half the year doing this job and then in winter he goes bush and lives off the land, hunts a moose and cans all the meat. He said it gets lonely and he would like some company but it must be a female as two blokes always have a falling out. He has seen this happen many times, two guys start off thinking it is a great idea but it never works. He cited an example of two brothers who went bush and after so many months had each built their own cabin and weren't friends anymore. So, any women out there fancy winters of -40 degC, living off moose in the beautiful Yukon snowy lanscape, there are options out there! He loves the winter, which is a good thing as the Yukon summer this year lasted 3 weeks and just ended today!
We set off around 8:15 am. It was a beautiful ride today. The scenery is beautiful and it feels good to be in the Yukon. It was rainy today and we wore wet weather gear for some of the time. The road was quite large chip seal for the first bit which made for chunky riding but it improved. We passed many lakes and rivers. We stopped for lunch at the Rancheria Lodge which also offers camping and cabins. We had a great meal for a reasonable price which restored our confidence in roadside eateries which took a knock at Coal River Lodge where we paid $17 each for a bison burger and panfries and were still hungry afterwards. They even offered free wifi!! The rain had stopped when we got back on the bikes. After this we had a climb to the top of the Continental Divide. This was quite a moment as we remembered doing the same thing in Ontario months ago. The watershed was quite low at just over a thousand metres, but that is enough to allow all the water to the east to flow towards the Beaufort Sea which is in the Arctic Ocean (eventually), and all the water to the west to flow to the Bering Sea which is in the Pacific Ocean.
After this we rode another few kilometres when the rain started again a bit more heavily and we found a great camp spot off the road with access for a river swim. EEEK! Not sure how many more of these we can stomach! Can't believe a few days ago it was scorching hot, the cold weather has arrived.
18 August 2017: Bushcamp Swift River - Bushcamp Morley River (83 km)
It rained quite a bit overnight and was very cold this morning, minimum of 4 degrees. It's so strange when you have had so many days of being hot and all of a sudden you need to pull out leg-warmers and warm gloves, etc. We got going before 8:00 am and were quite wet on the bike. Distant hilltops had snowy patches, we weren't sure if they were new or unmelted bits from last winter. The highlight of the day was a moose sighting over Swan Lake. We drew up at the view sight overlooking the lake and I could see a brown lump on the far shore that moved slowly. The monocular revealed a large moose eating lazily in the shallows. This is the first moose we have seen since Ontario early days.
The riding today was easy, not many hills to speak of. We spent about 40 km of the day back in BC but crossed back into the Yukon at the end. This is the course of the Alaska Highway. About 10 km from the end of the day it cleared up completely and the sun came out. For the most part though the temperature did not reach 10 degrees. Mike had a rear wheel puncture which had to be fixed. After about 4 km the tyre flatted again so we had to repeat that process. All in all this took up about an hour. About 3 km from our end point we met a Brazilian cycle tourist who had been on the road for 3 years and 9 months! He imparted good news in that we could expect a tailwind for the next week! Whoo hoo! We reached Morley River where there are a couple of recreation areas, but no camping. We did find a good bush camp though with river access. Unfortunately there was a lot of sediment in the river which clouded up as soon as you stepped in it, so we used our kitchen sink (Sea to Summit) to douse each other in cold water AKA a shower. We really appreciated our humble meal of meatball stew in a can and a loaf of Dempster's bread. We were tired as it had been a long day in the end but we were glad of the sunshine.
19 August 2017: Bushcamp Morley River - Bushcamp after Johnson's Crossing (103 km)
It was 2 degrees when we woke up at 6:30 am. The sun is rising later as we head west and we could probably get up later too as it is light until late in the evening. We do like to get going in the morning though, you never know what the day will bring. We dressed warmly and had an easy ride to Teslin, just one climb and then a descent, and then over the metal grated bridge (very bumpy and weird to ride on) into the little settlement. It is a really lovely place, great care has been shown in getting little details right. We stopped at the Yukon Lodge just as you cross the bridge as the wildlife gallery had been recommended. It has displays and short information boards about various animals. The displays are all composed of stuffed animals in their natural settings. The quality of the exhibition is excellent, there is a polar bear, grizzlies and black bears and an amazing display with a HUGE moose being preyed apon by a pack of wolves. It is an impressive collection. We then bought yoghurt at the grocery store which we ate at a lovely picnic shelter at the lake's edge. Unfortunately the breeze off the lake was very cold and we were freezing when we set off.
The rest of the day passed with short up and down climbs (very short) and the road dipped back to Teslin Lake regularly. The lake is beautiful, very long and narrow and we rode along it all the way to Johnson's Crossing, 50 km away. We had planned to camp here but the campground was unappealing. We had a delicious meal in the lodge though, and pressed on. The weather had been a bit overcast but the sun came out now and then. About 10 km further on we reached a small lake at a small turnoff where camping was easy. The river access was fine and we had a quick swim amongst the decaying tree trunks which lay around in the shallows. As we came back to our camp spot another cycle tourist (the second we had seen today) came into the camp for a chat. He had cycled from Anchorage and was making his way south to California. He planned to camp somewhere on Lake Teslin. There are a lot of black flies about again and we hope it soon becomes too cold for them.
20 August 2017: Bushcamp after Johnson's Crossing - Caribou RV Park, just before Whitehorse (98 km)
We sensed the cold as we woke up, the thermometer read -0.2 degrees. Oooh. Skies were clear, beautiful day! All our warm gear on (including my balaclava which I swore I would save 'til September), we had a lovely start to the day. Beautiful riding in the Yukon. We stopped after 36 km at Jake's Corner for a fabulous brunch, hamburger and fries for Mike and eggs and sausages for me. Extra side of onion rings. Plenty of coffee. Amazing what the right fuel can do, we happily spun through the kilometers edging ever closer to the Yukon River which for us was a bit of a milestone. We passed Marsh Lake which was beautiful. The riding was easy today and the surface mainly good. In one section the surface was actually scary good, just like a real bitumen road; it was great! We got to the Yukon River crossing and got off to have a look. We have never seen such a big river with such clear water. You could see straight down to the pebbly bottom. They do say that once you've tasted water from the Yukon you'll never want any other. I can believe it. There wasn't suitable camping there as there were quite a lot of houses along the river's edge. We continued, making for Wolf Creek government campground, and were surprised to come across Caribou RV Park. I'd read about it but then forgotten about it. We pulled in as it was only 5 km from Wolf Creek and we had gone far enough. It was a great little campsite, tents seperate to RV's and on lovely pine needle covered sites where you could get away into the bush. We were able to do our laundry (YAY for clean clothes) and of course we were able to wash ourselves in hot water (our first in 5 days)! We are only 20 km from Whitehorse so tomorrow will be an active rest day and we will have a late start and then head for Timmo's ASAP. It's an emergency situation!
21 August 2017: Caribou RV Park, just before Whitehorse - Robert Service Campground, Whitehorse (26 km)
We had a lot of rain overnight, but a clear morning today and we had great weather all day in Whitehorse which we really appreciated as we were out and about in the town. We had only a short ride which took us past our campsite into the town. At the start of our trip when people who asked us where we were headed, they would often tell us we were going the wrong way due to prevailing winds. Now, the consensus seems to be that we should not be going north any longer! A guy at the Caribou Park campground who lives here said "You guys have got to get the HELL out of here!". Well, that's a strong piece of advice! Another Whitehorse local we met advised us to see "how much we could take" after Dawson City and fly out of there if we needed to. It feels like we are still working towards our goal on this trip, but I guess we will both be relieved if the weather is kind to us!
We spent some time in Timmo's and then we checked out the visitor's centre, picked up some dehyrated food at the outdoor store (we don't buy it usually but for Top of the World highway from Dawson we want to be light AND well fed on top) and some art galleries. Beautiful crafts! We had Subway for lunch. Whitehorse is a great town. It was a public holiday today and so a long weekend, but it was very quiet and we really liked it. Has a frontier feel to it. Then we headed back to our campground which is beautifully set on the banks of the Yukon River. The sites are in forest settings and it is only really for tenters. Although we could shower we opted for a dip in the Yukon and were pleased that we did! We took a walk to the amazing fish ladder further upstream at the hydro-electric works. It is the world's longest fish ladder at 363 m. It was built when the river was dammed for the hydro. It was fascinating as they have a salmon webcam which shows the fish milling around at the bottom of the ladder. Then when one gets in and moves up the ladder steps, you can see it from inside through viewing windows. You can also go outside and see the salmon from above as they hover and swirl around the entrance to the ladder. They are big fish! To think that they have journeyed 3,000 km from the Bering Sea to get to this point - WOW! Tomorrow we will hit the Klondike Highway north to Dawson, having ridden just over 1,400 km on the Alaska Highway.
22 August 2017: Robert Service Campground, Whitehorse - Fox Lake Campground (76 km)
There were a few drops of rain overnight but we were really lucky with the weather today. Rain was forecast for the day but we had none to speak of really besides a drizzle now and then. We had to wait in Whitehorse 'til the cycle shop opened (Icycle) at 10:00 am as Mike was to collect a replacement Ortlieb frame bag (the zip failed many weeks ago and he made a warranty claim through the local supplier which they handled very well). As it had been a public holiday yesterday, the shop had not been open. We still got up early and were at Timmo's at 8:00 am for breakfast. We then went to an independant grocery store (fabulous variety, terrific bakery). The guy packing the cold meats section asked how our trip was going and said "Welcome to the Yukon!". He then asked if we were camping and wanted to give us free bacon hamper! We had to turn down his kind gift as bacon and bears are not a good combination. We do as much as possible to prevent curious bears arriving at our camp! He laughed when we told him we were afraid of the bears and his advice was to give the bear a "good kick!". So kind though to want to give us free food! We then went back to Timmo's for another round of coffee as it was not 10:00 am yet!
I stopped at a shop to buy some Alaska Highway souveniers, and then to the bike shop and were finally on our way at 10:30 am. It was not long before we turned right onto the Klondike Highway, heading north to Dawson City. The last distance marker for the Alaskan highway that we saw was 1432 km and we joined the Klondike at 192km! The scenery is beautiful along this road! The road itself is beautiful, winding through birch forests just starting to turn to autumn colours. We had a few options for camping and ended up at the government campground which had a great selection of sites, including walk-in ones which we really like. We had a cold swim in the beautiful, clear lake waters. We had quite warm temperatures today on the bikes; around 19 degrees which is certainly an improvement on the days leading in to Whitehorse which were so much colder. Summer still has a little way to go (maybe)!
23 August 2017: Fox Lake Campground - Twin Lakes Campground (60 km)
It rained heavily overnight and was still raining this morning. We found it very difficult to get out of bed so in the end we only got going at 9:00 am. We had 32 km to go to Braeburn Lodge, home of monster sandwiches and the world's largest cinnamon buns. This was breakfast stop, but as we only left late we arrived after 11:00 am which is really nearly lunchtime and we were hungry. The road was a bit up and down until Braeburns but after that, it was a nice flat/downhill ride. We were cold when we arrived and each ordered a cheeseburger which the waitress warned was big enough for two. It was indeed the biggest hamburger we had seen, they were the size of dinner plates. Of course we finished them, along with several cups of coffee. We took one of the world famous buns to go. They are also the size of dinner plates and full of sugar.
When we left the lodge it was raining quite hard, but at our backs, so it wasn't too bad, and we were planning to go beyond our planned end which was only at 60 km. The road ran alongside the Nordenskold River so it would appear that a bushcamp would be possible at some point. We were enjoying the ride even with the rain. We passed a property entrance with all sorts of signs up, one which advertised a cabin to rent for cyclists, at $25 per night per person or $40 for a couple! We were tempted but decided against it as we wanted to get further along the road. As we drew up to the Twin Lakes Campground it looked great, with covered picnic shelter and swimming dock. We pulled in there and decided to stick with our orginal plan of staying here. Shortly after arriving, a very heavy shower of rain hit and we were thankful for the shelter, but the weather thankfully improved throughout the afternoon. We have great views of the lake from our tent.
24 August 2017: Twin Lakes Campground - Bushcamp after Tatchun Creek (95 km)
At Twin Lakes we had lovely neighbours in the form of Nelson and Laura from Vancouver Island. They were great conversationalists with a terrific sense of humour. They invited us for hot chocolate and biccies and of course we went. They had a bus-type RV which was very comfy to sit in. We may see them again on the road as they are also headed to Dawson City. We said goodbye to them this morning and also another Australian couple of cycle tourists who camped at Twin Lakes last night who are headed south after travelling from San Francisco to Alaska.
We also chatted to a man who had come to hunt moose. It is so interesting to hear about how challenging a task this is. We had wondered how the dead animal is processed quickly if the hunter has had to go on foot. He explained that they have an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle; similar to what we would call a quad bike but much more robust) which they take on the back of the truck to get to closer range of the animal. They then use this to ferry back the parts of the animal after shooting it. Once all the parts are on the truck they have to move quickly to get the meat processed and into cold storage. He hopes to achieve this in 4 hours which was his best time ever. This means shoot, skin, remove guts, etc. and then take the meat to where you can process it i.e. cut it into portions you want and pack for freezing. You have to work very quickly! He does all his own processing but you get people who will process your meat for you at $3 per pound. A moose can weigh on average 1500 pounds, so that is a $4500 bill for processing! It is a whole different world for us. Everything from the animal is used, nothing is wasted bar the guts. The skin is sent away for leather.
It was a perfect day, blue skies and cold and crisp (and we were pleased we weren't a moose). The Yukon laid out a perfect autumn day. You can see the landscape changing colour all around to reds and coppers. We had a 50 km ride to Carmacks and it went really quickly. The Klondike is quiet and very pleasant. Minimal truck traffic. We bought some supplies in Carmacks at the gorcery store and continued to the Coal Mine campsite and lodge where they make takeaways meals like hamburgers etc. It is a beautiful spot on the Yukon River. Unfortunately a bus tour group had just arrived before us and they were standing in a queue about 50 deep to order their lunches. Groan! To the kitchen's credit they were very quick and we did not have to wait long to get our order in. The tour group was from Tennessee and the people were very friendly. There was a lovely atmosphere about the place and we watched as a group of people got ready for a canoe trip on the Yukon River. You can canoe from Whitehorse to Dawson, the trip on the Yukon is about 200 km longer than by road. It has got us thinking that we would like to do a canoe trip like this one. We are in love with the Yukon River. It is absolutely beautiful. While waiting for our lunch, we even chatted to the parks attendant we met at Twin Lakes yesterday! After lunch, we had a steep climb away from the Yukon River only to return to it later on with the spectacular view of Five Finger Rapids. We are having such a great ride lately and the other tourists we meet seem to be enjoying a relaxed pace too, there is none of the hype of July, just the proper travellers remain. That is how we like it!
We found a good bush camp about 20 km on from Tatchun Creek and were happy to get a little further along the road than planned. We looked at a few spots so that by the time we had unpacked and settled it was already 6:00 pm. Long day considering we were up at 6:30 am! We are camping in a forest with a thick reindeer moss floor, super comfy for sleeping on! Also need to mention that we clocked over 7,000 km today.
25 August 2017: Bushcamp after Tatchun Creek - Bushcamp after Pelly Crossing (96 km)
As we woke it was to the sound of drip, drip, drip on the tent. Oh no, not rain? It seemed to take more motivation than we could muster to get up. At only 6:30 am it was still quite gloomy, but once you're up, you're up! By the time we got out of the tent the rain had stopped and the rest of the day was dry. Whoo hoo! We had 66 km to Pelly Crossing where there would be a store of some sort and perhaps hot food, so this was our aim. The ride to Pelly Crossing was an easy one and we still had our tailwind. The Yukon views were still beautiful. We knew that Nelson and Laura were leaving Twin Lakes today and wondered when they would pass us. Nelson said that he would give a little blast of the airhorn so we would hear them passing! We stopped for a snack after 40 km and then continued. As the descent to Pelly Crossing began the road surface turned to gravel due to "construction" AKA "let's just throw some gravel at the problem". Yes - you know we've seen it before! The dust clouds caused by passing trucks and RV's/caravans was terrible. 2 km before Pelly, we heard the "toot toot" and yes, it was Nelson and Laura! Laura gestured to us that they would pull off just up ahead. We came to a stop at their van and they invited us in for lunch! This was such a lovely offer, but I found myself hesitating momentarily as apart from being the usual "cycle tourist" standard of clean, I was sure that I was now coated with a generous layer of dust and did not want to pollute their spotless motorhome! Of course we were happy to accept and enjoyed a lovely meal and chat before moving on about an hour later. Nelson offered to drive us to Moose Creek where they were headed to camp tonight (and we should reach near the end of our day tomorrow) but that would of course be cheating. And anyway, the weather was good!
We stopped briefly at Pelly Crossing to buy some supplies. It looks like a great little place and has a campsite, but we wanted to get further along the road. We crossed the bridge and the gravel road continued up the climb on the other side. We stopped at the view point as we remembered we had forgotten to go online to load up the website and check messages. Mobile internet access here is very intermittent, and only generally available at towns. The views of the river and forests from this point were superb! The gravel conditions stopped at the top of the climb and the road returned to normal. What the problem had been that the gravel was trying to remedy we will never know. Passing motorists, tourists and even truck drivers up here are all friendly, often tooting or giving a thumbs up. We had about 15 km to go before we would start looking for a bushcamp. There were a few small lakes to the left that we thought might have access, but the first two disappointed. It was now after 4:30 pm and the day was feeling a little long. We could see an access road coming up to the left where we knew there was a lake and then we saw a large cat run across the road between us and an oncoming car. Another lynx! We couldn't be sure but it had the right ear shape and long, thin hindquarters. Must have been a good omen! We got onto the access track which was well driven (a good sign) but a little up and down, but we committed to it and at the end was a great open campsite with easy river access to a very large lake for swimming! Bonus! The sun was still quite bright and we were grateful for it. We had our swim and ate. All in all a great day!
26 August 2017: Bushcamp after Pelly Crossing - Bushcamp at MacQuestan River (96 km)
We were kept awake last night by a little critter that seemed to want to eat the plastic under the tent. At one point it tried to run up the tent pole and Mike saw that it was just a mouse. Otherwise, the night passed uneventfully. Once on the road, we had a pleasant ride to Stewart's Crossing. On the way we had a dramatic descent with fabulous views of fir trees as far as the eye could see. The Stewart River very big and very beautiful too. We stopped at the gas station and bought prepackaged hamburgers that you had to warm up yourself in the microwave. They tasted suprisingly good, at $17 for two they had better! There was nothing else in Stewart Crossing other than a small visitor's centre which had not opened yet. As we rode up the hill after the bridge we realised that the next eating stop, Moose Creek Lodge, was only 25 km away, but we hoped to be hungry again by then.
Moose Creek served up delicious hamburgers and pan fries for only $10 and it was a great meal. We also picked up some homebakes. Although it was less than two hours since our last hamburger, we followed rule number one of eating while cycle touring, "If there is food, eat". We chatted to some fellow travellers (two motor cyclists and two car tourists) and then headed off. First up was a steep climb out of Moose Creek. At 9% grade this was actually our steepest climb on the entire trip so far! Luckily not for long. After this, we had only 20 km to go to our river campsite. The MacQuestan River was fast flowing and we checked out three camping options before choosing. We had great river access and enjoyed a COLD swim. We sat around for a bit, eating again and talking about the remainder of the ride into Dawson City. We have 130 km to go and as the riding is mainly downhill, we might try to get there tomorrow. As we hopped into the tent, it started to rain.
27 August 2017: Bushcamp at MacQuestan River - Bushcamp at Klondike River (88 km)
It rained all night and we debated putting on rain gear in the morning. In the end we didn't and had 25 km of relatively dry riding before we had to stop and put it on. The road was quiet and we had quite a bit of climbing to do. The views were amazing. We have not seen any widlife other than squirrels (who are very sweet and curious) on the Klondike. This is not a complaint. Judging by the HUGE bear turds we see quite often on the road and also when going to check out potential campsites, there are many grizzlies about. We decided early on in the day that we would not get to Dawson today, it would be too much of an effort in the terrain and weather which would severly limit the enjoyment of the day.
After all the climbing we had great views over Tintina Trench and then descended towards the Klondike River. We checked out two potential camp spots before settling on a great one on the pebbled beach along the river itself. A wonderful but freezing river swim and then we relaxed for the afternoon.
28 August 2017: Bushcamp at Klondike River - Bonanza Motel & RV Park, Dawson City (55 km)
What a wonderful campsite on a legendary river! We count ourselves lucky. We woke to rain, not heavy, but enough to warrant wet weather gear. We hit the road early as we were suddenly keen to get into a motel in Dawson City. A while ago we had looked at doing this, but after Watson Lake decided we would just camp. We have had a run of bushcamps on the Klondike and having not showered in a week (having swum in freezing rivers instead), decided we would treat ourselves to two nights in a motel if we could get it. We had only 50 km or so to ride and the road ran flat along the winding river. We stopped briefly at the turn off to the Dempster Highway and Inuvik and then drew near to Dawson, passing the dregding pits and their piles of smooth boulders and pebbles. We stopped at a shelter and managed to pick up an internet signal about 8 km from town. We called the Bonanza Motel and RV Park and they still had rooms available. As we jumped back on our bikes and raced along, imagine our suprise when a motorhome driving towards us turned out to be Nelson and Laura! We weren't sure when they would be leaving Dawson and it was such a thrill to see them on the road. We all waved and smiled! We managed to check in at Bonanza immediately even though it was only 10:30 am, and got the perfect room with a little kitchenette on the ground floor. It was easy to put the bikes in the room and of course a hot shower/bath awaited! First though we took our gear off the bikes and headed into Dawson which was only 4 km away. We were pleasantly suprised by Dawson, as we had been by Whitehorse. So authentic, only the front street being paved and a great selection of grocery stores and craft. Terrific! We popped into the visitor's centre where staff were very helpful and gave us some good information on the Top of the World Highway. I bought a small pair of Inukshuk earrings. We had a great lunch of delicious samosas (4 varieties!!) and sausage rolls from the Bonanza Market. Then we returned to our room to do laundry, eat and relax. We will spend the day here tomorrow. The sun came out this afternoon and the weather should be good tomorrow too.
29 August 2017: Rest Day - Bonanza Motel & RV Park, Dawson City (8 km)
What a great day we had in Dawson City! It is a really worthwhile place to visit and we are here at a good time of year, it feels quite relaxed and there were hardly any tourists about. We had a late start and went into town at 11:00 am. I had a haircut at the only hairdreser in town I guess and we looked around in the back streets. They have kept all the original buildings and facades intact and the sidewalks are the original wooden boards, all steps up and down and different heights. Many buildings are in disrepair but still stand quite neatly in place. We went to the bank as the only US currency we have is a hundred dollar note and we weren't sure if we would have to pay self-registration fees for camping when we enter Alaska. $100 does not help when you need to put $10 in an envelope to self-register! They were so helpful, offered us coffee and BISCUITS while we waited... at a BANK! We repeated yesterday's lunch and ate it at a picnic table overlooking the Yukon River again. I bought two stickers, a really nice bear one and one which says "I survived the Top of the World Highway" even though I haven't yet, and stuck both on my bike. We spent the afternoon fine tuning our route through Alaska and adjusting our final hotel bookings as it looks like we will make Anchorage a day early. All these months we have been carefully hoarding extra kilometers which translate into extra days, "just in case" of any weather issues. Now it looks like we will reap the benefits as we should have quite a relaxed time (with shorter cycling days) for the last three weeks. Fingers crossed eh?
30 August 2017: Bonanza Motel & RV Park, Dawson City - Bushcamp Top of the World Highway (71 km)
We couldn't believe it but the weather served up another tailwind for us, an easterly today! We have had nothing but southerlies to help push us up the Klondike and now we've turned west and had an easterly wind today and it is forecast to continue. So... all those people in Ontario who said/looked at us saying/thinking "the wrong way", read it and weep. We had a warm morning, 12 degrees and rain was forecast from 3:00 pm this afternoon. Clear tomorrow. We are happy little cycle tourists today that is for sure. We woke pretty excited about the day. It feels like this is the goal we've been working towards, the Top of the World Highway. We were expecting a very steep climb (up to 10% grades for approximately the first 14 km) and then ups and downs. The first 9 km are paved which we knew, and although we had been told that the road surface after this was good, we weren't sure what to expect. We set off for the ferry at the other end of Dawson at about 8:00 am and did not have to wait, the only other passenger was a campervanner.
After taking the free George Black ferry across the Yukon River, we bade it a fond farewell, took off our wool jackets and headed off up the hill. The initial big climb is 14 km long and there is a rest stop at that point, so that was our first aim of the day. The 14 km could take 2-3 hours, we weren't sure. A long time ago at the start of Lake Superior in Ontario, we met a Finn from Rovaneimi who asked if we were going to take this road. He had driven it and his words were "Even for a Lapp, it is really beautiful". High praise indeed, if it rivals Laplands highways it must be something. It was! As we climbed, it immediately became evident that we had picked the perfect time of year, autumn is arriving on the mountain slopes. Imagine every colour and hue that you associate with autumn and multiply that by ten and you are getting close to the variety on display. The higher you climb, the sharper and more intense the colours become. Mostly shrubs and ground cover. Spruce forests still thick lower down and in the valleys, but becoming sparser as you climb. The gradient never exceeded 7%, so the climb was a non-event really and we were drinking hot chocolate and eating chocolate banana cake within 2 hours of setting off. At the rest area there is information about the Fortymile Herd which is a caribou herd that used to number 100,000 and eventually the numbers dwindled to 5,600! The herd is not seen so often any longer up here.
After this it was just ups and downs, getting a little steeper towards the end of the day, but all easy. The dirt road is very tighly compacted so mostly as smooth as silk and often much smoother than most of the Alaska Highway chip seal. All around spectacular views of mountain ranges as far as the eye can see, vanishing into blue grey skies. The surrounding hills and valleys were magnificent. The way the road is built, all along the spine or ridge is amazing as it affords you all these views. The road was very quiet too, so that was brilliant.
We had planned to ride the 70 km and then camp wherever we could find a spot, but thought we might go longer, However, we wanted to avoid getting wet so had an eye on the rain which you could see all around. We came across a campervan that had stopped on the side of the road. Up above us on the hillside was a black bear having a munch. He peered over the edge and looked down on us. Not seeming peturbed, he continued eating. We rode past and then stopped after 100 m to look back and observe him. Not often you get the opportunity on a bike! Shortly after this we came across our campsite which was right on the road but the bushes provided privacy from traffic. It is one of the most beautiful campsites ever. As we pitched the tent, the rain arrived.
31 August 2017: Bushcamp Top of the World Highway - Walker Fork BLM Campground, Alaska (86 km)
As the border crossing closes at 9:00 pm, the highway was completely car free all night. This was the first time we had camped in such total silence the entire trip. Amazing! It was a cold night and we woke to find we were inside thick cloud. There was some ice on the outside of the tent. It took ages to get ready, me with three pairs of gloves on. We decided to wear wet weather gear as the misty cloud made everything wet very quickly. We set off into the thick mist and no sooner than we dropped 100 m, that we were out of it completely and into the morning sunshine! Wet weather gear was then taken off. It continued this way for much of the morning as we dipped down into cloud and up and out of it into the sun. We climbed quite a bit and the road surface grew steadily worse as the day progressed, until we came across a man on a grader throwing down gravel with glee and the surface on our side at least, was unrideable. Thankfully the road was still quiet so we were able to ride on the wrong side until the road went back to how it was before, perfectly acceptable.
The views were still spectacular, 360 degrees of mountains and deep down into the surrounding valleys. No water to be seen. We had carried 8 litres between us yesterday which had to last us 'til we crossed into Alaska and descended some way to the first river. There is no water at all on the Top of the World Highway. We were thankful for the cool weather. The russets and red tones now even deepened into purple deep below us. We reached the Top of the World signboard at 101 km, but the high point came 4 km later, up a gruelling climb about two kilometers long from where you have views of little green buildings below, Poker Creek border post. We sat up top and ate jam sandwiches and then sailed down the other side. An American border protection official asked for our passports and then asked if we had applied for an ESTA visa. We had. He invited us inside and he and his colleague processed us. They were really friendly men and one was a keen biker. He told us that he had picked 15 gallons of blueberries recently and as a result his one leg was shorter than the other from walking on the steep hillsides! We said that we didn't pick the berries as it was bad karma to compete with bears for their food. They offered us bottled water (we had heard mixed reports on this, some cycle tourists report begging for water and being denied, others say water was no problem). We didn't really need water but as it was offered we had our drinking bottles replenished. Then he offered to take a photo of us at the Poker Creek border crossing sign, which was really nice and unexpected. Unfortunately we had to pay again for the visa (US$6 each) as the one you apply for online apparently only covers air entry. However you do get a really cool Caribou stamp in your passport for Poker Creek! All in all a good experience! We set our watches back an hour again, gaining an hour in our day and set off. The US lays on 21 km of pristine bitumen from the border post. It was wonderful. The first 8 km are hair-raisingly downhill and thereafter you climb, drop, climb, drop, repeat. At the turnoff to Eagle the bitumen ends, you drop like a stone, the road narrows and the road surface deteriorates into channels, washboarding, etc. Suddenly you go from being "On Top of the World" to riding along the valley floor, the hillsides rising up on each side of the road, a gushing river alongside. The area is open for free public gold-panning and there is an area of mining rights as well.
We arrived at Walker Fork Campground at 3:00 pm Alaska time. Many campsites are managed by BLM (Bureau of Land Management) akin to the Yukon Government sites. We were really impressed by the campground. There was good potable water provided, the vault toilets were really clean and fresh smelling, and there was a special campsite for cyclists and motorcyclists ONLY which had a shelter. It's only taken 7,500 km for us to be given any kind of special treatment. Our site even has our very own bear proof food storage locker! We enjoyed our freezing cold bath in the rushing river and felt super clean after not having the opportunity to wash last night. There have been a number of bears in the campsite over the summer and only two days ago an aggressive grizzly climbed on the tailgate of a campervan and was trying to break in through the back door. The woman involved is still camping here and the quote of the day is "I pulled out my 45 and was ready to use it". Aaah yes, we've arrived in Alaska, USA. We have pitched our tent under the shelter. There are many hunters about, camo-gear and ATV on the back of your truck are this season's must haves.
1 September 2017: SPECIAL AM EDITION - Walker Fork BLM Campground, Alaska
AURORA BOREALIS - The Northen Lights!!!
Heading north into autumn, we had always hoped for great aurora sightings. So much of it is luck as you have to have the right combination of clear dark skies and disturbances in the planetary geomagnetic field. The aurora are forecast the same as the weather is, and we have an app that we check all the time to see when it will be a "good night". We have got up around 2:00 in the morning a few times but the closest we have come was at Twin Lakes when we had pale streaks with very little movement.
Last night we knew that the aurora activity was going to be high (predicted Kp greater than 5), but never had internet access to confirm what it actually was. Also we were in a dark place and the skies would be clear. We set the alarm for 1:15 am but were up at 12:45 pm and peered outside. Wow! It was all happening, the greatest light show in the world, right over our heads! We mostly stood until 2:15 am with our necks bent back, staring above us as fantastic whirls and swirls or the most delicate greens and pinks billowed and flexed. The light droppped in curtains and clouds of it grew and circled. Looks like a drop of dye being dropped into a glass of water or a silk scarf blowing outwards in the wind.
We did get some pictures but they don't reflect the range and delicacies of movement, a little beyond our camera's capabilities. For us now, the trip is complete. We hope to see the Northern Lights again and will certainly try, but we have been lucky with the quality of this show. Although we dressed warmly, we never really warmed up in our sleeping bags for the remainder of the night as we had zub-zero temperatures (thermometer read -2.4 degrees when we woke at 6:30 am).
1 September 2017: Walker Fork BLM Campground, Alaska - West Fork BLm Campground, Alaska (55 km)
By the time we were ready to leave the sun was up and we were quite warm. We had a climb immediately and the road was narrow, the surface not good. The views though were fantastic. We had some steep climbs and some steep descents to Chicken. We had been looking forward to our first Alaskan community. Chicken looked a bit like a construction site, there were road works either side, they are going to seal the road from Chicken for a few kilometers more. At the moment it is unsealed to Chicken and then sealed from there to Tetlin Junction, with a few "rough patches". There was a lot of truck traffic as they haul gravel here and there. Chicken retains its frontier feel, with a couple of RV parks, gold panning activity and the "downtown" shopping strip of three stores. We went to the Gold Rush RV Park as they advertise a good menu, but felt a bit ripped off with our US$10 waffle and two teeny sausages. Good gift store though. We hoped to buy some additional food i.e. homebakes or fresh bread and went to the downtown area to do this. The baked goods are talked up a bit but we did buy some delicious choc chip biscuits and chocolate brownies which cost an unsuprising US$22. There were a couple of fresh baked breads sitting behind the deli counter but they were not for sale, we were informed. Anyway, we have plenty of energy bars and muesli so we shouldn't starve. As we left Chicken we came to a stop-go and were told that we had to be driven the 1 mile by the pilot vehicle due to the road condition. In the end this was worth the hassle of unpacking the bikes and loading them up as the road would have been a nightmare. I sat up front with the driver who was quite entertaining.
After unloading, the bitumen commenced and apart from some rough sections which were heavily corrugated and of course on steep uphills, the road is sealed from here. The road was also eerily quiet. The weather was good, a bit overcast but quite warm now. The surrounding hills were covered in red and russet coloured shrubs. We had about 30 km to go to the campsite. It was slow going today, the climbs were steep and the road quality quite poor in parts. We hope it improves as we head to Tok tomorrow. The campsite was really lovely and we had a special reserved for cyclists/motorcyclists shelter again. The campsite is mainly filled with hunters and we heard the gun shots later in the afternoon. Thank goodness there is a sign at the entracne which says "No shooting within 1/4 mile of the campsite". The river was too far for swimming but we showered using our water bag and that was good enough. There was a big thunderstorm and strong winds in the afternoon and we were happy to be camping under a shelter.
2 September 2017: West Fork BLM Campground, Alaska - Tok RV Village, Tok (100 km)
It was a really cold night, clear and cold. I got up in the early hours to check the aurora and there were huge streaks across the sky, but no colour or movement. How lucky were we last night to have witnessed such an amazing display? In the morning the thermometer read -6.5 degrees C. By the time we left at 8:00 am it was still -4 degrees. We wore many pairs of gloves whilst getting ready and had a laugh at my swimmers which I wore to shower in yesterday - totally frozen solid. The water bag was frozen, when Mike poured water into the pot, the surface froze over immediately before putting the stove on. By the time we had ridden to the front gate of the campsite, the water in our 1.5 litre Nalgene bottles had frozen solid. The landscape was white with frost and you could see the water vapour frozen and sparkling in the air.
Many hunters were out and about this morning, there is caribou hunting up here. The views are still beautiful, miles and miles of hills, deep reds and purples. The climbing started right away, but the road condition was now much better and improved throughout the day. After the first 20 km there were no more gravel patches at all. A lady driving a truck slowed down and stopped beside us. We weren't sure what she was telling us, she was gesturing behind her. I thought maybe she was warning us of hunters. She was actually offering us a lift and to put our bikes on the back. How nice! Of course we refused. We were a bit worried about actually making it to Tok, the distance was longer than we had thought it would be, but we had little options and even less food. In our favour was the weather, which quickly warmed up to a balmy 8 degrees, no rain, slight headwind and clear skies. Against us was a lot of climbing, one main 500 m climb and a bunch of other 100 m to 250 m climbs. They all serve to slow you down so unless we could maintain 15 km per hour average speed, it was going to be a loooooooong day. Anyway, we chipped away. Unfortunately I got a puncture after 15 km (and halfway up the main climb of the day). We had already been on the bike for 2 hours, so you can see why we were worried about getting to Tok! At about 22 km we passed a rest stop and so stopped for our hot chocolate and a snack. There were interpretive signs about the caribou. The herds move up to higher hills at this time of the year, hence the hunters. You see many people pull off the road in trucks with ATV's on the back, scouting for caribou. We passed two men, one standing on the back of the truck scoping the hills. They asked if we had seen any caribou. We hadn't, but if we had would probably not have said so. We respect local custom and tradition, even with hunting (this is quite difficult for us), but when you think that in 1920 there was an estimated 500,000 of these animals living in this vast area and how drastically the numbers have reduced, it seems hard to belive that they are still actively hunted. There are signs along the Taylor Highway (which is what the Top of the World Highway is called in Alaska) advising that you are entering or leaving a Federal Subsistence Hunting Area, we don't know how this is determined i.e. who requires the hunt to subsist and who chooses to hunt even though they can buy food ordinarily. Of course, many families will have generations of hunting tradition. You don't want to make assumptions, as tempting as it is.
We watched the milage markers countdown from 48 miles at the start to eventually zero at Tetlin Junction. Then we turned right onto the Alaska Higway again (we left it at Whitehorse in the Yukon, where we turned right onto the Kilondike and the Alaska Highway headed off to the Alaska border) which is a brilliant road. It has a generous shoulder and a smooth surface, no chip seal in sight! Long may it last! It was a gentle downhill 20 km to Tok and the RV park we had selected. We were grateful for the weather, it remained clear and dry all day, although the headwind did strengthen towards the end. We are tired and body sore after 4 days of hard riding from Dawson City over the Top of the World, but it was a very worthwhile experience. So many months ago when looking at our route, Mike said "Hey, there is this road that goes over the top from Dawson, do you think we could/should do it? It's quite remote?". It was a bit of a dream, but now it is a reality. Before checking in we went straight to Fast Eddy's Restaurant next door to the campsite to EAT. It looked like a diner from the outside, but as we stumbled in, looking a bit worse for wear (literally), we saw the "Please wait to be seated sign" and it looked like a proper restuarant. To their credit, the waitstaff did not bat an eye and we had fantastic Alaskan burgers which were amazing. We were both pretty hungry. We then checked in at the campsite and had hot showers and then back to Fast Eddy's for dessert. We stopped in over the road at the Three Bears Convenience Store and a guy chatted to us. He remembered us from the Taylor Highway when he had passed us in his campervan and hooted. He was super excited to see us! He was a gold panner and explained to us that he spends summers up in the hills at a mining camp and they spend hours waist deep in the river dredging the soil for gold. They use their boats exhaust pipe down their backs between the neoprene of their wetsuits to keep warm in the water! He loves the lifestyle, but unfortunately this summer someone stole a bit of his gold. Oops.
We were in bed and asleep early. It was another cold night reaching -3 degC which was not as bad as the previous night, but we could afford a nice lie in as we will have a rest day here. The views of the Wrangell Mountain Ranges are beautiful from here.
3 September 2017: Rest Day: Tok RV Village, Tok (3 km)
It was cold overnight again, but not as cold as last night. We went to bed so early last night as we were exhausted and only really woke up at 7:30 am this morning; it was minus 3.0 degrees. We were woken by the sound of small things being dropped from a height. Poking my head out the tent, I saw a squirrel at the top of the closest spruce, picking off spruce cones and dropping them down to the ground where they piled up. Quite efficient. Later in the day we would watch him grabbing each cone and dashing off with it to hide it away. We have spent a lot of time watching squirrels on this trip. They seem to spend all of summer preparing for winter.
We did the laundry again (only did it 4 days ago in Dawson). It does help to have clean clothes though. We went back to FastEddy's for a 17 inch pepperoni pizza to share. Delicious! We spent some time in town, looking around and stocking up on food. We were suprised to find ourselves back at FastEddy's eating another 17 inch pepperoni pizza in the evening!
4 September 2017: Tok RV Village, Tok - Bushcamp Little Gertsie River (123 km)
Last night was much warmer, didn't drop below freezing, which is good when you are a cycle tourist! The day was a little cloudy, but going west and north west as we were, we headed towards the pale blue sky, totally clear. As we increased the distance between Tok and ourselves, we seemed to be leaving very grey skies behind. The blue sky ahead was so pale that as it reached the horizon it seemed to lose all colour whatsoever. The first 20 km of the day's ride were on a great quality dedicated cycleway which was a surprise. The road today was almost always very well-surfaced with a good shoulder and for us slightly downhill a lot of the time. We had a good tailwind as well as the day wore on so it was a pretty cruisy day.
We had decided before setting off that we would go as far as we reasonably could today as we want to try to make Fairbanks on Thursday this week (4 days). We are booked into a hotel in Fairbanks for two nights, Friday and Saturday, but getting there on Thursday would give us more time in the town. The mountain views today were magnificent, with a light topping of snow and the autumn colours were all around. We saw quite a few hunting parties, but otherwise the road was quiet. The temperature was good also, warming up to 20 degrees. We stopped a couple of times for snacks and just kept going. The river crossings were amazing, such wide glacial valleys with now relatively narrow streams, but clearly the water comes gushing through earlier in the season. We arrived at our bushcamp at about 4:00 pm and were quite tired by then, but we had ridden well and gone far in what amounted to 5 and a half hours of riding. We camped on the river bank and had a C-O-L-D dip. Not sure how many more of these we will manage! Then supper and bedtime.
5 September 2017: Bushcamp Little Gertsie River - Quartz Lake State Recreation Area (81 km)
Drip, drip on the tent this morning, very light rain. We took our time getting ready as we were not in a rush. We had 53 km to ride to Delta Junction and were looking forward to a warm meal and a bit of a town. The ride was easy. We wore wet weather gear but the rain was light. Once again, many hunters coming on to the road from dirt road off shoots. We crossed the Gertsie River and it was soooooo wide, river sand and mud as far as the eye could see and a few streams of water. This is called a braided river and there are many in Alaska, and in this area in particular. The wayside area at the river is excellent with restrooms and a lovely picnic shelter. Mike had initially planned for us to camp here but we had stopped a few kilometres short as we had done two days in one yesterday. This would have been a good option too but we were happy with last night's river.
We stopped just before Delta Junction at a butcher and bought some delicious sausages after taste testing a few. We pulled in at the visitor's centre at Delta Junction first to take the obligatory snap of the end of the Alaska Highway post and also to ask some questions about the services on the Richardson Highway at Salcha (our camp tomorrow night). A sign on the door read "Closed for the Season". It is starting to happen already. I went into the O'Sullivan Roadhouse across the way to ask where we could get wifi. We are currently roaming with our same Canadian mobile data provider, but the monthly auto payment last night hasn't gone as smoothly as we would have liked so we were without service today. He said we could go to the local library for free wifi. On the way we stopped at the IGA and bought delicious fried chicken, onion rings, lasagna and egg rolls (what a combination!!) and ate it at the dining area provided. We picked up some more supplies and then headed to the library where we spent a happy warm and dry hour getting sorted online. We set off and stopped briefly at Rika's Roadhouse where there was camping, but only RV parking in the carpark so not suitable for us. The State Recreation Area in Delta Junction however looked great, just too close for us. After this we crossed the Tanana River (BIG floodplain, braided river once again) and headed off for Quartz Lake. The road to the lake is a bit up and down and 3 miles long, but sealed and we had the advantage of a lovely picnic shelter all to ourselves all afternoon. Our lake swim was again very cold. The rain came and went all afternoon, so the picnic shelter was very much appreciated. We think we might pitch our tent under the shelter. Not many other people about!
6 September 2017: Quartz Lake State Recreation Area - Bushcamp Salcha River (79 km)
We fitted our tent in between the picnic tables and settled in for a peaceful night's sleep. There were quite a few people out and about in the dark and rain, some were on boats from the lake. We didn't really know what was going on, why would you be walking about chatting in the rain and the dark? In the early hours a strong, gusting wind came up. It grew very strong, bashing into my side of the tent. Around 5:30 am Mike got up to attach the guy ropes to the tables and benches on that side and it helped. We got up at 6:00 am anyway as we were very apprehensive about riding in the wind. We thought it might be a crosswind and as it seemed galeforce, might be unrideable. I bent over double walking to the toilets, the wind was so strong. We finally made it up the hill from the campsite and got back onto the Richardson Highway, where the wind became a raging tailwind that blew us all the way to our campsite at Salcha River. It was amazing! We had some climbs and the tailwind really helped. We had good views and stopped at Birch Lake for our hot chocolate. The day went so quickly and we couldn't believe that we had been so worried about it! During the course of the day many military vehicles passed us going south;,massive convoys. The are large military bases at Fairbanks.
We planned to stop at Salcha River Lodge just at the campsite for lunch and to weigh up our options. With this wind we could get anywhere. Fairbanks would probably be a bit too far and there weren't really campsites between now and then which were on the road. In the end we decided there was no use rushing, we would have the same direction, but slightly lesser wind tomorrow (according to the weather forecast) so that should blow us into Fairbanks anyway. We could just relax at the campsite for the afternoon. We had another cold river swim and did just that.
7 September 2017: Bushcamp Salcha River - Best Western Chena River, Fairbanks(75 km)
We had a hotel booking for 8 and 9 September and were now getting to Fairbanks a day early. The rate to add an extra night online was much higher than the initial booking cost so after packing up, we stood by the rushing Salcha River and rang the hotel who honoured our previous rate and we added a night! Whoo hoo! Hot shower tonight and all the power we could ask for! We set off in the COLD morning, temperatures hovered just above freezing for quite a while. We are back to the school bus run, it's been months since the last one at the end of June in Canada! Little kids waiting by the roadside in T-SHIRTS!! "You're tougher than I am!" I yelled out to one through my balaclava.
Before long we were nearing North Pole where it's Christmas every day of the year! It's a strange little idea of a town and we didn't stop. We preferred Rovaniemi in Finland which is at least on the Arctic Circle. Shortly after North Pole we stopped at what is probably our first real American Diner, called "Little Richard's". Terrific breakfast for me and burger for Mike. MASSIVE bottomless coffees. Great brunch stop! After this we passed by Eielson Airforce Base which is visible from the road. Alaska has a huge military presence, particularly around Fairbanks. The Richardson Highway is in great condition, wide shoulder and dual carriageway, Throughout Canada and Alaska on many, many highways you get these signs saying "Adopt a Highway" and underneath the name of a local business or family who has donated money/time to take care of a stretch of road, maybe only a mile or two. Clearly this money is just put towards general upkeep of the road. In this area we noticed that military squadrons were doing this. One sign coincided with brand new paving on the highway so those guys clearly took their responsibility seriously!
Coming into Fairbanks we turned off the main highway and then found that our planned route took us directly through a military base. We asked at the gate but they declined us passage. Our hotel is to the west of the town so we used a cycleway to get there and shopped for food on the way. We are able to check in right away at 2:00 pm and we look forward to spending three nights here!
8-9 September 2017: REST DAY Best Western Chena River, Fairbanks
The public bus in Fairbanks is excellent, there are quite a few routes and it costs $3 for a day pass which you can purchase from the driver. It is one of the most reasonably priced and easy to use bus systems that we have encountered anywhere in the world. We caught the bus into Downtown and did a bit of tourist things. The Yukon Quest Visitor Centre, which is a 1000 mile dog sled race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse along a similar route to which we have cycled, was good, as was the main visitor information centre. The weather was beautiful and we liked downtown Fairbanks a lot.
We ended up getting back to the hotel in the early evening and as the aurora was forecast to be excellent tonight due to a large solar storm we got organised for a late night ramble. The hotel is well placed to find a darkish spot as it is out of the city centre and right next door to the Bureau of Land Management offices, so a bit of bushland. We decided to set off around 11:00 pm and wore many layers of clothes, taking sleeping bags and mattresses with us and got set up in a grassy area, in our sleeping bags, to await the show. Well, we lay there for hours, dozing on and off, until 2:00 am and although we did see swirly changes in the sky and three shooting stars (one particularly big), aurora did not show herself tonight. We packed it in when cloud started covering the sky and went back to the hotel and into bed.
10 September 2017: Best Western Chena River, Fairbanks - Nenana RV Park and Campground (85 km)
As we left the hotel along the cycleway, a local on a bike struck up a conversation with us, asking us where we were going and where we had come from. When we said Toronto, he asked "Russia?". I guess that puts things into perspective, Alaska is closer to Russia than Ontario, Canada! He asked when we had set off and we said "4 months ago". He laughed and so did we!
The road from Fairbanks to Anchorage is called the Parks Highway and if today's ride is anything to go by, it will be a great ride. The road is excellent quality, well-graded and with a great surface and wide shoulder. So much so that even though we climbed over 1000 m, mostly over two main climbs, it didn't feel too taxing. Or maybe that's three nights in a hotel talking. Or maybe that's what you get after cycling 8,100 km, the hills get easier? Otherwise the weather was a bit dodgy to start, the roads were wet and it drizzled a bit now and then, but as soon as we were over the hills from Fairbanks, the skies looked much clearer and the sun even came out. We stopped at a view point which afforded wide views over the Tanana Valley and chatted to two Canadians from Winnipeg. They were also headed to Anchorage and had left Dawson City YESTERDAY. It's so weird for us to hear about the distances people manage by car, Dawson City was about two weeks ago for us!
The best feature of the day was the intense gold of the birch tree leaves, interspersed with evergreen spruce. It was really beautiful. We reached Nenana which has a great train station building and also an interesting lottery: The Nenana Ice Classic. You can bet on the timing of the spring breakup of the Tanana River which is determined by the falling of a Tripod structure through the ice, that is, to the exact minute! It is a huge annual event that started in 1917. There is a platform on the river's edge which the judges use to watch the ice break. At the restaurant where he ate there was a a LARGE bound book of last years entrants names, thousands. The prize is pretty generous too! The campground here is very nice and neat, a great little park.
11 September 2017: Nenana RV Park and Campground - Bushcamp at Rest Stop after Bear Creek (60 km)
As we had a short day today, we left around 10:00 am after stopping to buy a tin of beef and hash for dinner at the grocery store in Nenana. We had a strong headwind all day today, but the road was good, wide shoulder and good surface and quite flat all the way. The beautiful golden birch trees. We are headed for Denali and will reach it tomorrow and I was quite excited wondering when we would be able to see it, but it was very cloudy today with rain about so there was not much chance of that. The hills are getting closer though.
Unfortunately the only bad thing of the tour happened today. We were cycling along a small pond and heard a noise. Suddenly a moose popped it's head up over the reeds and looked to be wanting to jump up onto the road. We kept going and then heard it again so we stopped and looked back. As it leapt up onto the road and run across, it was hit by a car. There had been a car coming the other way as well so the moose seemed a bit unsure of what to do. Fortunately, the person in the car seemed to be okay, but unfortunately the moose wasn't killed on impact as the car was quite small. We couldn't watch. We turned and cycled away. Not wanting to generalise, but most people here carry a firearm so hopefully someone would have been able to euthanise the animal.
We stopped at Tatlaninka Campground and gift shop. We had initially thought that we would camp there but the website indicated it was closed. It was open, but the tent camping was not very nice and showers were $4 a pop, on top of $15 to camp. Last night's cost was $15 including showers, so we decided against it. The giftshop was excellent though and they had free, freshly brewed coffee available. They also had a stuffed polar bear which was... big. Apparently it had been taken in Russia during the Cold War years and cost $50,000 to stuff in the '60s! We pressed on a further 10 km to the next rest stop where we had heard of a free tenting area. Sure enough, this little gem had about 10 tent sites, all with benches and firepits as well as a fabulous picnic shelter. No fee! Amazing! There was a gushing creek and we survived our coldest swim of the trip so far. Hands and feet instantly numb. It is a beautiful place with the ground covered everywhere by golden birch leaves. A huge flock of geese passed high overhead, south for the winter.
12 September 2017: Bushcamp at Rest Stop after Bear Creek - Miners Market RV Park, Healy (34 km)
The night was dead quiet but the wind came up in the morning. We were on our bikes at 8:30 am and spent the next three hours hours battling a headwind that was often gale force, gusting to 85 km an hour so the weather forecast said. Not much time for taking photos or even admiring the view, as the snow capped mountains of Denali grew nearer. I really struggled to hold the bike straight at times and came off once and nearly a second time. I dismounted twice and walked a bit due to it being impossible to hold a straight line and fearing being blown into traffic. Mike fared better, but my upper body strength is not that of a man's. We reached Rose's Cafe just before Healy and went inside really just to escape the wind and for a coffee, but ended up having lunch. It was 11:15 am anyway so that was okay. I struggled to eat as I had a headache and was just exhausted. We had only ridden 30 km.
At Healy, about 2 km down the road, we still had 20 km to Denali but the wind made it unrideable. I couldn't stay upright on the bike and we had a 100 m climb ahead which would be impossible. We pulled into the Miners Market campsite, previously known as Mnt McKinley which we were trying to avoid due to poor reviews. It was not the sort of place we would usually choose, but we had no choice actually. All we wanted to do was pitch the tent and get inside it. The wind continued gale force all afternoon. It will continue for the remainder of the week, perhaps not quite as strong, potentially ending our cycling at Denali. We have a few options. The Denali Star Rail runs until this Sunday. We are due in Anchorage on Tuesday which is only 5 days of "easy riding" to go. We are considering getting to Denali either tomorrow if possible, or Thursday, and then booking onto the train for Sunday. The train trip takes about 8 hours to Anchorage. At Denali we will still camp at Riley Creek and with extra time there, do a bit more exploring. It is certainly not the worst place to have time to waste! We will be disappointed not to be able to complete the ride as planned, but the wind conditions today were dangerous. Stay tuned!
13 September 2017: Miners Market RV Park, Healy - Riley Creek Campground, Denali National Park (26 km)
High wind gusts continued all night. I still felt a bit under the weather (literally and figuratively) in the morning, but my headache had almost gone. At about 6:45 am the wind seemed to drop a bit. We really did not want to spend the day in Healy so we took a chance and got on the bikes. It was only 18.7 km to Denali. The road is of course very picturesque as you wind through the canyon towards the Park, but it took all my energy just to focus on the task at hand. The wind was by no means as bad as yesterday, but there were still some very strong gusts and I didn't want to be caught unawares. It took about 90 minutes to get to the Denali shopping area and we stopped for some supplies. We then got onto the cycle/walkway which took us into the park. It is all very well laid out, along the Nenana River. We were so pleased to be here in low season, having suffered through the nightmare that was Banff National Park in high season! Felt like we had the place to ourselves!
We had both made peace with staying a few days here and then catching the Denali Star train from here to Anchorage. Ending the tour here will be memorable, Denali has more to offer perhaps than the 5 day ride to Anchorage would have. The winds are still forecast to gust to 90 km per hour which is not a good situation to be in on a bicycle. For many people just coming to Denali and catching the Star is a life's dream! We went to the visitor's centre first to ask some questions and then stopped by the train station to ask some more questions. We then altered our hotel booking for Anchorage to arrive a day early and then booked the Saturday train. It leaves here at 12:30 pm and arrives in Anchorage at 8:00 pm. At Riley Creek there are walk-in tent sites and we have the one closest to the food storage and also the rest rooms. We will spend 3 nights here. It is very cold and windy!
14 September 2017: Rest Day: Riley Creek Campground, Denali National Park
Last night we met Nicholas, a German cycle tourist who has been on the road for 20 months. He started in Argentina and has criss-crossed South America, cycling up through North America to Prudhoe Bay on the north coast of Alaska - the Arctic Ocean. Prudhoe Bay is to North America what Nordkapp is to Europe. He is also headed to Anchorage and he camped at the same RV park as us last night. We exchange war stories about the wind. He didn't like it either. He will take the park bus today as far as Eielson Visitor's Centre and then ride the 18 miles further on to Wonder Lake, and then ride the entire 85 miles back here, which will take him two days. He will then set off for Anchorage. He was interested to hear about the train as he was not aware of it. Sunday is the last service so that might still work for him if he gets back in time. The wind is still forecast to be problematic then.
The Park Road into Denali is 92 miles long and you can only drive into it in your own vehicle to mile 15. Thereafter the pavement ends and to go further, you have to take a Denali Parks bus. This is an interesting idea as it limits human impacts in the park. The only people who drive the first 15 miles are those camping at Savage River campground or maybe taking photos and so on. Most people book onto a green bus from the Wilderness Access Centre which is only 10 minutes walk from our campground. We weren't sure which trip to take as the one to Eielson at mile 66 is 8 hours long, but it does take you centre stage to Denali. There is also a 6.5 hour trip and then the longest is 13 hours. The weather was good. Today was the last day of the season for the buses and we booked onto one leaving for Eielson at 11:15 am. The cost is very reasonable - $34 per ticket. We got to the bus stop an hour early as we wanted to be the first in line which we were, so got the best seats on the bus (front right). The buses are old fashioned school buses and very nice. Our bus driver was Mike and he was great. There is the option of booking onto the tan buses which are more expensive and a "tour experience" but they are fully narrated which can be irritating. For the cost of our tour, we really only expected a bus ride, but Mike was excellent. Very knowledgable, pointing things out along the way and delivering just the right amount of information. We would really recommend this trip. It is a trip highlight for us. The scenery is spectacular, the best we have seen on the trip. The animal sightings were also brilliant. We saw 7 grizzly bears and two caribou and some moose. The bears were a single male, and two sows and cubs (in different places). One sow and her cubs crossed the road in front of the bus. At times there were hikers in close proximity to the bears and on one occassion a ranger came across to the hikers to assist. It was great to be able to observe the bears behaving naturally. The only other time we have been able to do that was on the Top of the World Highway when we watched a black bear forage. The animals are used to the buses. It seemed a good time of year with winter fast approaching and things in a state of flux.
We got back after 7:00 pm to find that the campsite had filled up significantly. We think the reason for this is the annual Road Lottery. From the day after the buses stop running for 4 days, 400 people per day win the chance to drive the Parks Rd in their own vehicles. A lot of these people seem to be camping here. We wonder how this goes as the road is by no means an easy drive, much of it is very narrow and winding. There are also not many pull offs along the way (mainly just specific rest areas and campsites). Nicholas had felt so privileged to have the road to himself for his cycle back, but that won't be the case and we hope he can endure the traffic! Also, advice to grizzlies everywhere is to pack it in now!
16 September 2017: Alaska Railroad Denali Star Train: Denali to Anchorage
Committed aurora watchers that we are, we shuffled up to the Parks Highway wearing our sleeping bags, and head torches on our heads. We did get a pretty good show, but it did not compare to our Walker Fork display. We had a bit to do the next morning, but it helped pass the time 'til the train departed at midday. We cleaned all our gear and chucked out stuff we did not need. I made a few trips back and forward to the skip while Mike competed with a squirrel with attitude for the paper towels. I managed to convince a couple of German hikers of the need to equip oneself with a can a bear spray and so got rid of ours. Virgin bear spray is the mark of a successful Canadian-Alaskan Crossing!
I can't say enough about the colours of this area and we really soaked them in as we waited for the train. This was the final Denali Star trip to Anchorage of the year, so we had pushed the trip as far into winter as was possible. We did not expect a tourist-type experience with a running commentary as the train went along. It's not our style so we found it vaguely irritating, but I guess most people would appreciate the insightful monologues. The views were spectacular and we were disappointed not to be riding it. We had reasonably good views of Denali from about the halfway mark, seeing most of it bar the top third which is quite lucky apparently. We drew into Anchorage at about 8 pm and stopped for pizza on the main street as we cycled away from the train station to our hotel. The pizza was good and as the place was a bar I guess that's why we were asked for identification. Mike quipped "What, don't we look 25?".
I was pleased as punch to find a bath in our hotel room so you can imagine my disappointment when the plug did not fit.
We had a good couple of days in Anchorage. The setting is very beautiful. The hotel had an interesting sign on the front wall warning of a moose which likes to visit and we even tired of the fabulous breakfast included in our booking price. We found an outdoor store to pick up bike boxes in the next suburb and also had a ride one day along the water and back. We walked around a fair bit and we liked the atmosphere. Our hotel offered a shuttle to the airport and we sat there for a few hours awaiting our flight to Vancouver amongst polar bears and grizzlies (stuffed) watching happy hunters check in their antlers and frozen fish boxes. Only airport we've come across with cold storage facilities!
16 - 20 September 2017: Clarion Suites Downtown Anchorage
21 to 25 September 2017: Vancouver
Our flight to Vancouver was via Seattle and took a while. We stored most of our luggage at the airport and took a train to the main town and then a ferry across the harbour to our very fancy hotel. Accommodation was expensive in Vancouver and so we ended up treating ourselves to this hotel. Beautiful night views of the harbour. We did quite a bit of shopping. Mike discovered the Fjallraven Concept Store to his delight. Unfortunately I started feeling a bit ill with a cold that I think I picked up on the Denali Star from a woman who coughed her head off the whole way. We managed to get back to Perth before Mike succumbed and had to take a few days off work as he was quite ill. The warnings over the public address system at Hong Kong Airport to please see your doctor if you return home with flu like symptoms did not help!
Prior to this trip we found people very excited about our Canadian tour. In my heart, I did not feel as excited as they seemed to be. On reflection, the magnitude and scope of it seem to increase. It is only long after the experience that I have realised what an undertaking it was and likewise what an achievement. We are certain that we will return.