Delta Junction to Dawson – Top of the World Highway – 330 Miles
Last night’s rain had disappeared and we set off in a cool 5C (40F) but bright sunny morning south on Alaska Highway 2 towards the Alaska-Canada Highway (The “AlCan”). With snow- capped mountains to the south, sparkling in the early morning sunshine we then headed south east along the AlCan, the first 100 miles of which was straight, flat and tree lined giving the impression of driving through a wooded corridor. The sunshine was lost for a half hour or so as we encountered thick fog, or indeed low cloud, till we started to rise into the mountains. The only memorable part of this was a juvenile moose at the side of the road. After a while we turned east along the Taylor Highway (Hwy 5), towards the town of Chicken. As the elevation increased, so did the panoramic views. This is the Top of the World Highway which runs along the mountain crest with stunning views of deep valleys and multiple layers of mountains on both sides. After a few miles the road turns to gravel, ascents and descents become more abrupt and road bends more accentuated with steep drop offs. The road links together a series of small gold mining communities dating from the early 20th century. Life must have been really hard for these early pioneers.
The town of Chicken is one such mining community. The original inhabitants could not agree, it seems, on the spelling of Ptarmigan, the water bird which frequented the area, so decided that Chicken would be a good alternative name. Shortly after Chicken comes the Canadian Border, the northernmost US border crossing – a simple procedure then a whole new country on the trip.
After nearly 200 miles of gravel roads, stunning views and occasional caribou herds on the horizon, we at last arrived at the Yukon River and a short ferry crossing to Dawson city. Dawson was once a mining town like the rest, but has been preserved in its early 20th century style, with hotels, music halls, Can-Can dancers and old town hall. A quaint, but sadly somewhat tacky touristic town, but probably better than the decay suffered by the majority of old mining towns.
Dawson to Whitehorse – 350 miles
Another early start, leaving at 08:00 under cloudy skies and sub 10C temperatures, we continued alongside the Yukon River on paved roads. The expectations of continued gravel roads did not materialize, and apart from a few hundred metres of gravel in a few spots, the road was good all the way to Whitehorse. Intermittent rain, again(!), sometimes hard, spoiled what was otherwise a great riding day. Views over the Yukon River were impaired by low cloud and rain, so no photos! Arriving in Whitehorse, yet another mining town on the Yukon River, the sun came out and all was well with the world. Whitehorse shares the penchant for preserving the historic downtown area with Dawson from yesterday, although unlike Dawson, Whitehorse seems to be supported by more than just tourism. No gold was found here in any significant quantities, but copper was found and mined. Whitehorse was initially established by the early pioneers travelling up river until they encountered a series of rapids. Hauling their boats out of the water they decided it was a good place to stay with a better climate than surrounding hills.
Riding for so many days with limited space for luggage adds a new dimension… clean clothes. The Whitehorse Westmark hotel not only had a laundry facility, but the machines actually worked well….the simple pleasures of life. I have just arrived back from a good, light dinner in the historic downtown area in a restaurant called “Burnt Toast”. The well-endowed waitress took one’s attention away from the less than memorable food!
Whitehorse to Nugget City – 285 Miles
Days seem to be merging into one another…….same routine… up at 6, shower, breakfast, load bike, read route map, make mental note of sights to see on route, fuel stops etc..and any warnings in the notes of dirt road or expected gravel sections…find lunch and coffee stops, arrive at another hotel, unload bike, shower, dinner, review next day’s route, sleep…..and start again. At 300-350 miles a day and hardly making an impression on the map I brought with me, one gains a new appreciation for just how vast this continent is. In Europe one can traverse two or three countries in a day, but here I have been in the same province for 3 days.
Today was a good day’s ride. Short at 285 miles, and with paved road surfaces of the Alaska Highway all the way. Of course we started in rain, having rained overnight as well. In fact, it has rained part of every day since we arrived in anchorage nearly 2 weeks ago. But when the sun comes out, as it did today for several hours, the scenery was stunning as it has been almost every day.
It is starting to warm up. Today, starting at almost 10C (50F), and warming to 18C (66F) or so, testimony to the fact that we are now more than 1,000 miles from Prudhoe Bay where we officially started our journey south. And the days are getting shorter, now getting dark around 10PM with no longer midnight sun exacerbated by low cloud and surrounding mountain peaks.
The Alaskan Highway from Whitehorse to Watson Lake is mostly uninhabited, with 100 miles or more between fuel stops, or indeed coffee stops. As we head south the forest is changing to mixed conifer and broad leaf deciduous lining the road and the surrounding mountains. The rocky, snow covered slopes of the northern section are now replaced by more rounded, and mostly tree covered mountains of more modest altitude, with lakes, broad, flat-bottomed valleys with fast flowing and high discharge volume rivers.
Three memorable points from today….The Tlingit Heritage Centre: A celebration of Native American (First Nation) art, craft and life style from the original inhabitants. Carved masks representing different tribal/family groups, animals and spirits were on display, as well as canoes and native clothing. The second memorable moment was a metal bridge over one of the many rivers. The ribbed surface, instead of being the usual orientation across the road, was in this case along the road, providing some very interesting moments as one tried to steer a fully laden, heavy bike across it. The steering was virtually ripped out of your hands and you had to hang on and power through to the other side. And thirdly the signpost forest at Watson Lake. Seemingly a home sick US Army G.I. worker from the 1940’s put up a sign pointing to his home town, some two thousand or more miles away…then someone else did the same..over the years the number of signposts has risen to 71,000. A disappointment form today is that I have yet to see my first bear. We spoke to a motorcycle group we met at a coffee stop who relayed an encounter with a grizzly standing up in the middle of the highway on our route, and some of our party saw a mother and 2 cubs along the side of the road, but today I have seen no more than some unidentifiable road kill, except for a very close encounter with a bald headed eagle which swooped down on the bike in front of me.
Tonight we stay in cabins at Nugget City…not a city at all, just a camp site!
Nugget City to Bell II Lodge – 295 miles
Waking to bright sunshine, blue skies and for the first time in a while, temperatures above 10C (50 F), the remnants of last night’s rain were still evident in puddles around the cabins, and soaked into the bike cover I routinely put on the bike at night. Today we were promised bears en route as well as all manner of other wildlife. Turning off the Alaska Highway we headed south today on the Stewart-Cassier highway. This must be one of the world’s most scenic drives, as we made our way to our next night’s destination, 295 miles away in Bell II Lodge. In sunshine we drove at 40 mph in the hopes of catching a glimpse of bears, elk, moose, wolf or other exotic animal. Some people were lucky enough to see, and even photograph a bear’s rear end in the distance, but I did not see a single one.
At the beginning of the highway the landscape is of gently rolling hills, covered in dense mixed forest. As you rise up on to the brow of a hill you can see an ocean of forest canopy stretching from horizon to horizon, and rising up against the rounded mountains in the istance. In parts there is evidence of recent forest fire with blackened tree trunks, the smell of damp soot lingering in the air, and scant new growth regenerating as yet on the denuded forest floor. The road gently rises to the Arctic-Pacific Watershed beyond which the mountains took on a much larger presence, some still with snow patches near the summits. And of course the rain started again, and lasted for half the day, sometimes with hail, and often quite heavy. The winding road, occasional gravel and mud sections of road works and change of incline meant modest progress, although we did manage to keep up 60-70 mph as we made a dash for our destination to get out of the rain. But it has to be said that the equipment is working well with full marks for the waterproof oversuit and warm clothing.
One remaining thought from the day? We saved the lives of two moose. Riding down a hill with a river at the bottom we saw two bull moose in the centre of the river bed. Pulling off the road into a small layby there were three hunters watching them through the trees. As we drew our cameras, they drew their rifles, but it seems the sound of three bikes must have spooked the moose which were no longer posing for us or the hunters in the open river bed, but now had disappeared back into the dense forest again. Judging by the guilty looks of the hunters, they should not have been hunting with rifles so close to the highway.
Bell II Lodge to Stewart – 100 miles
A short ride from the remote but beautiful Bell Lodge to the old mining town of Stewart on the border with the southern part of Alaska, we set off after a full breakfast in the pouring rain…again. But the Bell Lodge experience was delightful with Swiss chalet style cabins, wood burning stoves in each cabin and dense forest all round. A large, black raven sat on the rocks like a harbinger of impending doom squawking away at each passer-by.
The ride down the mountain in the rain nevertheless turned out to be eventful. In low cloud with occasional gaps one could see the teasing sight of snow-capped mountain peaks, and eventually the snout of the Bear Glacier as the largest of many glaciers clinging to the mountain sides. Rounding a bend, I lost my bear sighting virginity as we caught sight of a mama black bear and two cubs clawing at roots or grubs right by the road side, ignoring the passing cars and trucks only a few metres away.
I think movement was the key here. As we drew our bikes to a standstill and slowly approached the bears with cameras at the ready, she obviously decided we were close enough and stood up on her hind legs as a warning to keep our distance at about 40 metres. Getting close to a mother and babies is one of the “no-nos” of bear watching, as she will be very protective of the cubs.
Arriving in the small, old mining town of Stewart too early to check in, we carried on across the border into another small former mining town of Hyder in Alaska. As with most old frontier towns of the early 1900’s this was a collection of wooden buildings, odd pieces of rusting mining equipment strewn along the road, presumably to look “quaint”, but in fact looking just carelessly abandoned. Our humour perhaps was not at its peak as we were all very wet on the outside, and to a varying degree on the inside depending on the effectiveness of the waterproofing of our outer suits. Wet or dry, we were all cold and more than slightly disappointed that the promised sunshine had once again not materialised. Perhaps tomorrow….as this is a rest day and with a choice of fishing, helicopter ride to the glacier, white water rafting or just chilling out and washing the accumulated mud off the bikes, we are hoping for at least a little sunshine to dry out.
It has been more than a week since I saw anything vaguely resembling international TV news or a newspaper that was not about the goings on in some remote hamlet in the middle of nowhere. The biggestitem of any news is the foul weather which seems to have caught everyone by surprise, not the least our intrepid band of bikers. I saw a report to the effect that Alaska received only 13 inches of rain a year, mostly in the form of snow, but I think we have seen all 13 inches in rain over the past week and a half.
Wednesday morning update…The low cloud has cancelled the helicopter rides…. The high water volumes and muddy turbulence has cancelled fishing, the road to Salmon Glacier is so muddy that it is not safe to ride up on motorcycles, so it is a day of watching rain in another Podunksville again……but much needed chill out rest day and hopefully enough intermittent internet connection to upload some blog material……Enjoy.