The border between Alaska (USA) and Yukon (Canada) is unfortified, a narrow strip of bald land sweeps up the mountainside between trees on both sides, declaring the divide. 20 miles after this I rode into Beaver Creek and the Customs Post, chuckling ‘I wish’ when the guy asked if I was carrying over 10,000 USD. I grinned a lot at the country ahead as the uniformed chap stared back at me wide eyed as I rattled off my plans for the next twelve months. ‘I’d better give you six months’ then, as he realised he hadn’t stamped my passport when I mentioned the Atlantic and he had dropped the pen. He raised his eyes when I said I would be camping, lifted them even higher when I said I would be alone and higher still when I said I hadn’t yet been eaten by a bear and had spent the last few months camping in bear country.
For me the promise of Canada was trees, mountains and wildlife, and more trees and mountains and wildlife – Alaska on repeat. I had seen a lynx slink off the road into the bush just a few miles before and seen a throng of birds floating on a marshy lake, so it was already doing well. Mostly my love of Canada came after being coached at university by a Canadian Olympian rower. Buffy Williams inspired me (and the rest of my then rowing crew) ever since I met her a decade ago. Imagining the country to be full of kindly, eager folk like Buffy, it was always going to be a highlight on my L2L trek. It is certainly living up to my dreams, although Canada is anything but full by all accounts.
The Yukon is a vast, sparsely populated place with just 35,000 people, most of them living in the capital. Even if the country is empty the people are full of warmth up here and I am gathering my very own Team Canada, since crossing over the border and swapping Hercules’ country flag ten days ago. As in Alaska (which also had its fair and beautiful share of my much loved trees and mountains and wildlife) I have been humbled by the kindness of folks I meet on the road and folks connecting me up with yet more folks down the road. A driver stopped on the road to say hello and invited me to stay with her in Buffalo, New York when I reach the area in a few months, easily my furthest-away invite yet. I didn’t even know that my route would take me that way, but it will now.
A highlight of my Canadian riding so far was a smiling, gentle, spirited young guy called Iohan whom I cycled with for a couple of days last week, having met at the roadside in the rain while I slurped down a flask of noodle soup. Iohan’s journey has taken him all over Alaska and Canada so far and he is bound for the southern end of the Americas, heading south as I ride east. It poured with rain all day, snowing as we reached summits, hailing at times and was generally one of those chilly wet days that can make you a bit glum and the miles even glummer.
With company, lots of stories and a bag of marshmallows it was heaps of fun and not so cold. In pouring rain I confidently offered to teach Iohan how to light a fire as he confessed he had never done it before. On the third attempt we had a toasty blaze and the sticky deliciousness of roasted marshmallows to beat the damp cold into submission. On the second day the clouds had emptied and we whizzed down from Bear Creek Summit (having unwittingly chosen to camp at the highest point on the road for hundreds of miles) past bright white mountains, dappled with rock and scree through their snowy blankets, taking photos and films of each other for the others’ respective documentaries and blogs. Iohan is to be found at bikewanderer.com and I can well recommend his film on his ice road cycle earlier this year. It is beautiful and funny.
Another people highlight was a detour to the tiny village of Champagne one sunny afternoon. The village is much quieter now than in times gone by, with an estimated 20 families in the community, most of them working and learning away in Whitehorse during the week. The Southern Tutchone First Nation people have lived in the area for thousands of years, hunting and trading with other native communities from Alaska and Canada. The Alaska Highway brought huge changes when it first swept through the village in 1942, taking men away to work on the roads, bringing disease and new trade.
Traditional sod roofed log huts stood quietly in the sunshine among newer homes, all of them silent, it seemed. I cycled through until I found a weather-worn, gentle-eyed man named Glenn sawing wood and stacking it for the winter. His neighbour, a younger, chunkier guy, joined us as we chatted and we realised we had met a few days before on the snowy roadside as he and his hunting companions drove out from the mountain. I wanted to photograph the stories of Glenn’s face, wisened and weathered by years of hard work, hunting and beer. He wasn’t keen on the photo but apparently keen for me to return and live with him one day, joking that he would pay my family to come and live out there too, a sort of shy, roundabout proposition.
It was in Roy, a kind-eyed 85 year old, out for a ride on his quad bike that I found my photograph. ‘So long as you have film, you can take my picture’ after chatting for 20 minutes and asking if I could film some of his stories. What a privelege. I could have stayed all day, all week, for months – listening, sitting quietly in the silences as we both wondered on each other and made our way to the next question. He talked of hunting traditions and histories, his family of ‘I don’t know how many grandchildren’ and how it had taken three days on a bus to reach the village as a teenager in the 40s when he first came up. I pedalled away silently thoughtful, memories of home evoked by this gentle grandfather, a link to my own, long gone. Roy wished that my ‘onward journey be joyful’ as he drove off to cook up some moose for his dinner.
On the wildlife front, my big spot lately was a porcupine, munching on the roadside in the evening sun, the golden light making the quills look feathery and halo-like, in a spiky sort of way. I disagree with whoever told me they move ever so slowly. It waddled off into the bush at quite a pace when it clocked my presence. Altogether it was rather quieter than the red squirrels which start a high-pitched barrage of squeaky clicks if you invade their personal space, albeit 30 foot below their perch.
As I wend my way south, happily without the hairpin bends and steep dropoffs of the Chugach and Wrangell mountains of my last post, I am enjoying the varying states of autumn. Thick frosts have turned my water bottle solid on recent nights and stiffened my tent walls with sparkles. Everyone I meet likes to remind me that winter is coming, as if I hadn’t noticed or thought about it, offering up their own little bit (or big bit) of wisdom.
I have been really grateful to my new friends and hosts in the Territory Capital of Whitehorse. Not only have the lovely Hector MacKenzie and Miche Genest delivered roadside cookies on two occasions, looked after me and put up with my taking over their basement, arranged this and that and treated me to a beating by the local Rolfer, but Hector has taken responsibility for repairs and construction of mine and Hercules’ clothing. He has spent quite a few hours at the sewing machine stitching up holes in my gear, repairing Hercules’ flagset and making some deliciously warm fleecey waterproof pogies for my handlebars. Miche is a gourmet chef, so I have been treated to some fine, fine cooking too.
A few days before reaching Whitehorse (where I write from), after a long day pedalling into headwinds between the mountains and pretty lakes, I pulled down a gravel track onto the shores of Lake Kluane, white capped by wind and looking beautiful in the dusky glow. A rather impressive 4×4 motorhome sat under the rustling trees, a fire crackling warmly besides it. A smiling Swiss chap introduced himself as Claude and invited me to join him for dinner. A landscape photographer, living his ‘second life’, Claude converted a truck into a 4×4 motorhome and called her ‘Viva la Vida’ and is now travelling, exploring and photographing. Knowing how way leads on to way, I wondered if I should see Claude again when I pedalled off the next morning, for this country is vast and his wheels are bigger than mine. And yet here I am a week later in Whitehorse, having Calude to thank as part of Team Hercules for his part in adapting rack fittings for extra storage space and adding an extendable mirror to Hercules’ outfit while I am here. Way might lead on to way, but paths do still cross, happily.
Spending time with such interesting characters, sharing stories and ideas over meals round campfires or dinner tables, a lot of the talk and thinking has been about life, choices, paths and directions. I found myself slightly envious of Iohan’s and Claude’s freedom day to day in their journeys, able to divert this way or that as their spirit takes them, quite a contrast to my goals and deadlines for the Atlantic next year. I tapped myself back into line, quickly reminding myself that this is the path I have chosen for now and it is full of adventures. Brilliant ones at that and chilly ones, too, incase you didn’t know winter is coming.
Until next time,
Sarah and Hercules x
P.S Thanks to Josh at Icycle for taking care of my boy; to Whitehorse Public Library for hosting my talk last week and all who came along and kindly donated to the expedition kitty. Huge thanks to Hector Mackenzie, Miche Genest, and Claude Farriere and thanks also to Brenda and Garth.