Yukon and on and on
They call it ‘The Highway of Tears’. Since the seventies more than twenty women have vanished off the main road that sweeps east-west across British Columbia connecting the port of Prince Rupert and the town of Prince George, most of them hitch-hikers, most Native Americans. Each body unearthed from the forest adds to the tally of an uncaught killer. The eyes of these women gazed at me from the roadside missing posters as I cycled by – sentient, sparkling eyes, in concert with playful smiles, maybe because a loved one had called their name and snapped a surprise photo. The mood of that instant, captured in a time when they weren’t missed or mourned, was at odds with the bleak details of their disappearance or murder in the print that followed.
For three days the weather was congruent with the road’s repute and the sadness that seeped from each poster and missing smile. A tense, metallic sky drooped low over the forest, the rain-laden clouds almost enveloping the spiny tops of the spruce trees which sprawled out over the hills like an ancient army ready for battle, their ranks broken only by the odd raggedy lake. I edged west until the coastal range jerked up out of the western horizon, as fast as a pop-up in a children’s book. Buried in a crease of glinting rock was the Hudson Bay Glacier – the first river of ice on my route since I was embroiled in a battle for air in the lofty peaks of the Cordillera Blanca range in Peru. During the summer in these open, almost unpeopled lands in the northern reaches of North America I can read my book at midnight by the afterglow of a sun that dinks beneath the horizon only briefly before it’s up again too early, night here is just a harried caller.
I stayed in a cabin one night on Highway 16, a refuge set up by a local man for tired bikers to use for the night. There was a guestbook where cyclists scribbled ‘keep the rubber side down!’ and wished each other tail winds, and there were discarded items lying about for others to take or trade, items whose weight was not deemed worth their usefulness. Books, a mirror, a ladle and some condoms, presumably someone was feeling a little pessimistic about their chances with the Alaskan totty, if that’s not an oxymoron.
The roads and my options become fewer up here – I have only one real choice to make for the next 3000 km before the Dalton Highway ferries me into the arctic circle and eventually to the Arctic Ocean where my northbound romp I began one year and eight months ago from Argentina comes to a head. From highway 16 I hung a right onto the Cassiar Highway and Canada got wilder. The road pierces a huge tract of sparsely populated back country, ending after 723 km at the Alaska Highway in the Yukon. I rode past vivid sprays of intermingled pink and saffron wild flowers riven by crooked corridors of flat foliage – trails made by foraging black bears. On my first day on the Cassiar I spotted four bears, all made a dash from the road once I got close and camera-ready. A day later a female with four cubs trundled out onto the tarmac, so I kept my distance in case Mum’s instinct to protect her young included mauling any bikers in sight. Two weeks before an American cyclist had been attacked by a wolf near here as he cycled. He dived inside an RV just in time, the wolf tore apart his panniers. A bear attack though, I mused, might have a silver lining. I don’t really want the fear of death, but to survive with a nice claw mark to show for it and no PTSD would provide a good yarn and probably the legacy of never having to buy my own beer again. Maybe that’s my fate. To hunch in a corner of some dingy local haunt, full of old soaks, a place where I’m local too and no longer a stranger, when I’m gnarled and grizzly and stout-soaked and rambling. ‘That’ll be ole Fabesy’ the barman might say. ‘Beat a Grizzley to death once. Buy ‘im a beer ‘n he’ll tell y’all bout it.’
Mountains, snow-spotted and rusty-verged and scarred with the eroded channels of invisible streams, towered over deep interlocking valleys. The Cassiar became elevated in sections and land tumbled down either side into a parade of pine trees, as rigid as nails, crowded together, unshakable in the soggy and loam-scented breeze. In the evenings I camped by lakes where I could wallow through the soupy, reed-scattered fringes and wash off the day. The sanguine light of the low sun glanced off the water and thousands of glinting motes, the wings of insects, flickered just above the surface, and for hours I heard the plops of fish that flipped out to gobble them up.
There were places on my map with names, like junctions, dry creek beds and long abandoned towns, and sometimes it was two hundred kilometres or more before I landed on somewhere useful with water and food. Sometimes it was a fiercely priced lodge, sometimes just a store with parochial, miserly proprietors who reminded me not to bring my own food inside and in one case refused to fill up my water bottle, because, and I quote verbatim ‘I don’t know where it’s been’. I flashed him a wan smile, thinking about where I’d like it to go. Canadian hospitality has flourished in every other respect though – I’ve been donated money, beds, campsites, peanut butter, salmon, a dry bag, a high five, and oceans of good vibes. So thank you Canada.
When I wasn’t rough camping or pitching in some ominously labeled lay-by called something like ‘The Rabid Grizzly Rest Stop’ (that place really does exist), or on the fringes of a small Native community, I rested up in campsites, even though BCs pricing policy is about as logical and fair as the British National Party’s manifesto. In BC government campsites you are charged per ‘camping party’ – which can be an RV the size of a long distance passenger coach, three tents and eight people, or alternatively: one man and a bicycle. And you can’t team up with other soloists – ‘you arrive alone, you pay alone’ scorned a mardy attendant.
Scarpering bears and porcupines and chats with bikers broke up my days on the Cassiar, the cyclists were all heading south, autumn falls in August up here and I’m traveling late in the season. Motorcyclists waved and RVs rallied by. Evidently Earnest Shakelton brought a smoothy maker, a foot spa and a microwave to Antarctica. Or at least that’s what the RV manufacturers would have you believe with names like The Adventurer and The Expedition. And there was the slightly more tepid Excursion, which invites the question – why do you need a 33 foot mega-vehicle with leather couches and a Sony home cinema system if it’s only an excursion? Some have run with the tested, zesty names of predators – The Puma, The Cougar, The White Hawk, and then breaking tradition there’s the less ostentatious Mallard. Come on, The Mallard? Who’s going to buy one of those? Except the obvious market: roving ornithologists. At a guess the Mallard stays in the garage, the Cougar gets the driveway. I liked the occupants of the Mallard though, they honked and waved and cheered me on, which made me think that either ornithologists are all very chirpy, or very high. Perhaps there’s a promotion on at the Mallard dealership – each vehicle comes with a year’s supply of Ecstasy.
There’s the King Kamper too, RV manufacturers have been studying the greats of hiphop, breaks and dubstep production by putting a K where a C should be to add some edge. And of course the road hogging assholes that drive THE INTRUDER. I can imagine the American Infomercial now: a brash and angry man shouts abrasively into camera…
‘You wanna crush some nature? You wanna kick the shit out of the wilderness? You need THE INTRUDER! Comes with three moose-seeking missiles, a license to hunt Native Americans and a flame thrower so you can start your own wildfires. Don’t visit nature, INTRUDE on it! Or for just 300,000 bucks more upgrade to THE DEATH STAR and get a year’s supply of Napalm absolutely free!’
There can’t be a more convincing argument against the existence of a benevolent God and Creator than the mosquito, and the Yukon is their domain. For the last two days on the Cassiar Highway the insects were about as prevalent as my fleeting urge to throw myself under a truck because of them. Cycling became more relaxing than not because my break time involved a myriad of buzzing Beelzebubs feeding on my blood before making sweet insect love in my nostrils and having a party on my face. At night thousands swarmed around my tent and between the inner and the fly. Sometimes I’d stop to chat with another biker heading south, we’d both make harried conversation whilst slapping away feeding mosquitoes, vigorously scratching old bites, twirling around wildly to break the cumulus cloud of flying critters and cursing loudly. The best simile I can offer is a pair of people with severe Tourettes attempting to Morris dance after a weeklong crack cocaine binge. It might sound unlikely, but I’m fairly sure that’s a Saturday night in some parts of Manchester.
|Mosquitoes in my effing home|
The Yukon is a colossal territory north of BC, a hinterland of bear-filled forest and scattered lakes in the watershed of it’s namesake, the Yukon River. I rode northwest through the Yukon along the Alaska Highway, gone were the valleys and peaks, in their place just scores of dead spruce whose reflections stewed in the inky swamps they protruded from. Wild fires in the 80’s wiped out great swathes of forest here and the young trees planted in their place are resplendent green and already house high. More recent fires had left only blackened stumps, between them a scintillating rug of fireweed – a pioneer species that paints the tarry remnants of an old blaze a ferocious pink – was nature’s two fingers up at destruction. Some crown fires are so immense they can burn through the winter months too, only to be fully extinguished in the spring when firefighters dig up the smoldering earth.
I can’t shake the thought that there’s something innately vapid and cheesy about using travel as a road to self-discovery. For me it conjures the image of hapless nineteen year olds traveling to the banks of the Ganges to ‘find’ themselves. I didn’t embark on this journey by bike to that end, discovery was in my mind reserved for the outside world and not the internal one, but I’ve had the treacle-like drip of time on my bike to ponder, to analyse, to remember, to regret and to dream, so inevitably self-reflection happens whether I was expecting or willing it to or not. ‘Finding myself’ though might be overkill, I’d prefer to stay a little lost.
There have been no grand revelations though, no big questions done away with. And I was the barely yellow, ripe around the edges, years away from moldy, age of 29 when I left on my bike, so travel hasn’t ram-raided the shop front of my personality either. My priorities have shifted, though I won’t be adopting an orphan from Malawi.
So what have I learnt about myself exactly? Perhaps I’ll explain more if I ever write a book about all this. In those rookie days back in 2010, when I shivered inside an ice-encrusted sleeping bag and worried a bit about exposure, one thing that I did discover was how much I was capable of, and it was more than I thought. I’ve been pushed in countless ways and finding out how much solitude, how much exhaustion, how much fear and how much boredom I can deal with before my brain screams Enough! Go home! was good to know. When push came to shove I didn’t immediately pencil in a route on my map to the nearest airport. I coped, and sometimes more than that, I reveled in the test. This doesn’t of course mark me out as special or heroic, in fact it’s the opposite – it’s the most average response in the world. In many respects most of us have a deflated opinion of what we’re capable of. It’s why the clichéd dictum of ‘you can do anything you want to’ is so clichéd – because despite the superficial welcome it receives, despite how regularly it’s banded about, how many people really believe it?
Finally I arrived into Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon and a stonking place in the Granola belt of Canada where friends Kirstin and Cameron gave me a bed, introduced me to the best TV show on earth (check out ‘Drunk Histories’) before we had a great knees up for Kirstin’s birthday which involved, though not from memory, rum. Five uninspiring days of riding after I left Whitehorse, brightened only by Greg Proop’s podcast on my IPOD, I got to the very trippy wild west town of Dawson City, created and made famous by the Klondike Gold Rush, where I have teamed up with two Swizz cyclists – together we will ride into Alaska via the rough and tough and high and allegedly stunning border crossing known as ‘The Top Of The World Highway’, which for touring cyclists is one of the most famous roads in the Americas. And I have decided no more shaving, a cultural homage to the men and women that live in Alaska. Wait up, do women live in Alaska?
Thank yous – Kirstin and Cameron – you are the bee’s knees. Jon and Jenna – Bobby Dazzlers, the pair of you. Brenda – mad props. The Goldrush Campsite, The Cycle Canada crew, Jon from Rainbow RV park, some other anonymous headz. Next month is my last blog post from this continent, there might be snow in them photos too.
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