Dawson City has a sinister seasonal split personality, like every other town at these latitudes. In the winter hardy locals and animals hibernate as the temperature drops to minus forty. In the summer it effervesces and teems with life and shudders under the shuffling feet of tourists, who arrive into town like a migration of wildebeest on the prairie. They get shuttled over the Canadian border from docked cruise ships or else have made their own meandering way here on motorbikes or in RVs. They come to catch a glimpse of this infamous wild-west town, clinging to it’s heritage, where houses are made of wood, the sidewalk is a boardwalk and there’s a nightly can-can show. Since the Klondike Goldrush more than a century ago a tide of misfits are drawn here too, girls with shaved heads and nose rings, burly, hard drinking men. There’s even a pub where there continues an old tradition of serving drinks which contain real pickled human toes donated in people’s wills. As you chug the crowd chants ‘You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.’ And I think that says everything you need to know about Dawson.
It was here I met a Swizz couple on bicycles, Aurelie and Layko, who had been riding north from Colombia. They had spent the past few weeks picking morel mushrooms in the forest and had earned 6000 dollars in three weeks, so they bought the beers at the local can-can show where it was agreed – we would all ride together over the Top of The World Highway into Alaska. A boat ferried me across the Yukon river where they were waiting for me on the other side, and we set off on a nineteen kilometre climb up into the tundra. On the way up we passed a couple of Canadians dozing under a tree with so much gear they could have been refugees evicted from their homeland. On closer scrutiny the contents of their tumid panniers and laden trailer became clear – they were carrying enough tools to repair an aircraft carrier, a tent that could have comfortably housed a mormon family, a sitar, a mandolin and a didgeridoo.
‘I don’t get it!’ bemoaned the guy ‘it’s taking us ages!’.
I almost pointed out his problem. ‘Well maybe if you’d left the orchestra behind…’
Eventually the road crept up over the ridges and snaked across the tundra, a rash of spruce filled valleys, concealing remote streams. In the distance the mountains were blue-tinged and bleary, somewhere a wild fire had taken hold in the boreal forest, the smoke mushroomed skyward and looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Grazing caribou, a reminder of how far north we had come, scarpered as we cycled close by, their white tails bobbing up and down. Grizzly bears hunt the Caribou, so each evening we scanned the tundra and hauled food away from our tents.
|The Top of the World Highway|
We approached the Alaskan border post with trepidation – none of us had a US VISA, I was banking on the guard giving me another 90 day VISA waver, even though I knew this was technically against the rules. The Swizz tactic involved responding to every question the border guard asked with a broad, inane smile and the same bright announcement.
You realise you need a VISA?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
Yes I know, but you’ve stayed in the lower 48 for almost three months, is that right?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
OK, fine, I got that. Tell me where you’re heading?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
It worked a treat. Eventually the jaded guard stamped their passport, and mine to boot.
Chicken, a small town just across the border, allegedly got it’s name because some official couldn’t spell it’s actual name – ptarmigan, which is a variety of local bird, and so he just wrote Chicken. I’m not so sure. I think some crafty, longsighted entrepreneur saw the potential of the name change and now Chicken, which really has no right to anyone’s attention, has a steady stream of tourists who pose by the town’s signpost and buy bumper stickers and rubber chickens from the town’s souvenir shop. Every year the bustling metropolis of chicken, population 30, holds a music festival: Chickenstock.
Outside the pub in Chicken were dawdling men whose faces seemed to be hanging from their prodigious moustaches rather than being supported by their necks. They pierced cans of beer with knives and downed the contents in seconds. The road signs around here were peppered with bullet marks. There is an adjective to describe all this, and it’s ‘Alaskan’.
The road to Tok cut through a crepuscular light as smoke encroached from the nearby Moon Lake wild fire which had been sparked into action back in June after a lightning strike. There was an orange lip in the otherwise leaden sky and the air reeked – not of burnt wood, but of burning tundra. We got through just in time, two days later they closed the road. Wild fires are of course part of the natural cycle here and the fire fighting heroes of Alaska, the pilots who drop water and fire retardant and the hardcore Smoke Jumpers who parachute in front of fires with chainsaws to cut away the bush, only get called into action when the fire threatens people’s homes or areas of conservation. Otherwise Alaska is left to burn, and it burns a lot. 3000 square miles go up in flames every year, it often burns in a mosaic because of the underlying permafrost so great fingers of boreal forest are left unscorched, unless the wind changes and the fire can burn backwards, firing burning debris into the air which lands in some remote part of the forest and another fire takes hold.
‘There is a kind of biotic riot in the summer outburst of colour, scent and sound… but always the season’s opposite haunts you: What about the winter? What must that be like?’ (David Roberts, Earth and the Great Weather, pub 1971).
Alaska was famously bought from Russia in 1869 at less than two cents an acre. A bargain if you like bog. Permafrost isn’t all that permeable so there are countless mosi-ridden pools brimming with decomposing vegetation, terrain known in these parts as the Muskeg. We cycled too across the flood plains of once epic rivers and I could only imagine the torrent flowing through them come spring. Now, in late summer, there was just a network of cement coloured streams trickling through. The Alaska range poked into view just briefly, ground squirrels scampered across the road and occasionally a moose loped onto the tarmac too forcing some emergency braking from our trio. We made it to Fairbanks where we spent the night in a campsite which was the type that featured, for free, a parade of wacked-out, bedraggled meth heads stumbling past our tents and making slurred, vague and mournful demands for alcohol and tobacco. Ahh, it was good to back in the good old US of A. Canada just doesn’t cut it in terms of desperate drug addicts.
In Fairbanks Ben, a great geezer, took me out for a film and food and then Duncan and his family put me up. Duncan had hosted several cyclists this year and had stories galore about my final stretch, the 750 km of road between Fairbanks and the Arctic Ocean, known as the Dalton highway, or more colloquially as The Haul Road. The Dalton is a supply route for the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline and oil fields of the north slope. The 800 mile pipeline runs adjacent to the road, almost always in view, and was constructed in the 70s, at the time it was the largest privately funded construction project in the world. This road north was only open to the public in 1994. The au caurant and urbane of my readership might know it from series 3 and 4 of the reality TV show ‘Ice Road Truckers’ where the tagline for the season is “In the Dark Heart of Alaska, there’s a road where hell has frozen over”.
If readiness can be measured by the quantity of peanut M&Ms in a pannier, my God I was ready. I was 2.2 kg ready. There were no grocery stores until my last stop, Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay, so the Haul Road was an apt monikor as I would be lugging eight days of food and my bike was as heavy as it’s ever been. On my second night out of Fairbanks I set up camp by the road only to discover I had lost my spoon, my only bit of cutlery. I’m experienced though, I thought. I’m adaptable. I’ve cycled from Argentina, I’ll improvise. After a spanner, a piece of wood and the lid of a water bottle I was left thinking two things – spoons are amazingly underrated contraptions, and sweet Jesus, I’m hungry.
Now I’m not entirely sure ‘trough’ is actually a verb but when I say I ‘troughed’ my plate of steaming pasta and tomato sauce, I’m sure you get my drift. And as my jaw grinded away, lips sucking up tentacles of spaghetti, sauce oozing down my hairy chin whilst I emitted a sound analogous to a walrus having an orgasm, memories danced through my mind of the journey north from Argentina, the literal one and the personal one too. And with my beard steeped in tomato juice and an indiscernible chunk of vegetable lodged in my right nostril, I thought ‘Wow. Look at how far I’ve come’.
Day three on the Haul Road began with the sound of rain drilling onto my tent and the words of Paul and Duncan echoing through my mind. ‘It’s not so bad‘ they told me ‘unless it rains‘. The unpaved parts of the road are coated with calcium carbonate for the benefit of the truckers but the bane of cyclists. When it rains the surface transforms into a brown goo, the consistency of toothpaste, which sticks to everything. That day was a mud bath as the road continued to get churned up by the downpour. I camped by a river and lugged my bike down to the bank, submerged it and scrubbed her clean, the next day was dry and I grew optimistic that the worst was over, the worst of course, was still to come.
Some drivers think they can scold cyclists as an adult scolds a child. In Fairbanks someone yelled ‘Hey buddy, get off the road, thems for cars’. It was kind of the occupant to share their opinion, and to take time out of their busy schedule of shooting road signs, scratching their balls and incest. Mostly though I get waves and a thumbs up but occasionally when a motorist has to slow down because there’s not enough room to pass and a car is coming the other direction, they get touchy. I won’t ride in the gutter and it’s better that I test their patience than they test my mortality.
‘Hey!‘ yelled the RV driver who had to slow down on the Dalton ‘You should wear something luminous, I could hardly see ya!’ What he meant of course was ‘goddam you for making me slow down!‘. I’m not sure though what was more stupefying about his complaint – the fact that I have a luminous yellow dry bag on the back of my bike, the fact that there were three more hours until sunset or the fact that he was wearing the most enormous eighties-style jet black sunglasses I have ever seen. So I gently reminded him that if he took them off, maybe he wouldn’t get locked up for manslaughter.
I arrived finally to the Arctic Circle to get my obligatory shot by the signpost. The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours. A tribe of tourists shambled past me with a tour guide who was pointing out notable arctic vegetation whilst giving a nature documentary-like narration, but the camera lenses of the crowd became focused on me instead of the flora. I half expected the tour guide to continue…
‘And here we have a cycle tourist. It’s a solitary male, you can tell from the brown crust of peanut butter in the facial hair. They migrate to Alaska in the summer and are scavengers by nature and will eat vast quantities of anything available, often picking up morcels from the ground, sniffing them, shrugging and devouring the find. This one’s been on the road a while, notice the veneer of filth, the wild stare and the pungent odor. We like to keep the cycle tourers wild, so try not to feed them. Look, there, he’s scratching his arse, we believe that’s a courtship ritual.’
|A Shamrock Orb Weever|
I rode past Prospect Creek, site of the lowest ever recorded temperature in the US – minus 80°F. Then through forests of spindly black spruce which can grow over the permafrost until I arrived at the Farthest North Spruce Tree (advertised by way of a signpost and which some joker had once tried to cut down), after which there is only bare tundra, a place too cold for trees to survive in the winter. Until the last tree the road had been bounding through the hills but now came the major climb over the Atigun Pass, crossing the Brooks Range and The Continental Divide.
The Atigun was shrouded in cloud and visibility fell to thirty metres. The headwind was fierce and slowed me to a crawl. By the evening I topped the pass, which had just a light dusting of snow, whilst the slopes of the mountains were yellowing with the coming of autumn. I dropped then, only a little, to a river where I spotted a bicycle and a tent. Leonard was a Canadian biker heading south, I camped next to him. The following day he called over to me as I shivered in my four season sleeping bag – ‘Hey Steve, there’s three inches of snow, and it’s still coming down!’. I unzipped the tent expecting a wind up, ready to scoff, only to find we had been engulfed – it was a white-out.
|Climbing the Atigun Pass|
I admit it – I had wanted some snow, because I wanted an archetypal Alaskan ending and a suitable crescendo to my journey through the Americas. Be careful what you wish for. I dropped roughly the annual produce of a large Colombian coffee plantation into my mug in an effort to warm me up and motivate me to ride in the snow. Leonard more sensibly decided to hitch hike because he still had to clear the pass.
I set out into the bleak white murk. Snow fell all day and the white mountains, peppered with snow yesterday became completely coated and soon blended perfectly into the cloud. My gloves were hole-ridden and wet, my hands took the brunt of the chill. I stopped for food for just 15 minutes – it was a big mistake. For the next hour my blue hands ached with the cold. I put a jar of peanuts on my handlebars so I didn’t have to stop to eat. Soon the mud that had collected on my bike froze solid and my brake levers, gripshift and brake pads were immovable. It didn’t matter much anyway – my hands were too cold to operate the brakes or gears even if they did function.
I camped early to get out of the blizzard by a road workers camp. The next day the sun was blazing and the snow had begun to melt, my bike though was in bad shape. The mud had frozen to completely lock the chain, the brakes and even the wheels. I carried it over to the road workers who had a water jet to get the mud off.
The next night I camped with a cheery bunch of bow hunters who fed me the caribou they’d killed on the north slope. They told me of six grizzly bears just two miles from here, munching on blueberries down by the river. When I left the next day in the fog I scanned the gloom for bear-shaped shadows but saw none. Then I remembered there were ten bow hunters out here scouring the tundra for caribou, with my bike I was about the right size and I hoped they didn’t mistake me for one of the herd. I wondered if I would end up on the ground, impaled, looking up at a circle of gruff, appraising faces whilst someone muttered ‘well, bit of gristle, but he’ll have to do’. Perhaps my head would end up above someone’s fireplace.
As I cycled over the north slope which was a vast, even expanse of tussocks and pools, up sprang my old compadre – the Shadow Cyclist. 21 months ago in the southern Argentinean city of Ushuaia I watched the same shadow cyclist, sinewy and sinister, stretched out to my right into the wind-blasted Patagonian scrub. As I rode north through the Americas the setting sun to my left would bring to life the Shadow Cyclist and he traveled with me. As my shadow glided over the tundra my mind was a whirlpool of memories, full of the weird places I’d been and the people that coloured them. In the distance the dark blots of roaming muskox could be seen on the plains, and up above snow geese honked as they flew in their malformed Vs and Ws, heading to warmer climes, as I continued to the top of the continent.
|The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline|
|A Muskox making sure I didn’t come too close|
Deadhorse – it’s assumed the eponymous horse died of the cold, I wouldn’t rule out boredom. Maybe it was a suicide, the horse might have flung itself headfirst into the Arctic Ocean after a week or so here. Deadhorse is a modern day, real life Mordor, and it didn’t feel like a place to celebrate. It’s the kind of place that might hold the International Agarophobia Society’s annual conference. Or it’s a place to send recurrent sex offenders. Its full of oil workers, metal freight containers, cranes, warehouses and machinery and nothing else. If there was a cemetery or a penal colony here it would actually add character. Of course none of that stops one of the town’s two hotels selling ‘I’ve been to Deadhorse’ T-Shirts. The best thing you can say about Deadhorse is that it is what it is, and what it is is a place for industry, not for travelers. There was no bar, Deadhorse is dry, which is just as well because if there was the residents would no doubt drink themselves nightly into a state of prelapsarian bliss in an attempt to forget about where they were. It was, in short, a massive anti-climax. At the end of Africa was the hubbub of Capetown and the glorious towering symbol of Table Mountain, here there was gloom, mud, bogs and ambient despair. There were no dancing girls to welcome me in and put a wreath around my neck, instead an oil worker came over to me –
‘You cycled up from Argentina then?’
‘Why you wanna do that?’
For two days I sat in the Aurora Hotel where everyone assumed I was a guest or an oil worker and plundered the buffet without ever opening my wallet. I stole so much food, presumably paid for in some round about way by the oil companies – so I felt no guilt, that I could hardly move. It was Grand Theft Edible. That night I sneaked inside a deserted warehouse that was sinking into the permafrost. In the back room was some floor space not covered by the glass and assorted junk over the rest of it, and I made it my home.
|Courtesy of British Petroleum, unwitting sponsors of Cycling The Six|
So what’s next – well my plans have been in flux of late but suffice to say things are looking peachy and there will be some important and very exciting updates coming soon. I will spend September here in Alaska where I will be speaking at the Alaska World Affair’s Council in Anchorage (20th Sep) and in Juneau (18th). In October I will fly to Australia, continent number five – a full plan coming soon. Expect a long overdue equipment review on this blog and some statistics about my ride through the Americas.
Thank yous – Huge thank yous to Duncan and family, Ben, Ed the trucker, the hunters from Minnesota, everyone who fed me on the Top of the World Highway, and anyone I’ve left out.
I’m commencing a 60 day crowd-funding campaign in September which will enable me to finish this journey – I will post on this blog in the coming weeks – please have a read, and if I can convince you to help me realise my dream of riding the length of six continents then make a donation, otherwise this blog will be put to bed, and my Mum for one will be disappointed. You can’t donate yet but I’ll post the link on here when you can. This video doesn’t really explain why you should, but it’s quite amusing…