The journey begins...

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Canada – Part 2

9/5/2007  Dawson City

It took most of the day to recover from our night out at the Chicken Saloon.  When we finally got moving we rode from Taylor Highway in the U.S. over the ‘Top of the World’ Highway of the Yukon, an unpaved 100 miles of winding road cut along the crests of the mountains, providing impressive vistas of the surrounding forested hills.  Gold mining was the origins of these hills and we passed a few old god dredges along the way.  There were very few other vehicles along the road.  The road conditions were not difficult and the combination of clear skies, clean air and pure water around us is what draws hoards of tourists through this remote area earlier in the season.  The road became paved just before we passed through this remote Canadian Customs border crossing and said goodbye to Alaska.  We set up camp at a provincial park at the Yukon River across from Dawson City.  We rode the free ferry across to Dawson City, leaving our bikes parked at camp.  Ate ferry runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is staffed by at least 3 people at a time.  This is the only way across the river here – as there is no bridge.  We walked around the historical town of Dawson City, the best preserved gold rush town we have seen.  The history of this town began in 1894 with Robert Henderson, a fur trapper and part-time prospector who found gold in Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza).  He was sure he was close to a major find and convinced his friend, George Washington Carmack to prospect the area.  Carmack and his native companions, Dawson Charley and Skookum Jim explored the area around the river that Indians called “Tr’ondek” – or Klondike to English-speakers.  These three lucky gold-miners discovered the major find in 1896 and poor Robert Henderson missed out completely on the richest claim.  Remnants of this gold history can be found on every corner in Dawson City. 

Like most of the towns we have traveled through recently, this town will close down to all but the hardiest residents, enduring through -40*F winters.  It is revived again each spring with a rush of travelers who stay to work the abundant service jobs that open up with the influx of tourists traveling to this popular destination.  After enjoying a pizza at a local Greek pizzeria, we walked over to Bombay Peggy’s – a small saloon with a soft-spoken, well-endowed female bartender with a very low-cut dress.  After a drink, we walked over to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, a small casino that we were told not to miss.  Darren and I are not much into gambling, but we were told that there was a show there that we must see before leaving town.  Darren was definitely skeptical, but willing to indulge my curiosity because there was no charge to enter and watch the show.  After ordering a drink at the bar, where all the female staff were outfitted in corsets, we took a seat at a round table in front of the stage.  The show began with 4 women singing and dancing in fishnet stockings with garters and dresses that they through up into the air to show their underpants to the crowd with a giggle.  Then the star of the show, Gertie, appeared and sang a few songs as she walked through the crowd and flirted with the men by rubbing the tops of their heads – Darren turned bright red when he was lucky enough to get this treatment!  We were both impressed with the high quality of the production and talent of the performers in this free show.  There are 3 different performances each night and we had seen the 2nd, but were both too tired to stick around for another.  So we walked back to the ferry where we met a girl on a bicycle with a dog trailing behind.  She had lived in the area for 6 years (even enduring the winter) and told us how the ferry is removed in the winter and the river freezes over so that locals can drive over it as an ice road.  Unfortunately the time between removing the ferry and the creation of the ice road isolates the few residents on the opposite side of the river from Dawson City. 

9/6/2007

We rode the bikes onto our first ferry ride of the trip to cross the Yukon.  In Dawson City we stopped into the visitor center for information where we ran into an Australian couple from Brisbane and enjoyed a long chat before continuing out of town traveling south on the Klondike Highway.  We stopped for lunch near Stewart’s Crossing at a gas station where a huge raven joined us for any leftovers.  It also inspected my bike while I went inside the general store.  All day we could see rain clouds to our left and to our right – but the road continued to lead us through clear skies.  We arrived back in Whitehorse in the early evening and stayed at the same campground we had been to on our way north where we could do our laundry and get a good hot shower.  Whitehorse holds two-thirds of Yukon’s residents and we were not in the mood to mingle in a crowd, so we stayed in the sparsely populated campground where Darren met an Australian couple there from Tasmania. 

9/7/2007  Kitty-lovin!

It was a cold morning and we enjoyed the amenities of the campground before heading back east on the Alaskan Highway – retracing the path we had taken to Alaska.  The road follows lush river valleys and crosses low mountain passes.  The day was overcast, cold and threatening to rain – fortunately we only experienced a few light showers.  In Teslin the staff at the gas station/diner was kind enough to allow us to eat our picnic lunch inside the diner where we could be warm and comfortable.  The ride was long and uneventful.  We stopped at a gas station at Junction 37 where we chatted with a couple in an RV.  Remarkably, the wife was an Australian and they had just recently returned from living in Darwin for 7 years.  So far from home, Darren had met 5 fellow Aussies in the past 2 days!  We decided to camp in Watson Lake again where their was Internet access and warm washrooms for only $10.  As I cleaned up the dishes from dinner, a friendly cat approached and begged for leftovers, which I gave up easily.  Afterward, it followed me everyehere and even crawled into my lap for a snooze by the fire.  I have always had cats as pets in my home and have missed getting kitty-lovin’!  It was a very clean and healthy cat and Darren couldn’t resist offering to let it sleep in the tent with us, as the night had become quite cold.  When Darren opened the door to the tent, it waltzed in as if it belonged there.  It was happy to crawl inside my sleeping bag for a warm and cozy rest.  I finally had to put it out into the night in order to get some sleep – I feared I would roll over onto it in the sleeping bag…then I felt so guilty that I had nightmares about it scratching the tent as it tried to get back inside!

9/8/2007  Cassiar Highway

Our camp-kitty returned before we left camp and didn’t appear to be too upset about it’s eviction from the tent – although it did seem to be sad to see us go…

We rode back to Junction 37 where we turned south onto the Steward-Cassiar Highway.   The road was much more scenic and undeveloped compared to the Alaskan Highway.  There were no center lane markings for the first 70 miles or so and a stretch of unpaved roadway for another 35 miles.  The forest alongside the road had not been trimmed back and seemed thicker with underbrush.  We stopped at a pulloff for a break where we met a fellow who recognized our panniers as the food storage containers he remembered from his 2 tours in Vietnam.  While sharing a couple of sodas with us, he told us how he had been an airborne ranger and broke his back while jumping from a helicopter that was on its way to crashing (after it had hit a tree).  He had nearly recovered and had no obvious signs of physical injury.  He and his wife were now living ‘full time’ in their huge bus-like RV (registered in Florida for tax benefits) and chasing good weather. 

As we continued on and just as I began to think about how it had been a while since we had seen a wild animal, Darren hits the breaks and does a u-turn after crossing a bridge.  There were a couple of beavers hard at work building their hut in the lake below the bridge.  As common as beavers are, it was the first time I had ever seen one in the wild, so I thought it was pretty cool! 

We camped at a provincial campground on the bank of Kinaskan Lake with snow-patched mountains surrounding the reflective waters.  We heard the sounds of fish happily jumping from the lake as we put ourselves to bed that night.       

9/9/2007  Glacier Highway

It was cold and foggy over the lake when we woke.  As we continued south on the Cassiar Highway the day grew warm quickly.  We stopped at the town of Bell II, which seemed to consist of only a 2-pump gas station and a small tourist resort with cabins and a general store.  We had lunch on an outside table before returning to the road.  At Meziadin Junction we turned west on 37A, also known as Glacier Highway, which turns southwest toward Stewart and Hyder.  This 40-mile road is meant to be one of the most scenic drives in North America, providing the rare experience of driving very close to large glaciers.  Over 20 glacial formations can be spotted overlooking the highway.  As we stopped for a short break and photographs, another motorcycle traveler passed by on a BMW.  A short while later his traveling partner stopped for a chat.  He was a very friendly fellow with a relaxed and happy demeanor.  He told us about the 2 deer he had hit with his the GS1200 he was riding.  I was also impressed with the hatchet he had attached to the front of his bike! 

We continued a few more miles until we came to a pull-out in front of Bear Glacier, a receding glacier that feeds Strohn Lake.  We could see the glacier extending all the way down the mountain in front of us as it poured into the blue lake.  As Darren pulled into the gravel, his clutch cable broke.  This is a common enough event on a long journey and Darren was prepared with a spare cable that he used to replace it immediately.  In another turn-out just up the road, a helicopter was being loaded with supplies in a huge net that it was carrying across the glacier-topped mountain. 

We carried on past patches of glacial ice and a fast-flowing river as the road narrowed between steep, avalanche-prone walls of rock and ice to the Canadian town of Steward.  There are 72 snow avalanche paths along Glacier Highway, making this a very dangerous winter route.  Just outside of town there was a large collection of boat docks – one of which was marked as ‘Salty Dog, dock of the world famous Captain Ron’. 

Stewart and Hyder share the head of Portland Canal, the 4th longest fjord in the world (at 90-miles), where Stewart claims distinction as Canada’s most northerly ice-free port.  Stewart also holds the Canadian record for snowfall – 27 feet in one season!  On the other side of Stewart we passed back into Alaska with out notice – since there is not currently a customs office here - although we did hear a rumor that there were plan to put one there in the near future.  An 1896 stone storehouse marks the international border. 

The road immediately became unpaved gravel as we entered Hyder, Alaska.  We passed the few town shops and rode for a few miles along the gravel road that led to the Fish Creek - a place where the annual Chum salmon spawning attract both black and brown bears (grizzlies) to feed before their winter hibernation.  Of course, the United States Forest Service realized this was attracting tourists, so they built a platform to overlook a portion of the river and began charging an entrance fee.  We entered about 4:30 pm and watched the river for a few hours – seeing nothing of interest but struggling salmon, blue herons and a bald eagle.  While these sightings are interesting, they were not the main attraction we had come to see.  Finally, about 7pm, a black bear arrived and walked around the area without even catching a fish.  It ate a few berries and walked back into the dense forest.  Further up the road was a glacier, but we were tired and needed to find a campsite. 

Darren wanted to backwoods camp, but I told him that I would rather be at a campground on account that there were so many bears around, so we rode back into Hyder where we were told we could camp in a field beside the Sealaska Inn.  After paying for the campsite in the hotel’s pub, we walked outside to see a black bear crossing the road about 150 feet from where we were to camp.  There were 8 other tents in the field – all belonging to an adventure tour group from The Netherlands.  After setting up our camp and quickly eating dinner, we went into the pub for a few drinks where we met Urs, a friendly traveler from Switzerland.  He had attended Boston University for the summer term and was touring for a while before returning home. 

9/10/2007  A Day of Rest

We slept in through the cold, foggy morning.  By noon the fog listed and the day grew to a warm 70-ish*F.  Darren removed the worn-out knobby rear tire from both of our bikes and replaced them with the more street-oriented tires we had been carrying.  He also changed the oil on both bikes.  I attempted to troubleshoot some of the problems we had been having with our laptop (with no success) and worked on catching up on these travelogues.  It was a nice rest day.  In the evening we saw Urs again.  He actually worked in IT and took a look at our laptop, confirming that it most likely had damage to the motherboard and recommended replacing it.  We all stayed up late into the night talking about all kinds of things.  If we ever make it to Switzerland, we will definitely look him up!

9/11/2007  Salmon Glacier and Fish Creek

We slowly packed up as the fog lifted over Hyder.  A couple of motorbike travelers from Seattle stopped for a little conversation on their way to the Fish Creek and glacier.  We rode toward the fish creek on our way to the glacier until being stopped by the sighting of a highe grizzly bear walking on the roadway.  Luckily it was headed in the opposite direction from us, but it moved slowly back and forth, often looking back toward us.  A big SUV was facing the animal and as it approached, the vehicle slowlymoved in reverse – while we slowly advanced.  An idiot in a car overtook us on the road and go ridiculously close to the creature with their window rolled down.  At one point the bear looked to be within a few feet of the driver before it turned into the wood and back toward the fish creek.  We continued up the curvy gravel road, some areas riddled with potholes, as we passed waterfalls and patches of ice along the side of the road.  For those that were interested, there were many views of the area’s rich mining history.  We traveled for about 17 miles until we reached the toe of Salmon Glacier.  This is one of the only places where you can drive so close to a glacier.  In fact, Salmon Glacier is the world’s largest glacier that is accessible by road.  It was intensely white and blue and the air was a bit colder.    As we continued to ride another 5 miles up the roadway, the glacier covered the valley to the left below us with its black and while stripes over the thick sheet of ice.  At the summit, we had a splendid view of Salmon Glacier, the 5th largest glacier in Canada.  As Darren looked over the bikes, a petite woman with a thick French accent approached to ask about our bikes and travel.  We initially responded with the usual vague answers and assumed she was the typical curious RV traveler we often meet.  After some light chatting, we discovered that she and her husband had shipped their custom-outfitted Land Cruiser to Argentina and have spent 3 years traveling up from South America.  Prior to this, they had traveled through Africa and when they were younger, they had traveled by motorbike.  We enjoyed their company as they shared strong French coffee and tea with us at a little table overlooking the summit of this impressive glacier.  This is one of the moments when I realize how very special traveling can be – how quickly it can lead you to new friends and amazing places – and I am grateful for the opportunity to be on this journey. 

It was already late afternoon when we finally parted company and we decided to stay one more night camping in Hyder.  Having made this decision, we rode back to the fish creek to see if we would have more luck bear-watching.  Along the platform we ran into the two motorcyclists from Seattle, our new French friends and Urs, so the time waiting for bears to appear passed quickly with quiet conversation.  After an hour or so, a black bear appeared beyond the end of the platform.  After crossing the river, it followed a worn trail that came very close to the platform, looking up with little concern at the gawking tourist with their gasping and clicking cameras, before it disappeared through the underbrush.  About a half hour later, a large grizzly made its appearance in the lagoon on the opposite side of the platform.  As it stood in a relaxed posture on a small island of land and tore a fish apart with its powerful teeth, I found finally understand the immense danger these creatures represented.  I was amazed that I was actually viewing this unique scene as I zoomed the camera lens closer to capture the animal’s movements as it fed on at least 8 salmon for over an hour.  Watching this beast, weighing approximately 600 pounds, running through the stream after a chosen fish, gave us a new appreciation for its speed and power.  As the evening approached, we left the fish creek while the bear continued to feed in order to set up our camp before darkness fell. 

9/12/2007  Burns Lake

We rode through the Canadian customs and back into Steward, B.C., where we did some quick grocery shopping before retracing our route along the Glacier Highway to Meziadin Junction. Shortly after this intersection, Darren spotted a black bear to the left of the roadway in a field and we stopped to take a few photographs.  We turned eastward on Highway 16, also known as the Yellowhead Highway, which has he lowest grade of any highway that crosses the Ricky Mountains – following the valley routes of four rivers.    The remainder of the day took us along a non-descript moderately busy 2-lane road linking small towns.  We camped for the evening in a free municipal park in the town of Burns Lake.  The small, free campground was near the center of town sat beside the lake and next to a skate-park where teenagers hung out.  Within an hour of arriving, one of these skater-teens gingerly approached to ask if we smoked joints (presumably in an attempt to sell to us) and Darren quickly and firmly told him we were not interested. 

Walking to the bathhouse, I noticed a dark old school bus pulling an old car and wondered what kind of hippie might be traveling in the setup.  Returning to camp, the owner was chatting with Darren at our campsite.  His name was Dan and he was a lone 41-year old from a small town on Vancouver Island.  He was living a nomadic life in the 1970 converted school bus that pulled his 1971 Datsun.  As we sat around the fire discussing various topics, Darren and I were amazed at his ability to recall specific historical events, names and dates from books he had read – practically verbatim.  Listening to many of his stories, Darren and I both later agreed that there was something out of balance in Dan’s mind, but we also felt that he was not a threat. 

9/13/2007  Borderline...

In the morning, Dan invited us into his bus for tea and coffee.  It was a very spacious and comfortable area, complete with a functional kitchen, a stationary table filled with all kinds of books, and a sleeping cot.  He had two dirtbikes and a bicycle packed into the rear of the bus and had almost finished a modification that would allow him to add a small stove.  On the outside, across the top of the entire bus, he had a line of Rubbermaid-type boxes with bulk portions of dried rice and beans and other provisions. 

He offered to share some sausage and cheese with us for lunch.  As we continued to talk with him and make lunch, we decided to stay a second night and have dinner together.  Dan’s stories were entertaining, although sometimes nearly unbelievable…Even so, we got the impression that he was telling us these anecdotes as the truth as he recalled them in his slightly warped mind.  By this point, Darren and I knew we were in the presence of someone who definitely had an untreated mental illness that was at best ‘borderline’.  He was paranoid, delusional and could not always distinguish reality from his own imagination, but he was functional.  He was skilled in carpentry and auto mechanics and he could weld and held a commercial truck drivers license.  He shifted often between these types of jobs and moved around to avoid the police, taxes, women and any other trouble – for he was quite paranoid about these things (can we blame him?).  After a ride to the grocery store in his Datsun, we returned to camp to find some new arrivals.  In an RV, there was a couple from Alberta (originally from Germany) and a solo RV traveler from Switzerland.  They all joined us around our campfire, sharing stories and cooking up a feast.  Later in the evening, after the RV campers had retired to bed, the 3 of us stayed up late drinking and talking.  Darren finally retired to sleep in the tent when he had lost patience with Dan’s incessant rambling - as he vocalized his wondering thoughts and various theories about life and people.  After Darren was asleep Dan told me about some of his hallucinations, which he vividly recalled and described as a real life experience – a very real and slightly frightening reality check for me into how unstable this very intelligent man could be.  I recognized then that it was time for me to excuse myself and go to bed as well!

 9/14/2007  A day of riding...

 After spending yesterday with Dan we were both eager to on down the road.  We packed up and said our goodbyes before continuing east to Prince George.  The ride south along Highway 97 quickly became a more heavily traveled two-lane highway connecting mill towns.  The railway also ran between these towns, being loaded with lumber from their mills.  We quickly passed through Quesnel and Williams Lake, both displaying green parks and quaint main streets, and began searching for affordable camping.  It was discovered at a gas station/ hotel/ RV park alongside the highway.  The only other campers were a loud group of teenagers who, to our dismay, continued to make noise throughout the night.

9/15/2007

It was raining in the morning, so we hid in the tent listening to the news and weather on the radio.  When the rain lightened to a slow drizzle, we packed up quickly and continued southbound.  The landscape was unremarkable as the roadway led us through hilly ranchland.  Some of the tourist magazines I gathered described interesing sights to see along the way, but we were eager to make our way south and only made a couple of rest stops.  It was a gray day of riding under overcast skies that occasionally dropped some light rain.  Turning west on Highway 99, we stopped at an old ranch house that had become a tourist attraction – offering tours of the working of the old-style ranch.  They had a lunch diner and offered cabins and camping.  We decided to stop for the day and set up our tent.  There were a couple of very large pavilions that we were able to take refuge in as the rain came pouring down.  While cooking, a female cat with two kittens joined us for leftovers.  The weather cleared at dusk and we took a short walk down the ranch road, admiring the huge horses that were now used to pull guests in a carriage tour.  Darren was surprised to find a WIFI signal and after building a fire, he spent the evening on the net while I wrote in my journal. 

 

 


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