Loose gravel, kilted runners and a grizzly encounter!

Posted by Gordon Dunlop on October 10, 2015

Our first full day in Canada was a well-earned rest day in the border village of Beaver Creek. Well-rested, families contacted and website updated, we set about the task of attacking “the Yukon.” The Yukon Territory is Canada’s most north-westerly territory and, despite covering an area more than 6 times the size of Scotland or 3 times the size of Wisconsin, is home to a population of only 33,000 people. Cycle touring in the Yukon can be lonely, though as we were to discover, a friendly face is just around the next corner.

Our route would take us along the Alaska Highway, crossing the south-west corner of the Yukon then heading east along the Yukon / British Columbia border. The Alaska Highway boasts a fascinating history as it was borne out of the historic trails which served as fur trading routes used by the native population and early explorers. These trails developed during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 19th century before the current highway was constructed during the 2nd world war as a means of providing a land route, for the US army to reach Alaska, in the event of a Japanese attack. The attack never materialised but the highway’s legacy has seen a change in the Yukon’s demographic as communities – both native and migrant – now flank the highway.

Our introduction to Yukon roads wasn’t a pleasant one. The first 150km were not what you’d call ‘cycle friendly’. Loose gravel and seemingly perennial roadworks rendered it a battle just to stay upright, our frustration compounded by our inability to enjoy the Yukon’s exceptional scenery such was our concentration on the roads. We began to think the surface hadn’t been replaced since the highway’s wartime inception, however, the harsh Yukon permafrost means that maintenance of this stretch is actually a never ending task. After a second demoralising morning of loose gravel and tricky ascents, we reached a beautiful mountain lake close to the Donjek River crossing and, while breaking for a snack, we were struck by the silence, solitude and the beauty of our current location. With it came the realisation that, despite the travails of the past two days, there was no place we’d rather be and nothing we’d rather be doing!

We reached the hamlet of Burwash Landing, at the western end of the stunning Kluane Lake, after a gruelling day and, with Meg opting for sleep rather than food, I set about cooking dinner from the luxury of a park bench. Not long after getting tucked in to my pasta, a car drove passed and, upon seeing me on the bench, turned off the main road and up the gravel track to where I was sat. “Here we go” I thought, the stealth roadside campers had been discovered and we’d be moved on:

“What are you up to?” asked the driver.

“Just having some dinner” I replied.

“Where are you camped?”.

“Just behind the trees. Is that ok?” I answered tentatively, pre-empting the imminent “You can’t camp there”

“Yeah doesn’t bother us. Fancy a beer?”

Russell, Alana and Amanda were on the way to a party but stopped off for a beer and a chat with this thirsty traveller. My Saturday night was complete!

The next morning Meg and I quickly racked up the 10 miles to Destruction Bay. While stopped for a hot chocolate, I noticed an RV driver, filling up on petrol, and sporting a kilt! After two further kilt-clad types had descended from the RV, my curiosity sufficiently aroused, I wandered over for a chat. The kilted wonders explained they were the “Alaska Hash Harriers” or “a drinking club with a running problem!” After the remaining 9 members of the crew had disembarked the RV, we joined them in a beer and they explained they’d spent the previous day running a 110 mile relay in Whitehorse with a bunch of other “Hash Harriers” from around the region. The chat was great and we vowed to meet one of the crew at the Eco Lodge he runs in Belize when we reach there next year. Buoyed by our encounter and the favourable roads, we had a great afternoon riding along the banks of Kluane Lake – our most spectacular scenery yet!

With only 110 miles to the state capital, Whitehorse, where we had planned a rest day and our first “Warm Showers” stay (see Meg’s upcoming “Warm Showers” post), we began to rack up the miles - fuelled by the thought of a warm shower and doing some, long overdue, laundry! The two days between Destruction Bay and Whitehorse were punctuated by cold nights – owing to the higher altitude – two meetings with Stan the Man (see Meg’s ‘RV there yet?’ uplifting news post) and…our first (and hopefully last) grizzly bear encounter! While cycling on the road east of Haines Junction, I spotted the 400 llb colossus in the ditch at the other side of the road and signalled to Meg to keep cycling at pace. Alerted by my pointing, three cars travelling in the opposite direction stopped to capture a photo. All fine and well from the safety of a car, but, poor Meg was cycling 30 metres behind! Spooked by the cars, the grizzly got to its feet, making itself big (as if we were in any doubt as to its superior stature!) and darted across the road. Our hearts were in our mouths as the grizzly crossed between Meg and I, passing no more than 10 metres from Meg’s front wheel!

Editor’s note to his mum: Worry not. I’m writing this from the safety of Houston, British Columbia, well south of grizzly bear country!

After our close encounter, we were thankful of a stopover in Whitehorse. The hills and the wet weather mattered not as the roadside signs, advertising the town’s restaurants, had us salivating and pedalling that bit faster! Meg will share the story of our stay with our maverick host, Philippe, in her ‘Warm Showers’ uplifting news post. Suffice to say, we were very well looked after and thoroughly entertained!

Photo 4: Philippe’s climbing frame