A northern sailing brings two riders up the west coast and into Alaska and the Yukon’s historic, golden ranges.
When we mapped out a two-week ride through Alaska and Yukon and northern BC, my riding buddy Mike and I settled on the month of July as a target date, and the less travelled roads as our route. Only about a third of our ride would actually play out on such roads but the ones we did pick were sometimes unpaved and mostly in majestic, uninhabited wilderness, where we would see very few other vehicles in any given hour. We got a taste of doing something that was, to us, daring and challenging, and what adventure touring is all about.
After considering different route options, we chose to use Alaska Ferries to get from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska, the starting point of our ride. The ferry ride added another dimension to our vacation, a genuine slice of the true West Coast experience. For deeper perspective of the Klondike gold rush era that shaped Yukon and Alaska, we stopped often at the many historic sites, museums and displays along the way and came away each time further amazed and filled with much respect for the thousands of men who chased their dreams of gold up and down the rivers, valleys and mountain ranges we so comfortably visited by motorcycle.
Sailing from Bellingham on Alaska Ferries proved to be the best thousand dollars each of us ever spent. It got us and our bikes to Skagway on the southern Alaskan panhandle in an air conditioned, fully equipped cabin which was like a small motel room, except our window looked out to the best scenery in the world. We were very happy with the full service restaurant, cafeteria and pub onboard, all of which served excellent and reasonably priced food. The only item not supplied was the necessary rope or tie-downs for securing bikes to the car deck on the boat. You have to bring your own. There were five other bikes on the boat, some having travelled a long distance already, heading a lot further than we were, fully loaded with spare tires and supplies. The usual camaraderie among motorcyclists was even stronger, as we all prayed to the weather gods and prepared for the new adventures that lay ahead.
THE ORIGINAL SETTLEMENT OF Skagway sprang up overnight in the 1890s as hundreds, then thousands of prospectors landed in waves at the mouth of the Skaqua River on their way to the rumoured gold fields in the interior. Once the Gold Rush of 1896-1899 had ended with most of the would-be miners gone bust, the town declined and for decades struggled to survive on mining, fishing and logging. This pattern seems to repeat itself each year now, as tourism is the new Klondike Gold Rush for the area. There’s been a profound impact on this small town with the sudden arrival of thousands of tourists on gigantic cruise ships every day or two during the short tourist season. The streets of Skagway are a concentration of jewelry stores, art and craft galleries, gift and souvenir stores, restaurants and bars, all of which spring to life and stay open as long as cruise ships are docked at the foot of State Street, dominating the town in every sense. Rolling off the boat for the one kilometre ride to our motel in the heritage downtown area transported us to a bygone era of a century ago. We were glad we had made reservations, as there were few accommodation choices and “No Vacancy” signs everywhere. However, there is a motorcycle rental outfit in town, offering another option to tour the area on two wheels.
One of the highlights of Skagway for us was our heritage steam-train ride on the narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Railway that climbs 3,000 feet through canyons and passes in a 20-mile chug to the White Pass Summit. The immense effort, ingenuity, logistics and dedication of those who built this cliff-hanging railway in such steep, dangerous but beautiful terrain is humbling.
We took a few hours to ride part of the Klondike Highway (Highway Two) north of Skagway to just inside the Yukon border because it looked impressive when we spied it across the valley from our train ride. The steep climb into the towering mountains, motorcycle-friendly, fast sweeping turns and lookouts offered spectacular views. We returned to Skagway for dinner and prepared for next morning’s 19-mile ferry ride to Haines (“The Adventure Capital of Alaska”) and the true start of our ride through Alaska and the Yukon.
WE ARRIVED EARLY AT HAINES, AND headed north on Highway Seven, the only option for driving out of this small coastal community. We then spent the entire day riding practically alone through hundreds of kilometres of wide, green valleys ringed by tall, distant mountain ranges and carved by rivers, lakes, wetlands and forest. New sweeping vistas came with every rise we crested in the road and this went on all day. At one point, a large grey wolf trotted across the highway about 70 metres in front of me and disappeared in the bushes. Mike was too far back to see him. I later learned from the locals that this does not happen often, as wolves are shy, cautious creatures. Their elusiveness made the rarity of actually sighting one even more of a thrill for me.
For the most part the road lacked the twisty bits that make a biker jump with joy, but this made for relaxed, easy riding that allowed maximum opportunity to soak in the stunning scenery. As with most of Alaska, Yukon and northern BC, towns are few and far between so we carried food and water for our many photo stops and frisbee-tossing breaks. We typically make no motel reservations on bike trips (Skagway being the exception) but we had no trouble finding places to stay the night anywhere.
After a brief lunch stop in Tok (pop. 1,250), we returned to Tetlin Junction, the start of the Top of the World Highway that runs for 80 crest-hugging miles to West Dawson, where a short ferry ride brings travelers to Dawson City, Yukon. Because of its remote feel and the elevated views of the valleys it offers we had been told not to miss doing Top of the World Highway. That advice was spot on. The aptly named road that’s open only in summer was built in 1955 on the ridgelines and high plateaus of rolling, endless mountains shared by Alaska and Yukon. Most of the road is unpaved and I had a very close call when I suddenly hit deep, soft sand while going too fast. Should I praise myself for managing to stay upright or beat myself for getting careless in the first place? It seems the older I get, the more of the latter I do.
Far up in the mountains on the Alaska side we stopped at a tiny, isolated, former gold mining settlement called Chicken (pop. 17) and asked the fellow who sold us fuel what people do here in the winter. I still remember his look of incredulity that we would even ask. “Shovel snow,” he said.
We pushed on for a few more hours and after a thrilling descent from the Top of the World we caught our first glimpse of the historic Yukon River and Dawson City. We caught the small ferry running across the river but the hair raising, sideways ride through fast flowing and very turbulent water is a good example of how things are done in the north. This place has always been full-on, rough and ready, not for the fainthearted.
UNLIKE SKAGWAY, WHERE “OLD” buildings are actually new but built for a heritage look, Dawson City has numerous original buildings from the 1890s. Among them are the stately Downtown, Westminster and Yukon hotels, the glorious and recently restored Palace Grand Theatre, the cabins of Jack London and Robert Service, the Commerce Bank where Service was employed, and of course the boisterous and notorious Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s oldest gambling hall and saloon that has been operating more or less intact, complete with cancan girls since the 1890s. To preserve the city’s historic character, all streets are unpaved though a water truck drives around spraying the road on dry days to keep the dust down. There are wooden boardwalks in the downtown area and the whole place has such an authentic old feel to it, we were surprised there were no horses and buggies driving around.
At the excellent tourist information office we signed up for a guided walking tour of the city and the very knowledgeable and entertaining guide painted a vivid, detailed picture of what the town looked and felt like 125 years ago and how life was when Dawson was a beehive of mining, trading, gambling and river transportation activity. Highly recommended, and what’s worth noting is that Dawson is still the hub of an active mining community. It’s said there are now more placer gold claims being worked (albeit with heavy machinery) than there were during the legendary 19th century Gold Rush.
Though we could have happily spent more time in Dawson unexpected work developments back home meant cutting the trip short by a couple days. Unfortunately we had to leave delete the rugged and infamous Dempster Highway from our original plan and only travelled the first 20 kilometres of its 700-km length, just so we can say we were on it. All the way to Inuvik next time!
Scenery in Yukon may not be quite as spectacular as Alaska’s but highway signs advising us there is no 9-1-1 service or facilities of any kind for the next umpteen hundred kilometres were a reminder that the territory truly is an adventure. In a sense, we were at the edge of the earth. Certainly, in the event of major trouble, you may need to solve your own problems.
After a worthwhile detour and lunch stop at historic Carcross we pushed on toward Whitehorse, the capital of the territory. This city of 25,000 felt like a major metropolis with its neon lights, multi-story buildings, chain stores, restaurants and wide, paved streets with cars waiting at traffic lights. We hadn’t seen any of that in so long, we were nearly in culture shock.
One of the hidden gems of Whitehorse is the SS Klondike boat exhibit on the shore of the Yukon. On a guided tour of this steam-powered sternwheeler we learned a lot about the time when it was plying the dangerous waters of that legendary, mighty river. This was a “Grasshopper” boat, fitted with massive steam powered extendable poles, used to lift the boat off sandbars and refloat it. We never knew such boats existed and were suitably impressed.
THE RIDE FROM WHITEHORSE TO Watson Lake near the BC border was uneventful but very entertaining, given the endless mountains, lakes, rivers and green valleys we saw along the way. At the end of a passing rain shower we stopped to take photos of a brilliant double rainbow, one end of which landed right on the highway ahead. We rode through it minutes later, thinking the gods were really smiling upon us.
Just in time for food and fuel we stopped at one of those small restaurant/gas bar/campground establishments that seem to appear out of nowhere every few hours up north. In the parking area we took a long look at the mangled remains of a small car that had hit a moose the previous day. The windshield and entire roof had been flattened, but luckily the driver survived. We silently vowed to stay clear of moose.
At a picnic rest stop in the lakes area south of Watson Lake we met a couple from Switzerland in their late 20s who were touring from Anchorage to Central America on their bicycles! Fully loaded with all their camping gear, food and water, they were averaging 80 kilometres a day and were expecting to fly home from Venezuela in September. Talk about adventure. They were very enthusiastic and happy with their trip, though realizing they had only just started and had a very long way to go. We offered to host them at our homes in Victoria, which they were planning to visit. But we haven’t heard from them yet and often wonder if they’re okay.
We took the time to visit the Telegraph Creek/Stikine Canyon area on Highway 20 west of Dease Lake, BC and were rewarded for our effort. Telegraph Creek is a Tahltan native community at the end of this 120 km long road, which is unpaved and can be rough in places. The steep switchbacks leading down to the river apparently become very slick in heavy rain, so rider beware. The mighty Stikine River has cut a deep gorge in the plateau over the millennia, creating many high, steep cliffs as it sculpted the landscape on its way to the Pacific Ocean.Well worth a visit.
During another stop a few hours south of Dease Lake we met two women on midsize dualsports heading to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, located at the north end of the Dalton Highway.We thought that was daring enough, but were really awestruck to hear that one of the two had started at the tip of South America four months earlier. She had travelled alone to Portland Oregon, where the other woman had joined her for the Alaska trip.
We felt we had made it back to civilization when we arrived in Stewart BC where we visited a bear sanctuary. As if on cue, a black bear came by on its feeding route. The next day on our southward march, we found ourselves in the downtown are of Smithers where a cow moose with calf in tow, abruptly trotted out of a city park and disappeared into a back yard, all in broad daylight. Life in the North!
By Nick Marshall (Canadian Biker June 2013)