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Follow The Tramp – Yukon and Alaska

A rambling man with a motorcycle leaves his home in early spring, and meanders to Yukon and Alaska. These are his random musings.

Spring began and I took possession of a 2006 BMW 650 Dakar. I had worked at an oil sands site over the winter and Seasonal Affective Disorder had begun to manifest. I became interested in the BMW Sertao the previous summer, but was steered toward this lightly used Dakar with Touratech accessories. 

I rode in the Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia on my scheduled week out from work in March. Upon return I gave my employer notice and served my final two weeks. My accouterments required recovery from eclectic storage in my 400-square-foot house. I travel with all survival gear, repair tools, and camping equipment. 

 I wanted to visit my son in the Olympic Mountains of Washington state, a six hundred mile ride. Significant snow remained at the road sides during my mid April ride over the 5,000 ft. passes of the Purcell and Monashee Ranges of southern British Columbia and North Cascades of Washington. The roads were dry and the temperature slightly above freezing. North Cascades Highway 20 offers extraordinary mountain scenery and immense spring avalanche remnants. Presence in the mountains and to marvel at a gorgeous road that winds and climbs then descends to established spring bloom is SAD therapy.

I camped for a night with my son and his friend on a mountain pass, proud when the two young men succeeded in providing comfortable shelter in a rainforest environment and igniting and maintaining a fire throughout an evening of rain. 

During this visit an opportunity arose to demonstrate how to break the bead on a flat motorcycle tire utilizing a motorcycle’s extended side stand. The stand, which had been allowing my bike to lean excessively, broke from the frame at the weld as I leaned my bike more determinedly to task. Reattachment at a local machine shop was effected for less than $40.

I retraced my route over Independence and Washington Passes. In British Columbia a detour led to the Christian Valley nestled between the Okanagan Highlands and west slope Monashee Mountains. Lush farmland with mountain backdrop enticed more exploration, until a point where road conditions reverted to more primitive surfacing and egress became uncertain. Backtracking and accessing the adjacent Okanagan Valley led north through British Columbia’s orchard. The evening was spent visiting friends in the Shuswap Lake area, popular for summer houseboating due to endless shoreline and thermal venting. 

I had traveled north of my residential latitude, necessitating a south eastwardly return through British Columbia’s interior. My deviation to the southeast followed Trout Lake and the Lardeau River to Kootenay Lake and a ferry crossing to one of British Columbia’s most highly ranked roads for motorcyclists, and home in a few hours. 

The Dakar is more refined than a KLR, a motorcycle I had owned and ridden in the Canadian Rockies in winter conditions, and through Central and South America, accumulating approximately 125,000 km before engine oil started leaking profusely. 

The KLR had provided amazing journeys for the investment. The Dakar was a professionally engineered version of a motorcycle I had pieced together and maintained as fortune and circumstance permitted.

I obtained laminated maps, uncertain whether I should travel the Yukon or Alaska. Early spring conditions would be influential.

The Dakar, as outfitted with panniers and tank bags, conveniently carried everything but tools. I attached a metal toolbox to the rear carrier with a tie down strap. Roc straps attached tent, sleeping bag, and a lightweight tarp in Aerostich bags. I wear merino wool, an electric vest, down, and Aerostich armour.

I rode through the southern BC interior once more, enjoying alternate avenues and early spring camping. Working as a tour director, I experience and appreciate luxury travel and accommodation. I still like riding motorcycle and camping. It’s a tramp lifestyle, washing in freshly melted snow, solitude, campfire maintenance, rough or absent facilities. Acceptable comfort for ambience. Safety and stasis are fleeting. Even a butterfly hurts at sixty. 

I attained Burn’s Lake after my second day’s ride. Highway 16, or the Yellowhead Highway, was named for a personage of shared Aboriginal and European ancestry. He was blond, hence named Yellowhead, the highway a trail through his former domain. It’s also called The Highway of Tears due to a multitude of women’s disappearances and no certain solution.

I hadn’t watched TV for about 10 years, but started when inadvertently intrigued by Dexter. I arranged Netflix and binged on five seasons, questionably valued as I settled in for the night in an empty campground.            

This was my first trip among the Skeena and Cassiar Mountains, also first exposure to the Coast Mountains at this latitude. The detour to Hyder was stimulating because the mountains became more rugged and glacial ice presented. I didn’t stay to “Hyderize.”

I had resolved to pick up the pace or start looking for campsites when the sun edged closer to the western sky. I was delighted when it hovered for hours before setting. That added hours to my days. 

The campsite offered hot showers for a fee. I’ve lodged in luxurious hotels, but my most memorable shower cost three dollars for six minutes in the Yukon.  

The southern boundary of the Yukon is the 60th parallel. The distance around the Earth at the 60th parallel is half the equatorial distance. The northern boundary of the Canadian Rockies is the Liard River. The Canadian Rockies extend almost a thousand miles southeastward to their termination at Marias Pass south of Glacier Park Montana. The southernmost 60 miles reside on sovereign American soil but are geologically and biologically similar to rocks north of the 49th. 

They differ from American Rockies in that basement rock was fractured during formation of the American Rockies allowing igneous intrusion. Canadian Rockies are sedimentary. The Canadian Rockies are not the only chain of mountains in western Canada, but are part of the Western Cordillera, a conglomeration of ranges that stretch from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego.

They’re also the loftiest range in the Canadian Cordillera, elevating them to Continental Divide status. The Continental Divide is typically understood to divert watershed either to the Atlantic or Pacific. At Swift River Yukon, an Arctic/Pacific watershed divide is encountered whereby runoff is diverted to the Pacific via the Swift River and adjacent is the Arctic watershed origin at the Rancheria River.

I got a flat on the road to Dawson City. It’s not so bad when the traffic is light and the road level, and it’s not raining or windy or dark. It’s not so bad even after mounting it opposite to direction of rotation and having to remount it. 

Travel through high mountain plateau is quite cool in the spring. 

The representative at the Visitor Centre in Dawson City told me that I was the first arriving rider of the season. I hadn’t really seen anyone, I reflected.

I awoke to a flat. I had parked close to the Victorian style inn and the previous night’s snow had channeled and slid from the steep roof onto my bike. The bike was covered and undisturbed. I later came to understand that I had replaced the compromised tube with an old spare whose patch leaked. 

The streets of Dawson City are gravel and the sidewalks are wooden, not a preferred repair milieu. I inquired whether the proprietor of the lodging across the street might allow me to work on the elevated wooden walkway fronting the rooms. I was informed that he hadn’t yet returned for the season, but were he present, he would have been helpful as well as obliging. 

I started the bike and inflated the tire. 

I nailed a scrounged board to the stairs of the raised walkway and lined up the bike but the rear tire slid off the board halfway up. I injured my bicep lifting the rear tire back onto the board. My second attempt was successful. A local drug store provided alcohol to treat the tube before reapplication of a patch. I repatched both tubes, tested for leaks in the inn’s claw foot tub, and effected the repair.

The Top of the World Highway accessing Tok, Alaska wasn’t yet accessible because the Yukon River was choked with ice and the ferry couldn’t cross. The Dempster Highway quickly deteriorated to wet gravel, then snow covered. Probably time to go home. I retraced the cold Klondike Highway then felt compelled to turn toward Haines Junction. Big pointy mountains loomed.

I had gone to the Yukon first because I thought high plateau would have been more rideable, drier. Electric grips and vest fend off the cold; snowy roads entail greater risk. The sky and road ahead were clear, and I still had some time.

I later learned that about four feet of snow had recently fallen; the peaks were entirely white. Some rivers were breaking up, the days well illuminated, the roads dry. I must interject: no one else was there. No other riders, only a couple of motorhomes, I had Alaska to myself.

I emptied my spare fuel into my tank at Gakona. The station at the junction had not yet officially opened for the season. The proprietor indicated I should be able to get fuel at Paxson, at the Denali Highway junction. Maybe I can ride across, I thought.

One of the snowmobilers at the station lot in Paxson exclaimed, “Hope you’re not looking for gas,” exactly as I noticed that the hoses had not yet been connected to the pumps. Graciously, they topped my tank. They had come from Minnesota pulling large trailers; I could only imagine their fuel cost. One of the group appeared somewhat disheartened. He might have been thinking, “The bikers are here, sledding’s over.”

Crews had just begun clearing the Denali Highway. The road wasn’t accessible. 

I changed roadmaps when I left Delta Junction. The locally distributed map was smaller than the one I had brought, and it didn’t register until later, that the distances I was about to undertake seemed lesser because the map was smaller.

In Fairbanks the advice emerged that the Dalton Highway would be seasonally similar to the Dempster in condition. My experience in snow includes having ridden my KLR with sheet metal screw-studded tires for a couple of winters in the Canadian Rockies, weaving through 15 miles of snow-stuck traffic in the Andes to cross a 14,000-foot pass, driving a sidecar equipped Triumph Scrambler across British Columbia round trip in winter, and driving from my home to Charleston South Carolina and return (about 7,500 miles) on the Triumph-Ural during a January. I pulled a sidecar for half the mileage (20,000 miles) on the Triumph. I did my first oil change on that bike before my first payment. But I wasn’t up to a ride to Deadhorse in May. Driving the sidecar might have fostered a different story.

It’s about 600 counter clockwise miles from Delta Junction to Glenallen. I favoured the portion in the Chugach Mountains because visibility was better than in the Alaska Range, where a glimpse of Mt. McKinley was denied. There are glaciers to view in the Chugach as well.

Another rider whom I had seen warming himself at a roadside campfire engaged me in conversation while fuelling at Glenallen. It was now near midnight and I had decided against paying the local hotel price. He opined that it never really became dark during this season then offered his .45 for my appreciation, explaining that it was comforting in the event of needing to walk and wolves were present.

I had considered and researched bringing a takedown rifle, but decided I wouldn’t. 

I couldn’t get to Delta Junction in one attempt. My photo chromatic lenses were not offering 100 per cent light transmission, it was the darkest time of day, I was weary and freezing. I rode onto a pullout after about an hour, extended my side stand, pulled a reflective blanket over my back and slept slouched over my tank bag, wondering about wolves. I was shivering and grateful for coffee and food in Delta Junction. I had ridden over 700 miles the previous day and overnight. 

My return would take me north and east of the Rockies along the Alaska Highway. Muncho Lake was breaking up and exhibiting the colour for which Rocky Mountain waters are famous.

Icefields form when more snow accumulates seasonally in mountain environments than melts. Solar induced surface run-off permeates the layers beneath, refreezing and compacting under load until about 100 feet of snow becomes one foot of glacial ice. Glaciologists specify that glaciers technically occupy at least five acres to a minimum depth of 100 feet, gravity imparting advance. The intrusion of liquid water and subsequent refreezing in the cracks of sedimentary limestone dislodges rock, which is ground to the consistency of flour beneath the advancing glacier’s enormous weight. Some of this rock flour is held in aqueous colloidal suspension. Colloidal particulate is micronic, less than one millionth of a meter, or four one hundred thousandths of an inch in diameter. Wavelengths in the ultra violet range of sunlight associate with colloidal matter, reflecting in water surfaces refracted variants of perceptible blue.

I experienced a second spring as I rode into the Northern Rockies region of British Columbia. I love that first greedy green of spring, before caterpillars and pollution deteriorate colour. Stone’s Sheep, Bison and Black Bears fed at the roadside. 

My rear tire was shedding tread. I hadn’t required the traction provided by the Heidenau Scout K60, or enjoyed its ball bearing interface on the steel bridges of the north, but I was hoping to get home on it. The drive chain was stretching and required tightening daily. Clutch engagement felt compromised, and steering rough.

I accessed the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park, Alberta. This road was constructed during the Great Depression and wends through world-class scenery in the shadow of the Continental Divide. It connects Jasper at the north to Lake Louise in Banff National Park, 140 miles to the south. 

I had heard that garden growth and maintenance in the Rockies is as challenging as in Alaska. I finally understood as I rode, snow again roadside at 6,500 feet and trees dormant.

The south portion of Jasper National Park harbours a wonder. The Columbia Icefield is the largest North American mass of glacial ice occurring south of the Arctic Circle, occupying 325 square kilometres. This icefield crowns the Continental Divide. Eleven of the tallest peaks in the Canadian Rockies preserve the precipitation as snow, the domed accumulation forming the hydrographic apex of North America, the planet’s only true Triple Continental Divide, run off from which initiates a flow into Canada’s three bounding oceans.

I was thinking of stopping in Banff townsite where I might camp in a friend’s yard and borrow a rear tire with more centre tread. Banff originated as Siding 29, a simple railroad pull off, whose scenery inspired the birth of tourism in Canada, providing revenue for a railroad whose efforts enticed British Columbia into Confederation, creating a country whose breadth extends “a mari usque ad mare,” from sea to sea. Athena Pizza serves the best pizza in Banff, and the young man whose family owns the establishment rides. A KTM. With an 18-inch rear tire. No used spares to be found.

 It was only a couple of hours ride to Calgary, where I would visit Anderwerks, an independent BMW repair facility. The Dakar would need a new rear tire, chain and sprockets, steering head bearings, a clutch cable, and service. I had ridden it 16,000 kilometres in the previous six weeks.

by Jim Chomica Canadian Biker #322

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