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Riding in the Yukon Light – Whitehorse Country

HINDSIGHT 20/20: Some things have changed since this story was written during the last big boom in cruiser sales in the mid-2000s.The Yukon still features the beauty and history that draw so many people to the area for a visit. Unfortunately there is no longer a Harley-Davidson dealer in Whitehorse. To  visit the nearest H-D dealership would mean continuing up into Alaska or back down to northern Alberta or southern British Columbia. Get the oil change before you go.


Steam trains, gold rush history, can-can dancers and and the welcoming arms of Ride Yukon ‘05 beckon southern riders to the land of the Midnight Sun

It’s the Yukon’s light that first gets to you, bright blue in the morning, turning by shades red and yellow, then finally gunmetal in the day’s declining hours. But, it never really goes away during the summer, and it summons a newcomer from even the deepest sleep. The locals have long since adjusted of course and keep normal schedules. Perhaps that’s why the majority of people regularly haunting the bars on weeknights are Midnight Sun-maddened tourists, idiots like myself who just can’t sleep; or flannel-clad mushroom pickers who’ve fled the cities to harvest morels in those nutrient-rich places where fire has scorched the forest. Morels, everyone says, grow like mutants the year after a fire and today the market is especially brisk, (eight dollars a pound “wet,” as much as a hundred dry—if you can find the right buyer, who’ll likely come from Japan.)

Everyone has a reason for coming to the Yukon—it’s not just a place, but a state of mind. Some come for the adventure to be found on big rivers like Yukon, McQuesten, and Snake or in towering mountain ranges like the Ogilvie, Selwyn and Pelly. 

Some come seeking the Spirit of the Sixties that’s so very much a part of life here—you can see them on the streets of Whitehorse and Dawson in their Thai-dyed clothes, dreadlocks and embroidered jeans, strumming guitars and writing poetry to send back home to the cities they escaped. Some come with Cats, backhoes and giant water pumps to scrape placer gold out of creeks on still-lucrative claims. Lest we forget—more gold is being separated in sluice boxes now than the original stampeders could have ever dreamed—almost fifty thousand ounces came out of gold camps last year alone. And at four hundred dollars American per pound, a handy miner can still make money, big time. The morel-pickers are fortune hunters, of a sort, but they’ve got nothing on the placer miners. 

Some come because, truth be told, they just don’t fit in further South—where shirts are cleaner, and people a whole lot less tolerant of guys who stump around in rubber boots, chain-smoke and drive rusty little red Toyota pickups into the timber to cut cordwood and drink homemade wine.

But speculators and daydreamers are only a part of the fabric; they’re not the whole cloth, far from it. Perhaps, it’s the influence of being in a highly-charged environment or the millennia-old tradition of people in isolated places sensing the urgency and importance of entertaining themselves, but the Yukon is on a ramped-up cultural high. Festivals and artists flourish here, nurturing emerging writers, musicians and singers like Kim Beggs, who’s at her plaintive, Neil Young-influenced best, yearning her heart out at the beautifully restored Palace Grand Theatre, when Terry Hayden and I roll into Dawson City. (We decide to spend the evening with Kim because we figure we need to absorb the culture more than we need to see the can-can revue at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s—a century-old gambling hall and the Yukon’s only casino.)

At his day job, he’s a director in the Economic Development branch of the territorial government, sent along to steer me clear of trouble on the six hundred kilometres of Highway Two, separating Dawson from Whitehorse. But for this weekend in June, he’s just plain Terry, a ”consistent” blackjack player and the western Canada regional director of the V-Max Owners Association. The bark of his performance-piped Max chased me up Two Mile Hill out of Whitehorse; past the winding curves along Fox Lake and beyond Carmacks, where Five Finger Rapids have carved “probably the most famous stretch of water on the entire Yukon River.” It was in my ears as we idled over the Stewart River—which drops out of the Mackenzie Mountains as a broad span—and over the McQuesten too. That V-Max was barking all the way to the lunar-like tailings piles that announce you’ve arrived in Dawson. It was a fine sound; an enthusiastic counterpoint to the more subtle, stock V-Twin musings of the Harley-Davidson V-Rod I’d ridden to this most famous of Canadian mining towns. The Max and the Rod actually suit one another, in a power cruiser kind of way. But, even as Terry and I stood there on Dawson’s dusty streets, congratulating one another for the lack of bug guts on the Rod’s windshield—as though we could possibly claim credit—I was silently harbouring a wish for bigger saddlebags. I should have said something to Dick Watts when I still had the chance.

Dick is the owner of Yukon Harley-Davidson in Whitehorse and he’s the reason Terry and I had been on the road. 

DICK WATTS HAD SUMMONED RIDERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO come participate in Yukon Ride ’05, a four-day event in June hosted by Yukon H-D and Tourism Yukon. For me, it was easy. All I had to do was fly into Whitehorse and pick up the V-Rod from Dick. But for the others—Illinois, Tennessee, Minneapolis, Oregon, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba—their licence plates revealed they’d come far. “I read about it in Thunder Press,” said San Francisco’s Wayne Moore as he broomed off a mud-splattered Softail Standard in Dick’s parking lot. “I said to myself, ‘I can do that.’”

In Whitehorse, they were going to make coming worthwhile. Bright orange “Motorcycle Friendly” signs had been posted in bars, restaurants and gas stations. Radio and print media were right on top of things too, prompting their audience to get out and have a look at the bikes. Music, food, cold beer and a warm welcome were there for the taking. All the southerners had to do was show up, enjoy the sunshine, the near and distant mountains and the history (that’s so close you can touch it) that makes the Yukon such a special place. Dick even had a steam train ride lined up with the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. 

“GET ON BOARD IF YOU’RE COMIN’” SAID THE SURLY CONDUCTOR TO LAGGARDS AS WE piled into wood-paneled cars with real wool carpets on the floor and giant picture windows. Tugged by good ‘ol Number 73—a 1940s steam engine that has just now been pressed back into service as a tourism thing—the train was full of fun. The Minister of Tourism, Elaine Taylor, was on board, so were the Yukon Carnival Can-Can Dancers, and as we chugged out of the station at Carcross, the engineer let out with two or three long, high-pitched blasts of the horn. With merry choo-choos, the train clacked along narrow-gauge track past crystal blue waters, and snow-capped peaks before the cranky conductor tossed us all out at historic Bennett Station. This was once the site of a boomtown where sternwheelers poured out of the shipyards, but now it’s just an empty bay presided over by an abandoned, but magnificent split-rail cathedral. Still, for all its faded glory, Bennett Station is spectacular.

TERRY AND I LEFT WHITEHORSE TO THE OTHERS BECAUSE I WANTED TO see Dawson again. I’d last been there in the early eighties. But, when we pulled in, something was wrong. “I don’t remember any of this, Terry,” says I. The Director just grins and doesn’t say too much because I had already revealed a Truth about my last visit to the Yukon—I’d been drunk most of the time. But something else, beyond a little excess partying, is wrong with my memory. They’ve moved Dawson around a bit in the intervening years; some of its many historic buildings have been displaced, and elsewhere bright, shiny new structures with faux historic facades have sprung up. 

“Yes,” agrees Anna Claxton, a Parks Canada interpreter with an encyclopedic knowledge of Dawson City’s storied history. “There have been changes.” 

Anna was born in a cabin on 40-Mile Creek, after her father, an architect, had moved the family here to do “as found” drawings of landmark buildings. Anna’s parents became stricken with gold fever, then stayed to run a placer mine. Her mother now owns a store where she turns gold into jewelry. Although she left for a while to pursue an education at UBC, Anna’s now returned to help tourists like myself make sense of Dawson’s rich history. 

“There are different levels of restoration,” she explains. There’s shell restoration, where just the outside of the building has been brought back to life; stabilization in which buildings are simply kept from total collapse; and full restoration, which is self-explanatory. 

It was good to know too, that my memories of this grand place weren’t completely shrouded in fog. That would be the real shame.

by John Campbell Canadian Biker Issue #214


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