Friday, July 6, 2012

Day 11 - Champagne to Whitehorse

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

We were on the road earlier than ever--9:30 am.  I was excited because the day was supposed to be only about 56 miles of riding with our sights set on the city of Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory.  We had poked our heads out of our tent happily surprised to see the sun shining brightly as the air carried a warm tail wind.  All days prior had been too cold for shorts, but we were feeling optimistic and dressed for warm weather.  On days like the one prior where there was hardly a cloud in the sky, even the SPF 80 sunblock we were using couldn't completely keep my ears from being cooked like bacon in the intense sunlight.  I decided to try something new to protect my ears, and wrapped a bandanna around my head with my ears tucked beneath.  The day was looking like it was going to be great--except for one looming problem.

We were running low on water and didn't have any known sources nearby to rely on.  We had topped off in Haines Junction, but we only carried enough water for a day or two.  It made me a little nervous to head onward without knowing when we would be able to refill.

The miles flew by easily with the wind to our backs and mild terrain, though the air was a little more chilly than we had initially guessed as the sun had become hidden by patchy tufts of cotton clouds.  We were still surrounded by vast forests, but the trees seemed more hearty--bushier around the middle, though still not very tall.  Gone was the spongey ground covering we called "moose carpet," and in its place was gritty, sandy dirt.  In some places, the sand collected into little banks on the sides of the roads--sandunes that were lost and cold in the Great North, huddling in the corners trying not be noticed.

I kept looking for places to fill up our water.  The maps had some names of places we'd be going through, but I learned over the past week or so that just because there is a name on a map, it doesn't mean there is actually anything there.  I was hopeful, but the miles kept rolling by without any sign of water, aside from stagnant marshy pools that had collected from snow melt trapped in shallow glens.  On the bright side though, were making excellent time.  We were cruising right along as we coasted our way down a gradual slope, interrupted only here and there by small climbs.  The pines thinned slightly and voluminous green aspens filled the gaps.  It was easy to get lulled into a sense of serenity...

Oh God--

Something big and brown is lumbering up ahead just on the side of the road at the top of a hill.

We both come to a complete stop and stare at the moving shape that just kicked our adrenaline glands in the teeth.

This time, it definitely isn't just a cycling hermit.

We knew that it was inevitable that we would encounter bears on this adventure, and we were always on the alert--especially for the notorious grizzly bear.  We still hadn't seen one during our entire trip thus far, and now, ahead of us, blocking our way, is a... a something.  Something brown and lumbering.  And BIG.  It isn't the right color to just be another moose.  We decide to just watch it, hoping it will leave on its own...

It doesn't.

We yell and make some noises to try and shoo it away.


I let out a deep sigh.  Whatever it is, it is not interested in moving along into the woods.  "We can't just sit here all day.  I guess we're going to just have to ride past it."

Mark agrees.  I put my bear spray right where I can grab it in my handlebar bag, and Mark puts his whistle between his lips, and has the Ka-Bar combat knife ready to unsheath at the drop of a pine cone.  I think to myself, and your fifteen year old brother are going to take on a grizzly bear with some aerosol and knives?  Good luck with that.  We cross over to the other side of the road to put as much distance between us and the--thing--as possible, and then we cautiously make our way up to the top of the slope, continuing to shout, whistle, and generally make ourselves known, but whatever it is, it is not afraid of us.  I imagined being in a situation where playing dead wasn't working, and I was fighting for my life.  I tried to hypothesize the best place possible to stab my 6 inch blade.  I'll bet it is really hard to stab through that thick layer of fur, flesh, and fat around the neck and head.  Best go for the eyes--blind it and try to stab through to the brain.

As we near the top, my adrenaline really starts pumping and I go into fight or flight mode.

Oh crap.

There's several of them.

Mark and I had a good laugh when we suddenly realized it was just a bunch of horses grazing.  Great Northern Grizzly Horses, we called them.  (Pretty much everything was a "Great Northern Grizzley/Wooly-Something-or-Other" to us up there--don't get me started on the Great Northern Wooly Barking Spider.)  While we did eventually end up having some bear encounters on our adventure, this just wasn't one of them--however, it was the last false alarm.

As we rode on, I wondered if the horses were wild or not, but it faded from my mind after little thought as thirst crept up on me.  We had just kept on riding through the day without any opportunity to fill up on fresh water.  Most of the time, things just seemed to time out about perfectly, whether it was finding a store for food, or a vault-toilet on the side of the road--but we were striking out today.  No stores.  No public water supply.  Not even a friendly house with a garden hose.  And then our relatively easy ride became a lot tougher as we hit the bottom of the slope we had been coasting on the whole day, and started working our way over some sentinel hills guarding the way to Whitehorse.  Out of water and four hundred feet climbed--I'd say it took the wind from our sails, however we had plenty of wind at that point.  It was just blowing the wrong way.

Even though we were within 15 miles of Whitehorse, we couldn't put it off any longer.  We'd have to filter some water, but we needed a decent source, and the only good candidate had been a very small creek that ran under the highway a few hours back. We had crossed a large river a few hours earlier, but it was deep, swift, silty, and had steep banks covered in thick brush, which would have made things very difficult.  Great for rafting; awful for trying to filter.  We also had seen many shallow pools along the route, but they were typically surrounded by grassy, muddy, wetland;  Difficult to get to, and likely to taste like swamp.  As soon as I saw the snow covered creek just off of the road, it may as well have been Perrier.  It was crystal clear, brisk, quick-moving water--perfect for filtering.  We filled all of our water bottles, drank as much as possible, and then topped the bottles off again.  Finally with our thirsts quenched, we set out on the last stretch to Whitehorse.

In the late afternoon, the winds persisted in slowing us down as we climbed through the outlying hills.  Wilderness gave way to rural lands.  Parallel to the highway ran a dirt trail for ATVs--apparently a popular mode of travel.  After 46 miles of riding, we reached the sign welcoming us to Whitehorse, but it was another several miles of windy hills marked with small Yukon billboards before we reached an outlying gas station.  With some cheap coffee in hand, we took the opportunity to browse through the leaflets and tourist directory to find a place to stay for the evening, but it didn't look like we had any great options for camping, and after two nights on the road camped in the middle of no-where, a hotel sounded mighty nice.

From the gas station, we steadily dropped into the city of Whitehorse, neatly placed parallel to the glassy, meandering Yukon river.  Greeting us just at the bottom of the hill was a glorious sight: Super Walmart.  After eleven days on the road with little more than roadhouses and general stores to meet our shopping needs, it was like we had just found Bali Ha'i, and it was calling to us, "come to me, come to me..."

Normally we would take turns shopping and watching the bikes and gear outside, but that wasn't going to cut it today, and we loaded all of our stuff into shopping carts, locked up our bikes, and entered through the golden gates... er... automatic doors.  Aside from a few confused or disapproving looks from employees or shoppers, we were in heaven--and then we saw the McDonalds housed within.  In the lower 48 states it is common for McDonalds to have a pretty decent dollar menu, but we discovered that was a luxury we would not have here.  For a single cheeseburger, it was roughly $3 Canadian.  A Big Mac meal was roughly $10.  We were unaware that our U.S. dollars were busy taking a nosedive too during that summer of 2008, so it was costing us even more, but we were so taken by the comfort of familiarity that we didn't care much.  The menu had some special items that we would never see at the McDonalds back home, including a Double Big Mac with Bacon.  In no time flat, I was munching one down with a big idiot's grin, about $20 U.S. lighter in the wallet.

With a huge new stockpile of groceries and full bellies, we set out to find a place to stay for the night around 7 p.m.  We were aiming for cheap, but the cheapest we could find was an unsavory looking hostel located immediately above an even more unsavory looking saloon.  If it were just me, I probably would have just taken it, but I felt pretty uneasy about putting Mark in that situation.  I got a bad vibe from the place, and I think Mark did too.  

After zig-zagging around downtown to several different hotels, we finally found a place priced under $200 Canadian, called Family Hotel.  We still spent about $100 there, but after doing laundry for the first time eleven days, taking nice hot showers, and melting into some sub-par twin size beds that felt as fluffy as clouds to us after riding just over 700 miles, it was well worth it.  We kicked back getting a taste of Canadian broadcast TV, and then finally went to bed a little after midnight.

Direct from My Journal

Route: 56 Miles in 8 Hours

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