Canada Day on the Klondike
A father-&-son bike ride in the Yukon, 2008
The sound of soft rain on our tent woke us on the morning of July 1st, and the showers continued long enough to make us consider staying right there beside the Yukon River. But by mid-afternoon the rain slowed to a drizzle, and we loaded our bikes and pedalled out of Carmacks, heading north on the Klondike Highway towards Dawson City.
Little did we guess that the day’s ride would last until midnight, and that we would be treated to an unconventional display of Canada Day fireworks.
The ride began, as usual, with a long ascent. (Most of the territorial campgrounds are located beside rivers, which in these parts always seem to be located at the bottom of valleys.) Our Canada Day climb soon had us comfortably warm in spite of the intermittent mists, and after an hour our muscles were limber and we were making good time. But the scenery proved too spectacular to allow us quick passage.
About 4 pm we reached the viewpoint for the Five Finger Rapids, justly billed as one of Yukon Territory’s most popular recreational attractions. The sun was beginning to emerge, and the strands of turbulent water glistened far below us. A rugged trail, which includes 230 steps in the Territory’s longest staircase, winds down to the shoreline for a close-up view of the massive outcrops of rock, dividing the river into five swift-flowing streams. Gulls and ravens appeared to have these islands to themselves, though interpretive signs explained that in years past, settlers had built a cable system from the shoreline to the rocks, so that paddlewheel steamboats could be winched safely through the rapids.
When we got back to our bikes at 5 pm, we had only ridden 25 kilometers, and Pelly Crossing, the next village, was still 80 km up the road. Knowing we had many hours of daylight left, we set out confidently for Pelly Crossing.
As the evening wore on, the wind picked up from the direction of the setting sun: north. We worked harder, and moved slower. When the sun dipped behind the mountains, the temperature dropped, bottoming out at 5°C. Every half hour we stopped to put on more clothes – wool tights over our shorts, then long-sleeve shirts, then wind-pants, then jackets, finally even our wool caps. After each stop we were warm for a few minutes, and after the next downhill cruise we were shivering again. At two of the stops we found wild strawberries growing beside the highway. The tiny and succulent specimens of rubus arcticus warmed our spirits, but did little to warm our aching joints.
Just after sunset, about 11:30 p.m., we came swooping down a curve right beside a large pond dotted with waterfowl. The birds were alarmed by something – perhaps our loaded bikes rattling down the bumpy road, perhaps the chattering of our teeth. The birds exploded up from the water, setting off a kind of reverse fireworks, with hundreds of fluttering black dots rising against the purple and pink light of the sky.
We reached Pelly Crossing after midnight, rolling into a large, well-equipped, and totally deserted campground. In the few minutes it took to crawl into our sleeping bags and fall asleep, we reflected that it had been a tough day, and one we would not have missed for the world.