Pedalling to the end of the night

Originally published in 1989.

Like many long voyages, my trek to the tundra started with a few rash words over lunch in a Toronto restaurant.

“If you want to see the northwest, why don’t you try bicycling the Dempster Highway?’ a friend suggested. “Sure, why not,” I replied, and having committed myself, I eventually started researching the details. Like, where is the Dempster, and how do I get there?

Map drawn by Rebecca Barclay for NOW

Map drawn by Rebecca Barclay for NOW

The Dempster Highway, I learned, starts where the Yukon gold rush left off, winding 730 kilometres north from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik, Northwest Territories – but “highway” is a rather generous term for this two-lane road without a square metre of pavement.

Still, the Dempster is the only public highway in North America to cross the Arctic Circle. If I wanted to pedal into the land of the midnight sun, this was my route.

So in the summer of 1988 I flew to Vancouver and started riding north, and 40 days later I reached the end of the road. For six weeks I watched the trees get shorter and the days longer, until both the forests and the night were gone.

The summer of ’88 was the coolest and wettest in memory in northern BC and the southern Yukon; for days on end the standard view was of dark, dripping mountains rising into low clouds. But when the sun did come out, revealing snowy peaks shining in the distance, I often had company to share the glory – the further north I got, the more cyclists I met.

Bikers, hikers, canoers and kayakers are all drawn to the Canadian northwest’s most precious asset – wilderness as pristine as any on earth. Within a few days of leaving Vancouver, it had become only natural to drink freely from rivers and streams.

Salmonberries on bushes four metres high in the coastal rain forests were followed by millions of pink roses lining the roads of northern BC. On the northern Yukon tundra, crowberries, blueberries and cloudberries were ripening one, two, sometimes ten centimetres above the mosses and lichens. These resources were seldom scarce, but on one occasion I thought it best to leave the berry patch to a bigger competitor.

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There are two ways to go north from Vancouver towards the Yukon. An inland route goes northeast to Prince George. I opt instead for a ferry to Vancouver Island, three days pedalling to Port Hardy, and then an all-day cruise aboard the Queen of the North through the magnificent Inside Passage to Prince Rupert. This route not only saves a lazy cyclist at least 500 kilometres, but also offers a glimpse of westcoast wildlife. A pod of dolphins puts in an appearance beside the ferry, and bald eagles glide to perches on telephone poles in fishing villages. Seventy kilometres up the Skeena River from Prince Rupert I see a fat grey harbour seal swimming upstream after the salmon local anglers are trying unsuccessfully to catch. When I pull off the road, I find a quiet spot with a handy supply of red raspberries all around, but a few telltale signs persuade me to look for another campsite.

It isn’t just that a previous diner had trampled many of the thorny bushes. The territory is marked even more convincingly by a textbook example of ursine scat, bear shit so fresh that I detect a faint warmth rising from it. Since I won’t sleep very well with a bear prowling around my tent, I reluctantly get back in the saddle.

Just a few kilometres later I come to Exchamsiks River Provincial Park. Tonight is one of the few times I pay for the privilege of sleeping on a packed gravel pad designed for motorhomes. But in addition to an extra margin of safety provided by an attendant with a rifle, the park also offers a rare ambience – a towering stand of virgin spruce.

Nearly all the timber I’ve seen within 1000 kilometres of Vancouver has been logged at least once in the past century. So it’s worth six bucks to spend some time among Exchamsiks’ ancient trees.

Parks are few and far between in northern BC and the Yukon, but logging trucks also thin out. By the time I pass the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River, clear-cut hillsides are a rapidly fading memory. Spruce forests give way to lodgepole pine, and sightings of black bears, moose and otters liven up my days. On my first night in Yukon Territory, literally dozens of snowshoe hares scamper at roadside as I pedal towards a sunset the colour of fireweed.

The Southern Lakes district near Whitehorse is home to lots of artists, unreformed hippies and back-to-the-landers who have fled the cities of “the south.” Tagish Lake marks the halfway point of my journey, a place where I can impose myself on old friends, admire the view from an armchair, and catch up with my appetite. During five days in the area I eat bear, caribou and organic brown rice stew beside a canvas tipi occupied year round; I eat a salad of fresh garden greens and nasturtium petals while a wood fire heats rocks in a spacious sauna; I catch and eat my first arctic grayling, barely legal size but a tasty breakfast nevertheless; I eat mooseburgers at least once a day. Not until I get to Dawson, 650 kilometres northwest, will I strike such a rich vein again.

Dawson’s wealth was, of course, a flash in the pan. Within a couple of decades little gold was left for undercapitalized independents. Gargantuan dredges owned by far-away financiers, most notably New York’s Guggenheim family, swallowed up claims along Klondike River tributaries. The thirsty machines melted permafrost with water diverted from the Tombstone Mountains 110 kilometres distant, extracting glittering gold flakes and leaving five-metre-high piles of tailings snaking through once scenic valleys.

Today, with gold prices so high, a few independent operators have returned, working through tailings for the bit of gold that slipped through the sluices the first time. Recycling gold-rush history is also the stock-in-trade of a flourishing tourism industry.

Not many sightseers follow the Trail of ’98 in winter, so Dawson’s economy is seasonal. Bars, hotels and boutiques need lots of summer help. University students and world travellers in need of quick cash take many of the jobs, and not all of them want to spend their wages on rent.

I hear about the Squatters’ Village through the bicyclists’ grapevine. A fantastic array of shacks, treehouses and wall tents discretely hidden in dense forests on a steep slope, connected by footpaths and serviced by a clear cold brook, the village provides me a congenial home for a few days. Near the top of the hill I find an abandoned but still rainproof shack.

In the evenings I gather sticks, set up a grill outside my castle, and feast on the true treasure of the Klondike – king salmon.

King salmon swim 2,500 kilometres up the Yukon River from the Bering Sea to spawn in streams flowing into the Klondike. Many of the clean gravel creek beds where salmon once laid their eggs are silted up by goldmining dredges. But streams left alone for several decades are finally healing and again play host to spawning salmon.

Netted in nearby streams by native people, cleaned and sold the same day from coolers in Dawson’s back alleys, the pink-fleshed fish are a bargain at $2 a pound. The trick is to find one small enough for me and my dinner guest, a cyclist I had first met a week earlier. Served with steamed veggies and wonderful 12-grain bread from Nancy’s Bakery, the fresh-fish feast puts hungry bikers into a contented stupor.

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Forty kilometres east of Dawson, where the Klondike River meets the Tintina Trench, a narrow strip of gravel heads north through the muskeg. From this intersection there isn’t another settlement until Eagle Lodge, a hotel-restaurant-gas station 363 kilometres up the road.

Native people have ventured here since time immemorial in search of mountain sheep and caribou. Archaeologists have found evidence of human activity in the northern Yukon in the middle of the last ice age, 25,000 years ago. But few white people travelled this area until recent decades, when prospectors began seismic exploration for oil and gas. In 1959 the Dempster Highway was begun to provide truck access to the resource-rich Mackenzie Delta, and the road reached Inuvik in 1979.

The Dempster traverses three remarkably contrasting mountain ranges. The southernmost Tombstone range escaped glaciation and its peaks jut jaggedly into the sky. The Ogilvies, only a day’s ride north, were flattened and rounded by glaciers; from a distance, the hills look like smooth concrete, but a short hike from the road puts a climber on slopes of shattered scree. The Richardsons, north of the Arctic Circle, are smooth, windswept, but green with grass, lichens and moss. All these ranges offer some easy climbs.

I cross the Arctic Circle at the north end of Eagle Plains, a long stretch of rugged hills. It’s mid-afternoon, and immediately the temperature starts to drop. I seek refuge in the cooking shelter at Cornwall River Territorial Campground. As I set up my tent and cook supper, the wind howls and rain falls in torrents; I’m happy to be in a wooded valley and not on the exposed high ground.

The storm abates and I get ready for an early night’s sleep, to no avail. Two lively commonwealthers join me – a hitchhiker from New Zealand and an Englishman hoping to lease a small claim and begin placer mining. When my entertaining companions finally go to sleep, it’s apparent the two are world-class snorers. One begins sawing logs, with a chain saw, while the other dreams of his gold mine – I can hear the dredge working full steam.

I crawl blearily out of my sleeping bag in the morning to find clear skies, strong northeast winds, and a temperature of 4°C. Wearing all the clothes I have with me, I start the long push over the Richardson Mountains against the chill breeze. I stop twice to cook a pot of cloudberry porridge in a vain attempt to keep up with my caloric output. Balmy weather returns as I coast down to the Peel River in the evening, but the arctic blast has served notice that winter is never far away in these parts.

For two more days I pedal in warm sunshine along the Mackenzie Delta, past scrub willow and three-metre-tall, century old spruce. It’s early August, the sun is setting about midnight, and twilight merges with dawn.

Published in NOW, Toronto, April 13, 1989