The Yukon: Larger Than Life

I awoke at 6am, endured the arduous, satisfying morning routine of strapping down my Wolfman waterproof bag full of gear and supplies, and headed to the restaurant for breakfast.  It was closed, so I had to wait until 7.  I didn’t mind too much because it was 32 degrees, not the best riding weather afterall.  At 7, an imposing, grizzly bearded Canuck, fitting the lumberjack stereotype of my dreams, served me hotcakes with fresh maple syrup and a western scramble.  Pure Canadian maple syrup, no hyperbole, may just be enough to make this trip a success.  I exchanged travel stories with an elderly couple from Utah traveling by recreational vehicle.  Most of their friends were still down in the deserts of Arizona, but Hal and Betty chose to be early birds this year.  And thank goodness their friends failed to join them.  A month later RV’s on the Al-Can would rival the state bird of Alaska, the Mosquito, in sheer numbers.  But in mid-May, it was free and clear sailing.

The surface of the Al-Can was graded, smooth, and in pristine condition compared to it’s friend the Cassiar. While the scenery was immense, long straight sections of smooth road coupled with the sheer scale of the Yukon, rustled up hints of boredom in my adventurous demeanor.  I’m sure the adventure will find me, I chuckled.

And then, the first obstacle of adventure found me. It was cold but at least it was sunny, then after meandering around a large rocky peak and into a clostrophobic valley, the sky blackened and enormous white flakes of Yukon’s choice precipitation covered the road and my visor.  There are first times for every adventurer, and this was the first time I’d riden a road bike in snow.  My muscles anxiously tensed.  I slowed the motorcycle to 40.  My mind began racing, catasrophizing the conditions that would lead to my cold, snowy demise.  Good thing I was rocking out to My Morning Jacket on my Klipsch noice-canceling earbuds.  Jim James gave me comfort and confidence as I belted out his masterpiece, Gideon.  And then, almost white out conditions.  I slowed to a crawl, wiping my visor with my left glove, repeatedly.  Twenty miles of mental and physical struggle with the elements.

And then a familiar site.  The bridge at Teslin.  I pulled over at the banks of Teslin Lake, under the bridge spanning the frozen waters.  Memories flooded my head and heart.  My family stopped here on the other side of town at Mucluk Annie’s Salmon Bake.  My brother and I stayed in a 30 dollar cabin, outfitted with the commode in the middle of the bedroom, adjecent without any privacy to the bed and couch.  My brother took full advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

kyle pooping in the living room

After some canteen coffee, I rode through Teslin and to my dismay, Mulkuk Annie’s was boared up, closed.  What a tragedy, I muttered. I continued on, with the blue skies and sunshine warming the temparture to a manageable 45 degrees.  I rode on, reminiscing, with Jim James belting out hipster rock ballads. My ears were happy.  And so was I, I hoped.

I pulled into a gas station on the outskirts of Whitehorse, the capital of the YT, at 11am.  I inspected the tread wear on the rear tire.  The center strip of the tire tread had worn off almost completely.  I debated stopping in Whitehorse to repace it.  Anchorage lies about 700 miles away, with no tire options in between.  Plus, I had planned on taking an alternate route, the Klondike Highway to Dawson City, and crossing over into Alaska on the Top of the World, the remote secondary border crossing into the Last Frontier.

But my fear of time-wasting and stagnancy reigned supreme, since it was so early in the day, I should high-tail it to Anchorage and have Motoquest replace it for free, I rationalized.  I could make it to Tok by nightfall and stay at the Thompson’s Eagle’s Claw Motorcycle-only campground!  Adventure is a harsh professor, I soon would find.

Through Whitehorse and into one of the most open and gigantic vistas imagineable, I rode with conviction.  The frost heaves, which are created by ice freezing just beneath the road surface and pushing upward, grew to over 6 feet.  Their regular frequency created a roller coaster-like sensation which mesmorized my attention and beckoned me to twist back on the throttle evermore.  I was doing 95mph on a bald back tire over NBA center-sized frost heaves.  Then a canary yellow H-2 hummer roared past at 120.  I admired the full recoil and release of the suspension and wagered with my imaginary bookey that the gas mileage was  3 mpg or less.

Without notice, the front end gives out, and I enter into a high-speed wobble.  A chill of danger ran through my body.  Instinctively, my right hand and foot applied gentle pressure to the front and rear disc brakes which slightly corrected the dangerous movement.  I slowed to 40, still wobbling.  I stood up on the foot pegs and peered over the handlebars to look at the front end of the machine.  The front tire was fully inflated.  Then, I knew.  I spotted a dirt lane pulloff.  I slowed the machine safely to a halt.  Regret and anger coarsing through my arteries.  But it was a picturesque, clear sun Yukon afternoon. And I was an adventurer.  Game on.

I started recording my Motoquest-directed rant on camera, but found myself in a confident, convivial mood.  In preparations for my pilgrimage, I took the possibility of a blown tire seriously.  Alaska bound, my Godfather, Baker, blew a rear tire in the Yukon.  Probably in a similar frost-heave laden stretch of highway.  I removed the Motoquest-provided tire repair kit and my back-up kit purchased for a moment like this.  I inspected the tire and found not one, but five failures of the rubber compound.  It wasn’t a puncture, it was a massive blow out.

I patched the tire in all five places and used all 3 CO2 cartridges to replace the lost air pressure.  The pressure was still very low, probably only 5 psi, but it was rideable, but not for long.  Now my conundrum.  Do I head back to Whitehorse, 80 miles east, or do I chance continuing on to Haines Junction?  Maybe they have a tire.  With the condition of the rear tire, I probably only have a 20 mile range, if lucky, I thought.  I’ll need a tire and the only option is Whitehorse.  However, since I passed no gas stations or campgrounds for 50 miles or so, I decided my best option was to continue west away from Whitehorse in hopes to find a phone to call a tow.

For ten miles, I carefully and fearfully creeped along at 45 mph.  Thankfully, I was in the Yukon and the traffic was almost non-existent.  Though several times, a SUV flew around me like I was peddling the other kind of bike. And then, my salvation! A gas station, campground, resturant combo.  Thank you Otter Falls Cutoff.  I wobbled into the parking lot due to my lost tire pressure, it was almost completely flat again.

I entered the convenient store and asked the attendant, Randy, for the phone to call a tow.  He cautioned that a tow back to Whitehorse would be 6 or 7 hundred dollars.  His imput caused me to question my strategy.  I could just repatch it and refill it, I thought.  Wally, a local Yukon contractor repairing the facade of the building, offered his construction grade air compressor for my use.  I entered the temporary trailor which housed his equipment.  Baffled by the plethora of equipment, I needed more guidance.  He grabbed the compressor for me, I attached the cord to a power source, and commenced filling my rear tire.  As the air entered the rubber compound, an equal amount of air exited through the patched areas.  Shit. I need a tow.  I told Wally that my tire was beyond repair, and he offered his brand new Ford F-150 to haul my bike back to Whitehorse.  He said, “I have tons of repair work here.  Just take it and bring it back tomorrow.  I’m used to it.  The Yukon is unforgiving.  Everyone helps each other out because they know there will be a time when they need help, too.  It’s a harsh climate, but beautiful…and a damed good people, Yukonians, they are.”

I was touched, but couldn’t accept his offer, pride or some other neurosis prevented me to oblige.  I grabbed my AAA card out of my wallet and dialed the number.  They transfered me immediately to the equivalent motorist association in BC.  The operator dispatched a tow truck from Whitehorse, ETA 2-3 hours.  And at no cost to me, covered by my membership.  My American based membership at 100 and some dollars a year totally covered a 700 dollar, 80 mile tow in the Yukon.  Jake 1, Adventure 0.

Wally breaked for lunch and I joined him.  We ordered up a couple of Yukon’s finest elk burgers and fries from Sarah, possibly Wally’s former love interest.  Or maybe current love interest, I couldn’t tell.  Wally went on about the amazingness that was Whitehorse.  The mountains, the remoteness, the ice fog…nothing could match it.  And the people, the community.  I would agree if they were anything like Wally.  I rambled about my adventure.  Wally used to ride as well, but sold his bike to pay the bills.  “With only a 3 or 4 month riding season, I figured I should spend my money elsewhere.”  I empathized.

Finished with lunch, Wally got back to work.  He climbed the ladder to roof level to continue his repairs.  Suddenly, like in a dream as I was gazing out the window, I saw the ladder fall to the side.  Wally fell 20 feet straight into the ground.  Self-conscious and embarassed for him, I froze.  I was worried about his safety, but thanks to my midwestern, super-nice, non-confrontational demeanor, I wanted to avoid him knowing that I saw him fall.

Thankfully, he got up.  Dusted himself off, picked up the ladder, and reclimbed.  Damn, Yukonians are bad ass.

George, with Capital Towing, arrived less than two hours after I made the call to AAA.  George hopped out of the cab, attached the bike to the flatbed, and lit his first of 10 Marlboro Reds he smoked during our 80 miles trip back to Whitehorse.

George was a strange man.  He stared through me with confusing, sad eyes simultaneously expressing gregariousness and aloofness in his countenance.  He rambled a narrative about his fiancee, Pilar Gonzalez, he met during his annual snowbird trip to Puerto Vallerta.  Since that first night at the Palapa, Pilar has attempted to secure a visa to move to Whitehorse.  But George wasn’t upset, he said he’s got the best of both worlds–eleven months of freedom and one month of sex.

Travelling challenges one’s preconcepted norms, and this relationship, while weird and unorthodox and seemingly impossible to me, proved fitting and right for George.

George and I dropped off the bike at Yukon Honda and then he took me to Pioneer Inn.  I immediately phoned Motoquest and performed my emotional, disgruntled customer spiel.  It’s much easier to express dissatisfaction on a voicemail.

Then I headed to the hotel restaurant for sirloin and an Ice Fog IPA.  The namesake phenomenon of Yukon Brewing’s hoppy ale, occurs when the humidity is near 100 percent and the tempurature drops well below freezing.  Ice crystals form on the air and attach themselves to everything exposed.  Ice fog, or pogonip, is just one of the many lovely advantaves to living in the YT, the bartender explained.  And the tax incentives aren’t too shabby either, he quipped.

I didn’t visit any religious center in Canada per se, but when I needed the help of the Yukon people, they came through in a big way.  Thanks to Sarah, Wally, and George, some of the most generous Yukon(ians?)around.  The 50 Faiths project is about visiting different religious communities, but this time, it was about having faith in the good nature of everyday people.  It was about relationships.  It was about helping out a “Yankee” who was stranded in the middle of the Yukon wilderness.

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