June 28, 2013
about the far northwestern part of North America that I can’t seem to resist.
Over the years, I’ve made several trips to Alaska and Canada’s Yukon—some with
groups of riders, but mostly on my own.
Each time I return, I
try to find some new experience to make the trip special. On one trip, I was
able to ride the Cassiar Highway, the alternate route through British Columbia
to the Yukon, shortly after it was opened to traffic. On another, I ended up stranded
by a blizzard north of the Arctic Circle as I attempted to follow the unpaved
road that leads to Inuvik, practically on the Arctic Ocean.
For my fifth trip to
the region, I was determined to get my fill of dirt riding. I laid out a route
that included about 2,000 miles of dirt, most of it on remote byways in the
Northwest Territories and the Yukon. In particular, I was hoping to explore the
Canol Road, a historic oil-pipeline route built during World War II and
abandoned shortly thereafter.
One of the problems I
always face on these journeys is picking a suitable motorcycle. It’s a long way
from my home in New York just to reach Saskatchewan, where I planned to cross
into Canada. In all, the trip would total some 14,000 miles. I’ve taken similar
trips on a Suzuki 750 in the past, but this time I would be on a Honda Gold
Wing. It’s a bit large for the dual-sport roads I was hoping to ride, but
having put 75,000 miles on the machine, I trusted it for long stretches without
From home, I looped
southwest through the Amish country of Pennsylvania, the Appalachians of West
Virginia and the Piedmont area of Virginia. Then I traveled west through the
tobacco farms of Tennessee and the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Turning north
in Oklahoma, I rode through the plains of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas on
the way to the Canadian border.
I enjoyed the rolling
grasslands for a couple of days, but after I crossed into Saskatchewan, the
terrain got flat as a table top and a little boring. Fortunately, it improved
the next day when I crossed into Alberta, with its rolling hills, sweeping
valleys and trees. I stopped in Valleyview for the night, arriving before 3
p.m., which allowed me time to replace the spark plugs and change the oil. I
knew the days would get longer and the roads more remote from here.
In the morning, I was
on the road early, headed north to the town of Hay River in the Northwest
Territories. In all of my previous trips, I had only crossed into this largest
“province” of Canada once. And that time I barely got my wheels into the
Northwest Territories on my blizzard-shortened trip to Inuvik.
The ride to Hay River
was easy. The road was smooth, straight and free of traffic. Even the weather
cooperated, with temperatures rising through the 70s. I saw three deer in Peace
River and I spotted a ruffed grouse with two tiny chicks when I stopped for a
nature break. The mother grouse was fearless, and kept charging at me to
protect her babies, which were no bigger than ping pong balls.
By the time I reached
the Northwest Territories, it was 80 degrees. I peeled off layers of clothes
there, but a few miles later, the sky clouded over and the wind kicked up out
of the north. The temperature dropped 25 degrees in 20 miles, and it began to
My stop for the night
turned out to be a rustic motel, but the bed was clean and that was all I
needed. I wanted to get a good night’s sleep before attempting the ride to Fort
Nelson, British Columbia, the next day. If I had it figured right, it would be
more than 400 miles—all of it on dirt roads.
Before going to bed, I
decided to check on the availability of gas along my planned route. Leaving Hay
River, I’d take the Mackenzie Highway, roughly paralleling the Mackenzie River,
to the Liard Trail, which would take me south toward Fort Liard.
I’d heard that there
was a gas station at the point where I planned to pick up the Liard Trail, 205
miles west of Hay River. It was lucky I checked, though, because I learned that
the station had gone out of business, which meant the next gas I could count on
would be 350 miles away in Fort Liard.
Even using the two
gallons of spare fuel I was carrying in containers, I computed that I would
have to average 46 miles per gallon to make it, which was a little risky,
especially in the dirt. However, a trucker told me that if I left the Mackenzie
about 65 miles west of Hay River, I would find gas at Dory Point, only 14 miles
off course. I figured I could certainly make it from there to Fort Liard.
I awoke at 4:45, ready
and anxious. It was only 43 degrees out and it looked like rain. Wanting to get
some miles behind me, I loaded up and left without breakfast, getting on the
road by 5:30.
It had rained during
most of the night, and I quickly hit a 30-mile construction zone that was all
mud. I got there before the construction crews started working for the day,
which was in my favor, but the work area still had plenty of deep ruts and
standing water. Other spots were extremely slick, and I had to skid both feet
on the ground to steady the bike.
I saw only one pickup
truck in the first 65 miles before my gas stop. After that, I saw a vehicle
about every hour and a half for the rest of the day.
construction zone, the Mackenzie Highway was actually in pretty good shape for
a dirt road. I just had to concentrate on staying in the tire tracks, because
there was a lot of loose gravel everywhere else. At about 110 miles, I stopped
to transfer my spare gas into the tank and determined that in spite of the dirt
and mud, the bike was getting better than 46 miles per gallon. I probably could
have avoided the early gas stop after all.
It sprinkled a few
times on the Mackenzie, but the rain began to fall pretty hard once I turned
onto the Liard Trail. The road surface got sloppy and the potholes quickly
filled with water. I spotted four bison and a couple of red foxes along the
road, and I probably passed much more wildlife, but I couldn’t take my eyes off
the deteriorating road surface to look for it.
I gassed up in Fort
Liard and pressed on, thinking that the road would only get worse if I waited.
Fortunately, though, the rain stopped as I neared the British Columbia border.
By the time I reached the long, single-lane bridge across the Fort Nelson
River, I was riding on dusty gravel.
When I stopped that
night, the odometer showed I had covered 470 miles of unpaved road. I was happy
with that, but a little disappointed, too. I had been looking forward to this
leg of the trip, since it was one of the few stretches I hadn’t ridden before. But
so far there had been very little scenery—just hundreds of miles of dirt, dust,
gravel and mud. It wasn’t quite what I came for.
Fort Nelson is located
on the Alaska Highway, the main route northwest. I spent the whole next day on
that paved road, riding under overcast skies and through occasional fog. The
good news was that I started to get into scenic mountains almost immediately,
and that lifted my spirits. I saw my first caribou of the trip just off the
road before crossing into the Yukon. I also saw a large Dall’s sheep a little
farther up the road.
I made good time until
I hit road construction in the Yukon. While standing still during one of
several delays in that construction area, I struck up a conversation with a
motorist and explained that I was planning to follow the Alaska Highway past
the town of Teslin, then turn north on the South Canol Road toward Ross River.
The driver, a Yukon
native, told me that the South Canol had been closed a week earlier due to a
slide. Concerned that I might have to detour, I stopped at a maintenance camp
to find out the road’s current status. A worker there called ahead and found
out that the slide had been cleared and the road was open.
I reached Teslin at
4:30 and took a cabin for the night at a place called Mukluk Annie’s Salmon
Bake. The cabin was great and cost only $35 Canadian, but even better was the
all-you-can-eat baked salmon dinner for $12. I ate so much fish I felt like a
bear going into hibernation.
After dinner, I walked
down to the shore of a lake where I met three motorcyclists just making camp.
The group of riders were on a pair of 1,000cc Moto Guzzis and a BMW R1000GS.
Their plates revealed they were from Europe. Then I noticed a sticker on one of
the machines reading: “Cape Horn, Chile.”
I asked if they had
really ridden all the way from Cape Horn, and they said they had. We talked for
a while about their two-month expedition across two continents, and suddenly my
own upcoming adventure on the Canol Road lost some of its glamour.
In the morning, I
quickly reached the southern end of the Canol (Canadian Oil) Road just west of
Teslin. It was at this spot in 1942 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
nearing completion of the 1,520-mile Alcan Highway (now known as the Alaska
Highway), took on a second challenge.
discovery of oil near Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories, the War Department
ordered the Corps to divert some of the 20,000 men already at work on the Alcan
Highway to cut a 513-mile pipeline road toward Norman Wells. The project
included the road, a pipeline with pumping stations, a refinery in the town of
Whitehorse, airfields and other support facilities. All of that was built to
assure a supply of oil and fuel in case the Japanese invaded Alaska. And all of
it was abandoned four years later after the war ended.
The Yukon portion of
the Canol Road was recently reopened to summer traffic and is maintained to
minimum standards. The 138-mile southern end, from the Alaska Highway to Ross
River, has been designated the South Canol Road, while the North Canol Road
consists of the 144-mile section from Ross River to the Northwest Territories
border. An additional 230-mile stretch from there to Norman Wells, less than
100 miles from the Arctic Circle, has been designated the Canol Heritage Trail,
but it is considered unusable by motor vehicles.
I’d heard rumors of
adventurous dirt bikers making the entire trip, but I didn’t think the Gold
Wing would be up to the task. I was hoping, though, to reach the Continental
Divide, which forms the boundary between the Yukon and the Northwest
Territories at that point.
I figured that my day
on the Canol Road would be the toughest and probably the riskiest on this
14,000-mile tour. My estimate was that I’d cover more than 450 miles, all on
dirt roads, in heading from Teslin to the Northwest Territories border, then
back to Ross River. I was carrying my camping gear with me, but it was for
emergencies only. I was hoping to make it back to a motel by nightfall.
It was 46 degrees and
overcast when I started up the narrow, twisty South Canol Road at 5:30 a.m. I
guided the Gold Wing through some tight turns and over several steep hills
before climbing quickly to 4,000 feet. Then it started to rain and the surface
immediately got slick.
Once in a while the
rain would pour down, raising my concerns about slides and washouts. Knowing
that the road had just been reopened after a slide, I was more careful than
usual winding around blind turns on the steep mountainsides. I saw one spot
where a washout, perhaps the one from the previous week, had been repaired. The
new construction looked temporary at best, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it
washed out again later that day.
The South Canol Road
was as remote as anyplace I’ve ridden in the Northwest. I was on it for four
hours and didn’t see another human. I did see a beautiful lynx dart across the
road, and a short time later, a huge bull moose. I saw a large
chocolate-colored fox with silver hair on its neck that I later identified as a
cross fox. I was also treated to the rare sight of a female moose with two
young that appeared to be only a few weeks old. I gave her a wide berth to make
sure she knew I was no threat to her children.
In spite of the rain,
I was elated by the experience of riding the Canol Road. It reminded me of my
first trip up the Cassiar Highway in 1977, when that road had just been opened.
I passed crystal-clear lakes with the snow-covered Pelly Mountains and the Big
Salmon Range in the background.
There were a few spots
where the narrow road wound more than 500 feet above the Lapie River, and it
seemed there was nothing to keep it from falling into the valley below.
Eventually, the road crossed the Lapie River Canyon on a one-lane bridge across
a rocky gorge. Shortly thereafter, I arrived in Ross River just as the rain
stopped and the cloud layer started to thin.
I refilled my gas tank
and my two extra fuel containers, then boarded a small cable ferry just outside
of town to cross the Ross River and pick up the North Canol Road. The operator
asked how far I was going and if I expected to return that day. I told him I
was going to the Northwest Territories border and that, yes, I hoped to be
back. He looked at his watch and said the ferry stopped running at 5 p.m. But
then he pointed to a foot bridge across the river and told me that if I
returned later, I should walk across the bridge to his house. He promised to
fire up the ferry and bring my bike back across.
The river crossing
took only a few minutes and I was on my way. The North Canol Road turned out to
be straighter than its southern counterpart, but it was pretty rough in places,
with potholes and baseball-sized rocks. The first 10 miles were damp and
slippery from the rain. After that, I rode into loose gravel that made turning
very difficult. A few times I got into a turn too hot and skittered
precariously onto the shoulder before regaining control. The only option was to
ease up a little, and I realized there was no chance I was going to return by
I came around one
blind turn and had to panic brake for a big caribou. He turned to face me less
than 10 feet away. I thought at first he might charge, but I blipped the
throttle and he ran. Another time, I rounded a bend and came across a strange
animal in the road. It was completely black, with a long slim tail like a
panther, and long, thin legs with padded feet. I’d guess he stood more than 3
feet tall to his back. He took a few easy strides into the bush before I could
get a good look at his head. When I described the rest of him to locals, I was
told that it was probably a black wolf, but I suspect it might have been a
Russian wolfhound, although I have no idea why he would have been in that spot.
About 100 miles from
Ross River, I stopped to transfer my extra gas into the tank. It was at that
point that I saw the first of several groups of abandoned World War II vehicles
that had been used to build the road.
The only people I came
in contact with were a few hikers wearing nets over their heads to protect them
from swarms of insects. They spoke only French, but I wasn’t interested in
conversation anyway, since the insects immediately attacked every square inch
of bare skin whenever I slowed down.
The final 50 miles to
the Northwest Territories border had the best scenery. By then, the sky had
cleared, and thick underbrush gave way to green, hilly tundra. I was surrounded
by spectacular snow-covered mountains. The only signs of civilization I saw in
that entire stretch were a small airstrip and a few access roads leading to
I guessed that I was
about 8 miles from the Northwest Territories border when I came upon a
swift-running stream where the bridge had washed out. The water was only about
a foot deep near the bank, but I could see boulders hiding under the surface,
and I wasn’t sure whether the Gold Wing would make it.
I was scouting for a
clear path through when a crusty-looking old guy in a four-wheel-drive pickup
appeared on the other side. He was the first driver I’d seen on the road in
hours, and he couldn’t have arrived at a better time. One look at the way his
truck bounced and splashed across the stream made me decide that it would be a
very risky proposition to take the Wing any farther.
He stopped when he got
to my side of the stream, and I could see that he was probably younger than me.
He looked at the Gold Wing and asked if I was going to attempt it. I told him
that he’d just helped me decide to head back to Ross River for the night.
I hadn’t made it all
the way to my objective, but I’d come very close. So I stopped for a little
while and appreciated just how far I’d traveled since leaving New York 12 days
before. This truly seemed like a different world—a world that always manages to
look new to me each time I come back to it.
With one more look at
the mountains ahead, I turned the Gold Wing around and pointed it at Ross
River. It was 2:30 in the afternoon, and this far north I knew I’d have plenty
of daylight to complete the trip, as long as the ferry operator was available.
The trip back took a
solid 3½ hours, and when I arrived, I discovered a maintenance truck waiting at
the ferry landing. I asked the driver if he’d made arrangements with the
operator to get across. He replied that no one was going to get across on that
ferry for quite a while.
The truck driver
explained that the fan on the ferryboat’s motor had gone through the radiator
that afternoon, and he’d been called to repair it. When I asked how long that
might take, he replied that it could range from one or two days to a week,
depending upon how hard it would be to find parts for the old engine.
Riding north on the
Canol Road, I had been cautious to make sure I didn’t crash the bike and strand
myself so far from civilization. Now, having completed that part of the journey,
it looked as though I might be just as effectively stranded by a broken ferry.
Together, the truck
driver and I walked across the foot bridge. It was 400 feet long and swayed
slightly in spite of its stay cables. I carried most of my gear across in case
I didn’t get back to the bike that night.
I walked directly to
the home of the ferry operator, while the mechanic went to call his boss. When
the ferry operator answered the door, I explained my predicament and asked if
he had any idea how much time the repairs would take.
To my surprise, he
smiled and said, “Come on, I’ll get you across.”
The operator said the
breakdown happened while he was transporting a vehicle that afternoon. He spent
hours working on the engine in the middle of the river, and he effectively
jury-rigged it so it could be used for short periods.
We collected the
mechanic, and the ferry operator took both of us across to our vehicles, then
immediately shut down the engine. We loaded my bike and the truck, then waited
a bit while the ferry cooled. Eventually, we made the return trip without
incident. I thanked the operator before climbing back on the bike for the short
ride to Sooley’s Bed and Breakfast, where I had a room reserved for the night.
The town of Ross River
doesn’t have even 100 residents, but it looked like a major metropolis to me
that evening after a long day away from gas stations, convenience stores and
even road signs. My faceshield was badly scratched, my clothes were filthy and
dust was in everything I owned. But I went to sleep that night satisfied,
having conquered another new road.
I spent several more
days in the region, riding some of my other favorite roads. Then I turned
southeast and headed back to New York. When I got home, the odometer showed I’d
traveled 14,030 miles on everything from interstate highways to dirt paths. But
the miles I’ll remember most from my fifth trip to the Northwest are the 150 or
so I shared with a pickup driver, a few hikers, a caribou and an animal I still
haven’t been able to identify, somewhere near the border of the Yukon and the