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Yukon Expedition

June 28, 2013

There’s something 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 repair shops.

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 rain.

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.

Beyond the 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.

Following the 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 5.

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 mines.

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 Northwest Territories.

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