Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

Burwash Landing, YT to Watson LK, YT

Back Home Up Next


Date: Wed, 4 Sep 96 01:53:00 GMT

Copyright (c) 1996 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Chapter 26 - July 21 to Aug 3 Burwash Landing, YT to Watson LK, YT - 9817 miles cumulative

Catastrophie!!! How could this happen!!! What will bikers do now!!! News traveled with the speed of lightning up and down the length of the Alaska highway, the only descent sized grocery store between Whitehorse and Tok, Madley's at Haines Junction, had a fire and was closed for the season. Rain, sleet, snow, headwinds, and mountains will hardly phase a bike tourist. But take away our source of grub and we're all in a panic. This means four more days living on pasta and rice. Four more days of dried soup mix rather than fresh salads. Four more of oatmeal, Brian's favorite.

When we pulled into Haines Junction we were prepared for the worst, high priced packages of noodles at the RV park and that's about it. But, leave it to these hardy Yukon folks whose annual livelyhood depends up on three months of good sales to the tourists. In the store's parking lot the owner and employees had rigged up some wooden frames and covered them with blue tarps. Tables were lined up and filled with fruits, veges, and a few bakery products. Two coolers and two small freezers were dragged out onto the tiny porch and filled with dairy products, meats and juices. As the owner lamented, a bit breathlessly since he was constantly running around trying to keep his mini vegetable mart open, "We went from an 8,000 sq. ft. store to just this."

In the few short days since the fire they seemed to have accomplished quite a bit towards getting their lives back to normal. The insurance company had been notified, third hand vendors were already making bids on the "damaged" inventory, and they had a little fruit stand set up. But there was much more to be done. The "fire" actually was quite small, restricted to the single faulty cooler that caused the problem in the first place. But smoke damage was everywhere. So the building would likely have to be gutted, cleaned, and rebuilt on the interior. The owner does have a good outlook, though. He says that this is the ideal opportunity to make any design improvements. When everything is back to normal, I expect the store will be far better than it had been.

Bike tourists everywhere. It seems not a day goes by in which we don't meet another bike tourist or two. Everyone whose ever thought of hopping on a bike and riding around Alaska and on the AlCan must have decided to do it this year. And what a varity of personalities. From the "devil may care" Aussie riding a bright orange 10 speed bike with a very wobbley rear wheel and essentially no cooking gear to the very disgruntled guy from Michigan who complained about that he'd had enough of the road, this ride, and his riding partner. As he sat eating lunch his partner rode in. They hardly exchanged two words and then rode away separately. We had to wonder, if you're not getting along on a ride like this, then why stick together. It's not like they're married. My inclination would be to say, "Well it's just not working out. See ya." We also meet bike tourists who shouldn' be bike tourists. They're too particular and fussy. Anything goes awry and they can't quite handle it. These folks really need to find another mode of transportation. The ones who do best are flexible and mold themselves to the situation.

There was the Danish girl, Ann, and the Swiss guy, Alios, who we kept meeting again and again during the week ride from Delta Junction to Haines Junction. Ann was a fairly typical appearing Dane in her early 30s with very, very blond hair, fair skin, and freckles, although not as many as I have. Alios was probably in his mid 20s, thin and wirey, and spoke very borken English. Their story was a bit unique in that they were not a "couple" in the romantic sense. Both had wanted to ride Alaska this summer. Alios put up an ad looking for a partner in a sporting goods store in Zurich. Ann responded. Wisely, they spent 14 days backpacking together in Spain last December to test their compatibility and so far things seem to be working out just fine. Ann indicated that she felt it was such a relief not having to deal with any romance issues and to just ride with a friend. Ann had spent one month riding through B.C. with a now ex boyfriend before meeting Alios in Anchorage. Needless to say, it didn't work out at all. At Haines Junction, Ann and Alios turned right toward Haines while we turned left toward Whitehorse. I wonder if we'll meet up once again when they return to the AlCan after riding back up fron Skagway.

The AlCan highway between Haines Junction and Whitehorse is a series of good chip sealed road with wide shoulders and newly refinished sections. Chip seal consists of tar coverd with pea sized gravel. When newly laid the gravel is so thick the bike tires simply slide sidways lending a very unstable fishtail feeling to the ride. As the road ages, wheels of the cars and RVs push the gravel into piles along the shoulders and in the middle of the road. Riding these soft, gravel shoulders is virtually impossible on bike. So we end up forced to ride essentially in the traffic lanes. Naturally the RVs don't appreciate our being there. But, rather than slow down to pass they typically speed up, I guess trying to get around us as fast as possible before that truck up ahead gets in the way. This causes dust, gravel, and rocks to fly up at our faces. The whole ride on these sections is unpleasant and dangerous, and mostly because of those blasted RVs. I must admit, after a couple days dealing with them we were wishing they'd outlaw any RV larger than 20 ft in length. If only they would be more courteous and slow down when passing.

Whitehorse, capital city of the Yukon Territory, population of about 27,000 out of a total territory population of just over 31,000. It's a city that takes some getting used to. After miles and miles of wilderness broken only by the occasional roadhouse and teeny tiny village, Whitehorse seemed kind of rough and dirty. The first multistory building we'd seen in a while just irritated the visual senses. Rv parks were no more than parking lots. Wide streets, stoplights, unsavory characters hanging out by the liquor store asking for hand outs, and an unusual bunch of backpacker type travelers hanging around the Robert Service Campground south of town. The problem we've experienced with the "just turned 21" or "let loose in Europe where there's no drinking age" backpacker type is they will forgo seeing a museum, such as the Louvre in Paris, simply because it costs a few Francs admission, but they'll gladly spend twice as much getting totally plastered at the local pub. So at 2AM when the rest of the campground is trying to sleep, these folks will come stumbling in completely unaware of just how much noise they're making. Also, the only time we've experienced any theft problems is from these backpacker type campgrounds. We tend to be real leary of staying in these places.

The town did grow on us a bit, after a few days. But, let's qualify our first impressions. We'd just ridden in on that AlCan highway, with all its wonderful gravel sections, Brian was having all sorts of problems with his derailleur, it was shifting all over and only gears 1 and 2 were stable, I was fighting my rear wheel which was dragging on the brake pads, evidentally I've got a bad rim that has developed an unusual ripple shape, and we'd been fighting headwinds ever since leaving Tok. We were both tired, cranky, and ready for a multiday rest. Entering Whitehorse on what appeared to be the seedier side of town did nothing to help our mood. But, after a good night sleep, we located a great bike shop Wheels and Brakes (aptly named), and got both bikes fixed up, then had some real good meals instead of rice and noodles, hot showers, cold drinks, and rested. Somehow Whitehorse began to take on a whole new light that corresponded with our improved moods.

Even the Robert Service started to seem not quite so seedy after a while. Apart from the 2AM antics of some of its residents and the loud hum from the nearby power plant generator, it was actually a fairly quiet campground. During the day the campground had a far more vibrant life than any of the commercial RV parks. People relaxed around the umbrella shaded tables by the front office, chatting, playing cards, and snacking, sunbathers sprawled across the picnic area lawn, impromptu soccer games filled the afternoon, people wandered and got acquainted with their neighbors, everyone was outside. In RV parks people enclose themselves in their boxy shelters, rarely appearing outside for more than a few minutes.

Downtown Whitehorse sits on a flat of land at the bottom of the cliffs lining the incredibly turquoise waters of the mighty Yukon river. There's no hint of the large downtown buildings from the top of the cliff. Just a few industrial parks, tiny industrial parks at that, and the airport. If it weren't for the signs pointing the way to downtown Whitehorse one would never know it exists. The town was settled before the 1896 gold rush and has played a major role in both the gold rush and the AlCan highway construction. Many of the buildings in the main 6 block central downtown area date from the gold rush times, although now they'v been restored, have fresh coats of paint, and look quite nice. Antique buildings sit right next to ultra modern government buildings.

Things to do and see, apart from finding food at the grocery store, included the McBride, Old Log Church, and Yukon Transportation museums and a tour of the SS Klondike, one of the original paddle wheel steam ships, and a view of the world's longest wooden fish ladder. The McBride museum despite its tiny size had a few gems for displays. One room was filled with old photos of Whitehorse and Yukon residents who played an important part in its transition from the years of the gold rush to modern times. There were businessmen and women, politicians, artists, and explorers. Many were original sourdoughs who made that famous climb over the Chilkoot pass in the winter of 1897/1898. To my surprise many of these sourdoughs lived into the early 1970s. Imagine being a historian in the 70s who was interested in the Klondike gold rush. You could have actually come to Whitehorse to see and talk to folks who made that trek. A historian's version of a "gold strike".

The McBride museum is also the proud resting place of Sam McGee's cabin. If it hadn't been for Robert Service's famous and lighthearted poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee" this is a man who would have passed unoticed into the pages of history. Although I can't recall Service's poem word for word I can give a general outline. McGee was supposed to be a prospctor from Tennesee. He was out prospecting around with his partner in the middle of winter. Sam was supposed to have always been cold, real cold and he made sure everyone around him knew it. So on this cold winter's night he made his partner promise that should he die, his partner would have his body cremated. He simply couldn't stand the thought of lying in a cold, frozen grave.

Well, it came to pass that very night old Sam McGee froze to death. His partner, stuck with this promise was now also stuck with a body. He dragged the thing for miles and miles regretting his promise every step of the way. Finally he came upon the remains of an old sternwheeler wreck on Lake Labarge and decided the boiler would make a fine crematorium. He built a fire, tossed in the body, and went for a walk as he couldn't abide hearing the snap and crackle of the body burning. After who knows how long he returns, opens the door, and discovers Sam McGee sitting up asking him to shut the door as it's the warmest he'd been for months.

OK so that's the fiction. Now here's the facts. Sam McGee was not from Tennessee, he was from Ontario, a Canadian. He did come up to the Yukon for prospecting and did have four claims on the hills overlooking Whitehorse. But it's doubtful he ever did the actual digging. They suspect he hired others to do the digging. He was a schrewd businessman who did his banking at a bank at which Robert Service was working as a teller, this is how they met. McGee was not cremated on Lake Labarge, instead he passed away in Ontario where his daughter lived. The poem was written and published before his death. To show what a good sport he was about the whole noteriety, he did return to Whitehorse once before his death. Upon passing someone selling the ashes of Sam McGee he decided to purchase some. Quite a souvenir. So although the details of the poem may be complete fiction, there may be some basis in fact for the idea. An article in the Whitehorse newspaper published at that time told of a recent arriver from Iowa who was found frozen to death. The position of the body was such that they couldn't get it into a coffin. So they put it into a baker's oven to thaw. Upon opening the door the body sat up and asked them to shut it as they were letting in a draft. Sound similar?

The SS Klondike is a wonderful reminder of the lost age of the steamship sternwheeler. Built in 1877 for the White Pass and Yukon Transportation company it was the largest cargo vessel plying the Yukon waters at that time. Smaller ships had come before but they often had to push barges in order to haul enough cargo to be profitable. The Klondike was large enough to eliminate inefficient barge pushing. Its summer route was between the railroad dockyards in Whitehorse and the gold fields of Dawson City. It spent winters along with its 27 or so cousin sternwheeler ships up on the shores of the Yukon at Whitehorse. During the winter Dawson City went without outside contact except for what could be packed on dog sled and sleigh. The Klondike had a long lifespan for a sternwheeler. After changes in the market, building of the Alaska highway which brought trucking, the need for the sternwheeler declined. The SS Klondike was converted to a tourist ship, but was perhaps 20 years ahead of its time. In 1955 it was brought ashore just north of town and left to rot.

In 1964 the Canadian government bought it, for $1, under the condition that it be moved to town and turned into a park for display. So it was moved in 5 weeks, with th help of steel beams, telephone poles for rollers, and some 27 tons of pamolive soap for lubricant. It now sits high and dry in a grassy field at the end of 3rd street, no longer afloat it is still as impressive as ever. Many years of restoration now has it back in its 1920s condition with demonstrative cargo and cord wood on the main deck, state rooms, viewing lounge, and first class dining facilities all decked out waiting for patrons on the second deck, and officers quarters all set up as if they were on duty at that moment on the third deck. There was meat hanging in the smokehouse at the stern of the upper deck, a game of shuffle board just waiting to be played, and the ever present brass ship's bell now ringing at the hands of the tourists. I could just picture myself, a first class passenger of course, whiling away the 36 hour cruise from Whitehorse to Dawson City playing cards in the observation lounge as the dramatic Yukon scenery rolled passed. But the days of the sternwheeler on the Yukon are gone for good being replaced by Holland America Tours busses running at 65 mph from tidewater at Skagway to Dawson City and beyond. Do you suppose future tourists will look back upon today's bus tours with the same romantic notions as we now look upon the sternwheeler tourists. Somehow I think not.

Finally the Yukon Transportation museum had a few of its own surprises. This small building was filled with displays of various modes of transportation used in the Yukon. It included a car from the White Pass and Yukon railroad that traveled from Skagway to Whitehorse, old sleighs used on the tracks that preceeded the Alaska highway, old trucks and busses used for construction and travel on the AlCan, dog mushing sleds, and float and ski planes. A particular treat was the full size reproduction of the first commercial airplane brought to the Yukon, the Queen of the Yukon. Built by Ryan Aeronautics in San Diego it was the sister ship of the most famous Spirit of St. Louis. In fact, Lindberg's plane was supposed to be the first Queen of the Yukon. He happened to see it under construction and usurped it for his own use. Now I suppose the folks in the Yukon who had ordered the plane were probably a bit upset at first. After all this delayed them getting their air courier business started. But after Lindberg's flight, they quickly cashed in on the fame by providing rides for a paying customers.

Queen of the Yukon lasted only a year. It was destroyed in a crash landing when it hit a heavy sidewind and ran right into a truck. The next Queen of the Yukon II lasted only 4 months when it also crashed killing the pilot and passengers. In fact, while reading the descriptions attached to photos in the Bush Pilot's hall we noted that most of the early pilots and planes met their demise in crashes. But, the early bush pilots had some truly unique and dangerous environments to cope with. Just what do you do when your pontoon breaks or your landing gear breaks through the ice? How do you find your way over totally uncharted lands in icey, stormy weather? If you have an emergency landing, how do you survive the bitter cold until, or if, a rescue party locates you? Bush pilots of today still face many of these same dangers. They do earn their high pay, if they are good. If not, they're dead.

Four days in Whitehorse seemed like hardly enough to rest our much tired muscles. But, time is passing quickly and there are many miles to go. So we climbed aboard the bikes and headed on. Much to my surprise in just those short four days I had managed to lose most of my biker's butt insensitivity. After 45 miles, into the wind as usual, my butt hurt. I could hardly stand sitting for the next 20 miles. Fortunately with our continual touring, it doesn't take too long to regain that bicycle butt. But, pun intended, that first day was miserable.

The road south of Whitehorse was much, much better than that north. Do you suppose it's because the Canadian government is most interested in seeing that transportation to the capital of the Yukon territory is as good as possible and beyond that only the Yanks care about? In any event, the shoulder got smooth and areas of gravel became far and few between. Even the scenery improved. As we moved south the road followed along low mountain ridges and enormous 70+ mile long lakes. Oh to have a canoe. Whereas before Whitehorse we'd been riding along a valley and the scenery was relatively boring, certainly not enough to make us forget the constant headwind. And prices, wow!! We saw a huge decrease in prices almost immediately after the junction leading to Skagway. Campground prices dropped from $11 with showers costing an extra $1 per person to $5 including showers. Cinnamon buns that were running $3 or more dropped to $1.75. Even the price of a can of soda droppd from $1.25 to $1.18 (strange amount). Hopefully these prices will continue along the Casiar.

We even got to see our first bear at close range, at least as close as we want to be without bars or glass separating us. Riding into the 500 person town of Teslin, reveling in our first tailwind in about 3 weeks, we spotted a large black bear only about 100 ft up a side dirt road. We debated, stop to take a picture or just keep going. His behavior seemed to indicate he was curious about what those two very strange beasts might be. No aggression. So we figured, leave well enough alone. Keep riding by. A photo is simply not worth the potential danger of an aroused bear.

Services became more and more sparse as we continued our eastward trek along the AlCan toward Watson Lake. Miles upon miles of road lined with trees, low hills, and swiftly moving rivers but absolutely no buildings whatsoever. We rode the longest unpopulated stretch, 60 miles between the Rancheria roadhouse and the Intersection with the Casiar highway, in a day long cold drizzle. Thankfully the first 20 miles were downhill with a tailwind as we were descending from the continental divide. The final 10 miles of road construction left us, bikes, and equipment sopping wet and coated in light brown mud. It was one of those days that we were just so glad to see come to an end. We even treated ourselves to a warm, dry motel room, the first in over 2 months.

It really does take a lot of fortitude to climb out of the tent on one of those gray, cold, drizzly days, pulling on damp cold clothes, and climb on the bike knowing that you'll spend the entire day getting wetter and wetter. Cars splashing water and mud on you, freezing every time you stop, wearing heavy rain gear that getts heavier as it slowly gets drenched. Somehow getting up to dry weather and then getting soaked in a surprise downpour later on is not nearly as demoralizing as waking to a day of continual drizzle. No matter how you try, you just can't get used to it. You just grit your teeth, set your wills, and press on. The end of the day comes none too soon.

Roadhouses and motels along the AlCan are an eclectic array of accomodations and facilities that seem to have been gathered from surrounding towns and perhaps even created from stuff leftover from the original AlCan construction. Cafes are simple log cabin affairs with a few kitchen type tables and chairs scattered around. Forget table clothes or even cloth napkins. The food is as simple as the buildings, pancakes, eggs, hamburgers, steaks, and fried chicken are the regular menu items. The only speciality items may be the baked items. There seems to be a friendly competition along the highway to see who can make the biggest and best cinammon buns. Our vote goes to the Johnson Crossing roadhouse.

0the motels are really strange. They are just groups of those temporary office type buildings places in a yard, those rectangular, box buildings composed of no more than plywood covered with corrugated sheet metal that are transported on the back of a flatbed trailer and dropped on site. Some of the buildings will be subdivided into small 10X10 rooms containing no more than one bed, a tiny desk and dresser. One building, usually centrally located, contains the bath and shower facilities. Four star hotels and restaurants are not to be found. Everything in the Yukon is simple, functional, and cheap to build.

I don't know if it's because we're further south and in an area where people are less hurried or if it's because the sparsely spaced services make people take pity on us, but people seemed to be getting more generous. We were given a carton of citrus juice on that dreary rainy day when we stopped for lunch. And at Rancheria we were invited in for after dinner wine by Dick and Judi from Long Beach. A recently retired bicycling couple who normally live on a boat in the Long Beach harbor but have spent some time this summer traveling in their small RV in Alaska. Having done long distance bicycle touring and RV travel it was interesting to hear their response. As we suspected, they find traveling in the RV tends to keep them isolated from surrounding people. While we may have converstations lasting 30 minutes or more with folks we meet nearly every day and even longer with fellow bike tourists, they commented that we were the first people they'd had much more than a 3 minute chat with. As I mentioned before, the biggest problem I see with RVs is people have a tendency to stay inside all the time. Even Judi commented how the other day they pulled into just the perfect site, views overlooking the lake, and she wound up inside cooking dinner, doing dishes. They didn't even go for a walk. Whereas when you're in a tent or other living arrangement that does not have indoor cooking facilities you have no choice but to be outside. I think if we ever resort to getting a trailer I'd want the cooking facilities to be portable so we could cook outside whenever possible. After all, that's why we sold our house in the first place, so we could live outdoors.

Appendix A - Route

Alaska Highway to Watson Lake

Appendix B - Camp sites


Destruction Bay Hotel RV park ($), Kluane RV Park in Haines Junction 2 nights ($), Road pullout between Whitehorse and Haines Junction, Robert Service Campground 4 nights ($), RV park in Whitehorse ($), Squanga Lake Campground ($), Yukon Motel in Teslin ($), Morely River Lodge ($), Swift River Lodge ($), Junction 37 motel top of Casiar hwy ($)

($) indicates fee camping


Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.



We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.


Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site,

Return to Out There Living