The border crossing into Canada was the most comprehensive crossing of the whole trip. Why are you coming into Canada? Where are you staying? What is your itinerary? Where you refused admission to any of the countries on your trip? Do you have insurance for your bikes for the period you will be in Canada? Prove you have sufficient funds to support your stay and so on. The customs officer was polite but we ended up getting a print out from our on-line bank statement to show him we were solvent and not likely to squat in Canada once they let us in. We were headed for Calgary. The bikes needed new tyres. We had a few city things to do – Internet, banking, laundry, letting folks at home know we were still alive etc. We had one small problem. Calgary was getting ready for its biggest party of the year – The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth – The Calgary Stampede. We managed to sort out new tyres thanks to Dave Anderson of Anderwerks in Calgary before the fun started. Two days before the party, we staged our own personal Stampede. When fitting the new tyres, we met a chap called Brent on a 650 Dakar who was planning a major trip with his wife, Carrie, who rides a 650 GS. We went to the pub after a very hot dry day doing the tyres, where we ate some Chicken Wings and sank a few O’Douls (alcohol free beers – we were riding) and a few pints of cold iced tap water. It was a lovely evening spent chatting about our trip answering their myriad questions on our trip and we both got a big kick out of seeing how excited they were about the whole prospect of their coming journey. Brent escorted us back to our hotel and we said our fond farewells. Half an hour later Mags was running her very own stampede – into the toilet with severe vomiting and diarrhoea. As she came out clammy and ashen faced, I went in for my own little stampede and we both spent the next 24 hours alternating between bed and bathroom. It really knocked us for 6 and was the worst food poisoning we had on the whole trip. I say food poisoning but we actually reckoned it was the tap water that did the damage. A day or so later I drank a half glass and within half an hour was back stampeding the toilet again. The Calgary Stampede (the proper, official one that is) turned out to be everything it promised and we watched the kick off parade full of Cowboys n’ Indians, Mounties n’ Clowns, Rough Riders, Glamour Gals, Brass Bands, kilted Pipers and thousands of horses shitting tons of manure in Calgary’s main thoroughfares. Then off to the Stampede ground for an afternoon of rodeo, steer roping, wagon racing and good all round yee-har fun that goes with that. We staggered back to our hotel gone 3am, knackered but elated after a whole day of great craic!
A spot of camping next in the mountain town of Banff where we did some more hiking up around Lake Louise and got acclimatised to somewhat cooler, wetter weather. Thermal liners were fitted to our jackets for the first time since leaving home and we re-arranged our packing to bring cold weather clothing to the fore whilst T-Shirts and shorts were buried as it didn’t look like we’d need them again in a hurry. From Banff we took the Icefields Parkway on to Jasper. The temperature dropped from 20˚C to 8˚C and it rained cats and dogs (these were only visible now and again through the stair-rods!) At Bow Lake we stopped and we retrieved our BMW heated vests. We have carried these all the way and never used them once. At one point they looked like a very expensive waste of money but boy were we glad for them today and from this point on we’d wear them right through into September until we got back to warmer climes. They were fantastic pieces of kit and enabled us to ride in some very severe weather. Riding a bike in the cold you fight a losing battle with heat loss. It’s OK for a while but as you get tired and hungry your body starts expending a lot of energy just trying to stay warm. It’s even worse if it’s wet. But with the heated vests, they add heat to your system. There’s a saying back home that being cold and wet is fine so long as you’re warm and dry. The BMW heated vests certainly went a long way to making this statement seem not as ridiculous as it sounds! On the Icefield Parkway Mags was mistaken for Obie-Wan-Kanobie by a young Scottish chap on holiday with his Mum and Dad. He’d watched ‘Long Way Round’ and so was familiar with the site of BMWs with Aluminium boxes and the Arai Tour X Helmets. He saw our bikes with the UK plates and said “Look Mum, Look Dad, It’s Ewan MacGregor making a new TV show!” Fortunately it dried up as we neared Jasper so we camped again for 2 nights in the National Park campground. We could have stayed longer but we were becoming increasingly unsettled by the journey ahead. We pondered the map and looked at the long barren roads ahead and we were really feeling the pull of Alaska. We just wanted to get there, to complete what it said on our pannier boxes – Chile to Alaska – without any major mishap on the Alcan Highway. Leaving Jasper we headed north past the awesome Mount Robson – a huge snowy blob of a mountain and one of the most amazing sites to ever fill a rear view mirror but after this the road flattened out to tree-lined monotony into Prince George. Here we found the ‘Grateful Bed’ a B&B run by Joyce, a feisty wee woman from Dublin & her husband Ted who is the Sports Reporter for the local newspaper. We were welcomed with a cuppa tea and Saskatoon-berry muffins that were quite simply to die for!
From Prince George we hit more rain on a grey ride up to Dawson Creek and the start of the Alaskan or Alcan Highway. Built during WW2 by the US Military for strategic reasons (they were worried that the Japanese would invade along the Aleutian Islands down into Alaska, Canada and into the US proper) it was another amazing feat of engineering with over 200 bridges and the main section from Dawsons Creek to Whitehorse was built in under 7 months! Today it runs for 1422 miles up to Delta Junction (the official end) and on to Fairbanks in Alaska and is completely paved. It is also a fairly tedious ride (at least from Prince George up to Whitehorse in the Yukon where it gets a little more interesting). Highlights were some bear encounters near Fort Nelson and a blown fork seal. Coming into town, I crested a hill in time to see an angry black bear almost get flattened by a huge 18-wheeler truck bearing down on him. The truck driver blasted his air horns and I never saw a bear move so quick! We were still chuckling about when just on the other side of town I had another bear run out in front of me. It all happened in slow motion. I arrived around a bend to see this huge bear at the roadside contemplating crossing the road. He acted like a stupid pedestrian, flip-flopping as to whether to run across the road or stay put. In the end he decided to go for it. Decision time for me now – do I accelerate and speed past the bear or brake hard to miss him? I had a bit of speed on so I opted for the former course and sped past the nose of the bear – about 3 feet from his business end. Mags, behind me, in the meantime braked to watch the show with me whizzing past Bruin, who stalled and then lumbered on across the road past the front of her bike! At the end of the day we sat on the porch of a cosy little wood cabin up on Tetsa River re-enacting the day’s ride when I noticed oil all down my left hand fork. Earlier I’d hit a pothole jarring the front end of the bike and I reckon it popped the seal. This caused us to revise our route in Alaska and head to Anchorage first to get this fixed before heading north to Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay.
Tetsa River, Watson Lake, Whitehorse. It was getting progressively cooler as we rode north but the landscape was improving now we had left BC and were riding in the Yukon. The trees were stunted too as they can’t get their roots down into the permafrost and so their growth potential is limited. We stopped for a few days in Whitehorse, a pleasant little town on the Yukon River. Highlights here were two very impressive museums – the Beringia and the Whitehorse Transportation Museum. Beringia is the term used to describe the land bridge that used to join North America with Asia during the Ice Age. In the Ice Age a lot of the world’s water was encapsulated in the ice and so ocean levels were a lot lower than they are now resulting in huge areas of land on continental shelves being exposed instead of under water as they are today. Back then Britain and Ireland were mountain ranges protruding up above the flat plains that are now the North and Irish Seas and extending quite a ways out into the Atlantic which is where the seashore would have been. It was similar with Alaska and Siberia – they too rose above a flat plain that is today covered by water in the Bering Sea and it was this area that is known as ‘Beringia’. This land bridge was a migration route for life into North America. It covered a vast area, mainly grassland, and it supported a population of enormous land mammals. The most famous of these were the woolly mammoths, remains of whom have been found in large numbers in Alaska, Yukon and Siberia. There were also short-faced bears – nearly twice the size of today’s Grizzlies, Yesterday Camels, Elephants and Giant Beavers (they suspect that at one time these may have actually hunted early men as prey!). There were also voracious predators – North American Lions (almost identical to African Lions of today) and wicked looking Scimitar Cats who preyed on the huge mammal herds. When the ice melted, the grasslands disappeared and with their habitat gone the huge mammals became extinct along with did their predators, as the entire food chain collapsed. At the Beringia Museum we also had a go at using a Nuqaq – an ancient spear-throwing device used by hunters in the Yukon. The Aztecs also used this device (against Cortez and his Conquistadors) and called it an Atlatl by which name it is more commonly known today. Basically it consists of a flat piece of wood about the length of your forearm that is held by the hand with a leather cord. It has a groove along its length and a butt locator at the elbow end in which you set your dart or spear. In effect it forms a third part to your arm giving extra leverage and power when you throw the spear increasing significantly the range and punch of the weapon. There is a North American Atlatl society who hold regular gatherings, where spears have been thrown up to 800 yards using this device. Remains of the weapon have been found dating back to 26,000 years ago and the fact that it migrated south to Aztec lands further denoted the mass human migration from Asia across Beringia and down into the Americas. The museum had a few atlatls for visitors to try against a set of wooden targets. After a few throws, lets just say you need to practice a lot to master it!
The Transportation Museum next door was a fascinating insight into how the vast areas of the Yukon the Alaskan interiors were explored since the earliest hints that there might be gold reserves in those regions. It focussed on the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 and exhibits followed the route of the stampeders from landing in Skagway on the Alaskan coast, travelling by foot over the snow covered Chilkoot or White Passes to reach Lake Bennett from where they took to hand made boats to follow the Yukon over the spring and summer months to reach Dawson City (not to be confused with Dawson Creek at the start of the Alcan Highway) and the Klondike Goldfields where it was rumoured that the nuggets lay thick on the ground for the taking. They reckon in 1897 when word of the Klondike gold strike got out that over a million people made plans all over the world to go get rich. These were post depression days and the idea of setting off to this place where the gold lay thick on the ground was so tempting. Remember too that it came on the heels of a succession of gold rushes in North America that gradually lead prospectors further and further north in their search for the yellow metal. It was estimated that 100,000 actually set out for the Yukon. Early on the Mounties set strict regulations on what supplies where needed for a journey into the wild Yukon and the standard of 1,000lbs of provisions and equipment per person was enforced at the key entry points into Canada. This meant that each man landing at Skagway had to lug his 1000 lbs over the mountain passes by foot. Over 3,000 horses were killed trying to force the White Pass. There was no fodder for them and they literally starved and were worked to death on the trail. At one point the pass became known as the Dead Horse Trail as it was carpeted with dead animals over which the Stampeders marched on. Local Indians made a fortune as porters carrying loads of up to 100lb at a time. With 1,000lb minimum it meant that a Stampeder had to make the journey at least 10 times, there and back again. With their grubstake safely up and over the mountain the next challenge was to build a boat for the 1000-mile journey over wicked rapids down the mighty Yukon River. Given that most of the Stampeders were from lower-middle class backgrounds with no inkling on anything about boats never mind building them it was an incredible undertaking. The river too froze solid over the winter months and ice was yet another danger during the spring thaws. Over 3,000 boats were built, from simple rafts and skows to quite elaborate shallow draft paddle-wheeler steamboats. Again the Mounties were there, making sure that the vessels were worthy for the trip and many lives were saved by their diligence. They also registered all the boats so checks could be made to ensure safe arrivals and rescue missions sent out to look for stragglers. So from the 1,000,000 who planned trips to the Yukon, 100,000 set out and of these it has been estimated that 40 – 50,000 actually made it along the hard trail. The rest gave up or became casualties along the trail and you cannot read these tales without holding these men in awe at their determination to conquer this inhospitable landscape, especially given the limited technology and equipment they had available. Of those who made it to the Klondike, only a handful got rich. Most of the best claims where staked out long before the main Stampede hit Dawson City so having endured the horrors of the trail many simply turned round and went home again, but all agreed that this journey had marked their lives indelibly forever. There will be more on the Gold Rush later on, as we determined after visiting this museum that we wanted to visit as many of the key sites as possible and back at the hotel we revised our routing to take in Dawson City, Skagway and the Yukon River. If you are travelling the Alaskan Highway we would really recommend a stop at these twin museums as they provide so much background and history to the area and should not be missed.
From Whitehorse, the Alaskan Highway took us into some spectacular scenery in gorgeous weather as we rode through Kluane National Park. Ultramarine lakes, snowy mountains, striking little kettle pot lakes (formed by melted permafrost) with spruce tree reflections and roads lined with the ever present Fireweed as we edged further and further into this northern wilderness. We spent our last night in Canada at Beaver Creek, just short of the border with Alaska and had some of the best homemade Pizza of the trip at a lovely little joint called ‘Buckshot Betties’. The setting of Beaver Creek was made more spectacular by the backdrop provided by a huge forest fire up ahead in Alaska. It outlined vividly against the blue sky and looked like a mini Hiroshima on the horizon with its enormous mushroom head of smoke and self made cloud. By morning the smoke had spread to blot out the sky and diffuse the sun to a dull orange glow and the whole place stank of wood fire. We were really excited today. We were heading into Alaska at which point we would technically complete our mission – Chile to Alaska – and this thought sent butterflies racing. However there was one final obstacle. We had chatted with a gang of fire-fighters last night. The fire had been burning for 12 days now and was out of control. They had tried some controlled burnings to head it off, but the wind was playing cat and mouse with them and blew the fire in a new direction away from their cleared areas. The crew were now worried that the fire would come across and block off the highway. If it did this we would be denied our entry into Alaska, right now within 18 miles of the border… to be continued!