Part II Episode 4: Good Times, Good Friends, and Good Roads
Back out on the Robert Campbell Hwy, I picked up where I left off. As I headed further northwest, I could see rain clouds forming. I was hoping that they wouldn’t amount to anything of significance.
I was really enjoying the ride. However, about an hour out of camp, I lost my sunshine and it started getting cold and windy. In fact, I got a few sprinkles. I stopped for a bit at Finlayson Lake to put on my warmer gear. I was beginning to have second thoughts about riding farther north again up the Canol Road. Three years earlier, I tried in the same type of weather and had a miserable time up that way. Rain, hail, bits of snow, high winds and a long night huddled in a wet tent… an experience that dampened my sprits back then. Now all those memories were coming back. I didn’t want to re-live the same pain as before. After all, I’m on vacation…
I arrived at Ross River to get gas and groceries. The little hamlet store was crowded. I got a couple of burritos and some cheese, trail mix and an ice cream sandwich. All that was a bit expensive and to top it off, I had to wait in line. I soon learned that the reason for the crowds, was the store was just restocked with fresh goods and the locals are always aware of the day the truck arrives.
Back outside I noticed a young man working on his bicycle fully loaded with expeditionary gear. We chatted a bit and it turns out he just returned from riding up to the NWT border on the north Canol. Actually he rode up and got a ride bike. HE told me he was excited for a little bit of rain, because the road was super dusty. I told him about my previous experience and preferred dry weather.
We parted was and I crossed Ross River on the cable ferry. Soon I found myself on my way into a lonesome land. The road wasn’t wet and there was enough rain spritz to keep the road dust down and make for good traction, but not enough to make the ride uncomfortable. I had 150 miles or so to go to the NWT border. I needed to keep an eye on my fuel as I was not carrying any extra. If careful, I know I can go nearly 400 miles on a tankful. This should get me there and back with little to no side trips. To make things interesting, the fuel strip on my bike is absolute garbage, a known problem that BMW refuses to address. As a result, I was going solely by my trip meter.
Unlike last time, I came this way, I didn’t see one bear on my way up. Lots of porcupines though. The weather began to deteriorate ever so slowly the farther north I got and it started getting cold. At one point the road was elevated going through some muskeg. I stopped to get some water and shoot some video. I was startled a bit by rustling in the bush. It sounded like a sizeable creature crashing through it, but further investigation revealed nothing.
I tootled along and came upon really muddy conditions. I could tell a road crew had recently been working the road. I saw a grader and a couple of trucks parked off the road in various spots. While the road was muddy, it wasn’t really hard to manage. However, there is no gravel put down and the road graders had made a mess of the road by upturning fist size and even larger rocks at random on the road.
Finally at mile 94 or along the Canol road north, I came across some WWII vintage construction equipment that had been left abandoned from the construction of the Canada Oil pipeline project. Three years earlier, this was as far as I made it, as the rain, wind and hail was too much for me to handle back then. Even though it was now raining, the conditions were nowhere like my previous trip. I stopped and got some video. The trees and bush were reclaiming the historical “junk” left behind by the failed project.
From there, it wasn’t too far from there where I got my first views of the MacMillan river. The views of the river running through the pristine valley will be forever etched upon my memories. From here on the scenery changed. The sun was making a feeble attempt to come out, but failing miserably. It was now 8:30 or so in the evening, but being near the summer solstice I had daylight to spare.
I made my way deeper into the northern Yukon, pressing my way towards the NWT border. There were many streams crossings to be done, many of which had swelled to small rivers. A few times I got of my bike to scout the crossings, but nothing I couldn’t handle on the big bike with all my gear. The trees began to get smaller and in fact really only grew in places where the permafrost had melted away along creeks, streams and rivers. The road wound its way through the muskeg towards the border mountains. The mountains were beautiful with views of glaciers beginning to appear. One particular mountain stood out more than the rest, that being Itsa mountain. I managed to get some nice footage and photos of it. I even crossed Itsa creek a few times.
For a brief period, the sun came out as I got swallowed by the mountains at the border. I am sad to report that my videos and photos cannot do it justice. It was an amazing experience with green and gold colors painting the mountain sides with hints of red ore to adding highlights. I was now crossing and re-crossing the MacMillan river in the narrow valley. It’s size and girth began to dwindle and the mountains rose up on either side of me. I was getting near MacMillan pass.
Just before the the NWT/Yukon border there is an airstrip, and just before that is another conglomerate of WWII vintage trucks and road building equipment. However, just before that I came across a bridge with a sharp turn where I met some miners loading gear and supplies on a flatbed trailer. It seems that a truck and failed to make the turn and rolled off the road here. Now, 9:30 at night, they were working to get it all cleaned up.
Just down the road, I stopped and looked at the vintage WWI “junk” lining the side of the road. It was a surreal scene. The old fenders and the large headlights on the trucks gave them a personality and they even seem to give them life. They had stories to tell, I was certain of that. I was trying to imagine what life was like out here during WWII as they cut a road through the virgin wilderness in the long days of summer and the bitter cold of the winter. Romantic vision for me, but I am can only imagine the urgency and such that came with the fear and preparing infrastructure to defend a continent from invasion in such a foreign environment.
Eventually, I made my way to the NWT border at Mac pass and the tundra opened up into a maze of brush. I when about 10 Km farther down the road beyond the border. But several factors played in my decision to turn around. (1) The road conditions were deteriorating quickly with potholes big enough to swallow my bike ; (2) The road was littered with bear scat likened to a walking in a cow pasture of well fed cattle; (3) It was now 10:30 at night; (4) I could see a wall of rain coming towards me from the Yukon border where I just came; (5) I had gone over 160 miles and I knew my bike had a safe range of about 340 miles before needing to be filled (I carried no extra fuel with me on my GSA); (6) There was really no “safe” camping spots out here. The tundra was a maze of brush and muskeg, and I would be hard pressed to see any wildlife, especially bears that would want to make a surprise visit.
With all this in mind, I turned around and headed back to towards the valley where the airstrip at the pass was in hopes of finding a suitable camping spot and some good drinking water. I failed to mention this, but the water in the MacMillan river and many of the side streams was a reddish-orange color and didn’t look to inviting to drink. It was another reason why I had no desire to camp up by the pass as the water was not looking good. I found a good stream of clean water coming off the mountainside and filtered it. In the time it took me to find water and filter, I was now in the midst of a rain storm that was frigidly cold and it was mixed with snow. Brrrr…
I decided that I didn’t want to deal with setting up my tent in such wet conditions and that I’d head for the airstrip and make some sort of makeshift lean-to to setup my tent. There were, after all tarps and lumber stacked out there with generators, digging tools and machine parts all sitting on the edge of the runway like a backcountry hardware store. All brought in to support the exploratory mining going on in these parts, I’m sure.
I arrived at the airstrip and found the folks whom I met earlier loading a flatbed trailer onto another flatbed trailer to haul out. It was indeed the trailer that had spilled it goods. The truck, was still down of the side of the road… presumably, it may join the countless other vintage trucks I saw from WW II. I hope not. While some consider that stuff historical artifacts, the fact of the matter is, it’s all garbage left by man and should be cleaned up. We have no business tainting such country with our trash.
In any event, there was a sign there that stated one needed permission to enter the airstrip area and I stopped to asked about camping there. They stated that I could stay at a shack at the end of the runway. I found this shack, and while it wasn’t a Holiday Inn or even a Motel 6, but….. it may as well have been for me. I was so thankful to pull in and get out of the rain. It wasn’t much more than a plywood shed, with an interior hollow door that wouldn’t latch, 2 plywood bunks and an outdoor shower. But, it was dry and I could hand my wet gear inside and even think about making dinner. It was now 11:00 pm at night. Although, it was still very much light out I was tired, spent and ready to hit the sack big time. It was a huge day of riding for me or anybody else for that matter. I was out of adrenaline, cold, hungry, and just plain worn to a frazzle staying on “my game” for most of the day to keep the bike upright in this beautifully hostile country.
I eventually made it to bed and one would have thought that I would have slept through the night like a log, but around 1:30 am, I was awakened by the most horrible sound imaginable. The plywood walls were being pushed in as I heard the sound of scratching…. OMG!! Was this a bear trying to get in?
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