Arctic Fat-Biking 2017
Winter 2017 would not have been the same without a return to Canada's North. I fell in love with the Yukon Territory during my first visit in 2009, and it is a love that has only grown with time. This trip began in Inuvik, awaiting the opening of the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean, which had been closed due to bad weather. My original plan had been to cycle my Sonder Vir Fortis fat bike from Tuk all the way down to Vancouver in one go, but The Universe conspired against me by inducing delays then forcing me to endure one of the greatest journeys of my life.
Along the 180-ish km of ice road I enjoyed support from local drivers on errands between the two towns. They would stop to check-up on me, to pass me food and drinks, and to take photos. It was wonderful. I met Japanese adventurer Norio Sasaki and another cyclist, Stephanie, along that stretch of road, and we all seemed to be having the time of our lives. The weather had been very kind, and it was no trouble at all to bivi out in the snow adjacent to the ice road. Following my arrival in Inuvik, I loitered with intent to enjoy myself for a few days, before continuing on along the Dempster.
I do not think there is another place in the world where I have made so many friends so quickly, and I experienced the greatest level of hospitality, kindness and generosity directed towards me, that I have felt anywhere (India being a notable equivalent). Had events forced me to return to Inuvik for an extended period, I would not have been disappointed, but quite the contrary. I would similarly have enjoyed an extended stay in Tsiigehtchic, but everything was good to continue.
Indeed, progress was acceptably steady along the Dempster. My inexperience and lack of fitness on the bike was telling at times, most obviously due to a minor overuse issue to one knee, and having an arse so sore that rubbing it with sandpaper and sitting in salt and burning coals would have seemed like light relief to saddle-time. Still, all ills gave way after a few days, possibly having accepted their Fate and chosen to go along with me with fewer complaints. I had specific locations to reach on most days, such as small towns, remote cabins and even a highway maintenance compound one night. On a couple of nights I slept in open ground, and on another beneath a spruce tree. The coldest mornings were around -35 Celsius, but I do not think much colder. Even the infamously brutal Dempster winds abated for my passing through.
As with Inuvik itself, the Dempster was a place for making friends. Cars would come to a halt and people would chat, offer supplies, and even make arrangements to meet up for drinks at the end of it all. Two such friends made arrangements for me to be looked after at Tombstone campground, where I met an old friend I had lost touch with, and he gave me details of another mutual friend who I could stay with in a cabin the next night. Serendipity, certainly, but also so simply Canada at its finest.
And so it was that I progressed along the Dempster Highway. There were a few throwing moments of varying peril, such as steep descents on roads mixed with various layers of ice, compacted snow and loose stones. The fat bike just sailed over it all, taking it comfortably in its stride as I gripped the handlebars with whitening knuckles and pondered the mess I would make if thrown off. Blue skies, low winds, forgiving temperatures, a well-maintained road and dozens of friendly faces made this journey into a heaven from what might so easily have been hellish. Meeting three girls cycling up the Dempster was yet another highlight amongst so many, as was meeting First Nations brothers Peter and Richard, on settlement land nearing the end of the highway.
From the Northwest Territories I passed into the Yukon, and soon out of the Arctic Circle. After about a week on the Dempster I made it to Dawson City, was briefly reunited with Norio and a couple of new friends from the road, and later left for Whitehorse along the Klondike Highway.
The route south taunted and plagued my progress with a mean headwind, but with consistent daily progress and the start of spring weather, there was little to dampen my spirits much. Nights were spent on spruce mattresses over dry ground, with Northern Lights dancing in the skies above. Mornings were easy in the relative warmth of -10 to +5 Celsius. I spoke with truckers who had seen me over many days on the roads, and met old friends driving home. I made social calls to friends at McCabe Creek and Braeburn, and savoured every blissful moment of it.
Melancholy joins me towards the end of the ride, as I live for the experience of the journey and the end is cause for a low rather than a high. Still, with more social visits, some fantastic riding off-road to visit friends, and the uplifting thought of fantastic friends and places in Whitehorse, I made my way into town. With Earl's closed for refurbishment I went to Yukon Brewing for breakfast, where I enjoyed a sample of porter and a bottle of Lead Dog to help wash down the majority of my remaining Braeburn cinnamon bun. From there I went to Icycle Sport and met more friends, was beeped and waved at by a friend driving by as I cycled to Java Connection, and was soon rooted there for coffee and brunch. A friendly stranger struck up conversation and another recognised me and told me of a mutual friend in Inuvik. An old friend came over for a chat and invited me out skiing later in the month. A quiet drink and lunch was had on the Deck at the High Country Inn, and I was soon on my way to see another friend who was putting me up in his home.
The Canadian North is a heaven on Earth to those of us who enjoy experiencing The Great Outdoors in all that means; the vast and grand landscapes, the Northern Hospitality, Northern Lights, making great friends and loving life. Without asking I am invited hiking, skiing and fat-biking. People here share my passion for the outdoors and time in good company. These seem valued highly, and this draws me back to the Yukon (and from now on to NWT too), year after year. Next year I will return and begin the second leg of the journey, from Whitehorse down through the Rockies to Vancouver. I am still here in Whitehorse as I write this, but I feel I cannot wait to get back here for more adventures.