Fairbanks is the main hub and a major transit point in Central Alaska, but it did not really impress me. It is a very spread out city, not quite a place that enchants you instantaneously. There must definitely be more than big supermarkets and outdoor gear shops. I probably needed more time to explore the less obvious, but then, I bumped into many interesting people that made my transit in Fairbanks rather remarkable. For example, I met a Dutch guy who paddled his one-person raft on some remote stream in Northern Alaska, carrying all of his supplies for four weeks. In another instance, I came across a fellow German who had decided to start an Aurora photography school. He bought a piece of land and started to build his very own log cabin. My chats with these people are often no longer than 20-30 minutes but, somehow, I always draw something positive or informative from them. Some useful information about routes or places, distinctive insights into a different lifestyle, recommendations about campgrounds, or simply just a good laugh about common experiences in Alaska or other places. Certainly, long-distance cycling is not just about the miles you make or the scenic spots you see, but also the transitory people you meet along the way.
Another experience worth sharing are the mosquitos. I had never been sensitive to bug bites in my whole life. I was pretty okay in all parts of Asia as well as Scandinavia without even using any mosquito repellent. But the species found in the Alaskan wilderness really sucked the blood out of me and left an unbearable itch that kept me awake almost one whole night. Long story short, the next day I bought a very DEET-rich spray not to experience that again. DEET (Diethyltoluamide) is an active ingredient in insect repellents. Here in Alaska, you can buy products with concentrations of up to 100%, but you better be careful not to burn a hole into your skin.
Originally, I planned to head up north to Prudhoe Bay and then ride down the unpaved Dalton Highway back to Fairbanks. Some people said it was awesome, others claimed it was nothing but a dust shower or an extremely exhausting trip through softened mud. Neither one you want to face as a cyclists. I was curious and hoping to meet someone in Fairbanks who would have the same plan and with whom I could team up. I thought, at the very least I would be able to share the potential pain with another biker, but I was unlucky. Instead, I met a Russian motorcyclist who wrecked his BMW GS on the Dalton. Well, I don’t mind physical challenges but I definitely was not up for 666 km of unpaved roads without supplies, long-haul trucks passing you at high speeds and a week-long challenge of keeping myself motivated. Consequently, I removed the Dalton Highway from my list and added the Taylor Highway and the aptly named “Top of the World Highway” to my route (see updated ROUTE page), a supposedly very scenic and popular course through the Northern wilderness.
The Taylor Highway starts near Tok, so I had to cover a rather less exciting section of roughly 330 km. I had two recovery days in Fairbanks. I reckoned it would be fairly easy to cover the relatively flat terrain within two days. First to Delta Junction and then to Tok. I was wrong. On July 2, I had just had my breakfast at Subway (a nice sandwich with black forest ham, double egg, and triple cheese), was in a pretty good mood passing through a little town called North Pole, which claims to be home of Santa Claus, and soon got confronted with an all-day rain shower. I got really bored, but all I could do was continue riding and make it bearable by listening to the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album (The Getaway), which was soon followed by Disturbed, Tremonti and Godsmack. Those tunes definitely have an impact on your perception of weather.
Eventually, I made it to Delta Junction. On such a ride, your rain gear just keeps the rain separated from your sweat, but it does not keep you dry. Thus, you cannot really afford long breaks, else your body will cool down rapidly and that can lead to hypothermia. Soaked and fatigued, I wanted nothing more than a hot shower. I gave up on warm water but wasn’t able to find anything except a shitty State Park campground with stinky toilets. The nearby creek did its job well though. Once I was in my warm sleeping bag (finally!) I couldn’t think of anything better.
The following day from Delta to Tok was a lot better, at least with regards to the weather. A long stage of 175 km without any supplies along the route (no gas station, no restaurant, nada) lay ahead of me. In other words, it was a day full of snacks, oatmeal, muesli bars, and creek water. The ride started with a 50 km straight road. It was so flat and straight that you could see cars at the horizon that only passed you 10 minutes later. 🙂
This wasn’t an easy ride either. You may go relatively fast on flat roads but your rear does not like it too much. Short but frequent breaks were required, just because I was not always able to distract my mind from that sore arse. Again, music was the solution to reduce the frequency of those breaks. Needless to say, the town of Tok came as a relief. I was short of at least 4000 calories and almost raided the general store to make my body happy again.
I needed a rest day. Tok was definitely a good place to recover. Coincidently, it was the 4th of July – America’s Independence Day. I ran into Jenny and Curtis, whom I had met on the road about ten days earlier. They are a loving retired couple who also travel on bicycles heading towards South America. It feels good to see some familiar faces after all that talking to the trees and myself along the road. We watched the July 4th parade and had a burger while watching the local festivities – a mix of music, singing, and entertaining strength contests (see pictures).
I was ready for the Taylor Highway on the next day. It starts near Tok, goes up towards a remote US/Canadian border crossing, from where you can “connect’ to the “Top of the World Highway” all the way to Dawson City – the cowboy town world-famous from the Klondike Gold Rush era. My plan was to split that 300 km journey into 3 stages since about half of the distance was unpaved. Unpaved routes feel significantly tougher due to the increased rolling resistance and the soft ground reducing your traction.
The weather was crazy right from the beginning. One moment you sweat like a pig and the next moment you get soaked in cold rain making it feel like a 20-degree Celsius drop in temperature. I stopped about ten times just to change my layers in order to balance the changing conditions. It was quite a scenic ride though. In the end, I arrived in Chicken, AK with a smile on my face. I knew I earned myself a big cinnamon apple scone, a juicy pizza, and a big glass of draft beer. That beer was so tasty that I literally gulped it before the pizza arrived making the smile on my face even wider 🙂
Chicken is a community founded on gold mining and is one of the few surviving gold rush towns in Alaska. As the story goes, the miners originally wanted to name the town ‘Ptarmigan’ after the bird which is common in the area. Unfortunately, people couldn’t agree on how to spell it. Finally they settled with the easier name of Chicken. Depending on the season, the population fluctuates between ten in the winter to about thirty during the summer when tourism peaks due to mining.
On the next day, July 6, l headed on for 68 km to get to the US/Canadian border followed by another 106 km to reach my final destination: Dawson City at the Yukon River. My plan was to cover that distance in two days, setting up camp somewhere along the “Top of the World Highway” whenever I came across a nice spot. Despite the relatively stable weather, the ride from Chicken to the border squeezed out a lot of the energy from my legs already. Climbing 1730 vertical meters and almost 1000 meters of decent took a toll on me. When I arrived at the customs post, I was so confused that I had to ask the officer whether he is the US guard or he protects the Canadian border. In a serious but friendly way, he explained that only entering travelers are checked. He was undeniably Canadian. He offered to refill my water bottles, which was kind. Water is scarce along the “Top of the World Highway”. At this point, you must be curious about this so-called “Top of the World Highway.” It is so named because, along much of its length, it skirts the crest of the hills, giving looks down on the valleys. It is also one of the most northerly highways in the world at those latitudes.
After adjusting my watch (I had just jumped from Alaska Time to Pacific Standard Time), I continued riding at high altitude. The elevation was only at around 1400 meters above sea level but so far up north the vegetation is pretty much similar to tundra conditions above the Arctic Circle or high alpine terrain with small bushes being the only flora you can find. Still, my plan was to continue for another 20 km, have some warm food and call it a day. Soon, that plan became obsolete, since it started raining heavily. Within minutes, my bike and I were covered in mud. In dry conditions, the gravel road is quite decent to ride on, but once the rain starts, the sand turns into mud and flies all over you.
I kept on riding, still having a bit of hope that at least the rain would stop. That was not the case. Hunger conquered my body. When I came close to one of the rare rest stops (it was nothing more than a parking bay with an outhouse), I decided to cook dinner under the outhouse’s roof. I needed nutrition and a bit of warmth badly. At that time, I also dropped my plan to set up camp up here on the mountain ridges. I was wet, cold, and covered in sand. I decided to eat my chicken noodles, stuff myself with a few more candy and muesli bars, and continued my ride. By then, it was already 9 pm, and I still had 80 km ahead of me. Daylight was not an issue. This far north, it never gets dark in the summer, so I reckoned it would be best to keep cycling all the way to Dawson. That would hopefully take me no longer than another five hours. There was pretty much no traffic and luckily, I was able to catch some water from one of the little streams which are always dry on non-rainy days.
I am not kidding when I say that this 176 km ride was probably the hardest bike ride on a touring bike I ever did in my entire life. It was such a relief to see the town of Dawson when rolling down the hill at 2:30am. I still had to cross the Yukon River, and was totally prepared to wait for a couple of hours until the ferry starts operating. Then, I realised that it was in service 24/7. Man, I was happy! The ferry brought three drunk dudes across the river, and me and my bike were the only passengers crossing over back to town. The heat vent duct from the ferry’s engine room opened right next to me. I could feel getting back to life.
I rode my bike through an empty Dawson with its wild, wild, west architecture and arrived at the Gold Rush Campground, a few blocks away from downtown. All sites were occupied. I had another five hours to kill until the reception opened up. It was freaking cold since my clothes were still all wet. The washrooms were open, so I could clean some of my stuff. Showers required a special token, but at least warm water was available at the taps. Things became even better when a Swiss couple approached and passed me a yummy cinnamon roll and 2 apples before they departed with their motorhome in the early morning. I must have looked so pitiful 🙂 But it is amazing how a simple act of kindness from people can make you so happy. The world was “good” again.
What followed were two days of rest, cleaning up my gear, and doing a bit of bike maintenance. More on Dawson and the Yukon coming soon.