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Related Photos The Watson Lake, YT to Fort Nelson, BC Stage (via the Alaskan Highway) Back
June 12, 2004
After a hearty breakfast, we packed our things on the bike and trailer. The tarp covering the tandem was flapping around and was difficult to fold. Not a good sign! For the first 25 miles, we had a stiff 20 mph headwind to battle. On top of that, we had more hills with some of them being the steepest grades we have seen since the Dalton Highway. We were now seeing more trees covering the hills and mountains. We were also in horse country. There were trucks with horse trailers passing us and horse tracks along the road.
One bridge we crossed was under construction with only one lane available for traffic. We waited for the traffic light to turn green and as it did we paused to let the three vehicles behind us to go ahead. This allowed us to slowly cross the bridge and see the view. Once over the bridge we had a long, steep hill to climb. We went the distance to the top and then stopped to take off a layer of wool clothing.
After climbing hill after hill, we stopped for lunch at the Iron Creek Lodge. The creek got its name because this is where the trucks had to stop and put on their “irons” or tire chains (think hills). Now whenever we see signs which say “Chains Put On Here,” we know we are in for a climb. Likewise, “Take Chains Off Now” is a very good sign as it means the climbing is over for a while anyway.
We met a couple outside the Contact Creek Lodge where we stopped for supplies. He asked how many miles we ride a day. Randall told him we target 60 miles. He said “see, Catherine?” She said “Yea right. Get in the camper,” and they were off. Two school buses pulled up. They were being driven by a couple from Tulsa who are “road rats,” that is they deliver vehicles too large to transport on flatbed trucks. They were driving the school buses from Tulsa to Anchorage. And people think bicycles are uncomfortable for a long distance! While at this stop, we saw two guys going north (no doubt enjoying their tailwind) on single bikes each pulling a trailer like ours, but we didn’t get a chance to talk to them. There are a few people who bike the Alaskan Highway.
It seems that a lot of bears live around the Alaskan Highway. We saw five black bears in the next stretch of highway. Three of them were a ways from the road and the other two looked at us a while because we were so different, but eventually retreated to the woods. We were not able to reach a settlement that day, so we camped at Allen’s Lookout, a rest stop with picnic tables, a fire pit, a dumpster and an outhouse. The setting was very scenic being next to the Liard River. It also provided a large gravel area and tall trees to hold our food out of the way of bears. We cooked two boxes macaroni and cheese and then set up camp. Several vehicles used the pullout throughout the night, but we slept well.
Miles cycled – 62
June 13, 2004
We awoke to find a pickup truck parked nearby with a sleeping occupant inside. We stayed around our tent while Randall worked to get the satellite phone to connect to the internet so we could retrieve email. In the past, we had technical difficulties getting connected with satellite phone but we appear to have that resolved.
A guy drove up in a pickup truck and began to clean the toilet which was about 100 yards away from us. He whistled the whole time and sounded quite cheerful although he could have been trying to keep away bears also. He let his dog out to roam around. First the dog stayed in the trees near his owner. When the dog became aware of us, he came bounding towards us, hair on end but tail wagging, barking all the way. He ran pass us and promptly marked his spot just beyond our tent. The guy called his dog back to the truck and then drove up next to our tent and asked how our biking was going. He said he maintained the Liard Hot Springs Park also and comes to this site for cleaning, 3 times a week before going to his regular job.
It was in the mid 50s when we started biking. The first two hours were reasonably flat and with very little wind. After 10 AM, the wind started blowing. We continued to follow the Liard River which we camped by the night before. The initial rolling hills reminded Randall of western Barber County Kansas, where he grew up. The morning portion of the ride included one steep climb. When we reached the top, a north bound truck pulling two trailers pulled off to the turnout to cool his engine. As we rested on our side, the truck rested on the opposite side.
At 11 AM, we reached the cafe at Fireside. The parking lot was filled with RVs. Because the group had reserved the cafe for the morning meal gathering, we were told that the Cold Creek Restaurant 10 miles beyond would be a better option (if you are driving) otherwise the wait would be one hour. So we bought a couple of cookies and drinks and had a short snack outside. Many of the couples in the traveling RV group talked to us about our trip and one gentleman gave a donation for Habitat.
As we ventured to the next service place, we had our first buffalo sighting. This bison was to our right, grazing next to the road. We passed within 20 feet of him. As soon as we passed in front of him, he decided he was going to cross the road. He took a leisurely walk across the road span with no worry that vehicles were headed his way. Traffic came to a screeching halt as the buffalo finished his highway crossing. Later, we were told that during the winter, the buffalo like to lay down on the highway because it is warmer and motorists can have a difficult time getting them to move. This bull was part of a herd that was released to roam in the wild. They are a darker color than the ones we have seen in the lower 48 and one local referred to them as “mountain buffalo.” They are protected and can not be killed. The buffalo meat served in restaurants comes from ranches.
After this sighting, the wind got really annoying at 20 mph with gusts up to 30-35 mph. It was time to change our rest routine. Instead of resting every 5 miles, we stopped at 3 miles intervals. The winds made it more challenging to steer and keeping the bike upright was priority number one. Barb stopped taking photos while the tandem was not stable enough to hold the camera steady. With the more frequent rest stops, there were ample opportunities for photographs then. After two hours we reached the alternative restaurant. We ordered breakfast at 1 PM with buffalo sausage (our first major meal of the day). The buffalo links were pretty dry and bland so don’t think we’ll try that again. After breakfast, we continued to battle the wind for 37 miles to our destination. What a day! It was very apparent as we approached Liard Hot Springs, that we were entering the Northern Rockies. As we followed a large curve around a rocky mountain, another buffalo, more distant from the road was seen grazing. A local stated that this bull is always in that area and that he must be getting paid to help out with the tourism!
Why do so many miles on a harsh day? All the literature (and locals) stated that we were in bear country. Arriving at Liard Hot Springs, we found that the Provincial Campground was full and the privately owned Lodge (which advertised a place for tents in the back) refused to allow us to set up a tent. There were 3 BIG BEARS in the area that morning and they didn’t want to be liable. Was this a marketing ploy? The Provincial Campground would have accepted us being bikers, however, they did not have showers and the Lodge would not sell us showers separately, so we booked a room. We called it the Goldilocks room as 3 bears
were involved. Pretty pricey for bear protection and no direct phone line. Randall was able to retrieve email using the satellite phone and get the scoop on the NBA playoffs.
Miles cycled – 73
June 14, 2004
We walked to the hot springs in the morning before the cafe opened up. It was about a half a mile journey on a boardwalk over a wetlands area. We saw a mother duck and ducklings. There was one man soaking in the hot springs who had a cabin nearby and had come for the weekend. The springs were dug out to make a series of pools. The water had a strong sulfur smell and we didn’t want our bodies and clothes to smell that way until our next shower so we didn’t get in. The hot bath in the lodge the night before was enough to help relieve our biking pains.
At breakfast, we met the guy who had cleaned the rest stop we camped at the morning before. He was with three coworkers who all worked for the park. They gave us a donation for Habitat as did a couple from Calgary eating at the cafe. Also in the cafe were three young guys raising money for Make-A-Wish Foundation while riding from Anchorage to Miami. They were supported by one mother driving a van. Riding without gear on board, they were able to cover 100 miles a day.
This was our most challenging day of climbing since our Dalton Highway boot camp adventure. Before the serious climbing, we biked across the only suspension bridge on the Alaskan Highway. It was quite a sight. Just down the road from the bridge were some domestic horses with bells around their necks (we were told earlier that the bells helped the owners find the horses on the open range).
We had three substantial climbs. The first was just three miles into our ride from Liard Hot Springs. It was a 2.5 mile climb at 5 to 7% grade. Having ascended this hill, we did not descend much on the downhill. Actually, after a mere 1.5 miles we were climbing again, we just didn’t know it. For 7 miles, there was a gradual ascend. The river was what tipped us off. The water was flowing toward us. What a weird sensation! We followed the river along a very curvy road.
Before we reached a construction zone (we could tell from the dust cloud), we stopped for a snack so we could eat some food before eating some dust. At the end of a mile of construction, we saw our second hill challenge (complete with the chain up sign). Before the climb, Randall was being consumed by mosquitoes so we stopped for him to put on bug repellent. As we achieved about a third of the climb, we could see a herd of stone sheep that was grazing along side the road. Because of our heavy breathing, the sheep kept trotting ahead of us. So we stopped and rested and the sheep stopped as well but still too far away. To catch up to the sheep, we shifted down to the lowest gear which required no heavy breathing and soon, we caught up with the critters for multiple photo opportunities. Now, bugs were attacking Barb, so we made another stop at the top to apply repellent. We knew the hill was steep and the signs at the top confirmed it. The one facing the downhill said 9% grade. The one our direction told the truckers it was time to take the chains off.
A few miles down the road, we were passed by three cyclists, the first bikers to pass us in 1200 miles! Like the guys we met that morning, they were being supported by a vehicle. They were dressed with only their biking shorts and shoes. They had Camelbaks for their water and appeared to have absolutely no gear, not even tubes to fix a flat. No wonder they covered so much ground.
Only halfway into our day, we realized that this day, among all the days spent touring, was special. The climbing was extraordinary and the scenic views were so abundant that we had to go to a second camera memory card for the first time (one card holds approximately 160 photos). There were numerous mountains sprinkled with snow, interesting rock formations, numerous streams with rushing water, several sheep and a gorgeous lake. Having earlier entered the Muncho Lake Provincial Park, we got our first glimpse of Muncho Lake from the north side. Wow, wow, wow! The calm waters were a beautiful turquoise blue.
We biked 2 miles to the Muncho Lake Lodge for a late, 2:30 PM lunch. There, we met a cycling tour group who were biking the Alaskan Highway from south to north. Seventeen men and one woman were staying a couple of days at this lodge, enjoying the scenery. Given that their tour was a supported tour, many had questions about our gear and trip. One curious point one rider made about the Alaskan Highway was that he thought it was easier to go from south to north because the grade is not as steep. Really? After enjoying lunch and answering questions, we finally hit the road again at 4 PM. As we got half way down the lake side road, we met another cyclists headed north. He was among the tour of 18 and was biking the short distance to the post office on his day off. As we continued along, we took many photos of the lake and surrounding mountains. As we reached the end of the lake, we rested at an air landing strip which was just a segment of a rough gravel road. They can land planes there?
We begin to climb again for our third and final long climb of the day. Three miles of uphill. When we reached the top, we saw the usual “Remove the Chains” sign. Making our descent on the other side of the mountain, Randall had to use the disk brake for long stretches because of the curves and the 8 percent grade. A third of the way down, we slowed to get photos of a moose that was terrified of us. We soon reached a point where we had changed our direction 180 degrees. We were now going north. Somehow, back in 1942, the army engineers figured out a way to squeeze a road through these mountains. You look at the approach and wonder, how are we going to get through this “mountain logjam?” Heading north, we saw that the river water was flowing north also and moving rapidly which meant easier cycling for us. The rock formations we saw along the river were just outstanding. The wavy lines in the rocks were abundant as the information board we saw referred to this as “folded mountains.” We reached Poplars Campground just short of Toad Creek at 7:45 PM after a VERY challenging ride and a VERY scenic day.
We ate at the campground cafe as the evening was almost over. While we were enjoying our taco salads, two motorcyclists stopped in to eat. John from Vancouver was traveling with his buddy and was very curious about our trip. We discussed a wide range of topics from NAFTA to the disappearing middle class. He literally tipped his hat to us for doing this journey. He then paid for his meal and went to his cabin. We later went to pay for our meal and were told that John took care of it. We slept in the tent that night which was a mistake as it rained most of the night. We had some water get into the tent (entered through our top side vent) so our sleeping bags were damp in the morning.
Miles cycled – 71
June 15, 2004
We packed our soggy camping equipment and headed down the road for a rainy, wet ride. Just a mile down the road, Randall could hear some noise on the front tire. We stopped to look at it and discovered that one side of the tire was bulging out. There was a second service center just down the road so we limped into that stop and found a storage cabin with an roof overhang to protect us from the rain. Randall found that the tire had a weak area just above the point where it fits into the rim. He tried using duct tape to reinforce and salvage the tire. It did not work. Our only option was to go back to the balding tire that we had earlier taken off the rear tire. We had two days of riding and about 125 miles before Fort Nelson. Was this going to work? All we could do is try. To limit the wear on the tire, we inflated it to only 50 pounds, 20 pounds under the specification. We then disabled the front brake which left us 2 rear brakes (don’t try this at home). We also walked the bike across all bridges with grated decking and on any surface which was gravel (such as turnouts and service areas).
While we were addressing the tire issue, a couple from Pensacola, FL walked by and chatted with us. They asked where in Florida are we going and where in Alaska did we start? The man’s response was “Sweet Jesus” and he didn’t say it casually. He said some things are “absolute” – sometimes you just must do it.
To add more misery to this day, it rained most of the time and we felt like we were pulling a trailer loaded with bricks (because of the wet tent and sleeping bags). We were following the river valley that was filled with short but steep hills and there was a little headwind as we biked into the rain. We reached a construction area where a front loader was cleaning out the ditch (from the mud slides). We awaited the go ahead from the flag man. There were two semi trucks behind us waiting (we thought there was just one truck behind us). From the opposing side, there were about a dozen camping vehicles waiting. We elected to go ahead at the flagman’s signal as there was no room to get off the road for the trucks to pass. As each side advanced down this narrow road, both truck drivers could not wait a minute for the traffic to clear and passed us. Whew!
After an exhausting morning, we stopped along the McDonald River for a snack break. While we were eating in the rain, a lady from Montana stopped and took our picture. She was driving the Alaskan Highway in her car and was hoping to get all the way to Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway. We told her how rough the Dalton Highway was. Seven miles later, we came across a service stop which did not have a cafe but did sell snacks and had a picnic table inside where we could get out of the rain and dry off a little bit. While there, an older couple from Nova Scotia traveling with their adult son talked to us. They thought that both the trip and Habitat were great. She was celebrating her 65th birthday and noted that she could not mountain bike as tough of trails as she used to.
After this stop, we began our ascent up to the Summit. It was not steep but long at 3 miles. We followed the curvy road up and up until we came across more stone sheep. We used the same technique employed with the earlier sheep and geared down to our lowest gear so that we were fairly noise free and less threatening. Barb took lots of photos on the fly as the critters looked up at us. We later reached the Summit and enjoyed the beauty of Summit Lake. There were information boards there with a roof overhang which allowed us to shoot photos without getting the camera wet.
Let the descent begin! After climbing what seemed like all day, we were finally going downhill as it was mostly downhill for the last segment to that night’s stay, the Tetsa River Guest Ranch. We called ahead at noon to reserve a cabin as we really needed to dry out. About 5 miles into our descent, we hit about 2 minutes of 40 mph plus winds as we caught the outskirts of a nearby storm. Arriving at the Guest Ranch, we pulled out all of our gear and hung it up to dry in this rustic cabin. Using the propane heat, we were able to get most everything dried out. The water and the electricity was available from 6:30 AM to 10 PM. After that, if you needed light, you could fire up the propane lights.
Miles cycled – 50
June 16, 2004
We got an early, 7 AM start for the last leg to Fort Nelson. We had heard that we had one more big climb on this segment, Steamboat Pass. A close examination of the worn front tire showed some slight wear. One more day of riding to get to town! To further reduce wear on the tire, we took the red bag in front and placed it on the trailer. This would create more stress for rear tire and trailer tire but those tires are in much better shape. For 15 miles we biked along mostly flat terrain and then the climb begun. We shed some clothing as the temperature was heating up and we were about to get warmer as we will be pedaling strenuously. We reached the pass after 6 miles of climbing and four rest stops. Half way up, we could see the road where we had been and wondered, “We were clear down there?!”
At the top, we took lots of photos and someone was available to take our photo with tandem. Another pass climbed and we could smell the roses. We then took off for the glorious descent. Randall squeezed the disk brake lever almost the whole descent as with the front tire issue, we did not want to exceed 25 mph. We reached the Steamboat Mountain Cafe during the descent and stopped there for a late breakfast. The lady at the cafe noted that tourist traffic did not appear to drop as gas sales are good but that fewer people are dining in, electing to eat in their RV instead.
As the highway leveled out, we had level stretches of highway for the first time in a while. The terrain changed as well as the mountains were now behind us. Fort Nelson has the lowest elevation along the Alaska Highway so we were certainly going down, down, down with an occasional up to keep us honest. As we reach Fort Nelson, we saw a large herd of domestic buffalo. Since they were behind a fence, we were more comfortable as we biked by.
The first place we biked to in Fort Nelson was the post office. The lady there indicated that the package sent by Barb’s sister, Susan, had not arrived yet. She said that shipments sometimes get held up in customs 2 to 3 weeks, (express mail doesn’t expedite) so we would be way south before our package arrived. We will have to forward it to another Canadian city before we leave the country to avoid another customs delay. We found a nice motel, Pioneer Motel, which had cabin-style rooms. To our surprise, the rooms had high-speed internet. In fact, most of the hotels in the town had that service, trying to get a competitive advantage, we suppose. The fast internet was very handy as we had a lot of photos to upload.
Miles cycled – 75
June 17 & 18, 2004
So, we needed tires, badly. We knew that there was no bike store in town but we discovered that CMP Sports carried some bike supplies. Lucky for us, they happened to have a couple of touring tires close to the size we needed. We bought one tire to test ride and then purchased the second tire later. With two new tires on the rims, we are in better shape as we also had a used spare to back us up until we received that package wherever.
The next order of business was haircuts. Yes, it had been over a month and we were getting shaggy and it was getting hot outside. We both got our hair cut real short (in fact, Randall’s hair now was longer than Barb’s). We then went to the neighboring pharmacy to get some healing cream for saddle sores (we had used up our entire 8 ounce supply).
We then rode our tandem down to the truck/car wash where we washed down the bike to remove all of the goop from past rainy days. A clean bike always seems to ride better. Randall then lube up the chains and derailleurs. We made multiple trips to the grocery store as we ate out just once (at a local favorite, A & W).
We made a number of calls to try to determine the status of our package. The response was that it was still in customs. Having spent the bulk of Thursday, the 17th, taking care of business and editing photos, we realized that we still wouldn’t get caught up on our web site so we elected to stay another day. Friday afternoon, we went to the local library so Barb could use a computer there while Randall also typed on our laptop. Fort Nelson is a nice size town (around 5,000 to 6,000 population) and easier to get around in than Whitehorse. We enjoyed our stay here although some may think the city is too small.
Miles cycled – 8.5
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