Some roads are legendary amongst long-distance cyclists: Asia’s Pamir Highway, the Carreterra Austral in South America, Sani Pass in Southern Africa and–straddling the border between Alaska and the Canadian Yukon–The Top of the World Highway.
Sure, we were excited to take on the challenge of riding a stretch of rough and desolate road. A road reputed to be one of the most stunning in the Great North. One whose winding curves culminate in a 360 degree vista of the valleys below.
Settling for second
But to be honest, The Top of the World Highway was something of a consolation prize.
Although the calendar proclaimed it was late summer, weather conditions told us otherwise. The morning chill and changing foliage–flaming yellows and vibrant oranges– suggested winter was just around the corner. It was time to don my thick gloves on the steep descents and wrap myself up in my thick down sleeping bag once the sun eased its way below the horizon.
So, with winter taunting us, we’d axed our plans for biking the more northerly Dalton Highway and a ride up to the Arctic Ocean.
We’d settle for The Top of the World Highway, which—you had to admit– had a very adventurous ring to it.
As the weeks along the Alaska Highway slid by, we crossed paths with fewer and fewer cyclists. Wise bikers were already further south, keeping a pedal stroke ahead of the arctic chill which was sure to envelope the Great North within a matter of weeks.
The trick is in the timing
I’m fairly certain we were the only fools heading north into freezing temperatures.
It was time to turn around and we knew it.
We’d hit 64 degrees north, and that would be it. Pedaling all the way up to the Arctic Ocean would elude us, meaning, one day, we’d have to return to do justice to the great state of Alaska.
So we set off for the Top of The World.
A favorite past-time
Like so many travelers, I’m fond of striking up conversations with locals. Random locals. I’ll chat with the guy sporting a feed store baseball cap and a big belt buckle who’s out pumping gas, the gum-popping clerk with big hair who’s manning the cash register at the general store, and the frumpy middle-aged lady in a track suit out walking her dog.
As a cyclist, talk eventually turns to road conditions. Everybody had an opinion about the Top of the World Highway, or to be more exact, the Taylor Highway which is the partially gravel road in the US which leads up to the actual Top of the World Highway which lies over the border in Canada.
Full of chuck-holes. Just a big muddy mess last time I passed that way. Wouldn’t wanna head up there after all this rain we’ve been having. You can give it a try I suppose.
Not very encouraging, to be sure, but I wasn’t particularly worried.
Let’s face it. Here in the developed world, we’re pretty spoiled when it comes to road conditions. Once a cyclist’s has suffered through what goes for a “road” in the Congo, Kenya or Cameroon, little can faze her.
Stocking up on sufficient provisions is the main concern in the far north. Sleepy settlements are few and far between, and you can be sure price-gouging is as prolific as pine trees.
Honestly, in five years on the road, we have never, ever carried so much food. Not across the remote deserts of Africa, not through sparsely inhabited Patagonia or over remote roads in the Andes.
In the Alaskan town of Tok, we load the bikes with a family-sized package of pancake mix, enough ramen noodles to sustain us for a week, a big bag of rice, plenty of porridge, cookies galore to keep my sweet-tooth satisfied, a huge hunk of cheddar cheese, two bags of cinnamon-raisin bagels, a couple of tins of tuna, an over-priced loaf of bread and a 32-ounce bucket of potato salad whose expiration date has long passed. It’s half price and a great deal, reasons Eric. Botulism is a high price to pay for a bargain is my only thought.
On our way out of town, I roll up on to a truck scale and the officer in charge holds up a sign reading 300 pounds. 300 POUNDS! Can it really be possible? No wonder the bikes are so sluggish.
And we’re off!
Day one of our Top of the World trek drags on and on. The hills are steep and unrelenting. One after another they come at us like the waves of rancid-potato-salad-induced nausea which are sure to overtake me the following day. Up and down, up and down, up and down till we curse the heavy bikes and our uncontrolled buying spree in the supermarket.
Late in the evening we pull into a campsite just as a Japanese biker arrives from the opposite direction. His round the world tour is coming to an end and he appears to have achieved a sense of perfect touring tranquility. In the morning, we stop by to chat as he whips up a breakfast of authentic Japanese noodles over an open fire.
A place called Chicken
After our farewells, we set off in the direction of Chicken, Alaska– the only real pit stop along the way.
Now, there’s no electricity in Chicken. No indoor plumbing either. But there is a whole lot of kitsch. T-shirts and knick-knacks all gently poking fun at the oddly-named town plunked down in the middle of no-where. The whole place is designed to part the tourist with a little of his hard-earned cash and I am no exception. The homemade pies are irresistible and I spring for a treat, plop down at a picnic table and contemplate the kilometers ahead.
No, not another rainstorm
After Chicken, the road morphs into a river of mud as the heavens open and bombard us with a fierce afternoon shower. One of the worst summers on record, we’re told. Rain, day after day, after bloody day and my patience with such uncomfortable climatic conditions is wearing thin
The soggy riding conditions are exhausting, and when a campsite appears at the end of a long downhill, we call it quits.
Now, I’m all for abiding the law, doing the right thing and all that. But when it’s pouring rain, I’m on a bicycle and there’s a nice covered picnic area under which it’s strictly forbidden to pitch a tent, you can bet I’m going to engage in a bit of mild rule-breaking.
With a roof over our heads, we enjoy the vastness of Alaska far more. I have a hard time getting my mind around just how big and empty the land really is. Once you venture off the main road you’re swallowed up into a virtual wilderness.
We go to sleep with the rain, we wake up with the rain and we keep on riding with the rain.
In the morning I spot grizzly tracks. I know they are grizzly tracks because I’m obsessed with bear attacks and have been studying ever possible piece of literature concerning black bears and grizzlies. I know when to play dead and when to fight for my life. I’ve read all about bears’ non-verbal cues, how to differentiate from a curious bear and one who’s about to charge.
The toe imprints I observe are close together and long claws are clearly visible in the tracks. They’re clearly from a grizzly on the prowl.
Eric tries to convince me they’re moose tracks. Moose tracks! Does he think I’ve been hibernating in a snow cave for the last 44 years?
We slog on all morning, climbing higher and higher. I’m constantly on the lookout for the grizzly, practically jumping out of the saddle every time a bird rustles some leaves. I never spot the elusive grizzly, but I am treated to a family of 8 majestic caribou darting across the road. A couple of the animals are curious and stop and stare.
It throws my off balance and I stare back stupidly not knowing if I should retreat or perhaps talk to them in a low, soothing voice as you’re supposed to do with bears.
The promised land
Finally we reach the frontier: Poker Creek: population 2—the most northerly border post in the USA.
We snap the obligatory photo and I track down an immigration official and enquire about filling up our water bottles.
“Water’s no good here. We get all ours shipped in bottles. Get some down in Dawson City, I suspect.”
Dawson City is a hundred kilometers ahead, there are no creeks in these parts and we’re in dire need of water. I persist.
“We’ve got a filter, can you just give us some regular tap water? We’ll purify it.”
The official frowns. “I told you, the water’s no good round here.”
I can’t believe it
At this point I’m feeling a mix of utter surprise, shock and mild rage.
Even in the poorest African country we’ve never been denied water. Would it really bankrupt the US government to hand out a few bottles of water to passing cyclists at a remote and little-used border crossing? I mean, the U.S. military spends around $20.2 billion annually just on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Is this guy afraid I might slap him with a lawsuit if he dares to fill my bottles with non-potable water?
Can he not imagine that I’m riding a bicycle and might get thirsty during those 100 grueling kilometers that separate me from Dawson City and the world of public water fountains?
The whole situation makes absolutely no sense to me.
Finally a female officer intervenes and agrees to part with a little of their precious water–not the bottled stuff mind you, just the regular old tap water.
I’m miffed and the spectacular view from The Top of the World feels a lot less spectacular than it should.
We’re back in Canada’s Yukon now. Having biked all the way up to 64 degrees north, we turn the bikes around and start spinning our wheels southward. There’s no time to waste. Winter’s hovering on my back wheel and I’m determined to out-ride it.