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.

The great north, just one vast wilderness inhabited by whole lot of moose caribou and bears.

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.

Autumn has already arrived in our neck of the woods.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Road conditions on the taylor highway really aren’t all that bad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get real!

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.

Stocking up

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 fellow cyclist from Japan, check out the authentic noodles.

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.

Friendly Chicken, Alaska.
A hot cup of coffee was tempting, but I went for a slice of homemade cherry pie.

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.

Alright, technically not a campsite, but not the most serious rule one can break.

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.

A dreary day on the Taylor Highway.
A little sunshine poking out from behind the clouds.

Bearanoia

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.

Dawson City, still a day’s ride away.

“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.

View from the Top of the World Highway.

 

Sunset on the Top of the World Highway.

Spinning southward

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.

What's on your mind?
As always,we’d like to know what’s on your mind!  If you have thoughts on this post, ideas on how to improve the site or you’d just like to say hello,  leave a comment below.  Alternatively, you can get in touch at worldbiking@gmail.com.

 

 

Cycling to the Top of the World

9 thoughts on “Cycling to the Top of the World

  • arby
    September 9, 2011 at 7:18 PM
    Permalink

    Hot noodles and hot tea await you. Somewhere on the other side of that swollen river. And a few thousand kilometers west. Looking forward to the Asian leg.
    End of season chutney (green tomatoes, apples, peppers, etc) is cooking and making the house smell wonderful, I wish you and your noses were here to share a beer or a hot mug of your favorite beverage. Safe travels guys, lower 48 love, rb

    Reply
    • World Biking
      September 17, 2011 at 3:18 PM
      Permalink

      Yep, noodles indeed…we’re off to Asia on 23 October! Made it through the Cassiar Highway and it’s easy going now.

      Reply
  • Linda Imle (akwoman59)
    September 26, 2011 at 11:39 AM
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    Amaya, Sorry you had problems at the border. There is not excuse for being rude and selfish and I apologize for the treatment you received at Poler Creek. It is becoming very hard to be poud of my government when they treat people as badly as they did you. I can assure you that most Alaskans are not like that!

    I hope you are able to come back to Alaska and see more of this wild country! It is an amazing place. Plus on fo the best trips I have take was up the Dempster Highway, jist east of Whitehorse and then turn north. I will cycle the highway someday. I drove it with friends and really loved it. It was much better than the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay.

    Come visit and see what real Alaskans are like.

    Linda

    Reply
    • World Biking
      September 27, 2011 at 12:22 PM
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      Yes, most people are wonderful, but you can run into the odd grumpy official.

      We, too, have heard amazing things about the Dempster Highway. We rode just up to Tombstone National Park and the scenery was absolutely stunning.

      On our return that’ll be a must-see.

      Reply
    • World Biking
      October 17, 2011 at 11:52 PM
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      Just one slightly unpleasant experience among many incredibly positive ones. In Alaska, as everywhere in the world, we met many, many wonderful people.

      Reply
    • Ruby Lisa
      April 13, 2015 at 10:43 PM
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      Oh strange! I wonder if that is a directive at small US border crossings. I biked through the Nighthawk border crossing between British Columbia and Washington and was told the exact same thing. It is not remote.

      Reply
      • World Biking
        May 5, 2015 at 1:15 PM
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        Wouldn’t surprise me–they’re probably worried about someone suing them after receiving sub-par water.

        Reply
  • Graham
    September 26, 2011 at 5:32 PM
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    Hello. ahhh i missed reading these and am so glad i found them. i thought it was finished when the bike got stolen. will be back reading the other posts.
    yip sorry as Linda says too, some people just havent an idea at all. hope creeks and springs pop out of the blue for you all the way. blog is brilliant, keep it the same as always. keep enjoying it. i can hear the silence when i look at the photos, must be awesome. well done

    Reply
    • World Biking
      September 27, 2011 at 12:24 PM
      Permalink

      No way, this bike tour will not be stopped by some two-bit bike thief in Bolivia.

      With a little help from our friends in the bicycle touring community, we’re back in the saddle.

      Reply

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