The mind is an awesome and amazing encyclopedia, full of ideas, dreams and visions. It can also make one terrified in micro seconds. Ingrid had a dream for as long as I have known her, some 22 years now, to bicycle the Dempster Highway, Canada’s most northern highway, in its entire length of 450 miles. Our previous bicycle adventures have taken us through the New England states, along the Southern Tier, the Trans-America Trail and the Pacific Coast. Actually, the dream was expanded to include cycling the state of Alaska. After months of preparations checking ferry and flight schedules, locations of campgrounds and lodgings, detailed maps and dehydrating food for later shipment, we departed Charlotte, NC for Fairbanks, AK on June 13, 2000.
After we had reassembled our bikes, we spent a few days exploring Fairbanks before heading south on the Parks Highway with our heavily loaded bikes. We adjusted our bodies to the 20 plus hours of daylight and applied sunscreen more frequently due to the added sun exposure. These long daylight hours took a toll on me. Even though it gave us the opportunity to cycle many more hours, our endurance was limited. It was hard for me to fall asleep at night and I had to use eye shades, while Ingrid could sleep through anything.
Denali State Park was our first layover to see the wonders Alaska is known for. The mountains were awe inspiring. Mount McKinley, in all her magnificent snow-capped beauty, would show herself occasionally when its cloud cover allowed it. We took the tour bus and saw grizzly bear, caribou, moose, lynx, dall sheep, fox and bald eagles. Oh, I almost forgot the “state bird” of Alaska, the mosquito. They are huge, non-forgiving and have a ferocious appetite. We followed the road as it curved around the mountains watching them change colors depending on the time of day. After fighting headwinds and rain, we snaked our way over the mountains. We had long stretches with meager accommodations and slept mostly in our tent. Water was scarce and not everyone could afford to drill an artesian well below the permafrost. Glacier fed rivers and streams were abundant, but filtering the water takes a long time while the mosquitoes eat you alive. The people were extremely friendly and their hospitality couldn’t have been more sincere.
Before Anchorage we took the bike path that brought us to the city with its heavy traffic. It was harder for us to adjust to the city traffic and noise on this trip. The airport was humming with flights. The float and bush planes are the main and most important transportation link in Alaska and are a necessity. We left Anchorage on the Seward Highway and rode south between the Chugach Mountains and the waters of the Cook Inlet. Headwinds of 40 mph and higher buffeted us along the Turnagain Arm, while the snow on the mountains sparkled against a blue sky. We entered the Kenai Peninsula and climbed over Summit Pass where the beautiful Summit Lake Lodge was a welcoming sight. After a late breakfast at Moose Pass we arrived in Seward where a pleasant 12 hour ferry ride to Valdez awaited us the next morning. Prince William Sound was very beautiful. Aboard the tour boat Lu-Lu Belle we were able to get very close to the Columbia Glacier with its many smaller blue-green icebergs floating in the water. It was exciting to see humpback whales, otters, sea lions, puffins and bald eagles up close.
We passed the infamous pipeline and oil terminal, a reminder of the Valdez tragedy some years back. The episode still lingers in the minds of many. After Valdez we climbed for 25 miles to the summit of Thompson Pass where it turned very foggy. This area gets the highest snowfall in Alaska. We coasted down the other side of the mountain, passed the Worthington Glacier and cycled through Keystone Canyon with its many huge waterfalls. In Glennallen we took the Tok Cutoff and rode along the Wrangell Mountains and over Mentasta Pass to Tok. After a few miles on the Alaska Highway we headed north on the Taylor-Top of the World Highway. After 60 miles on gravel road we arrived at the West Fork Campground. A lynx visited us during the night and screamed terribly as it encircled our tent. I guess we were encroaching on its territory. We saw many bear tracks in the sand along the side of the road that kept us anxiously looking around. A moose occasionally gave us company and tried to outrun us.
This is wild Alaska. The weather can change instantly and become cold and nasty. While we were caught in the middle of one terrible thunderstorm that left us crouching on the roadside, a hail storm raged ahead and behind us. Just before the tiny settlement of Chicken we “chickened” out. We stopped a camper and a lovely German couple gave us a welcome and warm ride to Dawson City on the banks of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. We boarded a small plane to Inuvik, a village above the Arctic Circle, for our ride on the Dempster Highway. When we planned for this trip back home we were assured that semi-slick tires on our touring bikes would be aggressive enough to ride dirt roads and especially the Dempster Highway. After we left Inuvik the road changed from a hard surface to loosely packed dirt and stone which becomes very slippery when wet and I knew right away that we were in trouble. After 60 hard miles we “wild” camped by the Wrengling River. The horrendous mosquitoes were everywhere and even with our head nets it was almost impossible to eat, let alone cook. By ferry we crossed the Mackenzie River, had lunch and refilled our water bottles at the Tsiigehtchic Campground and continued on. It was very hard for us to cycle on the loose gravel with the bikes we had. We heard that a few days earlier snow had caused the road ahead of us to close temporarily for 2 days. It rained very heavy and the mud clumped together on our wheels. We knew the road had beaten us.
After riding 100 miles on the Dempster we bowed out with heavy hearts in the settlement of Fort McPhearson. We called a van which took us over the Arctic Circle to Mile 0 of the Dempster Highway. After a day’s rest at the Klondike River Lodge, we cycled south on the Klondike Loop to Whitehorse, Yukon. Since the nights had become very cold already, we decided to cut our trip short and not cycle the remaining 1800 miles to reach Seattle. Instead we took the ferry with our friend Valerie, who caught up with us in Whitehorse, from Skagway AK to Bellingham WA. We cycled along the coast, over Whidbey Island and took the ferry to Edmonds where our friend Christine waited to take us to her home in Bothell and later to the Seattle Airport. On this trip we cycled over 1500 grueling miles in Alaska and Canada, not including the miles by ferry and car. Even though it was a strenuous trip, we still hope for our dream to become a reality and cycle the missing miles using different bicycles. As one solo cyclist along the Dempster Highway told us “I have tried three times and this time I will finish it.” There will always be another year.
Dick and Ingrid Adams