Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting back into Canada, and breaking my bike

The evening of July 21st (or 22nd, I can't really remember found me at the northern end of the Taylor Highway. I'd done a lot of miles that day, making it from south of Tok, and finally ended up in the "Town" of Chicken, Alaska.

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And when I say "Town" I mean that best I could tell, there was a general store/burger joint, campground/RV Park, and I think up a bit off the other side of the road were a few more buildings of some sort. Chicken exists as a mining destination, the area is fairly rich in gold deposits, and that was what drew the first people here in the 1900s. The town got its name, legend says, from a native bird that made good food, but had a French-derived name that none of the miners could pronounce. Story says that eventually, one of the miners said "Aw hell, let's just call it Chicken".

The large-scale mines have mostly moved away, but a lot of private individuals still have claims up there for recreational mining. I had stopped into the campground place hoping to get a sandwich, but when I saw that for $10 they'd give you a pan and some dirt and show you how to get the gold out, I figured it sounded like fun.

I spent that evening panning for gold, spend the night in the campground, and then most of the next day panning as well. Panning is something that takes years to really master, and everyone has their own technique, but even in my bumbling through it, I managed to get perhaps $10-$15 worth of the shiny stuff. Not enough to do anything with, but hey, I gots me some gold!

After spending most of 7-22 panning as well, I elected not to pay for another night of camping, and packed my stuff to head out. It was getting dark by the time I did leave, but there was still enough light to take pictures.

This place was absolutely spectacular.

Stunning views looking out over long valleys with rivers winding through them. For reasons I can't quite explain, I was reminded very of New Zealand, the terrain just had . . . that sort of feel to it. Something about how steep the hills were without turning into cliffs, just the way the vegetation grew and the way the rivers were running, it looked like someplace right out of Lord of the Rings.

I only did about 60 miles that day, and I couldn't have gone much farther if I'd wanted. The border crossing back into the Yukon closes at 8pm, so there wasn't much sense in pushing all the way there. I followed a little side-trail off the road and camped for the night near what looked like a long-disused piece of mining equipment.

I awoke the next day to the sound of rain on my tent. I waited it out for a couple of hours, for it to slow down to a lazy drizzle before packing up. I could still see the rain clouds off in the distance.

For almost all of the day, there was a constant rain cloud somewhere on the horizon, but with some very short exceptions I managed to stay out of it the whole time.

The paved road had run out before I got to Chicken, and the gravel ran out sometime after that. The road was a hard-packed clay, but all the rain overnight had turned it to mud.

Once you get to the USA/Canada border crossing (Which reminded me a lot of my home in Antarctica), the name of the road changes to "The Top o' the World Highway". The name comes from the fact that the road skirts the top of the hills and mountains through the area, giving perpetual views for hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet down to the valley floors. The more cynical people say that they just named it that to try and get more tourism to the area, but in my opinion, the name is well deserved.

It was like this for 150 miles without a break.

I mean, goddamn.

This silver post marks the actual border proper between the two countries. The crossing was uneventful; Asked my named, checked the passport, told me to have a nice day.

Looking back at the border crossing from the Canadian side. Those little specs of blue buildings there are the crossing, on the right.

All the literature about the area claims that the road is paved on the Canadian side, but I found that to be a half-truth. I don't know if it was construction or what, but I'd guess at least half the road was gravel or dirt, in patches. There'd be a couple miles of pavement, then a couple miles of gravel, then pavement again, and dirt, on and on.

Even up this far north in this remote of an area, there were still little side roads that spurred off the highway and wandered up into the hills. I followed one for a couple of miles before remembering that I was quite low on gas, and didn't have the range to go exploring.

Much to my disappointment, I will say. I still find myself drawn to these tiny unmarked roads in the middle of nowhere. It means that despite appearances, there is SOMETHING out there. Roads don't exist without a reason, they always have to go someplace. I wish I could find out what that place was. I think on my next trip I'm going to make sure to bring a bike with a bigger gas tank.

With the fuel light on, I refilled the main tank from my spare cans.

Don't let the lack of everything being wet fool you, it was still damn cold. Even with my nice new gloves that I'd gotten in anchorage, my fingers were still going slightly numb from cold, so much so that I had to use my leatherman to un-tie the rope holding my gas tanks on. On northern sloping hills, there were still large patches of snow and ice, even in the middle of "summer".

I did take the opportunity to try out the auto-panorama mode on my little point-and-shoot camera. I haven't re-sized the source image, so click it below to see full size. The result isn't as good as what I'd get out of a program like Photostitch, but it should give you an idea of the road.

You can see the road heading off to the right, before going left and heading down the hills into the valley. It was breathtaking.

A hundred-something miles later, I got to the outskirts of Dawson City. It was a big gold rush town in the beginning of the last century, and now I guess thrives mostly on tourism, selling the kitschy tourist-version of the wild northwest.

Looking down through gaps in the hills afforded views of the Yukon River, where the city itself was located.

A slew of tourist-info turnoffs provided information about the area, mostly about the large caribou heard that used to live here. The "Forty-Mile Herd" was almost wiped out in the early 70s, with numbers dwindling down to as little as 6,000 head. Today, with reconstruction efforts, population is edging back up, up near 35,000, which is a big improvement.

But still not near the 600,000 that the herd numbered as recently as the 1950s. *sigh*

Dawson City sits on the other side of the Yukon River, which is serviced by a free ferry in the summer. In the winter, the river freezes solid enough for heavy vehicle traffic to navigate it without problems.

Other then tourism, I'm not sure Dawson City has much going for it. It's the only city of any size in the northern Yukon though, so I guess that counts for something. They've definitely played up the frontier tow aspect of it though, so much so that I found it kind of kitschy and annoying.

It had been a long, cold and wet day, and I was starving. I hadn't bothered to cook breakfast that morning, wanting to take advantage of the temporary dryness to get packed, and I was in no mood to make dinner again in a pot. I decided long before I got to town that I was paying for food.

I'd had a conversation with another biker on the ferry, a guy who's name I can't remember who was riding a big BMW 1200GS. He'd been to the area before, and said that at this time of night (it was almost 9pm) there wasn't going to be much open, but I should try this place. Wasn't like I had a whole lot of other options, so in I went.

Oooooo food. Food food food, how I love you. Love you so big when you're going into my belly.

The food was great! The service, not so much. It wasn't even close to busy, but I actually had to go and find a waiter when I needed a refill on my water, and the food took seemingly forever to come. Or maybe it just felt like forever, as I was literally getting stomach cramps from not eating.

All told, the meal cost me almost $35, and they even had wi-fi. I poked around on the internet some on my iPod, downloading some new podcasts and things to listen to, and went on my merry way. By the time I did leave it was almost 11pm, which left me with a big problem.

I had been so hungry when I got into town that I'd not bothered to get gas before I did, and now all the gas stations were closed. The shell station closed about five minutes before I got there, and despite my desperate tapping on the windows and waving my arms at the bike and pump, the lady inside locking up wouldn't even authorize them for a CC transaction. Bitch.

I had about ~30 miles worth of gas left, so I figured I'd probably have to head out of town to find somewhere to camp, and then come back in the next morning to fuel up. But as luck would have it, on the way out I found, buried in some industrial area, one of those un-manned automated fuel depots for semi trucks, complete with a credit card reader. I happily gassed up, (At about $5.50 a gallon) and was on my way.

Outside of town, I turned around for a moment to get a picture of the midnight sky.

I rode for an hour or so, finally pulling off in a clearing from the road in some gravel clearing to pitch the tent.

WHAT THE FUCK. At 4am I awoke with a start with every hair on the back of my neck standing up. Something was wrong, my spidy-sense was going nuts, but I couldn't place it why I'd startled. I listened hard for a minute, trying to figure out why I'd snapped awake so suddenly. There was something weird in the air and I had no idea what it was. While I was straining my ears trying to figure out if I could hear something, it gradually dawned on me what was wrong.

It was quiet. Eerily quite. the whole night was still and nothing was moving . . . at all. In any way.

Whenever you're outside almost anywhere in the world, there is always SOME sort of noise. Some tiny, tiny breeze, ever so slight, just enough to create an almost imperceptible rustling of tree branches, there's a bird somewhere fluttering, or here, there's the ever-present whine of mosquitoes. But there wasn't ANY of that.

It was so quiet that it had startled me awake. I got out of the tent for a quick look around. It was mind-blowing how still it was. The air temperature couldn't have been any higher then 45 degrees, but it was SO still that you weren't cold. Even the bugs seemed to have vanished. There were no cars on the road, no wind at all, just . . . . nothing. I've been in professional recording studios back when I was doing voice work, places with thick sound absorption padding and deadening materials that had more ambient noise then this place did.

It was really, really weird. Almost too quite to even fall asleep.

I remember reading an article years ago about psychological studies done on volunteers about the effects of sensory deprivation. The operators of the study removed people's ability to use one of their senses for a period of time, either sight or sound or touch, and found that the human brain is SO desperate for stimulation that when deprived of it, it will create it's own. It was so quiet that I had to put in my earbuds and listen to some This American Life just so I could get back to sleep.

It was a weird, weird night.

The next day dawned partly cloudy and warmer, much warmer then the previous day had been along the Top o' the World Highway.

While the map had indicated that this road back down to Whitehorse was paved the whole way, reality had a much different opinion, with seemingly ever-present construction and gravel roads. Now it's not gravel I mind that much; it's the enormous dust clouds kicked up by passing RVs and pickup trucks towing RVs. Seriously people, just get a fucking tent and stop trying to bring everything you goddamn own with you.

(Actually I guess that's odd of me to say, considering I was carrying nearly everything I owned)

Motorcycles were again encouraged to move to the front of the construction ques while we waited for the pilot vehicles to take us through.

Once I got out of the construction areas, and got away from the small packs of traffic that were the result, the road was simply a pleasure to behold

I did the better part of 300 miles that day. It's pretty easy not to get distracted by side-routes when there simply aren't any, so I made it into Whitehorse by the early evening. And continuing with my tradition of wasting money, I paid for food again.

Om nom nom nom nom!

Figuring that I didn't have any reason to hang around Whitehorse longer then I had to, I mailed off some postcards, and headed out of town to find somewhere to camp for the night.

Now . . . those who followed my blog in real time know what's coming next.

(Because dammit, Yakity Sax makes EVERYTHING better)

In searched of someplace to camp, I headed up what looked like an ATV trail along the side of the road that ran into a clearing for power lines. While I manged to negotiate the steep hill with no problem. I ended up cracking the bottom of the bike on a big pointy rock that I hadn't made note of when I walked the path before I road on it.

At first, I didn't think there was a problem. I'd smacked the bike on all sorts of stuff in this trip, and just assumed that the it was the crash bar that took the impact. I set up my tent for the night and had a sleep.

It wasn't until the next morning when I started the bike, and saw the oil like on that I noticed there was a problem. A further inspection of the area found the grass under where I'd parked the bike was completely soaked in oil. FUCK. The bike was empty, all of the oil had leaked out overnight. I had no idea how bad the leak was; from the outside, the damage didn't look too bad. Just some scrapes.

As luck would have it, I wasn't far outside of town at all. I scribbled a note to leave on the bike, grabbed my tank bag and my water bottles, and started walking.

Two hours later, I came across a gas station, where I bought six liters of oil (AT FUCKING $6 A LITER). This was your standard no-name gas station oil that no one ever buys unless they are totally fucked, as I was. I'm not joking when I say that all the bottles had a good coating of dust on them. After paying for the oil and getting a bottle of Gatorade, I began the walk back to my bike. I had gone perhaps half a mile when a guy on an ATV drove by and offered me a lift back to my bike, which I gratefully accepted. Thanks, dude, wherever you are! I had meant to snap a picture, but by the time I got off and pulled out the camera, he was gone. Ah well.

I packed everything onto the bike, put on all my gear, and as the absolute last thing I did, put in the oil I'd just bought.

FUCK. The leak was way worse then I thought. Oil was drizzling out of the engine at a constant steady rate. I just hoped it would last long enough to get me back to town. I started the bike, got back to the road and headed back to town, where I knew I'd seen a sign advertising a Yamaha dealer somewhere. I had my eyes locked on the oil light the whole time, my thumb on the kill switch, ready to pull in the clutch and shut the engine down the second the light came on.

As luck would have it, I made it the whole way. I rolled into the Yamaha dealer's parking lot in a cloud of blue smoke with the now-hot and pressurized oil literally pissing out of the engine.

I walked into the Yamaha dealer in a bit of a daze, and explained my situation. The parts counter guy said that all their techs were out for the weekend and wouldn't be back in until Monday (it was currently a Saturday), but he could at least look at it and tell me what he thought the problem might be. "How bad is the oil leak?" he asked. "Uh . . . " I replied. "Maybe you should take a look at it"

To the guys credit, he was able to mostly contain his laughter. From what we could see, I'd punched a hole in the crankcase cover, but the internal damage might be worse. Of course, a new cover wasn't available in the states, if I wanted to order it from then it would have to be brought in from Japan, at a cost of $350 and a wait time of 2-3 weeks. Well, shit.

First order of business, I decided, was to take the bike apart and try and find out exactly how bad the damage was. The crankcase cover was cast aluminum, so maybe there was a chance I could epoxy it, or get it welded. The dealership said that it was okay if I left my bike in the parking lot over the weekend, so around 1pm, as they were closing up, I set to work taking the left side of the bike apart.

Once I got it open, I did an inspection of the damage. It looked like one of the Allen bolts had taken the brunt of the impact.

And that impact had been transmitted into the crankcase . . .

As well as the crankcase cover.

By the time I got everything apart, and then straightened up my mess and wheeled the bike behind the shop, it was getting late, and I had to think about where to stay for the night. There were some pretty dense woods across the street, and down past the dealer looked to be a large lake that would offer pretty camping. But my stomach was a more pressing concern. Next door to the dealer was a nice-looking Motel/RV Park, and given that there was no place else around, I figured I would inquire there.

I found the manager, told her my story, and asked if they allowed tent camping at their facility.

"No, I'm sorry we don't" was her reply.

"Well, do you know if there's a restaurant around here anywhere?"

"Well, no, but . . . " She paused and surveyed me up and down. "Follow me!"

I followed her out to where a bunch of people were grilling burgers at a picnic area. She pulled out a chair, took two burgers off the grill, put them on a plate for me, and commanded "Young man, you sit down at this table, and eat these hamburgers!"

Now, who was I to object to an order like that?

I introduced myself to everyone, told them my story, and listened to theirs. Some of the guys here were part of the road crews working on a bridge a few miles outside of town, some were here vacationing, and others were just locals who came to hang out at this place. After much conversation and eating of hamburgers, potato salad, chips and dip, the manager called me back into her office.

"Now, we don't usually offer tent camping here", she began. "But, you're in a pretty tough spot, and we've got a lot of tasks around here that we could use an energetic young man to take care of. So, I think we can work something out, yes?"

In the end, we agreed that I could pitch my tent in a little clearing behind one of the buildings for as long as I needed to get my bike fixed and make use of all their facilities, for $20/week and $5 per shower. In addition to that, she had a list of chores around the place that needed to be done, things like cleaning the hot tub out, clearing some brush, other yardwork and things like that. I couldn't have been happier. I walked back over to the Yamaha dealer, got my stuff off my bike, set up my tent, and had a great shower. This woman was a saint!

The next day was a Sunday, and the dealership wasn't open. I spend most of the day resting and catching up on things. I updated the internet on my status and situation, did my laundry, and took the bus into town to go grocery shopping. I figured as long as I was stuck in once place for a while, I should do some real cooking.

Om nom nom nom nom!

I spend the rest of the evening checking the internet, talking to people online and trying to sort out how I was going to get out of this place.

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