LEAVING Whitehorse was tough.
Tough because we’d enjoyed doing our best impersonations of Hobbits a little too much, tough because the road ahead featured about four towns in 1000km and tough because we’d gotten a bit too bloody fat on our three week holiday.
And so it was with heavy hearts and heavy arses that we found ourselves wobbling out of the Yukon capital on a sunny Monday morning with vague plans of making it 75km or so down the road to Carcross.
One four-hour lunch break, some shitty headwinds and some sand dunes later we somehow managed to reach the colourful First Nation’s town and like the hobos that we are, decided to pitch our tents in the middle of it.
Canada’s Yukon Territory is so remote, with bears far outweighing people, that we’d become pretty blasé about where we camped… next to the road, beside a “no camping” sign, in a parking lot, and it would turn out, in the centre of Carcross village on a viewing platform.
In fact no one seemed phased as we pitched our tents (including a mounty who drove past) and we happily tucked into a pot of pasta while chewing the fat with a couple of Swiss cyclists we’d met along the way.
The next morning we rolled out of bed and treated ourselves to a cheeky latte at the nearby coffee shops before psyching ourselves up for the tough task of pedalling 30km down the road. Our destination was the the pint-sized hamlet of Tagish, where friend of a friend Catherine was waiting to ply us with beers and food for the night – it’s a tough life.
Cat was a quiet, unassuming and generous woman who looked about mid 20s but was actually closer to 40. She’d contacted us after meeting our friend (fellow cyclist Willy) while pedalling South Africa and was in fact planning to cycle from Alaska to Argentina the following year.
Feeling like heroic adventurers we were happy to offload our wisdom but after just a couple of hours of chatting with Cat from Quebec we realised she was perhaps one of the toughest, coolest and most amazing women we’d met.
Cat had done everything from jungle guiding in South East Asia, to Ironman competitions and even spent years dog mushing – competing in one of the world’s toughest races (the Yukon Quest) four times.
She was an absolute force of nature and the kind of woman I wanted to be when I grew up.
The next day we sadly hit the road and jumped back on the AlCan Highway for more pine trees, rolling hills and beating sun.
In a bid to ease ourselves back into this thing called bike touring, we planned to push out easy 60km days but the truth was our heads weren’t in the game. It wasn’t just the recent family holiday, or the fact that both our bikes and bellies were a bit fat, it was the fact that Canada was proving tough.
We’d always known this gargantuan country would be a physical challenge but the strange thing about these long wilderness stretches wasn’t the effect it had on our quads, but on our sanity.
We’d spent so long living and cycling in Asia that we’d become addicted to the rapidly changing scenery, the in-your-face culture and bustle of sheer life. We’d moaned and bitched at the time but the truth is when you travel such far out places, that are a million cultural miles away from familiarity, it becomes addictive. You miss the thriving chaos of a morning food market, the stimulation from seeing so many different people in the fields and on the streets at all times of day and the challenges that come from not speaking the local language.
Canada was none of those things. It was big, beautiful, wild and in fact the polar opposite of Asia in every way.
There was no bustling food culture (at least not in the Yukon), there were no open-air markets and hoards of different people meeting, talking and laughing over steaming pots of curry and there was no vibrancy that comes from a melting pot of people or socio-economics.
There quite simply, weren’t enough people for any of that.
There was something else we had to get used to too – and that was being the lowest common denominator again. We’d left Asia’s “anything goes” attitude and the fascination that comes with being a foreigner, to being a slight step up from a hobo on wheels. While plenty of locals had been kind, generous and welcoming, a handful had made it clear that cyclists didn’t belong on the roads and business owners along the way were beginning to passively aggressively snipe at the fact cyclists were cheap skates who didn’t want to spend money.
Granted, a lot of us on long trips have a tight budget, but this negative attitude towards this kind of travel began to wear us down – especially considering the irony.
All services and amenities were heavily geared towards RVs and cashed up tourists (the bigger your vehicle the more important you are) but these enormous house-like caravans seemed to have the least interaction with locals and spend the least money. Many of them came from the southern states of America, while some even filled up their gas tanks at the US border to ensure they didn’t have to fill up once in Canada.
Cyclists, on the other hand, are typically forced to stop at every little village and town to resupply meaning they spend far more time and money then their coveted counterparts.
We also realised the irony in our own feelings too.
For months we’d been desperate to exit chaotic Asia to again be in a world where we understood the language, were somewhat anonymous (and not being gawked at) and to just be around less people.
Well we’d gotten our wish, and we were finding it hard to swallow.
Our minds continued to swirl like washing machines as we trundled down the AlCan and after a few days we reached the Utopia of Rancheria – a humble little restaurant and campsite that we’d heard about on the bush telephone for it’s friendly staff and low prices.
We therefore weren’t surprised when a quartet of cyclists pulled in shortly after us.
Meeting fellow cyclists en route has been one of our greatest pleasures. It’s like finding long lost family who share the same mental quirks while understanding the unique highs and lows of travel by bike. In Central Asia and even South East Asia, this instant bonding was even more intense, compounded by the fact that we’d all travelled some pretty tough roads to get there while being thrust into a far out culture and unfamiliar languages.
But North America was a little different.
While the camaraderie had certainly existed on the Dalton Highway, we’d noticed a subtle change in the bike powered travellers we’d met since.
For many, Alaska is the starting point of an often pan American tour with hundreds of cyclists beginning their first long tour from this state each year. I don’t know if it’s the fact that they’d felt like hardcore adventurers on a unique trip and were a bit miffed to discover truck loads of others had the same idea, or the fact that it was the very start of their trip and they hadn’t settled into long term travel yet, but it started to feel more and more like the majority of people we met were trying bloody hard to pretend everyone else wasn’t there.
On some occasions, we’d been all but ignored when we’d run over to fellow cyclists with big smiles and open arms, and on others, we’d been met with a strange competitiveness that made us feel as though we’d failed a race we hadn’t realised we’d entered.
It seemed at Rancheria, much to our disappointment, we’d found the latter.
We walked excitedly over to find the English bloke was scarcely interested in anything beyond a hello while his girlfriend/wife said little more. There’s every chance they were tired and wanted some peace and quiet but we found it odd that of the few questions they asked us it was how far we cycled each day and how far we’d done that day.
The brief conversation drained us but mere moments after hitting the road the following day the black mood was lifted. An oil tanker truck had crashed the night before, causing the road to be closed in both directions and while the driver was ok there was a considerable environmental clean up taking place. It was bad news for nature, but ironically good news for us. We had the entire road to ourselves.
Canada’s rugged backcountry had begun to feel repetitive but without the frequent terror of enormous RVs and heavy trucks everything improved. The scenery was more beautiful, the hills less taxing and the wildlife more spectacular. We were in love with cycling again and hadn’t realised how much the heavy tourist traffic had sapped us of energy. Owing to our late, lunchtime start, the plan had been to simply make it 60km but instead we pushed out the 100km to Junction 37 (the start of the Cassiar Highway) without too much effort, in just five and a half hours.
The first supermarket on Highway 37 was about 230km away so we had little choice but to make a 40km roundtrip detour into Watson Lake – home of the signpost forest – for much needed supplies. This man-made attraction began a few decades ago when a homesick soldier planted a sign post to his hometown near the now Visitors Centre. One thing lead to another and now there are a few thousand sign posts from all over the world in the middle of the CBD. This Yukon town is also the province’s third biggest but that’s really not saying much and aside from a couple of RV parks, cafes and hotels, there wasn’t a hell of a lot going on.
After the easy ride into town we decided to do our laundry, grab a naughty bite to eat and then hit up the library for some internet.
By this stage it was late afternoon and we felt tired and in desperate need of somewhere other than our tent to rest our head. In a moment of weakness we even decided to scour the main street hotels to see if, by chance, there was a cheap room or maybe even a mid-week discount but according to the self assured bloke at the Big Horn hotel his price of $130 was the best we’d find in town. For about 10 seconds we seriously considered it but on our meagre and rapidly dwindling budget of $20 a day there was no way in hell we could justify it.
Instead we swung by the grocery store, loaded up on wraps, pasta and fruit and began the considerably heavier wobble out of town to find a campsite.
We reluctantly rolled out of bed just before 7am the next day and packed up in record time to get on the road and beat the heat. It was 20km back to the junction and then another 85km to a reportedly stunning provincial campsite down the Cassiar. We pulled into the Junction 37 gas station and said a big hello to the cheerful guy who’d served us a couple of days ago. We immediately started chewing the fat and before long he’d shouted us a coffee and given us two free stickers and two frozen, home-made meals to take with us. It became apparent that wiry Dan was just one of those kind souls you meet who can’t do enough for you and as the minutes and then hours ticked by he announced that he’d paid for our campsite for the night and would like to invite us to a big homemade feast at his nearby home. We were bowled over by his generosity and couldn’t believe what a send off this wild and rugged territory was giving us.
In the end the send-off was a little too good and after a late night, a heavy breakfast and a pounding headache we rolled out of Junction 37 close to lunch time, bracing ourselves for what lay ahead.
And what lay ahead was the Stewart-Cassiar Highway – a 730km stretch of wild, rolling wilderness that takes you from the busy AlCan through to the junction town of Kitwanga and then on to Prince George. It’s famed for it’s high concentration of bears, hive of tiny mining communities and smattering of First Nation’s settlements amid British Columbia’s raw beauty.
We’d been joking that Murphy and his bloody Law had been dogging our steps in North America so as we turned right to conquer the Cassiar all we could do was laugh at the fact the winds again changed (to ensure they hit us head on), the rain clouds rolled in and a gentle fog shrouded the epic views.
Like typical whinging Aussies, we’d been bemoaning the scorching heat along the AlCan but had we known what lay ahead, we might have soaked up a few more of those rays with a little less complaint.
After almost five hours of sharp ascents and strong headwinds we’d managed just 58km and mere moments after throwing up the tent next to a quaint river the heavens opened.
The next morning we took down the sopping tent and hit the road and the winds, making it just another 60km to Jade City. Now don’t let the name fool you – this hamlet of about three houses is about as far from metropolitan as you can get, but for what they lack in size they make up for in hospitality. We rolled up to the Jade City store (an enormous jade shop and museum) just before closing time and were welcomed to free coffee, free wifi and free camping. It was the golden trifecta of awesomeness!
The next morning we woke up early, packed down the tent and wandered over to the shop for a free cuppa only to get caught up chatting to the owner’s son and his wife. It was downright bloody freezing outside and the memories of 30 degree days (you know, around 48 hours earlier) had been replaced with that of single digits, down jackets and Goretex.
At around 11am we’d finally agreed to farewell our new friends and hit the tarmac when the heavens opened again and it not only rained, but hailed.
It would have taken a resilience neither of us possess to head out into the deluge and jump on our bikes so instead we faffed about the shop, drinking coffee and talking all things jade, life in northern BC and travel. By 4pm we’d resigned ourselves to another night in the “city” and shortly after two soggy and miserable looking Swiss cyclists rushed into the store.
We’d met Alex, Anita and their dog Lia at Junction 37 a couple of days earlier and we were chuffed to see them again. They too were heading south (planning to end their trip in Bolivia) and we’d quickly bonded over our relaxed attitudes to mileage targets.
They’d just booked a room to dry out their kit while we headed to our soggy tents only to find American duo Will and JB had also turned up on their bikes. These two larger than life blokes (from New York and Baltimore respectively) had decided to bike from Anchorage to (well they weren’t sure) on a bit of a whim and were absolutely full of hilarious stories that mostly seemed to involve them getting sloshed, stoned or kicked out of places. It wasn’t the kind of travel that Scott and I could get on board with but they were an absolute laugh a minute and seemed to be having the time of their lives regardless.
We all set off the following day (the Swiss first, us second and the Americans third) and by the end of the day we’d passed by Anita and Alex (who’d set up camp in a mozzie den) to go on another 15km to a free recreation camp site where Will and JB had stopped.
The rain came down on and off all day and by morning the world was still grey, damp and miserable.
We pushed out a tough 40km to our first supermarket at Dease Lake, where we hooked into a burger and hot coffee while working up the energy to pedal 10km more to a small community camp site.
All reports had warned of a week of rain but after setting off uphill into drizzle the following day there was one thing that had become abundantly clear on the Cassiar – summer was over and winter was coming. Despite spending a good chunk of our day climbing we wore Goretex while pedalling and down jackets underneath during quick food breaks, struggling to keep morale up as we saw brief glimpses of what looked like pretty impressive mountains hiding behind heavy cloud.
Two days later we rolled into a little restaurant, motel and campsite called Tatogga with the plan of sharing the cheapest cabin among the four of us just to dry everything out.
And that’s how we met John.
This grumpy retiree had weeks earlier had a wife and staff to complement his pretty bustling business but had one day found himself sans the first two. A little thing like no staff wasn’t going to keep John down though, and rather than hire new ones (to be fair his reputation had proceeded him and he may have found this tough) he roped in gullible travellers to do his work for him.
He promised to cut us a deal moments after negotiating the room price and said if we helped him clean a few rooms he’d give us a free dinner.
This sounded like a pretty sweet deal so we checked into a little room and then tracked down John to give him a hand.
It turned out what John really meant, was that we were to clean all of his room, with no instruction or help “if you see something broken, fix it!” he announced brusquely (mate we’re cyclists not bloody handymen) for the generous payment of a bowl of chilli.
Lucky for us the Swiss, who are used to far better working conditions, weren’t having it and Alex negotiated a far better deal (dinner from the menu, laundry and breakfast too) and so we hooked into a couple of hours of hard yakka on some filthy rooms before wandering over to the restaurant.
Our chef and waiter turned out to be a motorcycling couple who’d arrived a day earlier and been conned into cooking and serving for the fee of a free room (aren’t we all gullible idiots) while John gleefully changed the closing time from 8pm to midnight to capitalise.
The next morning he insisted we clean our room before going and after much bitching we did and then cycled away as fast as we could. Had John been a decent bloke we might have done more for him, but instead he glowered at us, undercut us and spent little conversation we had with him complaining about cyclists and telling us we should buy a car.
I began to understand why his staff and wife left him.
Fear of slavery helped us push out 100km that day and we made it along the rollercoaster, through yet more rain, to a tiny construction and mining camp called Bob Quinn. Free camping was offered by the lake and we had a quick chat with a pilot who worked there before throwing our tents up and scoffing down dinner.
Morning brought a brief respite from the rain and even more welcome visitor – Megan.
Occasional camp cook, owner and manager of a dog mushing guide business, bike tourer and all round champion, Megan had caught wind of our arrival and decided to bring us a fresh batch of muffins and a bag of cherries.
We could have kissed her. She also bitched about John so we liked her even more.
She then gave us her contact details and wished us safe travels before we pedalled out (into the rain again) with the aim of just pushing out 50km to Bell II. This fancy pants resort also offered camping (and a restaurant) and so we’d already decided to treat ourselves to a shower and a hot meal. Feeling like soggy hobos, we tramped into the plush, wooden hotel about three hours later, realising very quickly that we weren’t the typical cliental.
Rooms at this wilderness hotspot cost upward of $200 a night while WIFI was a casual $11.50 per half hour (for satellite).
Luckily tent sites were cheaper (just $13 per couple) which entitled us to use of the sauna and hot tub, hot showers and laundry.
Heavy rain beat down on the tents the following morning and without much discussion we decided a rest day was in order. The Swiss were so fed up with the wet they decided to splurge on a room and after being told just the family ones were available, generously offered for us to join them!
For Scott and I the incessant rain had been depression-inducing but for the Swiss it had become downright unbearable. They were so sick of being wet, so sick of the lack of services and a bit disillusioned with Canada in general and so decided that they wanted a lift to Kitwanga and then a train to Prince Rupert. From there a ferry would pick them up and drop them off at Vancouver Island – slicing an enormous chunk off Canada.
While we were happy to keep slogging it out to the junction we too had been agonising about our route – wondering if we should turn right or left at Kitwanga – the end of the Cassiar.
Turning right would mean pedalling to the ferry port and taking a “shortcut” through the inside passage, lopping off about 1200km of cycling and placing us a stone’s throw from Seattle.
Turning left would mean taking the harder road to Prince George and tackling big highways through smoky bush-fire territory for about 1800km before reaching the US border.
To be honest the rain wasn’t helping but aside from the fact that the ferry was damned expensive (about $450 for both of us) there was that niggling feeling that we’d be cheating if we did it.
In the end the Swiss couldn’t secure a lift and so we cycled out together just after 8am the following day to push out another 95km day to Meziadin Junction. It rained so hard every layer was saturated and by mid-afternoon we walked into the junction’s truck stop cafe feeling absolutely miserable.
The Swiss decided to book another room (there were a row of trucker style cabins out the back) but we decided to press on to a nearby campsite where the manager allowed us to pitch under a covered eating area.
It was there we met Kathy and Phil – a couple from Prince George who would go on to cook us dinner and breakfast and then offer us a place to stay when we reached their gorgeous home. It felt like the writing was on the wall – we would suck it up and turn left.
Two days and about 160km later we reached Kitwanga where the sun showed it’s face, the locals were friendly and the camping was free.
The Cassiar had been a wild, soggy, fun ride but we were relieved to finish it and amused to note that despite warnings we’d be eaten alive by the thousands of bears that lined it, we’d seen just four rather scared looking black bears. Aside from missing hungry bears, the foul weather meant we’d also missed the stunning views which was a little heart breaking.
The Swiss had failed to secure the train to Prince Rupert (no dogs allowed) and were feeling downright pissed off at Canada but had resigned themselves to cycling the 240km to the ferry while we had an even closer destination – just 130km to a cyclist’s only cabin at the quaint town of Telkwa.
The Americans had also arrived at Kitwanga despite JB having to hitch-hike owing to what Scott matter-of-factly described as “crutch-rot”. It seemed the rain, lack of showering and inability to do laundry had resulted in the big bearded bloke acquiring a fungal infection on his nether-regions, forcing him to take a lift while Will continued cycling. By time we reached Kitwanga he’d enjoyed a day of rest and anti-fungal cream to lift his spirits. We asked if he’d washed his clothes too and he said: “no – should I have?” Oh dear.
Will and JB would also be heading for the ferry and so we hugged the quartet goodbye and pedalled out late the next day alone, chatting to an older German couple en route (who were biking to Vancouver).
By lunch time the rain ceased for a minute to offer a spectacular scene of jagged peaks behind us and we stopped to marvel at the beauty, feeling like it had all been worth it for this single moment.
Lunch was at a visitors centre where we gossiped with an Aussie family and used the wifi and then feeling utterly exhausted, we soldiered on to Smithers, feeling as though we’d rather go nine rounds with Floyd Mayweather.
This was the first big town we’d seen since, well Whitehorse, and by time the gleam from the “golden arches” came into view we were tired to the point of incoherence.
Like shameless slobs we beelined straight for Maccas and chewed down Quarter Pounders, fries and chicken nuggets, leaving an hour later with an enormous belly ache for the nearby campsite.
We felt utterly washed out and suddenly the remaining 17km to Telkwa and it’s free cabin seemed impossible.
Our legs ached fiercely the following morning and we wandered around the big supermarket, loading up on everything we’d craved for the past few weeks, before pushing slower than an arthritic walrus out of town.
By mid-afternoon we were standing in front of John’s place, grinning like idiots. This prolific Warmshowers hosts offers up his modest cabin to cyclists (and all the park’s amenities of showers, wifi and laundry) for free, year-round and after hearing about it from other travellers we were ready to wet our pants with excitement.
We’d bought enough food to survive the apocalypse and planned to do little more than read, eat, sleep and binge-watch Game of Thrones for a solid three or four days in order to recover from the rain and hills of the Cassiar.
John was away on a bike tour but his daughter Jenny greeted us with popcorn and smiles, leaving us to lap up the kind of hospitality that had become the very highlight of our entire world trip.
Being in a warm bed, after a warm shower, after a warm meal of spaghetti bolognaise, was the kind of bliss that’s hard to describe and for the next two days we did little more but rinse and repeat.
Leaving after three days proved too tough and so we stayed another day – promising ourselves we’d do solid days to reach Prince George (just under 400km away) and then solid days to reach the US border before winter caught us.
We still had so many decisions to make, so many routes to plan and so many jobs to get done but that was all for another day.