June 30, 2005 GMT
Top of the World (Highway), Ma!

I'm in Dawson City. Will post photos later; this is costing a fortune.

So I just get started towards Chicken when hail comes down the size of marbles. A truck pulls over to offer me a spot inside the double-cab for shelter. I gesture with a knock on the helmet that I'm protected. It was probably interpreted (correctly) as "I'm a knucklehead." They shake their heads and laugh and drive on. I take shelter under the bike, then a parked scraper, and wait it out.

The next day, not 20 miles up the Top of the World Highway, hail falls again, this time only small marble sized. Based on the heat of the early day in Chicken, I had decided to go with only jeans for the first time all trip. When you are traveling at 55 mph and marble sized hail hits your legs it's like someone coming the other way threw a bag of nails at you. Ouch. I'm laughing the whole time in my helmet, "Is that all you got?!" "Ow! Ow!" Lighting strikes the hills ahead of me. "Bring it on!" "Ow! Ow!" I pull over again to document the hail and ease the sting. Not sure if I'm safer from lightning when I ride or when I park.

The Top of the World Highway crosses into Canada along a 100 mile road winding along the crest of mountaintops 3500 to 4200 feet high. Think of riding the top of Mt. Diablo for 100 miles. Spectacular scenery and the road is solid enough to fly as fast as you like--with the occasional gravel curve for thrills. It is extremely dusty, and now that RV season is in fully swing the road is jammed with dust makers. So I come out of the rain and hail soaked, only to be covered in clouds of dust from passing RV's. It's like being in soaking wet clothes and being hit with a sack of flour. My poor air filter, changed just before the Dalton, the Denali (2x), and the Kennicott/McCarthy roads, is choked off again. It's supposed to go 20,000 between cleanings! That's a lot of dust my friends. Then sprinkles of rain and repeated dustings help seal the mixture into every fold of my gear. You could hit my jacket with a rug iron for a week and still get dust out of it.

Let me go back a bit. After the Dalton I rode out to Manley Hot Springs, then Chena Hot Springs, intending to go to the Top of the World and out back to Canada. But I ran into two BMW riders who loved the Denali Highway (134 miles of dirt back across the middle of Alaska toward Denali Park). I was still regretting missing the McCarthy road down by Valdez so I decided to do the Denali out and back in a day, then McCarthy the next. The Denali Highway was the best ride yet. You ride through another glacier carved valley looking at the Alaska range the whole way. Down in the valley below it is like something out of an African safari--miles of lakes, forests, fields, rivers, wildlife, etc. On the ride back I crossed a bridge over the river with a rainbow going right over my head, beginning and ending in the water on either side of me. No way to capture on film, but take my word for it, it was amazing. And I finally saw a grizzly bear! A small one, just chillin', looking for nuts and berries (or a pic-a-nic basket) about 40 to 50 yards away in the bush. I wouldn't have seen it but for the car coming the other way that had stopped to take photos. I was too late to get one myself. D'oh.

The McCarthy road first goes past the Copper River, where the uber-expensive copper red salmon are caught. The native peoples are allowed to build traps like water wheels that turned round and round from the sheer force of the river, scooping up any fish and sliding them out the side into baskets. I sampled a piece of cooked salmon, but the natives like to pepper and oil it so much you couldn't taste the salmon.

The road to the old Kennicott mine was the toughest of the trip. It follows the old railroad, and some old ties still stick up ready to claim tires if the potholes and loose gravel don't. I managed to survive but had to tighten everything down that night. Nearly shook everything off. So many tourists and vehicles made the dusty drive a chore. At the mine a road goes further up a spectacular glacier (Root), and the old mineshafts. The ranger turned me around and said I couldn't go up unless invited by someone who lives back there. Bummer. I wouldn't get to see what everyone bragged about. Quite a disappointing ride actually. The copper plant itself was amazingly well preserved.

The ride out to the Top of the World Highway and Canada goes through the town of Chicken, Alaska. This town has a bar, a mercantile, a restaurant and a gas station/cafe. Their claim to fame is the name of the town (no one could spell Ptarmigan, the legend says) and the t-shirts with eggs on them that read "I got laid in Chicken!" Not a flushing toilet in town, it is full of desperate gold miners still clinging to hope of gold. Pretty sketchy.

Dawson City in the Yukon Territories is a well preserved gold rush town with wooden boardwalks, saloons, can-can dancers, and a real turn-of the-Century feel. This is where Robert Service and Jack London spent time and where all those people coming from Skagway and Dyea were going. I feel like my journey has taken me to many of the same places in the same order. Those guys would scoff at how easy my trip has been by comparison. I intend to read more about the gold rush and re-read some Jack London classics, as well as visit Jack London Square in Oakland when I get back.

The Dempster Highway up to Inuviik, NWT is tempting and I may ride at least 50 miles up and back just to see the Tombstone mountains. But the shale on the side of the road is supposed to shred tires like arrowheads would. One trip above the Arctic Circle is enough for me, though Fort McPherson would have been a priceless photo (if anything is still there).

I ran into Robin, a Canadian who met up and rode with John the Snorer. John just thrashes his bike as you may recall from my last post. The latest John story was that his chain got so stretched, it was cutting into his swingarm, basically sawing through it. The tires were so bald you could see the air inside it, says Robin. Still John bombs along at 85 whenever possible. It is even money whether he made it to Whitehorse and a new chain and sprocket, says Robin. We took in the can-can show at Diamond Tooth Gertie's and played a little Red Dog at the casino. We broke even after 5 minutes being down and called it quits. The last thing we motorcycle adventure tourers like to do is take chances.

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Posted by James McPherson at June 30, 2005 01:05 AM GMT
 
 

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