Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
Bookmark and Share

The motorcycle diaries

An MD and his wife become one with the road — and the bugs — on a bike trip to the Yukon

Last year, my wife Jenny and I began planning a trip from our BC home to Whitehorse by motorcycle — certainly, not everyone's idea of a summer holiday. At the time, we were in Laguna Seca, California attending the World Superbike Races for our 25th anniversary, an event even less likely to top lists for silver wedding anniversaries, I suspect.

A month prior to the trip to California, I had surprised my wife with the purchase of a BMW 650GS motorcycle, lipstick red, with heated grips, ABS and other add-ons; a perfect match to my silver BMW 1150GS.

Our many trips down the West Coast, much of them on gravel backroads, had inspired us to dream up future journeys — across Canada, even across Europe and New Zealand. Tempering our flights of fancy, we settled on a round-trip to the Yukon. We'd have adventure but within the confines and comforts of country, culture and language.

We gave ourselves three weeks and, using the Internet, crafted an itinerary with an estimated daily mileage and a list of "places not to miss." We left a few days' leeway for the inevitable mishaps that come with rough roads, fickle weather and the interaction between human and machine.

We loaded up our bikes with clothes, maps, a two-person tent, nice fluffy, (albeit bulky) sleeping bags, our favourite pillows, and an assortment of reading material, and we headed off on a bright Sunday morning looking like a couple of gypsies.

Our first destination was Tofino, where we had gone on our honeymoon. A colleague had worked there for many years and kept a beach house. We pitched our tent on a small platform down by the water. As it happened, the tall ships had come to town and we enjoyed a picnic with an entrée of freshly caught crab while watching the ships sail by in the evening.

The next morning was my 50th birthday, and Jenny and I breakfasted at the lovely Wickinninish Inn where she gave me my birthday present (a two-day racing course at Freddie Spencer's Racing School in Las Vegas) before heading off on the next leg of the trip.

The Case of the Exploding Camper
After overnighting near Campbell River, we headed north on a spectacular and twisty highway to Port Hardy, where we were to board a ferry for Prince Rupert. Just outside Port Hardy, we passed a few black bears by the side of the road, rounded a curve and encountered mayhem.

Strewn across the road were soup cans, bungee cords, plastic buckets and other assorted treasures which had fallen out of a "beater" camper which, in turn, had fallen off a matching "beater" pickup truck. Two old, grizzled fishermen, who looked like they had come from two weeks in the bush, were struggling to get the camper back on the truck. I quickly parked my motorcycle off the highway and joined in the effort. After we managed to topple the camper back into the bed of the truck, we got back onto the bikes and coasted in to our B&B in Port Hardy.

The next morning our Teutonic hostess roused us unceremoniously at 5am, as we had requested, fed us a hearty breakfast, and we were off to the boat. We made ourselves comfortable for the long ferry ride up the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert as we passed countless islands and inlets, First Nations fishing villages and logging operations. Due to "mechanical problems" on the ferry, we arrived about two hours late, thankful for having reserved in advance at the Pillsbury B&B where a friendly, bleary-eyed hostess opened her door at 1:30am.

We had been a bit nervous about this establishment as the owner boasted a serenade with breakfast. The next morning, I anxiously waited for the screech as she set up her microphone and turned on the canned accompaniment music. But we were both delighted to listen to a very good imitation of Edith Piaf while we tucked into our coffee and breakfast quiche.

Rough Riders
As we left Prince Rupert, we felt that we were truly starting the adventurous part of our trip. We were in unfamiliar territory as we looked at the map and decided on a route that would take us along the Nisga'a Highway through a superbly desolate stretch of lava fields.

This was our first encounter on the trip with rough road. We learned to stand on the footpegs and wheel around rocks and potholes at increasing speeds, our confidence growing with experience. After a couple of encounters with bears, one a mother with her cub sauntering across the road, we considered ourselves well initiated into backroad travelling.

The road into Stewart is one of the most stunning routes in BC — and we've ridden many. We travelled over smooth, twisty asphalt through tight valleys and mountains crowding around us. Subalpine flora and glaciers nearly touched the road — it was even better than we had imagined.

Stewart itself is a modest port at the end of a narrow inlet reaching well into the mainland. As we we camped that night, we were reminded that the weather could turn wet: it poured through the early morning hours and we bundled up our tent and gear while the rain came down. We negotiated a quick, slippery and muddy trip into Hyder, Alaska to look for grizzly bears before heading back to the highway.

The Stewart-Cassiar Highway is about 600 kilometres of mixed paved and gravelled road. Much of it travels through pristine, barely populated areas of forest and mountains. We pulled into a picnic spot for a lunch break, congratulating ourselves on the amount of riding we had done to that point and imagined ourselves to be seasoned riders when we heard some motorcycles pull in.

Chatting with the riders, we learned that they were a year and a half into their trip which had begun in Patagonia. They were hoping to make Inuvik before the first snow. Appropriately, humbled, we continued up the highway in spotty weather.

 

Whenever we ride, we try to alternate taking the lead and, when Jenny was in front, I noticed her bike squirming around a bit. Initially I chalked it up to the slippery mixof gravel and rain. I waited until we came to some pavement and noticed that the back end of the bike was not travelling "true." I passed her and waved her over.

Sure enough, her rear tire was punctured; by this time she had probably ridden at least 15 minutes on a flat tire. Efforts to fix it were futile: I had a great kit for tubeless tires for my bike but her tire was the tube-type and the effort to get the tire off, patch the tube, reinstall and inflate it was more than our equipment and skills could handle.

An old Texan on a fully dressed Harley- Davidson stopped to help us (he was riding 1000 kilometres from Watson Lake to Prince George that day) but this repair

was simply not happening. We had no choice but to continue riding. Looking at the map we were probably in the worst spot possible on the Cassiar — many kilometres from anywhere.

We limped into the Tatogga Lake Resort, south of Dease Lake, having ridden 50 kilometres of gravel and 30 kilometres of pavement in vicious rain, the drops coming down so hard they bounced off the road.

We had to wait three days for a tire to be trucked in, but those days ended up being one of the best parts of the trip. We spent time hiking around the local mountains, watching videos and reading in a small cabin with a wood stove.

Two days and 700 kilometres later, we finally pulled into Whitehorse. Our motorcycles had collected major amounts of mud and insects, which also seemed to have insinuated themselves into our hair and clothes. We decided to treat ourselves to a night in the "executive suite," at the High Country Inn and then poked around town, happening on a street fair complete with magic crystals, potions and "alternative art" as well as an enthusiastic group of buskers. Heading back to our luxurious digs with a bottle of Merlot, we soaked off some of our collected grime and slept soundly on the king-sized bed.

Because of our mishap near Tatogga Lake, we were forced to cut our time in the Whitehorse area down to one night and then double back on the Alaska Highway towards Watson Lake. We dawdled around the visitor's information building, which is famous for its thousands of signposts but found the town itself somewhat lacking in character and decided to push towards Liard Hotsprings.

Alpha Males and Buffalo Bulls
We were exhausted when we pulled into the campgrounds after 800 kilometres of riding — our longest day — only to find it full. We had no other option but to set up our tent in a gravel parking lot across the road; we were surprisingly cosy on our Thermarest mattresses with our flannel sleeping bags zipped together.

The next morning, after a sinful high-cholesterol breakfast, we rode into the campground and, for only $5 each, had access to the hotsprings along a lovely boardwalk through forest and across some bogs. If you ever come close to Liard, go to the hotsprings. The design is such that you can choose to bathe in temperatures ranging from tepid to impossibly hot.

At the hot end of the pool were some boulders. I noticed small piles of rocks on top of them and asked one of the other bathers what they were. He challenged me to pick a rock off the bottom of the creek and place it on one of the boulders. I got within a couple of metres before deciding that it probably wasn't worth second-degree burns to mark my macho achievement and abandoned my effort for the cooler end of the pond.

One of the most impressive aspects of riding down the Alaska highway is that of travelling for long periods of time and seeing little but trees and mountains. It still seemed quite pristine until a couple of hours from Fort St. John where every few hundred metres there were straight swaths of bush cut for the search for oil and gas, creating what must seem an intricate grid from the air.

At one point, we noticed a small, furry, dark dot on the side of the road which grew rapidly larger as we cruised the pavement at 130 kilometres/hour. It turned out to be our first sighting of a buffalo. This one was a lonely bull who was trudging on the gravel shoulder from who knows where to who knows where. I followed his hoofprints back for many kilometres before they turned into the bush.

Further down the road we encountered a herd of his kin. They were scattered across the highway, blocking about 10 vehicles by the time we arrived. One particularly imposing fellow in the middle of the road was silently intimidating a motor home, the driver of which was not about to challenge him. This bull appeared to be the alpha male and made Mike Tyson look like a choir boy. After watching the staring contest for a few minutes we gently eased past this big boy, giving him a wide berth, and carried on down the highway.

We had put in another long day and were starting to look anxiously for a place to stay. We noticed a number of dots on the map before Fort St. John and wondered if any would have accommodations. One of the dots marked a small place called Sikanni Chief, which showed a lodging symbol on the map. Pulling in we found a small cafÄ and some huts which had definitely seen better days.

The next town, another half hour or so away, was called Pink Mountain and we asked the young lady at the caféwhat kind of accommodations we could expect there. We were somewhat incredulous when she answered that she had no idea what was there. To think that in her seemingly contracted world, in a town of about 20, she wouldn't be aware of any details of a hamlet twice the size a few kilometres down the road amazed us. Shaking our heads we decided to take our chances in Pink Mountain, finding only a small, mud-encrusted hotel, fully occupied by oil field workers.

A couple of tired bikers, we pulled into Fort St. John late in the evening and found a suitable hotel, close to the end of the Alaska Highway. While unloading the luggage I smelled the multitude of dead bugs sizzling on my oil cooler, noted again the spectacularly mud-encrusted pair of motor-cycles and thought about future trips — New Zealand, Patagonia, Europe? All are possible, we just have to want to do it badly enough.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments