The Washington Times - August 8, 2008, 10:26PM

The Spell of the Yukon

(excerpted from the poem by Robert Service)


There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth – and I’m one.

Riding the Tundra (Photo by John Vogel )

Robert Service (1874-1958) was right – this is the “cussedest land I’ve seen.”  After pedaling 1200 miles through Alaska and the Yukon, I can honestly say I finally understand the allure of the far north.  I “get” why people are so captivated with this area. 

Mountains extending to the heavens and valleys so deep they seem to descend to the depths of the earth…  Crystal clear, bright blue skies one minute and pouring rain the next…  Moose, bears and beavers…  It’s a life so foreign to the one I know and yet so appealing I can imagine the day I drop everything to move here.

It’s hard to believe it was a mere five weeks ago that my husband, John, and I stood in the shop of the Arctic Caribou Inn in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the shores of the ice-covered Arctic Ocean about to attempt a feat that had never been done – bike the Alaskan Dalton Highway with ten-year-old twins, and then continue on southward. 

I surveyed the enormous pile of gear strewn about our feet and wondered, once again, if we had planned well enough.  Adequate rain gear?  Check.  Appropriate warm clothing?  Check.  Tent, sleeping bags, and stove?  Check, check, check.  Sufficient food?  Maybe check.

Originally called the Haul Road and built in the 1970’s to provide access to the oil pipeline and pumpstations, the Dalton Highway is now open to the public.  The 414 miles of the Dalton, most of which are gravel, are traversed on a regular basis by many large trucks, a few RVs, some motorcycles, and an occasional bicycle.

Even for adult bicyclists in impeccable condition, the Dalton Highway is a major challenge.  We could expect a grand total of three restaurants between the Arctic Ocean and Fairbanks 500 miles away.  There were no grocery stores, health clinics, or bike stores. 

The Vogel Family outside the Arctic Caribou Inn

Everything we would need had to be stashed, lashed, or buckled onto our bikes.  All food, all clothing, all bike parts, everything needed to be carried with us.  Was it even possible for the kids to do it?  We were about to find out.

We felt doubly blessed as we pedaled away from Prudhoe Bay – not only were we cycling under clear blue skies (a rarity for the north slope), but an awesome tailwind pushed us southward.  We rolled through the Arctic tundra, gazing at wonder at caribou grazing beside the road and at the sheer simplicity of the tundra itself.

In many ways, it seemed as though we had been transported to another planet as we pedaled through the tundra’s vast treeless prairie.  In the far north, there are simply not enough days of sunlight for trees to grow.  Trees use the sun’s energy for photosynthesis, but with so few days of sunlight, they simply cannot grow.  For us, that translated to no shade or place to take shelter.  With the tallest plants a mere twelve inches tall, there was no place to escape the elements at all.

Our journey began in the land of the midnight sun and we promptly lost all track of time.  Gone were the watches and clocks that had controlled our lives for so long, and we relied only upon our own body rhythms to tell us when it was time to set up our tent for the night.  After a full day of cycling on the rough surface of the Dalton Highway, sleeping was no problem – even if the sun was shining all night long.

On our seventh day we crossed the treeline, and entered back into the earth we were familiar with.  Sure, the spruce trees were a bit stunted from the short days and severe cold, but they were trees – those comfortable, familiar things we were used to.  Within the span of less than one mile, we went from no trees at all, to being surrounded. 

The Family on Bikes (Photo by John Vogel

As soon as we reached that point where there were enough days with sunlight for trees to grow, they thrived. Three hundred miles from where we started, we crossed the Arctic Circle, which meant the sun would finally set.  It didn’t, however, mean darkness would come soon.  It wasn’t until we were a good six hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle that darkness would finally arrive.  Until then, we lived according to our own bodily rhythms, sleeping when we felt like it and not bothering with clocks.

The Dalton Highway was not constructed with ease of traveling in mind; it was meant to be a supply route only.  For that reason, the engineers made no effort to create gentle grades or take into consideration the lay of the land.  They simply pointed their compasses north and built the road over whatever lay in their way.  We climbed up absurdly overgrown and ridiculously steep hills only to plummet wildly down the other side – day after day after day.

Fourteen days after we set out, we reached the end of the Dalton and celebrated on the side of the road with banana cream pie and chocolate.  We had done it!  We had conquered the Dalton!  We still had many miles to go, but had triumphed over our first major hurdle.

After the challenges of the Dalton, we looked forward to relative ease and relaxation as we cycled the Alaska Highway toward Canada.  The road, lined with a seemingly perfectly smooth surface after the rough dirt surface we had encountered on the Dalton, made for easy pedaling and smooth sailing.  For miles we paralleled the Alaska Range and marveled at the jagged, snow-capped peaks standing out in stark contrast to the clear blue skies overhead.

Although the difficult cycling of the Dalton had been left behind, the remoteness had not.  It would be six hundred miles from Fairbanks to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territories, with a grand total of three small settlements in between.  After that we could look forward to a 1000-mile trek to Prince George.  The four of us camped on the side of the road each night, filtered water out of streams every day, and ate food I diligently stashed in my trailer every chance I had..

Wildlife was a continual concern as we cycled through the rugged wilderness.  Although we looked forward to sighting animals during the days, we did our best to avoid them at night.  One night, however, we were awakened by the crack of a branch and rustling of some type of feet in the brush a few feet from my head.  John and I sat up in panic, wondering which brand of animal it was – a bear?  A moose?  A fox? 

The long road ahead…or back.

In the end, we realized we had no way of knowing what kind of animal it was, but were happy it had passed on.  We redoubled our efforts at making our campsites as bear-proof as we could.

Each evening I packed all our food, toothpaste, and everything else with a scent into drybags (waterproof bags, which are also nearly completely airtight) and placed them well away from our tent.  At no time did any food come near our tent, and we did our absolute best to keep all food smells off our bodies.  We stopped early in the day to cook and clean the dishes at a stream, then cycled a few more miles before setting up camp each eveing.

Day after day, we pedaled through remote, rugged wilderness. At times enormous mountains towered thousands of feet above us, while at other times we pedaled along the shores of beautiful glacial lakes.  Moose grazed on the banks of ponds, bears crossed the road in front of us, and beavers played in rivers below us as we took breaks on bridges.

Five weeks after pedaling away from Prudhoe Bay, we arrived into Whitehorse 1200 miles away.  As we entered Whitehorse (population 20,000) I felt like I was leaving a part of my heart behind in the remote wilderness.  Alaska and Yukon are like no place on earth, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to spend this time in the special place. 

I know, as did Robert Service, that I’ll be back.