On the road to Ross River I find improvement as I progress toward Ross River. The road seems to be slightly wider, slightly more well maintained and I think I can make a little better time. I round a corner and am surprised to find an industrial loader working on the road, moving some gravel around. I stop in at Lapie Lake to take a picture but my camera decides not to cooperate – a total refusal to focus. When I see the campsites and the lake I know I was better off at Quiet Lake.
The morning ride to Ross River takes about three and one half hours to cover the 80 km distance.
At Ross River I find out three important things.
Firstly, they do have gas. If the store is closed they have a cardlock where I can just insert my credit card and fuel up.
Secondly, tomorrow is Canada Day and the all the businesses in town will be closed for celebrations (but I can buy gas at the cardlock).
Thirdly, at Moose Creek, 147 km from Ross River, a contractor will be replacing the bridge and the road will be closed tomorrow morning.
It is now about one o’clock on June 30 so I have about 19 hours to get out to MacMillan Pass (232 km) and back to this side of Moose Creek (85 km) for a total of 317 km. Based on my progress this morning, I’m looking at about a 14 hour ride so it may be doable. I cross the Pelly River on a cable ferry and set off to the North West Territories on a road that follows the Ross River.
The North Canol is narrower and rougher than the South Canol. There are steeper hills, sharper corners, narrower bridges and maintenance appears much less regular. My bike, fully loaded with extra fuel is taking a real beating on some of these potholes. The bright side is that there seems to be more gravel on this road so if the rain should come, it may not slow me down much (although the roughness already does that).
Just past Dragon Lake (105 km) the rain I have been expecting arrives. I’ve watched the clouds thicken all afternoon and now they have started to spill their cargo. My progress slows in the rain mostly due to visibility issues. Ditches on the roadsides are full and begin to flow over the road. Approaching one of these spots I suddenly realize the watercourse is much deeper with a more abrupt channel than I had anticipated; I haven’t slowed enough. I stand up on the foot pegs increase my stability. The front wheel sinks into the channel that the water has eroded and my hands tighten instinctively on the grips. The front suspension compresses and bottoms out sending a jarring jolt up my forearms, into my elbows and biceps. A wave displaced by the front wheel and engine cases hitting the water washes over the bike and leaves a blinding film of mud on my faceshield. The front wheel hits the bank on the far side of the channel and I feel the rear wheel lighten then settle back as the front wheel pops up. Almost instantly the rear wheel hits that same ledge and bounces up. The weight of the whole motorcycle is on the front wheel wobbling from side to side under the stress. I fight to hold on to the bike. The rear tire contacts the ground sending a jolt through the footpegs to be absorbed by my knees and thighs. The suspension again compresses and I slam the toe of my boot onto the brake pedal trying desperately to scrub off speed. I feel the bike skidding but slowly I am able to bring it under control.
I progress toward the MacMillan pass and as the elevation increases it seems the rain intensity increases as well. Rounding a corner I pull to the side of the road to make room for a south bound road grader followed by a pickup truck. The road grader pulls to a stop beside by bike and the operator throttles the big machine back as he opens the door and pokes his head out. He advises that the bridge over Moose Creek is being closed and he is moving his machine south of that – I should make sure I am well back of that point by morning as well. Thanking him for his advice, I carry on.
My progress is quite slow now. The rain is heavy and visibility very poor. I reach the much photographed point along the road where surplus vehicles and equipment were left behind by the construction company who built the road over 60 years ago. I carry on without pause knowing my finicky camera will be no help in this downpour. I cross over another single lane wooden bridge.
I consider, as I ride, that I am now the last person on this road. Tomorrow morning, a bridge somewhere behind me will be removed and if I am not south of that bridge, I will be here for another ten days. I realize that as I progress into MacMillan Pass, the spectacular views I was riding to see, are totally obscured by thick low cloud and heavy rain. My progress is slower than I had anticipated and I’m thinking that I still have two to three hours to get to the NWT border. That means four to six hours to get back to this point and another hour to get back to where I can camp at Dragon Lake. Potentially another seven hours of riding for no views and more rain. I am wondering if the excessive rain I am experiencing will cause road washouts and what difficulty that might cause me. It is about 5 PM when I decide that I have gone as far up this road as I will go. Additional mileage will not produced anything different than what I am currently experiencing.
The ride back to Dragon Lake is uneventful with exception that I am developing a suspicion that my rear shock absorber may be compromised. The road is feeling a little rougher than it has in the past. There is more bounce and more bottoming when I can’t avoid the bumps. It may be time for new suspension when I return home.
The Dragon Lake pullout was recommended by the fellow I had camped beside last night. I had not seen any bear scat on the road coming here and could not find any as I checked the site carefully. The rain has slowed to showers and I decide to start supper (instant Backpacker “no cook” meal - just add boiling water and stir) before setting my tent. I’ll start that and set up my tent while the water does its magic inside the foil bag. We’ll see what curried lamb is like tonight.
I pull out my trusty twenty five year old single burner multi-fuel Coleman stove. For the first time I notice how the burner element is deteriorating with rust – poor old stove isn’t going to last much longer. Add some gas, close the lid and pump up some pressure. It worked perfectly the other night in Dawson, but today the pressure doesn’t build. I fiddle with it for a few minutes and realize that the pump seal is probably dried out and I have no spare –supper will be cold tonight. I add water to the bag and let it sit while I set up my tent. The mosquitoes are the worst I have seen on this trip and for the first time I break out my mosquito screen hat.
Cold “boil in a bag” is not the most appetizing. I wolf down about half of it, seal the rest, and put it in my tank bag with the rest of my snacks and food which I then hang from a tree to bear proof my camp. It’s only a bit after 7 PM when I climb into my tent, more to escape the mosquitoes than anything else.
In my tent, I reflect on my journey. I’ve done what I set out to accomplish physically. I’ve done the Dempster; explored the gold fields; ridden the Top of the World highway; and done as much of the Canol Road as possible. It’s time to head for home. This early start to the evening is not a bad thing. I can get a good rest and then my trip home (about 2,400 km) can maybe be one really long day or maybe two shorter days depending on how long it takes to get out of Ross River and down to Watson Lake (the only two gravel components I have left to go). I force myself to sleep. If tomorrow is going to be a really long day, I will need all the sleep I can get tonight.
My tent and sleeping bag are very comfortable. I doze for a while and fall into a deeper sleep. Occasionally I wake up to the sound of rain thrumming on the tent but as far as I know, I stay dry (glad I got the tent set up between showers). I sleep more and quite deeply but suddenly, I am awake. I heard a sound or something unusual has awoken me. I lie very still and listen….is that a scratching sound outside? Something sniffing? I think I can hear something but I’m not sure. I lie very still…if it is a curious bear should I make a lot of noise now or wait until it paws and sniffs at my tent? If I make a lot of noise now will that scare the bear off or will it be more curious about what is making noises inside that green blob? I can almost hear my heart beating. I’m beginning to become quite sure there is a bear outside and I’m not sure what to do about it. Something scratches closer to the tent….I’m sure I hear something sniffing…..and there is a strange odour in the air. It must be a bear, that smell is horrible. Despite my terror I find myself drifting off to sleep again…that smell is still there and still horrible…and as I’m drifting in and out of sleep, I relax….and I begin to wonder….if the noise that woke me up, and that horrible odour, might not just be an after affect of my cold lamb curried rice that I had for my supper. That lamb curried rice…the taste is still there in the back of my throat, pretty sure it’s on my breath…and there is that rumbly feeling…..
Morning eventually arrives and I step out of my tent carefully surveying the ground around my camping site….not a single animal track anywhere. This was another example of how the mind can “play tricks” on a person and make you believe in a “reality” that does not exist. I was once again reminded how fear can create things in the mind much greater than what may or may not exist.
My timing is about right to catch an early ferry ride across back across the Pelly so I pack the bike up and ride off down the road. The rain has stopped but sky remains heavy with clouds. The road back is no better than it was on the way up but I arrive at the ferry crossing in reasonable time only to find it sitting across the river with a couple of vehicles waiting to board. I see someone walking across the pedestrian suspension bridge that parallels the ferry route. I pull my helmet off to wait.
“Happy Canada Day.” I hear his voice before I get a good look at him. “Yes, and to you.” I respond.
“The ferry is not running.”
“Why not?” I ask.
He shrugs. I find out that there was a party in town last night and they can’t find the ferry operator. The ferry won’t run until they can find him.
As is turns out, I’m talking to an employee of the Yukon Department of Highways. He is here to supervise the replacement of the bridge at Moose Creek but can’t get there until the ferry runs. We’re headed in opposite directions, trapped by the ferry across the river that doesn’t run. As it turns out, I did not need to be concerned about getting back to this side of Moose Creek, that bridge won’t be coming out today after all.
It is noon before they can find someone to operate the ferry but when he goes to start it, the battery is dead and attempts to boost it are unsuccessful (reminiscent of my own experience at Whitehorse). “Have to bring in a mechanic from Whitehorse,” the ferry operator advises gravely. “It’s about five hours if we can find him.”
The Highways Supervisor tells me even the hotel in town is closed (and the cardlock at the gas pump doesn’t work so even a gas purchase is impossible). He has a room but the hotel manager is having a day off so he’s not sure if there are any other rooms available. I make my way up to the hotel and the Highways guy finds the manager who is happy to set me up with a room. The hotel guy suggests I might want to book for three or four days and get a multiday discount. “How is anyone going to find a government mechanic on a Canada Day Friday? – ferry probably won’t run until Monday.” I book for one night. It’s warm and dry here, I’ll figure out my next move tomorrow.
Mid afternoon, I wander down to get a few more things from my bike and as I approach the pedestrian bridge, I see the ferry is running. I am overjoyed! My bike comes across the river at the first opportunity and as it now late in the day and I’ve paid for the night, I will stay in Ross River and leave in the morning.
To pass the time, I do a bit of maintenance on my bike and notice, to my horror, the rear brake pad linings are completely used up. From what I can see, any application of the rear brake will result in metal to metal contact. My ride home will be with a broken rear shock absorber and no rear brakes….should be an interesting ride!