We’ve been riding the Alaska Highway. It’s one of the great engineering feats of the north providing a land route from the south to Fairbanks, Alaska winding its way through northern British Columbia and the Yukon. It seems as if every town along it’s 2,446 km length has a museum or display devoted to “Alcan” (the Alaska-Canada Military Highway).
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the Americans worried that Alaska would be vulnerable to a Japanese invasion. With Canadian concurrence US Army engineers began construction of the highway linking the south to the north in March 1942. The work was completed in a record time of nine months. It involved 11,000 American troops, 16,000 civilians and7,000 of pieces of heavy equipment.
The incursion of so many American troops must have had a major impact on local communities, economically and socially. Often First Nation residents acted as guides to existing trails which served as markers for the highway route. Today, it’s hard to discern the lasting influence of the American war-time presence other than in curiosities like the sign forest in Watson Lake.
One home-sick GI who was erecting directional sign posts put up on showing the direction and mileage to his hometown of Danville, Illinois. Unknowingly, he started a trend with others knocking up signs to their hometowns. Today, it’s a heritage site with over 80,000 sign posts from all over the world.
It seems as if the lasting impact of the Alaska Highway has been to open up the north to tourism. As we bike along fleets of camper vans and RVs stream past us heading north to camp, hunt, and fish in the breath taking wilderness, lakes and rivers of northern BC and the Yukon. It’s a change from the previous two years. About half the camp/RV sites I cycle by are boarded up, collateral victims of Covid lockdowns.
Yet others seem to have been much less affected. At Tetsa River Services I speak to Gail, whose husband is the third generation of his family to run the campground and cabins. She is a tall, brassy blonde who doesn’t mince her words but always with a laugh. As she tells it she was a city gal whose life revolved around travel and cities, her father was CEO of an aviation company. Later she joined Procter & Gamble as product rep for northern BC.
“I was full corporate top to toe,” she says. “I was told I had to go see the cinnamon bun guy.” Tetsa had built up a reputation for a unique home-baked cinnamon bun. Gail imagined a shriveled homunculus stretching out dough in a smoky kitchen. When she called out for Ben a tall, strapping man appeared. “I’m Ben,” he says. Gail is startled and shouts out, “You’re not an effing dwarf.” She tells us, “God’s honour that’s what I said.” Years later she’s running the place with the man who is not a dwarf. She says their business didn’t take much of a hit during Covid. As for the cinnamon buns I can attest they were fresh out of the oven and superb, particularly welcome after cycling 100 km in drenching rain.
This has been my first week of full days back in the saddle after Covid and injuries. The first day was a big test of how well I’d recovered: 150 km of rolling hills. I felt pretty good. My shoulder was fine as long as I didn’t get up out of the saddle. I’ve been having some ongoing problems with lateral knee ache on my left leg, particularly on the uphill. It’s manageable and I’ve been able to tweak it by some MacGyvered arch support. About 15km from camp the skies opened and I got completely soaked. In camp I discovered that we couldn’t shower because the campground’s septic tanks were about to overflow. Happily, the rain eased off just enough to set up my tent before it poured again.
The next day was 123 km. For much of the morning I keep pace with a couple from Tasmania. David and Yvonne are about a decade younger and strong cyclists. I felt good being able to keep up with them. Shortly before our lunch stop we were held up by a traffic jam. A herd of about 40 bison—bulls, cows and calves—were jumping over the concrete barrier and crossing the road in single file. At the other side of the road a couple of the alpha males would stop and stare at us, assessing whether we posed a danger. Our lunch stop was by the Liard River Hot Springs. A balm for sore muscles! But we seem to have to pay for each degree of comfort. No sooner had I climbed into the saddle after lunch it began to rain heavily. We were riding through the northern extremity of the Rockies. Despite rain, aches and pains, and sore butts, there is wonder to be at an origin point of this legendary range. The rain lets up as I cycle down along the banks of one of the most beautiful lakes in the Rockies, Muncho.
From Muncho we pressed on to Tetsa, another 120+km. The day begins with coffee at 6:45. But for me to get ready I have to wake at 5:30 to decamp and pack my bag. I have dry biking kit with me but I can’t do anything about the bike shoes, which are sodden. That day I began to feel the cumulative impact of the mileage and climbing. My legs feel sluggish and unresponsive. I can no longer keep up with David and Yvonne. I wonder if I’ve tried to take on too much too soon. I contemplate stopping at lunch. There’s something in me that wants to see the week through to our rest day. I tell myself that I’ll take it pedal stroke by pedal stroke and see how far I can get.
I end up cycling with Deb, a Brit who has a do or die attitude to cycling. She’s not fast but she’s steady and determined. Much of the time I ride on my own. I love the meditative quality of being in the moment where the only thing that matters is the road and the immediate world about you. That day I was happy to be with Deb as we encouraged each other through one climb after another.
I was a faster climber. At one point I was waiting for her on the crest of a hill when I heard movement. I turned around to see a young black bear dart out of the bushes onto the road. It pulled up short evidently startled by the sight of me, as much as I was startled by him or her. (I wasn’t about to go sexing the bear.) We are about 10 feet apart. I have bear spray handy in my bottle mount on the fork but this bear was clearly not a threat. Within seconds the bear completed its dash to the other side of the road.
Rain seemed to have taken a liking to us. We were on the last big climb of the day, about three or four km with a five to nine per cent gradient. As we reached the summit the sky grew ominously dark. Within minutes I was like a drowned rat. The rain was hard like pellets. Once again, it stopped enough for me to set up my tent before opening up again right through the night.
The final day of the week was shorter, 113 km. The views through the mountains were spectacular. I thought this day is going to be easier, even though my left knee was acting up. There was only 40 km after lunch into Fort Nelson and much needed rest day. Then that old cycling law kicks is: for every relief there is an equal and opposite reaction of suffering. It was a tough slog into town with headwinds gusting to 40 km per hour trying to push us back to our starting point.
I made it. I had come out of the difficulties of my first couple of weeks. I was fairly depleted but I was rebuilding my strength. A rest day should be just enough to replenish me for the next push.