Like many Canadians, I’m quietly proud of the wild territory that looms in our North. Perhaps we don’t think about the Arctic all that much, but sometimes it whispers to us from the back of our minds, “I’m here,” and we get goose bumps. After all, we are the True North, strong and free. Yet most of us live huddled against our southern border with the U.S. like so many field mice against a hot water pipe. We don’t want to be Americans, you see, but sometimes we want their climate.
Yet, the Arctic calls. For me, it was never a question of whether or not I’d venture north of the 60th parallel, but when. I’ll do it someday, I told myself. Someday.
Then it dawned on me that none of us know how many “somedays” we have left. Even now, at the age of 43, I’m fairly sure there are more “somedays” behind me than “somedays” that lay ahead. Another certainty: every time I missed the short weather window for riding motorcycles in the north, I missed an entire year. Simple math, really, but this year it hit home.
RIDING WITH FRIENDS
It hit home because my friend, Nevil Stow, was planning a ride to the Arctic this summer as a memorial to his brother Andy, who had recently died. Thus, on a wintery night in Canmore, Alberta, while drinking margaritas (as usual) with Nevil in his warm garage, I decided I would join him on his trip.
Actually, I probably slurred that I wanted to, “(expletive deleted) go to the (expletive deleted) Arctic with you (Expletive deleted).” This is why I have a phone case with a quote from Hemingway that reads, “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That’ll teach you keep your mouth shut.” Well, following that advice has taught me nothing.
Anyway, tagging along on Nevil’s trip would be easy. Nevil had made most of the arrangements already, including assembling a small team. Joining us would be Nevil’s cousin, Nick Carter, who was flying in from England for the trip. Nick normally rode a Harley-Davidson, as he reminded almost everyone with whom he spoke, but for this trip he would take a borrowed BMW R1200 GS. Nick was a stocky man, heavily tattooed, with a shaved head and a grey beard. He had all the swagger and mannerisms of badass biker, but he was funny, and easy to have around.
Then there was Dave Booth, who lived in Canmore. Standing next to Nick, Dave looked like someone had fastened a T-shirt to an assembly of yardsticks. Dave is a former long distance runner and extreme alpinist who served in Britain’s Royal Air Force. His mental catalogue of lewd jokes and ditties is astonishing, and he would have us alternately laughing or cringing at nearly every stop. He would be riding his own BMW R1200 GS.
And let’s not forget Nevil, himself. Nevil walks with a bowlegged strut, shoulders pushed back, chest out, unruly hair blowing about, and usually casting a smile through a reddish-grey goatee. For this trip, he would be riding an old, but well-maintained, Suzuki DR650 named Twiggy – the same machine that he used to ride a lap around the world in 2013.
Together, on a warm June day, the four of us set off from Canmore, with me astride my overburdened Kawasaki KLR650. It was overburdened because Nevil made me bring spare tires. Although, yes, I did use them during the trip, I’m pretty sure that Nevil made me bring tires so that I could not bring my guitar. The last time he heard me play, I only knew “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” and he refuses to allow that I’ve progressed in the past two years.
The bike was also overburdened because I must haul litres of spare engine oil. Even riding annoyingly slow and holding up the team, my 2008 KLR would demand eight litres of oil over the course of our 8,000-kilometre round trip (not counting an oil change). I could get the rings fixed, but I prefer treating the symptoms rather than the problem – the same policy I apply to every aspect of my life.
Our route, as mapped out by Nevil, would take us from Canmore, Alberta (near Calgary), through Jasper, Alberta and Smithers, BC, then north along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway to Watson Lake in Yukon. From there, we would travel through Whitehorse, Dawson City, up and over the Top of the World Highway past Chicken, Alaska to Fairbanks, and, finally, north again along a mud road that thinks it’s a highway, the Dalton Highway, to Coldfoot, Alaska, just north of the Arctic Circle.
ON THE ROAD
Cobalt skies, teal lakes, and aqua-blue glaciers punctuated our short ride to Jasper, where we camped at the Wapati Provincial Campground. It was this first night that I became aware of two problems:
- My teammates were English or, in Dave’s case, had spent so much time in England as to adopt the mannerisms of an Englishman. This meant that I would spend most of my time around the campfires befuddled. Technically, we all spoke the same language, but they said things like, “Bog roll,” “Wizard prang,” and “My mother was billeted at Cranwell.” Utter nonsense.
- Although these men were older than me, they could all drink booze like CFL offensive linemen. And they would still be up at 6 AM, packed and loaded by 7, and ready to ride by 7:30. Actually, they could be ready much sooner if they weren’t all trying to pretend like they weren’t in a hurry.
Problem number two became obvious one day when shouting outside my tent jolted me awake. The previous night had been one of excessive libation, one in which I had wandered off to scale an iron bridge along the highway. When my whiskey bottle fell out of my pocket (like Maverick, I had been “inverted”), and tumbled, bouncing off the bridgework onto the riverbank below, I suddenly realized that this – this – is exactly how drunken people die. I climbed back down and joined my friends at the fire.
Anyway, I awoke the next day to shouting: “Jeremy! Time to get up!” someone called. I poked my head out of the tent to see the trio had already broken camp, packed, eaten breakfast, and donned their motorcycle gear. It was 7:30, after all. This meant that, although we were all physically in the same location, they were at least an hour ahead of me. That was a lesson to us all. From then on I would set an alarm, and if I ever did oversleep (which never happened again), they would try a little harder to wake me, and sooner.
In spite of Nevil’s nearly constant reminders that “it always rains on the Cassiar Highway, gentlemen,” we rode the full length of the Cassiar Highway in nearly perfect weather, rolling through vast swaths of burned timber, to reach Watson Lake and the famous Signpost Forest. After snapping a few obligatory photos, the following exchange occurred between Nevil and me. I include it here simply to illustrate how infuriating a travel partner I can be, not due to a head injury as it would seem, but due to my inability to pay attention when people are speaking … especially when I’m doing the math to figure out if I need fuel or not.
“Where’s the next fuel stop?” I said.
“Rancheria Lodge,” Nevil replied.
“How far is that?”
“Maybe 150 kilometres.”
“And what’s the place called?”
“And how far is it?”
“So, maybe 150 kilometres, more or less.”
“I’m sorry. What’s it called?”
“And … so, it’s like …”
“Okay. And, this place … it’s called what now?”
At this point, Nevil threatened to push over my motorcycle and rugby tackle me.
Running west, we stopped at Rancheria Lodge for fuel (“what’s this place called?” I shouted to Nevil as we pulled up). We snapped down a quick meal before pushing on to Teslin. There we rolled across a long iron bridge deck. These metal grate bridges hum and whine beneath your tires and cause your machine to off-track a bit, giving one the feeling of riding in sand. They’re safe enough, though, and if you can relax, you can glance down past your feet and see the water directly below.
Finally, we arrived at Whitehorse, Yukon, where we camped at Takhini Hot Pools for two nights. This would be our first rest day after more than 2,000 kilometres, and we spent it touring the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre where they have impressive Woolly Mammoths on display.
PICKLED IN DAWSON
Our next rest day occurred in Dawson City. Unlike Whitehorse, with its big box stores and modern feel, Dawson City feels more like the stereotype of gold rush north country, with grey boardwalks and wide, dirt streets. The shops, bars, and hotels feature wood siding and squared-off facades with hand-painted signs.
A free ferry churned against the swift current of the Yukon River, carrying us crablike across the water to the Yukon River Campground where we stayed for two nights. The first night, around the campfire, I made it very clear to everyone that, no, I did not intend to get up at 6 AM to go for a ride. Not at all, in fact. Was I sure? Yes. Getting up at six and riding is what we had been doing every day since leaving Canmore. No, on this day I intended to sleep in and, to my surprise, the guys allowed it. The next day, although I did hear the motorcycles start up, I enjoyed a wonderful morning snoozing and reading.
When I finally rolled out of my tent, I wandered back to the ferry, crossed the river and strolled into town. There I found the real gem of the Yukon. I had been told to track down a little bar colloquially known as “The Pit,” and I was not disappointed.
Located on the ground floor of the pink, clapboarded Westminster Hotel, The Pit is the epitome of a dive bar. It’s clean, though, and populated with characters that would fit into any poem by Robert W. Service. The ceiling and floors slope in all directions (even when you’re sober), and old paintings in mismatched frames decorate the walls between the stuffed heads of one animal or another.
It was at The Pit that I began my search for the best Caesar in Dawson City, and I had my work cut out. By the time the guys caught up with me late in the afternoon, I had walked to about six or eight bars, and I was back at The Pit. From there we went to the Sourdough Saloon for a Sourtoe Cocktail, a strange beverage consisting of any hard liquor (usually Yukon Jack) and garnished with a mummified human toe. If you wish to join the “Sourtoe Cocktail Club” (and who doesn’t?) there is only one rule: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe.”
OVER TO ALASKA
The next day we crossed into Alaska via the Top of the World Highway. This high elevation, northern track is only open in the summer, and even then, snow can remain in shady hollows along the way much of the year. It started to rain as we crossed the border, and the gravel path got slick, but we made it to the paved road at Tok, Alaska, without mishap.
After a night in Fairbanks, we rode north again along the Dalton Highway, finally closing in on our goal of reaching the Arctic Circle. The Dalton changed quickly from asphalt to gravel and we found it in slick, muddy condition, which is not unusual. My bike was still overburdened with spare tires and litres of oil, so I suffered through several sphincter-clenching moments each hour as my front tire slipped out in the mud. Sometimes a track would catch your wheel and you’d just have to go where the track took you, and sometimes the mud was too soft to leave tracks, and that made turning become a chore as well. But we all kept up on our wheels.
As I took up the rear, visibility was the real problem. Each bike in front of me, and every other passing vehicle, lifted a gritty spray into the air that seemed to hang just long enough to attach itself to my visor. With no choice but to wipe it clear so I could see, I left hundreds of horizontal scratches in the plastic. After an hour or so, I was peering out through a clear patch about the size of a credit card.
Swiping across my visor yet again, I noticed a sign warning motorists against stopping on the long E. L. Patton Bridge over the Yukon River. The bridge slopes down across the water and its deck is made of wood. In these conditions, the signs were unnecessary because stopping would have been impossible. Again, my front tire slipped out a few times and, when I geared down to scrub some speed, my rear tire began to skid. It seemed like we were on a frictionless plane and the only thing keeping us upright was the centrifugal force of our wheels.
The road and the weather improved somewhat after the bridge, and we made good time through the rolling landscape of boreal forest, Arctic meadows, and mountains. And then, just south of our intended campsite in Coldfoot, Alaska (pop. 10), we found the little pullout that marks the 60th Parallel: the Arctic Circle.
We rolled in and parked our bikes in front of the sign. Like the Englishmen they were, handshakes were proffered with modest congratulatory remarks, and we shared a few laughs while snapping photos before getting serious for a moment.
This was a memorial ride, after all, and it was time to toast the departed.
Nevil’s brother Andy had been a teetotaler for most of his life, but when the tumor that grew in his brain began affecting his personality, he suddenly and inexplicably began drinking spiced rum. And so, Nevil produced a bottle of spiced rum here at the Arctic Circle, toasted his brother, and poured out a portion into the mud.
Then we all took a swig from the bottle as our thoughts turned to mortality and, in this moment, of how good it was to be alive. We also found ourselves wishing so hard that Andy had chosen a different libation in his final days. That rum was horrible.
All that remained now was to reach Coldfoot, set up camp and get some food. That night we discussed our options. We had heard from other riders that the road north to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, the final stop on the Dalton Highway, was under construction and in extremely poor condition. It would probably take us three days to get up there, take some photos of a few ATCO trailers, and backtrack to Coldfoot. In the end, we decided that reaching the Arctic Circle was the real prize, and that pushing on just to say we had reached the end of the road wouldn’t be worth it. We could put those three days to better use on some of our favourite roads in B.C.
The next day we packed up, me still carrying my spare tires, and headed south. We stopped again at the rest area with the Arctic sign, but we only paused briefly. I looked down at the spot where Nevil had poured out some rum and I reflected on the motivation for this trip.
I didn’t know Nevil’s brother, and I probably would have joined Nevil and the guys even if it hadn’t been a memorial ride – as I’ve said, the Arctic calls – but embarking on an adventure because of a death gives both the adventure and the death extra meaning. Parting with loved ones is sad, but it serves as a powerful reminder to live life.
Every time I lose a friend, or someone dear to my heart loses someone, I’m reminded that I’m running out of “somedays,” even as my list of things to do gets longer. At some point, my list will be impossible to complete, so it’s wise to chip away at it while I can.
One day, instead of someone handing me the bottle, someone will pour my portion out onto the ground. I only hope that it’s horrible whiskey that makes everyone wince and suck air through their teeth.
Here’s to the departed. Now let’s go for a ride.
With his motorcycle, Kroeker has traveled to 30 countries while managing to do at least one outrageously stupid thing in every one. He has evaded police in Egypt, tasted teargas in Israel, scrambled through minefields in Bosnia and Lebanon, and wrangled a venomous snake in Austria. One time he got a sliver in El Salvador.
Twitter, Instagram: @Jeremy_Kroeker