July 18, 2009
We woke to a bright and sunny morning. We were packed and on our way by 9AM. We arrived in Chicken at 10:30AM. We made the requisite stop in “downtown” Chicken. We ate a huge breakfast at the Chicken Creek Café. We bought a few souvenirs and took photos as proof of our passing this way. We checked out the Pedro gold dredge nearby that is being reconditioned for tours.
While we were doing our tourist thing. Jim struck up a conversation with an older fellow who had been at Denali a week earlier. We began to tell him about our other rider who had broken off from us. We told him about his strange approach to riding and how he was into high mileage days. The gentleman then said he had met this guy at Denali. He described him to a tee. Saying he was on a bike like ours only a different color, how he was retired, and how he was all about how many miles he could on his bike in a day. Yep, that was Captain Kill Switch. He agreed that he thought the lone rider was a bit unusual in his approach to touring Alaska. Talk about a small world. We had run into Captain Kill Switch twice after parting ways on the fourth day. Now we had met another person who had also met him and formed the same opinion of him.
I spoke to a local who rode in on a small bore Yamaha dirt bike wearing a large bore handgun strapped to his chest. He was on his way to visit a friend who was a gold miner who lived 75 miles down a dirt path outside of Chicken. I asked him if he carried any tools to fix a flat. He said he did not. I thought how it would generally suck to have to walk 40 miles or more to get home if he had a flat.
We motored out of Chicken toward the Top of the World Highway and the Canadian border. There was a stream running by the road where some people were panning for gold. The stream was drying up and all the locals were remarking how dry the area had become. The road became pot holed and had long areas of corduroy ripples making the ride very difficult and rough.
Just west of the Canadian border we were aware of being on top of a mountain range with no tree coverage. The combination of northern latitude and high altitude combined to put us above the tree line. As we reached the border the sky turned dark and a few drops of rain began. I took the time to go into the customs office to rearrange my gear out of the rain.
Immediately after we entered Canadian territory the bottom dropped out of the sky. We had lightning, 40 mile per hour cross winds, rain, pea hail, and a sloppy rutted gravel road. The rain drops were blowing sideways off my face shield even though I was going 40-50 mph. The lightning was hitting nearby. I decided to ride faster so I could try to get off the ridge line to find some protection from the lightning. We were passing slower RVs. The visibility sucked. I was concentrating again on trying to keep my rear wheel behind my front wheel. This was easily the worst riding condition we had seen during the whole trip. It was a good thing we were now more experienced and up to the task. Had we encountered this type of riding early and often in the trip it would have worn us out. My heated vest and heated grips also made the ride more tolerable. The iPod never failed to belt out good tunes.
I was wishing I still had my TKC knobby tires on the bike. In fact, it was around this time that I had noticed the rear street tire I had put back on my bike was wearing out much quicker than I had expected and would not take me all the way home. It was to be a constant nagging worry for me over the next few days. Every time I stopped for gas, I would look at the rear tire. I thought that I could actually see the tread depth disappearing before my eyes.
We continued onward toward Dawson City. By early afternoon we had descended off the mountain and caught a glimpse of the Dawson City across the Yukon River. What a site. It looked like an old west town with old buildings, boardwalks for sidewalks and muddy town roads. We waited a few minutes for the free ferry to carry us across.
The ferry is able to handle a handful of cars or small trucks at a time. They take motorcycles up front as they are small and easy to place on the sides of the boat. You drive onto the ramp that is dropped onto the pebble shore. A crew member hustles you up to your spot with minimal instructions, not at all like the ferry ride from Valdez to the Kenai! No chocks, no tie downs, no warnings to hold on.
The captain keeps his engine at nearly full power while the vehicles are being loaded. The boat strains to maintain its position against the strong current of the deep and swift moving Yukon. When everyone is aboard, the engine goes into full reverse to pull the ramp off the shore. The boat now is accelerating downstream. As the boat picks up speed the captain swings the rudder hard to whip the bow of the boat into a 270 degree clockwise turn. The G forces are such that I am having a very difficult time keeping my bike from tipping over onto the left side even though the side stand is down. I prop my left foot against a large cleat to add stability. The whole time this is happening, I am trying to pull my camera out for a quick photo of us on the deck of the ferry as we approach Dawson City. The ferry ride is over in about a minute. Now I am hurrying to put the camera away and get my helmet on for the departure.
The ferry plows into the gravel shore so the ramp is high above the water line. The engine stays at full power to keep the boat in place as we ride off into town. The process was fast, efficient and exciting. It was like a ride at Disney Land with the additional terror of possibly falling into a raging freezing Canadian river or falling over on the ferry with a motorcycle on top of you.
There is a very short ride into town on muddy roads. We stop at the Visitor’s Center to get a recommendation for campgrounds, concerts, restaurants, etc. As I head to the restroom to wash up, I note that the rain has soaked some of my clothing. We are anxious to get a campsite and take a shower. The rains have put a damper on my desire to spend much time wandering around Dawson City. The lady at the Visitor’s Center tells us of a campground a few miles out of town. Off we go.
The campground was privately owned and not much to talk about. The sites were cramped and overpriced. We were just able to put up our tents before a huge rainstorm and thunderstorm hit. I spent time in my tent relaxing and sorting out my gear. I put the wet stuff in my tent loft to try to dry before needing it again tomorrow. I was not looking forward to going back into town.
The campground offered 5 minute hot showers for about $2 Canadian. It was long enough to wash up, shave and warm up before the time ran out. Not bad. After showering and cleaning up, the rains had passed and I was more eager to check out Dawson City. We buttoned up our tents and rode a few miles back to town to look for dinner, a few drinks and some excitement.
We rode throughout most of the town to see what it was like. It was like being on the set of a western movie. I expected to see the Cartwrights or Wyatt Earp any moment. We stopped at a store to get the usual souvenirs and such. Then we walked around to get some photos of town. We asked the locals for recommendations for a good dinner. At one point I asked two local police on ATVs where to find a restaurant that was highly recommended. They said, “We don’t know. We are not from around here.”
The town had imported a small police force to help keep the peace during the music festival. The town was full of young people who were stumbling from bar to bar and going to various music venues. There were also beer gardens set up and food vendors much like a county fair. The whole town was celebrating the annual music event.
I thought it was strange that the temporary police force did not know the town well. I asked them what would happen if they had to respond to a fight at the restaurant where we had wanted to go. They would have to ask directions.
We wandered around town a bit and settled on Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. The elk burgers and fries made a delicious meal. Now we were ready for a few beers in some of the famous saloons of Dawson City. We sampled beers at several places but had the most enjoyment at Jack London’s Bar. There were a group of college kids at the back of the bar all lined up to have the Sour Toe Cocktail. For $10 you can go through the elaborate ritual of having an old man rub a dead toe on your face and then drop it in a drink you have purchased. You get the certificate of authenticity if you allow the toe to touch your lips as you finish your drink. Wow. I have no plans to do that.
Jim and I have a few beers and talk to some locals. One guy is a huge young Polish-Russian oil worker who was a large as a pro NFL lineman. He had some interesting perspectives about the Yukon and Dawson City. Another interesting couple was a young Canadian graduate who had just completed his geophysics degree. He lived in Dawson City with his girlfriend. He was enthralled with our bikes and our journey. Another interesting person was a young Mormon girl who spoke perfect Italian. Obviously she was not having the Sour Toe Cocktail.
We were looking for the bar with just the right amount of local flavor. All the locals said, “stay away from The Pit”. It was a bar local bar full of mean, dangerous, drunk locals and First Nation people. Now we’re talking. We headed for The Pit.
The atmosphere in The Pit was just right. There was a one man band playing a bang up job with a guitar and a harmonica. The place was rocking. It was especially cool that the floor undulated in about 6 different directions from the years of permafrost melting and settling of the building. Even if you were not drunk it would be hard to walk in here without looking drunk. We found the place genuine and not at all dangerous. We were in infinitely more danger at Chillcoot Charlie’s in Anchorage.
We head back to our camp around 1AM. We quietly park our bikes and crawl into our tents. Since the camp was moderately crowded we wanted to be as courteous as possible. I wrote in my journal for 30 minutes and turned out the light to go to sleep. There was a lot of noise coming from the area 50 yards across the campground from us. It sounded like someone beating on pots and pans, talking loud, laughing, and slamming car doors, etc. There was a young man camping next to us with a BMW cycle. He had told us earlier when we arrived that he had been in Dawson City for 2 days trying to decide if he wanted to ride to Inuvik or not. Apparently the stress of deciding on his ride and the late night noise got to him. He starting yelling at the folks across the camp to “be quiet!!! This is a public campground and they need to show to some respect for others!!!” Or words to that effect.
Then 15 minutes after this happens. Their car alarm goes off. Not for just a few seconds, but for two full minutes. The whole camp is awake now. After it stopped I had to ask in a loud voice, “are you complete morons over there?!” A young lady said meekly, “sorry”. Then more pots banging, loud voices, laughing and the car alarm goes off again for at least ten seconds. Wow. I love public camping, not. Give me primitive camping and wildlife any day.