Sunday, September 16, 2012

Alaska 5 - Exploring remote highways

The photos below are from my 5th trip to Alaska in 1992, which was the 50th anniversary year of the Alaska Highway. Since I expected more than the normal amount of RV and other heavy tourist traffic that year, I generally avoided the main route and headed first for Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. From there I used the Mackenzie Highway and Liard Trail to reach the southern end of the Canol Road at Johnson’s Corner in the Yukon Territory, where I headed north again toward the NWT border on the rarely traveled, minimum maintenance Canol Road. Later I used the Top of the World Road to enter Alaska. On my way home, I rode the Cassiar Highway, from which I explored Telegraph Creek Road in the remote Stikine Region of British Columbia and later visited Salmon Glacier near the southernmost tip of Alaska. I traveled a total of 14,000 miles in 29 days on this trip, more than 2,000 of which was on unpaved roads. Day-by-day details of the trip can be found in my book, “Motorcycling Stories – Adventure Touring from the Northwest Territories to the Yucatan Peninsula.” Following is an excerpt from the book on this trip:

            "The entire Yukon section of the Canol Road has been reopened to summer traffic and is maintained to minimum standards, which means that there would be very little vehicular traffic and no RVs traveling on it.  The 138-mile southern end from Johnson's Crossing on the Alaska Highway to Ross River on the Campbell Highway has been designated the South Canol Road.  The North Canol Road is a 144-mile continuation from Ross River to the NWT border.  An additional 230 miles of the original pipeline road from the NWT border to Norman Wells is known as the Canol Heritage Trail.  That final section is unsuitable for most motor vehicles.  It is used primarily as a hiking trail, although occasionally an adventurous dirt-biker will ride it, but some of the river crossings are deep and hazardous and washouts are common.  The trail passes through prime grizzly bear and caribou habitat and it reportedly features some beautiful scenery.
            I assumed this day would be the toughest and probably the riskiest day of my 14,000-mile tour, with more than 450 miles of narrow dirt roads.  The fact that the entire Canol Road is maintained to minimum standards also meant I had to be prepared for anything.  I expected to eat both breakfast and lunch from my tank bag.  I considered shortening the day but that would mean making camp somewhere along the North Canol Road, an idea I wasn't too enthusiastic about.
            Johnson's Crossing was 25 miles from Mukluk Annie's.  It was 46 degrees and overcast when I turned up the narrow, twisty South Canol Road at 5:30 AM, having begun the day at five.  It didn’t appear to be much more than a single lane.  I cautiously guided the big Gold Wing through several tight turns and sharp up-and-down hills before climbing quickly to 4,000 feet.  It began to rain less than a half hour after I got on the road and the surface immediately got very slick.  Occasionally it would rain heavy, which gave me some concern about landslides and washouts.  The road had just been reopened after having been closed for a week due to a slide.  I noticed one spot where a washout had been repaired but it looked temporary at best and I wouldn't be surprised if it washed out again later that day.
            I saw no one during the first 100 miles.  I saw a beautiful lynx dart across the road only twenty feet in front of me near Quiet Lake.  He stood more than 30 inches tall to his back.  A short time later I saw a huge bull moose and then a chocolate-colored fox with silver hair on his neck, called a cross fox.  I was also treated to the rare sight of a female moose with twins that were barely a week old.  I have always been somewhat wary of female moose with young but she gave me no problem.
            I was elated and quite excited during most of my ride on the South Canol Road.  Although it was much shorter than my 1977 ride on the 480-mile Cassiar Highway, it was just as exciting and interesting.  It was exactly what I had come for.  I passed beautiful lakes and streams with the snow-covered Pelly Mountains and Big Salmon Range in the background.  The narrow, twisty road rose to more than 500 feet above the Lapie River and it seemed as though there was nothing holding the road from falling away into the valley below.  I walked near the edge at one spot and saw a large fracture in the dirt, so I tiptoed back to the bike.  Just before reaching the Campbell Highway, I crossed a one-lane Bailey bridge, which spanned the rocky gorge of the Lapie River Canyon.  I had spent more than four hours on the South Canol Road and saw no one the entire time.
            It was 10:30 when I refilled my tank and filled two extra one-gallon containers in Ross River prior to boarding a small cable ferry.  The ferry operator asked how far I was going and if I expected to return that day.  I answered that I was headed for the NWT border and I did hope to be back that day.  He smiled as he looked at his watch and he described to me where he lived.  He said when I get back I can walk across the footbridge and find him at home.  He was quite sure I wouldn't make it back before he left work at five.  Two European youths waiting at the ferry crossing for a lift asked if I would tell their friends at the first Macmillan River bridge that they would be there as soon as they could find a car or truck going that far, about 120 miles.  Their wait would be long if traffic on the North Canol were no heavier than the South Canol.
            The river crossing took only a few minutes on the small cable ferry and I was on my way.  The North Canol Road was straighter than its southern counterpart but I realized soon after leaving the ferry that I would never be back by five in spite of stepping pretty lively.  I found the first ten miles to be damp and quite slick.  Later I rode mostly on loose gravel.  Most of the turns were unmarked and some were deceiving.  A few times I went into a turn much too fast, and I would skitter precariously on the shoulder as I tried to maintain control.  The thought of ending the trip right there would flash through my mind, which made me ease up a little on the throttle.  The surface was pretty rough in places with potholes and sometimes baseball-size stones strewn around.  I came around one turn and had to panic brake for a big caribou.  He turned and faced me down less than ten feet away.  I thought at first he was going to charge but I sat there and blipped the throttle a few times and he turned and ran.
            Another time I rounded a bend and hit the brakes for a strange animal in the road that stood more than 3 feet tall to his back.  It was completely black with a long slim tail like a panther.  It had long thin legs with padded feet and when it took a few easy strides into the bush I thought it seemed to run like a dog.  I didn’t get a good look at its head, but what I did see of it was short, more like a cat.  I’ve researched several books since returning from my trip but I’ve never found a picture of an animal quite like that one, although I think it was a huge cat."

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