Okay, it's now about two weeks later, but I want to finish writing the rest of this down before I forget most of it! After that bakery I left for Big Sky Brewing. It was closed, so I decided to find a quick bike ride nearby. The quick bike ride I decided on ended up being a 3000 foot climb up a mountain. I rode until I started running into snow and excessive downed trees, but I was 90% of the way there. If I had thought to bring my hiking shoes I would have continued to climb to the top.
Big Sky Brewing is fantastic, they actually give out their samplers, which is the correct way to get as many people trying your beer as possible. After getting a sticker and some coffee for Malcolm I traveled onward.
I found a great road in Idaho, ended up following a river in places, through deep canyons in others, and ended in an enormous mountain valley just before the desert started. Most of the roads in Canada I ended up on were very open, and even with lax speed limit enforcement there weren't a lot of entertaining drives. This road was entertaining.
I was so distracted by the drive that I ended up traveling far later in the day than I'm usually comfortable with. I found some potential campsites but they were all sketchy in one way or the other, or more likely were private property and completely fenced off. Eventually I found a place close to my goal for the next morning, Craters of the Moon National Park, and set up camp.
The stars ended up being particularly good that night, I've been captured by high humidity the entire trip so to finally have a clearer sky.
The next morning I did some speed-tourism on the park, which was a really neat geologically. I basically ran up the main trail to see the crater, and did my best to remember a few geology terms that at this point I've totally forgotten. Still it was a neat place to check out.
On the way out of there I found that if I drove quickly and efficiently I would be able to make it back to Colorado that night to see my sisters before their trip to California, and my Mom for Mother's Day. I decided to go for it. The next 9 hours were a combination of strategic speeding and efficient pit stops through Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and finally Colorado. I made it back for a nice Italian dinner with the family, and slept in a real bed. The trip was done, but hopefully I'll be able to look back on this blog and remember how fun/painful/educational it was.
Alright, there's been a long gap since I wrote stuff down unfortunately, I've been moving too quickly. Wednesday morning I woke up early and got to the Fort Nelson visitor center when they opened. The very helpful worker there gave me a bunch of information packets for the area and I found one specific to mountain biking. I headed towards Prince George, it would be a long day to get there but I had a couch when I did. Along the drive I saw a turnoff for wildlife viewing, and decided to take it.
I followed the signs but after the first couple I didn't see any viewing area so I kept driving. Turned out to be a neat road with several bridges over some very scenic highway turnoff streams and ponds.
After following the road for approximately 15 miles I ended up giving up and turning around. I found that the turnoff for wildlife viewing was closed, and only a few hundred "meters", whatever those are, away from the highway. It wasn't a total loss though, I let Yogi run alongside the car to get some exercise.
Once I arrived at Prince George, I mooched off the visitor center wifi and met up with a friend I had met in Prince Rupert. We had dinner and some beers at a place called Nancy O's. The next morning I washed my bike at a manual car wash to get some of the dirt and crap off, and had a bunch of extra time, so I washed my bike again. Miho looks better dirty anyway.
The next day I was off towards Jasper. I got distracted at a scenic turnoff, turned out to be the waterfall that was the upper limit of the salmon run, where they stop to spawn. I knew I was getting close to Jasper when I saw some enormous mountains on the horizon. Mount Robson was the first that made me stop and see if there were any trails. The visitor center (I'm loving these places) pointed me towards a nice trail that ended at an enormous lake surrounded by snow capped peaks. It was incredibly scenic, and ran along a turbulant river the whole length as well.
After getting back I kept moving towards Jasper. I found the Overlander Trail, which would be a total of 30 km, on top of the 16 km I had already ridden. I decided to go for it, if Yogi could survive this plus Mount Robson he'll officially be some sort of mutant cybord super dog. The trail ran along the large river, with some scenic overlooks as well as a nice clearing where an older settler built some now delapidated cabins. Naturally Yogi did fine, he chased deer a few times, and had enough energy at the end to chase some off near my car.
After some beers in downtown Jasper, I slept at Whistlers Campground which was the one campground open. It came with free wood, and I was hopeful that the clouds clearing up would give me my last opportunity to see the Northern Lights. I stayed up pretty late, and woke up fairly consistently through the night, but I didn't see any lights. At least I got to see them in Iceland!
The next day I moved on to Banff. The park started with some enormous mountains on either side that looked sort of like larger but flatter versions of Boulder's flatirons, except you're surrounded by them on either side. These mountains get larger and higher in altitude until you're driving through the Columbia Icefields, which contain several enormous glaciers. One seemed to be an enormous wall of ice several hundred feet high, perched atop a large cliff another 500 feet tall.
I decided to go a little out of the way and see the town of Banff. I found a trail that circled the eastern part of town. After getting massively lost at the start of the trail I got back on track. I was hoping that the trail would go near a river as the map suggested, but it turned out to be near a river in only the map's perspective as the trail ran along the side of a huge ravine with the river a couple hundred feet below.
After sampling Banff Brewing Company I continued on south towards a hot spring that one of the rangers recommended. It was well worth the long dirt road to get there, it was a very natural hot spring with basically just a few rocks moved around to create the pools directly next to a pleasant river. It reminded me a lot of the hot spring along the Kern River in California. After spending way too much time there I continued on the road where some of the other people at the hot spring were camping. It was a nice spot right next to a small lake.
The next day I escaped that dirt road with only mild damage the underside of the Miata, but I think a stray rock might have finally done-in the bike tire damaged by exhaust/stupidity. I drove on to Kimberly, where I heard there was some good biking. After getting a nice new tire, I rode along Magic Line, probably their premier trail in the area. It was great but consistent rocks made it the first time I was really missing a rear suspension. I thought about doing another ride in Cranbrook farther south but I decided to keep moving and get into the US.
The border crossing guard was more suspicious than normal, when I said I was from Colorado he needed to see my registration for my California registered car. Once satisfied I wasn't driving a stolen car (from Canada?) he let me by. My first stop was Whitefish, where I tried out a few breweries including the Great Northern Brewing, Bonsai Brewing, and Tamarack Brewing. I decided to have dinner in Tamarack, I needed a non-camping meal.
I ended up camping near another lake, if you could call it that. Flathead Lake seems almost large enough to call it an inland sea. The next morning I had breakfast at a small bakery and that finally catches us up! Today I'm heading to Missoula before hopefully camping in Idaho.
Tuesday, I've been looking forward to Tuesday. I visited a place a lot of people have been pointing me to, the Liard Hot Springs. On the way I saw some wild buffalo! The only other time I had seen some in the wild might have actually been on Catalina Island, so it's neat to see literally herds of them roaming around Canada where they're actually indigenous.
Once I get to Liard, I arrive to an empty parking lot, and walk the long boardwalk across a marshy landscape until I arrive at a small building. The hot springs are a set of two pools, on one side are the steps into each pool, a wooden overlook and some changing rooms. Besides that structure on one side the hot springs are entirely natural.
I step in to the right side, and it's burning hot. Apparently the farther right you go the warmer the temperature. I start on the left side, which turns out to be the most natural side of the springs anyway. It's incredibly relaxing, and just about the perfect thing for me at this point. There's a small back channel to explore, the spring's water level is set not by a stone or concrete wall but what appears to be a glorified beaver dam. The bottom of the pool is entirely natural rock and dirt. It's an incredibly relaxing place, and after spending way too much time there I decide to book it for Fort Nelson, setting me up to get past Prince George the next day.
Along the way, I notice a car stopped on the side of the road. This generally means they're tourists looking at something. I think it's probably another buffalo, but I'm surprised to see an enormous Black Bear! I've never seen one of them in the wild either. It would be the first of at least half a dozen I would see on the drive to Fort Nelson.
Monday started so well, after leaving Haines it seemed like picturesque day to leave, with the sun out, the top down... As I was leaving the town I passed the airport, and a turboprop was landing just off my left, while a Bald Eagle soared just overhead, I'm literally not making that up. After a very scenic drive along the Chilkat River, and then through some high altitude snow capped peaks, it was back to the normal Canadian wilderness. Driving through the US, the geography is occassionally interrupted by desert, mountains, monstrous cities, but I feel like the variation is somewhat less drastic in Canada. 12 hours of driving can be very monotonous.
While most of travelling is seeing incredible new places, meeting new people, trying new things, and everything that people glorify it to be, sometimes you spill boiling water on your leg after 12 hours of driving, and go to bed hungry and cold. Monday was such a day, and I'm hopeful tomorrow will be better. I'll meet some new friends and catch up with old ones, and my if my destination tomorrow wasn't what it is I would probably be more discouraged. That said, sitting on a couch with some delivery pizza and binge watching Netflix sounds pretty enticing at the moment.
After getting some new tires at Whitehorse I was on my way south towards Skagway Alaska along the Yukon Highway. The plan was to do some mountain biking in Carcross and then hitch a ferry to Haines to meet up with Erik, and old college buddy.
I found an incredible spot to camp, but it wasn't entirely legal. It was actually at a seaplane base, with an incredible view of the mountains. It was also covered, and could have been my first night sleeping tent-less. After reading at least until 10 PM waiting for the sun to go down, there was still a suspicious amount of traffic on the road, as well as some cars that stopped to see what I was up to. I decided against camping there and moved on, but the stop was well worth it.
I ended up sleeping at a rest area, and carried on pretty early. After arriving in Carcross, I found a map next to the Visitor Center of the local mountain bike trails, and headed to one of the trailheads. After mounting up and starting off on one of the trails, I quickly ran into snow, and after seeing the deep mud and thick snow on some of the more shadowed trails I decided to pack up the bike and head to Scagway earlier than planned.
As I approached the border to Alaska, the landscape quickly changed to what, if I was a snowmobiler, would appear to be some type of utopian paradise. There were immense lakes covered in several feet of snow, surrounded by large rocks mostly covered in more delicious pow, with diminutively picturesque trees dotting the landscape. It was surrounded on all sides by enormous snowy mountains. As the road gained in altitude, I entered the cloud layer, which spoiled some of the views unfortunately.
The border back to 'Merica was pretty uneventful. I was instinctively more careful about my speed near the border, I've come to realize how tightly those are patrolled. Canada's speed limits always seemed relatively optional, but in the US that's never been the case. I wasn't in a huge hurry anyway.
Scagway is a cool old mining town, tucked right into the end of a large waterway. I picked up a hiking/biking map after getting my ferry ticket, and having a few hours to spare I set off to find a good trail. I was quickly distracted by the city itself though, there was a lot of neat little stores, and after finding out there was a disk golf course and a brewery I decided against riding.
The disk golf course itself was really neat, tucked away behind some trees at a corner of town. Back in the woods a couple was corralling their team of sled dogs, and Yogi skiddishly met a few. I did a couple rounds before heading back to town to catch my ferry and make lunch.
The ferry ride itself was gorgeous, the waterway was surrounded on all sides by snow capped mountains. I managed to get some work done on the ferry when I wasn't taking way too many photos. I met a couple I had seen earlier, it was the people with the dog-sled team that Yogi had met earlier! Turns out they're from Colorado, and super nice people. They were heading up to a glacier in Alaska to give tours for the summer. They signed the car before we needed to get off the ferry.
Once driving along Haines, I had the top down and the scenery was probably among the best I had seen yet. The views were gorgeous, the sun was out, and I ended up needing to stop for pictures at almost every opportunity. At one there was an older couple with an enormous camera and a set of binoculars looking into the bay. I followed their lead and saw a large pod of Orca whales swimming maybe a half mile off the coast. I followed them for about 10 minutes as they were leaving the bay for the Pacific.
Haines is a great little town, and after trying to track down my friend Erik for a bit I decided to wait at the local brewery. Everyone there seemed to know not just Erik, but each other. Their beer was also great, way better than Skagway's, and they have at least 5 aged beers I have to try before leaving.
Erik got an Aerospace Engineering degree with me at CU and now lives an incredible life here in Haines. He's building a house just outside of the city, but currently rents a sweet house right off the bay. He has a boat right there to catch fish, a wood burning stove, really cheap rent... seems like an incredible setup. After some beers and a couple frisbee golf rounds (literally right next to the brewery) we left to get some food and went to the Friday night open mic night. Almost everyone I met earlier at the brewery was there, seems like they have a really cool community here.
The next day I tried to climb Mount Riley just outside of Haines. Pretty quickly me and my new bike were put to shame after I ran into pretty thick mud and large roots on the trail. I decided to stash the bike at my car and try again on foot. The vegetation is much more green and thick than I thought, it could have easily been Oregon or Washington. The mountain just barely got to the upper tree line, but the trees shrunk enough up top to provide some killer views of the mountains and the bays. Yogi got way more dirty than usual walking through all the mud, he's going to need a good bath when I get back to Colorado.
Afterward I met up with Erik at the house he's building. I mostly helped him raise a wall and move some stuff around. The house is going to be gorgeous, there's great views of the mountains on both floors, plenty of space, the property itself is gorgeous... I'm pretty jealous and definitely going to mooch off his couch again once he's done.
After getting some supplies in town we head back to make breakfast burritos using some meat from a goat he hunted (again, so jealous of his life). The following morning I wake up to probably the best conceivable view to wake up to (that doesn't involve two X chromosomes), and that catches us up until now. I'm heading off today back south, but my immediate direction is north because the geography forces me to, not that I'm complaining there's some more mountains up that way!
So what I said about speaking too soon about surviving the Dempster? I spoke too soon. Just 44 miles after leaving Eagle Plains, I had a flat. I had over 180 miles of rough dirt road to make it back to pavement, much less a tire store another 300 miles from there. I don't have a spare tire and wheel, just a doughnut. I had kind of hoped that if I had a flat, it would be early on. The snow likely concealed some short of sharp rock.
Looking immediately at my tools, I did have a jack, the spare, and a wrench, so it would first appear like I had all the tools I needed to keep moving. If there's another flat though, I'd need a tow, which would likely be more expensive than the car. I jacked up the car, and immediately ran into a problem. The wrench that came with the car was the wrong size!
Luckily, I bought a small tool set at Home Depot before leaving Tehachapi. I opened it praying there was the right socket size. I know it's a metric 21 mm, and my set goes to... 19 mm. But! There's a 7/8 socket, and it fits over the nut but with a lot of wiggle room. I've played this game before, and if you torque it too much the nut gets stuck in the socket.
I really carefully undo each nut, and luckily I was able to get the wheel off. Did I mention it's snowing? I mount the doughnut, lower the car, and the tire deflects almost completely. The thick rubber on the spare made me think it was inflated, but it was almost completely flat.
Luckily I also brought along my trusty tire pump that served us so well in Mongolia, and it worked great... up to 40 psi of the recommended 60 psi. It would have to do! I strapped the flat tire to my hood, which I chose partly because I thought it looked cool but it turns out it tends to block a little bit of my visibility, well a lot actually.
Just to get a feel for how isolated this place is, the process for changing the tire took over an hour, and not a single vehicle passed me, either way. Yogi was happily wandering around the woods until I was done.
The rear tire likely went first because I worked the rear tires a lot harder on track days than the fronts. This also means that the rear-right tire is just as likely to fail as the rear-left. I decided to at least make a small change so that I can say I tried if/when the other tire fails. I lowered all the tire pressures to 25 psi to try to lower the contact pressure with rocks, maybe that would help.
I kept moving, and on snow with almost bald all-seasons and a spare tire, the rear end really wanted to oversteer in every corner. The spare also was so narrow it really wanted to stick itself into ruts and stay there. I ended up "edging" the right side of the car to save the rear-right.
It probably took me an hour or two longer than the way up, but I finally escaped Dempster without any additional problems. Luckily I didn't try to go much farther than the Arctic Circle, a Jeep driver told me a bit past it there's a river crossing, and due to the rain and snow it was about 3 feet deep.
I had a nice lunch at one of the Tombstone Park overlooks before heading back towards Whitehorse for a new tire. I stopped at a nice lake for the night. I decided this might be my most northward opportunity for the Northern Lights, so I decided to set an alarm at 2 AM, and set up a big pile of firewood to keep me warm. I woke up to a bright tent, but unfortunately it was lit by the moon more than anything, no northern lights! Maybe the next night.
With the sun coming up so early, it's impossible not to wake up at a reasonable time without feeling like you've wasted all morning. I've also found I don't really feel cold until I need to pack everything up the next morning, lots of exposed digits and sub zero temperatures don't mix well. After getting the car packed Yogi and me were on the road towards Dawson, a small mining town.
Along the way, there were some really nice views of the Yukon, but I didn't see any wildlife except for these really neat falcons. I tried to stop at a few trails, but they're still all snowed in. I feel bad for Yogi, he's going to be fairly un-exercised for a few days while I make it North. After a few more disappointing trailheads I decided to make an attempt to book it north and then head back South so I can get back to Mountain biking in warmer temperatures.
Once at Dawson, I refuel, get some cash, and then fruitlessly try to find some wifi before I decide to get out of dodge and get on the Dempster highway. This is the highway I've been looking forward to/fearing the entire trip. I mentioned it to one of the brewers at Wheelhouse in Prince Rupert, and his reaction was "that'll destroy your car". I took the lonely road to the start of it, and set off, only to immediately see a sign stating that the next gas stop was 370 km away. Under my normal driving habits, this is longer than the range of my car. There was a gas station at the start of the highway, so I topped my tank off to the brim, and hoped that the road's surface wouldn't degrade my milage by too much. I'd be a filthy hypermiler if it meant I make it to my goal.
I set off and was immediately disappointed at the road surface, in that it was exactly what I was expecting. It was a rough dirt road, with many exposed rocks and sand, I could barely maintain 40 mph. At this rate, it would take me roughly 5 hours to get to the Arctic Circle, my loafty likely unrealistic goal. Not only that, my tires aren't exactly new after several track days, so any sharp rock could puncture the tire. I was also thinking back to when I first packed the car, I knew I had a spare, but I didn't know whether I had a jack and the right tire iron size.
Nevertheless I pressed on, hoping that the weather would clear and the road would improve. Magically, it did temporarily. The weather cleared just before Tombstone Park, which turned out to be incredible. The road took me far above tree line, and I was quickly driving among snow capped peaks. Because of the low tree line the peaks are shorter than they seem, but they still looked large an imposing especially compared to a pitifully small Miata.
I decided to put the top down, which ended up being the correct choice. The air was cold but felt good while properly bundled up. It would be the best part of the Dempster, by a long shot.
The car's rattles and squeaks kept getting worse, so I finally put a concerted effort into fixing some of them. Turns out 90% of the noise was coming from two sources. The first was solved by rolling up my Buff and shoving it into one of the convertible top's hinges. The second was solved by shoving a sock in between the roll bar padding and the convertible top. Suddenly my car seemed quiet and composed in comparison, but it still complained loudly whenever I hit a large bump.
Suddenly the road darkened as I drove under a layer of clouds, and the road started gaining in altitude. The road surface itself started degrading to the point that I couldn't go much faster than 30 mph or I felt the car would fall apart Blues Brother's style. I found that if I drove on the far extreme right and left sides of the roads, there were less rocks and pot holes, but you run the risk of getting carried off the road by a large rut if you're not careful. I decided to call this method "edging".
After over 5 hours of traveling, with an average speed of just about 40 mph, I finally reached the next fuel stop with some margin. The hotel/gas station/bar/restaurant/shop was currently being run by a solitary gruff German woman, and after a beer and some gas I kept going north, enough light at 11 PM to keep me going for at least a couple more hours.
As I approached the arctic circle, more and more things on the car seemed to be complaining. It was probably my heightened awareness, fearing that something would go wrong just miles from my goal. But as the miles went by it became less and less likely. 8 miles to go... that oil temperature seems strangely warm... 7 miles... oh that wheel bearing is making that funny sound again.... 6 miles... huh is the left bearing making the same sound now? 5 miles... it suddenly occurs to me why people travel to Hawaii so much, it's awesome there... 4 miles... I can't believe there's still dusk remaining at midnight...
Suddenly, I'm at the arctic circle. There isn't a huge monument, just a small wooden sign. It was still very cloudy, very windy, and very cold, so I decided against putting up my tent and instead decided to sleep in my car, my first time doing so on the trip. Pictures could wait until the next morning. I celebrated with a beer Kristina and Ryan gave me in Seattle, and it was worth saving until now. I had a slight hope that the clouds would clear up so that I could see the Northern Lights for the 2:30-4 AM period when it's actually completely dark, but with the last clear pockets closing up I decided to get a few hours of sleep before heading back south.
I woke up surprised by about an inch of snow on the ground. What this meant, in the short term, was that I needed to do some doughnuts. In the more long-term, it meant I was driving back on the Dempster in the snow. It was also my first time driving the Miata in snow, maybe any rear wheel drive car actually. Just an inch of snow, rather than closing up bumps or pot-holes, ends up just concealing them. The drive back would be even slower than the pitiful 40 mph I was able to average yesterday.
After a crawl I was able to make it back to Eagle Plains, the refueling station. And that's where I am now! Waiting on everything opening up so I can get some fuel. The tentative plan is to stay in Dawson tonight in a real bed, and get a good night's rest before heading down to Haines, Alaska via the Top of the World highway. If I can survive the Dempster (maybe I shouldn't speak so soon) I can survive that highway right?