Eureka Dome is one big hill.
It’s late on day six of my ride in the Yukon Arctic Ultra
from Whitehorse to Dawson City, and I have just crested the summit. A gentle breeze moves the -10C air, triggering little notice on my part except the brief recognition that the weather is mercifully mild compared to what it could be at this elevation in the Black Hills of the central Yukon. The -45 degrees Celsius cold that marked the first three days on the trail is a distant memory. My strategy – to literally race ahead of the warm front before the trail became too “punchy
” for efficient travel – is working so far.
Spotting a Yukon Quest musher's campsite, I pull over. It has become routine to use these sites as rest stops, gathering the dogs’ straw under my sleeping mat and reviving the musher’s unused wood to spark a new fire. I awake from a sound sleep to a sky awash with faint aurora. Kenji, a cameraman with Japanese broadcaster NHK, is nearby filming the scene. My light is on and I begin to break camp. As Kenji’s video light illuminates my tasks, we maintain silence. He has his job, and I have mine: to pack up and ride away down the crest of the Dome. Kenji leapfrogs ahead with camera to capture this strange scene of a man on a bicycle with 5-inch tires, rolling into the richest valley in the north. Before long I’ve descended to Indian River, winding through the claims of Tony Beets
of reality TV show “Gold Rush
” fame, and ultimately arriving at the Arctic Ultra tent camp.
It’s a perfect day in the goldfields, and I revel in the history of the trail rolling under my wheels. Indian River Bridge, Granville, Dominion dredge piles, Sulfur Creek Road, the towering hulk of King Solomon’s Dome. Distracted by the beauty, not to mention sleep deprived, I daydream about the remarkable history of bicycles on snow in the Yukon Territory. It so happens that at the turn of the century, shortly after the establishment of the Overland Trail connecting Whitehorse to Dawson, a breed of traveler known as a “wheelman
” appeared on the snowy trails of the Yukon interior. As John Firth recounts in his Yukon Sport: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, “For most of Yukon history, bicycling was a means of winter transportation rather than a competitive summer pastime…it was estimated that the journey on the frozen highway of the Yukon River between Bennett, B.C and Dawson City would take ten to fourteen days. The greatest risk was severe frostbite. The advantage was the cost.
While the threat of frostbite remains, the economy of an overland trip to Dawson by bicycle is a relic of the past. In the Gold Rush era, roadhouses were spaced at regular distances along the trail, each an oasis of warmth where a wheelman could purchase food and dry boots and prepare for the next day. Today, all that remains of this once vital part of Yukon’s transportation infrastructure are a handful of decaying log cabins. Each year the organizers of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and Yukon Arctic Ultra temporarily restore this lost transportation artery and bring long-forgotten place names such as Dog Grave Lake back into use. This year, 31 individual have signed up to follow the overland trail all the way to Dawson, joined by 56 others contesting shorter distances. For a fee (2450 euros in 2015, with a discount given to Yukoners
), competitors are welcomed at checkpoints spaced a day’s travel apart and supplied with hot water, wood heat, and companionship.
I head up, up, up King Solomon's Dome, the highest summit on the Overland Trail, and my food situation is at the forefront of my thoughts. I'm low on carbs, brain food. I start counting jellybeans and peanut butter cups, and there aren’t enough. Will this hill ever end? No doubt this thought has crossed the mind of many a Klondike wheelman on this same stretch of road, so close to the comforts of Dawson yet agonizingly far away. I stop for a final favourite dinner, spaghetti with meat sauce. With meditative focus, I submit to routine for the last time: melt snow, inhale food, go. Another film crew captures all of this, and the start of the descent. It's amazingly rideable, the alignment of those pioneer trail builders not buried beneath drifted snow as I had anticipated. I'm catching up to the film crew on their snow machines. Elevation and kilometres disappear and both perfect trail and gravity usher me swiftly towards the Klondike River valley.
At Discovery Claim – the site where Skookum Jim’s pan revealed those fateful nuggets in 1896 - I encounter a massive section of overflow, a virtual ice swamp that forms when meltwater meets snow and ice. It's deep and I’m wading, balancing on fragments of ice and using my bike as an outrigger. When I arrive on the other side, my bike’s wheels are coated with a thick layer of ice and instantly pounds heavier. I try in vain to chip it off. Rolling slowly, too slowly, I proceed towards Dawson. Finally, the dredge appears out of the darkness, then woodsmoke. A dog chases me, but I don't care if it bites. I wheel down the highway, crossing the Klondike River past Crocus Bluff, with no one to witness my arrival. I walk on the flat dike overlooking the Yukon River.
At last, I turn the corner and greet the sight I’ve been awaiting for a week - the S.S. Keno and the finish line. The end of my journey marks what I believe to be the first ride by a Yukoner from Whitehorse to Dawson via the Overland Trail in over a century. A small group of Yukon Arctic Ultra volunteers greets me with a finisher’s medal, which is surprisingly heavy. The jubilation and relief of finally arriving after 7.5 days, 700 kilometres, -45C temperatures, jumble ice, and overflow is quickly replaced by dismay as I realize the terrible truth: I have missed last call by a mere half hour
Check out all of Derek's photos from the 700 kilometre journey here.
He'd really like to thank travelyukon.com, yukonbeer.com, icyclesport.com, physiopluswhitehorse.com, northernlightsoptometry.ca, Tim Horton's Whitehorse, Kilrich Industries, Mario Ferland. Special thanks to my friends and family for their encouragement and support.