North of the Arctic Circle the road rolls ever upward to the border of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories which straddles the Richardson Mts. There are approximately 33,000 people that inhabit the Yukon: 21,000 of them live in the capital city of Whitehorse. That leaves a huge expanse of land for the remaining 12000 or so souls to wander.
Even if you printed all the photos I’ve taken over the years of my bike laying on its side you can’t fill that kind of space. You can only begin to fill it with thoughts, ones that seem to take many words to even begin to convey.
Tens of thousands of caribou winter in this area, then migrate to summer grounds within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I saw only a few stragglers on a distant snow patch as I climbed the pass that straddles the border of the Yukon and NWT. Caribou often retreat to these lingering summer snow fields to escape the incessant mosquito barrage so I gave it a shot.
It didn’t work. This may sound mildly insane but I used no repellent the entire trip. Continuing the stupidity theme, I had forgotten my mosquito netting back at Eagle Plains so from here on in it was time to get tough. I stopped caring much whether they bit me and as I headed north they became more bloodthirsty. The best thing to do was keep moving as fast as possible.
Or was it? It’s easy to become preoccupied with speed while riding a bike. Anyone who lingers on a group ride is usually seen as holding up the pack. Slow down on a group road ride to look at something and you get dropped. Don’t get me wrong, I love to go fast. I’ve raced a little road, a lot of mountain bike and some cyclocross in the 6-7 years or so I’ve been a “serious” cyclist. I’m not the fastest, I’m not the slowest. But is it really always about speed? We’re always trying to get somewhere, anywhere. But do we really know what we’re chasing other than that wheel ahead? Sometimes it’s best to show restraint. Sometimes it’s best to, well, I’ll let Neruda say it as I’m no poet…
“It is well, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coalbins, barrels and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth … The used surface of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things – all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.”
I sacrificed a pint of blood to the mosquito gods of the Dempster when I stopped for that imperfect shot yet it’s one of my favorites. I was beginning to care less about making that last ferry before it closed and more about the beauty of this strange world I was traveling through. I was picking flowers for chrissakes. I mean, I race rigid singlespeeds. Sometimes I ride 90 miles before work in the morning on a fixie. I know what it feels like to break your scapula (no, not your clavicle) when things go wrong at high speed. I’ve biked until I puked more times than I can remember. Things were beginning to get weird (in a tough guy way of course).
The “curious attractiveness” of the reality of this trip to the northern world began to unfold before me. I was starting to pedal the strong circles of the high latitude sun during summer. Since the sun never sets (and I was headed roughly north the entire time), at the start of the “day” it’s ahead of you to the right, then it’s behind you, then it’s to your left and suddenly you’re headed into it again. It makes a long day on the bike a delight. I crested what I thought was the big climb of the day at the Yukon/NWT border. My cadence was high. All memories of any tough times from yesterday were gone.
I have had an image burned in my memory ever since a trip to the Netherlands last year. As you may know, bikes are everywhere in Holland. During a rain shower in Utrecht a family cycled past on a bike path. The husband rode on the right with his right hand on his handlebars. He held an umbrella in his left hand to shield his wife and son from the rain. His son smiled from the child carrier behind him and his wife rode immediately beside them to the left. Her left hand was on her bars and her right on his: they were holding handlebars as they rode. I thought I had glimpsed the perfect family cycling scene. Several hours later I met these guys headed the opposite direction on the road.
Those are the most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen. They are from Scotland. They may look like a Sunday bike path outing but these guys are insane (which, curiously enough, makes them “normal” for Scots). They had sold everything they owned to finance a trip from Inuvik to, as the father put it, “as far south as they could get before the money runs out”. Their 7 year old daughter was adamant: they were going to make it to Tierra del Fuego. Everything they own can be seen in that photo. They were having a terrible time in the soft gravel with all that weight but they remain some of the most upbeat people I’ve ever met. Their wealth had been reduced to how far they could get, how much they could experience in life from the seat of a bicycle. They had plenty of circles of despair in their future, but they were rich beyond belief. I coveted their mosquito nets.
You don’t just make a half-assed attempt at a wave to a fellow cyclist when you run into them in remote places, you greet them. We talked for an hour or so as this was not their first adventure (too long to explain here) and I was the first cyclist they had seen on the road. I was with my extended family. They understood it too, and they asked if I wanted to camp with them for the night. I considered it as we talked.
To this day, when I encounter others out riding a bike I often think of this family and this moment. I remember them when I recall the excitement of seeing someone else sharing my passion, when I’m that nerd on the other side of the road that waves to you, when I stop to help someone fix a flat, when I’m that guy who makes small talk when he passes you on the trail, when I clean the accretion of salt sweat from beneath my top tube, when I’m the guy suffering at 3AM during my 24 hr solo and you pass me like I’m standing still, and when I’m the crazy guy who suddenly breaks his silence and begins babbling about bicycling like it’s life and death. Without passion life is just a criterium in some industrial park somewhere; sure it’s fast but it goes absolutely nowhere.
In retrospect, this was when I first began to see what I was looking for as I rode my bike up this lonely road. However, for some reason I was still racing the never-ending day to get to that ferry so I declined the offer to camp with them and said goodbye… this Perfect Day was not over yet…