Aug 2006

The Naked Truth

I can't tell if it's the creek or the crickets leading the chorus outside my tent. It must be the creek, because the water doesn't ever stop dancing. Like a child taking delight in playing the same silly game over and over and over again, the creek delights in the incessant beating of its own creek stone drum. The creek stone drum, stoned, delights in the beating, emitting a new tone for every molecule of H2O that shapes it. Delightful for me - I get to sleep with this surround sound nature song.

It's a magical place, Harbin Hotsprings. I'd forgotten just how powerful that hot and cold plunge can be. No wonder I fell in love last time I was here six years ago. It's the garden of Eden, no fig leaf required, and I'd been blasted so wide open, I saw god when our eyes met.

I think that happens often here. People get their defensive exteriors melted away to the point where all that's left is love. And when two love-beings recognize each other at Harbin, they melt together.

Tonight I soaked for three hours - and kept my eyes closed.

At night, the hot pool can feel like a sanctuary. Two candles flicker inside gothic iron holders on either side of a fish sculpted into the stone wall spewing steaming water through its mouth. It's the only place where total silence is requested, and the ritual of hot and cold can take you deep down through the layers.

At first it's physical, as the body adjusts to the extreme temperatures. The first time in the cold plunge after several minutes in the hot, your entire respiratory system comes alive. Your lungs feel clean and full and active. Eucalyptus growing in the forest nearby provides strong aromatherapy, cleansing your sinuses and awakening your blood. Your skin tingles and your heart pounds inside your chest.

After an hour or so, it's mental. Your body has lost its ability to discern hot from cold, but your mind struggles with the certainties it knows as cause and effect of matter under pressure.

Naked body shadows of all shapes and sizes come and go in the dark in slow motion, like ghosts, and the human form occupies a primitive corner of your mind where ancient codes of judgement are stored.

If you can last two or three hours, get your mind to quiet, it can be transcendental. With your body checked out, and your mind forgotten, only spirit remains. Really, all that spirit wants to do is watch the stars and be in love.

It astounds me that I can ride 8,000kms to the far reaches of the north and back covering territory known and unknown, ancient and original, only to re-arrive over and over again at that simple, naked truth.

That, in my mind, is what makes a humble solo journey epic in nature.

The Long and Winding Road

It's been a hellofa few days snaking down the Oregon and California coastlines.

I enjoy the mystery and sometimes eeriness of a dense fog, like on a ferry, or in a good detective novel; but when the entire US coast, from Astoria, Washington, to Mendocino, California is blanketed in a cold shroud, I have to reach deep to find my usual light heart while riding; and now that I'm almost at my temporary stopping point in West Hollywood, I just wanna be there.

Henk's tires and gears and brakes have had an intense workout - Highways 101 and 1 are in what looks like a state of constant repair, and Friday traffic through Oregon was a nightmare. Up and down the gears from 2nd to 3rd to 4th and back we'd go so many times, braking constantly before a hairpin turn or behind a van or a u-haul that made a sudden move. For long stretches, I felt as though my face was covered with a damp cheesecloth - uncomfortable, but rideable. Then, last night, coming toward Mendocino where I thought I'd camp for the night, it was as though a wet blanket had been thrown over my helmet. My visor would mist up to the point of zero visibility, so I'd wipe it with the back of my left glove, which would clear it for a second; or I'd lift it, only to expose my glasses, which then would mist up.

There are hundreds of 'vista turnouts' along the way, presumably perfect photo snapping spots with ragged rocks far below, and wild waves throwing themselves on white sand beaches laden with driftwood and picnic baskets - but I didn't really see much. And after having the Alaska and Klondike Highways almost exclusively to ourselves, Henk and I both found it frustrating getting caught in the middle of an eight-car train on Highway 1.

So there you have it. On a perfect day, in perfect riding conditions (new tires, sunshine, dry pavement, no traffic), the winding road from Washington through California is probably more pleasurable than a soak in a hotspring on a starry night. But after being on the ocean for three days with Alaska Ferries, then shivering and choking on the foggy western US coast for another three, Henk's decision to turn left was easy. East he went, onto the 128 to seek the sun - and a hotspring he's never been to. For me, it's a lovely bookend to the journey: Liard Hotsprings in the north, Harbin Hotsprings in the south.

Here's a sunnier version of riding in the fog in the California Redwoods State Park:

Go Fly a Kite

I stumbled into the Washington State International Kite Festival on Thursday at Long Beach. I couldn't pass up the chance to buy a kite and join in.

The kite I chose is a fast little beginners' stunt kite by
Prism. The learning curve is steep like snowboarding, and for the first couple of hours, I fumbled in frustration just trying for liftoff. People who knew what they were doing couldn't help themselves, and stepped in to give me a lesson or two. A twelve year old expert flier named Toby gave me some great tips.

By the end of the day, when I pulled in for the night at Rockaway, I was flying my kite on the beach at sunset, doing figure eights in the wind, fanning the flames of a newfound passion.

stunt fliers:

Ray Bethell. This guy's pushing 80. He's a multiple world record holder for multiple kite flying. He lives in Vancouver, where you can see him practise at Vanier Park when he's not flying around the world performing at festivals. He's an absolute vision to behold:

Port Townsend

I can't bring myself to leave this cozy place called "Bread and Roses" in Port Townsend. They've got Wi-Fi, so I'm catching up on all my email and video uploading from three days at sea, and they've got the best coffee I've had on the road.

I just had the most amazing roasted veggie sandwich with eggplant, zucchini, red peppers, chunks of garlic, and an inch of pesto on hand made organic foccacia bread. Daniel and his wife, Marissa, moved here a few months ago from Seattle, not intending to own a restaurant; but the opportunity to buy this place presented itself, and here they are. I'm glad. The vibe is very pleasant, the kitchen and front staff are happy, and the smells wafting my way from the open kitchen door are tantalizing. Daniel rides a big red BMW R1200K, which is parked out front, so we talked motorbikes for a bit. I've made myself entirely at home, plugged into the wall with my laptop, my tank bag emptied of its contents, and gas receipts strewn over the table. They've made me feel welcome.

I arrived in Port Townsend yesterday after a short ride from Burlington, which was a short ride from the ferry terminal in Bellingham. My friend Nate from the ferry accompanied me to Skagit Harley-Davidson just in case my battery failed. I don't know what he could have done had it happened, but it was great moral support.

They replaced my stator at Skagit, but now I have a feeling that while they were in there, they tinkered with the primary chain, which had just been perfectly adjusted in Whitehorse. Henk's lurching a bit and his primary chain's doing a little clanking. It's nothing major, but just enough to distract me from an otherwise perfect ride.

Port Townsend is a sweet little victorian town on the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle. It reminds me a bit of Nelson, BC, only with salty ocean smells down by the port.

As soon as I got off the short fifteen minute ferry from the mainland, I found the Food Co-op and had a meal. After three days on the ferry devoid of vegetables, my body was craving color and phyto-nutrients.

I really should hit the road. I've got five days to be in L.A., and there are miles of coastline to cover.

Here are a couple more shots and videos from Alaska Ferries' Malaspina:

I had a visit with Captain Douglas Sturm (seated) and his 2nd Mate, Kevin Dickman in the wheel house. They let me drive! Ha ha!

The view from my bed:

White rainbow in the fog:

Slow Travel

Fifteen minutes onboard the Malaspina feels like an hour; an hour feels like four. Three days feels like a week of luxurious, blissful, all-out, full-on relaxation.

I'm sleeping like a log, having long, unhurried conversations with fellow sailors, chewing my way through a deliciously dense back country loaf from Alpine Bakery, and taking in the magnificent views. I can't count the number of times I've heard someone say "It just doesn't get any better than this."

After three days sailing at a snail's pace through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, I've replenished all I lost on the BC/Alaska border and refilled my spirits to overflow.

I went to bed early the first night, exhausted, and fell quickly into dreamland, lulled by the drone of the engine and a dozen snorers in the solarium. I woke up when they announced our first port of call, and watched from my sleepingbag the new moon croissant dangling above the lights of Petersburg tucked in to the dark hills, twinkling. I don't know if I've ever felt so peaceful.

In the morning, I awoke in a pea soup, and assumed we'd stopped at one of our scheduled ports of call south of the Wrangle Narrows. The onboard forest guide had told the passengers the night before that the Narrows were worth getting up for at three in the morning, but I was so depleted from my ordeal of the previous night, I just couldn't.

When I took a walk around the ship and saw only water and fog, I thought we were anchored in the middle of my black and white dream. It took a few deep breaths of fresh air and a conversation with the watchman to find out we'd been anchored most of the night at the north end of the Wrangle Narrows due to thick fog and an unusually low tide.

By the time everyone was up and about on the top deck, the fog, a gauze curtain, had begun to burn off layer by layer, slowly lifting to reveal the surprise. On both starboard and port sides you could almost touch the shores, whose narrow beaches rose immediate to steep evergreen-packed mountains. "This is gonna be beautiful," I gushed to whomever happened to be standing nearby. We would get to pass through Wrangle Narrows not just in the daylight, but in what looked like it was about to be gorgeous sunlight.

With two island masses so close by, it was easy to spot bald eagles hanging out high in their tall spruce waiting for fish to jump. All day long I stayed out on deck watching for eagles, dolphins and whales. A small fishing craft sped by and I waved to the guy looking our way. He turned around and mooned the ferry. People cheered. Children in houses perched on isolated island shores waved with white towels, like the ferry's passing was the most exciting moment in their day. I waved back like it was the most exciting moment in my day.

A spontaneous yoga practise erupted when a young woman jokingly suggested we stretch. I seriously made her commit, and within five minutes, three of us were on the back of the main deck doing downward dogs. Four Russian guys watched like it was the most exciting moment in their day.

I got to know Nate, the biker who helped me tie down Henk when we boarded. He's a sweet, soft-spoken young man who's packed more climbing, biking, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and diving into his 25 years on the planet than most outdoorsmen will do in a lifetime - and he bakes his own bread. He was working for a start-up that went belly-up in Colorado three weeks ago, so he hopped on his raggamuffin 1994 Kawasaki Vulcan and headed solo to Alaska. It's a pleasure swapping adventure stories with someone who knows you're not exaggerating when you say "I almost died."

Today I slept in until 9:30. It was foggy again, and I was just so damn cozy in my warm little bag in the sardine-packed solarium. I saw no reason to get up until the sun came out, which it did, and we were blessed with another spectacular day inching our way down the inside passage.

I had a beer with Nate and four bikers from Sacramento who'd done an Alaskan adventure together on their Goldwings, BMW, and Harley. The remarkable thing about these guys is not that they met at a square dancing club, or that they were all still having a blast after a month on the road together; it's that the youngest in their gang, Bill, is 52. Two of them, Ralph, a retired accountant, and Andy, a retired fighter pilot, are 74(!) and Ed is well into his sixties. An inspiring bunch of guys, indeed.

Ralph and I had a huge howl when he told me about all his friends begging him not to go. "Don't you know you're too old for that?" they'd say to him over and over. "Yeah, and it's dangerous waking up," he'd retort. "You could get out of bed, step into the shower and crack your head open!"

"My dad lived to be a hundred," he said, smiling, "so maybe I'll get lucky." I told him I wanted to be still riding at 74. "You'll find as you get older, people around you become more and more fearful." Thank god Ralph and his buddies are out there proving fear is an illusion.



Every motorbike trip has one. One of those misadventures you hope never happens, but once you've miraculously survived it, makes for the best story. (You can see the videos of this most recent one in "Henk's Sick" below.)

When I rode across Canada a few years ago, my drive belt came flying off at high speed on the Trans Canada an hour east of Regina. Luckily, when I dropped behind the transport truck I was trying to pass, no other vehicle was coming up behind me. I was towed to Regina, and within 48 hours was safely back on the road, thankful it hadn't been worse.

Last year, riding south between Chetwynd and Prince George, BC, quite literally the middle of nowhere, I came into the eye of The Mother of all Rocky Mountain Hail and Lightning Storms. The inside of the 18-wheeler cab where I took refuge turned out to be scarier than the idea of getting struck by lightning. By the end of the day, though, after passing through countless heavy showers and escaping trucker hell, I was laughing my head off.

This morning, lying on my lounge chair in the 'solarium' of Alaska Ferries' 'Malaspina' in my sleepingbag dried by the overhead heat lamps, with a view of low-lying clouds hovering silent over lush, dripping rain forested mountains and blue-white glaciers feeding gushing waterfalls into Lynn Straight, I cried.

It's not good to cry in a crisis, but it's essential to cry afterward. I cried because I've never been so thankful to be alive. Riding the rest of the pass to Skagway from Canada Customs at Fraser this morning, I saw what a blessing it had been that Henk's battery died just when it did, not quite at the top of the pass, just as the weather had really settled in and just as darkness had really taken over.

It was still raining this morning when I packed up my soaked tent, sleepingbag, thermarest, dripping coat and tank bag. I'd gotten maybe one hour of restless sleep in the wind and driving rain on the slab of concrete across the tracks from the customs office, when a drip of cold water on my eyelid woke me up precisely at 5:30. My winter coat I'd draped over my sleepingbag for extra warmth was soaked on the outside.

I was praying that Alan's charge of last night would hold and get me and Henk to the ferry on time; hoping that if not, at least in the light of day there'd be traffic, and I could flag someone down for a boost. When no car came by the entire hour I took to pack up, I went inside to check on expected traffic. "We literally don't see one vehicle between midnight and ten am," said the tired guy who'd replaced Alan on the midnight shift. "I don't even know why we stay open."

Those were not the encouraging words I wanted to hear, and I started to doubt that I would catch my ferry. "Mike across the street is going to summit soon though," he added, sounding as hospitable as customs officers are allowed to sound. Perfect! I ran across the street to tell Mike from Yukon Highways and Maintenance my predicament, and beg him to be my tail to US customs, 25kms away. "I'm not supposed to go all the way down the hill," he said. "But I'll go part way and make sure you're gonna make it."

He followed in his truck at a close distance while I slowly navigated the steep mountain pass through rainclouds two feet above the ground. At one point near the summit, my visibility went down to almost zero. The yellow line disappeared, and I felt as though I could easily just ride right off the face of the earth. Had I attempted the pass last night, I probably would have.

Henk's battery was holding, so I held on for dear life and rode one slow mile at a time, grateful for the headlights breaking through the fog in my rearview mirror.

When the headlights disappeared, I knew I was close - I could coast through customs if the battery failed me now. Once again, I've never been so happy to see a customs office. The officer told me it was another ten km to the ferry, and sent me on my way with no hassles. It was six thirty am, an hour earlier at the border, and I would make my 8:15 ferry!

Henk's battery died in the line-up five minutes before boarding. I got a little shove by the ferry worker, coasted in neutral to the front of the car deck, and strapped Henk down with some expert knot-tying help from a rider from Colorado.

It took my sleepingbag only minutes to dry out under the heat lamps of the solarium on the upper deck of the blue canoe; so when I crawled inside, dry and safe and warm, finally relaxing my shoulders completely to their cartilage, and looked out at the breathtaking scene changing glacially slow through my open, deck-wide bedroom window, my eyes filled to their brims with wonder for the exquisite beauty - made a million times more beautiful through the efforts required to get here.

I thanked the army of guardian angels, human and ethereal, who watch over me on these solo adventures, and fell into a deep sleep, rocked like a baby by gentle giant mother earth.

This morning:


Henk's Sick

As much as I like Whitehorse, I am in no hurry to be stuck here. Doctor Red called in sick today, leaving only Dr. Patrick at Yukon Harley to diagnose and treat Henk. Of course, he went down on the priority list, and I've been on the phone several times today trying to find out when he'll be ready. Henk's stator is shot. I'm not exactly sure what that is, except to say that the battery won't charge without it, and I basically have no ride without that part. Of course, there is no such part anywhere in the Yukon, and Patrick said it would take until at least Tuesday to have it shipped from Vancouver.
I decided to ride without it, charging the battery with cables three more times between here and Bellingham, where there's a Harley shop that has the part and can squeeze me in (after Patrick begged for me).

The passes between here and Skagway are high and long, and there's a good chance I'll break down somewhere up there. It's a bit disconcerting knowing that, but I'd rather ride than be stuck waiting for a part. It's only 156kms, and I can walk Henk on and off the ferry. When I arrive in Bellingham, I'll get boosted one last time and ride to the shop. The South Klondike Highway is well-travelled, and if I do get stuck, there will be someone to help. (Hopefully before the bears get me.)

In the meantime, Patrick's still working on getting the fork seals replaced after six pm. He's been a trooper considering his work load, but I'm getting a little anxious for daylight hours. Here's what Henk looks like at the moment. He's got his left front leg off and his insides exposed.

1:38am Canada Customs Fraser, BC.

Well, as I predicted, I did actually break down somewhere up on that road. Exactly at Canada Customs in Fraser on the Alaska border, just a half hour ride from my destination of Skagway. I've never been so happy to see customs officers. And now I'm in my tent on a concrete platform beside the customs office with my beeswax candle from Aroma Borealis in Whitehorse and Jack Johnson on iTunes. Amazingly, I've got an internet connection here. The tent fly is flapping wildly in the wind. I think the rain is sogged in for the night. It's been a crazy night so far - it may turn out to be the longest night of my life. I need to try and either stay awake until five, or sleep a few hours and wake up without an alarm to try and get out in time to catch my ferry at eight.

Here are the videos:

After Alan from Canada Customs boosted Henk the first time, I attempted to carry on toward Skagway, but five minutes down the road, I realized that was a crazy idea. My headlight was losing power, even on low, and with the rain and low-lying black clouds, I literally couldn't see three feet in front of me. The asphalt had blackened to an ominous oily river, and there was not a soul - not a soul - on the road at that hour (it was getting on to 11pm). In fact in my entire ride from Whitehorse, I'd seen three vehicles. That's lonelier than the North Klondike!

I was cursing Red at Yukon Harley for calling in sick and making me an entire day late. When I realized how unevolved that was, I focused on cursing myself for scheduling a ferry into an itinerary that was supposed to be without schedule. I cursed myself for riding at night, which I never ever do; but I quickly reasoned that in this case, I absolutely had to. There was a ferry leaving Skagway at eight in the morning with or without me. I wanted it to leave with me. So I stopped cursing and focused on my immediate problem.

I imagined standing up on a mountain pass for hours, freezing in the rain that was now verging on snow, waiting for headlights in the distance to offer a glimmer of hope. I knew there'd be none.

In these mountain passes, one slip of the front tire could be IT. I had to turn back on a gut feeling, and sure enough, just over the hill from Canada Customs, Henk's battery died again.

Funky Town

I like Whitehorse. It leaves a great first impression, and upon returning for the fourth time, i'm still impressed.

Robert Service Campground is a sweet little place on the south end of town along the Yukon River. In the land of monster RV's, it's nice to stay at a campground that specializes in private, wooded tent sites where world travellers and adventurers gather to rest for the night and swap stories before heading into the wilderness by canoe or kayak or hiking trail or highway.

I pulled in late last night, just as the Yukon sky was working its magical midnight sunset thing over the river. There's a particular shade of blue I've never seen anywhere but the night skies of the Yukon. It's deep and rich and dark and indescribably, mysteriously beautiful. It's the land, covered in purple fireweed and slender evergreens, that goes on forever, split open by deep canyons and inky waterways reflecting light beyond infinity, painting over what should be a coal black canvas with what verges on a hue outside the spectrum I can only call Yukon Midnight Blue. Anyway, it's worth it to come all the way here to see for yourself.

Germans and Swiss have regular, daily flights direct to Whitehorse. Somehow Europeans have discovered the Yukon, and for the moment seem to share it only with Quebecers. If the rest of Canada knew what it had, there'd be another stampede north; this one not for gold, but for a golden life.

Alpine Bakery in Whitehorse is quite literally 'ground zero' for vegetarianism in the north. Suat, its hospitable and conscientious owner, has made it easy for vegetarians to survive in an isolated northern town more known for its caribou stew. He runs an organic vegetable co-op, buying local veggies whenever they're available, and shipping from BC when not, and creates wonderful aromas and flavors from his large open kitchen and wood-fired oven.

I stopped in today for lunch after taking Henk to see Doctor Red at Yukon Harley.

I almost cried with my first taste of Aztec Stew and my first sip of carrot/apple/ginger juice. After eating mostly uninspired food (or not eating because all I could find was uninspired food) for over two weeks on the road, it was sublime to savor a meal made with good intentions and top quality ingredients. Even the herbs and spices, I could tell, were of the highest quality. But most of all, I could taste the infusion of calm, healing energy that had gone into it. I almost cried because it's such a rare occasion to feel so utterly nurtured and healed by food.

People here have independent spirits and a sense of adventure. They're refreshingly authentic. They're not living here because of jobs or careers or pursuits of the intellect; they're here because they love nature, they're a little bit rebellious, they shun the trappings of urban centres, and they love their community and the unique northern lifestyle. It's a surprisingly funky town in a gorgeous natural setting, and the story of someone stopping to fill up for gas and staying forever has become cliche. One of these days I'll return (or still be here) for the women's hairy leg contest during
Rendezvous, the February Winter Festival. It happens that I'm here in between the Longest Days Festival and the Storytelling Festival. The list of international happenings here is as long as the longest day.

Henk has to stay at the hospital overnight. They've got him pinned to the table and he can't move. When they told me they'd have to keep him longer than expected, my heart sank. Doctor Red so far hasn't given me that good-to-core confidence that Dustin inspired. Let's hope he's competent. It'll be strange not having Henk stand guard outside my tent tonight. Even stranger that I actually see him as my companion.

Long and Lonely Klondike Highway

Yes, it's a long and lonely road from Dawson to Whitehorse. It's only 550kms, but it seems like 800 because it's just so wonderfully remote.
I love it, even though the chip seal and gravel bite the hell out of Henk's rubber. This time, the longest stretch of freshly laid gravel was 14kms. Not bad for an isolated northern road, but it was slow-going for Henk and me. With his limping right side, we had a bit of a wobble in the inch-thick gravel, which made for very unstable driving. It took all my concentration, and a considerable amount of upper body strength to stay upright.

The guy on the phone at Yukon Harley highly recommended that I not ride with my right fork seal gone. But Dustin said that with my light weight, if I took it easy, I'd be fine. I trusted him over a voice on the phone, and rode, keeping Henk steady at 100km/h where the wobble seemed in check. It turned out the fork wasn't my only problem.

After I'd filled up at Stewart Crossing, Henk wouldn't start, as though the battery was dead again. That's impossible, though, because I literally just replaced my battery yesterday. So I asked a guy for a boost and Henk started instantly. Strange. When I filled up at Carmacks, I left the engine running for fear it would die again. Then, as I was riding into Whitehorse, I ran out of gas. Before I could reach for the reserve toggle, the engine died. Right there on the Alaska Highway across from a gas station/grocery store.

I suppose it could have been a lot worse. If you're going to break down on the highway, it may as well be across from a gas station. It didn't take long for me to find someone with cables, and Henk and I rode the last ten minutes to the Robert Service Campground knowing that I'd have to do the same in the morning to get Henk to his scheduled doctor's appointment.

In my mind, an adventure wouldn't be an adventure if I didn't have to stretch beyond the familiar, or once in awhile rely on the kindness of strangers. The last thing I want when I leave my comfort zone is a predictable experience. And though I've covered familiar territory geographically on this portion of my journey, the mental, emotional, and spiritual terrain has been utterly unknown - uncomfortable even. It's sacred ground though; accessible to all, yet lost in translation to words or photos. That's The Unbloggable True North.


Leaving Dawson

I do believe I'm pokered out - or at least Diamond Tooth Gertie's pokered out for the moment. I've got their three delightfully cheesy can-can shows maddeningly embedded in my genetic hard-drive after hearing them nine times each. It's time to ride.
I often say I want to ride motorbike until I'm motorbiked out, and I keep thinking it's a season away, but that desire never leaves. I wonder if I'll tire of poker. As fun as it is to entertain the idea of making a living playing a game you enjoy, any honest poker player (is that an oxymoron?) will tell you it can be a grind. I had the most fun at the table when I sat beside someone with whom I could joke around - and that's not exactly serious poker playing. That's the trick. You've gotta be pretty serious about winning to win at poker.

But last night I was much more interested in chatting with the four native guys from Inuvik who'd stopped in to play on their way to Whitehorse for some kind of a skeet shooting tournament. They'd had some practice on the way down with a big male caribou. Jimmy, the young guy with a wonderful mischievous grin immediately to my left, said his aunt had called from Whitehorse saying that her freezer's empty. "No problem," he told her. "There's lots of caribou on the way." Over the course of an hour while Jimmy was separated from his fifty bucks by the local sharks, I found out that the buck who'd met his fate, after he'd been shot, had had his head severed, which was left for the bears (six grizzlies were waiting), then he'd been cut down the belly and his innards thrown into the grizzly smorg. He'd then been sliced in half and thrown onto the back of Jimmy's truck, where I imagine he will stay until Jimmy arrives at his aunt's village near Whitehorse, where she'll cut him into steaks and freeze him (the buck, not Jimmy). According to Jimmy, the tongue and the heart are the best-tasting parts.

Amazingly, this vegetarian was not in the least bit offended by the story. If people are going to eat meat, that is the way to do it.

I've played poker every evening for a week. Eight tournaments in total, and eight or nine 5/10 limit holdem games, as well as one 10/20 holdem and one 5/10 omaha hi-lo. I'll leave Dawson three hundred bucks richer, not half my ferry fare to Bellingham from Skagway. But I've gained a wealth of table experience I couldn't have gotten anywhere else. These Dawsonites are serious about their game, and I feel like I've had a free master class in how to win at poker. My game is much sharper now than before I got here, and I feel like I've finally begun to let loose some aggression - much needed at the poker table, and, for a passifist like myself, in life.

They say this is a game you can learn in an hour, but it takes a lifetime to master. When you play a lot, you realize how true that is. You can read all the how-to-win-at-poker books that you like, but until you've seen thousands of hands play out, you just don't have the experience to win consistently.

John says its easier for him to win in Dawson than it is down south in Laughlin, Arizona, where he spends his winters. "They're all older than me there," he says. And you just know some of those old guys have played more than a hand or two.

In the week I've been here, John managed to amass almost two grand. Watch out for him if you ever make it up this way. I made sure I sat near him whenever we played at the same table. Only twice were we in significant hands against each other. Last night, he busted me out of the tournament with his king/queen against my king/jack. I knew better than to call his all-in bet when a king came on the flop. The voice inside my head was saying "You know better than to call John on an all-in bet, even when you have top pair." And I did. But I called anyway. That's poker; and that's skill playing inexperience - exactly how the greats make their money. I was actually pretty happy it wasn't the other way around. Nobody wants to beat their teacher.

Then tonight, John was almost out of the tournament with just 50 or 100 in chips left. He went all-in and I continued betting with my jack/10 when a jack hit on the flop. He turned up his cards and showed pocket queens. Another jack hit on the river, and I busted him out - purely by luck. That's poker. "Now we're even," he laughed as he left the table. I went on to (finally) take third place.

I leave on the ferry for the southbound leg of the journey on Saturday from Skagway. It's three days of sailing, which I'm very much looking forward to. Unless there's some kind of a freaky game onboard in the card room, I won't be playing poker again until August 30 in Vegas.


Video of Buffalo on Alaska Highway

This herd of wild Buffalo live on the Alaska Highway just north of Liard Hotsprings.
Here are a few funny moments I had with them over a week ago en route to Whitehorse from Liard Hotsprings...


Video of Liard Hotsprings

It feels like weeks ago that I was at Liard Hotsprings, mile 495 of the Alaska Highway just south of the Yukon border. I stayed just one night this time because it wasn't raining and I didn't get happily stuck. Now that I'm ensconced at Bonanza Gold, my friends Gail and John's motel and RV park empire on the edge of Dawson City, I have the bandwidth and the electricity to share a few videos. Liard Hotsprings is a treasure. Stay tuned for more...

(When I say "the cooler end" I mean the end of the pool that's not boiling hot. It's actually about 38C.)


Henk's Mechanical Problems

It's been raining off and on all day today, and tonight while I was at Gertie's playing poker with the sharks, it poured. I expected my tent to be soggy when I returned, but it's actually held up very well. Apparently North Face guarantees their tents for life. Mine's about nine years old, and still perfect. I'm snug in my sleepingbag wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt; and four tea candles beside me have taken away any damp chill.

Henk has an appointment at
Yukon Harley Davidson in Whitehorse on Thursday to have his front fork seals replaced. The right fork started leaking profusely two days ago, onto the front brake disk and tire. I suppose after 86,000kms and nine seasons of riding - two of them on rough dusty northern roads - I have to expect little things to start to go. This is where Henk's wild cousin, Ulysses, comes in. As willing as Henk is to brave any road I bring him down, he's not exactly bred for chip seal and gravel. Ulysses has a 20% more adventurous spirit. I hope that by the time I can afford him, mine will still match.

It took me a good part of the day to find an expert opinion. Everyone in town's got what they believe is one. Igor, the photographer who travelled across the US on his motorbike in a snowstorm suggested some kind of spray-on silicone seal around the outside to stop the leaking at least until I got to Whitehorse; but first he suggested I find Doug, "the only mechanic in town," and cry long enough and hard enough for him to agree to drop his current back-listed projects to fix Henk.

"Are you Doug, the busy mechanic?" I asked when I finally found his compound and when he finally hung up the phone with an anxious customer whose car he was still working on. "Yes, and I don't do motorbikes," was his curt reply. "Hmm," I said. "I guess I won't bother wasting my energy on crying, like Igor suggested." "Igor's a..." his voice trailed off and I knew I was screwed. "Ok, do you have any suggestions? My front fork seals are toast." "No idea. You might try Northern Superior, but they're busy as hell and they charge through the nose..."

I tried a new approach and went to Northern Electric, a supply warehouse for the mining industry - a trip unto itself. Men in filthy ballcaps with hardened, blackened hands and faces etched with years of heavy gravel hauling were lined up waiting for one guy behind the counter to find their particular piece of metal tubing, or their particular nut and bolt attachment. It was a fascinating microcosm of modern day gold mining in the legendary Klondike. With all the technology available to us now, it still requires men willing to work their fingers to the bone to get gold.

I picked up a spray can of "gasket seal" as well as a tube of extremely toxic silicone goo, and when it was my turn with the guy who seemed to know everything about everything, I asked for his advice. "I've got a leaky seal," I said, still not even close to crying. "Which one of these might do the trick?" This sparked a flurry of advice and activity. Three or four guys came outside to look at Henk, who was bleeding onto the tire rim. Unafraid of getting a little dirtier, they stuck their fingers in the oil, sniffed it, almost tasted it, and came up with the solution: "You can't fix this from the outside. There's nothing you can do but replace the seals." I thought so. Somehow it seemed illogical that a band-aid would stop an internal wound.

"Go talk to Dustin out at the compound," someone suggested. "He'll be able to fix it." "Yeah, but he's real busy too," someone else said. "Try him anyway. He's a good guy. He'll take care of it for you."

So off to the compound I went, not entirely discouraged, looking for the dude named Dustin.

You know how sometimes people are able to instil confidence simply by uttering one word? It's amazing how much nuance is carried in in a greeting. Like some doctors, for example, have that "I'm going to take care of this and don't you worry" tone in their voice when they tell you to jump up on the table and say aahh. You just know, on a cellular level, that any concerns you may have will instantly vanish with his or her advice.

He said "Hello" and I knew I'd found my expert. Within Dustin's one word greeting was layered a willingness to meet me, a generosity of spirit, compassion, enthusiasm, intelligence, curiosity, and competence. He took a good look at Henk, as though he had all the time in the world, then gave me the prescription: let it bleed until it's dry. That way the oil won't leak anymore over the brake disk and tire - "Just come by here on your way out of town and I'll clean it up for you." In the worst case scenario, I'll have a bit of a bumpy ride to Whitehorse without my right front fork absorbing some of those potholes - "But you've gotta take it easy on that road anyway."

He saw the seal change as an easy job, and offered to do it himself by flying in the parts on Air North and setting aside some of his other work, but if I was going to Whitehorse anyway for a tune-up, his solution of drying the fork and cleaning up the oil spill would work just fine. My concerns, which had begun to magnify as the day had gone on from one opinionated person's opinion to another, disappeared.

If you ever have a mechanical problem of any kind while in Dawson City, go see Dustin at the native compound near the bridge.

Days in Dawson

I'm in the bathhouse waiting for the water to warm. It doesn't take long, but when you're the first to light a fire in the morning, you're starting from a cold standstill.

I love that bathing here is a ritual. You have to set aside a morning or an evening, and all the little preparations that go into making your bath give you a heightened sense of appreciation for that first splash of hot water on your skin. (And a heightened sense of appreciation for hot and cold running water!)

It's looking like another beautiful day here in Dawson City. So far, it's been pretty uneventful, which is perfect. Last year's journey here was epic. I'm glad that this one feels a little less Homeric. I'm happier this time around - not necessarily looking for anything or running away from or toward anything. I really just took this journey for the journey, and that concept in itself has proven epic enough without any great drama over which to cloak my story.

I find the people here to be very content; reason enough to want to be here. It's difficult to get a complaint out of any local even if you go fishing for one. I asked Terry, the guy who works the night shift directing traffic onto and off the ferry, back and forth across the river, if he likes his job. "I love it," he replied in a tone that matched his words. "I get to see the sun set and the moon rise and the sun rise over the river all in the same shift. " Indeed, as he spoke, the big fat mid-August full moon that had just revealed itself hovered like a beacon over the Yukon River, its moonbeam dancing on the blackened north-flowing current.

Way off toward infinity, on the endless eastern horizon, the sky had lightened ever so slightly with impending dawn. It's an eerily wonderful juxtaposition to be standing in the middle of at two in the morning; almost as though day and night had become intertwined in battle or in lovemaking somewhere over the edge of the earth, and neither one was willing to be the first to release its desperate grasp.

Yet magically, night surrenders with surprising grace, knowing in a few months its time will come to cover this land. The spell of the Yukon, of which Robert Service wrote, is present in that hour, and I feel myself strangely drawn to spend more time uncovering its mysteries.

I asked a local sitting next to me at the poker table what it's like living here in the winter. "If you're somewhat together," he replied, "if you're half normal, and have anything at all going on for yourself, a winter here would drive you insane." I looked at him and smiled. He was dead serious. "But if you're half crazy, you'd fit right in."

It would come as no surprise to anyone who knows me if I decided to one day spend a winter here purely for the anthropological study. Nor would it be argued that I was half crazy.

I played poker again last night at Gertie's and won two hundred bucks. I should stick to the five-ten game, because I managed to turn two hundred into five hundred bucks over the course of a couple of hours. It's the tournaments I'm not quite getting. I played in my second one, and once again came in fourth. I call myself 'bubble girl'. Going out on the bubble is no fun. You either want to go out first with a bang, or come in the money. Being on the bubble is just maddening. But I can't seem to get the strategy down for a timed tournament. There simply isn't time to wait for an ideal opportunity. There's a lessen in there somewhere. Like, what are you waiting for? Turn your seven-two off-suit into a winning hand because life is not going to wait for you.

video of the bathhouse:

Diamond Tooth Gertie's

I played poker tonight for three hours and made a hundred bucks.

Diamond Tooth Gertie's is Canada's first legalized gambling hall, conceived of in 1899 by the hospitable captain of a crowded ocean steamer bringing gold seekers from Seattle to the Klondike. For over a hundred years, people from all over the world have met here to try their luck at the tables, be entertained by the dancers, and meet fellow adventurers.

I learned to play here last year from John Hendley, who plays professionally, and whose chips were piled to table-tilting proportions the night we first agreed to the exchange of poker lessons for restaurant help. He taught me the basics, gave me some of his strategy and a bankroll, then set me loose in the shark pool. I lost.

But I've been practising; and playing in the shark pool I found so intimidating a year ago tonight felt like swimming with dolphins.

It's a friendly game here at Gertie's, and there's always a happy freak or two at the table - unlike in L.A., where people seem to be miserably grinding out a living.

Everyone knows each other and gets along. I'm sure that over the weeks, the money simply trades hands, although I know that it ends up more often in John's hands than any others.

We started the evening at 7:30 with a ten-person tournament with a thirty-five dollar buy in. Re-buys and add-ons were allowed until half an hour before the game ended on the dot at 8:30. It's quite a different game than the one I'm used to where you play until the final two are heads up, then keep on playing until one guy goes out, regardless of the time. Part of my strategy is patience, but when the clock is ticking, patience doesn't always pay. I literally didn't have a starting hand the entire hour, but by folding almost every single hand, I managed to stay in the game until only four of us were left. The problem with that is only three people get paid, and of course I was the short stack. If I had gotten lucky and the number three guy had gone out, I would have simply fluked into a paying position. But I didn't, and went out on the bubble when I went all-in three hands from the end with the best hand I'd had all game: ten king off.

When the tournament ended, the game changed to 5-10 limit hold'em. Here's where patience can pay. I waited and waited, folding seven-two off and nine-four off, until the right opportunity to get in a hand presented itself. I won two nice pots with ace queen that paired both on the flop, beating john out of his flush draw, and jack queen that did the same. That was enough to get back my tournament entry plus a hundred dollars. When I got up to leave, one of the regulars said, "You're taking our money and leaving, eh?" I told him I'd be back tomorrow night if he wanted to try and get it back.

Video Blog of Klondike Highway


Video Blog of Alaska Highway


The Far North

Aaahh. The Yukon! I'm finally here! Four thousand kilometres from Christina Lake, I'm finally in Dawson City.

Here in my little tent running on 72% battery at the River Hostel. It's 12:18am and only just beginning to get dark. The constant drone of the five minute ferry that crosses the Yukon River twenty four hours a day makes me feel like Huck Finn on a grand adventure. Or Becky.

I arrived here appropriately filthy and full of anticipation for the outdoor prospector's bath. Thank god for Germans! A couple had been in the bathhouse before me and made a roaring fire under the water. When I arrived, dusty, with a face full of bugs, there was no need to saw wood - all I had to do was strip and ladle steaming hot water over my skin. By the time I'd finished bathing, the heated wood house had warmed and dried my sarong, which had been wet in my bag since Liard Hotsprings.

The Klondike Highway today was beautiful, but it took me eight hours to cover just over 500km.

I stopped frequently to take mini films, which I'll point you to soon, and the road was broken up with long stretches of construction and gravel. The pavement north of 60 is actually not pavement at all. It's a combination of dirt and gravel, seal-coated with oil. When they're re-doing it, the rain can turn the dirt into a slippery mixture of chocolate pudding and stones. I barely hung on to Henk at 60km/h when he slid sideways, so I decided to slow down. When the days are this long, there's no hurry to arrive before ten or eleven pm.

Everyone complains of the roads up here, but the state of the roads is partially what makes it such an adventure. If it were easy, everyone would be here. I, for one, am glad it's hard as hell to get here.

I had the entire road to myself today. Just me, Henk, a mamma grizzly, and her two tiny cubs. I rounded a bend around 90kms north of Whitehorse and our eyes met. She was just off the road, not ten feet from my right knee. I didn't get far down the road before I realized I needed - NEEDED - a longer look. I couldn't pass by this astonishing creature without properly saying hello.

I turned around and crept as close as I dared. Not close enough to get a photo, but close enough for her to hear the rev of Henk's engine as I kept my left hand on the clutch and my right on the throttle, ready to bolt if I had to. She was digging in the ground for grubs and feeding them to her two adorable tiny cubs who were rolling around in the prickly grass. There was not another soul around for miles, and the occasional car that did pass just zoomed by, missing it all entirely.

It's an odd feeling, being out in the middle of nowhere, just me and little Henk, in the presence of such magnificence. It took awhile before I could discern that the strange primal feeling which had jolted my belly and overcome me was actually not fear. It was a form of reverence I'd never experienced before. Deep and personal and intimate; fierce and ancient and religious.

I kept Henk's engine running, even though I desperately wanted to turn off the noise and be the silent observer. Each time I moved an inch closer, she'd look up from her digging with her ears at attention and her black eyes directly on mine. I remained at a distance we both agreed on and watched for fifteen minutes before finally turning back northbound with a renewed sense of awe for the far north.

The North

It's a beautiful sunny day here at eight thirty am in Chetwynd. I'll be in Dawson Creek having coffee at Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway within the hour. If the weather holds, I may just make it to Liard Hotsprings, Mile 495, today.
The ride yesterday from Jasper along the Yellowhead Highway was spectacular. I dressed in my usual 7 layers to stay warm in the deep freeze that is the Rocky Mountains, and when the sun came out, it warmed about as thoroughly as the lightbulb in your freezer. After passing Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Rockies at 12,972 ft, it filled my rearview mirror with its cloud-topped massiveness for miles.

Half-way between Jasper and Prince George, the stresses of the city finally washed away with a spontaneous outburst of tears of joy inside my helmet, and my spirits lifted to new levels. It's difficult to describe the feeling I get when the closed-in concrete disappears and the world expands to an infinity of endless evergreen and open sky falling to faraway peaks on the horizon. Its as though the infinite in me recognizes it - or I am the infinity I'm riding through; and for a good healthy change, I feel myself again. I finally feel sane. If I could bring you with me, you'd understand when I tell you "This is who I am."