July 1, 2008 – The sound of soft rain on our tent woke us on the morning of July 1st, and the showers continued long enough to make us consider staying in our comfortable campsite beside the Yukon River. But by mid-afternoon the rain slowed to a drizzle, and my son and I loaded our bikes and pedalled out of Carcross, heading north on the Klondike Highway towards Dawson City.
Little did we guess that the day's ride would last until midnight, and that we would be treated to an unconventional display of Canada Day fireworks.
The ride began, as usual, with a long ascent. (Most of the territorial campgrounds are located beside rivers, which in these parts always seem to be located at the bottom of valleys; is that just coincidence, or conclusive proof of Intelligent Design?) Our Canada Day climb soon had us comfortably warm in spite of the intermittent mists, and after an hour our muscles were limber and we were making good time. But the scenery proved too spectacular to allow us quick passage.
About 4 pm we reached the viewpoint for the Five Finger Rapids, justly billed as one of Yukon's most popular recreational attractions. The sun was beginning to emerge, and the strands of turbulent water glistened far below us. A rugged trail, which includes 230 steps in the Yukon Territory's longest staircase, winds down to the shoreline for a close-up view of massive outcrops of rock, dividing the river into five swift-flowing streams. Gulls and ravens appeared to have these islands to themselves, though interpretive signs explained that in years past, settlers had built a cable system from the shoreline to the rocks, so that paddlewheel steamboats could be winched safely through the rapids.
Five Finger Rapids, Yukon River (larger version of panorama here)
It was 5 pm when we got back to our bikes. We had only ridden 25 kilometers, and the next village was still 80 km up the road. But we had many hours of daylight left, and we set out confidently for Pelly Crossing.
As the evening wore on, the wind picked up from the direction of the setting sun: north. We worked harder, and moved slower. When the sun dipped behind the mountains, the temperature dropped, bottoming out at 5°C. Every half hour we stopped to put on more clothes – wool tights over our shorts, then long-sleeve shirts, then wind-pants, then jackets, finally even our wool caps. After each stop we were warm for a few minutes, and after the next downhill cruise we were shivering again. At two of the stops we found wild strawberries growing beside the highway. The tiny and succulent specimens of rubus arcticus warmed our spirits, but did little to warm our aching joints, either the 15-year-old joints or the fifty-something ones.
Just after sunset – about 11:30 – we came swooping down a curve right beside a large pond dotted with waterfowl. The birds were alarmed by something – perhaps our loaded bikes rattling down the bumpy road, perhaps the chattering of our teeth. The birds exploded up from the water, setting off a kind of reverse pyrotechnics, with hundreds of fluttering black dots rising against the purple and pink fire of the sky.
We were cold and hungry when we reached Pelly Crossing and spotted the campground sign in the twilight. We feared that after midnight on the summer's prime travel day, all the good tent sites might be occupied. But when we turned off the Klondike Highway into the well-equipped campground, we faced an unexpectedly difficult selection: every last one of the 200 campsites was still open.