Shortly after I returned from the moped trip, I wrote an
article about it for a small circulation newsletter called "Sporadical"
(Fall 1978 issue).
Here is that article.
This past summer I spent three months on a moped trip from
Toronto to the Yukon, Alaska, and the Northwest Territories (NWT). A moped is a
small, 50cc motorcycle, which can also be pedaled like a bicycle. Mopeds have a
top speed of 25-30 mph and get about 200 miles per gallon.
This was the fourth summer that I had traveled on a moped,
having toured the Maritime Provinces in the summer of 1977 on one. So, to take a
trip up to Alaska on a moped was sort of the "ultimate trip" for me --
a trip that I had been contemplating for over two years.
The northern reaches of North America -- Alaska, Yukon, and NWT
-- are an area that has been experiencing rapid change during the past few
years. Oil, gas and minerals are opening up this vast wilderness. Only 100 years
ago much of this area was a blank spot on maps, and even today you can walk
where no one has ever walked before.
I arrived in the Yukon by traveling up the Alaska Highway, which
was punched through the wilderness in only 9 months during World War II. Shortly
after the war ended it was opened up to civilian traffic. Every year since then
it has become busier, mainly with tourists who head north in pursuit of the
increasingly scarce wilderness.
Only 22,000 people live in the Yukon, occupying only 1% of the
land area, and 15,000 of them live in the capital city of Whitehorse. The first
town I went through in the Yukon was Watson Lake. From here I went north, away
from the Alaska Highway. Most tourists, when they come up to the Yukon and
Alaska, merely drive straight up the Alaska Highway through Whitehorse to
Fairbanks, Alaska. Doing that is much the same as driving from Toronto to
Vancouver along the Trans-Canada Highway -- you get a fleeting glimpse of one
small section of the country you are passing through. If you really want to see
and experience the country, you must get off of the main roads. So I headed away
from Watson Lake with the next gas station 230 miles ahead of me.
After being stuck in the rain for a couple of days at a mining
exploration camp, I reached the town of Ross River and headed south on the Canol
Road. This road was also built during the Second World War in conjunction with
an oil pipeline. It is interesting how such major projects as pipelines and
roads are built almost instantly and without questions during wars. Only during
peacetime are such projects questioned (that is, if the public finds out
about them). The MacKenzie Valley pipeline proposal caused such an uproar that
the project was eventually re-routed and the Alaska Pipeline was only built with
stringent environmental controls after 10 years of planning and controversy. Yet
the Alaska Highway has had more impact on the north than any other development
Eventually, after 140 miles with no towns or gas for the whole
distance, I returned to the Alaska Highway, which seemed like an expressway
after the Canol Road, which for most of its length resembles a country lane. And
then I hit Whitehorse, or, I should say, it hit me. After two
hours if groping about in that vast metropolis of 15,000 people I had a stomach
ache from nervous tension and uptightness. I only stayed around long enough to
stock up on food and wash my clothes. I had been away from the hassles of modern
day living for so long I was having a very hard time adjusting to them again.
So, with a great sigh of relief, I fled, continuing north up the Alaska Highway
I got delayed again for several days by rain before I got there,
though. You are probably wondering why a little rain should delay me so much.
Well, most of the roads in the Yukon are made of clay, which when dry is so hard
it is like pavement (except for the dust and potholes). But when the road gets
wet, it becomes like greased ice. You can barely even stand upright on it. And
this wet clay is sticky too, and sprays up all over you and your bike, until you
become one big brown mass, sliding along the highway. This glichy mess, once
it's on your bike, either doesn't dry for days, or dries quickly into a
cement-like coating which you almost have to chisel off! So, needless to say,
when it rained I stayed put.
I didn't see much of Alaska because I didn't have time, but
there is a vast difference between Alaska and Yukon. Alaska is like a piece of
the "Lower 48" (as Alaskans refer to the rest of the USA) stuck up
north. There are "No Trespassing" signs all over the place, and
everything is moving faster, and on a larger scale than in the Yukon. You know
you're in the 20th century, whereas in the Yukon you know you must be in
the year 1978, but you aren't quite sure -- you must keep reminding yourself.
Alaska has launched itself at breakneck speed towards the year 2000, and you know
At the Alaskan border the Alaska Highway becomes paved after
1,000 miles of dirt road. Motorcyclists always stop here, either to gawk at the
road, wondering what the hell that funny smooth black stuff is, or to kneel down
and reverently kiss the smooth, non-dusty pavement, offering prayers of thanks
to the mythological beings who created such a wondrous substance. Ride a bike up
the Alaska Highway and you'll know why!
Returning to the Yukon I paused briefly at Dawson City, which
was once the largest and gaudiest city west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco,
with 30,000 people. Now less than 800 people live here. This is typical of the
"boom-and-bust" nature of the northern economy. The building of the
Alaska Pipeline attracted a lot of people up to Alaska, and now they are all
waiting around for the next pipeline -- the next "boom".
From Dawson City I headed north up the new Dempster Highway,
which runs north for 475 miles to Inuvik, NWT. This highway was begun in 1959 as
an election promise and was just completed this summer a few weeks (or days)
before I traveled along it. This is the first road to penetrate the remote
northern arctic areas of the Yukon. The road crosses the migration route of the
world's largest remaining caribou herd. Hunters have already been shooting
caribou from the cars as they drive by, leaving the carcasses to rot. The
MacKenzie River Delta communities are totally unprepared for the onslaught of
tourists and outsiders that will be flocking north to see the arctic. And yet,
in spite of all this, no inquiry was ever held to determine the effects
of building the road, or whether the people of the area wanted the road in the
first place, no protests were made, and to top it all off, no reason exists for
having built the road in the first place!
When asked the reason for the road, government personnel will
spew rhetoric at you, such as the road is to "open up the country".
The politicians want to help the oil and mining companies even more. There is a
law in the Yukon that such companies, after they have finished their
explorations in an area, must remove all their property from the site. Costs of
removal can often exceed the value of the material and equipment being removed,
so naturally the companies look for ways to get around this. A classic case is
one company, who upon closing down its exploration camp (looking for gas or oil,
or minerals), sold its warehouse at the camp to a local trapper for one
dollar! So this huge blot upon the arctic landscape remains. Other companies
simply disregard the law and leave their garbage and unwanted materials strewn
The populations of Dawson City and the Delta towns certainly do
not justify having a road built to join them, and the Yukon and NWT have very
little to do with each other in the first place.
And, if all that is not enough, the road, now completed, is
rapidly deteriorating due to permafrost heaving, and the northernmost 150 miles
of the Yukon section are not being maintained due to lack of money and political
maneuvering. Also, one cannot yet drive all the way to Inuvik because there is
no way to cross the Peel River in NWT (I got across in an Indian freighter
canoe). So it is, at present, a road to nowhere. Your tax dollars (the federal
government built the road).
Regardless of all this however, the road passes through the most
magnificent country I have ever seen -- the arctic. Man is a stranger here; the
road seems out of place, a blot on the pure soft green of the tundra, amid the
ancient rounded mountains. The air is crystal clear, pure and unpolluted.
Sometimes you can see over 100 miles. And there is the silence -- no drone of
engines, or whine of tires on pavement, or the vague rumble of the cities.
SILENCE -- the only sound is the wind -- but that too is a form of silence.
Selfishly, I am glad this road was built, for otherwise I may
not have seen this beautiful country. But that is only a passing thought, for
this road is part of a system which will ultimately destroy yet another area of
previously untouched wilderness.
I only spent a couple of days at Inuvik, a dirty, ugly town,
which somehow attracts you and makes you want to stay. And then eventually I had
to head back south. In Canada the cold seasons limit our choices. It was
extremely depressing to be going back to the more "civilized" areas of
the country. All summer I had been heading north and wets, away from it all. Now
I had to head back into "it all". Back to the unfriendly, hurried
crowds, back to traffic and noise, back to the huge straight highways, and
"progress" ....to where a moment of silence is an event, something to
be grasped at and held onto....
I was very sad to leave. But I will return.