Moped Trip website

Newspaper/Periodical Article 2

An article I wrote for Sporadical, Fall 1978 issue

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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 since.

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 towards Alaska.

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 it.

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 about.

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" 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.


"My father, you have spoken well;
you have told me that heaven is very beautiful;
tell me now one more thing.

Is it more beautiful
than the country of the muskox in summer,
where sometimes the mist blows over the lakes,
and sometimes the water is blue
and the loons cry very often?"

Warburton Pike's Indian guide, talking to a priest in the arctic)


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