Wednesday 5th July
After spending an unanticipated extra four days in Fairbanks, it seemed highly likely that Ian’s bike would be ready to go on Friday evening so we planned to set off again on Saturday morning. In the event it was not ready until late Saturday afternoonbut somewhat stir-crazy we set off anyway for the next leg to Chicken, stopping in a motel for the night about 100 miles out of Fairbanks.
This whole escapade seemed like a major interruption to our plans, threatening as it did to derail our whole adventure almost before it had started. But from my current viewpoint, sitting on the bank of the Yukon River in Dawson city it has faded into the haze of the past, overshadowed by our current predicament.
We count ourselves lucky to have had the chance to ride a thrillingly remote and barely tamed road called the Top of the World Highway, from Chicken to Dawson City in the Yukon province of Canada. Chicken is a tiny community all but deserted in the winter, which exists thanks to the gold strikes of the 1890s. “Downtown” Chicken consists of a row of shacks comprising a gift shop, liquor store, saloon and a cafe, and also a petrol pump, all owned and run by the feisty Susan Wiren whose story we found in a copy of the Lonely Planet magazine. The story of how Chicken got its name is that the original settlers wanted to name it after the Ptarmigan, a bird common in these parts. However there was such disagreement on the correct spelling of Ptarmigan that so as to avoid further brawls they decided to name it Chicken instead.
After over-nighting in an un-serviced cabin belonging to Susan’s mother, we continued on Monday in warm sunshine on to Dawson, about 60 miles beyond the Canadian border. A truly wonderful ride, a perfect tonic for restoring any mojos that had been mislaid.
There is a personal history regarding this region which adds a piquancy to our explorations. My sister-in-law’s great grandfather, Dirk van Erp, traveled to the Yukon in the late 1890s to seek his fortune in the great gold rush, seemingly for the noblest of reasons; letters that he wrote to his family describe his experiences. The venture was unsuccessful, and as one of only four survivors from a party of 400 he ended up in Dawson City in 1898 all but destitute. He escaped this terrible ordeal on a stern-wheel paddle steamer which took him all the way to the coast.
The course of the Yukon. Chicken is to the south of the river, just west of the Canadian border.
This moving account describes Dawson as a bustling and brutal community of 16000 inhabitants – there are barely 1/10th of that number in the summer here now and in the winter the number drops to about 4-500. The buildings are well preserved, frozen in time although the functions have mostly changed. The first hotel we tried is proud of its former employment as a brothel.
So: on to the main news alluded to in the heading photograph, that will shape the remainder of the trip, and certainly change the complexion of the next few weeks.
We attempted to leave Dawson yesterday morning planning to ride the 340 miles south to Whitehorse. About 35 miles out, Tom’s bike lost all motive force and died. There was nothing we could do to restart it and eventually we could not even turn the engine over either by jump starting or pushing.
This is a remote area, but not so remote that there is no passing traffic. As we are getting used to, plenty of motorists were eager to stop and offer help to fellow travelers. According to Gary, who makes his debut in the Rescuers Hall of Fame, until recently it was illegal in the Yukon to pass a stranded motorist without stopping.
Our only sensible option was to try to get back to Dawson and search for a mechanic who could help,but we had an unsettling notion that this was not a minor problem that would be easily fixed, and so it has apparently turned out. Gary is an ex-engineer turned gold miner who was driving north towing an empty flat bed trailer. Not empty for long! A warm and friendly guy who could not have been more helpful.
There are no motorcycle dealers in Dawson. The bike is currently at a general automotive engineering outfit, where a helpful and accomplished mechanic went through all the basic diagnostic procedures before arriving at the conclusions we had already feared: the motor was and remains completely seized.
Tom’s bike is a new CCM bought specifically for this trip. It is billed and marketed as a lightweight alternative to the rather big and heavy more conventional “adventure bikes”, made by a small British firm whose name is an acronym for Clews Competition Motorcycles, and which uses a 450 cc single cylinder engine from BMW. While it undoubtedly has its strengths and drawbacks, Tom is very fond of it despite its foibles.
So, the bike is immobile. We are more than 1700 miles from Calgary, the nearest city of any appreciable size but even if we get it there it is doubtful that this engine could be mended quickly and cost-effectively. CCM have made very concerned noises down the telephone and are investigating the logistics of sending a new engine to us by Fed-Ex, to be fitted by Manny, the mechanic in Dawson.
Plenty of CCM machines have successfully completed long trips across continents. A recent attempt on a similar route to ours but in the reverse direction was made by six riders from the British Army; apparently not everything was straightforward but they received excellent support from CCM, who are no doubt aware and concerned about this issue. They are bending over backwards to help by offering to send whatever parts are required including a new engine by the quickest possible means. However following our previous mishap, confidence is at a slightly low ebb and further engine problems are not an event one would wish to contemplate when riding unsupported to some of the furthest corners of the globe.
Tom is extensively invested emotionally in the CCM but has reluctantly come to the conclusion, admittedly with the help of some gentle nudging from Ian and me that getting a new engine fitted by a non-specialist mechanic, and with no understanding of what the initial problem is that caused the failure in the first place is not going to be the most assured route for all three of us (plus Mark in South America) to arrive in Ushuaia in December.
We are lucky in that there are options. Tom has a fine bike, a large and relatively new KTM back at home in Birmingham, that he rides like a demon. The current plan we are working on is to get that bike shipped out ASAP – possibly to Los Angeles. And arrange for the broken CCM to be repatriated to CCM, hors de combat.
This will take some time. Ian and I are currently still in Dawson with Tom. As plans take shape we will be able to move on to Whitehorse from where the CCM can be freighted to Vancouver or Calgary and then on back to the UK. Tom won’t be able to ride on with us for now of course, but once the logistics are solid Ian and I will be able to continue, leaving Tom to oversee the transport of his bikes and rejoin us at the end of the month in LA.
When planning this adventure, one of my mantras was that it’s not about the bike. It appears that I was wrong.