by John Cooper
Too much work and not enough play I thought to myself as I sat at my desk. The window of opportunity was closing on any plans I had to get away for an adventure. Leaving town was a priority, and I knew it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t just pack up and go. I scoured the internet for ideas and looked at a countless number of maps before settling on a roadtrip to Yellowknife, Canada. The destination is just about as far away as I could imagine going in a week, and more importantly, Yellowknife has a road named “Ragged Ass” that I just couldn’t resist going to see. It was time to go rogue for an unscheduled break. I planned to ride solo for 5,200 miles through some of Canada’s most beautiful and remote country.
I’ve always been drawn to remote destinations, particularly when traveling by motorcycle. There’s just something great about experiencing the challenges and weathering the elements firsthand, without support, on your own, relying on your own judgment and improvising.
I’ve traveled far distances on short notice before, and having a loose itinerary has always been my preferred strategy. My itinerary consisted of only a final destination and a rough timetable, everything else was left to unfold as a daily surprise. I lived in the moment and traveled like a drifter (except with good health insurance and the need to be home in a week).
I headed out of town, aboard my iron mare (my beloved motorcycle), and made good progress through Northern California, Oregon and Washington making sure to take a little side trip through downtown Portland and Seattle, a couple of my favorite cities. I found a great campsite as the sun began to fade for the night and I was pleased with the progress I had made for the day.
The following morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I made my way toward the Canadian border. I made a mental note of all the things I needed for a quick and smooth border crossing: passport, driver’s license, registration and insurance. However, as it often is in life, my day did not unfold as anticipated, but instead went something like this:
Border Guard: Welcome, where are you traveling to?
Me: I’m not sure yet, I’m just trying to get out of town awhile.
Border Guard: You don’t know where you’re going? Where are you coming from?
Me: I’m coming from California, but just spent a week in Mexico (as I handed over my documents).
Border Guard: So you’re coming from Mexico, but you live in California, your motorcycle is registered in Oregon, and you don’t know where you’re going? Are you carrying any alcohol or weapons?
Me: Yes, I’m carrying both alcohol and a weapon.
Border Guard: Pull over to the side, turn off your engine, and stay there.
My conversation with the border guard(s) went on for another hour as they calmly and systematically dismantled everything on my bike looking for contraband. I made a note to myself that in the future I would be more selective in my choice of words when crossing borders. And I must say, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had little sense of humor that day. However, finding little more than a flask of Tequila and a small camping knife, I was set free and allowed entry into Canada.
British Columbia was spectacularly beautiful. The mountains were high, the forests were dense, and the rivers were full and strong. Adding to the ambiance, the road that cut through it all was long and winding, perfect for motorcycle riding. I made my home that night in Hope, BC among the forest.
At sunup I was back on the road and traveled through the cities of Quesnel, Prince George, before finally spending some time in Dawson city, BC. It is in Dawson City where the great Alaska Highway begins and runs almost 1,400 miles northwest to Alaska. It’s a popular travel route to Alaska, predominantly because it’s the only route, outside of dog sled or airplane.
Just a short distance from Dawson Creek was the border separating the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. The landscape changed quickly in Alberta when the mountains and tall trees gave way to gently rolling hills and miles of lush,
green alfalfa fields, before eventually turning into boreal forest. I made camp in the woods near a large lake and built a fire. With another day in the logs, I was reminded of the many great things about traveling alone to remote destinations. That evening I slowly sipped a Red Bull and vodka while dining on corn and pickled pig’s feet.
The following morning I continued north to the province of Northwest Territories. Everything seemed to be amplified the further north I traveled and my priorities shifted. My focus was on finding fuel, watching for large animals in my path, navigating the potholes and changing road conditions, and minding the ever-changing weather patterns. One minute the sun was shining and the next it was a torrential downpour.
After quick fuel stops in Indians Cabins (literally a single pump station located just off the road) and again in Enterprise, I made my way closer to the northern side of the Great Slave Lake and the city of Yellowknife. Shortly thereafter I spotted a very large wood bison, casually eating grass just beside the road. I had heard numerous stories of encounters on the road with these huge animals and I was glad our visit was at a distance.
Five days and 2,600 miles later I rolled into Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Located just 240 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Yellowknife was a relatively small, but modern city by most standards with a large population of First Nations people, an aboriginal group who have inhabited the areas in Northwest Territories for a long time. What really set Yellowknife apart however were the float planes that sat calmly in the water, and of course Ragged Ass Road, which was befitting of its name. Having finally reached my destination, I celebrated with the first shower I had in nearly a week.
It was dark and cold outside when I layered up and rode out of town at 1:00 AM to see the Northern Lights. The experience was surreal. It was spooky and unsettling, maybe even mesmerizing in some respects. Only a few short hours later, light on sleep, but full on experience, I turned my bike around and began the long ride south toward home.
On the return trip I made sure to visit the small town of Fort Providence. Located on the banks of the Mackenzie River, the largest and longest river in Canada, Fort Providence has a population of only 788 people, 92% of which are classified as aboriginal. It was a quiet, peaceful and magnificent place to see. After a quick ride around town I stopped and took a photo of a very old white church and noticed a black crow sitting atop the steeple. Was that a sign of some kind?
Crossing the Mackenzie River and heading south toward the 60th Parallel, I saw a massive sized animal, grey in color and much like a Husky dog, but the size of a Great Dane. I found out later that it was a Timberwolf. I added the Timberwolf to my long list of animals to be fearful of at night.
A sign posted on the side of the road noted that I just crossed the “60th Parallel” so I pulled off the road to learn more about it and to search for a cup of hot coffee. As I entered the small building, an older woman greeted me with a warm welcome and asked for my name as she pulled out a paper certificate from her desktop. “You’re a modern day explorer” she enthusiastically stated as she began to complete the certificate. She was right, I felt like I was a modern day explorer, and now I had proof with a certificate provided by the “Order of Arctic Adventurers, North of 60° Chapter”. So take that Lewis and Clark!
Riding through Edmonton, Calgary and numerous small towns along the way, I set my sights on crossing the border back into the US at Sweet Grass, Montana. Taking in the views of southern Canada was spectacular with miles and miles of wheat fields and a full sky as the backdrop.
Resting beside a river with a fire burning into the night, I sat in Dillon, Montana and contemplated where I had been and all that I’d seen during the week. I could have gone on for months I thought, but in the back of my mind I knew I had a higher calling. I was a member of the Clayton Bocce League and a game was scheduled for the following night.
Ready for an epic day of riding, I left Dillon, Montana at sunrise the following day and rode 970 miles. I traveled through Montana and Idaho and crossed the famed Snake River Canyon, where Evel Knievel attempted to jump the canyon on his steam powered rocket in 1974. I rode through the desert of Nevada and finally reached downtown Clayton, just in time for the first bocce toss of the night. That was a great day.