If you haven’t heard about Dust to Dawson (D2D), you’re in for a real treat. Come, just trace a line on the map to Dawson in Yukon, Canada, hop on your moto from wherever that might be in the month of June and start riding. You’ll doubtless encounter crews of other bikers doing the same, if not make fast friends with some along the way. If you can, try not to rush or grab at getting there for a ride both rewarding and nurturing is likely to appear. Rock up to Dawson but just don’t call it a rally. Despite such a disclaimer, you’ll be in the thick of an atmosphere filled with the boundless joy and warmth that is D2D. And if you’re lucky, the experience will pull, tickle and tease you, perhaps challenge and enlighten you too. It did me.
Three unassuming fellows by the names of John “Cash” Register, Jim Coleman and Mike “Fighter” Stein constitute the founders of D2D. Dating back to 1992, D2D was loosely concocted over a few pints in Dawson’s Midnight Sun, a hotel bar where the trio first met. As Fighter recounts, a 500-mile road trip between the amigos up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik was set in motion, during which Jim and Cash deviated to Eagle, Alaska. Awed by the place, a pact was made that when one of them died, the other would return to the North Country with the ashes of the departed.
When Jim was devastatingly taken out on his R1200GS by a Suburban in 1994, Cash stayed true to his solemn promise and re-enacted their road trip a year later. Mile for mile, he dismounted his bike at the same pit stops; refueled at the same cafes; drunk another cold one at The Midnight Sun. With Jim in the tank bag; just as they had the first time they ventured north together almost two and a half decades ago.
A little ways south of Eagle stood a single tree on the wind-tortured mountainside, against all the odds of Alaska’s brutal winters and a brush fire having swept through the area. It seemed neither would dare meddle with Jim’s tree. Emotions ran wild and recollections of Jim intensified. A cathartic moment that gave way to Cash making his final farewells to Jim against phenomenal views featuring the lone tree, hanging on for all eternity. A plaque marks where the affecting send off was made. Still visited and anointed by many, it’s Fighter’s wish as “Keeper of the tree” that the tradition, as much as the memories of Jim and Cash, live on.
Our D2D 1,275-mile road trip started with the Fishhook Fatties. Not me being mean, a self-appointed name given to a gregarious group of riders based in Wasilla, Alaska. Assuming an assortment of paces throughout the first day to absorb our surroundings saw us skirt northerly around Denali National Park and make camp along Chatanika River in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. As ‘Day ones’ go on any road trip, my expectations comprised no more than finding my stride and settling in.
For sure, I’m a wilderness seeker in lifelong pursuit of natural beauty although nowhere on my radar did I expect my heart to be stolen at first sight by Alaska. Hit with countless chevrons of snow-capped mountains and gigantic glaciers did anything but disappoint. Jagged edges to razor sharp points glowed blue with an endless supply of ruggedness: inching towards wild Alaska we were. The wilderness-seeking habit was going to be extremely well nourished here.
Kicking the side stands up from Chatanika River, a tributary leading into the mouth at our next camp stop, Tolovana River, we indulged the bikes back in Fairbanks for a spot of maintenance. Out of the captivity that can be felt in cities, we all but raced up the Elliott Highway only to veer off and set the scene at Tolovana River: our starting point for the 80-mile munch to Manley Hot Springs.
A regiment of twin-engine mosquitoes rushed around us at full tempo. Ditching the motorcycle gear, newly exposed skin must have looked ripe for the feasting. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled. Over a hot toddy, the campfire worked its magic as we stoked it like a ship’s furnace, keeping the ravenous winged assailants at bay.
If you’ve had the stellar good fortune of riding through Alaska, you’ll be all too familiar with calcium chloride—a necessary evil covering a significant portion of the roads. A stunning road surface in the dry: keeping the dust between slim to nil and permitting one’s wheels to glide over silk. However, on par with feeding a gremlin after midnight, when calcium chloride makes contact with water, it becomes highly soluble. It’s like riding on snot. Or raw egg, which is as fun as a funeral. Worse still, because it’s deliquescent means it wants to take on and absorb moisture. And due to its chlorine properties it’s a salt on top, which leaves corrosion just chomping at the bit to devour your bike.
Falling out of favor with Lady Luck, the drizzling rain stayed relentless the entire way to Manley Hot Springs. Hah!—we trudged and fudged and fishtailed our way through the sludge with some artful slides thrown in for good measure. It coiled around me, inescapably. It squeezed, I yielded. It was a slick climb in places, a white-knuckle shambles in others. Not technical, just slow going without much purchase or repose; gracelessly.
As much as I tried to embrace its tactile presence and ingratiate my riding style to the soft mess—ignoring the despair that came courting—the wet roads remained encumbered. The afternoon labored along slowly. It was a first on slick calcium chloride for me: it put the high alert antennae up; the backside muscles poised for a long cardio workout; and my cheerless lips set to pursed.
To my mind, there was a separation from traction and a hopeless union with the calcium chloride. What was I expecting on dual sport tires and Pearl, a heavy (F650GS) bike for its class? I scrabbled, lost control and groused when watching my 19-inch tires everyplace, flinging manes of spray. Clearly having underestimated its depth of energy, its ability to ooze and pour forth. A wet washcloth on the trip, my nose ran and cheeks felt like little blocks of pine. My eyes must have owned up to some perfectly horrible thought, a small regret, for Jason quickly elbowed me out of my nettly gloom as no one ever felt sorrier for their sorry lot than I for mine on the Elliott Highway.
Having located a drier section, I shelved the dampened spirits for a sunny interval and went for it at full throttle. Failing to realize when we’d reunited with the viscous malevolence, I scared myself something silly at 60mph as I squirmed in a mire on the corner. “What the….!” I cussed, blown clean of jocularity as my brain failed to engage the speed I was assuming on the slosh—attached to body and bike like a leech. Language went away and for a split second I prayed in a soft high-pitched lament any human listener would’ve termed a dizzy yelp. “Oh my God, I forgot who I was!” eventually emerged.
Those paired to the intercom roared in recognition of my self-taken-unawares-blunder. It gave me a lift somehow. It’s mysterious how comfort arrives, the guys calmed my shaken spirit. That’s the Fishhook Fatties for you, full of enormous energy that pops up to inject hilarity into proceedings every mile of the way. Still, definitely one for the great ledger of recorded decisions—a dread concept you nonetheless know in your deepest soul is true.
To all yearnings, the lumpy passage eventually ceased. Having prevailed, we struck gold. A Garden of Eden experience awaited us at the end of the Elliott Highway: Manley Hot Springs. Looking like a filthy mongrel caked from helmet to heel in pale mud—what I like to call the gladhearted poverty of life on the road.
Cue an indoor tropical garden bearing hanging grapes, Asian pears and native flowers in full bloom. The immaculate paradise hummed thick with color. Courtesy of Chuck and Gladys Dart, their spring-fed greenhouse is home to four steaming concrete pools of varying allure in which to soak, unwind and relax the muscles. A tot of honey whiskey took it to an unprecedented level of wonderful and for just five bucks per person made engulfing oneself in this soothing comfort impossibly inexpensive to boot. A heavenly yang after the yin journey to get there.
Resident Doug later talked the hind leg off me in the local roadhouse—one of those unforgettable drunk gold-miner chaps, giving it the biggun on his Klondike story. With a face full of years, his legs were thin, his socks bagged, and the grit of decades seemed settled in his face. Melancoly draped itself around this guy’s shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. Happily fatigued, rested and relaxed, I let him chew the fat while I nodded and smiled, nodded and smiled.
At the heart of the world-famous Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson found its place on the map when it saw three Yukon ‘Sourdoughs’: George Carmack, Dawson Charlie and Skookum Jim hit the jackpot on Rabbit Creek (now Bonanza Creek), a tributary of the Klondike River in 1896.
Prior to the big strike, two discerning Yukon traders—Joe Ladue and Arthur Harper jumped at the opportunity to invest and establish the town site of Dawson (named after Canadian Geologist George Mercer Dawson) about 12 miles from Discovery Claim. During three years, $29 million in gold was plucked from the ground around Dawson City. News reached the outside world in 1897 when two steamships reached San Francisco and Seattle with the triumphant miners from the previous season hauling the precious “Ton of Gold” cargo.
Word spread like bushfire of a place where “nuggets could be picked off the creek floor” to a recession afflicted world, triggering an unparalleled bolt of 100,000 people to rush out to the goldfields. Most knew little and less about the 3,000-mile trek ahead of them. Perilous journeys that involved uncharted backcountry, snow-choked mountain passes and icy rivers to stake their claim to fortune in the Klondike.
For many, it was more about escape from the humdrum, the adventure of a new frontier. Most of us can relate to that. The decadent town, bountiful in gold, soon became known as the “Paris of the North”; overnight millionaires roamed the streets splurging their wealth. Today, the same spirit can still be found in Dawson. Although the rush is over, gold mining continues to thrive as does the adventure it takes to get there courtesy of events like D2D. Although somewhat less arduous…when it doesn’t rain.
Winning the road surface lottery, we rode on satin all the way back to Fairbanks. The day saw the sun in full force and us stop for a quick resupply, where we pitched the Dome Sweet Dome in Healy. Ensconcing ourselves in the biking bliss that is the Denali Highway, rapture cartwheeled out of my body going headlong across the tundra.
Landing in a sea of bikers the following day, Thompson’s Eagle’s Claw Motorcycle Campground at Tok is a popular choice for the pre-D2D. While the place is a forest of intimate snuggeries, the afternoon rapidly became full to bursting with the buzz of reunions, biking camaraderie amid miles of smiles and anticipation for the big event. I crawled in bed under the weight of the sun and solid times happening outdoors, and sank like a stone to the sounds of people laughing, a cathedral choir of laughers.
Awaking to an amphitheater of bike noise and a haze of green lichen mist, the forest at Tok was as enchanting as I’d remembered, its sorcery still holding me rapt. The huge spruce trees were shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of morning light.
No snot on marbles in sight, Mother Nature afforded us with optimum conditions in which to wend our way over the Top of the World Highway: the 187-mile paved and gravelly road connecting Tok with Dawson. Heaven-sent conditions even gave rise to the dramatic sight of Mount Denali; without a whisper of cloud obscuring it dropped the jaw on the floor. Getting the yah yahs out by wheelying simply seemed rude not to for Ian and Josh in such fine weather rarely bestowed. Just off the highway, Susitna River ticked our boxes in which make shelter, choc full of lively trails and rocky water crossings nearby just awaiting our two wheeled pleasure.
A 400-strong motorcycle event—hosted by “Dawson Dick” and his wife at the Triple J Hotel—D2D 2016 was two days of biker fest, local charity-fund raising, Poker playing on the fly, sausage-gnawing amusement. A gourmet steak dinner, a real ale beer filled bar and a silent auction awaited on top.
Believed to be the largest turn out in what was celebrated as the 24th consecutive year, US riders signed in from over 20 states and six countries around the globe represented the gathering. Annual trophies were awarded for ‘Hard Luck’ and the most spectacular crash getting to Dawson, where Jason and I unexpectedly took the ‘Farthest Ride’ from the southernmost tip of Argentina.
To my mind, D2D wouldn’t be D2D without the Biker Games. No less than 27 plucky if not willing motorcyclists took to the fun and frolics this year: easing us in with the slow race; onto a slalom of increasingly tight to maneuver cones; riding while blindfolded; and climaxing the activities with the pillion contest. More akin to The Hunger Games where regular folks who can ordinarily ride without too much fuss, turn into gibbering wrecks when 300 pairs of eyes are boring into them.
By folks I mean me. Hungry to give it a go alongside the other woman rider in the competition, I bit off slightly more than I could chew. Certainly in the game involving a wiener strung at the end of a fishing line from an elevated height for the pillion to snap at. Duty-wracked as pillion, I garnered all the sportsmanship I could muster while my oversize eyes bulged as the sausage hove into view from the start line.
Craven dread crept through me like a rat up a drainpipe as I held to Tanner, my rider like a rope ladder, and spied the audience: all too knowing for my liking. A test of showmanship and humor far more than skill! I was with the Fishhook Fatties, by now I oughtn’t to be surprised. Through mouth-plastered hands, unruly giggles surfaced and accrued strength. Head at full tilt, I laughed so hard my sight went dark. Struck by the audience’s supporting hysterics and sidelong gawps that whirled and spilled my way.
Canada-sized congratulations go to Lynn Plog, who respectably took first place for this year’s Biker Games and not for the first time. Boasting a racing background from decades past—as did his good pal Terry Wolbert (whose street bike was comically sporting plastic jug hand mufflers no less)—may’ve given the moto-veteran a sliver of healthy advantage. Sour grapes? Goodness no: not with those benevolent silver fox side burns, coat hanger wide smile and abundance of stories; the pleasure was all mine making his acquaintance, participating alongside him in what made my sides split hours past the midnight sun.
The pulse of the free-form gathering at D2D seems to work through your body until you recognize it as music. As a language. You’ll hear the enlivened rhythm of engines starting, beer cans being popped open and folks catching up on lost times with gusto. The ground’s astir with a heady conviviality interspersed with animated interest as much as raucous entertainment. Summer days I’ll remember as cloudless, the air gold and pumped with the excitement it quivers. The purpose and personality of D2D is palpable. Just like the road to get there, the memories of D2D will calcify and you won’t experience the non-rally without feeling you’ve strengthened friendships, forged some intoxicating new ones and banked another in the good times bank. I’ve been there and am going back. Make of it what you will.