Cycling to the Arctic, and other Winter-related stuff

Yesterday was a busy day. The main project was to drive down the Alaska Highway to meet Brek Boughton, the cyclist who’s headed for Tuktoyaktuk, NWT but that had to be fit in among other things.

This is what our weather station looked like at 10:09, a minute before sunrise. It’s very unusual to get wind when it gets cold, but the radio was reporting wind chills of -39°C (-38°F) in town.

Davis Vantage Pro weather station reading -26 degrees
When the temperatures get very low, our oil furnace occasionally fires up, but the wood furnace does a very good job of keeping the large house warm. We used to cut own firewood, but the quality of the wood within a reasonable driving distance of Whitehorse is now very poor, so we buy it from suppliers who are cutting lodgepole pine trees killed by beetles out Haines Junction way. We have a good stock for this winter, but are adding another 6 cords to the stock to keep a year ahead.

Our firewood stash
We did used to rather enjoy getting our own firewood. It’s a great way to work together, and to get some real exercise out in the forest, but the cost of fuel alone can get very high when you have to drive 60 miles to get a cord at a time. This photo was taken in my wood lot at Tagish on November 3, 2002.

Wood cutting in the Yukon, November 2002
I headed out to meet Brek just before 11:00, stopping at the Yukon River Bridge to get a few shots. The wind had pretty well cleared a path up a ridge towards the viewing platform where I shot this from.

Yukon River Bridge
From the same spot, this sundog was visible, though the hill blocked sight of the matching one to the right of the sun.

Sun dog in the Yukon
I went down to the Lewes Dam, but the fog was too thick to do much shooting.

Freezing fog does a good job of turning a chain link fence into a wall!

Chain link fence coated with frozen fog
Continuing down the highway, I saw Brek in the distance just before noon, and pulled off to get some photos as he approached. His progress is slow because even with good wicking and insulating gear, he cannot work up a sweat at these temperatures. He has lots of merino wool layers for body, hands and head, and Baffin boots rated to -100°C. Although I met him on the Skagway Road, his official start this year was at Jake’s Corner on the Alaska Highway, about 20 km from this spot – that was where he quit last year due to equipment issues.

Brek Boughton cycling through a Yukon winter
The logistics of doing anything on a journey like this are much more difficult than in normal life. Brek will be camping when necessary, and that could be a lot – setting up camp along the highways takes a lot of time and effort. But even the effort to stop is considerable. Think about “going to the bathroom” to get an idea of some of the challenges. I’m now comparing his journey to climbing Denali (Mt. McKinley if you prefer) – a multi-week slog in difficult, sometimes brutal conditions. No technical skills are required, just dedication and endurance. One of the big differences is that a Denali climb is a group effort – Brek is largely on his own.

Brek Boughton cycling through a Yukon winter
A closer look at his Surly Big Dummy bike, with front and back racks, built for carrying lots of weight and cargo. He’s going to stop in Whitehorse for a few days – one of the jobs to get done there is to put lighter grease in the bike, as the cold is thickening his current fluids and causing too much drag.

Brek Boughton cycling through a Yukon winter

One of the goals of Brek’s journey is to help raise the money necessary to send bicycles to Africa. Organizations such as BEN (Bicycle Empowerment Network) provide bicycles to health and education workers as well as bicycle-ambulances for villages in southern Africa . These bikes allow people to access hospitals and health care providers. The result is that maternal and infant mortality rates are reduced. The containers the bikes are shipped in have been converted into bike shops in some communities.

Last year, Cap’s Bicycle Shop in New Westminster was able to collect enough bikes to fill a container and local Rotary clubs assisted with the funding and logistics for the container and shipment to Africa.

To deal with icy roads, Brek has Schwalbe studded tires on the bike, and as much of his riding is in dim light or dark, there’s a dynamo hub to power a Trelock light and USB charger.

Brek Boughton cycling through a Yukon winter
Off he goes – just as big mountains create their own weather patterns, big trucks create their own whiteouts for oncoming traffic, and turbulence if you’re on a bike. As I mentioned, Brek is largely on his own on this journey. There is virtually no cell phone coverage on his route from Whitehorse north so he’s not even carrying one, but he does carry a SPOT Satellite Messenger which allows him to send “I’m OK” as well as “SOS” messages to his contacts. You can find out more about his journey on his Web site at and a Facebook page that’s linked from there.

Brek Boughton cycling through a Yukon winter
I couldn’t resist stopping at the Lewes Dam again on the way back to town to meet Cathy for a late lunch. The fog in the valley was still too thick to do much, so I drove up above it for a look.

I shot this short video to give you a better idea of the conditions than still photos can.

Trucking the Alaska Highway, with a light snow falling, and the wind chill still being reported as -39°.

Trucking the Alaska Highway at -39 degrees
As I usually do, I stopped at the Whitehorse airport to see if anything interesting was happening, and lucked into seeing our second jetway being installed. Passengers on the second, third and/or fourth airplanes in at a given time have to walk across the tarmac to and from their planes. I recall what that’s like when you’re returning from a warm-weather vacation in January! Whitehorse will now be removed from the list of “quaint” airports with a single jetway (there are very few in the world).

A second jetway being installed at YXY


Cycling to the Arctic, and other Winter-related stuff — 5 Comments

  1. Very interesting. I always wonder what motivates someone to put themselves through such an ordeal. Those dam shots make me shiver just to look at them…brrrrrrrrrr. 🙂 I am surprised you don’t have trouble with your camera fogging up or freezing up. Of course you probably don’t have it out of the warm car for very long periods.

    • I understand in general why people do things like that, though the reasons, I’m sure, are as varied as the people. Pushing yourself to points that you thought were beyond your abilities is a pretty good reason by itself, though.

      The biggest problems with cameras in the deep cold are batteries dying quickly, lenses frosting up, and internal condensation when the camera warms up (this can be a very serious problem). Heavy cameras seem to absorb the cold very quickly but take a very long time to warm up. I try to tuck it into my jacket as much as possible when I’m out for a while, and I’m occasionally out for an hour or more.

  2. Murray , Thanks for the nice articles and pictures throughout the year , always very good.
    Merry Christmas and we keep it around the +30 C here at the Top of the South.

    • Thanks, Jack, and a Merry Christmas to you. Cathy and I are still hoping to get back to New Zealand in the not-too-distant future. +30 sure sounds good to us right now! 🙂

  3. Thank You for the nice pictures and info on Brek’s trip. It’s nice to know how he’s doing…