Spending 5 to 6 hours a day pedaling gives me time to think. Heading toward Alaska from Southern California, one of those recurring thoughts has been, “Am I in The North yet?”
Surely, crossing the border into Canada means that I’m now in The North, right? Except that Vancouver is right across the border from Seattle. It has the same mild, wet winters thanks to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Continuing on, I eventually start noticing electrical outlets at individual parking spaces. An RV park operator tells me that she grew up in The North but lived in Vancouver for several years. Vancouverites would ask her why her car had an electrical plug in the front. Is it an electric car? No, she would laugh, that is an engine block heater. At extreme cold temperatures, batteries get so cold and oil gets so thick that engines can’t start.
Solar panels for remote monitoring stations and even some buildings are mounted at a 90° angle to catch the winter sun when it is just a few degrees above the horizon. In the lower 48 states, the optimal tilt for solar panels to get the most energy in winter is around 60° (year-round it’s about 30° but even 0° is feasible).
The mosquito situation escalates from “they seek you out when you camp next to a river” to “they attack in swarms any time your speed drops below 10 kph.”
When asking about camping options, locals tell you, “You can camp anywhere. Nobody’s going to bother you.” Highway rest areas no longer have signs prohibiting overnight stopping and camping. In fact, the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center uses the wording, “Along the Dalton Highway, feel free to pull off and camp anywhere along the road.” Bike touring heaven.
Road hazard signs start including the words “frost heaves.” Bad news for RV drivers. Mostly a non-issue at cycling speeds.
The people in the campsite next to you arrive
there in a float plane. Yukon Territory and Alaska
have many small communities that can only be
reached by plane. Small bush planes are
The tallest plants all the way out to the horizon barely reach up to your knees because you are now in the tundra. This makes hanging your food bag in a tree to keep it away from bears rather difficult. Creative solutions are needed. I hang my bag from a bridge one night and stash it in the back of a bear-proof trash container several times.
Bridges are built with wood decks because steel and concrete expand and contract too much to survive the extreme range from hottest summer to coldest winter.
I get up in the middle of the night, miles from the nearest human settlement. There’s a faint glow on the horizon. I pull out my iPhone, snap a photo and it comes out looking like this. Ok, now I’m definitely in The North.