Every day on a motorcycle gets to be grueling, so I've scheduled in some half days and some days off. Today is a half day, as we are only scheduled for 160 miles. We all make the most of it as we sleep late, then attend to various errands in Whitehorse. Jan does some laundry while I buy and install some new nuts and bolts on the sidecar. I spend time updating this Web site. Randy, Eric and Julia are all off on their own, so we agree to meet for lunch at 2 pm, mostly so I can count noses before we leave town. Before we all take off I want to make sure that nobody is stuck with a mechanical problem.
Whitehorse is a small city of some 25,000 people. It is the capital of The Yukon Territory, and the only real city in the 1,500 miles between Dawson Creek and Fairbanks. It has a full range of goods and services available and we dutifully spend our money. Situated at the headwaters of the mighty Yukon River (North America's third longest, I believe – I'll have to research that at a later date) and between two substantial mountain ranges, it is well located. While there are close to 24 hours of daylight much of the summer, winters are long and brutal. Temperatures regularly drop to –70 degrees (no, that is not the chill factor, that's the temperature) and there are only a very few hours of daylight from mid-November through mid-January. Like in other isolated towns, it takes a certain type of person to live here: hardy and self-reliant quickly spring to mind as adjectives to describe these folks, and their American cousins in places live Fairbanks. You often hear the phrase, "you either love it or hate it." I lived in Fairbanks for three years, and although I am greatly looking forward to the visit, as a place to live, I became one of the latter.
We're headed down the road – 100 miles to Haines Junction. The road is wide and straight, and the surface is pretty good. Jan and I are first in, as Jan has turned into a real sidecar driver. This is our 8th day on the road, and she has made the most of her nearly 1,800 miles of experience. For those of you not familiar with this sport, driving a sidecar is nothing like riding a motorcycle. In fact, the skill set is so different it is strange that they are licensed in most states under the same drivers license endorsement.
In general, you steer a motorcycle with slight pressure on the handlebars. To go right you press slightly on the right handle bar; visa versa for going left. If you are making a turn at high speed, you may have to move your body weight slightly in the direction of the turn. Except at extremely slow speeds, you never actually turn the handlebars.
A sidecar combination has three wheels on the ground instead of two, so takes on some characteristics of a car, in that the vehicle doesn't lean in the direction of the curve. Instead, centrifugal force causes it to lean away from the curve, much like your family car. Think about getting off the freeway on a real tight cloverleaf curve to the right. Your car wants to tilt to the driver's side. Well, a sidecar combination does the same thing. On a right hand curve or turn, the sidecar wheel (in the US the sidecar is mounted on the right side of the motorcycle) easily lifts off the ground if there is no compensation. The compensation is the skill of riding a combination and so the rider moves his or her weight drastically to the right (the backside literally half off the seat) and leans out to keep the wheel on the ground, while also pushing the handlebars to the right. The process is essentially reversed on a left-hand curve or turn, although not for quite the same reason, as centrifugal force pushes the sidecar wheel into the ground.
Needless-to-say, it is an acquired skill, and one very few motorcyclists have. I picked it up quickly because it is very similar to riding a snowmobile, a sport I have participated in for years. Jan had only a few hundred miles on the combination when we left on this trip. She was very tenuous and a bit scared. She was rightly concerned about her lack of skills. But she's passed her trial by fire after 1,800 miles, much of it through the mountains.
So we make it to Haines Junction in record time, doing the speed limit and beyond on both the straight and the curves. Eric and Julia follow us in twenty minutes later and we take a break. Randy, who has stopped to shoot some pictures, shows up 45 minutes later. Haines Junction is another wide spot in the road, with a couple of gas stations, a restaurant or two but with the most beautiful mountain backdrop you can imagine. The closest peaks soar 8 - 9,000 feet straight up just a couple of miles from the edge of town. Light green meadows give way to snow and then slate-gray granite at the highest points. Pewter-colored clouds backlit by the sun low in the Western sky scud just across the peaks. It is a spectacular sight.
For thirty miles before we arrive at Destruction Bay, Randy and I follow the shore of Lake Kluane, mountains majestic across the turquiose-colored, glacier-fed lake. I sure wish the pictures would do it justice, but do they ever?
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