Se also: A new KLR for 2021
The full 41-min Call of the Wild was added to the Desert Riders dvd
Six-minute Nat Geo Channel version below.
Original photos long lost. Crumby stills from the video.
It was 2001 and with a quiet summer ahead, I was in the mood for a long ride. So when Adventure Motorcycling Handbook contributor Tom Grenon offered his spare KLR650 for a trip into the wilds of western Canada, I booked a flight to Vancouver and started oiling my boots.
Mid-August at Tom’s place on Vancouver Island: Bill and Norm rock up and the all KLR-mounted Northern Foursome saddled up for the 500-km ride to Port Hardy at the island’s northern tip. From here a ferry saved our tyres 2000km by transporting us along the mist-shrouded coast to Prince Rupert in northern BC.
Prince Rupert is among the wettest places in the temperate world and docking around midnight, a storm was rolling in off the Pacific as we pressed down velcro flaps and splashed into town and a cheap motel.
Tom’s plan for the trip was to boldly go where no bike had gone before. First up, we’d try to follow the long abandoned 400-km Telegraph Trail which started a couple of days up the road. We had little chance of making it through: long-collapsed bridges or rivers two KLRs deep would soon stop us. But it should be fun trying.
Telegraph Creek is a quaint old town where the southern end of the Trail begins, or should that be: began. Situated on the Sitkine River, it gets by on logging, mining and a trickle of adventure-seekers like us. At the general store we got the drum from a helpful Mountie: on bikes it would be tough and he didn’t rate our chances much beyond KM20 unless we came back in winter on skidoos.
We camped by the Sitkine that night, and next morning headed up the Trail, nothing more than an overgrown ATV track leading into the thick forest.
“It’ll be rude” said a local, leaning on the door of his pickup.
Splashing through a couple of creeks was fun, but after four hours of sweaty, bug-infested pushing, paddling and wheel-spinning we had to concede the Mountie’s prediction was on the money. We found a patch of level dry, ground and by 9pm were fed, watered and zipped into our bags for the night.
Next morning the ride back to Telegraph Creek was a doddle, but an 800km detour through the Yukon to the Trail’s northern end revealed the same story. Without an Argo (an amphibious ATV) or a skidoo (plus snow) we didn’t have a chance. We left the Telegraph Trail to the beavers and the caribou.
Now back on the Alaska Highway, we knocked out another few hundreds clicks to our final jaunt into the Northwest Territories. At Watson Lake (and its famous ‘sign forrest’) we tanked up with 40 litres each for the few days exploring along the valleys on the far side of the Mackenzie Mountains.
Our destination was the ex-mining town of Tungsten atop the largest deposits of you-know-what in the free world. In the 1980s bolshy unions and undercutting saw the mine close, but in the summer of 2001 Tony Blair did the local economy a favour by banning the use of super-hard depleted uranium by the UK’s arms producers. Tungsten is the second hardest metal, perfect for the business end of a missile and so Tungsten town was back in business which for the Foursome (if not others) was good news. A phone call to the local Roads Department confirmed that a river which had blocked Tom’s progress on a previous visit was now bridged. Nevertheless, to save fuel we kept it down to fifty, and 80 miles from Watson poured in a gallon can, stashed another for the ride back, and kept a third for later.
For me the ride into the Nahanni Ranges went some way to fulfilling the promise of impressive scenery. Up till now I’d seen a lot of trees resembling the drabber parts of the Scottish Highlands on a monumental scale. But as we neared the pass on the Yukon-Northwest Territories border it all looked glorious, and even the showers chasing us up the valley couldn’t dampen our spirits.
Part of that reason was we’d finally located a cozy hunter’s cabin described in a local guidebook. Out here on so-called ‘Crown Land’ (undeveloped wilderness) you can sort-of build a cabin wherever you want. Effectively you’re squatting, but that’s how much of the New World got colonised in the first place. Locking up a place would only see it broken into, so an unwritten custom states: ‘Make yourself at home, leave it as you find it and cut some extra firewood before you leave’.
After breakfast we nailed back the door and window shutters, filled up from the stream and continued up to the pass where the amazing colours of the turning foliage filled the lower half of the spectrum. We eased over the watershed into the NWT and, ignoring ‘Keep Out’ signs and hard-hatted jobsworths, rode through Tungsten like Gary Cooper in Gore-tex. In Tom’s view the access road had been built with tax dollars so we all had a right to ride it through town and beyond.
There was said to be a hot spring near the airstrip just south of town and sure enough there it was, a warm outdoor pool and just beyond, a little A-frame where a stone tub bubbled at an ideal, muscle-soothing temperature.
Suitably revived, the meatier exploration prospects lay north of Tungsten, where in the 1960s a track once led to a sister mine site. We rode back through town and took the turn-off down into the valley. The day before we’d met some hunters with an Argo who reckoned we’d get about 30kms in before a bike-proof river stopped us. By now the skies were clearing again to give a grand view up the Nahanni River valley which we would parallel.
After a kew kilometres we clocked some rangers’ cabins (handy if the weather turned) but soon came to a large flooded area. A family of busy beavers had woven a twig dam, turning a stream into a lake that backed-up half a kilometre and submerged the track under a metre of water. The only way forward was to roll up our trousers and pull it apart. After an hour’s work the water had dropped significantly, so I undertook a test-wade up to my knees after which Norm rode across. Beavers tend to rebuild these things overnight, but we’d face that problem on the way back.
Beyond the stream we were on the look out for a trail that led down to Flat Lake and hopefully, another cabin. Luckily we didn’t all blink at the same time and spotted the overgrown pathway dropping steeply through the trees to what was indeed the Perfect Cabin. This one had it all: a porch to dry out on, gas to cook on, 5 bunks to choose from and more condiments than Safeways. We hung up our soaking gear, loaded up the wood-stove and went out fishing in the row boat before the sun set over the lake.
The following day the difficulties started almost straight way. Within a kilometre a vertical sided ditch lay where a culvert had got ripped out in the spring thaw. Where the Argo had gone a KLR can usually follow: along a side ditch, over the stream and up a steep bank. These challenges continued with variations; in places we had to dig away at steep banks, flip half-ton slabs out of the way and fill ditches with boulders just to get through. Clearly, only Argos had been up here for years. The trail narrowed through thick willow brush and we bashed ever onward, wincing at the continuous thrashing not seen since Basil Fawlty turned on his Austin 1100. Boggy holes and slimy patches taxed us further; at one point I was convinced the 650’s triple clamps had snapped. Surely the front wheel doesn’t normally flop around like that? ‘Fraid so: this was a pepperoni-forked KLR in dire need of a brace.
As it was, I’d been aware that I’d been riding like a lemon the whole trip, while the others, notably Tom, rode their KLRs with skillfull precision. I could blame the trail-tyred KLR, my anxiety about old injuries, or protecting the camcorder from the rain. But the truth was, I wasn’t really into this relentless, sodden tree-bound battling up dead ends in the rain, even it might make a great video. Give me the Sahara’s far horizons.
After about four hours and 25kms of this we got to a wide river spanned by a collapsed bridge. This must surely be it, back to the cabin we go! But closer inspection proved the broad stream was actually not that deep, and Tom proved it by wading over then riding through.
“Come on guys, it’s easy”
We dithered about but in the end rode in on steady throttles, the engines momentarily muffled by the deep water, but not missing a beat. In fact none of the KLRs so much as coughed during their entire 6000-km drenching.
On the far side the greasy riverbank initially spat Bill back down but led to a grassy slope where some of us needed a push. Then it was back to more willow-thrashings, sawing at fallen logs we couldn’t ride round, tiptoeing over slimy bridges and powering out of ditches with gritted teeth … until we came to a bridge that was ten feet shorter than it ought to be. Though narrow, the river below was full of fridge-sized boulders. We might have manhandled the bikes across or spent the rest of the day sawing down trees to bridge the gap, but by now it was half-two, still pissing down and so, about 35 clicks from the cabin, we called it a day.
Used to bringing up the rear, I now led the way back, delighted that the film was in the can and the Sony had survived. Miraculously, the triple clamps welded themselves up, the tyres grew some knobs and I finally found myself in the groove, leaving the others behind. Flat Lake Cabin was locked into my internal GPS and despite one shin-twanging face plant, nothing could stop me, even if some washouts demanded a double take. ‘Did we really ride out of there? I guess so’, so down I went, paddling over the creek and blasting out any which way to get through.
“That was a prime ohr-deal” observed Norm as we drained our boots off the cabin’s porch, two hours later.
By now my mission was accomplished and I was in going-home mode, even if two scenes still remained on my filming list: catching and frying a fish and the Northern Lights. I needn’t have worried. The following night, fuelled up from our cache, we camped about 120kms out of Watson Lake on the Frances River. Previously failed fishing attempts were all forgotten as each of us reeled in an arctic grayling within a minute of casting.
And later, popping out about 2am to check the chain tension, I watched a sallow moon setting over the river through a thick blanket of mist. Turning to grab the Sony I was transfixed as before me neon green veils of ionized oxygen appeared to sway in the boreal breeze. Crouched by the frost-coated tent, it was a fitting finale to our call of the wild.
Wet Weather Gear 2001
The fear of that icy-trickle-down-the-crotch feeling had obviously seeped from my despatching memories when I undertook this trip. Still, in the intervening years biking gear has got a whole lot better – and about time too – so I was finally going to put my Aerostich Darien suit through its paces in one of North America’s rainiest places. On the torrential ride inland from Prince Rupert it didn’t live up to its reputation; but at least what the zips let in the Goretex steamed off over a day. And yet on that soaking last day north of Flat Lake, I was amazed to end up dry. My feet were wet, but only after that big river crossing towards the end. Up till then they merely got damp as long as I made a nightly application of Nik Wax Aqueous Wax which actually works better on wet leather.
Bert Harkins Racing kindly gave me a pair of Scott Turbo Flow Double Glazed goggles which claim to avoid misting. I took my old Scotts to compare and was glad to leave them behind. You can wear Turbo Flows full time and huff and puff all you like, they don’t mist up.
As for the baggage, Cascade Designs SealLine canoeing bags were a revelation to me and all of us had them. A heavy PVC kit bag in various sizes, just roll up the open end, click the buckle and head into the weather. Best protected inside an old holdall or in panniers (where good draining was more useful than ‘waterproofing’), I found the SealLines more effective than an Ortlieb duffle or rack pack version I was also testing, although the long opening makes Ortliebs easier to pack. SealLines also make handy pillows or even bouncy aids. Over ten years laterI still use the same two SealLines I bought in Seattle for biking and paddling trips.
Researching a new tent, I soon found prices and offerings confusing, so I just went for a spacious 30-quid cheapie from Macro. It was bulkier than the other guys’ one-man versions, but went up fast and didn’t let in a drop.