Pedaling to the Yukon

By Beacon Staff

Most people take a vacation to get away from their daily grind. But not so for John Keenan, a 20-year bicycle mechanic and service manager at Wheaton’s in Kalispell. Upon turning 50 this year, Keenan embarked on a six-week bicycle tour through some 2,000 miles of wild country in British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. The last leg of the trip took him from coastal Washington to his front door in Kila, a distance of more than 2,600 miles total.

And though most people might have a hard time pedaling 80 miles a day through mountainous terrain, Keenan, who did most of the ride with his friend, Jeff Bott, said he was pleasantly surprised to find how doable the distance actually was.

“After the first week, we kind of just rode ourselves into shape,” Keenan said. “Every day was new scenery, new roads, new people and being spontaneous.”

But since Keenan’s daily commute is a 45-mile roundtrip cycling route along the Rails-to-Trails path from Kila to Kalispell, it’s not as shocking that he was more fit than most for the extended tour.

“Most of the other riders that we saw were half our age, so we felt pretty good about that,” he added.

The trip was decades in the making. In the 1980s, Keenan rode tours along the east and west coasts, as well as the route through B.C. to Alaska. But in the years that followed, it was this ride that seemed to call him back, even as the trappings of adulthood made extended bike tours more difficult.

“Once you get married and get responsibilities, it’s tougher to take the time off,” Keenan said, but in this case his wife urged him to take the ride he had been talking about for years.

Bott and Keenan’s route took them from Creston, B.C. northwest to Revelstoke, then west to Kamloops along trans-Canada Highway 1. From there, they headed north to Prince George along Highway 97, then northwest along the Yellowhead Highway 16. Pedaling the Cassiar Highway took them more than 400 miles north into the Yukon Territory. Then they rode west along the Alaska Highway to Haines. From there, the group took a ferry south to Washington.

Keenan found the route had changed little since he last traveled it more than 20 years ago: few cars, but still teeming with grizzly bears, black bears and “hundreds and hundreds of miles of intact, pristine wilderness.”

“I was up there in ’87 and there’s really no more people up there now than there were then,” Keenan said. “That was nice to know, that there’s that much open country left in North America.”

Two weeks into the ride, Bott’s wife met up with them and followed them in a car, carrying supplies. This lightened the ride after weeks of carrying packs, or panniers, on their bikes weighing about 60 pounds, 25 of which was food.

“As we ate our way across Canada, we lightened up a bit,” Keenan said, adding that they ate seasonal fruits and vegetables in large quantities, avoiding the temptation of fast food restaurants they encountered early in the trip.

Keenan and Bott also camped in tents the entire ride, except one particularly rainy day when a motel was deemed necessary.

“We just got soaked,” Keenan said. “We decided to splurge that night.”

A highlight of the trip was passing through Moricetown in B.C., where the two just happened to roll through the village as the native Wetsuweten people were enjoying their annual salmon harvest from the Bulkley River, as they have done for thousands of years, and invited the cyclists to share in the feast.

“We felt like the beneficiaries of a great thing and they were just happy to have us there,” Keenan said.

Taking a detour, Keenan and Bott passed through the ghost town of Hyder in Alaska, where they stopped to watch a grizzly catching salmon in the river. Other surprises included a spell of weather in the 90s – unusually warm temperatures for the Yukon, even in July. And Keenan said hot weather was clearly something the locals there were unaccustomed to, given their attire, which consisted mainly of wearing long underwear as outerwear.

But overall, few mishaps occurred beyond a few flat tires, an expected part of any extended bicycle tour. Keenan’s bicycle, a titanium-frame Redline, held up well, and as he rolled up to his house after spending the last night of the trip in Hot Springs, he said the feeling was bittersweet: On one hand, there were numerous jobs and chores around the small farm where he and his wife live that piled up in his absence. But on the other hand, the road continues its call.

“I was happy to be home but I could take off again any time to do another trip,” Keenan said.

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