FAIRBANKS — A thousand miles after his adventure began, the outlaw cyclist Jeff Oatley pedaled out of the vast, white, nothingness of the upper Yukon River valley into Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada this week.
Behind him he left a land that was once the economic heart of the north, a land that once powered Alaska commerce the way oil has come to power it in these times, only to return to a natural state possibly more primal than before.
Gone are the mining camps that once lined the river, and the firewood cutting and coal stations that provided the fuel for the sternwheelers that powered up and down the mighty Yukon to supply the camps. Gone are the Athabascan Native villages of Juts’ok, Charley’s Village and others lost to time before White contact.
Gone, too, the sternwheelers and the trails and the people who formed the basis for the characters and the tales author Jack London used to fire an American fascination with the gold-rich Klondike country of the early 1900s.
Alaska author Dan O’Neil in 2007 published an aptly named book about this country in our times. It was titled simply “A Land Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage Along the Yukon River.” O’Neill paddled a canoe through a lush, green land that only grows more lonesome beneath the cold, white cloak of winter.
Some like it this way.
“The trip was f—– incredible,” Oatley reported. “Nothing will ever come close to that for me.”
This is no small statement coming from a man who has several times now ridden a bike along the historic Iditarod Trail for 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome. The Iditarod is another journey through Alaska history and prehistory, but once north of the Alaska Range a good bit of the history is still hanging on, albeit tenuously, in Interior communities like Nikolai, McGrath, Takotna, Ruby, Galena, Nulato and Kaltag, and along the Bering Sea coast where time has been kinder to villages.
“Obviously,” Oatley wrote from Seattle in the middle of the long airplane journey it takes to get back to his home here from Whitehorse, “a big part of (what made the trip pleasant) was that I got so lucky with the weather that it was always enjoyable. Even the couple of coldish, windy days on the Yukon were fun.
“The other part is that because of trail conditions I stayed so far in front of the (Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race) dogs that I got to experience some of the loneliest country in this part of the world, completely alone without much thought of seeing another soul. That was pretty special. And a lot of it is beautifully harsh country.”
One important adjective is missing from that last sentence — “unforgiving.” This is a beautifully harsh and unforgiving country best not visited by those lacking Oatley’s hard-earned survival skills. Temperatures can drop to 65 degrees below zero. Simply staying alive from day to day in such temperatures is difficult. But the country has its rewards.
“Northern lights, moose, caribou, Lynx, a wolf,” Oatley said. “Spent some time with some crusty dudes that have scratched a living out of those hills. Some time with young families trying to.”
These days there are not many of either living in-country for hundreds of miles on either side of the Canada border from where Alaska’s Steese Highway dead ends at Circle on the Yukon and Canada’s Dempster Highway crosses the Yukon at Dawson City. There are even fewer cyclists to be found there.
Oatley became somewhat famous regionally when he pedaled unnoticed across the unguarded border only to later present himself to the first Canadian customs official he could find in Dawson, about 95 miles south of the border, to report his arrival in Canada and clear customs.
What would have been no big deal in the years before 9/11 turned into a bit of a kerfuffle in these times when so many live in fear of terrorism. Oatley’s Canada problem was destined to become public knowledge when the worried cyclist posted on Facebook his fears that the Canada Border Services Agency was thinking about deporting him for arriving unannounced and thus illegally in Alaska’s neighbor country.
“I wish I wouldn’t have posted (on Facebook) about the border issue. It did seem absurd and funny to me. But it was really just me not knowing the laws, and some CBSA folks just doing their jobs. Still does seem absurd. But going into this my thought was on surviving 65 below and it never occurred to me that it might be illegal (to enter Canada). But that news spread and everybody I saw said, ‘you must be the guy they wanted to arrest.’
“Whatever. It was worth that and more.”