Canada: Top of the World Highway and an encounter with a Grizzly

Posted by James Anderton on June 13th, 2019


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As the name suggests the Top of the World is one of the legendary roads and one of the great day cycles. A 127 km-long (79 mi) dirt road. Beginning with the ferry across the Yukon river at Dawson City and ending at the junction with the Taylor Highway in Alaska. It is one of my favourite roads. One that goes high and stays high with constant panoramic views of the vast wilderness that is Yukon. It is also where I had an all too close encounter with a Grizzly.

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Camp spot along the Top of the World Highway

The route begins in Dawson City. Not really a city, more a handful of streets, but a fascinating place. It has a wonderfully off-beat vibe. It was the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896 which saw it's population soar to over 40,000. It now has a population of less than 2,000 but still retains the feel of its glory days. The 19th century architecture complete with saloons and a casino where the inhabitants of the gold rush would go to lose their new found wealth. It's a great place to spend a couple of days and gather yourself and supplies before you either head to Alaska or up the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Ocean. If you plan to continue over the border to Alaska it is 300km to the next grocery store in Tok.

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The architecture in Dawson City still reflects its colourful Gold Rush history

At Dawson you cross the Yukon river by boat and are soon climbing on tarmac up above 1,000m where the road stays high all the way to the border. After 10km the road becomes a dirt road but it is in excellent condition. It was around the 16km mark where I had a close encounter with a Grizzly. I picked the wrong place to stop to enjoy the view and have a snack. The Grizzly crept up behind me. I turned around and there he was. I got to my feet and he did likewise getting on his haunches to show me his full height. If it was a show of strength it wasn't necessary. We were a mismatch if ever there was one. He sensed food and went straight for my panniers ripping a hole in my canoe bag where he came across my wheat bread. I've heard bears eat anything. Well clearly not wheat bread as he tossed it aside and came for me instead. It's hard to know what to do in such a situation. Bears are quite the all round athletes. They can run quicker than you. They can swim quicker than you and for longer. They can climb better than you. I fancy they would be extremely good sumo wrestlers. I stepped backwards slowly facing the bear as you are supposed to do. Easier said than done when a grizzly in a bad mood is striding towards you with intent. I was soon jogging backwards dodging the clumsy swipes he made at me with his paw. I didn't need to be Floyd Mayweather to evade his shots but the situation was alarming. He was showing all the signs of a highly stressed bear. Salivating at the mouth, an empty gaze, swiping with his paws and regularly getting on his haunches to tower over me. I kept backing off until I was able to wheel around back to my bike and then quickly got the bike between me and the bear. We went round in circles for a minute as he tried to get at me. Fortunately there was a downslope and at the first opportunity I jumped on my bike and shot off down the slope. I was already in a high gear and was able to quickly get my speed up above 30km/hr. He followed me. I could hear his paws thumping on the gravel but I was able to pick up enough speed and put some distance between us. I turned around and he had given up the chase.....and breathe.

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The Grizzly munching on my panniers

Although Grizzly sightings are common in this part of the world it is unusual to encounter one showing such aggressive behaviour. Normally they are as keen to avoid contact with you as you are with them. The black bears will certainly get themselves out of the way as soon as they are aware of your presence. The Grizzly however is a different kettle of bear. They evolved on open ground where there is little option to hide from a perceived threat. Therefore they have evolved to meet any threat rather than hide from it. On hearing/sensing your presence they are just as likely to go and see who's on their patch rather than hide themselves away. Also they are much more temperamental than the black/brown bears. If a grizzly has young to protect, a nearby food source to guard or simply got out of bed on the wrong side then they may well pick a fight. If this happens you should not move towards the bear. Do not shout at it. Stay calm, hold your ground, talk calmly to the bear, back away slowly. Do not turn your back on a bear. Do not run. This will incite the bear to chase after you. Be warned that you will have difficulty cycling away from a bear if you are heading uphill. Not only are you slower but they are actually quicker on a slight uphill than they are on a slight downhill. Due to the incredible strength of their hind legs.

A Grizzly Bear. Beautiful animals but not to be messed with (Photo courtesy of @piquenewsmagazine)

So what should I have done differently? You never know where and when you may encounter a Grizzly in Yukon. They are dotted around this vast wilderness and you are just as likely to encounter one here as you are there. My big mistake was not having bear spray ready to use. This is exactly the situation when you need it. When a bear is showing aggressive behaviour. I should have been carrying bear spray within easy reach. If you cycle with a handlebar bag this is the perfect place for it. People often use bear bells to warn a bear of your approach giving them time to remove themselves from the scene before you encounter them. This works perfectly for black/brown bears who are keen to avoid a confrontation. It can have the opposite effect on a grizzly who, as mentioned before, is as likely to go see what that noise is as move away. The best deterrent is to avoid an encounter in the first place. A lot of people think great I have bear spray I don't need to worry about bears but the best way to avoid a problem is to not attract the bears at all.

Since my encounter (before would have been better) I have become quite the bear tracker. Although I think bear avoider would be more accurate. I look out for Grizzly footprints. I keep an eye out for fresh bear poo when camping. I avoid camping anywhere where there are berries. It goes without saying that you must employ the Bearmuda triangle when camping. Cook and eat at one point of the triangle. Store your food 3-4m up a tree (good luck with that) a 100 yards away at another point of the triangle. Sleep at the third point of the triangle, again a 100 yards away. Sleep upwind of the food if you can. A bear has the best sense of smell of all terrestrial mammals. Don't carry smelly foods such as canned fish or bacon. They say you should even change out of the clothes you cook in and hang these up along with your cooking gear. Wash your cooking gear and utensils immediately after using them. Sleep next to your bear spray. If a bear does attack you the options aren't great. I was lucky I was able to get on my bike and speed off. If this is not an option then you should play dead. Lie on the ground face down and spread your legs and elbows. Clasp your hands around your neck. Not an easy thing to do in the midst of an attack but the bear is likely to conclude that you aren't a threat and move away. The chances of it coming to this are slim. Do your best to avoid bears and use your bear spray if a bear is being aggressive and you should be fine. Be sure to have a test with your bear spray after you've bought it. They are pretty powerful and can be used when a bear is within 4m of you. Be wary of wind direction. You don't want it to blow back in your face.

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Top of the World Highway

Downhill away from the Grizzly got me to safety but actually my way was uphill. I inched back up the hill keeping at least 30m between me and the Grizzly should he decide to chase after me again. Eventually he sloped off into the trees and I could see him climbing through the forest. I took my opportunity and sped past to enjoy the rest of the Top of the World Highway. I didn't see any more bears. Instead I saw the incredible scenery with a constant panoramic view as the road meanders along a crest of hills high above the valley. It is a beautiful cycle through untouched wilderness. A ride you will always remember with or without an encounter with a Grizzly.

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At the beginning of the Top of the World highway above Dawson City

Getting there/away:

If not cycling then Air North are your best bet. They fly all over the north of Canada and offer excellent prices for such a remote corner of the world. They fly regularly between Calgary, Edmonton, Whitehorse and Dawson City. They are also very bicycle friendly and will make sure you and your bike arrive in good shape.

Time to Go:

The Canada/Alaska border opens around Victoria Day in Canada which is the last Monday in May. The boat across the river at Dawson also starts running at the same time. This is a good time to cycle the road before the mosquitoes come out in force in the middle of June. The highway stays open until September when the snow comes. For exact dates call the information centre in Dawson City at (867) 993-5566. Customs also closes in mid-September and when it closes there is no crossing the border.

Road:

The first 10km out of Dawson are paved but then it is a dirt road all the way to the border. It's a good road though. Long sections are made of clay and makes for lovely smooth riding when it's dry and a mudbath when it's wet. I would avoid in wet weather.

Wild camping:

Easy and spectacular. There's no water along the way but when I cycled it in late May there were a few roadside trickles from the melting ice. Be very mindful of bears. Don't camp anywhere where you see berries growing. Look out for fresh bear poo. Cook and hang up food away from your tent. Carry bear spray and have it close to hand at all times. Mosquitoes can be a big pain during summer. Although the exposed nature of the road means there will often be enough wind to drive them away.

Visa's:

If arriving overland into Canada you don't need to apply for an eTA. You can just rock up at the border with your passport. Most visitors can stay for up to 6 months in Canada. If flying into Canada you will need to apply for an eTA. It only costs 7 CAD and takes a few minutes.

Bicycle Shops:

There's a bicycle shop in Dawson City. The Squeaky Chain Bicycle shop. My chain had being squeaking since forever but I figured it would serve as a bear bell equivalent. You can hear me coming a mile off.

Tips:

Go check out the view from the Midnight Dome above Dawson City. It's a sharp 5km climb rarely less than 10% but well worth it for the views from the top and a great place to camp.

The view from the Midnight Dome above Dawson City

Any traffic could have you eating dust so some kind of dust mask would be handy. The kind lady at the Dempster Highway Visitor Centre in Dawson gave me one.

Free Wi-Fi, cheap coffee and super helpful staff at the Yukon Visitor Centre.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.