I was mountain biking in the Yukon — a talon-shaped slice of Canadian wilderness scratched between Alaska and the Northwest Territories. Eighty percent of its glacier-licked landscape is sheathed in pine, poplar and spruce forest — stocked with bears, moose, wolves and caribou — and studded with emerald-green lakes, set against bulky mountains and big skies. Life here is rugged and nature rules.
Yukoners have a name for inexperienced newcomers: ‘greenhorns’. Spend a few months here and you graduate to ‘cheechako’. But it’s not until you’ve survived a full winter and seen the almighty Yukon River melt that you can count yourself a ‘sourdough’ like the locals.
I’m feeling every inch the greenhorn as we gear up for another descent. Euan, our blond Glaswegian tour leader, briefly talks us through it and we launch after him. Standing flat on my pedals and leaning back over the saddle, I whizz down the dirt track and up the next hill. Euan waits at the top. As I near the crest, I flash him a proud grin, promptly lose momentum and topple over into the bracken.
I lie on my back surveying the canopy, still perfectly seated on the upturned bike. Euan’s face appears above me. “Can I give you some advice,” he says, lifting the bike off me. “Spread your knees.” I flash him an arched eyebrow from my compromising position. “Erm, I just mean it’ll give you better stability,” he adds.
With my knees suitably spread, we head towards Canyon City – a 1890s Klondike Gold Rush ghost town beside the river. Stampeders moored here to unload their equipment and possessions before risking their lives rafting down the foaming Miles Canyon Rapids to reach the gold fields of Dawson City. Bald patches of earth mark where trading posts and stables once stood and here and there are rusting tin-can middens and abandoned rail carts. We stand awhile in silence astride our saddles, listening to the roar of the river and picking out beaver-chewed tree stumps.
Biking back to our eco-yurt camp, we stop to celebrate with a beer and refresh our feet in the breath-catching cool waters of Schwatka Lake. Teenagers sun themselves on the pier and across the water a red-winged seaplane skids across the surface ready for takeoff. Light rainfall begins and beams a rainbow halo – known as a ‘sun dog’ – around the sun. I may only have been here a week, but I take it as nature’s way of promoting this greenhorn mountain-biker to a cheechako – that, and the browning bruises on my bum.