Mountain biking in Canada: An adventure where the wilderness rules

The remote province of Yukon offers the chance to mountain-bike through pristine terrain. Just watch out for bears and logs, says Emma Thomson

My bike and I aren't bonding. Like a snorting steed, it wants to race over the rocks and drops that unfurl beneath us, while my clammy hands clamp the handlebars trying to pull us back to a sedate pace. "Woo, yeah, shred the gnarl," whoops Euan, our leggy Glaswegian tour leader, as he skids to a halt behind me. I raise my most confident-looking smile and just have time to push my sunglasses back on to my nose before we're off again, hurtling along forest-floor tracks no wider than a grizzly bear's paw.

A hill looms ahead, but my thighs are protesting as if I've stuck forks in them. So I hop off and push the bike up the path, riddled with roots weaving in and out of the ground like giant worms. Sweat runs down the backs of my knees and my lungs heave for air. On the hill's cusp, we exit the woods and there, far below, spread three circular, agate-green lakes, hidden from everyone except us by a great swathe of tapered pine and spruce trees set against a mass of grey mountains. "Awesome, eh?", whispers Euan, rolling his bike alongside mine.

This contrast of pain and gain is all part of the joy of mountain biking. We'd come to test ourselves amid the wilds of the Yukon – Canada's westernmost province, bordering Alaska. Out here, nature is in charge. Eighty per cent of the territory is wilderness and the majority of the 33,580 population lives in the capital, Whitehorse, spread along the banks of the swollen snow-melt Yukon River. The place was named by prospectors, en route to the gold fields of Dawson City, who imagined the white caps on the Yukon rapids looked like charging white stallions.

Gold doesn't concern my fellow bikers. "What about bears?" asks Gina, an accountant from Minneapolis, whose toned legs display an impressive collection of blackened biking bruises. "They're out there, but if we shout as we ride along they usually run away as soon as they hear us," reassures Euan. Gina looks unconvinced. "I've brought a couple of bear bells just in case," she replies. Dave, a baseball-capped local guide sitting in the corner, lets out a snort of laughter: "Yeah, they make 'em round, so it's easier for the bears to swallow 'em!" Gina frowns and re-attaches the bell Velcro extra tightly to her bike.

Everything except bears are in evidence as we chase the trail that day. Blue-bodied dragonflies dart between the spruce, timorous grouse scamper across the path and red squirrels squeak from hidden tree nodes. Clearings are peopled with purple fireweed − Yukon's territorial flower − and the scent of pine washes over us as we whoosh by. Once we spy a white-faced bald eagle winging over the thermals.

Gearing up for another descent, I stand on my pedals and push my "tush" over the back of the saddle, holding my breath as I zip down the dirt track and up the next hill. Euan waits at the top. As I near the crest, I flash him a triumphant grin, promptly lose momentum, and topple over into the moss.

Bruised but not broken, I return to camp − a collection of luxury yurts hidden among the trees on a bluff overlooking town. Here we set upon a dinner of scarlet Alaska sockeye salmon, marinated in soy sauce and maple syrup. I expect to ache all over, but elation spreads through me instead. Later, tucked beneath a mille-feuille of blankets, I hear the camp dogs outside, growling at the wolves on the hill, who howl for the missing moon.

We awake to a film-set blue sky and brewing coffee. Half the team are going to attempt a more technical climb, so Gina and I are handed over to 21-year-old Jeff, whose badge of experience comprises his taut, tan-striped calves. We strap the bikes to the back of the minibus and drive an hour south to the railroad hamlet of Carcross.

We chatter in the back as we off-road uphill to find a suitable drop-off point. "Bear!" shouts Jeff. A flash of black and light-brown snout rears its head 150 metres in front of us, before loping off into the bushes. Half an hour later, as we're pedaling up a grey gravel path, I hear a low growl from the trees behind. "Bear!" I yelp, shooting forward on my pedals to make a quick escape. Gina shrieks and jolts after me. "Guys, it's just a quad bike," soothes Jeff.

I keep quiet until we find what we've been looking for: an old wagon road purportedly marked out in 1900 by Sam McGee, a construction worker made famous by English poet Robert Service. Service came to Yukon after the mad days of the Klondike Rush had passed, but gold was still on everyone's tongues and under their fingernails. He spotted McGee's name in the bank register where he worked and asked if he could build a poem around him. "The Cremation of Sam McGee" became a classic and Service was hailed the "Bard of the Yukon".

On the last day, we retrace some of the paths we pedalled on the first ride. I give a little inward cheer when I realise I'm not finding them as tough. I feel in control as I click down a gear and give the handlebars a proud pat. Then, as if sensing my swelling ego, nature places a log in my path. "Tree!" shout Jeff and Gina, who are someway ahead. All I hear is "Weee!" until I'm wedged between my saddle and a storm-snapped trunk.

Mountain biking in Yukon is undeniably testing, but there's a rawness that comes from riding along boreal-forest paths and cliffs; you're on the edge of nature, the precipice of safe, and for brief seconds you experience the fear and triumph of tackling this rugged wilderness, where the big skies and bulky mountains morph from threatening to enthralling and ensnare the soul.

Robert Service felt it and captured it thus: "The strong life that never knows harness; the wilds where the caribou call; the freshness, the freedom, the farness − O God! How I'm stuck on it all."

Travel essentials

Getting there

The gateway to Yukon is Vancouver. Emma Thomson travelled with British Airways (0800 493 0787; ba.com) which flies twice daily from Heathrow to Vancouver; the city is also served from Heathrow by Air Canada and Virgin Atlantic, and from Gatwick and Manchester by Air Transat. From Vancouver connecting flights to Whitehorse are offered by Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com), WestJet (001 888 937 8538; westjet.com) and Air North (001 800 661 0407; flyairnorth.com). Condor (00 49 6171 6988920; condor.com) operates a weekly direct flight from Frankfurt to Whitehorse.

Biking there

H&I Adventures (01463 239 716; mountainbikeworldwide.com) offers one-week mountain-biking tours every July and August which cost £1,600pp, including accommodation and activities, but not flights.

More information

travelyukon.com keepexploring.ca

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

    Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Sales / Customer Service Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: The role is likely to be 4on 4 off, days and ...

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones