Yukon Territory, Canada: Man on (and off) the mountain bike

By Matt Payne

Looking up through the glass at the center of my domed ceiling, I can tell that the Yukon morning is a foggy one. I am afraid to sit up for two reasons. One, I can see my breath, which means it is freezing. And two, because I know that the moment that I do sit up, a pain will shoot from my ass throughout my entire being painfully electrifying every last cell in my body. As it turns out, when people ask me if I know how to do something, no matter the skill level required, I always say “yes” and though often times this can lead to favorable, challenging and even enlightening experiences, yesterday, when asked if I could handle an “intermediate/expert” level mountain bike ride from the top of McIntyre Mountain nearly 15 miles into the town of Whitehorse, it did not.

McIntyre Mountain

I based this particular “yes” on the fact that in 1995, I spent a single one hundred degree summer cruising through creek beds on a hunter green, off brand mountain bike with my ole pal Phil Jernigan. The greatest climb or descent, a mere 20 feet up or down a dried out creek, over a couple of mangled roots, stumps or a misplaced rock. The thought of a helmet, at that point in history evoked a sense of humiliation. Despite once falling into a murky, mud-red Oklahoma creek, my bike landing on my head, trapping me temporarily under the thick, mucus-like water, in my 17 year-old mind, I was invincible. Phil yanks me from the water, saving my life and we are back at it. Mountain biking masters in a creek and on a mission from God.

It seemed perfectly logical that like the migratory patterns in birds, that those formative skills attained in those summer bike rides between the years 1995-96 were instilled in my psyche deep enough that without question, I could handle 16 miles of rugged Yukon back country at elevations of more than 5000 feet. The only difference between the mountain backcountry and Oklahoma was a mere matter of geography. In addition, in preparation for this trip, I took just shy of a half dozen spin classes at my gym and what could possibly be more challenging than your legs spinning around for an 55 torturous minutes as a frizzy haired, haggard-looking cat lady screams at you while playing songs about how men suck?

The challenge with mountain-biking, I learned almost immediately, is that once you start on the trail, you continue on the trail until it ends. If it is too hard, tough shit. There is no helicopter to rescue you and unlike skiing where the ski patrol zips around looking for people in trouble, out in the back country of the Yukon, if you decide to you don’t want to continue forward, then you will sit there until you change your mind.

The ride began on top of a McIntyre mountain on a wide, relatively smooth mountain road with a breath-taking view of a pristine mountain lake far off in the distance. I pose for a picture with my bike like I’m some kind of extreme mountain-biking, daredevil prodigy, too good even for the X-Games, if the X-Games had mountain-biking. It isn’t until Sylvain, a genuine mountain-biker points out that my pants aren’t bike pants and they need to be tucked into my socks that I realize that I am far less sexy than I had thought. Next I realize that everyone else has camelbaks for their water. I have two bottles in the back of a North Face backpack. This means, of course, that I’ll have to stop every time I get thirsty. Suddenly I am sweating and not because of excercise but because I am starting to feel like a total douche.

As we take off my co-riders go screaming down the hill and as they do, I try to remember what gear does what and which brake controls which end of the bike. If my current bike is like a PS3, the last bike I rode was like the original Nintendo. That said, the bike’s suspension is so good that even over rocks, I feel like I am riding on a cloud.  Before long, I figure this fine machine out and am screaming down the hill with the rest of the gang. Aside from my pant leg tucked into my sock, and my floppy backpack with it’s water bottles swinging to and fro, I’m part of the crew. That is of course, until we turn onto a much tighter track through the woods.

Suddenly I am on what is called a “two-track” which basically means that it is wide enough to ride side by side and it goes pretty much straight down. My cloud-like suspension is no match for the jagged roots emerging from deep puddles of mud. As fast as we go down, we are going back up and my fear of gravity taking me down and to my grave is replaced by a hatred for the aforementioned gravity for taking my breath. Literally. After about one minute of “climbing,” as the call it, I feel like my lungs are absolutely on fire. I tell myself it is the altitude. I took spin classes. I can do this. My legs burn. Bad. I am beginning to hate myself and wish that somehow this was a bad dream but it isn’t and there is about five hours and forty-five minutes left. That amount of time, in novice, out-of-shape biker terms translates to an eternity.

I make it to the top of the first climb where apparently there is a nice view though I am too flustered to notice. Sylvain asks how I am doing and I lie and tell him that I am amazing and the whole “bike” thing is coming back to me like it was yesterday. Then I begin to hack like an emphysema patient,  opening my backpack and furiously chugging my limited and cumbersome water supply.

Before long, I do get the hang of it and begin to adjust to the climbs, bumps and narrow trails. I even take a moment to appreciate the vast Yukon valley stretching along side me. I ease into that moment of awe where I realize “I got it.” It was only after this thin veneer of confidence, that I find myself screaming down another hill into a tread that disagrees with the direction of my wheel and before I know it I am upside down and floating in mid air in one of those “Time and space no longer exist in a bad way” kind of moments which only ends when I/my bike smash into the ground some ten feet from where it left.  The seat, which somehow I am still sitting on smashes into my backside and upper thigh like a sledgehammer driving in a railroad stake and in that moment, all goes white. Where was Phil Jernigan!?!?!

I stand up, genuinely surprised I’m alive. Arms and legs in check. Head? Not bleeding. Ears? Not ringing. Grass stain on my pants. Tears in clothing? yes. Heart is racing? Furiously…. and yet I survived! Sylvain asks if I’m alright. I assure him I’m fine and then get back onto my bike and as my rear end hits the seat, once again the world goes white. I leap off the seat, assuring Sylvain that I’m okay. I get back on, then retract that statement. I am not okay. My rump is destroyed. It feels like I am sitting on a bladed pine-cone that occasionally gives off an electric current. I want to go home immediately, yet there is five and a half hours to go and no other way around it…. So I get on my bike and I ride, cursing the word “yes” with every excruciating turn of the pedals.  The pain at times unbearable. The views, however, are magnificent.

The rest of the afternoon is a blur of trees and mountain lakes. Thin trails and wide. Snacks and sips of water. With each bump, I think I’d rather be fishing, golfing, hiking, dreaming, writing, working, counting grains of sand on an infinite beach… anything to make this pain end and to be able to sit down. Time seems to stop in this epic back country as I pedal and pedal towards civilization retreating deep inside myself until finally the town of Whitehorse comes into view. The ride is over. A beer is near…

As my mind begins to catch up with me, I think about my fall. I should have seen that coming. If I could do it again, I’d know better. If I could do it again, despite the pain, I’d stop to take in the views and feel the rush that comes with reaching the top of a climb or clearing a falling tree…. I would have somehow managed to enjoy it.

And as I wake the next cold, foggy morning and think about the hike that awaits me later in the day, I think to myself, I’m glad I said yes, despite the fact that it hurts to stand or to sit… or to lay down. Today, I’ll still hike and discomfort be damned, I will enjoy every step… and somewhere along the way, I’ll probably wish that once again, I was on a bike.