Halftrack trails 08/26/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alberta, bear, british columbia, mcbride, mountains, rain
Bye bye British Columbia, hello Jasper. Gasper. The winding roads and serenity of the mountains are officially behind me, and I find myself in gift shop purgatory – a hub of zombie debit swipes and ascot-clad backpackers. The detour to Jasper was a sort of litmus test to find if I wanted to make the journey south down the Icefields Parkway to Banff. I don’t.
To be honest, a good portion of my heart is still in British Columbia. The ride east on the Yellowhead was wonderful, a relaxing meander through sweeping valleys and lush farmland that smelled like home. It was so incident-free, in fact, that my mind wandered in every direction for hours. And, of course, that’s when something happens.
I was cycling through the hills near Prince George as black clouds gathered behind me. They mushroomed all day, but since I was facing the sunshine, I didn’t think much of them. Then, in the early evening, Mother Nature pulled a hood over the sky and it sounded like bombs were dropping in the distance. Day became an eerie night and I pulled off onto an abandoned hiking trail as fast as I could. I scrambled to put up my tent, and just as I snapped the last pole together, gumball sized drops started falling and lightning lit up the sky. And the thunder! It boomed through the valley, through my guts, and I couldn’t help but think the next bolt was headed for my tent.
But it wasn’t. Something else was. As the storm slowly subsided, I heard a huge crash through the trees and seconds later a nose in constant suction was sniffing at my tent. I looked up to see a big black nose pressed against the fabric, inches from my own face. The animal then walked to my bike, knocked over my cook pot and then plowed back through the bushes. The next morning I found a huge pile of berry-bear shit next to my camp. And that was that.
Further east, in the Robson Valley, I came to a small town called McBride. It gave me a good vibe from the moment I cycled down Main Street, so I grabbed some supplies from the local market and headed to the Visitor’s Centre for some complimentary coffee refills. True, I don’t drink coffee, but I’m always in the mood for free.
Admittedly, though, I’ve developed a bit of a problem with crowds. I’ve spent so much time alone, in the middle of nowhere, that large groups of people pour glue on my shoes and make me clutch the wall. So I stood there, eyes widening, until a woman gave me a huge smile that must have rattled off the mugs behind me. I turned red and scuffed the floor with my toe.
“Can I buy you a coffee?”
The glue melted and I smiled back. I said I’d be happy to have a cup with she and her husband. I sat down and right away they asked me all about my trip. Where was I going? Where did I start? Where was I staying tonight? My reply to the last question wasn’t up to snuff, I think, and they invited me to stay at their acreage east of town. Juliann and Gerald were such genuinely warm people that I accepted right away and asked that they repeat directions to their place, which I promptly forgot after the door swung shut.
I’m not much good at details.
So, after five cups of coffee and an hour-long conversation with a local cedar farmer, I headed off for the road that starts with an “H”, second house on the right. Or left. And I made it! The road was Hinkelman and the cream house with green trim was just as wonderful as I imagined. It sat under a canopy of beautiful trees and right beside the back door was a candy-coloured garden with flowers I’ve never even seen before.
Jullian and Gerry were the most amazing hosts. I asked where I could set up my tent, and they winked and suggested the guest bedroom downstairs. This, after they stuffed me with delicious food, threw my clothes in the washer and me in the shower. And as I ran my fingers across the titles of Jullian’s book collection, I smiled, warm and content, and realized how lucky I’ve been on this trip. I’ve met so many wonderful people, so many generous souls, and in the end I guess that was the point. It makes all the difference in the world.
The next day, Jullian and Gerry drove me halfway up an alpine trail so I could climb Mount McBride. I squinted at the treeless peak and realized, once and for all, that the Prairie flats are permanently ingrained in my DNA. The idea of climbing an actual mountain was so foreign to me that I set off with a ham sandwich and a big smile – I figured that’s all I needed.
I got to the top of Mount McBride without any trouble. In fact, it was fun, and as I looked down at the snow on smaller peaks, I found that I was having the time of my life. I peered across the horizon and picked out another ridge, this one a towering rocky mass, and decided I was going to climb that one too.
If you’re looking at the picture above, the peak in question sits centre frame, just to the right of the sharp triangle outcropping. I almost made it, too.
As I made my way up the ridge, I came to a sheer rock face that was impossible to climb. I had to go around, so I shimmied down, and that’s where I slipped. Or rather, the rocks slipped. They disintegrated under my feet and on my back I slid about 20 meters down the mountain. The slope continued beneath me, the angle growing sharper, and then it dropped off, straight down to a rock pile far below.
I dug my fingers into the stones to try to climb back up, but every time I moved I only slipped further down. A few inches at a time, lower and lower, sliding to a free fall. I clutched the wall for about 20 minutes, talking to myself and trying to quell the panic rising in my throat. Eventually my arms started to shake, growing weak, and the time to climb out was now or never.
I couldn’t get any sort of grip, so I slowly pried a rock out of the mountain and put my fingers in the hole. Then my knee and then my foot. From there, I scaled a narrow outcropping back to a tiny perch where I could sit, dizzy and very scared. But the top of the ridge wasn’t far above, and when I made it there I got off the mountain as fast as humanly possible. Mount McBride, far below, seemed like a gift and solid ground a blessing.
Jullian asked me what was going through my mind as I clung to the mountain wall. Here it is: In Endako, BC, I saw a random sign beside the highway that said, “Prepare To Meet God.” Sliding down the rock face, inch by inch, I realized I wasn’t even sure what God looks like. All I knew was that I ain’t it.
The land of milk and honey 08/17/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bear, british columbia, camping, cassiar highway, hazelton, mountains
The Cassiar Highway is no more. I pounded out 430 km in three days and, on Aug. 14, turned east onto the Yellowhead. Finishing a highway usually leaves me a bit deflated, pedalling aimlessly on new pavement, but this time I promised myself that I’d make it to the first major town down the road – Hazelton.
I arrived just as dusk was settling over the mountains, and I quickly made my way to the local grocery store to buy unreasonable amounts of meat and sugar. Protein and go-juice. The next hour saw me sitting on a curb, munching on a foot-long garlic sausage coil and throwing Oreo cookies into my mouth, one after another.
When the food frenzy was finally over, I had nothing to do but bike around a strange town in the dark looking for a place to sleep. My midnight sign reading skills are questionable, though, and the hiking trail I thought I was following turned out to be a patch of thorny underbrush and rocky ground. After a long day, I didn’t care all that much, and I fell asleep with slashed legs and my shoes still on my feet.
Things are always clearer in the morning. I got myself back on the trail and took an early morning hike to a huge (to me) waterfall in the forest. Normally, I’m white-faced scared of heights, but the falls were so neat that I scampered up the rocks and sat at the top with my legs dangling over the edge. The view was crazy and it occured to me that I’d like to camp right there for, y’know, ever.
Later I got back on my bike and set off for Old Hazelton, which lies just across the Bulkley River. The metal bridge spans a huge ravine, and I took a highlight-reel spill because I was too busy gawking at the rushing water. Not my finest moment.
In Old Town I tried to find the public library, but ended up coming across a Cultural Days festival instead. The food smells alone were enough to draw me in, and I spent the rest of the day eating smokies, drinking beer with German tourists and playing hapless games of bingo. It was a blast – the best possible way to get off the highway for a rest.
At the festival, I met a great guy named Darren who invited me to camp at his place in Two Mile, a small community between the two Hazeltons. It’s such a wonderful spot!
Darren and his wife Anise have four beautiful kids, a dog named Luna, gardens and even a shed full of baby chicks! The place is a beehive of activity, but I love how everyone seems to be in a thousand places at once, yet always in the here and now.
Yesterday I took another day off because a bunch of us went huckleberry picking in the mountains. We came back with buckets and buckets of berries, purple fingers and a new appreciation for date-guessing bear shit. One blackie looked up at us from a small creek, but he was interested in having a drink, not us.
Tomorrow I set off again. For now, I’m enjoying this break immensely.
The Great Dempster Dive 06/30/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, arctic circle, bear, border, camping, dawson, dempster highway, ferry, insects, inuvik, mountains, northwest territories, rain, wind, yukon
The wilderness swallowed me up for two weeks and spit out a sweaty, starving, smiling fool. What a ride! The Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Dawson was a gravel and mud slug fest, but with so many incredible moments in between I can only count myself lucky to be on the other side.
Computers (and showers) were at a premium in the Far North, but I kept a journal so I could share the day-by-day happenings of the road. Here it goes:
Tuesday, June 16
After being cooped up in Inuvik for so long, I made a teeth-grind beeline south and cleared 133 km on the first day. The first 25 km south of town made me seriously consider what I’d gotten myself into, because the gravel was three inches deep and I could not, for the life of me, get any traction on my back wheel. I didn’t even clip my shoes into the pedals until I’d been on the road for an hour.
The landscape up here is from another world. All I see, for infinite miles, are stunted spruce trees and flat bog. Welcome to the Mackenzie Delta.
It’s mosquito heaven, and they swarm around me in a buzz-suck cloud whenever I stop to catch my breath. It’s like a 50′s drive-in B-movie, only with less high-heeled screaming.
No one would hear me anyways. Besides a few large trucks, I’ve been passed by only a handful of vehicles all day. Lots of dust and rock showers, but that’s par for the course.
Saw a lone caribou today!
Thursday, June 18
I lingered briefly in Fort McPherson after spending the night behind a shuttered church. A microcosm of the town, I suppose. People here are guarded and I had trouble getting more than a terse hello from anyone, including my waitress, when I paid $12 for a $5 breakfast.
Outside the restaurant, I saw, etched into a metal pole, the words, “I Don’t Love.” Yikes.
I pulled out of town just after 10:30 a.m. and headed south towards the Peel River. The ride was stunning – flat ground, sweet-smelling trees and enough sunshine to carry me through the day. The ferry ride across the river was exciting, as far as ferry rides go, and I pedalled, grinning, to the mountains on the horizon.
Mountains. They were in every territorial map and brochure I saw, but they were always in the distance – a dreamy accent on already beautiful vistas. It never occurred to me that these massive outcroppings of rock might actually need to be crossed. On a bike.
The climbs were gut-busting and I swear my tongue was hanging out for most of today’s 93 km. But the view from the top! Lush native grasses and freezing streams traced their way down the treeless mountains. It was so rugged, so unbelievably wild that I half expected to see Marty Stouffer running by in his trademark flannel shirt.
A few kilometres from the Yukon border I stopped to catch my breath and pretend I wasn’t starving. Amazingly – and this is why I love the road – a wonderful woman pulled up in her 4Runner and told me she’d biked the same highway in 2000.
She invited me into the vehicle, out of the raging wind, and said she’d made supper for me because she appreciated (pitied?) the life of a cyclist. A pot was produced and voila, I was eating fresh salmon and buttered potatoes! Even angels drive SUVs.
Across the border the wind was so bad and the road so treacherous that I couldn’t safely make it to the nearest campground. I was literally getting blown off the road, so I put on my vagrant hat and camped behind a Department of Highways water truck parked at the side of the road. It blocked the wind wonderfully and I slept like a baby.
Friday, June 19
Tired and in my city state of mind, I decided last night, for whatever reason, that locking my bike to the water truck was a good idea. This morning I awoke to the gravel-growl thunder of the engine starting and my heart lept out of my mouth. I dashed out of my tent in my long underwear and waved frantically at the truck driver. In the end, he thought it was all quite funny. Hilarious.
I made the final push to Rock River and camped there for a rest day and a chance to wash the stink out of my clothes. It was scrub city in the river, but in the end I smelled like a human being again.
Saturday, June 20
The ride today left me utterly exhausted. I cleared 76 km, all uphill, then collapsed into my sleeping bag. Some of the climbs were insane and it dawned on me, for the first time, that I might not be able to finish the highway. An ugly thought after so much planning and anticipation, but it snaked its way into the back of my mind and wouldn’t leave.
Along the highway, a fat cat camper and his snack laden wife pulled up beside me to ask where I was going. Dawson. Where was I coming from? Inuvik. He snorted and said, “You’re an idiot!” I smiled politely while picturing him hanging from an imaginary hook and then cycled away.
It was a good motivator. The guy pissed me off and I biked angry for the rest of the day. I cruised past the Arctic Circle and made my way to Eagle Plains by nightfall.
It’s a community of exactly 14 people, but it has a lovely hotel and restaurant. I ordered a gargantuan bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, fries and bumbleberry pie with vanilla ice cream. Then I phoned my folks, stumbled over to the campground and blacked out until the morning.
Sunday, June 21
I got about 20 km south of Eagle Plains and the sky opened up with enough rain to turn the road into gravy. Pushing my gear uphill through the mud was nearly impossible, so I found a place in the bush and set up my camp for the night. It was the only spot for miles that wasn’t surrounded by bear tracks or scat.
Still, I spent most of the night with my sleeping bag pulled over my nose, imagining all the ways a grizzly might eat my head.
The mosquitoes were beyond comprehension. I’ve gotten so good at killing them that I can actually snag them out of the air with two fingers. Ninja biker!
Monday, June 22
I woke up happy to be alive! Seriously. I walked in circles so the bugs couldn’t eat me while I downed breakfast. Then I hit the road and, feeling stronger by the day, was able to attack the countless ups and downs of the so-called plains.
A few hours into the day I spotted what I thought was a caribou and its calves. It was trotting down the highway in my direction so I inched forward and took out my camera for a picture. But it kept coming, and the closer it got the less it looked like a caribou. It wasn’t until it turned and that I realized I was playing chicken with a moose.
Finally, when the trio were 20 meters from me, the cow stopped and caught my scent. She was suitably unimpressed and let loose a terrifying growl and started stomping one of her front hooves. It was an oh-shit moment like no other because I had absolutely nowhere to go. The road was narrow and I was blocked in by dense bush on both sides. All I could do was slowly back up, which calmed the animal a bit.
Then my gear clicked. She snorted again and turned to head into the trees. Taking a wide berth around her exit point, I got over the next hill like my back wheel was on fire.
I hit Ogilvie Ridge by mid afternoon and then enjoyed the rare reprieve of a descent from Seven Mile Hill. The bottom of the hill was a jaw-dropping array of sparkling streams and creeks. With the sun shining and fish jumping all around me, I enjoyed my lunch and then headed for the campground at Engineer Creek.
The road to the camp site started out perfectly flat – the first prairie-like land I’d seen on my travels. I thought it was an awful tease so I tentatively continued south. But it lasted for the next 50 km, which I flew over in under two hours! It was a shot in the arm for my confidence and marked one of the first times I went to sleep after my head hit the pillow.
Wednesday, June 24
I woke up in a mud puddle and fell asleep on top of the world! I was rained out at Engineer Creek for the past few days, but that gave me a chance to rest my legs and fatten up as much as possible. The visitors that came through the campground made that easy.
One fellow, a white-whisker rancher type, invited me into his camper where “the wife” made us salami and cheese sandwiches. I had two while we talked about things from their lives that I’ll probably never see: shotguns, cougars, grandkids, all sorts of stuff.
Later a mother and son pulled up to share a picnic lunch. My first impression of them was exceedingly poor because the maternal half let a million moquitos into the cook shack when she came in to say hello. So, I readied my blood for another donation-by-the-drop and we settled in to a great conversation about our lives – hers in Vancouver and mine from the Prairies.
When they started eating I gracefully left to filter some water from the creek. But when I came back, the son had filled up a plate of some of the most delicious food I’d seen in ages. Smoked salmon, avacados, grapes, chocolate, orange crackers and White Zinfandel wine! And for me! I politely declined at first, but they insisted, so I dug in. It tasted better than I can possibly describe, especially after my constant breakfasts of oatmeal and dinners of rice.
Soon the strange purple-night of the North appeared, and with it a grizzled rigger from Alberta. We shared a smoke and I spent the rest of the night looking out at the rain, in love with the mountains.
Thursday, June 25
It took two summits and 123 km, but I made the final uphill push to Tombstone Park by mid evening. The skies again threatened throughout the day but I managed to skirt around a downpour with a bit of luck. Sometimes you wait for rain, sometimes it waits for you.
The views from the top of Windy Pass and North Fork Pass were stunning, and even though I was tired, I felt so fortunate to be traveling through such an amazing country. If those of you reading ever have the chance to visit the North, just go. It’s like nothing else in the world.
The descent from North Fork Pass was wild and I came within a whisper of 66 km/h as I blew past the campground. I didn’t care – it felt like I was biking on clouds and I wanted to enjoy every second of it. The 2 km climb back up to the park was only a bliss tax.
Friday, June 26
I left the campground impatiently because I desperately wanted to be in Dawson City. Civilization. It was starting to rain when I left but I figured I could outrun it or at least tolerate the wet. What I hadn’t counted on was the cold.
After only 20 km I was drenched from head to toe and shivering so badly I thought I would catch my death. I hunkered down in the bush for awhile, but looking down, I saw a soggy dead mouse and decided that perhaps this wasn’t the spot for me.
I could have biked back to Tombstone but that seemed like defeat. I kept going and eventually came upon an old hunting shack. Nobody was around, so, though I’m not proud of this, I eased my way inside using a few of the lock picking tricks I acquired as a kid. I only did it because I was frozen, I swear.
The cabin had an old wood stove so I dried my clothes and prepared to leave when, of course, the cabin owner showed up with a someone’s-been-eating-my-porridge face. I bounded outside to say hello and explain my situation and he nodded, even offering to let me stay the night if the weather didn’t improve. It didn’t, so I slept the night under the faded watch of a Virgin Mary poster and the warm glow of a spruce wood fire.
Saturday, June 27
I left the cabin around six in the morning to take advantage of the first blue skies in days. I sailed down the final 50 km of the Dempster and turned off at the junction to Dawson just after lunch.
It was weird. After nearly 750 km and a hell of a pile of sweat, I was headed for Dawson, just like that. The final 40 km into town made my days on the road seem like a blur. Onward and upward.
Dawson is a mecca for all things tourist, which turned me off at first. I’m a tourist too, of course, but I certainly don’t fit in with the portly Americans wearing “Yukon’t Beat the North” ball caps with the price tags still attached. Virtually all of them drive behemoth RV’s and experience the wilderness without ever setting foot in it.
To each their own.
My disdain for RV’s knows no bounds, but I have developed a trick for dealing with them. They always have silly names, compensatory names to give their owners the illusion that they’re somehow exploring something more than gas stations. The trick is this: Put the word “anal” in front of the RV name and let the hilarity ensue. So far I’ve come across an Anal Fun Seeker, Anal Explorer and Anal Four Winds. Love it!
So that brings us to the present. I’ve been bumming around Dawson for the past few days, hiking around the mountains and meeting the locals. It’s a neat town with tons of history and I’m lucky to have the chance to explore it.
I’m also lucky to be heading to Alaska via the Top of the World Highway. Tomorrow!