The land of milk and honey 08/17/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bear, british columbia, camping, canada, 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.
Smoke and mirrors 08/11/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, british columbia, canada, cassiar highway, forest fire, health, yukon
As I was leaving Teslin, I remember seeing a bulletin on the post office wall that said asthmatics should avoid the forest fire smoke and, if possible, shut themselves indoors. “Ha,” I thought to myself, “I can bike through anything. Forest fires be damned!”
So . . . that really didn’t work out for me.
My first day back on the road was awful. My sinuses felt like they were going to explode and everything – my eyes, my teeth, even my hair – was throbbing as I wheezed down the highway. It was the worst head cold I’ve ever had and it went from zero to green-snot in a matter of hours.
After 40 km, it was all I could do to get myself to a day-use camping area and set up my tent in aching slow motion. I stared dead faced over my supper and collapsed into my tent for the next 13 hours.
Thankfully, the smoke from the Teslin fire cleared a bit overnight and I awoke feeling slightly better. I still couldn’t breathe out of my nose and I had to pee so bad I could barely tie my shoes, but all in all things were looking up.
And so was I. As I took my morning leak and tried to focus my too-much-sleep Cookie Monster eyes, I saw a grey wolf padding its way down the river below my camp site. It stopped on a grassy sandbar and peered downstream for about a minute before crossing back over the water and disappearing into the trees. I stood there, pants unzipped, for a lot longer, and I think now, just as I did then, that that wolf was the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen in my life.
Seeing it gave me a charge and I set off with a renewed sense of energy. I had to honk the goo out of my nose every 10 km, but by the end of the day I’d made it 120 km, all the way past a tiny village called Rancheria and right to the coziest gravel pit you’ve ever seen.
From there it was just a short dash to the Yukon / British Columbia border and the junction of the Cassiar Highway. I could be a blustering liar and say I gritted my teeth and turned south with aplomb, but of course that wouldn’t be true. The fact is that the Cassiar intimidated me since day one of my trip and every time I saw it glowering up at me from my atlas, I quickly turned the page to look at anywhere else. Delaware, for example.
I don’t know why. No one actually told me the Cassiar was tough. But somehow over time it evolved in my mind into a 740 km stretch of flying monkeys and apple-tossing trees. The moment I crossed over the border, I set up camp and hid in my tent. I was slightly tired and the Cassiar, I thought, demanded nothing but superhuman strength.
Or not. When I departed the next morning, I found that the lion in my head was actually a kitten and more importantly – in keeping with the feline analogy – I had been acting like a pussy. The highway wasn’t scary at all. There were some hills, of course, but for the most part the ride was actually quite pretty.
I’m in Dease Lake right now, just under 500 km from the Yellowhead Highway. Later today, I cross the continental divide for the fifth time, and from there it should be smooth sailing south. Bit by bit, I’m slowly making my way back to the Prairies . . .
A few pages from the journal . . . 08/05/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, border, british columbia, camping, canada, cassiar highway, couchsurfing, forest fire, heat, hostel, tok, usa, whitehorse, wind, yukon
It’s been ages since I last updated and so much has happened that I hardly know where to begin. I think a person matures at an accelerated rate on the road, and when I think back at me cursing the sky, shivering in Glenallen, it seems like a different life in someone else’s sweater.
The road from Glenallen to Tok was mostly flat, and since the weather was cool, I covered about 200 miles in only two days. There were some breathtaking spots along the way, though the one that sticks out most in my mind now is an enormous valley near Mentasta that was so wonderfully silent that even my soft whistle rang off the mountain walls. I got lost in the echo, imagining what I’d be doing at that moment if I hadn’t got on a bus back in June, and I felt so very fortunate.
In Tok I again stayed with the Marshall clan at their newly opened campground. This time I slept in a converted military tent that was referred to, rather optimistically, as a hostel. It was $2 cheaper than a camp site and the cot was a nice change after sleeping on rocks and branches for so long.
Joining me in the tent for the evening was a gal named Justy who was on the lam from Californian authorities for, as she said, “every charge they could think of.” I didn’t care much about all of that. Instead, my lasting memory of her is that she snored like a buzz saw and scared the devil out of me when I found her wandering around the Tok city limits sign the next day. I don’t know if she was on drugs or just taking a piss, and I didn’t stop to ask.
Down the highway I went, with thoughts of the Canadian border bouncing around my tiny head. What I didn’t realize was that American and Canadian customs aren’t in the same spot on the Alaska Highway. Exhausted and dizzy, I creaked my way to the border around 9 p.m. and was greeted not by a border guard, but by a big green sign that said, “Canadian Customs – 20 miles.” So I biked 20 more miles in the dark, finally arriving at the guard station at 11.
And there I stood until 11:20 while the mosquitoes sucked every drop of energy from my legs. The guards were busy tearing apart a U-Haul and little biker boy kind of slipped between the cracks. The bugs were so bad that I frenzy-slapped one leg and then the other, back and forth without bothering to look down. For all of that, I was really hoping for some intense light-in-your-eyes interrogation from the guard, like the kind you’d see on a 70′s New York crime show. What I got was:
“Do you have any firearms or explosives?”
“Did you buy anything from the Duty Free store?”
“What’s a Duty Free store?”
“Okay. Have a nice trip, sir.”
After customs, it was only a few kilometres to Beaver Creek, where I found a random picnic table and set about making my supper. As I was boiling my rice, a squeaky shadow emerged from nowhere and my list of wildlife seen increased by one. I was face to face with a four-year-old on training wheels.
He pedalled right up to my toes and asked, as though he had keys for the local jail, “What’s your name?”
I said my name was Mike.
“Did you know my name’s Tucker?”
I said I didn’t know that but I was glad to meet him. I don’t think he heard me, though, because he was busy giving my bike the once-over and climbing on the picnic table, asking what I was making for supper, if I liked rice, what colour of rice I ate, how many times I stirred my rice, etc. etc.
As we discussed the finer points of my diet, Tucker’s father came along with his older son. After I explained my trip to them, he introduced himself as the head chef at the local hotel and gently hinted that the evening’s leftovers might be more appetizing than my boiled rice and lentils. Five minutes later, I was sitting in a staff mess hall, glugging down glasses of milk and eating chicken fingers, breaded fish and vegetable stir fry.
The trio told me I was camping behind the hotel, and since I didn’t have the energy to argue, I fell asleep on a soft field of moss 30 meters from the parking lot. I slept like a rock.
It didn’t matter much, because the next day was simply unkind. It was hot, hilly and there was a gritty headwind knocking me around on every pedal stroke. I went all of 20 km before I realized I was having no fun whatsoever. I slipped into a territorial campground and sat by the lake, picking gunk out of my eyes and banging my socks together like two dusty chalk brushes.
That was the end of the line for me. I took off my helmet, grabbed my cook pot and headed into the bush to pick blueberries. Picking (or perhaps eating) berries always seems to cheer me up, and on that day I was in serious need of some purple on my fingers.
When I returned to the shore, blueberries in tow, I met a German couple – he fishing without success and she hand washing laundry – and also a wiry Irish fellow named Barry. He was cycling from Anchorage to San Francisco before setting off for Australia and southeast Asia.
We talked for awhile and since he had no water filter, I offered him some purifying drops that I’d never used. Barry invited me to share his camp site and a half bladder of red wine that some other campers had given him the night before. The treat was finished in short order and we sat there looking at each other until he, in his one-of-a-kind Irish accent, suggested we go back to Beaver Creek to buy more wine.
So we did. We biked back over the 20 km that had frayed my body earlier that day, and then we made our way back to the campground – two fools with cheap wine in double-bagged white plastic. We stayed up until three in the morning talking about little things, stupid things that only two people living on a bike could really understand. I fell asleep with my shoes as a pillow and a huge grin on my face.
The next morning I left in a great mood, and thank goodness. Any sour thoughts I had would have pickled in the incredible heat that glared over everything for the next several days. The closer I got to Whitehorse, the further the mercury rose, until finally, near Kluane Lake, it inched over 40°C. All I could do was hide in the shadow of a rest stop outhouse and wait for the sun to slide behind the mountains.
The rides to Haines Junction and even Whitehorse were kind of a blur. I was strung out from the heat and the grime of the road, and by the time I arrived in the capital, all I could do was sit on a gas station parking meridian and suck on a Slurpee. Watermelon. Mmm mmm.
In Whitehorse, I stayed with a CouchSurfing host who took me out to catch the final show of a band called The Whiskey Dicks. They blasted Celtic rock in a sticky, seedy bar that was so hot you could barely breathe. Everyone in the place was dancing like mad, covered in sweat and booze and smiles, and if you stopped for a moment to take it all in, you’d swear it was beautiful.
At that same bar, I met a lady from Teslin who asked me to drop in to the town’s Visitor’s Centre when I passed through. It took me two days of cycling through smoke so thick it seemed like a dream, but I made it to the reception building yesterday and met up with Bev. We talked for a bit, but she had to go back to work so she invited to come to her place for dinner later that night.
And what a night! Before I could even sit down I had a bowl of moose stew in one hand and a Budweiser in the other. We sat on her back deck for hours and hours watching the full moon peek over the hills and make its sleepy arc across the waters of Teslin Lake. When I finally closed my eyes, my stomach ached from laughing so much. I fell asleep in love with everything, and nothing in particular.
That brings me here, to this moment. Thanks to Bev and her Tlingit hospitality, I’m stocked with a ton of fruit and dried salmon for my journey. Today I hope to make it to Swift River, then it’s off to the Cassiar Highway Junction and south, to British Columbia . . .