A few pages from the journal . . . 08/05/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, border, british columbia, camping, cassiar highway, couchsurfing, forest fire, heat, hostel, tok, 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 . . .
Flyin’ to Fairbanks 07/08/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, couchsurfing, fairbanks, tok
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Put me on flat ground and za-zoom! I cleared 181 km yesterday, zipping from Tok all the way to Delta Junction. The road meandered around the Alaskan Range, but except for the hot weather, it was the easiest ride of the trip.
I still haven’t seen a bear in Alaska that didn’t look like a rug, but I have come across a lot of moose. I caught a peek at these two rascals about 20 miles east of Delta Junction . . .
Yesterday was also my first CouchSurfing experience as a surfer, and not someone who explains where the towels and blankets can be found. The location came with a long list of turn-at-the-graveyard directions, but after a few extra kilometres of cycling, I found myself at a wonderfully remote property. Lara, my host, was incredibly welcoming, and we discussed books over a cup of rum and Coke while the midnight sun hung low in the sky. Not a bad way to cap a day on the road.
It was only the second time since I’ve left that I slept on an actual bed. I actually prefer crashing in my bag, but a roof overhead is a great way to minimize the chances of being eaten by wildlife. These days, my legs could feed a family of five for a month, so keeping them attached to my torso is of growing concern.
Readers from the school of Sherlock will no doubt see the day-long gap between the time I said I was leaving Tok and when I actually arrived in Delta Junction. The truth is, I didn’t hit the road at all on July 6. I went gold panning instead.
It’s kind of a long story. My initial day of rest got boring in short order, so I went poking around for things to do. I noticed the campground owners were doing some renovations, so I asked if I could help out. By the end of the day I had helped put up a fence, place a fire pit and install a urinal into the bathroom. It looks like all those hold-this and hammer-that summers with my Dad paid off.
After the work was done, the campground gang took me to their father’s house for a homemade vegetarian spaghetti supper. It was an Alaskan shack if there ever was one, but the company and talk around the wobbly table were amazing.
The father, Donald, fought in Iwo Jima as a 17-year-old and later wrote a book called Alligator Marines about his experiences. I didn’t know until mid-evening that he was a veteran, but his collection of WWII military sabres directly opposite his bathroom sink piqued my interest. We didn’t talk much, but he was an incredible guy, chain smoking on his bed and stroking his long white beard when he spoke.
One of Donald’s friends was an animatronics expert from Jim Henson Studios. He was on vacation after wrapping up work on Where The Wild Things Are. I was kind of hoping he’d let me hide in his car trunk and then give me a tour of his workshop down south, but so far that hasn’t panned out.
Neither did the gold searchin’ the next day. The campground gang invited me out to a friend’s claim to try our prospecting luck. I felt, probably for the same reason I think I’ll always win at bingo, that panning would be as easy as reaching into the river and hauling out gigantic chunks of gold. Not so. In fact, after two or three hours of back-breaking work, our group of four only managed to find a few dandruff-sized flakes of the sparkly stuff.
Unless one hits it big, I think working the moldy sandwich bar at an Esso service station pays better than gold panning.
Today is a bit off kilter – it’s already 2 p.m. and I haven’t gone anywhere beyond the Delta Junction Library. I’ll leave soon and hopefully get halfway to Fairbanks before day’s end . . .
One Tok over the line . . . 07/05/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, fairbanks, mountains, tok
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It took a bit longer than expected, but I’ve arrived in Tok!
For some reason it was a bit of a mental barrier for me, so I’m proud of myself for making it. I left Chicken on July 3 hoping to cover the 70 or so miles to town, but my legs were having none of it. I think I was just plain tuckered out because after 30 km, my body wagged its finger at me and plunked my butt at the nearest campground.
It was an involuntary rest day, but also a badly needed one.
I woke up the next morning feeling better than I have in a long time and I was able to slice through the mountain tracts without much trouble. I even skirted around Mount Fairplay, though its enormity was lost upon me after so many days in the hills. It was kind of like a bottle of Heinz sitting around a bunch of tomato paste cans. It’s all ketchup.
A few things of note from yesterday’s travels:
- I crossed the 1,000 kilometre mark for my trip
- I hit my top speed of 67.6 km/h and then promptly caught a fly in my eyeball
- I almost ate a 17″ meat pizza in one sitting
So now I’m smiling in Tok, having enjoyed a shower last night and this morning while staying in a campground with flush toilets – the first I’ve seen since Eagle Plains.
Life on the road really makes you enjoy the simple things, and I might just enjoy them all day long. The next few stretches will be long – first to Delta Junction and then north to Fairbanks – so I probably should take a day to throw my sandals on and put my feet up.
I think Tok is conducive to a bit of relaxation. Even the July 4th celebrations here were subdued. Only a few folks shot their pistols into the air and, due to the forest fire risk and constant daylight, the fireworks were surprisingly muted. I might just fit in here after all!
Run for the border 07/02/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, border, mountains, tok
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When they say The Top of the World Highway, they’re not kidding! I left Dawson on Canada Day morning and spent the next 10 hours sweating and swearing my way up an endless barrage of hills. The scenery was amazing unless I looked between my feet, where the lunar-like road was either cracked beyond recognition or littered with tire-killing stones. Tough going up and tough coming down.
The ride to the Alaskan border was uneventful for the most part. Lots of dust and plenty of vehicles to kick it into my face. Making it all worthwhile, though, was a drop-dead German lady who stopped to give me water and tell me about the scenery. I mostly just nodded and stared at her sun dress.
I arrived at the border at 9:30, which would have been great if customs didn’t close at 9 p.m. Still, I thought it would take me half the night to get there, so I wasn’t at all disappointed about arriving late. It gave me the chance to camp right at the top of the mountain without a single vehicle passing by. I ate my supper on the hillside, watching the sun fade between green slopes and frozen streams. Too beautiful for a picture.
This morning I woke up around 10, quickly packed my camp and hit the road with a gut full of oatmeal and optimism. I wanted to cross the border and get close to Tok, but in the back of my mind I knew that would probably never happen because the terrain might be tough. And it was.
I only pulled out 75 km today, but I made it over the worst roads I’ve seen so far. The Taylor Highway was no better than the Top of the World, and how I didn’t get a flat tire or a bent rim is still beyond me. Just one more reason for me to be in love with my bike, I guess!
One view that really struck me was a burnt out forest with beautiful fireweeds pouring from the ground. The lush valley and winding stream below were unbelievable, and even though I was halfway up a hill I stopped to take it all in.
People often ask me why I bike, how I can be grinning like a fool, covered in dirt with sweat streaming down my sunburned face. The truth is that I’d pedal all day for views like this. They’re sublime – tingling jolts of cosmic energy that hit you right between the eyes. Amazing.
Tonight I’m camped out at a little town called Chicken, Alaska. It’s a stop on the road for tourists, but the people here are fantastic. The guys in the restaurant made me a towering Swiss cheese hamburger with potato salad and let me use the Internet for as long as I wanted. And just now, a few minutes before closing, they gave me a slice of leftover cherry pie! Ain’t life grand?
One last thing before I go: Thanks so much for all your wonderful blog comments and e-mails. I’m having the time of my life but I often think of the amazing people back home. Your encouragement means a lot, so please keep it coming.
Tomorrow, to Tok . And the road is paved!