I didn’t pull out of Delta Junction until after 4 p.m., and though the first 30 km were great fun, the stifling weather finally caught up to me at the halfway point of the day’s trip. I didn’t know it at the time, but regional temperatures soared to 15-year records and the air was so heavy with heat and smoke you could almost choke on it. I could only muster 10 to 15 km at a time before gulping down a half litre of water and panting in the shade. I went through worse on my trip to Montana last summer, but this leg was a far cry from pleasant. I don’t even think it was within earshot.
After 66 km, I dragged my sweaty self to the Birch Lake campground and started my nightly supper ritual. But before I’d taken my food from my panniers, an unbelievable gust of wind whooshed in from the lake, bringing a wall of branches and leaves with it. Thunderstorm. The rain started to fall in huge drops, so I quickly set about making a fire for my meal. The rain never cares how hungry I am, so I’ve learned that my hunger can’t care how much it rains.
Plus, I’ve had an ace in the hole since the Taylor Highway. At the West Fork Campground, I met a couple from Georgia who gave me a piece of wood from their home state. Apparently it fell out of their camper and hit the husband on the foot, so he decided to give it to me. Good luck, I guess. Anyways, the stuff is chock-full of some sort of resin that can ignite under the wettest conditions imaginable. Even though it was pouring on the windy beachfront, I shaved off a few slices of the wood and had a fire going in just a few minutes. I’ve often felt a bit foolish about lugging the block half way across Alaska, but thankfully everything in my bags has its place.
As I was cooking, I looked up from the fire to see a great many noses pressed against RV windows, wondering what the hell the crazy kid on the bike was doing in the rain. I think it’s hard for some people to appreciate that if I don’t stand in a downpour to make supper, then I don’t get anything to eat. In fact, at the storm’s outset the motor home crowd scattered as though the whole campground was headed for Oz. I watched it all with a smile. I’m not cocky by any means – I know nature can knock me on my ass without a moment’s warning – but I’ve seen so much from the sky on this trip that it’ll take a lot more than a dark cloud to send me running.
After a double helping of tomato macaroni I hunkered down under a tree and waited out the storm in my 89-cent rain coat. Some pieces of equipment need to be expensive. Others, not so much. I stayed as dry as a bone and fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing over the nearby shore. My first night on a beach.
Now, in my experience, most camp hosts in American state campgrounds have a serious grump on their face. I think they’re all retired truant officers and I know they want their $10 camp fees. They’re like lurching zombies on a Main Street food march – there’s just no stopping ’em. With that in mind, I quickly packed my camp in the morning and pedaled silently away before anyone could throw a tab in my direction. Call it cheap, but it’s money easily saved.
From that point on I had a near-perfect cycling day. The temperature was cool and the terrain was interesting without being terribly challenging. I even met two other cyclists – one, a German guy who was riding a recumbent bike to South America, and the other a 67-year-old fellow who was just getting into long distance cycling. He was headed for Delta Junction on tires I wouldn’t put on a Radio Flyer, but he also had a wonderful wide-eyed grin, and sometimes I think that will get you a lot further than any piece of rubber.
After the bikers disappeared down the road I came upon a tiny sparrow that was injured. Truth be told, I nearly ran over it by accident, and I only stopped because it didn’t make any effort to fly away. I doubled back and gently picked up the little creature, which had a bent but not broken wing. It would have died on the side of the road, so I perched it onto my handlebars and together we cruised down the highway until we came upon a rural elementary school.
Even though my inner eight-year-old wanted to keep the bird (and name it Salcha), I knew there was no way I could take it all the way to Fairbanks. And even if I did, I’d have no way of taking care of it there. So, I poured some water into my bottle’s plastic lid and watched the bird gulp it down. Been there. Then it had a bath in my miniature sauce pan and, after about 20 minutes, the little guy started chirping and making tentative stabs at mosquitoes on the grass. Figuring it might make it alone, I set the bird in the eagle-proof branches of a thick willow and biked away. Weird, but I’ve been thinking of the bird ever since.
I don’t really have much to say about Fairbanks. I’m at a hostel run by cute Swiss girls and I spent the night eating hamburgers, drinking beer and playing volleyball. I’m getting back on the road tomorrow.