Riding the rollercoaster

August 16th, 2011

The last few days have been a pretty miserable merry-go-round of soaking wet cycle rides, freezing cold campgrounds and knee worries. Puncturing through the doom and gloom though, have been reminders of why we set out to do this trip in the first place; our first sighting of a grizzly bear, our first 1000 miles clocked up on the cycle computers, the amazing generosity of Warm Showers hosts and the people we’ve met on campgrounds, and most recently the bliss of an unexpected warm cyclists’ cabin.

Every day, and sometimes hour by hour, it feels like we’re on a rollercoaster. Emotionally and physically, the riding takes you by surprise, one minute moaning about the driving rain and the arduous uphills, the very next rejoicing as the sun peeks out and gasping at the mountain pass you’ve just ascended. The day we saw our grizzly a perfect example of how grumpiness can become glee in a few short minutes. The night before, tucked away in the warmth of the tent, knowing that rain was forecast, we set about trying to improve our “waterproof” gloves, that are not in the least bit waterproof, in the hope that if we could avoid getting cold wet hands, we might be able to cycle for longer the next day. Using bin bags and duct tape, we made a stunning DIY pair of glove covers for both of us.

The rain did indeed come, sheets of icy daggers, sapping the mental and physical will to carry on. The glove covers just about kept the worst of the wet out and feeling pretty weary we did push on, knowing that our ferry destination of Haines was waiting just 100 miles away and to stop and camp again in the rain would only be more painful. Then, just as the day was coming to an end, in a moment when the clouds had briefly cleared, we spotted a power-house of a bear, galloping around in some berry bushes about 20m from the road. Breathless, scared and thrilled, we watched him as we cycled past (unable to stop and get the camera out, our hands still bound in the bin bags and duct tape) feeling grateful that he wasn’t actually any closer. Buzzing from the thrill of seeing our first bear in five weeks, the day’s ride all of a sudden felt worthwhile. Then it just got better and better, just a few miles down the road, we found a free cyclists’ cabin complete with wood stove and bunk beds – it felt too good to be true.

Now back in Alaska, we have made it to Haines and our planned ferry trip down the Inside Passage means a chance to rest, relax and hopefully exchange the bear spotting for whale spotting. Alaska, and then the Yukon Territory and British Columbia in Canada have humbled us in many ways. The enormous skies, the endlessly long straight roads, the wilderness, the generosity of people we have met on the road, have made us feel small and reminded us to appreciate everything we see and experience, however that rollercoaster ride might present itself.


It may have taken five weeks to finally see one, but looking after ourselves in Grizzly Country has been a full-time job, hanging food in trees, cooking food well away from camp, carrying bear spray. It seems apt then that the wheels on our bikes are called “Grizzlies”.

Much of our ride between Paxson and Delta Junction followed the intimidating Alaska Pipeline. The pipeline moves 1.5 million barrels of oil a day 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay within the Arctic Circle right across the state and down to Valdez for shipping. However ugly it might be, income from the pipeline subsidises the state and gives Alaska much of its wealth. 

The grey clouds gathering here turned into an almighty hailstorm shortly after this was taken. Not a pleasant way to end the day’s ride but then meeting Phil and Erin at a wild campground who offered us glasses of wine and the chance to stand at their campfire turned the day’s fortunes around.

Many Alaskans go out and shoot a moose once a year, using the meat to stock their freezer for the winter ahead. A fellow camper, carrying some of his moose sausages (made by a Polish butcher with added cheese and jalapenos) generously gave us four to try. James can barely contain his excitement and the sausages definitely lived up to expectations. 

An old knee injury of James’ flares up; another worrying few days in the middle of nowhere, at an Alaskan crossroads called Tok Junction, waiting to see if it is safe to cycle on. A depressing strip of bad motels and abandoned businesses didn’t inspire us to stay too long here. We moved gently on, with the knee still twinging, and no doubt needing professional diagnosis and treatment once we reach Seattle. 

At a campsite just outside Tok we were bowled over by generosity. Firstly from Charne & Tony on the road with their camper Daisy. They kept us going with hot chocolate and tea, and then Rod and Rosemary who looked after us with Bacardi & Coke. The generosity of other campers has been amazing and there have been many others since; thanks guys, you’re keeping us going! 

Having shopped for enough food to last us the ten days between Tok and the next stop, the question is “where on earth to put it all?”…panniers bulging, we could barely move the bikes but there was no doubt we’d eat it all. 

We most definitely had to rely on our own food supply with no services for hundreds of miles; so many of the places we saw on the Alcan (the Alaska-Canada Highway) had been boarded up and abandoned due to lack of business… 

…or so we thought! We stumbled across a creperie and bakery, run by a French couple, 60 miles from anywhere in either direction. Like a mirage in the desert, we could hardly believe our luck. 

Some fellow bikers stopped to enjoy the delicious French fare too, although it looked like they might have been well stocked up with moose meat too? 

Typical of the amazing scenery we have seen in our first 1000 miles; Edith Creek is just one of hundreds of creeks we’ve passed over. They provide our drinking water too so we’re delighted when they’re as clear and beautiful as this one. 

We entered Canada in Yukon Territory. An unsealed road in many places led to a few days of very dusty riding. 

It’s a long time between showers so braving the chilly lake at Snag Junction campground made for a refreshing wash. 

You meet all kinds of campers but this guy was a favourite; this shy husky came and sat with us for a while as were preparing dinner; unfortunately it turns out that our spaghetti is not to his taste. 

A beautiful campground at the stunning Kluane Lake and free beers from two generous fellow campers…what more could a cyclist ask for?

Two nights with Tristan and Avalon at Haines Junction were just what we needed after cycling for ten days through the wilderness. Thanks to Warm Showers, we found great hosts with hens in the garden (fresh eggs!) and a bed for the first time in four weeks… 

…and we were also introduced to the Village Bakery where Avalon works, which unquestionably makes the finest cookies we’ve eaten in a long time; all the fuel we need to get us back in the saddle and on to Haines. 

Bad weather makes for creative evening entertainment as we try to fashion waterproof covers for our useless gloves. On the list for the next supermarket we visit: washing up gloves. Not as fashionable as these cutting edge designs but hopefully the most waterproof things we can get to protect our hands. 

Thanks to a fellow cyclist who stopped on the road a couple of days before to tell us about this place, at the end of a really hard day’s ride, we found a free, empty, warm cabin with dry wood for a fire and a bed to sleep on. The log book on the table tells of many other cyclists who have stopped here and found it a haven of comfort and warmth on long rides; we added our grateful thanks to the book before heading off to Haines. 

The previous day spent mostly slogging uphill in the pouring rain, we were rewarded with a cloudy but stunning 12 mile descent to the US border and back into Alaska. Reaching speeds of nearly 40mph it got pretty chilly but it was great to see the computer knocking off the miles into Haines so quickly. 

At the end of this first leg, we find ourselves on a cyclists and walkers only campsite in Haines, with beautiful scenery and the prospect of time off the bikes, with a relaxing ferry trip down the Inside Passage…