Alaska baby!

July 9th, 2011

 

Leeroy's Family Restaurant since 1968, Anchorage

Leeroy's Family Restaurant since 1968

Alaskan run-around car

Hoping not to cycle into the back of any of these

Crossroads sign in Anchorage

4,490 miles from London; 2,015 miles to San Francisco

 

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Itching in the Interior

July 22nd, 2011

Maybe it was the customs officer’s insistence on giving our bikes and tyres a full clinical scrub before letting us into Alaska that threw me. Certainly it was the first time anyone had ever welcomed me to their country with an offer to wash my bike.

Everyone had told me about American hospitality, but I was seriously impressed. Pulling on his surgical gloves, the customs officer seemed less impressed, but BSE lives long in the memory, and his mission was to remove any traces of good old English mud. I didn’t dare mention that most of the mud was probably collected in the Himalayas, or I thought we’d never get through.

Anyway, whatever it was that threw me in the customs hall, somehow I managed to set my saddle too high. Schoolboy error. And so after eight days of fantastic riding and wonderful people, we’ve been forced to take a five day break to rest my two strained Achilles tendons.

Don’t get me wrong, there are far worse places to be stopped. We’re camped on the shores of Tangle Lakes at the eastern end of the Denali Highway, surrounded by majestic mountains and a vast sky. An icy creek bubbles below the tent (perfect for ankle icing), and yesterday a moose wandered through with her calf. Last night Gary and Lee, two friendly campers invited us to share their delicious catch of halibut. There’s even a cafe up the road with endless coffee and fresh cinammon rolls. It couldn’t really be a more perfect spot to re-group and rest.

As much as eight days riding followed by five of rest might sound like the perfect ratio, our feet are getting itchy and the ankles seem to be on the mend. This trip is all about momentum, and to be deprived of it so early makes us even more hungry to get moving again. So tomorrow we will gingerly head back out on the road, tracking north to Delta Junction before finally begining to wind our way south towards Canada. We can’t wait!

James

Brunch at the bustling Snow City Cafe in downtown Anchorage – a final feast before the pasta and noodles diet begins in earnest. 

After a final frantic round of provision buying, computers are zeroed and our new life on two wheels finally begins. 

Dennis was making his way to the weekly Sunday market at Muldoon, and offered to escort us out of Anchorage along the city’s fantastic network of green bike routes. Dennis’ wife was from the mean streets of Streatham, South London. 

Bryan and Brenda were amazing hosts to us on our first night out of Anchorage. We feasted on veggie curry and set the world to rights. 

Tyre envy. Suddenly our ‘fat tyres’ felt rather puny in comparison with Brenda’s winter rubber. Bryan and Brenda run a vet practice, and commute to work through the woods on their bikes year round, even through the long dark winter. Hardcore. 

Not forgetting Missy, Bryan and Brenda’s gorgeous cat. We did think about sneaking her into a pannier before we left… 

Not sure if this was for Bedders or the ‘other Sarah’ – Wasilla’s most notorious resident, Sarah Palin. 

Once again we were treated to fantastic Alaskan hospitality with Rich, Tina, Pippin and their extended family, who live in the woods near Talkeetna with their 16 sled dogs. 

We were even treated to the finest British crockery… 

Rich, who has taken part in the famous Iditarod race across Alaska, shows us the ropes on his sled. 

Lulu, one of Tina’s oldest dogs and the only Siberian husky. 

Trying to escape the mosquitos and cooking at Byers Lake. Rice-a-roni, in case you’re wondering, an exotic and ingenious blending of rice AND macaroni. 

X marks the spot. At Rich’s recommendation, we weren’t going to miss Angela’s pizza place, just off the Parks. You never know how far away the next pizza may be in Alaska, so it’s best not to take the risk. 

Unfortunately these didn’t pass the pannier test. 

Riding the Parks Highway, an endless corridor of green into the Interior… 

…before opening out into the spectacular Broad Pass. 

At Cantwell, we met James, who was riding from Minnesota to Alaska to raise money for cancer treatment – see www.pedalingforpennies.info. A true hero – Bon Voyage James! 

Hitting the dirt of the Denali Highway – a breathtaking and deserted 135 mile route through the wilderness. 

Up and down we went along rolling roads… 

..with each summit revealing another incredible vista… 

…and spectacular campsites. 

Twenty miles from the end we reached our current campsite at Tangle Lakes and the heavens opened. Cue our most romantic meal venue so far (chivalrously I gave up the toilet seat when it was Sarah’s turn to eat). 

As dark as it gets up here – Tangle Lake at 11pm. 

The nearby Tangle Inn has been on hand to offer shelter, warmth, coffee, and amazing cake… 

…come to think of it, even after all the river icing, maybe I can still feel those ankles twinging after all…

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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.

Sarah

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…

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With hindsight, perhaps watching the incredible documentary about Timothy Treadwell, Grizzly Man, wasn’t the best introduction to bear country. Treadwell thought he could talk to the bears – and he did for a bit. Then the bears ate him.

The motorcyclist set down his coffee cup and leant back in his chair, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Well, maybe I shouldn’t be tellin you this, but there was a Japanese guy ridin’ through here on a bicycle just like you two. A Grizzly got him – just knocked him off his bike and ate him all up. Good luck to y’all, that’s all I can say.”

It seemed every Alaskan we met had a bear tale to tell. I could never tell if there was a nudge and a wink behind our backs as they watched the naive tourists wriggle in their seats, but it became clear that however much the stories may have been exaggerated, there was a healthy respect for bears in the North. Everyone had their own nugget of advice for us, from the plausible to the hilarious (“Carry a tin of sardines in your pocket to distract a charging bear” was my favourite).

I certainly found it hard not to give in to a little creeping bearanoia. I spent one night frozen rigid in my sleeping bag, as a snorting grizzly prowled outside our tent just centimetres away. It was only the next morning when the ‘grizzly’ was still snorting that I realised it was in fact the toilet pump from a nearby campervan, and I had actually been listening to an elderly American making their 3am trip to the bathroom.

Here’s a selection of some of the bear advice we received, along with our own experiences.

1. Attach bear bells to your bike.

The theory: on a bike you are much stealthier than you would be in a car. By carrying a bear bell, bears will hear you coming and get out of your way.

In reality: We merrily jangled along for weeks sounding like Santa’s sleigh, confident every bear in the vicinity would be hear us coming (maybe that’s why it took us five weeks to see one). Then someone pointed out that bears are actually very curious, and in fact our jaunty bells did a great job of announcing that a very slow moving, nicely wrapped food parcel was on its way. A kind of slow moving ice cream van for bears if you like.

2. Hang all food and anything else with a strong smell up in a tree.

The theory: by hoisting all your food and toiletries high into a tree, no bear will have any reason to come knocking in the night.

In reality: I was by far the most odorous item in our tent, and there was no way I was climbing up a tree for the night. Even hoisting our food proved a serious challenge, as evolution clearly hasn’t selected Alaskan trees based on their food hanging potential. Most spindly Alaskan spruce looked like a bag of crisps might send them keeling over, let alone 10 days of food for two calorie starved cyclists. When we stayed on campsites, we found that stashing our food in the bear-proof rubbish bins was a far easier option.

3. If a bear charges you, don’t run.

The theory: If you are unlucky enough to be charged by a bear, stand your ground – otherwise the bear will get excited and think that it really has stumbled on something worth chasing.

In reality: We read pages of detailed advice on what to do in this situation; so much that we would probably need to ask the bear to stop mid-charge while we checked the manual. While your life flashes before your eyes, you also have to identify what type of bear is heading towards you, and work out what mood it is in. If it’s a ‘defensive charge’, then in theory the bear will either veer off or stop short at the last moment (and I imagine probably stick its tongue out and roll about laughing at the tourist having a coronary). If it’s an aggressive charge, then you’ll know about it. Your options then are to ‘play dead’ if it’s a grizzly, or ‘fight back’  if it’s a black bear. Good luck with that.

4. Carry bear spray.

The theory: Bear spray is the universally acknowledged weapon of choice when it comes to repelling a bear attack (other than a gun that is – and even then a grizzly’s forehead is meant to be so thick that bullets often just bounce off.)

In reality: It certainly makes you feel safer to have some kind of weapon at your disposal, but after reading the small print I’m not so sure. Firstly, if you fire off your bear spray into the wind, then chances are it’s going to disable you far more than the bear. Given that we spent most of our time in Alaska cycling into a headwind, this seems like quite a fundamental flaw. Secondly, I can’t help thinking that if you are lucky enough to hit your target, then a half-blinded bear is probably not going to be in a mood to slope off into the bushes. Chances are that if it was just a ‘defensive’ attack, by now you’ve definitely managed to turn it into an aggressive one.

Despite all the above, so far we’ve camped for more than 50 nights in bear country with no problems. In the end we have seen both grizzly and black bears, both magical experiences – but it took us over five weeks to do so. The reality is that, unless you’re really unlucky, bears don’t actively hunt people. Unsurprisingly, they’re far more interested in the feast of salmon and berries on offer than chasing scrawny tourists on bikes.

Coming from England, where animals tend to be cute and cuddly, it’s been at once disconcerting and exhilarating to suddenly find that you’re no longer at the top of the food chain. It re-ignites a primal survival instinct, long suppressed by the ease and comforts of modern life. Back home, you have to actively seek out wilderness, where humans haven’t imposed order over nature in some way. Here in Alaska, surrounded by wilderness, it is the other way round. You are entering the bears’ world, and you play by their rules. It seems it’s only really when humans interfere and break those rules (mentioning no names, Mr Treadwell), that things really go wrong.

James

 

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The Inside Passage

September 20th, 2011

After weeks of cycling and wilderness and rain, taking ferries along the Inside Passage of SE Alaska offered us a rest and a chance to regroup and take stock of the cycling we had achieved so far. The time on and off the ferry proved to be challenging in its own way – more torrential downpours with a broken tent wasn’t quite the relaxation we had in mind, but it offered a chance to see a beautiful part of Alaska in a way we simply couldn’t have done on the bikes.

A selection below of some of the sights we saw along the way…what we can’t include are pictures of humpback whales – their tail fins disappearing before we even thought about getting the camera out – and pictures of just how heavy the rain got, but believe me, we were wet, seriously wet…those marigold washing up gloves mentioned in the last post did indeed get used and I can highly recommend them to anyone searching for a waterproof solution for their hands!

Sarah

Hanging right over our campground just outside our first ferry stop of Juneau, the Mendenhall Glacier is an impressive and chilly sight. We know from our maps that we passed by many glaciers as we cycled through Alaska but most were only visible and accessible by air, so it was a treat to have this one so close to our campground…

…even if it was a reminder of just how chilly Alaska can get! 

Our first sighting of a black bear…this young cub had his pick of the Sockeye salmon desperately trying to swim upstream to their final resting place; he did his part to ensure that at least some of them didn’t make it. Shortly after this picture, we watched him bag a monster fish and crunch his way through it. 

Through the rainforest and up a height to view the Mendenhall Glacier, we saw lots of beautiful icy clear waterfalls and dripping moss. 

Getting into the spirit of travel by boat, James and I get all naval….

One of our stops on the ferry was at Sitka, a port occupied at various points in history by the Tlingit natives, the Russians, the British and the Americans. A mish-mash of history is everywhere; Russian street names and graveyards nestle alongside American tourist kitsch. 

Treating ourselves to some local Alaskan fish was a good plan; this hole in the wall café served up the most delicious fish and chips. 

Marking the spot where native Tlingit people fought the Russians for control of Sitka is a beautiful totem park with totem poles dotted amongst the trees from where they were carved…very atmospheric and in fact one of the few places that possibly looked better with a bit of rain.

Looking up at the awesome carvings gives appreciation of how much work Native Americans put into telling their stories through wood.

Next ferry stop was Wrangell, a sleepy town unaffected by cruise ship tourism and totally deserted on a rainy Sunday. Perfect time for us to walk on the beach and catch sight of two bald eagles close up.

Searching for petroglyphs on the beach at Wrangell. 

Ketchikan, our final ferry stop, proved to be the wettest. According to locals, there was record rainfall on precisely the two days we happened to be there. A great excuse to hide in a local pub and play cards then… 

Bikes and cyclists totally dwarfed by one of the colossal cruise ships that we saw along the Inside Passage. Cruise ship tourists are now essential to the survival of these former fishing towns. For us, it was a culture shock to be confronted by all 2000 passengers disembarking in matching jackets with an Alaskan tick list of sights to see in half an hour.

A group of shots from our 36 hour ferry journey between Ketchikan and Bellingham. Sleeping out on deck under the stars, experiencing our first proper sunshine for over three weeks, seeing whales and watching the sun rise were all fantastic highlights of a great trip.

Sun rising as we approach Bellingham and the moon’s still out too. A beautiful end to a great Alaskan adventure. 

Arrival in Bellingham sees the announcement of the winner of the Great Alaskan Beard Competition 2011. Despite my best efforts, James roared to success sporting a fuzzy ginger/brown entry – affectionately known as “The Grizzly”.

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