Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Its Breezey Up Here: Yukon Border – Haines, Alaska (21st - 27th July 2010)

Well Canada didn't exactly welcome us back with open arms... As we got close to the Yukon border the highway went from nice smooth bitumen to just plain dirt, with some rain thrown in, so it was actually more of a mud slide. However, at least on the US side the Americans acted like they were doing something about it, by having a semblance of roadworks about (which of course just meant more dirt and big trucks). Across the border in the Yukon the road was just terrible.. corrugated gravel broken up with some mud patches. We didn't realise we were in Canada for a while, because once we went through the US border the Canadian border crossing wasn't for another 30kms, a strange kind of no-man's land filled with lakes and Trumpeter Swans. We found ourselves in a thunderstorm in the middle of this no-man's land, so we were pretty muddy and tired by the time we were officially in Canada. Jules had her first major tanty at the top of a particularly nasty, gravelly hill and said all sorts of unrepeatable things about Canadian roads... but she thoroughly perked up when we found free coffee and lots of yummy pastries at a small town over the border (mm butter tarts.. see good things happen in Canada Jules).

We had been warned about the first couple hundred kilometres of Yukon roads but we found once past the gravel/dirt patches they weren't too bad – terrible for cars because they were full of frost-heaves and potholes but for us on the bikes we could just go round them... it meant the the person in front would yell “bump” and swerve wildly and hope that the person behind wasn't too close and would have time to throw Betty/Norma to one side and thus avoid landing in a hole big enough to swallow us whole.
Jurgen rode with us the first couple of days in the Yukon, it was great to have company and we spent the time nattering away as we rode (lucky the roads weren't too busy). The first campsite we shared with Jurgen he disappeared for a while and then came back flourishing cold beers!! We don't know how he managed to find beers in a remote lake campsite in the middle of the Yukon wilderness but we were stoked. Good old German ingenuity!
The Yukon was just stunning – one of my favourite places so far, so much space and forest, just lots of picturesque lakes and the contrasting White and Black Spruces scattered across the landscape. We mainly cycled through valleys surrounded by mountains with alpine meadows perched atop, and in the distance we could see the larger snow-capped St Elias range with spectacular glaciers hanging off the slopes like icicles.
There were a few small towns or roadhouses along the way but most were deserted and derelict. One morning Jurgen's guidebook (that had seen better days I think) had promised us a cafe down the road so we spent the morning getting excited for coffee and pastries; however when we turned up it had shut down. We were a sad sight – standing disconsolate on the side of the road staring at the closed sign, wringing our hands and muttering to ourselves. A little later that day we were lunching next to a lake when some car-tourists turned up and we plied them with questions.. in particular how far to the next roadhouse (our hopes had been raised for pastries) - “hmm I'm not sure about that but I do know there is a bakery about 40kms down the road” - We thought they were playing a mean practical joke..for why would there be a bakery in the middle of nowhere? but sure enough when we arrived a French couple were running a newly opened bakery churning out all sorts of buttery deliciousness.
The day that we had to part ways with Jurgen we did a long day (155 kms) and camped by Kluane Lake. We treated ourselves to a dinner at the lodge at Burwash Landing surrounded by imposing stuffed animals staring nonchalantly at us from the walls. The following day we cycled along the lake but struggled with super-strong headwinds. We were not even helped by our two breakies. We were cycling only around 12 km/hr and did only 40 km the whole day! This disheartening day was helped somewhat by the beautiful scenery of the lake that we were cycling next to, and our campsite right on its shores. Our second day riding on the lake was still extremely windy, it seemed like every way the road curved the wind still hit us full in the face, almost pushing us off our bikes at one point.
We arrived in Haines Junction after a couple of hard days battling the wind and found an amazing bakery to drag our wind-battered bodies into. However, we were horrified when a tour bus turned up full of very rude people, who kept pushing in front of me in the line at the bakery... I wanted to warn them that we had had some hard days out with no shops or bakeries and to get between me and sweet things was something that they did not want to risk!
While we were in the small grocery store at Haines Junction we meet up with a lady in a RV (motorhome) that we had been chatting with a week or so ago. She was stoked to see us and gave us big hugs. Ah its a nice small town feeling up in the north and we often met up with people we had seen earlier. Once a car pulled to the side of the road with the people inside very excited as we had been on the ferry with them and they had been wondering how we had been going. Its nice to feel like we have friends on the road!
We had a strange meeting with one man.. we were sitting on the side of the road in the gravel, overlooking a lake but with our helmets still on (we often forget to take them off and wander around shops/camp etc with them on - stylin'). A car did a big u-turn, then stopped and the man driving asked if he could take a picture of us. He took a bunch of photos of us picnicing and then took off again.. very odd. We're hoping our pictures won't appear on some sort of fetish website for those people that like 'Girls wearing Helmets picnicing in Gravel'.
From Haines Junction we left the Alaskan Highway and headed off down the smaller Haines Highway toward South East Alaska, still with the wind against us. We spent a couple of days cycling the highway and on our second afternoon we reached the high sections of the mountains that we had to cross. We cycled through the alpine meadows, my favourite type of scenery with open grassy meadows, wet bogs and fringing mountains. However the high sections of the mountain were also extremely windy so we were very happy when we reached a cabin some Spanish cyclists had told us about. It was a little cabin tucked into the low shrubby vegetation at the base of a mountain, used by hikers and cyclists and we were very happy not to battle the wind to erect the tent! There were already two Spanish hitchhikers in the cabin when we arrived and much later two German cyclists turned up so it was a cozy night watching, through the cabin's windows, the wind blast the mountains outside - feeling good to be inside and warm!
We woke up very early the next morning in an attempt to beat the wind going over the pass. Had breakfast #1 at 5.30am and then headed off. It was so beautiful in the early morning light and quiet, the stillness was divine and we could appreciate the beauty of the alpine meadows bathed in fog. We had our second breaky in a little clearing next to the road an hour or so into our ride.  With no traffic at all we felt like we owned the road. It was breathtaking. I was all out of my usual repertoire of adjectives and Jules, who is usually not so verbose at scenic views - compared to the superlatives she directs at beer or good food, was also raving on about the views! We then had the most joyous descent from the mountains, 18kms of downhill, alongside snow-capped mountains and the occasional fingerling glaciers, as we sped back into Alaska. At 10.30am, we hit our first cafe since Haines Junction and celebrated with our third breaky of the morning. This was definitely our favourite day on the road (and not just because we got three breakfasts!). 
It was made all the better by arriving at the delightful town of Haines.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Macgyvering our Way South on the Alaska Highway: Fairbanks to Yukon border (16th-21st July '10)

Finally left Fairbanks, a couple of kilos heavier (too much pie) and with some additions to our packing, a tarp and binoculars, given to us by our very generous friends. The tarp has been endlessly useful, not only has it been great to keep us dry while in camp, but it also keeps Jules busy for hours figuring the best way to put it up. Equally the binos have also become her property, I had actually wanted them for birdwatching.. but she finds them highly entertaining and most of the time when we have stopped by the side of the road I turn around to see her scanning the horizon with the binos. I'm not sure that she is actually checking out the scenery ... probably more likely trying to find any sign of a pub... but they have kept her amused. She will also pull them out to identify bears that she spots in the distance (which usually turn out to be dogs or letterboxes). 

One thing about travelling by bicycle, particularly in remote areas, is that you end up learning to make do with what you have. I learnt this cycling through SE Asia, where, even if you were in a town, everything would get fixed with some wire and a couple of cable ties by a small old lady who ran the local bike shop. Jules and I are pretty good at Macgyvering. We may not always know what we are doing but leave us alone for long enough with a rock, a large stick and some string and we will have set up a complicated pulley system and erected a number of small unidentifiable structures (either that or we will have hit ourselves in the head with the rock and got the string tangled up in a tree). Actually Jules is the more talented Macgyverer, I tend to get frustrated and throw things (and I throw like a girl) so most of the complicated engineering is left to her.
Anyway, back to our departure from Fairbanks.. We did not get very far before we reached the North Pole and I discovered my geography knowledge was highly inaccurate. The North Pole is not actually located on sea ice in the middle of Arctic waters, but a small town on the side of the Richardson Highway dominated by a large statue of Santa Claus and filled with tour buses. Jules and I did the whole touristy thing here, we went to Santas' House, visited with his reindeer and even bought a tree ornament from the kitsch shop (not a very practical thing to buy while cycling... but how can you resist a moose dressed up as an angel!)
We were travelling the Richardson Highway out of Fairbanks, which then turned into the Alaskan Highway, constructed in an amazing effort during World War II. Most of the cycling this week was fairly easy, good roads, at least one place to stop for baked goods/ice-cream everyday (a priority), nice campsites spaced not too far apart and not too many large hills. We had one very long day, where we cycled around 145kms, mostly with a head wind and with absolutely nowhere to buy any form of iced bun. It was our hardest day too date and we were feeling pretty knackered by the time we rocked into a small B&B in a fairly remote location. It was only a small place which mainly hosted workers, there were a bunch of geologists staying at the time, but we knew we could pitch a tent on the lawn. The German owner had just finished serving dinner to the workers when we arrived and she offered for us to finish off whatever was left of the buffet for $5 each. Oh my god.. we had died and gone to cyclists' heaven!! She showed us the table filled with every kind of delicious carb and protein you could imagine. We completely stuffed ourselves with a couple of helpings of everything that was left and then with good German hospitality she forced a couple of servings of the desert buffet upon us too. We then waddled out to the grass, pitched our tent and contemplated the sweetness of life from under the shadow of the mountain behind and our massive bellies in front.
We actually had some amazing feasts along this part of the trip (and no my camp cooking is not included in that description). The day following the $5eatenoughtofeedasmallarmy feast we did a short day into the crossroads town of Tok, famous for something along the lines of “More RVs washed than any other place in the world” (yep we knew we were in for a thrill!). We stayed on the edge of the town airport, at a small campsite where we were the only guests. The owner had some relatives from Belarus visiting that had only just arrived and they invited us to their Russian bbq feast. Later we sat around the campsite with them eating chocolate and baked goods (while the owner told gruesome bear attack stories.. again, not helpful to us!!).
One of the things that has been hard to get used to in Alaska (besides the constant fear of being eaten alive by a bear) is the daylight during the summer. When we were in the Fairbanks area (the furthest north we got) the sun didn't set until around 11pm, and even then it never really got dark, only a dim twilight, until the sun popped back up only a few hours later. Jules and I found it hard to force ourselves to go to bed while we were still feeling sunshine on our faces, so we ended up staying up late and then kept waking up during the night thinking it was the morning and we had slept in. It did make things easier cycling though, because we never had to worry about getting into camp late or trying to set up the tent in the dark etc.
Along the Alaskan Highway we managed to see a lot of moose, a few mum's with their gangly bubs, a bull-moose that wandered through the picnic area where we were having breaky one morning and another that was standing on the edge of the trees watching us as we cycled pass. One afternoon I was riding blissfully along listening to my music when I suddenly realised there was a big moose standing right in front of me! I almost fell off my bike in fright but luckily managed to steer to the other side of the road (where Jules already was – she had been trying to yell at me from behind but I couldn't hear her over my music). Thankfully the moose found the sight of a unwashed Aussie on a bike bearing down on him, with her drying undies flapping on her fluoro yellow panniers, as unsettling as I found him and he took off into the trees.
The last night we spent in this part of Alaska was in the Tetlin Wildlife Sanctuary, a huge expanse of lakes and forest, populated only by wildlife. We had a campsite right on the lake, and nearby were three other cyclists. This was unusual because we had only run into a couple of other cyclists so far, and they had all been going in the opposite direction to us (no coincidence I'm sure). We had dinner with Juergen, Simon and Laura and shared stories of the road and the food that we had eaten (cyclists love to talk about food.. almost as much as we like to eat it).

The next day we all headed into Canada. Yukon Ho!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

101 Ways to Die in Alaska: Anchorage to Fairbanks (8th - 15th July '10)

 We arrived in Alaska at the port of Whittier and as we weren't allowed to cycle through the tunnel from Whittier to the other side of the mountains, we had to get a lift with a truck (ute) that could take us and our bikes through the tunnel. Steve, an airman, agreed to take us through the tunnel and then onto Anchorage as well. He spent the trip to Anchorage regaling us with stories of our route, all of which centred on unusual and gruesome ways that people had died; helicopter crashes, bike accidents, someone getting stuck in quicksand as the tide came in etc. All the stories were delivered with little emotion or change in inflection in his voice.

Steve dropped us just outside Anchorage and we cycled in but as we went through the sprawl of city we decided that we didn't want to stay in the city, that we wanted to head into the wild Alaska as soon as possible. On our way out of town we met Cal and Dee, some fellow cyclists, who were lovely and had some great advice for the road – but then they proceeded to terrify us with bear attack stories and with talk of how hungry the Grizzlies are this year. Great. It took us ages to get out of Anchorage, by the time we had spoken to everyone who stopped to chat to us on the street (Alaskans are very friendly).. but finally we made it – our first real day on the road! We ended up doing 70kms, and had our first flat tyre to fix as well. At our campsite we got told more stories of bears attacking cyclists, so we went to sleep our first night in Alaska thinking of bear attacks and with Jules cradling her bear spray and pocket knife.
On our second day`s riding we had clear blue skies and we started to get glimpses of Mount Denali looking awesome off in the distance. Such an impressive mountain towering over everything else around it! Some people we were chatting with at a rest stop told us we were very lucky for the mountain doesn`t come out from the clouds too often!! Well, that justified stopping at a viewpoint along the way for the World`s Largest Hot Fudge Sundae. Sweet.
The country that we rode through on the Parks Highway was pretty amazing, the quintessential Alaskan image from pictures, movies etc. Vast stretches of forest, rugged mountains and huge rivers. Spectacular. One of my favourite days was the day we spent climbing over Broad Pass, a beautiful alpine area with meadows of various shades of green, dotted by the darker spruce trees and all bathed in an eerie mist.
We spent a few nights camped in the western section of Denali National Park (about half way up the Parks Highway) and took the shuttle bus into the park out to the area where the treeline thins out and the tundra begins. We had stunning weather in the park, not a cloud in the sky and views across the mountains and Mount Denali in particular. I love the tundra, the wide open expanses, which also made it very easy to spot wildlife. We saw cariboo, moose, golden eagles, grizzlies with their cubs and a fox chasing butterflies in a meadow alongside the road. 
We had our first moose encounter one evening on the Parks Highway, as we were about to reach camp. We were climbing a bit of a hill and I looked up to see a huge animal towering over the road ahead of us, `Jules stop its a Moose` I said. `That's not a real Moose, its too big.` she replied with conviction `I think its a statue` . As she finished speaking the (real) Moose galloped off towards our campsite. They are huge creatures a nd so beautiful and regal.
We were very lucky with the weather this week with the majority of days spent riding under a blue sky in bright sunshine. We had one day of horrible weather.. rain all day... but it all worked out for the best because four ladies, Nancy, Cyndie, Kris and Kayla, passing us in their vans felt sorry for us struggling along in the rain and they stopped to make us coffee on the side of the road. The kindness of strangers is astounding sometimes! We ended up getting on very well with them and a few days later when we reached Fairbanks we went to stay with Cyndie and Nancy. We had a fantastic few days staying with them in Fairbanks, an eat-a-thon of Kayla`s melt-in-your-mouth blueberry pie, barbequed salmon and halibut with vegies, amazing berry pancakes, Alaskan coffee the list goes on!! We actually tried to leave their house on our second day, but as we packed up our bikes the heavens opened and we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have to stay and eat amazing food. In the morning of our second day there we woke to the appearance of a tent in the backyard and another cyclist camped out. Brian had just come back from Prudhoe Bay (north Alaska) and, having a strange compulsion to take in smelly, bedraggled cyclists, Cyndie and Nancy had offered him a place to stay!
After our first week (proper) on the road we could look back and appreciate what we are doing. We feel so lucky at being able to experience these amazing areas, and to be able to do it by bicycle where we get to be out in everything, sneaking up on wildlife and camping in some truly amazing places. And of course one of the best things about a trip like this.. the meeting of fantastic people along the way. Oh and the fact that we can eat as much as we want!! In this week we had ridden the 576 kilometre Parks Highway north from Anchorage, had crossed the mountains pass without too many problems, had avoided being eaten by a bear and hadn`t died in any of the gruesome ways described by Airman Steve , things were looking good!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

To the Land of the Midnight Sun: Heading north to Alaska (early July '10)

Jules and I had a few days before we had to catch a ferry all the way up to Alaska so we used the time to visit Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). The first night we camped in an awesome rustic campsite overlooking a small bay, and celebrated the start of our trip with a bottle of wine.
We definitely didn't have long enough to do the islands justice, but we enjoyed cycling the quiet island roads, Bald Eagle spotting and having dinner on the beaches. We had our first scary black bear encounter... Jules was riding in front and halted suddenly. With great panic in her voice she whispered “bear” and pointed up the road. We both quickly rode back the way we had come a little way, Jules got out her bear-spray and her whistle and we stopped to wait for some cars to go by and scare it off. We waved manically at the first driver who looked at us strangely and kept going, this happened a few more times and finally I said “umm Jules that bear appears to be wagging his tail at us”. I rode on past him, but Jules was still nervous and tooted away on her whistle the whole time she was riding, while still trying to wave down passing cars. When we got up to the “bear” Jules had to admit sheepishly that yes he was a friendly black dog.
Haida Gwaii is also where we gained our obsession with cinnamon buns. We had The Best cinnamon bun in a bakery in the middle of nowhere, oh my god, warm from the oven, dripping with syrup.. we were in sugary heaven.... ever since there we have been chasing that same orgasmic combination of syrup and bun and sultana..mmmmmmm.... and we have actually rethought the purpose of our trip- it is now to taste every cinnamon bun from Alaska to South America. A new life ambition.
When we arrived back in Prince Rupert after the overnight ferry from Haida Gwaii we stocked up at the supermarket and went onboard the Alaskan Ferries with the equivalent of our own body weight in food. Obviously all we planned to do for the next three days was eat.
Our tight budget did not stretch to the luxury of a cabin so we joined the rest of the budget-travellers in the solarium on the top deck of the boat (”It's just like being back in jail” one guy declared as he was setting up his camp). We marked ourselves out a little corner where we could unroll our sleeping mats onto the sunbeds and watch the water go by through the windows... we got a little bored of watching the water after an hour or so and went to find the bar.
We actually did not end up spending much time in our solarium/bed-room but cruised the decks looking for whales (no luck), read in the 'lounge area' and attempted crosswords and jigsaw puzzles (well one jigsaw, which was huge and was a picture of trees, all of very similar shades of green. We lasted about 5 minutes and managed to piece together about 3 pieces before Jules announced “let's go get a beer”). We had befriended two English boys, Thomas and Michael, on the boat who also appreciated “beer o'clock” and we spent more time in the bar, with cards and trivial pursuit. Still no whales. Even the beer didn't help us see any.
Everyone on board the boat was very friendly and it felt like a big cheap cruise, minus the karaoke. However, towards the end of the three days everything started getting a bit strained, kids were getting antsy, and us without cabins were starting to smell. Jules and I were pretty happy to finally arrive in Whittier, to reunite with Norma and Betty and ride onto Alaskan soil.

The Adventure Begins: Cycling the Icefields Parkway, Canadian Rockies (June 2010)

Jules and I had been living in Vancouver for three months.. I had been working and Jules was being housewife and 'preparing for our cycling adventure' (aka sitting on the couch watching the baseball). We bought our shiny new (and embarrassingly matching) bikes and panniers in Vancouver and had spent lots of money on warm clothes and wet weather gear in preparation for Alaska (and hence ensuring that we had sunshine almost the entire trip). We had done a few weekend trips, one to Golden Ears Provincial Park, one to Salt Spring Island and lots of long cycles around the city.
So we had our gear, our maps, our plan and our food and were all prepared to start our trip at the end of June; however, a week before we started we gained one extra piece of equipment.. my mother. She had given us a weeks notice and turned up to accompany us on our first week or so. This resulted in our first few days turning into a car-tour through the wineries and hot springs of lower BC - Jules certainly wasn't complaining, tho it wasn`t the best training...!
I managed to put my foot down when we reached the Rockies and we extricated Norma and Betty from the back of our rental car (ah yes the bikes got pride of place in the back seat while all three of us squished in the front seat.. all the better for spotting wildlife and wineries).
Jules and I rode the Icefields Parkway; Banff – Jasper. We spent 5 days doing this; fairly short days enabling us to spent time with mum in the arvo and evening (and to get through our winery purchases).
Around 280 km of spectacular scenery, including mountains, icefields and beautiful lakes, great wildlife spotting, fantastic campsites and a mother to carry our gear, set up camp and cook for us! Wow this is what cycle-touring is all about.
Lots of people had warned us about the wildlife along this area (we were 'Meals on Wheels' after all) but in fact the only Grizzly we saw in the Rockies we saw from our campsite, as we were leaving the shower-room. This was in Lake Louise, where the campsite was surrounded by an electric fence, so we could quite happily watch the bear amble through the meadow next door to our campsite. The next day we were riding along the road when a car swerved to the side of the road to tell us a Grizzly had just crossed about 50m in front of us, just around a bend. We appreciated the warning and stopped to give the bear plenty of time to move on (and yes Jules had her fluoro whistle firmly in one hand and her bear-spray in the other). Not long after this driver left another drove past, rolled down the window and yelled at us “Bear!!!” as he continued driving. We were very glad the first driver had taken the time to tell us the details as it would have been a little unnerving to have someone drive by and simply yell “Bear” at us.
Our scariest wildlife moment happened one morning when we were safely tucked inside our tent. I woke up to feel the entire tent shaking and could see that something had the top of the tent and was pulling it from side to side. At first I thought it was my mother, for this might be the sort of thing she thought was hilarious, but then I realised it was something much bigger. I woke Jules and she got up the nerve to peek out the front of the tent where she could see a hoof. Obviously an elk had taken a liking to our tent and decided to have a little nibble. We managed to scare him off and somehow the tent survived in one piece, though my nerves were a little shot.
When we finished cycling the Icefields Parkway we packed everything back in the car and drove across BC to Prince Rupert. In PR we said goodbye to mum as she had to make her way with the car on the ferry back to Vancouver Island and then down to Vancouver to fly out. I was sad to see her go, and I think Jules was horrified at the fact that we now had to cook our own dinners.