Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bushfire and Bears: Skagway to the Cassiar Hwy (5th - 10th August '10)

We were spoilt by new friends in Haines and Skagway who not only let us camp amongst the smell of dog-poo and took us zip-lining but also got us a free ride on the historical train “the White Pass”, out of Skagway. The White Pass is a two-hour train journey that follows the old historical route up over the mountain pass and into the Yukon goldfields. It was a fascinating little slice of history and it meant that we didn't have to climb up over the mountains that we had come roaring down a week ago! Betty and Norma got transported up to the top of the mountains in style and at the top of the pass we jumped off the train, passed through the Canadian border and set off on the bikes again.
We initially rode north towards Whitehorse, but turned off on a small side road, the Taglish cut-off road, that took us past a bunch of lakes, and a couple of small towns. It took us a couple of days of heading north and east to meet up with the Alaskan Highway once again. This part of the trip was fairly easy riding, though it was taking us a little while to get back into the routine after more than a week's break. Norma and Betty were obviously going through some abandonment issues since we had left them for a week, as they were misbehaving and we had quite a few flats.
Once we were back on the Alaskan Highway we were hanging out for a roadhouse/campground/cafe that had been advertising along the road their “world famous cinnamon buns”. Wow this is what we have been searching for! One morning we were so excited because we knew we were approaching this holy grail, about 100kms down the road. We planned our whole day around this cinnamon bun event, making sure we arrived at afternoon tea time, not eating too much at lunch to make sure we had enough room for buns.. etcetc We turned up at the roadhouse salivating with anticipation and asked for “a world-famous cinnamon bun please”... “oh sorry we're all out of cinnamon buns at the moment”. Oh the devastation. The rest of the day was a blur as I was an emotional mess after my disappointment. Don`t they know cyclists already have a shaky mental stability as it is ,and a shock like that is enough to send someone over! I somehow pushed through the last part of the day but not without a semi-breakdown where I sobbed at Jules ``Don`t you know how hungry I am??”. Cycling brings out my inner drama-queen.
We crossed the Continental divide during this section of the trip, which yielded some stunning scenery and some great downhills – which Jules just loves. Downhills make Jules into a giddy little girl again, she will often scream out “yeaha!” as she is riding down them and will wave and smile at cars that we pass. On one big downhill off the Continental Divide we passed some RVs parked in a picnic area. Jules waved madly at them as she zoomed past, yodelling at the top of her lungs. I'm hoping she didn't cause any premature heart-failures...
Slowly we approached the intersection of the Cassiar Highway, where we were to start heading south and on our last day on its bitumen the Alaskan Highway gave us a good send off. Our last day was an absolute beauty, riding along the Rancheria Valley, with great views across the Cassiar Mountains, lots of downhills, plus a tailwind!
When we had been back in Skagway we had heard about a big fire on the Cassiar Highway which meant that the first 100kms or so of this highway was closed, and only occasionally they would allow a convoy of cars to go through (no bikes of course). Jules doesn't do well with smoke and one of the campers we had spoken to said there was smoke for 100's of kms around the fire, so we had been a little nervous about whether we would be able to get through, but we decided to give it a go and knew that something would work out.
The morning we reached the junction of the Alaskan and the Cassiar Highways we turned up early to see if a convoy of cars was going to go through. When we got to the front of the queue we were told there would be a convoy going but we definitely wouldn't be able to ride it (not that we really wanted to!). As we rode back past the line of cars a guy popped his head out of his van and offered us a ride through the fire.. Maurice and Stacey were mountain bikers from Southern California and were on a trip in their new camper to go mountain biking through Alaska and Canada. They had two spare bike racks on the back so we could load up Betty and Norma and head through the fire with them. They were a blast and we had a great time driving through the apocalyptic burnt-out area that we were certainly glad we weren't riding through! Maurice and Stacey were headed down the Cassiar and out to Steward-Hyder to visit the bear-viewing platform. We weren't going to be able to do the detour out to this area on the bikes (we had a timeframe to get back to Vancouver) and so we were very easily persuaded to get a lift all the way to Stewart with them.. and then ride back out from Stewart to rejoin the Cass. We were feeling very lucky to meet such lovely people, who didn't seem to mind two smelly cyclists refusing to leave the comfort of their van!
We arrived in the little town of Stewart that evening and then headed on over the US border into the tiny town of Hyder, Alaska. We did not have to go through any immigration to get into Hyder, there is no way out of the town once you are there, but strangely you have to go through Canadian immigration on your way out. Hyder is tiny and kind of is what an Alaskan town of my imagination would be -funny old wooden buildings and a dirt road through the middle of town, and lots of signs advertising the local moonshine.  Drinking too much of this leads to getting “hyderized”. In Hyder we camped behind the pub in a meadow... which would have been Jules ideal place to camp; close to the pub, so we had to have a pub meal and watch the antics of too much moonshine and too many cowboy hats, but we were still a little too close to the bears feeding for her liking so she asked the bartender whether anyone had been eaten by a bear recently here and he said , without any apparent concern, and without any further information, “yes”.
Just north of Fish Creek there is a viewing platform over a creek where you can (if you are lucky) watch bears feeding on the spawning salmon. Our first night there with Maurice and Stacey we watched a mum grizzly introducing her cub to the water. The cub didn't seem to be overly keen on the water and it looked quite distressed about getting its paws wet. It also seemed to be slightly scared of fish and it couldn't get the hanging of fishing, so after a couple of lame attempts he just ended up finding a stick to chew on, then experimented feeding on some discarded old fish, and then had a final go at nibbling on some rocks. When Jules and I came back the next morning to check out the viewing platform again mum and cub were back. The cub was very cheeky in the morning, full of energy and bouncing around.  At one point mamma stunned a fish and then let it go for the cub to chase after it. He chased it and almost caught it but ended up empty handed. Mama had watched the whole thing and when bub came back she was not happy. He knew he was in trouble and he was just like a little kid that had done something bad, he tried to avoid going near her and then ran into the bushes to hide from her.
So from a fire that upset our trip plans we managed to meet two awesome people, got the amazing experience of watching grizzly's fishing and managed to see the phenomena that is “getting hyderized” in Hyder, Alaska.

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