Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Box of Chocolates

Heading out of Vancouver there was no time to regret leaving as I launching into what seemed like a never ending quest to find and keep a bicycle lane or at least be heading in the right direction. A kind couple out for a morning ride were the first to point me in the right direction and got me on the Parkway which swapped between construction site, industrial zone and manicured bicycle path.
Luxury Bike Path
Getting out of a city in one piece seemed to be one of the biggest challenges of a touring cyclist. A city's heart is friendly with slow moving traffic and often significant cycling infrastructure. The middle ground of the suburbs on the other hand sees the traffic speed up and increase in mass. The bike lanes vapourised as quickly as they appeared and it was at one of these moments, as the rain set in that I ended up at an intersection facing a fancy glass train station. I took it as a sign and was soon being propelled to the end of the line.

Emerging from the train station I realised I wasnt clear yet, as I faced a multi lane grid street system that serviced an endless line of shopping malls. I was in a suburb that didnt feature on my map, so wandered till I found a hamburger shop with free wifi. A quick look on google maps and I had a plan. There was a couple more hours of hit and miss traffic and suddenly it all changed when I reached this quaint little town of Fort Langley. It looked like a movie set for a quiet period drama and was where I successfully started on the Trans Canada Trail.

The TCT is a great idea and ranges from fully formed trails to a "concept" penned in on a map. These first miles for me were along country roads smelling the intensive farming being undertaken in huge sheds on the river flats. This suddenly gave way to a small gravel track that weaved through some "first nation" land. It was an antidote to the traffic choked suburbs of the morning. It didnt last forever though and I soon had to choose between Highway 1 and Highway 7. Highway 1 was the Trans Canada Highway and Highway 7 was by all acounts a low use byway, so I took that option.

Highway 7 had plenty of keen traffic and I wondered how horrific the Trans-Canada Highway must be. Leaving the highway behind I headed up the Hemlock Valley and found a campsite at Shadow Falls. As I set up the MST Hubba Bubba tent for the first time, amongst the fir trees listening to the birds and the gushing water it was hard to believe that this was just a days ride from Vancouver. It had been a day of ups and downs and one that I was glad to have behind me.
MSR Hubba Bubba at Shadow Falls
It had been a pretty hectic experience on the road and I cast my eye over the map looking for alternatives. If Canadian traffic was going to be so intense, then maybe I should head to Washington, Oregan and California. I need to check the route that my friend John had taken last year (check out his latest project at The Kettle Valley Railway Trail might help but another day might make the difference.

Another day and the traffic was still not much fun I have to admit that my enthusiasm was waning. I stopped at a cafe mid morning thinking a coffee might perk me up. For the first time in Canada I was greeted, seated, brought a coffee and my order taken. It seemed service was not dead in a country which was supposedly so service focussed by the tipping system. The waitress also brought me some brilliant news. A mudslide had poured across the Trans Canada Highway rolling one car in the process. All the traffic had been diverted onto Highway 7. I almost cried with relief at the news. It all made sense and this crazy traffic wasnt normal but rather an anomoly. (The lady in the rolled car got out and walked away unharmed in case you were wondering)
Who doesn't want to live in a castle? On the road to Hope
The traffic was still rampant but I pedalled off with hope. Hope was also the next town where this traffic disaster was meant to disipate. 15km short of Hope the traffic began to slow and by the time I reached hope it was at a standstill. The cars had slowed and my spirts had lifted. I slipped by the idling engines and entering the town I cast humility aside and threw my hands in the air in another of those Tour de France victory salutes. I didnt need to look back, I knew that those SUV drivers that had blown their horns and tried to drive me off the road were eating humble pie. It wasnt an easy pie to eat and it was spilt all down their new Polo Ralph Lauren shirts.

Hope was before me but would it live up to its name? Would it neautralise the traffic and mark the start of some glorious cycling? Lets hope so.

PS No pics as the local library has some restrictions on such use. Internet cafes are becoming hard to find as free wifi takes over.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Porn for Gear Freaks

With a broken Spork to replace I headed over to the Mountain Equipment Co-Op. I shouldnt have been suprised after experiencing the scale of REI in Anchorage but this took it to another level. It was the Walmart of the adventure world and made Paddy Pallkin look like a hot dog stand in comparison. They have everything with all the options it seems.

I purchased a yellow spork and knew I would need to return the next day with the camera to make a short clip to show you what this place was all about.

On the bike the next day I zipped through town and without the pannier bags the bike felt like a flighty courier bike. I headed back to Mountain Equipment and shot the above video clip. I found a map for getting out of Vancouver and on to Bannf and it was about this point that I noticed the MSR tents on display. I had admired these on the world wide web but here they were in the flesh. My favourite was the MSR Hubba Bubba and I was just coming to terms with the fact that it was less than half the price I would pay in Australia when I was approached by a girl from Sydney asking whether I would join her in the tent to test it out. A little taken aback by her forward nature we hopped in, admired its features and it wasnt long before we each had a Hubba Bubba tucked under our arms.

The sleeping bag I was using took up nearly all of one large pannier bag and was overkill even in the Yukon and Alaska, so I headed for the sleeping bag department. Comparing weight, volume and price I soon found a little bag that would keep me cozy without the sauna features.

Luckily the Canadian Post Office was back in business today after a two week strike. I sorted through my kit and collected surplus gear for repatriation to Hobart. It was all a bit extravagant but I now had exactly what I needed, based only on a few weeks experience on the bike anyway.

I checked the bike into a bicycle day spa this afternoon and the lovely technician seemed to have it all under control. Clean, lubricated and tuned I head out of town tomorrow a leaner meaner operation. If I stayed any longer in Vancouver it would be too hard to leave. This is a great city.

Mr Suzuki's Backyard

I started to realise that Vancouver Island was not quite what I was expecting, when I noticed the scale on the map. It is much bigger than I had anticipated but that wasnt the only suprise.

Honeymoom Hotel
Heading south from Port Hardy it was a ride through dense forest that gave way on occasion, to stark clear fell forestry. This was an area of self declared "Fishing and Forestry" communities and with that came logging trucks. There was the clear polarisation between loggers and greenies, that used to be so evident in Tasmania. I had been concerned about mixing it with the Ice Road Truckers but found them to be courtious professionals. The logging truck drivers of Vancouver Island were just like those in Tasmania and drove unervingly close, much closer than the other trucks. I suspect in their minds that cyclists equated to greenies, which equated to a threat to their jobs. One guy even threw a rock at me. Wierd!
Clear Fell Forestry - Vamcouver Island

The salmon runs and forests that David Suzuki writes about are all there and it isnt hard to see how he was motivated. I think he lives on one of the islands nearby but no one I asked seemed to know who he was. It seems that nothing makes pasionate environmentalists more than the detruction of wilderness in your own back yard. There seem to be many parrallels between British Columbia and Tasmania.
Aerial Forest Canopy view
The town of Campbell River was said to be the boundary of civilisation and certainly did mark a transition point. Heading south of Campbell River the malls and franchises began to appear and increased in frequency untill reaching a cresiendo of non stop strip malls for the last 10 km into Nanaimo. The deer that grazed the roadside and threat of bears was gone and urban Canada prevailed. I had hoped that appraoching Vancouver from the island I may have been able to avoid it but the island is to big to be immune from suburbia.

I had applied a new strategy on this day which involved eating a lot more. I started with a full cooked breakfast and at no greater than two hour intervals I would stop for food. Not healthy food but any old nasty food. The result was 165km in a pretty relaxed and effortless fashion. I had enjoyed a night in a bed prior so the results are not conclusive but I will be trying this again and collecting more anecdotal data in the spirit of Dr Karl.
It is my plan not to.
Nanaimo was the boarding point for the ferry to Vancouver and so it was that I rolled out of town to the swanky BC Ferry Terminal. These guys have certainly got the business of operating ferries licked. The terminals are slicker than airports and their ferries top notch. Steaming across the Georgia Strait in full sunshine I dozed and wondered where the sailboats were heading.

Horseshoe Bay is where the ferry docks and is of course well out of town but a great place to land. A small cluster of cafes nestled in heavily treed streets greeted me as I disembarked. I joined the lycra clad cyclists on their fancy carbon fibre bikes riding the winding road along the coast in the company of a few gleaming convertible sports cars. I had clearly landed in the fancy end of town with lots of trees, manicured gardens and for the first time I noticed the shops proudly sporting the word "organic" and the delis offering more than hot dogs. This continued all the way to the Lion's Gate Bridge, a magnificent suspension bridge akin to the Golden Gate, It lead to Stanley Park and the funky west end of Vancouver. It was here that the lycra cyclists gave way to fixies and clip in shoes were less likely than cowboy boots. Mmm Vancouver looks promising.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Steaming down the Inside Passage

In true Alaskan style the Haines ferry wharf was located 12 miles out of town and so it was that I found my stiff joints pushed into service early in the morning after the big race. Boarding the ferry though felt like checking into a holiday. A holiday from riding at least for a week as I jumped the ferry south down Alaska's Inside Passage.

Alaskan Ferry MV Manuska
The Alaskan ferries are 50 year old classics built in the post war years. They are a far cry from the cruise ship that ply these waters but they have their own style. The passengers are more often than not, locals on the way home or heading away to the big smoke.

The first stop was Juneau and an opportunity to fix the tyre/puncture problem that had been plagueing me. On arrival in Aku Bay I headed off for Juneau 20km away hoping that the tyre would hold the distance and to my pleasure found a tip top bike shop in a big red shed. The helpful guy there brought out a set of Shwalbe Marathon Plus tyres which were just the ones Edvin had been recommending. His were quite wide which had dampened my enthusiasm knowing that wide meant more work for me. The good news was that I got these great tyres in a 28mm width just like the Continentals I had been riding. I had the narrow tyres with the extra meat of the Shwalbe Marathon Plus. In addition  picked up four new inner tubes and two repair kits just to be sure.

I changed the worst tyre over and basking in its glory I beatled back to the ferry dock for the next ferry, heading this time to Prince Rupert (Canada), which would take nearly three days. There were cabins available but a few wise souls had recommended the solarium on the top deck as the best option. The solarium was an area at the rear of the top deck that was covered above and on the sides by glass panels and open at the rear. In case the sun didnt shine (and it rarely did) a grid of infra red bar heaters has been mounted to ensure that it remained toasty warm. Thrown into the deal were deck chairs that you could sleep on.

Tight Pass on the Inside Passage
I wasn't the only one onto this lurk and was quickly joined by a mother and daughter returning to Petersburg and a French couple riding their motorcycle to South America. We lined up, wrapped in our sleeping bags, our deck chairs looking out across the stern. A bag of food within arms reach to keep me fueled. The scenery was stunning whether it was the snow capped mountain ranges, the tight channels, the forested shoreline, the humpback whales or the orcas we saw it all. I would doze off and wake up with it all before me. Beat that Holland America!

Solarium Style Cruising
We stopped in Sitka, Petersburg and Ketchikan  for several hours and on more than one occasion the stay was extended as the engineers worked frantically to get the ship operating again. The bike was great for these stops allowing me to ride into town and check out so much mor than I otherwise would have.

Russian Church in Sitka - Glass was hard to come by in those days so some of the windows are painted on.
Prince Rupert was the transition point to BC Ferries and a farewell to the Alaskan Marine Highway. The Pioneer Hostel there was the best I have ever seen and the town had a nice rustic homely vibe to it. The BC Ferry was only a couple of years old and was like stepping into a space ship in comparison to the Alsakan ferries. It was a day of luxury before docking in Port Hardy at the north end of Vancouver Island. The bike had cost an extra five dollars to take onboard and the ships staff recommended a park near the terminal which would be good for free camping. It was great as it turned out and I recognised many of the passengers setting up camp that night.

The Petersburg Waterfront
 Riding the ferries of the Inside Passage had been great and now fully rested and fattened up I was ready to ride again.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chilkoot International Bike Relay

The Haines Chilkoot International Bike Relay started for me three days before the start, when I was repairing one of those punctures roadside. A friendly Alaskan with a big bushy beard pulled up in his pick-up truck. He was heading for the big race and before he left me, he thrust a 700C tyre tube in my hand. Wow what a guy.
Race Profile and Stages

Reaching Haines Junction I couldnt help but notice the number of cyclists descending on the town. This was clearly a big thing. The race runs over a 250km course following the Chilkoot Trail that the gold propectors hiked to try their luck in the gold fields. The course is split into eight roughly equal legs and entrants can form teams of eight while some opt for teams of two or even go it solo. I had for a moment considered entering but instead opted for getting a head start on the 1400 riders. I reached Dezdeath Lake about 50km and two stages down the course the night before, where I camped with a couple of the competitors.

The morning of the start I pushed off at 0630 realising there were alot of miles to cover.  All was going well, admiring the Kluane Wilderness that flanked the road. This is the largest internationally protected wilderness in the world and the amount of bear scat on the verge indicated it was a vibrant ecosystem. Trundling down the road singing away to myself, I disturbed a black bear which crashed back into the forest, paws over his ears no doubt.

I carried on with added determination to reach Haines and avoid another night camping with the bears. 40km down the road, having filled my waterbottles at a waterfall, I pulled out onto the road to that hissing sound from the tyre. The first flat of the day. I pulled over and started that now familiar ritual of puincture repair just as the leader of the race passed by like an android machine. I couldnt help but be in awe of his performance and at the same time feel so utterly dejected at my own inability to just keep air in the tyres. Daniel, support crew to one of the velo-gods, pulled up and offered the use of his foot pump. Thanks Daniel!

Back on the road in desperate need to come up with an innovative plan to keep moving forward I decided to move the damaged tyre to the front wheel where the pressure on it was less. Good idea but it wasnt long before I had a puncture in the front wheel. Roadside, with forks in the air, an environmental health guy from Whitehorse who had done his stage of the race, in one of the hot teams I suspect, pulled over and mentioned the old trick with the cardboard. What old trick with the cardboard, I enquired and he spilt the secret of the day. It was the use of the cardboard from the tyre tube box to support the tube from the inside and thus place less pressure on the tyre wall. Genius!

I gingerly pushed off with a little confidence but still unsure whether it would take me the required 150km to Haines. More entrants were catching up and with them their friends lined the road to cheer them on. It was a carnival atmosphere along the route and with not too much imagination you could imagine yourself racing the Tour De France. I started to hear the call "there's that tourer guy" and passing by the check points it was all whoops and hollars.
Chilkoot Pass
The excitement was so contagious I forgot to take breaks and when lunch time came I reluctantly pulled over to slap together some sandwiches. Back on the road the carnival continued and one lovely spectator handed me a ticket to the dinner in Haines. It was at this point that I mentally committed to getting to Haines if the tyre would allow. I figured that if I could make it to the Chilkoot Pass, the last 60km were all down hill. This pass was a big hurdle for the early prospectors heading inland and I myself ended up pushing the bike up the last few kilometres. Passing competitor told me I had too much stuff but I told them to let me know when they needed a sleeping bag and a novel. We laughed and they went on.

Reaching the top in heavy cloud cover, that was luckily holding back the development of a sea breeze which often presents a headwind in this race, I remounted and enjoyed a thrilling run down the hill freewheeling at over 50km/hr. I wanted to give it a bit extra but the thought of the tyre giving way at speed tempered my enthusiasm. Descending down into the forest the rain started and I was left to wonder how the cardboard was holding up in the wet.

The Canada/USA border station was set amongst a forest of spruce trees and the officials were the most human the USA could offer. Not long after a log cabin diner loomed and I stopped for coffee and choc chip cookies. I met many of the people who had cheered me on along the road and we chatted for a while.

Stifler's Rescue Booze Bus
The kilometres ticked over and it was all coming together until 12 km from Haines the head wind arrived followed not long after by that familiar hissing sound. I dismounted and just as I was in the middle of the repair an old yellow school bus pulled up. A young crowd from Whitehorse sponsored by a bar there offered assistrance and then left me with a beer. They explained it was some sort of Belgian brew but all I could think of was that I was caught in the set of "Road Trip" and "Borat" all mixed up together. The second cardboard reinforced tyre was better than the first I thought and it wasnt long before I was pushing out the last kilomtres through the street of Haines to a victorious welcome at the finish line.
Historic Fort turned Cyclist Campground

What a day. It had been 192 kilometres, too many punctures but such a carnival in the wilderness. I pitched the tent and went straight for the feast with my donated ticket. Sitting with some great people form Whitehorse my hand shook as I tried to put food to mouth. A big thankyou to the organisers and competitors of the Haines Chilkoot International Bike Relay who took me in and helped me along.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bears, Wolves and Punctures

The week since we pushed off from Delta Junction on the Alaska-Canada Highway (Alcan) has really launched us out into the wilderness. Days of never ending black spuce forest flanked by snow capped mountains continued.

The 24 hour daylight had me run ragged by the time I struggled into Tok. making a stop at the information centre a lady of generous proportions produced the menu for Fast Eddies Pizza Restaurant and gave us directions. We were there in a flash and gorged ourselves stupid. The waitress offered a doggy bag but we scoffed. It seems that you just cant eat enough when on the bike. Both Edvin and I have shed our excess flab and are now eating in a despe3rate bid not to be mistaken for escapees from a concentration camp.

Santa's Rocket Ship of course.
The 24 hour daylight means it is always a good time to go riding which gives a cyclist a great deal of flexibility but there is also the temptation to keep riding to see what is round the corner. Waking up alongside the Tok River I opted for a day of rest and Edvin kindly agreed. It was a day of eating snoozing and a trip to town to reprovision and attempt to drain some unsuspecting wifi network. Back on the road, the dividends of a day off were evident as my knees stopped complaining. We rode on, camping roadside.

Ice on some of the rivers still
Riding up from Anchorage I had often noticed caterpillars crawling across the road but now it was butterflies either in flight or knocked down on the pavement. Nature up here is going flat out to get alot of work done before the snow starts falling again and wraps it all up. Some of the rivers still have lots of ice in them and yet the shoots on the trees are huge. The black spruce while looking young are actually hundreds of years old. Their stunted size due to the poor soil and permafrost. The permafrost is also playing havoc with the roads which are looking like drunken roller coasters in Canada as the engineers work in vein against the freeze thaw process. Good for bicycles as it slows down the bigger traffic.

One day we found a deck at a visitors centre for dinner. We took in the vista, reflected on our first bear sighting and realised that the border was but 10 km away. Edvin and I looked at each other and thought "lets give it a go". We reloaded the bikes and rode off into the sunny night. Reaching the border with Canada was a great landmark but the US border gaurd wasnt interested in us at all. I went in and presented my passport to which he gave a grunt and waved me away. So be it. We trundled down to the border which is nothing more than a mosquito infested swamp. We set up camp in it.

Stradling the Border
The next day was the start of all my problems. In the first rain of the journey we pushed our bikes out on the road to find my rear wheel deflated. My first puncture. We took the wheel off and I pulled out the repair kit to find that the glue tube was full of air rather than glue. No problem, Edvin pulled out his glue and found the same thing. Had the mosquitos been sucking the glue tubes dry. Just as I began to dispair Edvin pulled out his second tube of glue and with the tube sheltered under his jacket he began patching the tube. It was great to see an experienced hand on the job rather than me fumbling around in the mud.

Eventually we hit the road after a few false starts and pressed on. I could see blue sky over Alaska and rain ahead in Canada. Such high hopes for Canada seemed unfounded. The comical sounding Beaver Creek was our goal about 20km down the track so we pedalled on in a rather subdued mood. The Canadian checkpoint materialised eventually and with little fuss we were out of no mans land. Riding into town we stopped for food and of course a second puncture repair. This time without the rain. How Edvin got the patch to stick in the rain I will never know. Riding onto the visitors centre we were greeted my a barbeque at the visitors centre. It was Public Service Appreciation Week and we appreciated that and the burgers and the cake. Canada was looking up.

Taking with people I had hatched a new plan to get off the RV route which would mean that I would have to forgoe Whitehorse and Skagway in favour of Haines where I would start the ferry hopping. I was keen to get moving and we continued to make a bit over 100km a day.

The punctures continued and I started searching for glue at gas stations. Stopping at Burwash Landing I had no success but found that the final game of the Stanley Cup was ten minutes from starting. Edvin is a big ice hockey fan and he had filled me in on the Stanley Cup. The young guy at the gas station directed us down a gravel road to a lodge where we could watch the game and then slipped back into his chair to watch the TV he had under the counter. Within ten minutes we were in this bar adorned with moose heads and stuffed bears. The game didnt go well. Vancouver lost 4-Nil and the people of Vancouver responded by burning the cars in the street.

Burwash Landing - The site of the Stanley Cup Fiasco
 A couple of girls invited Edvin and I to join them for a drink at a bar down the road. In the interests of remaining open to experiences we hoped in the car and took off down the road. We ended up in well named Destruction Bay, which would take us several hours to reach the next day. We would be unable to buy bread or indeed food beyond a can of baked beans the next day but there seemed to be a never ending supply of Budweiser. The evening ended with us packed in a smoke filled car lurching toward a rain storm, taking full advantage of all lanes and the verge, with the sun kissing the mountain tops to the north and myself seeing my life ending, not at the mercy of an Ice Road Trucker on my bicycle but in one of those alchohol fueled road crashed that were commerorated by crucifixes along the road.

A hang over, little sleep, a late start and above all a headwind did not make for good progress the next day. We crawled out the miles and with numerous rests, naps and cook ups we eventually called it quits after 104km not far from Haines Junction.

Today the wind has died and we wizzed into Haines Junction. A wolf crossed our path and I took it as a good omen. Argh the bright lights, tyre repair glue, food, cafe and internet. Sadly however I said goodbye to Edvin this morning as he headed on to Whitehorse and I south to Haines. I had really appreciated my time with Edvin and he had saved my bacon on numerous occasions. The town is a buzz as people arrive for the annual Haines Junction to Haines bike relay. I better get back out on the road to get a start on them before they head off in the morning.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Teepees in Fairbanks

Rob, Me and Edwin in our Teepee
Waking up in the teepee in the woods on the edge of Fairbanks listening to the rain I felt snug and not at all iunclined to hit the road. We had arrived in Fairbanks for lunch the day before. Wandering the town we were picked up out side the supermarket by a friendly local who invited us over for "Pot Luck". Before we knew it Edwin and I were pedalling out of town to find this place in the woods where we found a house packed with friendly folk from as far afield as Israel and Italy. A great night of cooking, chatting and puzzling.

Edwin inside the Teepee. There is so much room!
The miles werent passing under the tyres on their own,so I rose and while still unconvinced about heading off I found myself slowly preparing for a day on the road. It was a slow start and in the end Edwin and I trundled out of GoNorth about 0930. I had left behind Rob, my cycling partner since the afternoon of the first day. I had really enjoyed riding with him and it had been like an apprenticeship learning little tips each day. He is a great guy and I really hope it goes well for him on the highway from Prudhoe Bay with those Ice Road Truckers.

The steady drizzle continued as we left Fairbanks but really the riding was good on flat roads. Despite this I felt flat and wondered whether it was a late night with the locals, a faster pace set by Edwin the 22 year old 6'2" powerhouse of a Swede or after a week of solid riding I was hitting the wall.

North Pole - Who would have thought?
Just as I weighted up the likely causes of my malingering we arrived at the North Pole. Santa's house was open and we dropped in on a huge cavern of glittering tat. A few photos in the sleigh and some silly postcards later we thought better of sitting on Santa's knee and hit the road.

Santa's House at North Pole

The day ended at a an ever slowing pace but with 113km down we found a first class gravel pit by the river and pitched tents. Edwin and I cooked dinner and then I hit the hay. I woke up at 10 oclock in broad daylight and thought I had slept in. A trap of the high lattitudes. Back to bed.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Is that the Stampede Trail?

Pushing off from the Black Bear Cafe in Glitter Gulch my head was full of Alexander Supertramp and the Stampede Trailhead. I had visions of starry eyed dreamers in check shirts and bandannas round their heads. Billies and paraphernalia hanging from their back packs. Some heading down the trail on a pilgrimage to the Magic Bus on the Teklenika River, others lay in the grass reading Jack London novels or "Edible Plants of Alaska". The wizened ones had returned from a spell in the wilds and thumbed a lift home to make the world a better place.

Heading past Healy my eyes peeled the roadside for signs. I love "Into The Wild" and really didn't want to miss the iconic location of the Stampede Trailhead, where Franz had dropped Chris McCandless off for his great fateful adventure. A church came into view and some signs for a lodge down a side road. Rob had read the Lonely Tony guide and a few things made him think we had arrived. An Alaskan pulled off the main road and in their friendly style, wound down the window and said hello. He was the pastor of the church and confirmed that this sealed road leading off the highway was indeed what is now the Stampede Road.

I was stunned in disbelief. How could my vision be so far from reality. The Earthsong Lodge sounded delightful but I needed to get as far away quickly if I had any chance of preserving my fanciful Stampede Trail. With this fantasy carefully cradled in my pannier bags we set off down the road. The wind pressed on my back, coffee ran through my veins and my mind struggled with the treachery of the Stampede Trail.
Stampede Trail - Where are the dreamers?
 Their wasnt even a sign! Someone had stolen the little tin sign that you might find on any suburban street corner. I wondered whether I would return to Alaska next summer, find an appropriate piece of lumber and start carving a sign worthy of the Stampede Trail, perhaps on the deck outside the Black Bear Cafe.

I have never riden so hard and fast. I clocked my top speed under load at 58km/h. I felt I was flying. We rode on and in the end as our strength waned we pasted the city limits of Nenana. We made the town an hour later and with ideas of pizza dinner we found the few shops had shut at eight. We inspected the campground and dismissed the ten dollar camping fee as outrageous. This rash decision was possibly due to a sugar rush from the food grab at the petrol station and so we pedalled over the bridge into the midnight sun. We were looking for a nice bit of quiet flat grass for some stealth camping but it was a few hours later before we accepted some rough dirt down a side road. Dead to the world we ended a 192km day.

Next morning as Rob and I trundled out onto the road, a cyclist rode past and we hollered out to him. It was Edwin from Sweden on his way down to the bottom of South America. He was on another Surly Long Haul Trucker. Our posie had grown to three and we rode on together, panting up the hills while joking and laughing down them.

A foot long sub at Subway greeted us in Fairbanks and we have settled into a teepee at a funky campground on the edge of town. It might be hard to leave the teepee but it is all east from here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Show me the Asphalt!

Waking up at Igloo Creek this morning it felt warm for the first time. I was not too excited about riding on the corrugated gravel road but the first bus was 1130 so there wasn't really an option. We saddled up and headed off. There were three rivers to cross and intervening rises before we made it to the asphalt and a fast run down to the main road. The gravel signifies being off the beaten track but I must confess that I am in love with the ashpalt. I love the asphalt!
Rob and Wim at our Riley Creek campsite.

The buses in the park slowed to almost a halt when they saw us and the park staff had really done everything to make our time in the park a great experience. Denali was worth the effort and will stick with me for a long time

Back on the main road heading north we were pedalling for a big salad sub and have now found the Black Bear Cafe with free internet and real coffee (really good coffee). The hours are steadily disappearing here and it is time to get back in the saddle and head north.
Thats just a mid sized cup, Drinking it makes me feel like a dwarf.
Just up the road is the Stampede Trail trailhead made famous by Jon Krakeau's book "Into The Wild" which chronicles the life and death of Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Sumpertramp) I loved the book and am really looking forward to seeing the trail. Today we crossed the Teklanika River, on which McCandless camped in his bus and prevented his return to safety. I keep thinking I see Alexander Supertramps in campsites or on buses around here and am sure he would have been beside himself with excitement to be out amongst this amazing wilderness.

I will let you know what its like.

Denali Dreaming

A long road penetrates into the Denali National Park and access is restricted to the buses and bicycles. I felt like one of the privileged few on the bike. What is even better is that the buses carry bikes so we hopped on the bus to Igloo Creek and stashed our panniers in the bear proof food box.  Taking all our warm gear and repair kits we then cycled on toward Denali.

Rob really wanted to see Mount Denali and as we got closer the sky became clearer. The riding on gravel roads with winding switchbacks and steep dropoffs, was hard on me and for the first time in Alaska I found myself repeatedly getting off the bike and pushing. The wildlife in Denali is great with Porcupines, Moose, Caribou, Ground Squirels, Snowshoe Hares, Eagles and more but for me it was the wide expanses that really struck me. The river beds are wider than several football grounds together. A creek here is what would be a raging river elsewhere.The snow still abounds in large patches and the rivers run strongly with glacial melt. Reaching the end of the road we got that perfect view of Mt Denali. I wondered about the climbers up there going for the summit. The problems they might be facing and how they might be feeling. I was knackered but I bet they were having it harder.
Mount Denali

It had been an amazing day and we jumped the last bus back to Igloo Creek where we cooked dinner, made camp and collapsed into a solid sleep. A day to remember.

The Big Igloo

I love the Buyer's Lake cabin.
The Buyer's Lake site volunteer host wore a badly fitting blazer and strange reflective gloves so we packed up camp at six in the morning. It was cold but the early start meant that the day was loaded with potential. Zipping along the road I was firmly aware that we were facing a climb up to the Broad Pass that stood guarding Denali. The road had started to rise more than fall and we were definitely gaining altitude.

The climbs were getting bigger but so far I hadnt got off to push which usually comes to me early. After one of these climbs the road plateaued and on the side of the road there was what is probably the worlds biggest igloo. Not just an igloo but an abandoned igloo and if that wasn't good enough, it was for sale. Walking inside it was like an Alladin's Cave with four levels that opened onto a central area. Small dormer windows peaked out across the plateau to the flanking mountain ranges. This was loaded with potential. It includes 38 acres, a gas station, assorted cabins and a liqour store. All is pretty much abandoned. I dont know how much they are asking, but you could "Tell them their dreamin". It would be even more fun in winter when it is covered in snow.
Go on. Tell them they are dreamin!
Setting off with igloo dreams in my head, Rob spotted a moose on the road. The poor thing had a limp and hobbled off into the scrub as we snapped photos. My first moose sighting.
Zipping along with the igloo and moose in our wake I started to get a sneaky feeling that we had mounted the pass and were on the way down. Passing the Summit airstrip turnoff it was confirmed and we gathered pass. The realisation that the worst was behind us and that it wasnt actually that bad was exhilerating. We rode into Cantwell roadhouse with 100km behind us since breakfast, feeling like cowboys coming into town. As we tied up our steads we noticed three other bikes loaded up outside. Joing these kindred spirits inside we  loaded up on burritos and pancakes. They were heading south, we exchanged stories and before long Wim arrived. Wim has 19 months set aside and is heading to the bottom of South America. It is his first cycle tour and has gone headlong into it. I love that.

We had already done a good days ride but with the wind on our backs, a down hill gradient and the Denali National Park calling we rode on with the snow patched mountains flanking the road. The scenery in this part of the world is breathtaking and the miles fell away untill we made Denali after a short struggle with the wind over the last miles. It was great to be there.

Seattle's Best

Heading back to the main road in the morning in a cold drizzle, it wasnt coming easy but I hoped for another good day. Riding with Rob meant I was very much conscious of not letting the team down so pushed a bit harder than I otherwise would have, which meant that after two hours I was pretty tired. Little did I realise that Rob was also being pushed faster than he would have gone. Silently we were pushing each other on. Rob it turned out had done a fair bit of this cycling business and over the days I was inspired by tales of  Tibet, Pamir Highway, a meeting with Messner in the Karakoram and a Canadian guy who spent 25 years cycle touring before finally being taken by malaria in West Africa.

At this point the Talketna Junction roadhouse came into view and we opted for a stop. On inquiring whether they had coffee, the attendant responded with a firm "Seattle's Best". It seemed odd that he mentioned Seattle given that it was a thousand or so miles away but he seemed confident. We were sold and shuffled inside. "Seattle's Best" comes in a large 7UP cup pumped from a thermos and is barely recognisable as coffee. It did the job however and had us humming down the road for many hours. It is clear that if you want a cup of coffee don't go to Seattle.

Do roads get better than this?
Heading north the forested roadside remained. Alaska is this huge wilderness, whose harsh winters protect it from agricultural development. Spring however is this lush vibrant season of rebirth. The limited development doesnt extend far from a few beautifully built roads with wide verges. The cycle path had ended but the going was good. We racked off 107km and called a halt at an odd war memorial near Buyer's Lake.
Buyer's Lake

Lunch with Sarah Palin

Pushing off from the Copper Whale Inn in Anchorage last Friday feels like an age ago now, sitting in the Black Bear Cafe at Denali. I had tentatively pushed out into the traffic powering north unsure of the pitfalls that may be waiting for me. Several miles out of town I spied a cycle path across the six lanes of dual highway. It seemed like a mirage and I was sure it wouldnt last but an hour later it was still winking at me and so I braved the traffic to find a magical cycle path that paralleled the highway.

It was still going strong when I reached Sarah Palin's home town of Wasilla, She wasn't home which was a pity as I had visions of doing a bit of huntin and shootin with her. She was on a One Nation Tour which, with memories of Pauline Hanson's One Nation ringing in my mind, was a little bit disconcerting. The locals were very firendly and one couple Ray and Kary kindly emailed me with the location of a campsite that might be of use. Some of the lucky locals lived on lakes and were able to moor their float planes at the end of their back yard. What a setup!

Heading into the afternoon I was feeling good and pretty pleased with my milage. I really didnt know whether I was up to pulling off what I had bitten off, but I was gaining confidence. With about 120 kms behind me I rode into Willow which I had aimed for all day and ran into Rob from Wales who was on the way to Prudoe Bay, to then turn south and ride to Peru. We rode together and chatted the miles away till we found the Sausita Landing Campground. Miles shared are miles halved maybe.

Days Run 142km

Friday, June 3, 2011

Wheels down in Anchorage

Midnight in Anchorage and its still light.  Just 24 hours ago I landed in Anchorage, claimed the battered bike box and started putting the rig together in a quite corner of the airport terminal. Just as it was starting to look like a fully functioning bike, a guy rolls up with a bike box from Taiwan. His name was Jules and low and behold he had a Surly Long Haul Trucker bike as well. The poor guy had lost a small part that connects one of his pannier racks together.  I had lost a AAA battery out of the rear light, which probably happened during the customs search. It was disappointing but I was so relieved that that was my only loss. Untill I pushed off down the road that is and started hearing an odd click in the gears. Closer inspection roadside revealed the big ring sprocket was damaged. It was like a stab to the guts but some filing with the swanky multi-tool (thankyou Bart) removed the burrs and subsequent plier work today restored alignment to the point where it seems to be working. A sharp reminder as to how I need to really look after the bike.

It was way too late to check in anywhere by the time I got organised so trundling into town,  on a bike track no less, I stumbled across a covered picnic table in a clearing by a gurgling creek. It was just what I needed and gave me several hours rest out of the light drizzle.  Heading into downtown Anchorage this morning my eyes were peeled.  I had a list of things to do as follows
  1. Get a stove, fuel and matches
  2. Address the "Bear Issue"
  3. Lodgings
  4. Mosquito repellant
  5. Food
  6. Lodgings for a nice hot shower
The massive REI outdoor store ticked most of these boxes. I wandered around it in awe at the amount of outdoor gear. For example there wasnt just sporks. There was a range of sporks that included mega serving sporks. I didnt need another spork but I got a fancy MSR Reactor stove, a bear bell whose tingle may drive me mad in a weeks time, a waterproof cover for the iphone and a cannister of "counter assault" bear repellant.

Check out the selction of snow shoes!

All this extra gear wont help the weight issue. Pushing off from the airport last night, the increased inertia of the bike was significant and it behaved much like some of the stoned residents of this town. Most noticable about Anchorage is the hunting, killing, skinning culture that is just not PC in other places. There is an ivory store in the main street and fur goods abound. It is very much part of the way of life here and while you might think that this would be a vagan hell, there is a strong showing of organic food cafes. There are plenty of oversized pickup trucks and at the same time they have embraced the bicycle with a passion. Bikes can be seen zipping around town and parked outside almost every shop. The people are friendly, accepting and the word "coexist" is strong in the local lingo. I get the impression that Alaska may have attracted a wide range of people. The "misfits and missionaries" title may well apply here and as I head north it will be interesting to see. This week is "Military Appreciation Week" in Anchorage with the local businesses wooing the military dollar. I see what they are doing but it just seems so odd.

Anchorage Shop Window - It is all about the fur!

The clouds have cleared tonight and snow capped mountains can be seen at the end of the main street. They look great and it will be good to push off down the road and get amongst them tomorrow..