Goodbye Alaska, Hello Canada. Goodbye Canada, Hello Alaska.
It seems we spend about eighty percent of each day thinking about food, talking about food, or actually eating food. We had read about the bottomless hunger of bicycle tourists, but had never experienced it ourselves until now. The moment we finish breakfast we think about lunch, the moment we finish lunch we think about dinner, and the moment we finish dinner, we are dreaming about our morning coffee and bowl of porridge (although our current favourite breakfast is cream of wheat, a deliciously old-fashioned breakfast that has an uncanny similarity to infant food). And when we roll into a town in the early evening, we make a beeline for the nearest burger joint and demolish everything on our plates. Oh my, the burgers we have eaten!
We try to make the most interesting and varied meals possible while on the road. The idea of eating the same meal repeated every night, or of living off dehydrated backpacking meals makes me want to cry. But we have a good repertoire of tasty meals, and keep adding to it. So far, we have managed to concoct on our humble little camping stove, a great Pad Thai, tasty fried rice, red lentil dal, pasta in a myriad of combinations, cornmeal pancakes, chapati and even chocolate brownies (which we ended up scrambling and rolling into brownie-balls - delicious!). We are constantly on the lookout for new ideas, and often swap meal inventions with other cyclists we meet on the road.
We left our motel room in Delta Junction and tossed a coin. Should we ride along the Alaska-Canada Highway to Haines, or should we instead ride to Fairbanks and fly to Juneau, skipping what could potentially be two weeks of quite dull highway riding? The coin came down heads - the highway it would be. As we were loading up our bikes, we felt a heaviness, a weariness. Gabi voiced her reservations and I agreed. What the heck, let’s do it. So we bought plane tickets from Fairbanks to Juneau. It’s last minute changes of mind like this, that make us feel like the most indecisive bikepackers in existence!
The next two days were dull, flat, hot and windy, but we arrived in Fairbanks in good time for our flight. We spent a day cycling around in the rain, and went to our favourite store, REI, to stock up on some replacement parts and a new saddle for myself (sadly my expensive Brooks C17 Cambium All Weather saddle did not agree with me, and had been incredibly uncomfortable since the day I bought it). And then we were again boxing up our bikes (not a favourite past-time of mine) and on the plane!
Arriving in Juneau was not dissimilar to landing in the middle of a David Attenborough documentary. Maria, our lovely taxi-driver-cum-tour-guide pulled over at the side of the highway on the way in to town to show us the spawning (and dying) salmon, and the magnificent bald eagles. We leaned out the window to take in the view, and out of the corner of my eye I spotted a black bear and her cub, deftly scooping salmon from the water. What a sight! And from the lovely protection of a vehicle. We had been in Juneau barely an hour at this stage.
We stayed with Stephanie and John, our Warmshowers hosts, in their lovely house looking across the water to Juneau town. They had kindly accepted our last-minute request to stay and treated us like kings and queens, plying us with food, showers, warm towels and a delightfully soft bed. This was in the midst of their own chaos, having just returned from a road trip, and being in the final stages of preparation for their own cycle tour around Norway. We had a lovely few days in Juneau, taking in the sights, stocking up for the next section, and visiting the Mendenhall Glacier. The landscape here, carved from glaciers and riddled with fjords is very reminiscent of Norway (minus the bears).
All too soon we were again on our way, having said our goodbyes. We stopped in at the local bike shop because I had had some issues with my gear shifting. The mechanic had a look at my chain, and checked it for stretch. “Oh man, that thing is smoked!” was his verdict. Sadly my negligence and the muddy, wet conditions I had ridden my bike through over the course of its life had taken its toll, and not only destroyed my chain, but chewed through my cassette as well. I figured I may as well just ride the chain and cassette in to the ground, and replace both down the track.
We took the fast ferry to Skagway, where we would embark on the next section of our journey - the famous “Golden Circle” ride, from Skagway looping around to Haines via Whitehorse and Haines Junction. The ferry journey was a real treat - we sat back and took in the amazing coastal scenery, towering mountains and hanging glaciers. The wildlife again put on a show for us - we saw no fewer than 7 humpback whales, a huge pod of male sea lions, a few seals, and a smattering of porpoises for good measure. It was only the orcas that failed to make an appearance.
Arriving late in Skagway, we pitched our tent in some quite strong winds, and hunkered down for the night. The next morning, after a hearty meal of cream of wheat, we set off. Climbing from sea level to 1000 metres at the White Pass, this was a good test of our fitness. Luckily we had a strong tailwind which pushed us all the way to the top, where the pass lived up to its name, being shrouded in fog and clouds. After cresting the top, we were relieved to encounter more gentle rolling terrain, and delighted in the tailwind which had only intensified. We met a Canadian cyclist coming the other way - the poor man said it had been the toughest day of his tour so far, battling against the headwind. Little did we know at this point that we would experience our own fair share of headwinds in just a few days.
Crossing the Canadian border couldn’t have been easier - in stark contrast to the brusk, downright rude experience we had with US immigration officials. The lovely Canadian officer offered us shelter out of the wind and rain while flicking quickly through our passports. He even filled our water bottles, and sent us on our way with words of encouragement.
We pitched our tent on the shores of a lake, on the advice of Erin from the Skagway Sockeye bicycle store. Having seen quite a lot of bear poo on the road, we opted for a more exposed tent site instead of the protection of the wooded, but beary forrest. The winds had picked up even more, and really put our Big Agnes Copper Spur tent to the test. Before we had managed to guy it out the wind was bending the poles all the way to the ground - quite literally flattening the tent - not particularly reassuring! However after guying it out well, the tent certainly lived up to its reputation and was a sturdy, safe, if slightly noisy shelter for the night.
The glimpses we got of the surrounding scenery through the low cloud were magnificent. Exposed, rocky mountain lakes and tundra. We could only imagine how incredible it would be on a clear day. The strong winds had been fanning a wildfire on the far banks of a lake. We stopped for lunch at a campsite and watched the billowing smoke. Apparently they had dumped fire retardant on the blaze a few days previously, but it didn’t seem to be quite under control yet. British Columbia certainly seems to be having an intense wildfire season this year. Yet another sad reminder of climate change.
Coming in to Whitehorse, the weather took a turn for the worse, and the rains came lashing down. “Tropical,” a local described it. I would have said “biblical” myself. We just couldn’t face setting up our tent in the mire, so scrambled for last minute accomodation. Being a major stop on the Alaska Highway, Whitehorse almost books out completely most days during high season. We were left with a slightly pricey AirBnb in the suburbs. It was a rather strange place, smelling vaguely of pot and feeling more like a student share house, but it was wonderful to have a roof over our heads. We ducked back in to town between downpours to Big Bear Donair, the local fast-food restaurant for Gabi’s introduction to the delights of poutine. Nothing warms a heart and stomach more after a long ride through the freezing rain, than a steaming pile of hot chips, gravy and cheese curds. All washed down with a bottle of wine and a schooner of local beer. It turns out that a Canadian schooner is not the same as an Australian schooner. Expecting something smaller than a pint, I was astounded when this huge stein containing 750mL of the amber liquid came down in front of me. I wasn’t upset at all!
The following day the rains continued, so we decided to shelter in the cinema, and took in the latest Mission Impossible film, Fallout. We quite enjoyed it. Particularly the scene filmed at Preikestolen, the incredible chunk of rock and sheer cliff which happens to be just 10 minutes down the road from my sister’s house in Norway. We also did some long-overdue laundry, and while waiting sampled yet another Canadian delight - coffee and donuts at Tim Hortons. Having spent more than we planned to at the AirBnb, we decided we ought to camp that night, so we made our soggy way to the Robert Service campground and pitched our tent in the mud and lashing rain. Despite the less than ideal weather, we had a cosy evening, cooked some food and met a lovely Dutch couple, Tim and Annalieka, who were travelling the world. We woke the next morning warm and dry (thank you Agnes, our tent). Gabi’s bike saddle hadn’t fared quite as well unfortunately, and had been chewed by one of the cheeky foxes known to frequent the campsite. Luckily it was only cosmetic damage and the saddle is still useable.
The weather improved the following day, so we snuck out of town, heading for the local hot springs, a mere 30 kilometres away. Not far out of town, we ran into the Dutch couple we had met the night before, trudging along the verge of the highway, hoping to hitchhike from the next intersection. We shared an impromptu lunch with them, and planned to meet up somewhere near Jasper or Banff, if the planets align. The following two days were tough - we had our own taste of how energy sapping a strong headwind can be. For me this was compounded by further mechanical problems - my dynamo hub was on its last legs, causing a lot more resistance for each revolution of the front wheel. Having seen many deep river crossings, I surmised that water had snuck in and rusted up the bearings. Luckily this stretch was broken by a picturesque campsite on the edge of the Takhini River, and an icecream at a roadhouse with very confusing door signs.
Coming in to Haines Junction we were exhausted. We had ridden 90km with my squealing hub, and the horrendous headwind, and we were hungry and tired. Chicken wings, poutine and beer were guzzled, and we started the hunt for a campsite. Gabi spotted a small hand painted sign on a wooden stake which read “Hostel”, with an arrowing pointing off to the left. We investigated, and found it led to The Wanderer’s Inn, a gloriously warm, new, well-equipped hostel, owned and run by Martin, an avid local mountaineer and adventurer. We splashed out for a private cabin, demolished a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and slobbed out in front of a movie. We were so taken by the cosiness and homeliness of the hostel that we stayed a second night.
The next section, along the Haines Road, quickly became our favourite riding so far. Beautiful alpine tundra was the foreground, with towering mountains and scattered glaciers forming the background. What’s more, we were finally graced with beautiful weather and a reprieve from the wind. We camped at Kathleen Lake for two nights and hiked up The King’s Throne. This great walk clambers up 600 metres of surprisingly hike-able scree-slopes to a grand cirque in the mountains. We stopped at the top, where the temperature had dropped considerably, and the wind was whistling down from the mountain peaks above us. Gabi spotted a black shape on the far side of the bowl and thought it was someone hiking off-track. I looked through the telephoto lens on my camera and realised that it was in fact a rather large grizzly bear. We watched in awe as it moved nimbly across the steep, crumbly scree, hunting for berries in the scattered bushes. There were a number of other hikers around us and the bear was a fair distance away, so although we were on edge, we felt relatively safe. The bear stood up on its hind legs to have a better look at us, a behaviour that is apparently more curious than aggressive. He didn’t seem to be particularly bothered that we were there and continued his hunt for berries. Later on, while I was exploring a bit further on, the bear, possibly becoming a bit put-out that we were all still hanging around, made a couple of fast dashes down the slope in our direction. He was still a good 300 metres away, but we were feeling a little less comfortable now, so made a hasty retreat down the slope. Poor Gabi had quite a fright! All this was forgotten the next day, however, when a lovely couple from Whitehorse thrust apple strudel out their car window at us!
We continued on down Haines road, camping at Million Dollar Falls and then at the Green Shack - a ramshackle hut built by a bird watcher some decades ago. The Canadian national park service, in a moment of foresight and goodwill, did not tear it down, but instead built a drop toilet outside and let passing travellers shelter there for a night or two for free. It has become somewhat of an institution for passing cycle tourists and in the winter serves as a warm haven for backcountry skiers and snowboarders.
The following day we left our gear by the side of the road and rode our much lighter bikes along an old mining road toward the Samuel glacier. We managed about 5 kilometres before the trail became too overgrown with willows to ride through comfortably. Continuing on foot, we crossed a mountain creek and were met with more breathtaking views of the mountains, glaciers and tundra. If we had had more time, it would have been a lovely spot to camp for the night.
The final day saw us free-wheel back to sea level from the Chilkat pass. Having spent almost two weeks in Canada, we crossed back over the border into Alaska and had yet another burger and fries at the first place we passed - the 33 Mile Roadhouse. One thing is for certain about America - they make a good burger and fries! Sadly we didn’t get to meet Domino, the young goat who lives behind the roadhouse who apparently thinks he is a dog, loves a good pat, enjoys posing for photos and will happily munch on cookies offered to him.
Five kilometres out of Haines we were already thinking about where we would camp that night and what delicious food we would eat. Distracted and tired, it was quite a surprise to poor Gabi when she glanced to her left and saw a black bear, not more than five metres away, sitting down in a berry patch happily stuffing berries into his mouth. He certainly knew we were there, but didn’t seem worried at all. Although all the advice instructs you not to run from bears, but to instead stand your ground, it feels remarkably counterintuitive to put your brakes on and stop your bike right beside a bear. So we didn’t, but instead cycled on, slightly hyperventilating and glancing constantly over our shoulders. No sooner had Gabi recovered from her mild panic attack than we startled yet another bear with our bear bells, who scampered away into the bushes.
Haines is a lovely little town positioned on the edge of the Chilkoot Inlet. It has spent much of its history quite isolated, with an intermittent ferry services and a temperamental mountain road as its only access. These days, with the improved road connecting it to inland Canada, the Alaska Marine Highway ferry service along the coastline, and an influx of cruise ships, it is becoming quite a buzzing town. A lot of young adults who grew up in Haines and then moved away for college or work, are moving back to raise their families in the vibrant community.
Cycling down the main street, we heard a bicycle bell jingle and saw two other bikepackers cranking up a side street toward us. Adam and Julie are a couple from Switzerland with British, Swiss and American backgrounds, who are on their own bikepacking adventure from Prudhoe Bay down to South America. We spent a lovely evening with them swapping tales of bikepacking bliss and misadventure over beers and overpriced fish and chips. At times it felt like talking to a mirror image of ourselves - Julie shares my own obsession with cutting weight and discarding unneeded items, while Adam shares Gabi’s aversion to bears.
Craving a shower and some wifi, Gabi had phoned the Haines Hitch-Up RV park in town, and asked if they had a tent site available for the evening. Knowing how much difficulty Americans seem to have with our accents, she spoke even more carefully than normal, with crisp and clear enunciation. She was assured that it would be no problem for us to camp, that there were plenty of sites available, and all we need do is cycle on up. We invited Adam and Julie along, planning to share the site and split the fee. Arriving at the RV park, we saw a hand written sign stuck on the front door to the office, in capital letters, stating NO TENT CAMPING ALLOWED HERE. Surely not - the lady on the phone had said it would be no problem. But alas, when she came out to talk to us she said there was no way at all that they would let us camp there. Completely against their policy. Maybe it would upset the precise symmetry of the behemoth RVs lined up next to each other? Possibly a jelly-like RV tourist, slumped in from of their cable TV, well-insulated from the outside world, would look out the window of their mansion on wheels, see four dirty cyclists in a couple of flimsy tents, choke on their pop-tarts and expire in a wheeze of disbelief and terror. Whatever the case, we were not welcome there. Cycling off in search of another place to pitch our flimsy tents, I took great zest in skidding over their carefully manicured lawn.
In the end, we camped at the Portage Cover Recreation site, which turned out to be a stunning campsite, perched on the edge of the water, with luxuriously soft grass. In the early morning we heard some dogs barking, followed by a fellow camper saying calmly - “Oh a black bear just walked through the campsite”. Such is the reality in Alaska! We said goodbye to Adam and Julie and made plans to meet them again on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. We spent the next couple of days contentedly lodged in a cabin, eating food cooked by ourselves in a real kitchen - what luxury! Preparing for our ferry journey to Prince Rupert, we couldn’t shake our fear of running out of food and going hungry, and managed to bake two loaves of bread, 30 chewy chocolate chip cookies, and 12 zucchini, bacon and cheese muffins for the trip. Not to mention the 3 litres of red wine, family size pack of tortilla chips and salsa, coffee, cereal, milk and other assorted snacks. All this for just two nights on the water.
Which brings us to the present. We’re waiting for our ferry, hanging out in the Haines Public Library - a beautiful modern wooden building with high ceilings. We have quite a few hours to pass and could cycle out 15 kilometres to see some bears fishing in the river. But to be quite honest, we’ve had our fill of bears for the moment, and are quite content whiling away the hours inside.