"That highway is thick with grizzlies!" our daughter warned us before we departed on our bicycle trip. I had filed that tidbit of terrifying information in the back of my mind until now, as I dodge enormous mounds of bear poop on the smooth traffic free pavement between Haines Junction, Yukon and Haines, Alaska. I catch up to my husband (eventually) and we look at a steaming pile together. I can tell by the look on his face that he's thinking the same thing as me. Enormous poop, enormous butts, enormous bears. We laugh nervously and get the bear spray out of our bags. I've been worried about this portion of the trip since we left home. Everything about this trip has been enormous - the distances between towns, the steep hills, and the vast and endless scenery. It's also enormously beautiful.
This is our very first bike trip. That's the way we are - buy bikes, plan a few weeks in advance and go. Unfortunately, I am incapable of paying attention to details. I'm a big picture kind of person and when my 'adventurer' husband showed me the map it only looked like a couple of inches of pedaling per day. How hard could that be?
Our plan is to start at the Port of Prince Rupert, on BC's North Coast, a four-hour drive from our home in Smithers. From there we'll board an Alaskan Ferry and sail up the inside passage to Skagway, Alaska. This is a specatacular two day voyage along the edge of the world's largest temperate rainforest. With almost 18,000 km of shoreline, the panhandle of Alaska receives over 100 inches of rainfall a year, contains over 50 major glaciers, and grows cedar, hemlock and spruce up to 200 feet high. Even though 70,000 residents call this place home, what was wild 10,000 years ago is still wild today.
We'll stop in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau and Haines before disembarking at the final terminus of Skagway. From there we'll ride over the White Pass to Whitehorse, on to Haines Junction and over the Chilkat Pass to Haines, Alaska. Basically a 600 km loop from one port to another. The entire trip will take 11 days, 7 riding and 4 nap-filled, whale watching days on the boat.
We arrive in Skagway on the 4th of July and with a bit of luck get the last campsite in town. Skagway owes its birth to the Klondike Gold Rush. In July of 1897, shiploads of glittering gold arrived on the West coast of the United States. That's all it took for 100,000 fortune seekers to head to Skagway, gateway to the Yukon goldfields. After hauling their required 2000 pounds of supplies over the treacherous mountain passes, only 30,000 actually reached Dawson City, Yukon. Few struck gold, but all of them came away with something. In their search for the elusive yellow rock they discovered an escape from the ordinary life. Today, Skagway still attracts adventure seekers and is home to Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. We also hope to escape our ordinary lives and at this point my anxiety level is extraordinarily high.
Journal Entry - July 5 (Kym)
What on earth was I thinking? Of course I knew the White Pass was high but we are starting at sea level! And short means steep. 3292 feet straight up with a fully loaded bike. I start to whine first thing in the morning. After stopping at the local bike shop and enquiring about the ride up the pass- the young iron man there said it was a pretty tough climb even for him. I really start to whimper then and have grave doubts about making it. I'm only scowling and hyperventilating a little bit when we ride out of town. Brian is not being the slightest bit sympathetic to my anxiety. At my snail's pace I realize there's no turning back and get into a rhythm - if you can call barely moving a rhythm. I actually end up walking my bike most of the way up the pass. I'm faster that way. It's only 19 km to the summit but it takes 4 hours.
Journal Entry - July 5 (Brian)
Broke camp and cruised around Skagway. Breakfast at "Sweet Things", grabbed a spare tire from the Sockeye Cyle Shop, picked up groceries and hit the road. 5 minutes out of town and I'm in my lowest gear. Four hours of grinding up the pass in low gear. Once over the pass it's rolling terrain. By 6:50 we are camped at km 65 of Tutshi Lake. Fabulous scenery. Tomorrow I'll wear 6 pair of underwear - OUCH my butt is sore.
After that first day everything else seems easy. The next day we ride 120 km at a leisurely pace into Whitehorse. The day is brilliant, the smells berry delicious and the lakes, deserts, and mountains seem to roll past effortlessly. It is a day to savour - except for that last 23 km when I start to whimper in the heat and beg for a taxi. Fortunately we can't find a phone to call one. I surprise myself and easily ride into Whitehorse.
Journal Entry - July 6 (Kym)
This is so cool. I get out of the tent to pee at midnight and it's still daylight. I've told Brian I'm not riding tomorrow. He wants to do a major 160 km day from Whitehorse to Haines Junction - as if I haven't done enough. I'm take Bernie's delivery truck ( $55 per person) to Haines Junction tomorrow. I don't care what he does. I tell him I think he's nuts and ask him why he wants to kill himself.
Journal Entry - July 7 (Brian)
I had planned to ride Whitehorse to Haines Junction today, meeting Kym there tonight. Opted out and spent the day with Kym.
Journal Entry - July 7 (Kym)
I am so glad we didn't ride from Whitehorse to Haines. Just one long undulating boring highway, head wind, thunderstorm, no rest areas, water or food. We treated ourselves to a night at the Raven Motel in Haines Junction accompanied by a gourmet dinner in same establishment. The dinner cost as much as the room but well worth it. Anyway, tomorrow we might be dead since we are entering the 'thick with grizzlies' portion of the trip. Might as well spend all our money.
Only 230 km to go. I know this is the most beautiful part of the trip but also the one I'm a bit worried about. This section is full of glaciated peaks, alpine tundra, and those grizzlies. We'll ride past Kluane and Teatshenshini-Alsek Parks, over the Chilkat Pass and down, down, down to the sea.
The bear droppings, our first warning, remind us to get the bear spray out. We ride along and Brian just can't go slow enough to stay with me, no matter how hard he tries. I keep my eyes peeled left and right along the side of the road. Brian is ahead by a quarter km and I won't be catching up to him until he stops. The big grizzly casually steps onto the road between us. My first reaction is one of awe and excitement. It is bigger and more beautiful than I excpected. My senses are tuned right up by now and I start to yell - Hey Bear! Hey Bear! Unbelievably I keep riding towards her - I've just spotted her cub too. I keep yelling and she meanders down into the ditch beside the road as I pass. Brian can't hear me but looks back and sees me wildly gesturing and pointing at the long grass beside me. He stops, I catch up, and we both look back. The beautiful beast steps back onto the road with her young one trailing behind her.
We stick closer together for the rest of the day and encounter 3 more bears. One pair near a pack of howling wolves. How "Yukon" can you get we remark. The last one is a big male who found us more interesting than the cars stopped along the side of the road. But like a good bear he keeps his distance. It is a most memorable day and we finally end up camping in a gravel pit for the night. Every other desirable camping spot seemed to have big bear beds tamped down in the grass.
The remainder of the ride is bear free and full of sunshine, fabulous mountains, glaciers, lakes and one enormous downhill to our destination, Haines, Alaska. We board the ferry that evening and nap our way home.
And what do we say about this trip to friends who ask? It was wonderful, we saw FIVE GRIZZLIES! It's true that our biggest fears can be our most thrilling memories and we are able to break away from the bonds of ordinary life.