Although it clearly wasn’t going to happen the Fairbanks doctor tentatively suggested a month off the bike, before she sent me on my way with a prescription for 4 months worth of anti-inflammatories (the ‘go large’ approach really does seem to apply to all aspects of US life!). In the end I gave myself five days rest, after which time I felt sufficiently recovered from the Dalton saga to load up ‘the beast’ once more and hit the road.
In a bid to make some good southerly progress, and outrun the encroaching Alaskan winter, I put in some fairly long days on the bike, with nine consecutive days each over 70 miles. This took me temporarily out of Alaska for a brief foray into Canada’s Yukon Territory, before returning to Alaska’s Southeast region and the sleepy port town of Haines. The route largely followed the ‘Alaska Highway’, famed for being knocked up in a couple of months during World War II in order to connect Alaska with the Lower 48 and help the military fend off a feared Japanese invasion. However, despite it being a bit of a rush job I was pretty impressed; it’s not too hilly and offers some absolutely mind-blowing views (always a welcome distraction from watching the miles slowly tick by on the odometer).
The road was relatively easy going compared to the trials of the Dalton, with pockets of civilisation at least every couple of days or so to re-stock supplies. As before, the locals and other travellers alike we’re ‘super’ helpful – special thanks to the guys at the Seattle Coffee House at Delta Junction who loaded me up with free coffee and a ridiculous number of donuts! Probably the biggest combined sugar/caffeine rush of my life, although it was inevitably followed by an equally big sugar crash a few miles down the road. The friendliness of Alaskans has been unparalleled and my brief encounters never fail to entertain. Rather surprisingly a common question has been whether I’m packing heat; “Son, tell me you’re armed…??”. This is generally followed by a lot of head shaking when I explain that a shotgun didn’t make it onto my kit list!
My first bear sightings of the trip have been in the Yukon, where there’s apparently one bear for every two residents (so they could probably take control if they got themselves organized!). My closest encounter so far has been a black bear running across the road 20 metres or so in front of me. Apparently they’re just as scared of you as you are of them, so in this case he must have been bloody terrified! ‘Bear fear’ has also resulted in some fairly restless nights when wild camping; I find it hard not to automatically jump to the conclusion that every crack of a twig etc outside the tent is definitely a bear and quickly reach for my trusty ‘bear spray’ in readiness. Needless to say none of these occurrences have actually resulted in a bear fight (or hug for that matter!).
Compared to the Dalton the riding itself was a piece of cake for the first seven days and there was lots of ‘self-back patting’ on how well I was doing. The last two days to Haines were a different story though. I had to battle against a nightmare head wind, which dramatically slowed my progress and resulted in some seriously long days in the saddle. When you can’t freewheel down a hill you know you’re in for a slow day! To make matters worse those pesky Achilles also started flaring up again. Rather foolishly I’d only packed enough food to cover the 150miles or so in two days and with no opportunity to re-stock en-route I was forced to grind out the mileage. This meant not pitching camp until 10pm on the penultimate day.
Out of Mother Nature’s hand a strong wind is her trump card (or 4+ for the UNO playing contingent) against the unsuspecting touring cyclist. A fully loaded expedition bike is about as aerodynamic as a truck and whilst rain certainly puts a ‘dampener’ on things, it’s wind that can really make or break your day. I’ve recently read a book by solo ocean rower Sarah Outen, in which she describes the huge effect wind had on her voyage; the concept of ‘free miles’ and distance lost despite best efforts to move forward. Whilst this is of a completely different scale I can relate to the frustration felt. Like so many endurance sports, it’s often a case of mental rather than physical strength. I’ve certainly developed a new found respect for the likes of Mark Beaumont and other endurance cyclists who blast round the world chasing records scarcely taking a day off.
As a prolific daydreamer I haven’t found the long days in the saddle too boring, with my mind generally wandering in all sorts of directions before ultimately returning to the subject of food. For the long distance cyclist food becomes an obsession and most things revolve around it. Mars bars and cookies replace the proverbial carrot when it comes to covering ground and I generally reward myself every 10 to 15 miles with a little treat! In the Yukon I was disturbed to discover that Mars bars retail for the princely sum of £1.50; quite a financial blow when your daily consumption is as high as mine. However, despite this set back I’ve been eating pretty well and seem to have curbed the initial weight loss (basically by eating a ridiculous amount). As far as weight loss programs go I’d certainly recommend riding an overladen bicycle as an alternative to nibbling on celery.
So having spent a couple of days resting in the quiet fishing town of Haines I’m now making my way down Alaska’s Inside Passage (network of coastal fjords) by ferry. Whilst this news will no doubt have cycle touring purists choking on their protein shakes, it’s always been part of the plan. Not only does it allow me to see this amazing bit of Alaska but it also buys me time to make a fairly significant detour to the Canadian Rockies. I’m currently in Juneau, where fellow cyclists Jim and Janice are kindly putting me up in their home for a couple of days (big thank you!). The plan is to do some glacier and mountain hiking here before jumping back on the ferry to Prince Rupert where the riding re-commences!
P.S The tan lines are coming along nicely: