Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

Bears and how to beat them

1-4
 
Thank you everyone for your online votes. This piece was shortlisted for the Pure Travel Writing Contest 2014 and was then judged the winner by a professional travel writer. I won 1000 pounds – which will buy me a lot of noodles! Here it is…
 

Bears and how to beat them

 
‘Stephen it’s inside! My God, it’s inside! INSIDE!’

Demise of the Shadow Cyclist


There are times when it strikes me that I’ve been cycling for a very long time. In Dawson City the revelation came just after I tried, unsuccessfully, to change gear with the grip-shift. I came to an abrupt halt in the baked goods aisle, looked down at my closed hand, which had subconsciously tensed around the handle of the supermarket trolley, and thought – maybe I should have some time off. Thankfully though I did not extend my arm to indicate whilst rounding the corner into the adjacent aisle, nor did I not lock the trolley to a lamppost in the parking lot.

Dawson City has a sinister seasonal split personality, like every other town at these latitudes. In the winter hardy locals and animals hibernate as the temperature drops to minus forty. In the summer it effervesces and teems with life and shudders under the shuffling feet of tourists, who arrive into town like a migration of wildebeest on the prairie. They get shuttled over the Canadian border from docked cruise ships or else have made their own meandering way here on motorbikes or in RVs. They come to catch a glimpse of this infamous wild-west town, clinging to it’s heritage, where houses are made of wood, the sidewalk is a boardwalk and there’s a nightly can-can show. Since the Klondike Goldrush more than a century ago a tide of misfits are drawn here too, girls with shaved heads and nose rings, burly, hard drinking men. There’s even a pub where there continues an old tradition of serving drinks which contain real pickled human toes donated in people’s wills. As you chug the crowd chants ‘You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.’ And I think that says everything you need to know about Dawson.

It was here I met a Swizz couple on bicycles, Aurelie and Layko, who had been riding north from Colombia. They had spent the past few weeks picking morel mushrooms in the forest and had earned 6000 dollars in three weeks, so they bought the beers at the local can-can show where it was agreed – we would all ride together over the Top of The World Highway into Alaska. A boat ferried me across the Yukon river where they were waiting for me on the other side, and we set off on a nineteen kilometre climb up into the tundra. On the way up we passed a couple of Canadians dozing under a tree with so much gear they could have been refugees evicted from their homeland. On closer scrutiny the contents of their tumid panniers and laden trailer became clear – they were carrying enough tools to repair an aircraft carrier, a tent that could have comfortably housed a mormon family, a sitar, a mandolin and a didgeridoo.
‘I don’t get it!’ bemoaned the guy ‘it’s taking us ages!’.
I almost pointed out his problem. ‘Well maybe if you’d left the orchestra behind…’

Eventually the road crept up over the ridges and snaked across the tundra, a rash of spruce filled valleys, concealing remote streams. In the distance the mountains were blue-tinged and bleary, somewhere a wild fire had taken hold in the boreal forest, the smoke mushroomed skyward and looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Grazing caribou, a reminder of how far north we had come, scarpered as we cycled close by, their white tails bobbing up and down. Grizzly bears hunt the Caribou, so each evening we scanned the tundra and hauled food away from our tents.



Caribou
The Top of the World Highway


I clicked with the Swizz straight away and the days towards Alaska overflowed with jokes and banter. We cycled at the same pace, although they both lived on a bean-heavy diet and were the most flatulent people I have ever met, so riding behind either of them was to invite a face-full of gas whilst evenings were supplemented by the heavy fug and music of their farts.

We approached the Alaskan border post with trepidation – none of us had a US VISA, I was banking on the guard giving me another 90 day VISA waver, even though I knew this was technically against the rules. The Swizz tactic involved responding to every question the border guard asked with a broad, inane smile and the same bright announcement.

You realise you need a VISA?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
Yes I know, but you’ve stayed in the lower 48 for almost three months, is that right?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
OK, fine, I got that. Tell me where you’re heading?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’

It worked a treat. Eventually the jaded guard stamped their passport, and mine to boot.

Chicken, a small town just across the border, allegedly got it’s name because some official couldn’t spell it’s actual name – ptarmigan, which is a variety of local bird, and so he just wrote Chicken. I’m not so sure. I think some crafty, longsighted entrepreneur saw the potential of the name change and now Chicken, which really has no right to anyone’s attention, has a steady stream of tourists who pose by the town’s signpost and buy bumper stickers and rubber chickens from the town’s souvenir shop. Every year the bustling metropolis of chicken, population 30, holds a music festival: Chickenstock.

Outside the pub in Chicken were dawdling men whose faces seemed to be hanging from their prodigious moustaches rather than being supported by their necks. They pierced cans of beer with knives and downed the contents in seconds. The road signs around here were peppered with bullet marks. There is an adjective to describe all this, and it’s ‘Alaskan’.

The road to Tok cut through a crepuscular light as smoke encroached from the nearby Moon Lake wild fire which had been sparked into action back in June after a lightning strike. There was an orange lip in the otherwise leaden sky and the air reeked – not of burnt wood, but of burning tundra. We got through just in time, two days later they closed the road. Wild fires are of course part of the natural cycle here and the fire fighting heroes of Alaska, the pilots who drop water and fire retardant and the hardcore Smoke Jumpers who parachute in front of fires with chainsaws to cut away the bush, only get called into action when the fire threatens people’s homes or areas of conservation. Otherwise Alaska is left to burn, and it burns a lot. 3000 square miles go up in flames every year, it often burns in a mosaic because of the underlying permafrost so great fingers of boreal forest are left unscorched, unless the wind changes and the fire can burn backwards, firing burning debris into the air which lands in some remote part of the forest and another fire takes hold.





The sun was blazing for my first few days in Alaska and I had to remind myself that winter here is a very different beast, the notion haunted me. I thought about the minus forty of a normal winter day, that the sun rises for only a couple of hours, that snow stays on the ground here for eight months of the year, and that below my wheels dig just a foot or so and the ground is frozen and will not defrost any time soon.

‘There is a kind of biotic riot in the summer outburst of colour, scent and sound… but always the season’s opposite haunts you: What about the winter? What must that be like?’ (David Roberts, Earth and the Great Weather, pub 1971).

Alaska was famously bought from Russia in 1869 at less than two cents an acre. A bargain if you like bog. Permafrost isn’t all that permeable so there are countless mosi-ridden pools brimming with decomposing vegetation, terrain known in these parts as the Muskeg. We cycled too across the flood plains of once epic rivers and I could only imagine the torrent flowing through them come spring. Now, in late summer, there was just a network of cement coloured streams trickling through. The Alaska range poked into view just briefly, ground squirrels scampered across the road and occasionally a moose loped onto the tarmac too forcing some emergency braking from our trio. We made it to Fairbanks where we spent the night in a campsite which was the type that featured, for free, a parade of wacked-out, bedraggled meth heads stumbling past our tents and making slurred, vague and mournful demands for alcohol and tobacco. Ahh, it was good to back in the good old US of A. Canada just doesn’t cut it in terms of desperate drug addicts.

In Fairbanks Ben, a great geezer, took me out for a film and food and then Duncan and his family put me up. Duncan had hosted several cyclists this year and had stories galore about my final stretch, the 750 km of road between Fairbanks and the Arctic Ocean, known as the Dalton highway, or more colloquially as The Haul Road. The Dalton is a supply route for the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline and oil fields of the north slope. The 800 mile pipeline runs adjacent to the road, almost always in view, and was constructed in the 70s, at the time it was the largest privately funded construction project in the world. This road north was only open to the public in 1994. The au caurant and urbane of my readership might know it from series 3 and 4 of the reality TV show ‘Ice Road Truckers’ where the tagline for the season is “In the Dark Heart of Alaska, there’s a road where hell has frozen over”.

If readiness can be measured by the quantity of peanut M&Ms in a pannier, my God I was ready. I was 2.2 kg ready. There were no grocery stores until my last stop, Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay, so the Haul Road was an apt monikor as I would be lugging eight days of food and my bike was as heavy as it’s ever been. On my second night out of Fairbanks I set up camp by the road only to discover I had lost my spoon, my only bit of cutlery. I’m experienced though, I thought. I’m adaptable. I’ve cycled from Argentina, I’ll improvise. After a spanner, a piece of wood and the lid of a water bottle I was left thinking two things – spoons are amazingly underrated contraptions, and sweet Jesus, I’m hungry.

Now I’m not entirely sure ‘trough’ is actually a verb but when I say I ‘troughed’ my plate of steaming pasta and tomato sauce, I’m sure you get my drift. And as my jaw grinded away, lips sucking up tentacles of spaghetti, sauce oozing down my hairy chin whilst I emitted a sound analogous to a walrus having an orgasm, memories danced through my mind of the journey north from Argentina, the literal one and the personal one too. And with my beard steeped in tomato juice and an indiscernible chunk of vegetable lodged in my right nostril, I thought ‘Wow. Look at how far I’ve come’.

Day three on the Haul Road began with the sound of rain drilling onto my tent and the words of Paul and Duncan echoing through my mind. ‘It’s not so bad‘ they told me ‘unless it rains‘. The unpaved parts of the road are coated with calcium carbonate for the benefit of the truckers but the bane of cyclists. When it rains the surface transforms into a brown goo, the consistency of toothpaste, which sticks to everything. That day was a mud bath as the road continued to get churned up by the downpour. I camped by a river and lugged my bike down to the bank, submerged it and scrubbed her clean, the next day was dry and I grew optimistic that the worst was over, the worst of course, was still to come.

Some drivers think they can scold cyclists as an adult scolds a child. In Fairbanks someone yelled ‘Hey buddy, get off the road, thems for cars’. It was kind of the occupant to share their opinion, and to take time out of their busy schedule of shooting road signs, scratching their balls and incest. Mostly though I get waves and a thumbs up but occasionally when a motorist has to slow down because there’s not enough room to pass and a car is coming the other direction, they get touchy. I won’t ride in the gutter and it’s better that I test their patience than they test my mortality.

‘Hey!‘ yelled the RV driver who had to slow down on the Dalton ‘You should wear something luminous, I could hardly see ya!’ What he meant of course was ‘goddam you for making me slow down!‘. I’m not sure though what was more stupefying about his complaint – the fact that I have a luminous yellow dry bag on the back of my bike, the fact that there were three more hours until sunset or the fact that he was wearing the most enormous eighties-style jet black sunglasses I have ever seen. So I gently reminded him that if he took them off, maybe he wouldn’t get locked up for manslaughter.

I arrived finally to the Arctic Circle to get my obligatory shot by the signpost. The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours. A tribe of tourists shambled past me with a tour guide who was pointing out notable arctic vegetation whilst giving a nature documentary-like narration, but the camera lenses of the crowd became focused on me instead of the flora. I half expected the tour guide to continue…

‘And here we have a cycle tourist. It’s a solitary male, you can tell from the brown crust of peanut butter in the facial hair. They migrate to Alaska in the summer and are scavengers by nature and will eat vast quantities of anything available, often picking up morcels from the ground, sniffing them, shrugging and devouring the find. This one’s been on the road a while, notice the veneer of filth, the wild stare and the pungent odor. We like to keep the cycle tourers wild, so try not to feed them. Look, there, he’s scratching his arse, we believe that’s a courtship ritual.’






A Shamrock Orb Weever
Parts of the highway have amusing names conceived of by the truckers that ply the road all year – Oil Spill Hill, The Beaver Slide, The Rollercoaster and my favourite – Oh Shit Corner, a place where every trucker has had an Oh Shit moment, one told me. ‘Your brakes go out here in the winter and you’re at the helm of an 18 wheel toboggan’. I rode next through the truck stop of Coldfoot (singular, the other presumably amputated) where I found myself surrounded by burly, bearded men crowding their plates with fried food. I have never been in the presence of so much denim and heart disease in my life.

I rode past Prospect Creek, site of the lowest ever recorded temperature in the US – minus 80°F. Then through forests of spindly black spruce which can grow over the permafrost until I arrived at the Farthest North Spruce Tree (advertised by way of a signpost and which some joker had once tried to cut down), after which there is only bare tundra, a place too cold for trees to survive in the winter. Until the last tree the road had been bounding through the hills but now came the major climb over the Atigun Pass, crossing the Brooks Range and The Continental Divide.

The Atigun was shrouded in cloud and visibility fell to thirty metres. The headwind was fierce and slowed me to a crawl. By the evening I topped the pass, which had just a light dusting of snow, whilst the slopes of the mountains were yellowing with the coming of autumn. I dropped then, only a little, to a river where I spotted a bicycle and a tent. Leonard was a Canadian biker heading south, I camped next to him. The following day he called over to me as I shivered in my four season sleeping bag – ‘Hey Steve, there’s three inches of snow, and it’s still coming down!’. I unzipped the tent expecting a wind up, ready to scoff, only to find we had been engulfed – it was a white-out.

Climbing the Atigun Pass





I admit it – I had wanted some snow, because I wanted an archetypal Alaskan ending and a suitable crescendo to my journey through the Americas. Be careful what you wish for. I dropped roughly the annual produce of a large Colombian coffee plantation into my mug in an effort to warm me up and motivate me to ride in the snow. Leonard more sensibly decided to hitch hike because he still had to clear the pass.

I set out into the bleak white murk. Snow fell all day and the white mountains, peppered with snow yesterday became completely coated and soon blended perfectly into the cloud. My gloves were hole-ridden and wet, my hands took the brunt of the chill. I stopped for food for just 15 minutes – it was a big mistake. For the next hour my blue hands ached with the cold. I put a jar of peanuts on my handlebars so I didn’t have to stop to eat. Soon the mud that had collected on my bike froze solid and my brake levers, gripshift and brake pads were immovable. It didn’t matter much anyway – my hands were too cold to operate the brakes or gears even if they did function.

I camped early to get out of the blizzard by a road workers camp. The next day the sun was blazing and the snow had begun to melt, my bike though was in bad shape. The mud had frozen to completely lock the chain, the brakes and even the wheels. I carried it over to the road workers who had a water jet to get the mud off.

The next night I camped with a cheery bunch of bow hunters who fed me the caribou they’d killed on the north slope. They told me of six grizzly bears just two miles from here, munching on blueberries down by the river. When I left the next day in the fog I scanned the gloom for bear-shaped shadows but saw none. Then I remembered there were ten bow hunters out here scouring the tundra for caribou, with my bike I was about the right size and I hoped they didn’t mistake me for one of the herd. I wondered if I would end up on the ground, impaled, looking up at a circle of gruff, appraising faces whilst someone muttered ‘well, bit of gristle, but he’ll have to do’. Perhaps my head would end up above someone’s fireplace.

As I cycled over the north slope which was a vast, even expanse of tussocks and pools, up sprang my old compadre – the Shadow Cyclist. 21 months ago in the southern Argentinean city of Ushuaia I watched the same shadow cyclist, sinewy and sinister, stretched out to my right into the wind-blasted Patagonian scrub. As I rode north through the Americas the setting sun to my left would bring to life the Shadow Cyclist and he traveled with me. As my shadow glided over the tundra my mind was a whirlpool of memories, full of the weird places I’d been and the people that coloured them. In the distance the dark blots of roaming muskox could be seen on the plains, and up above snow geese honked as they flew in their malformed Vs and Ws, heading to warmer climes, as I continued to the top of the continent.


The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline
Bow Hunters
A Muskox making sure I didn’t come too close
Finally there it was – the town of Deadhorse – my last stop. I arrived with my eyes and face red from the wind, my hair knotted, bike mud-encrusted with a rattling chain and tinkling broken spoke and bare front tyre. I have never been as hairy or as dirty in my adult life. The oil companies, principally BP, don’t let anyone ride the three miles to the Arctic Ocean, which seemed a little unfair considering I’d cycled 22,000 miles from the Southern Ocean, but I guess they are too busy taking baths of money and dowsing sea birds in crude oil than caring about meager cyclists. Still though I admit feeling a tingle of pride that comes at each pivotal moment and each major milestone I get to. But temper that ego, I told myself, because two weeks before I cycled the Haul Road a couple of bikers were here too. They are both almost completely blind and had ridden a tandem 20,000 miles from Argentina. Now that’s impressive. My favourite part of their story is that they they had to paint their bike white, because every so often they would lose it.

Deadhorse – it’s assumed the eponymous horse died of the cold, I wouldn’t rule out boredom. Maybe it was a suicide, the horse might have flung itself headfirst into the Arctic Ocean after a week or so here. Deadhorse is a modern day, real life Mordor, and it didn’t feel like a place to celebrate. It’s the kind of place that might hold the International Agarophobia Society’s annual conference. Or it’s a place to send recurrent sex offenders. Its full of oil workers, metal freight containers, cranes, warehouses and machinery and nothing else. If there was a cemetery or a penal colony here it would actually add character. Of course none of that stops one of the town’s two hotels selling ‘I’ve been to Deadhorse’ T-Shirts. The best thing you can say about Deadhorse is that it is what it is, and what it is is a place for industry, not for travelers. There was no bar, Deadhorse is dry, which is just as well because if there was the residents would no doubt drink themselves nightly into a state of prelapsarian bliss in an attempt to forget about where they were. It was, in short, a massive anti-climax. At the end of Africa was the hubbub of Capetown and the glorious towering symbol of Table Mountain, here there was gloom, mud, bogs and ambient despair. There were no dancing girls to welcome me in and put a wreath around my neck, instead an oil worker came over to me –
‘You cycled up from Argentina then?’
‘Yep’
‘Why you wanna do that?’

For two days I sat in the Aurora Hotel where everyone assumed I was a guest or an oil worker and plundered the buffet without ever opening my wallet. I stole so much food, presumably paid for in some round about way by the oil companies – so I felt no guilt, that I could hardly move. It was Grand Theft Edible. That night I sneaked inside a deserted warehouse that was sinking into the permafrost. In the back room was some floor space not covered by the glass and assorted junk over the rest of it, and I made it my home.

Courtesy of British Petroleum, unwitting sponsors of Cycling The Six
I hitch hiked back to Fairbanks after two days in Deadhorse with Ed, every inch the stereotype – a chain-smoking trucker with a paunch and handlebar moustache. He saw me shivering in the snow and didn’t think twice about giving me a ride. As the last week of my life flashed by in hours as Ed drove back the way I had cycled, we came across another truck which had broken down so we stopped to help and Ed performed his second rescue. ‘That’s what we do out here on the Haul Road’ said Ed. ‘We help each other out.’ Alaskans have proved every bit as generous and hospitable as I’d heard they are, though having said that I will never fully understand a group of people who collectively, and one must assume wittingly and without duress, voted Sarah Palin into office.

So what’s next – well my plans have been in flux of late but suffice to say things are looking peachy and there will be some important and very exciting updates coming soon. I will spend September here in Alaska where I will be speaking at the Alaska World Affair’s Council in Anchorage (20th Sep) and in Juneau (18th). In October I will fly to Australia, continent number five – a full plan coming soon. Expect a long overdue equipment review on this blog and some statistics about my ride through the Americas.

Thank yous – Huge thank yous to Duncan and family, Ben, Ed the trucker, the hunters from Minnesota, everyone who fed me on the Top of the World Highway, and anyone I’ve left out.

I’m commencing a 60 day crowd-funding campaign in September which will enable me to finish this journey – I will post on this blog in the coming weeks – please have a read, and if I can convince you to help me realise my dream of riding the length of six continents then make a donation, otherwise this blog will be put to bed, and my Mum for one will be disappointed. You can’t donate yet but I’ll post the link on here when you can. This video doesn’t really explain why you should, but it’s quite amusing…

.

Yukon and on and on

They call it ‘The Highway of Tears’. Since the seventies more than twenty women have vanished off the main road that sweeps east-west across British Columbia connecting the port of Prince Rupert and the town of Prince George, most of them hitch-hikers, most Native Americans. Each body unearthed from the forest adds to the tally of an uncaught killer. The eyes of these women gazed at me from the roadside missing posters as I cycled by – sentient, sparkling eyes, in concert with playful smiles, maybe because a loved one had called their name and snapped a surprise photo. The mood of that instant, captured in a time when they weren’t missed or mourned, was at odds with the bleak details of their disappearance or murder in the print that followed.

For three days the weather was congruent with the road’s repute and the sadness that seeped from each poster and missing smile. A tense, metallic sky drooped low over the forest, the rain-laden clouds almost enveloping the spiny tops of the spruce trees which sprawled out over the hills like an ancient army ready for battle, their ranks broken only by the odd raggedy lake. I edged west until the coastal range jerked up out of the western horizon, as fast as a pop-up in a children’s book. Buried in a crease of glinting rock was the Hudson Bay Glacier – the first river of ice on my route since I was embroiled in a battle for air in the lofty peaks of the Cordillera Blanca range in Peru. During the summer in these open, almost unpeopled lands in the northern reaches of North America I can read my book at midnight by the afterglow of a sun that dinks beneath the horizon only briefly before it’s up again too early, night here is just a harried caller.


I stayed in a cabin one night on Highway 16, a refuge set up by a local man for tired bikers to use for the night. There was a guestbook where cyclists scribbled ‘keep the rubber side down!’ and wished each other tail winds, and there were discarded items lying about for others to take or trade, items whose weight was not deemed worth their usefulness. Books, a mirror, a ladle and some condoms, presumably someone was feeling a little pessimistic about their chances with the Alaskan totty, if that’s not an oxymoron.

The roads and my options become fewer up here – I have only one real choice to make for the next 3000 km before the Dalton Highway ferries me into the arctic circle and eventually to the Arctic Ocean where my northbound romp I began one year and eight months ago from Argentina comes to a head. From highway 16 I hung a right onto the Cassiar Highway and Canada got wilder. The road pierces a huge tract of sparsely populated back country, ending after 723 km at the Alaska Highway in the Yukon. I rode past vivid sprays of intermingled pink and saffron wild flowers riven by crooked corridors of flat foliage – trails made by foraging black bears. On my first day on the Cassiar I spotted four bears, all made a dash from the road once I got close and camera-ready. A day later a female with four cubs trundled out onto the tarmac, so I kept my distance in case Mum’s instinct to protect her young included mauling any bikers in sight. Two weeks before an American cyclist had been attacked by a wolf near here as he cycled. He dived inside an RV just in time, the wolf tore apart his panniers. A bear attack though, I mused, might have a silver lining. I don’t really want the fear of death, but to survive with a nice claw mark to show for it and no PTSD would provide a good yarn and probably the legacy of never having to buy my own beer again. Maybe that’s my fate. To hunch in a corner of some dingy local haunt, full of old soaks, a place where I’m local too and no longer a stranger, when I’m gnarled and grizzly and stout-soaked and rambling. ‘That’ll be ole Fabesy’ the barman might say. ‘Beat a Grizzley to death once. Buy ‘im a beer ‘n he’ll tell y’all bout it.’

Mountains, snow-spotted and rusty-verged and scarred with the eroded channels of invisible streams, towered over deep interlocking valleys. The Cassiar became elevated in sections and land tumbled down either side into a parade of pine trees, as rigid as nails, crowded together, unshakable in the soggy and loam-scented breeze. In the evenings I camped by lakes where I could wallow through the soupy, reed-scattered fringes and wash off the day. The sanguine light of the low sun glanced off the water and thousands of glinting motes, the wings of insects, flickered just above the surface, and for hours I heard the plops of fish that flipped out to gobble them up.

There were places on my map with names, like junctions, dry creek beds and long abandoned towns, and sometimes it was two hundred kilometres or more before I landed on somewhere useful with water and food. Sometimes it was a fiercely priced lodge, sometimes just a store with parochial, miserly proprietors who reminded me not to bring my own food inside and in one case refused to fill up my water bottle, because, and I quote verbatim ‘I don’t know where it’s been’. I flashed him a wan smile, thinking about where I’d like it to go. Canadian hospitality has flourished in every other respect though – I’ve been donated money, beds, campsites, peanut butter, salmon, a dry bag, a high five, and oceans of good vibes. So thank you Canada.

When I wasn’t rough camping or pitching in some ominously labeled lay-by called something like ‘The Rabid Grizzly Rest Stop’ (that place really does exist), or on the fringes of a small Native community, I rested up in campsites, even though BCs pricing policy is about as logical and fair as the British National Party’s manifesto. In BC government campsites you are charged per ‘camping party’ – which can be an RV the size of a long distance passenger coach, three tents and eight people, or alternatively: one man and a bicycle. And you can’t team up with other soloists – ‘you arrive alone, you pay alone’ scorned a mardy attendant.

Scarpering bears and porcupines and chats with bikers broke up my days on the Cassiar, the cyclists were all heading south, autumn falls in August up here and I’m traveling late in the season. Motorcyclists waved and RVs rallied by. Evidently Earnest Shakelton brought a smoothy maker, a foot spa and a microwave to Antarctica. Or at least that’s what the RV manufacturers would have you believe with names like The Adventurer and The Expedition. And there was the slightly more tepid Excursion, which invites the question – why do you need a 33 foot mega-vehicle with leather couches and a Sony home cinema system if it’s only an excursion? Some have run with the tested, zesty names of predators – The Puma, The Cougar, The White Hawk, and then breaking tradition there’s the less ostentatious Mallard. Come on, The Mallard? Who’s going to buy one of those? Except the obvious market: roving ornithologists. At a guess the Mallard stays in the garage, the Cougar gets the driveway. I liked the occupants of the Mallard though, they honked and waved and cheered me on, which made me think that either ornithologists are all very chirpy, or very high. Perhaps there’s a promotion on at the Mallard dealership – each vehicle comes with a year’s supply of Ecstasy.

There’s the King Kamper too, RV manufacturers have been studying the greats of hiphop, breaks and dubstep production by putting a K where a C should be to add some edge. And of course the road hogging assholes that drive THE INTRUDER. I can imagine the American Infomercial now: a brash and angry man shouts abrasively into camera…

‘You wanna crush some nature? You wanna kick the shit out of the wilderness? You need THE INTRUDER! Comes with three moose-seeking missiles, a license to hunt Native Americans and a flame thrower so you can start your own wildfires. Don’t visit nature, INTRUDE on it! Or for just 300,000 bucks more upgrade to THE DEATH STAR and get a year’s supply of Napalm absolutely free!’

There can’t be a more convincing argument against the existence of a benevolent God and Creator than the mosquito, and the Yukon is their domain. For the last two days on the Cassiar Highway the insects were about as prevalent as my fleeting urge to throw myself under a truck because of them. Cycling became more relaxing than not because my break time involved a myriad of buzzing Beelzebubs feeding on my blood before making sweet insect love in my nostrils and having a party on my face. At night thousands swarmed around my tent and between the inner and the fly. Sometimes I’d stop to chat with another biker heading south, we’d both make harried conversation whilst slapping away feeding mosquitoes, vigorously scratching old bites, twirling around wildly to break the cumulus cloud of flying critters and cursing loudly. The best simile I can offer is a pair of people with severe Tourettes attempting to Morris dance after a weeklong crack cocaine binge. It might sound unlikely, but I’m fairly sure that’s a Saturday night in some parts of Manchester.

Mosquitoes in my effing home
The Yukon is a colossal territory north of BC, a hinterland of bear-filled forest and scattered lakes in the watershed of it’s namesake, the Yukon River. I rode northwest through the Yukon along the Alaska Highway, gone were the valleys and peaks, in their place just scores of dead spruce whose reflections stewed in the inky swamps they protruded from. Wild fires in the 80’s wiped out great swathes of forest here and the young trees planted in their place are resplendent green and already house high. More recent fires had left only blackened stumps, between them a scintillating rug of fireweed – a pioneer species that paints the tarry remnants of an old blaze a ferocious pink – was nature’s two fingers up at destruction. Some crown fires are so immense they can burn through the winter months too, only to be fully extinguished in the spring when firefighters dig up the smoldering earth.



I can’t shake the thought that there’s something innately vapid and cheesy about using travel as a road to self-discovery. For me it conjures the image of hapless nineteen year olds traveling to the banks of the Ganges to ‘find’ themselves. I didn’t embark on this journey by bike to that end, discovery was in my mind reserved for the outside world and not the internal one, but I’ve had the treacle-like drip of time on my bike to ponder, to analyse, to remember, to regret and to dream, so inevitably self-reflection happens whether I was expecting or willing it to or not. ‘Finding myself’ though might be overkill, I’d prefer to stay a little lost.

There have been no grand revelations though, no big questions done away with. And I was the barely yellow, ripe around the edges, years away from moldy, age of 29 when I left on my bike, so travel hasn’t ram-raided the shop front of my personality either. My priorities have shifted, though I won’t be adopting an orphan from Malawi.

So what have I learnt about myself exactly? Perhaps I’ll explain more if I ever write a book about all this. In those rookie days back in 2010, when I shivered inside an ice-encrusted sleeping bag and worried a bit about exposure, one thing that I did discover was how much I was capable of, and it was more than I thought. I’ve been pushed in countless ways and finding out how much solitude, how much exhaustion, how much fear and how much boredom I can deal with before my brain screams Enough! Go home! was good to know. When push came to shove I didn’t immediately pencil in a route on my map to the nearest airport. I coped, and sometimes more than that, I reveled in the test. This doesn’t of course mark me out as special or heroic, in fact it’s the opposite – it’s the most average response in the world. In many respects most of us have a deflated opinion of what we’re capable of. It’s why the clichéd dictum of ‘you can do anything you want to’ is so clichéd – because despite the superficial welcome it receives, despite how regularly it’s banded about, how many people really believe it?

Finally I arrived into Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon and a stonking place in the Granola belt of Canada where friends Kirstin and Cameron gave me a bed, introduced me to the best TV show on earth (check out ‘Drunk Histories’) before we had a great knees up for Kirstin’s birthday which involved, though not from memory, rum. Five uninspiring days of riding after I left Whitehorse, brightened only by Greg Proop’s podcast on my IPOD, I got to the very trippy wild west town of Dawson City, created and made famous by the Klondike Gold Rush, where I have teamed up with two Swizz cyclists – together we will ride into Alaska via the rough and tough and high and allegedly stunning border crossing known as ‘The Top Of The World Highway’, which for touring cyclists is one of the most famous roads in the Americas. And I have decided no more shaving, a cultural homage to the men and women that live in Alaska. Wait up, do women live in Alaska?

Thank yous – Kirstin and Cameron – you are the bee’s knees. Jon and Jenna – Bobby Dazzlers, the pair of you. Brenda – mad props. The Goldrush Campsite, The Cycle Canada crew, Jon from Rainbow RV park, some other anonymous headz. Next month is my last blog post from this continent, there might be snow in them photos too.

Claire, the invisible bear and a kazoo


It was the worst possible sentence to hear since I was dog tired, horizontal inside my tent and intent on a restful night’s sleep. 

“But I love you Amy….You Bitch.”

Having heard that series of words, slurred and probably uttered in the aftermath of necking something brutally alcoholic, and after ruminating on them briefly, I suspected they would herald a long, long night ahead. Dave The Drunk Misogynist, as we’ll call him, was not going to unwind this perplexing dichotomy very quickly – that he loves her, but that he also thinks she’s a bitch. Amy, the subject of Dave’s affections and contempt, had locked herself inside a car which was parked on the banks of a river where I had set up my tent, about a day’s ride out of Seattle. Dave, it seemed, wanted to get into the car with Amy.

‘Come on you bitch, let me in. I love you.’

‘Fuck off Dave’ retorted Amy ‘I don’t love you, I love Brian’

The words must have stung ‘Fine, have your 20 year old boyfriend!’ returned Dave.

Dave, lovelorn but ever the romantic, would retreat for a minute or two offering me the tantilising prospect of slumber, only to charge back to the car and pledge his undying love before an impulse to shout ‘Whore!’ overtook him. Eventually after hours of stalemate (between Dave and Amy, me and sleep) Dave decided the best demonstration of his unrequited love for Amy was to deflate her car tyres, which he did, to Amy’s agonized screams, followed by ‘What have you DONE! Dave, what have you DONE!!’ and then softer and softer whimpering as I drifted off belatedly to dreamland.

Two days in Seattle with my second cousin Liz was well spent since it involved good company, the League of Gentlemen on DVD and quite a lot of ice cream. The Canadian border to me was just another boundary, not something to stress about. I saw no potential of being forbidden to enter Canada or any likelihood of it being more complicated than any of the sixty that have come before it. Or so I thought.

After a chain of predictable questions the border guard asked how long I’d been cycling. Three and half years caused his eyebrows to take a vigorous leap towards his hair line, he swiftly wrote the letter B on a piece of paper and told me to go inside the immigration building. The immigration official was a tall, bald, menacing man with a Scottish lilt. ‘Here’s what’s happening’ he declared in a no-nonsense and well-practiced fashion. ‘YOU (and he pointed at me) have to prove to ME (points at himself, in case I find simple pronouns confusing) that we’re not going to find you working in a bar in Canada. I want bank statements, I want papers, I want evidence. So come on then, show me what you’ve got.’

At this point he put his hands behind his head and wearing an expression akin to that of a sadistic child when pulling the legs off an insect, he rested back into his chair and I got the sudden perception that this was someone who had been short changed in life and was wreaking revenge on society, one cycle tourist at a time. I didn’t have much, no bank statements, nothing to prove that I had funds. In the end certificates proving I was a medic and a phone call to my relatives in Vancouver just about satisfied him. It was too close for comfort.

I stayed with MaryLouise, my mum’s cousin, a kind of extreme superhuman who thrashes twenty year olds in half Iron Man contests. She is also very charming and I enjoyed chilling out with her family whilst I waited for a very cool cat to arrive. Claire is an old friend of mine from Liverpool and also a superhuman by way of being a psychologist, PhD whizz, jazz musician, Frisbee champion, purveyor of winks and wry smiles and expedition leader and who is brilliantly dynamic in lots of other cool ways too. We swapped news, went to a poetry slam, biked around Vancouver and prepared for the road ahead. And we wondered a bit about some of Canada’s furry residents…

Bears – there are two schools of thought in Canada. The alarmists like to remind you of the ease at which a Grizzly can out-run you before it takes a minute to chew heartily away on your bone marrow, and there are the more insouciant brigade who like to compare black bears to big dogs and who offer assurances that they won’t give much trouble. Everybody though seems to think bringing a can of bear pepper spray to fend off a creature that gets too close is a sensible idea. I have my doubts. There are very few things in this world more disagreeable than being mauled to death by a bear. One of those things is spraying yourself in the face with extra potent pepper spray, and then getting mauled to death by a bear. Despite my reservations Claire and I headed off to a hunting store to enquire about some sort of defense strategy even though Claire has a kazoo and I have some interesting dance moves and I reckon a well-choreographed performance might repel even the most hulking of Grizzlies.

We get directed to a hunting store which is staffed exclusively by the sort of men who have taxidermied their own grandparents and have mounted them to the walls of their home, and who can’t finish a beer without crunching the can onto their forehead and growling. These are not the type of men you would leave to look after a family pet if you go on holiday. You might return to find they have finished off little Oscar with a crossbow and are sitting in a circle, skinning or spit roasting him.

‘This is essential’ explained one very serious man, holding the bear spray aloft and tilted unnervingly in my direction.
‘27 foot range. Just blast the bear right in the face, OK?’
‘Um, OK’ we mumble. 

I can’t summon up a mental image of either of us blasting a charging bear in the face with this. Instead I wonder if throwing the can at the oncoming bear and wailing pathetically would impede the attack. Probably not. I’m awed, impressed and a little disturbed by the array of bear repelling devices on offer. There are a variety of bear sprays, bear bombs (which just go bang and aren’t as exciting as they sound), flares, bear guns and projectiles. After a brief discussion, marked by total uncertainty and mild panic, we decide on the bear spray, mainly because the man behind the counter is perusing other bear defeating devices and I’m a little scared about what direction the conversation might soon take.

‘We call this the BEAR-VAP. Push this little button and it will vaporize up to 75 adult grizzlies in a 32 mile radius. Oh wait, you’ll need some of this too. BEAR-O-CIDE. Just sprinkle a thimbleful of this stuff into any small stream and it will kill every black bear that drinks from any river between here and the Yukon for 18 years.’ 

The actual packaging on bear spray. Something tells me it wouldn’t work out quite like this 
So excited, and with only a mild sense of impending doom bestowed on us by the hunting shop, we set off. Given that we had a little time to play with, a loop of Vancouver Island was on the cards before we set out on the more serious mountains of northern BC. Claire had three weeks before a bus from Prince George would transport her and her bike back to Vancouver. This year it seems that Canada’s tourism board have let the intern come up with British Columbia’s tagline, infused, as it is, with subtlety and edge.

‘British Columbia – The Best Place in the World’ 

There’s another one doing the rounds as well, the irritating ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’ which makes me want to decapitate something small, cute and furry just so I don’t have it in my head any more.

I admit it, three and a half years of biking has left me a little jaded. It’s getting harder not to make endless comparisons between where I am and where I’ve been, but having Claire with me has opened my eyes again to just how propitious it is to experience this wonky world by bicycle. Claire gets excited about herons. Claire is surprised when she consumes 200 grams of dairy milk chocolate and moves on to marsh mallows. Claire is enlivened by the prospect of not knowing where we’ll end up or where we’ll sleep. It’s invigorating.


We pedaled up the aptly named sunshine coast watched by the Canadian wildlife, as we watched back. We spotted a scuttling raccoon, a slightly pissed off deer, garter snakes, purple starfish and a seal which could have been doing a good impression of a sea otter. Ferries shuttled us across the watery bits as we sat on deck playing a kazoo, catching up and congratulating Canada. RVs crowded us a little on the roads and I mused over their curious names – The Adventurer. The Expedition. The RV manufacturers had done their research. We all know how important the microwave and foot spa were to Ernest Shackleton.

In Nanaimo on Vancouver Island we hung out with Chris, a diamond geezer, and Joe, his gigantean Newfoundland dog that cheerfully murders the neighbour’s chickens at every given opportunity. Chris cycled with us the following day and after eating for so long in a bakery we fell into a desperate tour-de-France peloton for the ultimately failed race to make the ferry, and after being too full of pastry based food to make it we opted instead to drink beer on the beach, like the serious cyclists we are.

The road that would take us to the world renowned resort town of Whistler and beyond is the Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky Highway, don’t let the abbreviated version fool you. Vancouver was steeped in a sullen murk as we rode away over the rolling hills of the coast whilst drizzle spattered the asphalt. Out to our west ethereal claws of mist raked through the dense groves of pines trees which crowded the low humps of the gulf islands.

Claire was the perfect cycling companion, just when boredom threatened she would nonchalantly pull up alongside me with a ‘Steve?’ and offer up some theories on the shape of the universe or ask my opinion on some aberrant topic.

‘Steve?’
‘Yes Claire’
‘What’s your favourite marsupial?’


We talked about people we both knew of course. We discussed other important issues too – Utilitarianism. Socialised medicine. Why gooseberries are under-rated. Who were the Thundercats. How much of a tosser David Cameron actually is. Interspersed with laughter and this mental and verbal workout we had an intensely competitive thumb war tournament (three all), we lobbed cherries into each other’s jowls and Claire tried to teach me to sing. I would say Claire failed, but really it was me.

There were some moments where I felt a little vulnerable as another pair of eyes appraised my slightly odd ball lifestyle. The discovery of a tin of tuna with a Spanish label and leaking powdered mashed potato that I can say with confidence has been in my food bag since at least Peru was one such moment. But Claire cooked risotto, could read road signs from more than ten metres away and sometimes felt inspired to use the phrase ‘amazeballs’. All of these things and many others made her a great travel companion. And she reminded me of how exciting the serendipity that courts all cycle tourers can be – it’s great when someone else is a bit awed by the hospitality of strangers, by the romance of wild camping, and by the buzz of meeting another biker. It feels good to share.

Claire wasn’t aware of this, but I was surreptitiously undertaking a research project whilst we cycled together through BC…

The effect of cycle touring on a previously uninitiated individual: An observational study.

Aim – To determine how long the transformation process will take from baseline to Cycle Tourer

Methodology – Observation of control subject Claire Press

Results:
Day Three – Claire accidentally ingests 95% DEET. Doesn’t seem to care.

Day Five – Claire has begun to develop a bizarre obsession with roadkill. Talk often veers to dead animals.

Day Six – I find Claire slumped outside supermarket surrounded by empty packets of blueberry muffins, crumbs covering her face, and with an expression of unsullied joy and contentment.

Day Eleven – Empties half a jar of strawberry jam onto bread and spreads it around wildly with index finger. Smirks when I offer a knife.

Day Thirteen – Wears T-shirt inside out. Doesn’t notice until mid-afternoon.

Day Fifteen – Uses the exact phrase ‘You know it’s a good day when sweat dribbles down your ass’

Day sixteen – Has become adept in killing mosquitoes in total darkness.

Day seventeen – gazes strangely at inner tube. Perhaps wondering if several of them glued together would make a serviceable bandana.

Conclusion – Transformation complete by 17 days.


Whistler is a busy resort town which hosted many of the events of the winter Olympics in 2010. Our plan on arrival was to find an Australian, an easy task here, buy them a beer, also an easy task, and subtly suggest (not ask) that we camp in their garden. It was a fail. After approximately six hours and thirty cups of tea we found ourselves sitting in a flat with two alcoholics, feeling slightly uneasy, whilst they made jokes about stealing all our stuff. In the end though they showed us to a decent spot to camp in the park, humanity prevailed.

Then it was a short ride to Pemberton where Tammy was going to put us up, a surfer I met on the coast of Mexico and an all-round brilliant human being. We met her briefly on the road where she gave us a very Canadian lesson about how to fight a cougar (‘just punch and kick it in the face’) and offered us her home to rest up in whilst she was away, a cosy forest retreat easily worth the uphill battle to get there.

Claire, pedaling uphill for three km: ‘Steve, I hate you right now’
And then two minutes later ‘I’m sorry Steve. It’s not you. It’s just that I hate everything a little right now’

As sweaty as sumo wrestlers, dizzy and slightly blue, we arrived. Claire admitted her pulse was strangely audible and at a slightly higher BPM than Happy Hardcore.

The next day was a well-deserved day off, and one where the adjective Perfect might just be the best fit. Tammy is also keen on paragliding and had arranged for us to give it a whirl with her mates, and for free. We both floated off the launch site on tandem paragliders, vaguely towards the snow covered crags and glaciated peaks of the coastal mountains and hovering high and occasionally swooping over the broad valley below.

Tammy’s pad was where we wiled away the afternoon, knowing that after you’ve spent the morning paragliding in British Columbia, the day is already awesome and you don’t have to exert any extra effort to make it so. That afternoon a black bear loped into the garden so I sent Claire downstairs to deal with it – part of an agreed plan that she handles black bears, Grizzlies and cougars, I get troublesome insects and noisy dogs.

The next day began with ‘Eye of the tiger’ ringing out from my computer – we needed it. The Duffy Lake Road beckoned. Or in local parlance ‘THE DUFFY’ (which comes with a brief whistle and bounce of the eyebrows). The road climbs a thousand vertical metres and starts out at a 15 to 20% grade with an average incline of 7.5% to the top. THE DUFFY had been on our minds and had exerted its menace well before we glanced up at its preliminary twists and turns, though despite the hype and irrefutable stats (maybe because of them), it was tamer than we imagined. A double handed high five came in the early afternoon as we crested the pass, glanced back behind us and exchanged a little look that said ‘Have some of that, Canada’. And Canada thanked us for our efforts with bold and imposing peaks, bald eagles, prodigious gorges and serene moments skirting turquoise lakes as we rallied downwards, sucking up the odd rush of cool air radiating from churning mountain streams that cascaded into the wide river at the gorge floor. Around us poplar fluff drifted easily on the breeze as if we were biking through a snow dome. In amongst it all two cyclists were grinning like crazy people.


The topography is as changeable as the weather in this part of Canada and soon we were in an arid semi-desert. Lillooet, we were reminded time and again, is the hottest spot in Canada. It’s a fact dished out with gravity by the locals of a country internationally renowned for its incessant tropical heat. ‘It’s gonna be way too hot to ride today’ scorned a local man in the supermarket. He went on to tell me a cautionary tale I only half listened to, which I think involved another cycling couple and probably involved them sweating so hard they were converted into a white crust and had to be scraped off the tarmac and their salt crystals repatriated, but I wasn’t really paying attention. We set off anyway, sweating and panting past signs that told us not to pass snow ploughs on the right.

Back into the verdant arable land to the east and lulled into a sense of invincibility by the absence so far of a bear attack, we camped out in a small village of Native Americans and left food inside our tent instead of the nightly ritual of finding a place to stash it where bears couldn’t get to it. In hindsight, this must have been on Claire’s mind. From deep sleep I was violently jerked into the real world as Claire kicked off her sleeping bag and shouted ‘It’s inside! ITS INSIDE!’

Now Claire was asleep and dreaming, but the important thing to understand is that I had no idea at the time that she was asleep and dreaming, and when someone shouts ‘IT’S INSIDE!’ at night, in a tent, with food in it, in Canada, in bear country, you have to assume the worst has happened, or is about to. Two thoughts raced to the forefront of my mind, interestingly the first was ‘use hysterical friend as human shield’ but this was soon superseded by the more sensible ‘better get the bear spray’. One close look at Claire though and I knew she was in the throes of an ursine-related nightmare. We settled back to sleep but half an hour later Claire threw herself wildly into the side of the tent, another imaginary bear had attacked whilst I was asleep and she was bravely defending us. Imaginary bears are much scarier than real ones.

The terrain flattened out as we climbed slowly up onto the Fraser Plateau and soon we were relaxing in Prince George, Claire’s final stop. I gave a talk to the local bike club, and I said goodbye to Claire. And then it rained. 


To my north and where I’m heading there is a big empty space on my map where I suspect bears outnumber people, moose heads adorn every wall and the women have beards. I will leave British Columbia behind and embrace the Yukon, a place twice the size of England and with a population that could fit inside Norwich City Football stadium. And yes, that really is something to be excited about.

Thank you’s this month – Liz and Zach, MaryLouise, Paul and the posse, Mark, Cath and Superman Luke, Josephine, Norman, Stacy and Deb, Etta, The Powell River Bikers, Vancouver Rotary Club, Prince George Cycling Club, Ruth and Paul, Stephen and Rua, Chris, Tammy, Mike and the paragliders, Brenda, Pero and Vanessa, a whole bunch of anonymous Canadians and whoever it was that drew a penis on the deer signpost near Quesnel. You’ve all been utterly ace, so mad props to one and all. If I’ve forgotten anyone, I blame it on last night’s drinking with Claire, who’s gone for now, but not forgotten.