Biking Because

"Bikes are the cars of the future" – Sean O'Neill.

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Reflections on the final push: Bittersweet beauty.

Nobody lives in the space between settlements, isolated wilderness stretching from Murghab to Karakul Lake, Tajikistan to Sary-Tash, Kyrgyzstan, the silence broken by an occasional motorbike or 4×4 along almost 250km of the most inhospitable terrain.

Kids in Murghab

There were positives, 1. the road vastly improved from just after the Kyrgyzstan border and 2. we had over 3000m in altitude to shed. At this point the wind decided to end our frayed relationship, turning it’s back on us for the remainder of the trip, canceling out those positives and blowing mightily in our face for the final five days.

Pretty rad switchbacks in Sary-Tash

Salt flats

 

Leaving Murghab knowing Ak-Baital at 4655m was coming occupied front and centre of my thoughts. But truthfully it wasn’t that bad, we stopped to camp a few hundred metres short of the pass and woke up with frozen water bottles.

Next was the final high pass taking us into Kyrgyzstan. The fiercest winds were saved for this pass. Moving at slightly less than 5km/h seemed almost pointless but progress is progress. As we descended down the other side the topography began to change. Suddenly there was grass appearing, fertile land, some wildlife finally and mountains with myriad colours.

That melancholic, bittersweet feeling. Excited to be finishing and returning to life in Vancouver but also knowing that it means experiencing this incredible beauty will also end.

Lots of Marmots

Crossed paths with two wolves

Colours of Kyrgyzstan

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Kyrgyzstan scenery

 

We arrived in Osh on the final day accompanied by that special and all too rare feeling of accomplishment. Setting a goal like the Pamir highway and experiencing it coming to fruition is a feeling that’s difficult to relay in words. It’s a powerful thing to challenge and push yourself to do things you maybe thought were beyond you.

Arriving a little early we had a few days to spare, hired a driver and spent two days in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Shots from Tashkent

Shots from Tashkent

Shots from Tashkent

Shots from Tashkent

It was great the have Stu, of course we had our ups and downs which comes with living in each other’s shadow for a month. We were able to motivate each other whenever spirits were low, when I was ill he dragged me along and vice versa. Couldn’t have picked a better partner.

Thank you wherever you are for following along with us on this wonderful adventure.

The entrance to Osh – End of the Trip

 

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Impressions from the Roof of the World

Leaving Khorog we said goodbye to the Afghan border as the route took us inland. I knew the next few days were all ascent. We had two full days of climbing, taking us through some small towns. These will be the last communities we see for a while.

 

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Jelondy, Tajikistan

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Rickety Bridge, Tajikistan.

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Roadside Café, Tajikistan.

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Common to see women washing carpets on the road

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Man and his Goat, Jelondy

 

After a stay in the famous hot springs in the small village of Jelondy we tackled the first major pass of the route, 4300m, down the other side to the small isolated settlement of Alichur. Flanked by towering mountains and vast open space . Now we were truly in the Pamirs.

 

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Mountain, Tajikistan.

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Shots from the Pamir

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Shots from the Pamir

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Electricity, drinking water, fresh produce, wifi, anything refrigerated… suspend your expectations for pretty much all the comforts of home. The upper elevations of the Pamir highway is known as the ‘Roof of the World’ for good reason. With the bleak, barren loneliness is a poignantly stoic reminder of the extreme isolation that still exists around us. Chiseled mountains fill the periphery from miles and miles of uninhabited, uninterrupted broken tarmac. It is moving in multiple senses, there’s a legendary wind on this high plateau giving you a sense of vulnerability like a small sailboat on the open water.

 

Kids playing in Murghab

Scenes from Murghab

Painted house in Murghab

Older building in Murghab

The road and the ride to Murghab, the biggest town in the region, was spectacular. The road surface was better than I thought and the wind blew us along… blew and blew. Weaving around potholes and mountains we plodded on. The sun plays a trick at this altitude that can catch out the unwitting. The temperature hovers around 20 degrees, but up so high the sun is much more potent than the temperature suggests. I didn’t realize and combined with a stomach bug, ended up pretty dehydrated and on a drip at the hospital in Murghab. The joy of travel. It was nothing too serious and after a rest day we’re ready to set off and tackle the highest pass of the entire route tomorrow.

 

Got this fella to take a snap with my camera

Next Blog Post: Reflections on the final push: Bittersweet beauty











The Slog to Khorog

Reality sunk in very early as we rode the first few hours outside Dushanbe. Huddled under a lone tree barely big enough to provide enough shade and gasping for air. This was going to be challenging, the shifting terrain and heat up to 39 degrees was overpowering. Over the next days we did acclimatize a little and sat out the most punishing hours in the sun.

On the third day we crested a difficult uphill and were gifted a breathtaking view; mountains bigger than I had ever seen, the Panj river and our first sight of Afghanistan. We would ride parallel to it for the next 450 kms slowly getting closer as the river narrowed.

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First Sight Of Afghanistan

Getting a brief snapshot of the Tajik and Afghan people going about their daily lives was a privilege. The Afghans constructed their communities from an extremely isolated and harsh environment, connected by the most basic paths where the only mode of transport we saw were motorbikes, donkeys or walking.

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Motorbike, Afghanistan

The Tajik children are a breath of fresh air, every village we went through the kids seemed to appear from thin air smiling, laughing and looking for hi-fives. Some were selling fruit. Seeing the kids running from the fields shouting for us to stop and talk for a minute is so touching and heart warming. One night while setting up the tent we were invited into a family’s home for dinner and to spend the night, we sat with the family and learned about life for them. Everything we ate was grown on their land, sustainable and organic.

Warning Landmines, Tajikistan

I’m currently sitting in Khorog, over 600kms into the trip and it’s been a real eye-opener. The takeaways so far; gruelling heat, stunning scenery and kind, warm people. A few rest days are almost at an end and tomorrow we begin the steep rise into the Pamirs. It’s an exciting and daunting prospect that I can’t wait to face.

Afghan Community on the right of the River Panj

Footbridge into Afghanistan

 

Next Blog Post: Impressions from The Roof Of the World

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planning the Pamir

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On the 19th of August 2019 the adventure begins. Via Hong Kong and Kazakhstan we arrive in unembellished, no-frills Tajikistan, the fruit of months of planning and preparation. The majestic and celebrated, the grueling and colossal, almighty Pamirs are the destination. The Pamir Highway is the second highest road in the world, encompassing high passes over 4600m (15000ft) and cutting through the Pamir mountain range. We have 25 days to finish the roughly 1400km trek.

Myself and Stu began planning for this trip about 4 months ago. He convinced me I should ride it and then I in turn convinced him to come with me, a whole pile of convincing. I was initially spooked by the idea of riding the Afghan border for such a long distance given all the negative press and fear mongering about the region. But after researching the route I came to the conclusion that it was a bit unjust and decided the take the plunge, life’s too short.

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Next up, restocking/upgrading my gear, now I love a good bargain which I inherited from my mother, but this is not the occasion for deals and not the time to pinch pennies. Therefore I will be declaring bankruptcy on my return to Canada, due in large part to the cost of good equipment. I will wait months for the sleeping bag I want to drop in price by $30 and conversely drop $100 in the pub on a whim, this is the multifaceted and elastic nature of being Irish.

The route planning was not that easy, the distance we can cover daily is ambiguous, the food we can eat is a mystery, the frequency of towns or villages with supplies is unknown. This route has been travelled by cyclists and is a destination for adventure tourists so there is a decent amount of information available, but there is a wide variation of what to expect from food to weather to road conditions. So we’ve had to plan for it all as best we can while riding unsupported.

The time to leave is drawing near, the excitement is beginning to creep into my brain and with the excitement comes nerves, at this point (actually for a couple of weeks) I just want to hit the road and be in it already.

I will try to keep you updated as best I can along the way, you can also sign up with the blue button on the bottom of the page and you’ll get an email when the blog is updated. There’s an expression in Ireland ‘go n-éirí an bóthar leat’ for good luck, meaning ‘may the road rise up to meet you’, well the road will definitely rise up and hopefully drop off again at some point.

Next Blog Post: The Slog To Khorog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over, for now…

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Beginning the Dalton Highway, Alaska

Being able to ride the entire Sea to Sky highway on a bicycle is a privilege, the road is nothing short of a scenic paradise. Anyone who lives in Vancouver has probably driven to Whistler, but if you haven’t continued past Whistler, on through Pemberton and up to at least Lillooet you are missing something really special. It’s a totally separate microclimate within the same relatively small region. From Cache Creek to just south of Lillooet is dry, desert-like landscape complete with cougars, rattlesnakes and very little rain. Small pockets of cultivated green pastures seem out of place and stand out literally, like an oasis in the desert.

Sea to Sky

North of Lillooet

North of Lillooet

North of Lillooet

The highway approaches Lillooet from the north, high above the town with a great view of the valley below. I camped in Seton Lake campground, just south of Lillooet. Close by is a park with breathtaking views of the lake itself. The terrain through the mountains and into Pemberton is winding steep climbs followed by huge downhills. Clocked 72km/h on one of those descents, not bad for a fully loaded steel touring bike. The road was quiet compared with the previous weeks, mostly tourist traffic. Trying to get to Vancouver before some predicted heavy rain, maybe I wasn’t as aware of my surroundings as usual but the journey from Pemberton to Vancouver was fairly uneventful. I arrived back in Vancouver accompanied by my own private internal fanfare, the best kind. I decided I should probably digest what I’ve experienced on this trip and condense it into some tangible conclusions.

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Seton Lake

Firstly from my limited exposure, doing solo travel of this nature has reminded me of one thing: that people are inherently good. I experienced enough acts of kindness to absolutely reinforce that statement. I’ll jot down a few examples. Setting up camp in Mt Shadow park, the owner offered me a cabin for nothing. A bear had been around all day and he didn’t want me sleeping outside. People I didn’t know welcomed me into their houses. Strangers I met along the road offered me meals, water, cooking fuel, beer, fruit, etc. …. I was often offered lifts, tempting as it was I never accepted. The second blatantly apparent observation is not so positive. The total distance tracked from my bike GPS was 4561Km (about 2800 miles). I witnessed more traffic and development than I’d ever imagined, the impact of human activities on almost every inch of the most remote piece of wilderness is disturbing. The scale at which mining, logging and construction is progressing in northern BC is staggering. I won’t get into a rant about pipelines, cars, pollution, etc. What I will say is that change is going to happen for better or worse. And much thanks to anyone who took the time to read this. Here are some photos…….

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Bridge over a creek, BC

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Sea to Sky Hwy, BC.

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Chilcotin sky, BC.

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The Dalton Hwy, Alaska

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Lillooet, BC

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Alaskan Hwy, Yukon

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Tetlin Refuge, Alaska

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Gas Station outside Tok, Akaska

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Cassiar Hwy, BC.

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The Christians, Everywhere.

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Cassiar Hwy, BC.

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Crystal clear lake, BC.

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The Hazelton Ranges, BC.

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Dalton Highway, Alaska

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Meziadin Lake, BC.

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Kluane, Yukon.

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Atigun Pass, Alaska

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Dot Lake, Alaska

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Sandhill Cranes near Anchorage, Alaska

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Coastal Mountains, BC

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Delta Junction, Alaska

The Road Well Travelled

The Yellowhead Highway or Hwy 16 is the main artery from coastal Prince Rupert to central Prince George. Known locally as the Highway of Tears for its haunting past. Over the past number of years many local, predominantly native women have disappeared while hitch hiking along the road. Its hard to put into words the eerie feeling you get, there’s a tangible cloud of tragedy or loss that hangs in the air. Its pretty striking the number of memorials and crosses dotted along the roadside.

Sign On the Road

Sign On the Road

An array of huge mountains towering to the south welcomes you onto the Yellowhead, the Rocher Déboulé Range. The largest of which is …. Brian Boru Peak. I did a double take at the map, but sure enough there it was. A mountain in central British Columbia named after the most notorious High King of Ireland and like myself a Clareman.

Brian Boru Peak

Brian Boru Peak

Its big farm country here. I’m noticing for the first time isolated farm houses and fencing around fields, not the norm up until this point. Huge logging trucks roll by, a couple every hour. Massive machinery is transported north for mining operations on the Cassiar and further north. Industry is booming and that’s very evident. On through the Hazeltons and towards Smithers where I stayed for a few days. It’s a picturesque place with a smart, rustic downtown. Really liked this little town. I stayed with a doctor who is about the leave the profession and embark on a bike adventure of his own which will last a couple of years. We connected via the bike touring equivalent of couchsurfing.com.

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Farm country

Prince George, what can I say. Industry pumps a layer of pollution which sits just above the city clearly visible from my approach. Not much in the way of cafes or bars, its a busy town where people in their spare time seem to prefer an escape to the country. Stayed with my buddy Sean, I was glad of the comforts of home for a few days. The route out of town is the Cariboo Hwy, a straight shot from Prince George to Cache Creek.

Strange cloud over the Cariboo/Chilcotin

Strange cloud over the Cariboo/Chilcotin

From here down its all about big highways and big trucks, not conducive or designed for riding a bike and the wildlife is noticeable by its absence. This stretch of the trip is one which is very much touched by the industrial arm of humans. Next is the Sea to Sky Highway where I’ll welcome narrow roads, significantly less traffic and the route to Vancouver …. nearing the end.

Alone on the Cassiar

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Entering BC

Unbeknownst to me, turning off the Alaskan and onto the Cassiar Highway would hold a future of mixed fortunes. Testing my limits and pushing me to the point of almost throwing in the towel. While I was happy to be back in BC, the weather took a terrible twist. It rained, it rained so much that I’d willingly have swapped it for the worst of the west coast of Ireland and that’s a statement worth analyzing. The wind pushed against me, the climbs became struggles. Progress sputtered and stagnated. I was constantly miserable, cold and wet. The routine was biking wet, setting up my tent wet, taking it down wet, cooking in the rain. I wasn’t covering nearly enough distance. Then Mt Doom, the pinnacle of misery, the shit-sprinkles on top of the shit-cake….my airpad burst, now I was sleeping on the floor of a cold, wet tent. You’re getting it, misery.

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Sniffing my food

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Staring me down, look closely you can see Salmon in the river

The good news is I’m still going and here’s why. Whenever I felt at my most miserable something beautiful would always reveal itself, reminding me of what I was doing and where I was, re-energizing me to keep trudging on. The first; as I struggled into a cold, hard headwind I noticed something up ahead but I couldn’t make out what. As I got closer it became clear, a Lynx and 3 cubs ambled across the road, something that is extremely rare to see. It made me smile and inspired me for the rest of the day. The second; so my airpad burst, I was camping in Kinaskan Provincial park and the weather was awful. I casually mentioned to the park operator about my airpad. She turned up 10 minutes later with a therm-a-rest airpad for me, said I could keep it and didn’t charge me for camping either…energy levels rising.

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Good Hope Lake

I woke up the next morning to clearing skies and the sun which I hadn’t seen for a week. In the next 3 days things picked up rapidly. I was riding my bike on an isolated stretch of the Cassiar and I noticed something up ahead. A black Bear, shit! I stood tall on my bike and kind of yelled at him. He looked at me, sized me up and sauntered off the road. This happened again about 5 miles later. The next day, I was on the side of the road cooking some lunch, looking around I saw a Bear coming my way. Luckily he veered into the bushes and I didn’t see him again.

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Good Hope Lake

I camped in Meziadin Provincial park for a night, beautiful setting. The next day I was leaving and noticed some people gathered by a creek about a mile down the road. Leaning my bike against the rail I took a look. Incredibly, a Grizzly was in the stream about 15ft below intensely focused on catching the spawning Salmon. He could so easily have just come up the embankment and eaten any of us I thought. He must have been reading my mind because that’s exactly what he did. He got between the people and their cars then casually strolled over to my bike of all things…I pictured him tearing my gear to shreds and having a field day on my food stash. Not today, he turned around and went back to fishing.

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Black Bear on the road

I’m in a place called Kitwanga now and as the Cassiar comes to an end I’ve had time to think, it was an experience I’ll remember for some time. Next up is the Yellowhead, the Highway Of Tears.

Meet the Alaskan Highway

Taking me from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, the Alaska highway is steeped in history. It fed the area with hordes of people desperate to strike it rich during and after the gold rush. The landscape along the highway is varied, it moves between dry almost desert to huge treed mountains to enormous bare mountains. The Tanana river valley has some stark viewing, thousands of half dying trees line the muddy flats of this basin. I believe something in the soil leaves the trees this way.

greyish, limbless trees of Tanana Valley

grey limbless trees in Tanana Valley

Crossing from the US into Canada at Beaver Creek I felt more at ease somehow. Maybe I won’t see a man casually stroll into a grocery store with a gun and holster hanging off his hip (3 bears grocery, Tok) or maybe its comfort in the knowledge that if anything happens to me, I’m covered! The two biggest changes on entering Canada, no cell phone reception and back to gravel roads. Kluane national park in the Yukon is simply riveting, with more stunning scenery than I had realized. I was in awe passing through Kluane with my mouth agape most of the time. Bugs..I swallowed lots.

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Kluane National Park

Being on a bike you notice the wind, up here it seems to change direction multiple times every day. I suspect all the massive mountains have a huge impact on wind patterns.The route is mostly flat with some minor climbing, but after the Dalton I’m very much ready. Kluane seems little known with not much in the way of facilities. The St Elias range is breathtaking, lake Kluane and its eye grabbing backdrop is no runner up.

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Mt Logan is Canada’s biggest

As for wildlife on the Alaska highway, I’ve seen some. One campground I was to stay at outside Destruction Bay was closed to tent camping because of aggressive bears in the area. A mother grizzly bear with a cub crossed the road in front of me, I’ve seen Moose, some turned and ran others stared me down. Also beavers, sandhill cranes, eagles, ospreys, trumpeter swans and ground squirrels. When you are up close with a large wild animal pretty much the last thing on your mind is getting a photo.

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Moose cow and calf

For now I’m going to rest up in Whitehorse and in a few days I should be back in BC on the Cassiar highway.

The Arctic and Me

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    (Warning : this is going to sound melodramatic but I’m sensitive so shut up)

     One of the most grueling journeys I have or will ever undertake. It’s remarkable how windburn, sunburn, exhaustion, torrential rain, snow, sub zero temps, freezing fog, unrelenting biting insects  and 500 miles of climb after unforgiving climb (27,000ft) can all make you quickly forget about bears and wolves. Have mercy on the ill prepared, I was not one of them. Thanks to my mosquito suit I only got about 50 bites, there is just no escape. You had me question my sanity and my decision to come here many times.

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Those black dots are Musk Ox

     Prudhoe bay is a fly in/ fly out oil field on the Arctic ocean. It is a desolate barren place with freezing fog and bitterly cold winds, it resembles what I imagine the surface of the moon to be like. But…. there is also incredible beauty here. The vast open expanse of the Arctic tundra is an awesome sight to behold. Atigun pass and the Brooks range are spectacular and awe inspiring. North of the Brooks is Arctic tundra as far as the eye can see and almost magically once over the pass is the beginning of forest. The slow trickle of sparsely growing trees pockmarked here and there quickly flows into a full forest.

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Atigun Pass

     There is a discernible difference in the wildlife from other places that I have been, it must be from the little exposure they have to people. I got to within 15ft of a bear and he didnt seem to know what I was. I saw herds of migrating caribou being stalked by hunters , even got chased by one (not a hunter). I also saw Musk Ox.

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     Once over the Brooks the climbs become more and more arduous. Common tactics such as switchbacks and winding roads around mountains are not employed here, straight up and over. The Dalton “Highway” (mostly gravel/dirt road) was built as the most direct route from Fairbanks to Prudhoe. It’s featured on the TV show Ice Truckers.

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     Trundling down the final descent, with my hands clamped on both brake levers as usual I did not feel as though I had just conquered something, but more a feeling of respect, of thanks, for letting me pass through because you could have shut me down at any time..

I’m in Fairbanks now for a day or two of rest, bike repairs and to get new panniers. The old ones were chewed up on the road. Then on to Whitehorse.

On the Remote Boat

I’m writing this update from the house of some Anchorage biker enthusiasts who put me up for a few days. Great folks who couldn’t do enough. Soooo, the ferry ride from Bellingham to Whittier was epic. There were cabins but a few people including myself camped on the top of the ferry deck in a solarium. 5 days later I’d seen pods of Killer whales, dolphins, majestic scenery, tiny native villages tucked under daunting mountains and a rare gathering of about 30 Humpback whales in their feeding ground. image The most dramatic was saved for the last day. So every port I took my bike from the car deck and biked into the nearest town or just to stretch my legs. We arrived in a small native town of Yakutat at 5am and I was ready to get off. The Captain announced "We are requesting no one disembark, there are two injured Grizzly Bears on the beach…." Holy Shit!! So I went to have a look. There was a guy on the beach with a gun trained on the treeline. We watched… and watched… nothing, couldn’t see any sign of a bear. People started to head back to sleep. Then all of a sudden… BANG.. BANG… 2 shots rang out. I saw this medium sized grizzly bolt from the treeline to the water and start to swim. Incredibly he seemed uninjured and continued to swim across the bay, easily a couple of miles. It was crazy. image On to Whittier where I get off. Cold, rain and ominous grey skies greeted me. Plus an impassible tunnel for bikers. I got a spin to the other side, the skies were clear and the views were amazeballs. Biked the beautiful 90km+ to Anchorage. For directions, garmin bike computers suck balls. Anchorage is cool. It is plopped in the middle of wilderness, Bear bins and Moose in the city center.

Today I’m flying to Prudhoe bay and the trip will start in earnest.

 

A blog is born

So I’ve started a blog and I’ll try my best to keep it updated with the intermittent internet I’ll be getting. I’m leaving for Alaska in one week, the realisation of months of planning. Ferry from Bellingham to Anchorage, flight from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay….check and check. I was having a conversation with the booking agent on the phone yesterday about Prudhoe Bay, “oh my gosh, isn’t that the time of year the bears are fattening up for winter?”. I got a little bit nervous so I asked her where she was based and she replied Phoenix. Hah, bingo, what would she know about Alaska. Only she lived there for 6 years, check mate!
I was biking from downtown Seattle to Ballard yesterday and my chain snapped, thank god!! Why? Cause it didn’t happen in the middle of the Dalton Highway 2 weeks later. Lots of work still to do. But for this weekend its Timber Music festival. Right now I’m sitting in Ballard Coffee House with this

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