Sunday, August 19, 2007

Golden Circle

Haines Highway, Day 1

As I was cinching up my saddle bags at the Haines ferry terminal, a woman broke away from a guided rafting group to talk to me.

"Are you all alone?" she asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Really? Just you?"


"Wow. You must be brave. Or crazy."

And with that she laughed and walked away. She never asked where I was from, where I was going, or even what kind of gear I had stashed in my bags. The only detail she seemed to care about at all was that I was alone and on a bicycle in Southeast Alaska. Apparently, that was enough information for her.

As I pedaled along the cracked pavement toward town, it hit me. I really was alone. All alone. And for the first time in my life, I was striking out on an adventure with no one to rely on but myself.

I let my doubts wash over me as I worked my way along the flat road lining the banks of the Chilkat River. Even where Alaska is paved, it can feel stunningly remote. I remember describing it to Geoff in 2003 as "being hit head-on by the Wilderness Express." A sign that says "Next Services: 147 miles" can be daunting. Summer storms. Early snow. Hungry bears. Massive breakdowns. Crashes without 911. And yet, the thing that bothered me most was the garbage truck that kept passing me, again and again and again. By the time my mind conjured up all kinds of crazed stalker scenarios, I began to realize how silly dwelling on all of these fears really was.

I have to admit, though, that I was relieved to cross into Canada and out of the garbage man's territory. Right after customs, the road begins to climb to the pass. I had read horror stories about this climb, but the effort of riding up passes is never as bad as cyclists make it out to be. I felt the satisfying pull of elevation, and became completely engulfed in the rhythm of steady pedaling. I was almost surprised when I made it to the summit, feeling as though the day had just started, right there, at mile 60.

Despite the crush of mileage and time I was facing, I had already slipped deep into bicycle tourist mode. It has been nearly three years since my last tour, and I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy being out in the world, just me and my bike, together sharing everything we need. It helps me keep perspective on my outside life ... that for all of the complicated layers I wrap around it, life at its core can be starkly simple and small.

Bicycle tourist mode also lulls me into a dreamlike state where time and space begin to blur. Much of the Haines Highway looks so much like Wyoming. I couldn't help but drift back to thoughts of my ride across the state in 2003. And even as I told myself that it wasn't 2003, and I wasn't in Wyoming, and I was in fact going to have to ride a few hundred miles in the next two days and then go back to my full-time job in my soggy hometown ... part of me just didn't believe it.

I passed my first 100-mile mark at Million Dollar Falls, the place where I promised the Canadian customs guy I would stop for the night. But the sun still lingered against the mountains; my legs still felt strong; and there was a light tailwind out of the south that I did not want to waste. I decided to go as far as the wind carried me.

The sun set before the wind stopped. Darkness wrapped around the valleys and eventually engulfed the mountains. I rode with my headlights and taillight blinking for no one. I didn't see a soul out there for more than an hour. Aloneness began to settle in again. I had already ridden farther than I could have hoped for on the first day ... nearly 140 miles in a little less than 10 hours. The destination I had in mind, a campground, turned out to be a couple of kilometers down a side road. Deciding that it didn't actually matter where I curled up to sleep, I wheeled my bike off the road right there and laid out my bivy on a small patch of ground beneath the trees. I ate a package of tuna and three chocolate chip cookies for dinner. I was as happy as could be.

Alaska Hellway, Day 2

So I didn't take any pictures on Thursday. Not a single one. I think it's a good illustration of just how much my mood had swung, just how much I hated wind and hated heat and hated bicycles and hated any situation that would combine the three.

I rolled into Haines Junction at 8 a.m. Yukon time (having lost an hour) and ate a lingering breakfast at a motel. I had already pegged Whitehorse as my destination for the day and thought that, at 120 miles, it wouldn't be that hard of a ride. I didn't have any mountain ranges to climb. I was on a main road. What could be difficult?

By the time I left town at 9:30, the west wind had already kicked up. By 10 a.m., it was steady at at least 15 mph and gusting to 30, right into my face. The heat of the sun blasted off the pavement and I stopped to lather myself in SPF 45, again, and readjust my knee brace - which was chafing so bad that open sores were starting to form. "It's just a little wind. Just a little wind," I kept telling myself. But then my odometer dropped to 12 mph. And then 11. And then 10. When I began to struggle to push it out of the single digits is about the time I ran out of water.

The running out of water is my fault. I learned on Wednesday that squeezing water out of my filter bottle was quite a task. It was probably no more work than pumping a normal filter, but on Wednesday I was passing glass-clear, cider-sweet mountain streams every two miles and that had made me complacent and lazy. But in the dry spruce forest that lines the Alaska Highway, there are few streams and even fewer rest stops. With the wind and sun sucking every ounce of moisture out of my rainforest-acclimatized body, filling up just the one bottle was not going to cut it ... a fact I learned too late.

Running out of water made me really, really grumpy. When I finally did find a stream, it was the greenish kind of cow creek that no one wants to drink out of. Still, I chugged a full 24-ounce bottle full right there and filled it up again. But I didn't fill my other bottles because, I reasoned, there had to be a better creek coming up soon. Of course there wasn't.

Running out of water a second time made me really, really, really grumpy. So much so that I didn't know whether to laugh at myself or flag down an RV and beg for mercy. The wind never let up and I chugged into Whitehorse knowing that I wasn't just making a social call. I didn't have the energy or strength to go a mile further. I stopped at a gas station and bought two bottles of Gatorade and a Pepsi. I called Anthony and Sierra, who invited me to their house for a big barbecue with their friends, plied me with veggie or turkey burgers (I ate both), and set me up with a nice cold shower and a bed to sleep in. It wasn't exactly great training for roughing it out in the wild, but I didn't care. I was as happy as could be again.

White Pass, Day 3

I woke up at 3 a.m. Alaska time and was on the road by 3:30. The air was so cold that I could see my breath, and the morning fermented in darkness and silence. My friends encouraged me not to wake up that early, but I was no longer even trying to meet my 48-hour cutoff. I just wanted to make my ferry, and if Thursday's performance was any indicator, I needed all the time I could muster. Those dark miles were awful. I watched my odometer creep along like a working stiff watching a clock; when I finally turned the odometer screen off, I still counted every kilometer marker, then did the mileage conversion in my head. I knew it was going to be a long, long day.

Watching the sun rise in the midst of a long bike ride is always an amazing experience. It burns through negative emotions and washes over with a renewed sense of well-being. As much as I hated the sun on Thursday, I was genuinely excited to see it again.

By the time the sun crawled over the mountainous horizon, I had already pounded out 45 miles. The wind had completely subsided and I was moving along again at a respectable pace. I knew wind would be back with a vengeance at the pass, but for that moment I wanted to cease the gruelling march against the clock and just enjoy where I was again. Back in bicycle tourist mode, I lingered for a while at the Carcross Desert, running my fingers through the cold sand.

Climbing back into the high country was a visual bombardment that I could scarcely cope with. In my sleep-deprived, carbo-loaded, bike-addled state, I wasn't just watching the mountains, trees, lakes and sky ... I was rocketing into another world with colors so intense, they seeped into all my other senses. I would think things such as "It smells like vermilion" and believe it. Yes, I was crazy, but I was having fun again.

Later, all of these pictures I took would disappoint me. They nearly broke my heart. They didn't show what I saw out there at all, with their washed-out colors and flat contours. My memories of White Pass already only flicker in the transparent space between perception and reality. I do remember that the 40 miles before the pass netted the most difficult riding of the trip. The road surface switched between gravel and rough, rock-strewn semi-pavement that was worse than gravel. The route bypassed the series of lakes that define the headwaters of the Yukon River by rising and dipping over steep drainages ... every mile was a big climb followed by an only slightly shorter, screaming drop. The famous prevailing wind showed up right on time, bringing gales so strong that I had to hold onto my gloves when I stopped for water, to keep them from blowing out of my life forever.

I was moving at a snail's pace the last 15 miles to the pass. I distinctly remember looking at my odometer several times and never seeing anything above 7 mph. But I was not bitter about it, or disheartened, or demoralized, or everything I was on Thursday. I no longer cared about the numbers, or the ticking clock, or the mad race toward arbitrary goals. It was just me and my bike, and we had everything we needed. The rest would come together in its own time.

I knew I was close to the end of the trip when I looked toward the condensation forming over the mountains. Nothing says "Welcome to Southeast Alaska" like a wall of clouds. And even as I chugged toward the pass with fatigue and dreams of warm pizza creeping back into my consciousness, I was still a little sad that my trip was nearly over.

At the pass was a block-lettered sign that said "Entering the United States." That was the final blow ... so formal and uncaring. From the pass, it is only 11 miles into Skagway. Even with the fierce headwind, one could coast the whole way and hardly even turn the pedals. I was terrified *terrified* of the descent, so I mostly inched down it at 20-25 mph, pumping my brakes and grinding my teeth. My fingers went completely numb so I stopped once at a runaway truck ramp to warm them up. A group of shuttled cyclists was there taking pictures of a waterfall while their sag wagon idled alongside. One of them called out to me, "Looks like you earned this!"

"Yeah, I guess" I said with a small laugh, but what I really wanted to do was ask for a ride down in their sag wagon.

Back in town and sucking down cold sodas at the pizza parlor, my brain began to shut down pretty quickly. I pulled out a pen and piece of newspaper in hopes of scribbling down some quick numbers or final thoughts. Most of the time, when I am embarking on an adventure that I think of as challenging or even "epic," I think I will come back a changed person, or at least different somehow. I always return understanding that I will not change, and I won't be different, but I will have a better realization of who I am.


  1. Congratulations on a great ride, and very informative write up ! Some of your pictures seem very similar to the areas I rode in Southern Patagonia - your pictures are beautiful. That woman at the beginning who said you were either brave or crazy - is there some kind of cult that forces people to ask that very question almost everywhere I go? What is up with that? You should have responded to her question: "Are you going to hurl yourself down that river with just a paddle? You must be just crazy, not brave". I've begun to get inventive when people make those stupid questions. Welcome back. Sounds like a ride I hope to do sometime soon !

  2. An amazing adventure.
    It is the type of experience more of us need to have to put our daily world in better perspective. The challenges of life would surely be easier knowing the limits one can push themselves to.
    I'm glad to hear it was difficult but enlightening, challenging but fulfilling and you met your goals.
    Very glad to see that you were successful and returned safely!

  3. For all my years in Alaska I have never been to this area. Really nice photo essay. I usually strive to have people in my pictures, but in this case no - the pictures nicely convey the sense of you being alone. I'm envious; that's my kind of riding. Thanks for sort of taking us along.

    Besides water, anything you didn't have along that you wish you would have?

    And "hating the heat." In Alaska? How often does that happen!

  4. Wow Jill the Alaska Department of tourism should be sending you checks, you made me really want to come to Alaska with my bike.

  5. why is the end so anti climatic at times?

  6. I think, you can call your ride EPIC.
    You better not change, because, we all love you the way you are:)

    Great job on the ride and write.

    I know that is not good English but it rhymes...well almost.

  7. Magical. Immense. Real.

    I concur with oldmanandhisbike and velocc.

    Thank you for giving us a taste of your grand adventure!

  8. Jill, you are such an inspiration to me. I've been reading your blog ever since fatcyclist posted a link to you months and months ago. I am a 39-year-old female cyclist and former journalist from Kansas. Thank you for your blog and the inspiration.

  9. Congratullations, Jill. Wonderfull travel. It´s great to read about it.
    Best regards from Spain.

  10. Shieit -- you so rock, girl ... I am really jealous if you must know.

    What a great trip.

    "And even as I chugged toward the pass with fatigue and dreams of warm pizza ..."

    Very good. I am going to start saving for my Alaska vacation.

  11. Congrats on the adventure. Once again the pictures are awesome. I was thinking of your trek all week. Glad that your knee didn't give you too much trouble.

  12. Was looking forward to this post....congratulations....loved this:

    " I enjoy being out in the world, just me and my bike......It helps me keep perspective on my outside life ... that for all of the complicated layers I wrap around it, life at its core can be starkly simple and small."

    Excellent, excellent excellent

  13. I have driven that same route, but never biked it. My photos disappointed me too. It's funny but I can tell that some of your photos were taken at the same spots where I took mine. Ah well, the photos help to redraw the scenes in my mind, even if they don't capture the space. Thanks for taking me along on your trip!

    Carolyn H.

  14. Hey Jill,

    Great write-up and photos! I go up and down these roads all the time but I love seeing it through different eyes (and legs).

    It was great seeing you again, glad you could stop by for a BBQ. Sierra and I are already talking about riding that loop next year, you've inspired us.

    I was out at Carcross today mountain biking on Montana mountain. The winds were fierce, I can't imagine riding out on the highway. You're some kind of machine!


  15. Jill, I love reading your stuff.

  16. Bummer I didn't see you were doing this before you did it! I'm halfway between Whse & HJ and I would have either given you water or passed you onto the creek everyone in the area uses - Stoney Creek - remember it?? Crystal clear water... ;)

    Either way, you made it! Good job!! You also picked the hottest few days of the summer to do it! :)

  17. Its a feast for my eyes and such a close encounter with nature.

    Nature is a God's given bliss and I throughly enjoyed those moments captured by you, which will remain in my memory forever.



    Wide Circles

  18. Always my favorite tourist spot is Alaska.Especially that mountain areas.I am feeling very great riding at that places.And there we get good sea food.




  19. My favorite tourist place is My home village, I like that place because of the weather, and my friends.

  20. This is nice blog, I gather alot of information form here. Iam new to this blog I want to know more information about this blog.

  21. The area that became Alaska was purchased from the Russian Empire after Congress concluded its resources could be vitally important to the nation's future growth.


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