Monday, September 29, 2008

Golden days on the Golden Circle, Day 2

Date: Sept. 26
Mileage: 154
September mileage: 788.0

"I guess I lied about it being light at 7:30," Sierra told me as we pedaled groggily toward downtown Whitehorse in the pre-dawn cold. "I swear it was two weeks ago."

"I'm sure it was two weeks ago," I said. Daylight fades fast this time of year; an entire hour can be taken away in two weeks time, and we were already facing more darkness and light. I could tell by the gray pall over the sky that it was significantly more cloudy than it had been the day before. I had planned for rain but really, really wanted it to elude me. This was, after all, my vacation. Not some endurance training death march.

We parked outside a small convention center and lined up at crowded buffet tables, piling paper plates high with pancakes, hash browns and eggs. I suckled caffeinated beverages and juicy oranges and all of the warm fuel I could stuff down. I was randomly visiting Whitehorse on a Friday morning, and managed to line up my trip with a huge United Way fundraising all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. What did I say about me and the Golden Circle? Lucky, lucky, lucky. It was a great way to start day two.

And I really was feeling much better as I climbed away from the Yukon River and began the trek up the Alaska Highway. I had a tough day one, but I'm really not in all that terrible of shape for fast touring. I wasn't sore and my stomach was feeling much more calm despite the fact I had just eaten a large amount of greasy, sugary food (I usually try to keep my meals small and frequent when I am riding.) The rising sun filtered through breaks in the clouds and cast streaks of light over the valley. All around me were dark patches of scattered showers, but the road seemed to skirt all of them. I began to shed my layers as the temperature climbed comfortably into the mid-40s. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Most of the trees along the river valley were barren, the grass dry and the road covered in brittle, brown leaves. I smiled at the idea that in a single 24-hour period, I had managed to ride my bike from a region where fall was still in its half-green infancy - Skagway - to a place where fall was pretty much over.

There still were patches of color among the grays and browns - holdout trees. Muted sunlight continued to find its way through an overcast sky. Traffic along the Alaska Highway was light, which surprised me. It is, after all, the main corridor between the Lower 48 and Alaska. But not that many tourists care to be up here this time of year. I can't figure out why.

One aspect that really stood apart for me on day two was how much strength I derived from the effort of cycling. Rather than feel weakened by the passing miles, I felt empowered. GPS indicated a respectable speed average, and I could feel the pleasant burn of my quad muscles firing with every pedal stroke. It helps that the climbing was much more easy-going than it had been along the Klondike Highway. The air remained almost completely calm, and the breeze was a tailwind when it was anything at all. My pace continued strong, relaxed but determined, as I paralleled the snow-capped mountains that I would eventually have to cross again. But with no definite plans about where to stop for the night and everything I needed strapped to by heavy-but-burly bike, I could sit up high, drink in the subtle colors, and enjoy life in the moment.

I stopped in Haines Junction for a late lunch, 100 miles already behind me and a mere 150 more to go. The comfortable routine of distance touring was sinking in, and 100 miles was already starting to seem like a short distance. I found a general store and walked around in a bike-addled haze, completely confused by the Canadian choices before me. Not only is everything wrapped in half-French labels, it's also weighed in grams, not ounces, and always seems to be just a little bit different than versions of the same food in the U.S. I wanted peanut butter chocolate chip chewy granola bars, but could only find raspberry ones in a box of six, not ten. I sought out more peanut butter cups, but they were horribly expensive given the equal exchange rate, so I settled on these strange giant Kit Kat bars, which offered more calories on the dollar. I couldn't find Clif Bars, so I bought almonds, then loaded up with fruit, vegetables, bread and Gatorade that I planned to devour at a picnic table out front before I headed into the remote, serviceless, "no fuel" wastelands of the Haines Highway.

As I climbed away from town, I decided I would keep riding until dark and then find a good spot to bivy. Even though I was carrying a magazine, I didn't think sitting around camp as temperatures dropped below freezing would be all that fun, even if I did motivate to build a fire. No, I was going to ride to nightfall and then sleep good and long - after all, the darkness still consumed more than 12 hours of the day. Fall color began to return to the trees as I pedaled south. It was almost like moving back in time.

By dusk, I was well beyond the spot where I camped last year - Kathleen Lake - and aware that I was somewhat close to a campground called Million Dollar Falls. The idea of trying to reach a campground was appealing. Yukon campgrounds are sometimes equipped with covered picnic areas, and I was still dodging rainstorms that soaked the highways and were starting to hit me peripherally as snow flurries. I decided to push for it. Darkness descended and the already extremely light traffic stopped altogether. My headlights cast an eerie white glow on the rough, wet pavement, which was glittering with flecks of ice. I began to develop an unsettling awareness of how alone I was. The old familiar feeling was frightening, almost debilitating, and to top it all off, the sleep monster had started to creep in. Ditches and small notches in cliffsides started to look like appealing places to take a nap. Still, I thought, the campground couldn't be far.

My pace slowed considerably because I couldn't tell wet pavement from black ice. The road started to dip into some long descents, and I realized a crash out there could be especially dangerous, since another car was not likely to drive by until morning. I listened to the creepy squeal of my wet brakes as I death-gripped the levers, actually praying for the downhill to end. When I finally bottomed out, I pounded at full, red-zone throttle up the next long hill, sucking air just to burn off the residual fear. I ended up at a scenic overlook, with a wooden deck built over a hillside. "This is perfect!" I thought. "It will get me off the ground and there's even a bench I can roll under if it starts to rain or snow heavily." You might think it's strange that with all of that beautiful forest surrounding me, I would choose to camp on a deck. But it's vastly lonely out there, and like I child who can't give up her security blanket, I find myself clinging to any outposts of human civilization.

I didn't know at the time that I was less than three kilometers from Million Dollar Falls. If I had ridden about 300 yards further, I would have seen a sign indicating the campground was two kilometers away. But the overlook wasn't a bad spot to bivy down. The time was just before 9 p.m. I looked up to the sky and noticed large patches of clear sky that were nearly whitewashed with millions of glittering stars. My GPS indicated I had stopped at about 2,900 feet - an elevation nearly as high as some of the alpine peaks around Juneau. None of this boded well for how low the temperature might dip overnight, so I bundled up in my sleeping bag and shivered nervously, hoping my heart rate would slow down for just a few minutes so I could fall asleep.