Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Golden days on the Golden Circle, Day 3

Date: Sept. 27
Mileage: 105
September mileage: 893.0

I woke up to the horrifying noise of something chewing on what sounded like bones, directly below me. The wooden platform I had set up my bivy on was propped several feet above the ground, and something was down there, shuffling around and gnawing away. My first reaction was to freeze with fear, but I knew I couldn't live like that all night, and figured whatever it was already knew I was up there. It didn't sound too huge and grizzly bear-like, so I decided I would have to scare it away. I unzipped the layers of my bivy sack, turned on my headlamp and started to yell. A streak of gray fur darted through the light's beam and scampered away. I never got a good lock on it with my headlamp, but I figured it was a fox or possibly a coyote.

The animal continued to terrorize me throughout the night, creeping back under the deck multiple times and crunching away until I stirred from my restless sleep, wrestled out of my bivy and jumped up and down on the deck in my socks until it ran away. Toward morning I was more irritated than scared, and sick of watching its gray butt disappear into the darkness as a cloud of condensed breath swirled in my spotlight. Thick frost was forming on everything and the night had become deeply clear. I could see stars behind stars behind stars. I was glad I had packed Geoff's -20 degree winter bag, even if it was overkill. After the fox/coyote/baby-wolf-from-hell ran away, I could slip back into my cocoon of total warmth and slowly drift into oblivion.

After the animal's 7 a.m. breakfast call, I decided it was time to finally get out of there. As I packed up, I checked the thermometer inside my Camelbak pocket. The red line hovered right around 20 degrees. Which meant, yup, my water was frozen. Should have slept with it. I also decided the night officially counted as my first winter camping trip of the season.

In the low light of morning, I could see another long descent into what turned out to be the Million Dollar Falls campground, so I bundled up accordingly. The road had, luckily, mostly dried overnight, but there were still patches of ice dotting the shoulder, so sometimes I veered into the rough gravel to dodge it. The sky also was beginning to cloud up again. I caught a few pink rays of sunrise before the gray hues closed in.

I never heard a car go by in the night, and didn't see my first one in the morning until nearly an hour after I hit the road. I would later learn the driver, a local rancher, mistook me in my baby blue down coat and balaclava for "an old Russian guy" who seemed to be in need of help (not sure what I had been doing to make it appear that way, besides riding a bicycle.) I guess the rancher didn't try to stop and help me himself because he thought I was a scary old Russian guy. Those Yukoners aren't like us Alaskans. We keep an eye on those Russians. Just ask Sarah Palin.

The landscape was beautifully frosty, with hints of Wyoming in early winter. There was even a ranch up there in the high plains below the pass, with horses dressed in green felt coats. I didn't like to imagine what their life must be like in January.

About 20 miles down the road I ran into another bicycle tourist, which completely shocked me. His name is Ed and he had originally planned to ride his bike from Anchorage to Denver. I knew this about him because I had randomly stumbled across his wife's blog just a week earlier during my regular Web surfing. My first reaction was that Ed was way off the Alaska Highway, and I wondered if he had intended to take a 70-mile detour. Turns out he ran into snowstorms at a couple of passes out of Alaska and decided to hop the ferry south from Haines to Bellingham, Wash., and ride from there. He told me the story about the rancher, who had stopped to talk to Ed after ignoring me. Ed said I did look a little extremely bundled up. But the temperature was still in the 20s! Ed was wearing the kind of get-up I put on when it's 55 degrees and raining in Juneau. But whatever. I get it. I'm a cold wimp.

Ed and I rode together for a while, talking about his trip and our bike set-ups. I don't think he was too impressed with my bivy bundle. I explained to him how I could just roll it out and crawl inside without any set-up, and how nice it was to tour rack-free. He told me he'd probably stick with rear panniers. Bicycle tourists. Such purists. ;-)

Ed decided he wanted to stop for a while and I told him I wait up for him later so we could pull each other through the always infuriating afternoon headwinds along the Chilkat River. Alone again in the highlands, I was riding strong and relaxed, my legs hardly noticing the 300 miles behind them, aware that I was probably riding what would turn out to be my favorite section of the entire trip. Throughout my life, my memories and experiences have been strongly influenced by the landscapes that frame them. I am a connoisseur of space. In the same way that some people cultivate gardening and cooking until they can't separate their hobbies from their more abstract values of growth and creation, I have come to view human-powered travel as the only way to read the language of the landscape. And what I understand, I fall in love with, unconditionally.

Although I live and love my life in the rainforest lowlands of Juneau, I find the landscapes I am most in love with are often high and barren. I sometimes wonder why this is. Maybe it's because they're more difficult to reach. Or because they're largely untouched by human interference ... places almost primordial in their wildness and wholly indifferent to my presence ... places I can move through freely and that move freely through me.

Just beyond the pass is the best 20 miles of road biking I have had the privilege to ride - the screaming descent from Haines Highway Summit to the U.S. border. I rode this stretch once before, in May, and was was completely enthralled by the way the mountains hurtled toward me like I was a spaceship about to crash into a snow-dusted planet. This time around, I was tearing through a blur of gold and green with tears streaming down my face in the cold wind. All of the weight on my bike gave me that extra bit of oomph to really push the limits of speed. The last 11 miles passed in a couple of blinks ... a few beautiful minutes of weightlessness. As I approached U.S. customs, I had this fleeting desire to ride back up to the pass and do it all again. But I am not crazy. OK, not that crazy.

I stopped along the Chilkat River and ate my lunch - which turned out to be what little I had left of my food: a few crushed rice chips, almonds, and my last Clif Bar. Since my horribly under-fueled first day, I had been eating well and a lot, and actually underestimated the food I'd need for the last leg of the trip when I left Haines Junction. I saved my last peanut butter cups as a special reward - a carrot to ride toward in case the Chilkat winds tried to break me. I waited for a little while for Ed, but eventually set out alone.

The afternoon headwind, which is a near constant in this region, was extremely kind. It was strong, but mostly moved through in gusts. For long stretches, the air would be almost still. I was beginning to feel the physical effects of my ride - hints of saddle sores, tight shoulders, a kink in my back where the Camelback rested, mushy quad muscles. But for the most part, I felt good, and happy to be on my bike. When hunger pangs started to kick up, and when light sprinkles started to hit my face (the first rain I had felt the entire trip), I just told myself that cycling is fun and everyone should be so lucky to ride along the Chilkat on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in autumn. I was almost disappointed when the mile markers entered single digits and I realized I had less than 10 miles to ride to Haines. It's hard to really describe how much stronger, more relaxed and content I felt during the last 10 miles of my trip compared to the first. It was like day and night.

I rolled into Haines a little before 4 p.m. and got a hotel room downtown. I walked to the grocery store to pick up a bunch of snacks and breakfast. Not much more than an hour after I arrived, the wind picked up considerable speed and rain began to fall in force. The near-hurricane continued for the rest of the night. I just stood by the window, eating a bowl of cereal, listening to cable TV in my warm hotel room, watching daggers of rain tear sideways through the darkness and thinking, "wow, what would that be like to be caught out in that?" But that horrible storm just missed me, and I had overall great fall weather for the three days I was on the road. What did I tell you about me and the Golden Circle? Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Still, I thought about how I wouldn't mind another day or seven out on the road, with nothing to do but ride my bike and take in enormous amounts of beautiful space. I love bike touring. Adding the endurance factor, the distance and the long days, seems to make the experience even more rewarding. Last year after riding the Golden Circle, I had this huge sense of accomplishment. My feelings this year were more subdued - that I didn't overcome any great adversity. That I was already over the learning curve before I started. Still, I did learn new things about myself out there, and about cycling - especially the power and liabilities of riding alone. I'm sure I'll be back out there again someday, hopefully someday soon. But right now, I have visions of longer fast tours edging into my dreams.