Something’s Out There
A Bicycle Journey into the Wild
D. S. White
CHAPTER ONE: WHEELS ON THE WATER
In the morning I watched the coastline as we passed by British Columbia. I tried to imagine myself out there in a small boat, such as a kayak, paddling close to shore. Brian had mentioned how difficult it had been to find places to camp along the Yukon River. He recalled one night when they’d been forced to sleep on jagged rocks at the water’s edge. The shoreline we now passed was also steeply inclined and heavy with trees. I looked for a place to put up a tent and found none. I also watched out for bears.
Sometime in the morning we crossed over an invisible boundary and were back in U.S. waters. We were now running alongside the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States. At the southern end of the Tongass is the Misty Fjords National Monument, and at the northern end, Glacier Bay National Park. Between the two is 500 miles of wooded coastline.
We stopped in Ketchikan and I took my first walk in Alaska. Just like any other coastal town, there were boats and houses along the waterfront. The main street was busy with bicycle, car and foot traffic. I headed downtown and found an Internet café and sent off a few emails to update my friends back home. Yes, I was going to Alaska with my bicycle. No, I hadn’t been eaten by bears yet.
My legs were sore from the bike ride to Bellingham. I had intended to let my muscles recover over the three days spent on the boat, before landing in Haines, where the real journey by bicycle would begin. The sudden stiff jolt brought on by walking around Ketchikan reminded me of the need to pace myself. I also found it important to begin a routine of stretching my muscles daily.
We arrived back on board just in time. Almost everyone I had met on the ferry was now gone. Allen was at the ranger station. Brian and his wife were moving their car to a ferry bound for Prince of Wales Island. I’d seen John driving his big yellow school bus through town and had waved at him, but he hadn’t noticed me, a smile plastered across his face. He was almost home for the summer.
North of Ketchikan the weather turned cold, wet, and dark. More like the coastal weather patterns back home, it was also more like what I had expected to encounter throughout the Inside Passage. To my surprise, we had been having great weather this far. Geographically, I thought I could see why someone would want to live here, with such a good climate. However, I had arrived at that notion a little too soon, because what we had been experiencing was exceptional. The Pacific Northwest coastal region is one of the wettest places in North America. Ketchikan, known for its liquid sunshine, sometimes receives over 100 consecutive days of rainfall.
I had walked through Ketchikan with a man named Harlan and we climb back up the stairs to the top of the boat together. Harlan was an ornithologist from Holland. As we sat on the top deck of the boat, he pointed out birds flying near the water and told me their names.
I began to stroll around the top of the boat every hour, eager to put my legs to use after nearly two full days of resting. On one walk around the boat, I ran into another cyclist who was also taking his bicycle to the end, the far destination of Haines, Alaska. He intended to ride the 2,100 miles back to his home in Portland and he thought he could be there in a month.
I detailed for him the roads I would take on my way north to the Arctic Ocean. He said he had considered the same route, but had changed his mind after researching the Dalton Highway. This is the road between Fairbanks and Deadhorse, the town I was aiming for at the top of the continent.
It was the first time I had heard anything about it. I knew the road was over 500 miles long and that services open to the public would be hard to find, but I expected difficult conditions like that all across the state. To make it up the Dalton Highway, I would have to carry enough food to cover over a week of strenuous cycling.
He explained that he hadn’t brought along a cooking stove, prepared instead to dine on prepackaged food. He hadn’t brought along a water filter either, something I found unusual, but he said there were plenty of sources of drinkable water along the way. He said he’d traveled like this before and knew how to find water in the wild. I didn’t think it was going to be as easy as he suggested.
A week ago, he had completed a kayaking trip around Baja California. The skin on his feet was still peeling from prolonged exposure to saltwater. I asked him if he expected to have any trouble pedaling with his feet like that. He said he had cycled long distances in the past and intended to get right back into it.
We would both be riding on mountain bikes with knobby tires. Some riders preferred to switch over to smoother tires, like the ones the road cyclists used. But for me, riding on knobby tires wasn’t a problem. The addition weight of the camping gear on the back of the bike challenged the balance of the rider on corners. I found that these tires gripped the road better when leaning over into a turn.
I couldn’t wait to get out on my own. Harlan was going to kayak across Glacier Bay to the Muir Glacier. The next day he said goodbye and caught a flight out of Juneau for the national park.
North of Juneau I saw a glacier for the first time. I was alone now, standing at the side of the boat, wondering what waited ahead of me. The Mendenhall Glacier looked as if a giant flood had come rushing down from the mountains, which had then frozen solid instantly. I couldn’t imagine myself riding my mountain bike across a glacier. And I hoped it would never come down to that.
In a couple days, I would need to climb over a mountain pass on the road from Haines to Haines Junction, pedaling uphill for close to twenty miles. I’d never ridden over a mountain pass before. And I would attempt it the first time on a bike full of camping gear. If I could pull that off, it would be one of the high points of my life. All I had to do was pedal, I reminded myself. But what if the pedals refused to turn?