Easter Sunday… fine spring weather in the northern panhandle is gracing the Chilkat Valley, and after a bout of home chores, I dig out the sleepy Surly Ogre from her months long nap for a kick up the Haines Highway to see what I can see. She snorts and growls, but soon is bucking wildly and fully resurrected. We spin down to Mountain Market for a cup of mud and then the highway is ours.
The sun is shining and it is a glorious day to be onboard the Ogre and spinning north. The high peaks of the Chilkat Range are spilling their sizable glaciers into magnificent sunlight, sending a deep chill down into me that strikes me every time I see it. I look to the north, into the mountains of British Columbia where friends are enjoying some spring backcountry skiing and I wish for them the same fine weather I am experiencing down here in the valley.
Coming into view at six mile of the Haines Highway is a small pond where two Swans float about grooming and obviously enjoying the beautiful day as well. Further past, the usual herd of Mountain Goats are clinging wildly to the flanks of Peak 3920, their white shapes ever so clear against the grey and rocky slopes they are suspended upon. I bet they too are happy that spring has finally arrived in Alaska.
It feels good to be on the Ogre again, sliding silently along while the beauty of the valley unfolds. The springtime is always a special time here; life is unfolding everywhere and the glaciers shine as bright as ever. The weather, such as days like this, seem to prevail. Not always of course, but often times the case.
At the 15 mile mark, I turn the beast around and we pedal home, stopping once more to speak with the Swans from earlier. At home later, I make some adjustment to the steed and vow to get aboard more often during this fine spring event.
2016 has been a good year. There has been much activity on my end regarding photography and video production and the hope and dream of one day not having to build houses for a living are just a teensy bit closer. There have been many small adventures in the form of day hikes, or stomps, as I like to call them, generally along the forested Bear trails along the Chilkat and Tsirku Rivers. Often is the case when I simply head out into the Alaskan forests and thickets and stomp, off trail, to glorious and unheralded spots for my own simple pleasure.
There was even one big adventure this year when I embarked on a pedaling trip aboard the omnipotent Surly Ogre and rode from my house in Haines to Skagway via Whitehorse. A mere eight day voyage that was over far too soon. Next year there are tentative plans for a ten day trip down a portion of Alaska’s magical and seldom visited outer coast, AKA the Lost Coast. A trip that will involve both legs, packraft, and bush plane. Also planned is a mountaineering trip somewhere locally with a friend from down south coming for an adventure in August.
Unfortunately, writing has been on the back burner, but capturing the Alaska world on video has been my focus. This latest video “OK In The AK” is all footage from the venerable Autumn here in Haines, and compiled as both a show piece for selling stock video as well as an artistic expression of the wilderness prevailing.
After getting mentally and physically prepped for the last couple of weeks, I awake one Monday morning and decide that leaving several days early on a ride of the North’s “Golden Triangle” is in order. My boss and co-workers seem to have no issue with the notion, and off I go to take care of last minute details at home.
Some folk’s call the ride in question the ”Alaska Golden Triangle”, which is a misconception since most of the ride occurs in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The route however, starts in Alaska, crosses British Columbia, traverses about 180 miles of the Yukon’s mighty interior, crosses back into B.C., and finally ending in Alaska at Skaguay. The first few miles and the entirety of my first day pedaling consist of the Chilkat and Klehini River corridors through the beautiful Chilkat Valley, ending at the Canadian/ U.S. border and the beginning of the climb up to Haines Summit, more locally known as Chilkat Pass. This Pass separates the interior of Northern B.C. and the Yukon from the coastal and heavily glaciated Chilkat Mountains and Alaska’s ice capped Coast Range, of which temperate and maritime systems exist at their feet. It is in this coastal region that Haines, and my home exist.
Going to bed a bit late and waking casually, I dress in my normal bicycle traveler garb consisting of loose fitting nylon pants, t-shirt, Loose fitting long-sleeve shirt, and lace up cross training footwear. Onto the Ogre, I spin into town to meet with Angela and grab some coffee and breakfast before commencing to the endless highway.
After a casual time at Sarah J’s eatery in Haines, I say goodbye to Angela and begin the flat and pleasant cruise up the highway in hopes of finding a good camp near the border. Hours later, a faint path appears on the river side of the road leading through the Alder thickets and ends abruptly on the Cotton Grass flats above the Klehini River. A great camp with views of the Saksaia Glacier and fine and tasty drinking water direct from the river has me smiling on this first evening of the trip.
Many bicycle travelers it seem have a burning desire, especially in the northern tier, to seek out camping in “official” and pay campgrounds where other people gather. To my thinking, this never really made any sense, not here in the northern wilderness, where some of the best and most plentiful free range camping are to be had for the taking. Why pay to sleep when one can create their own world wherever one wishes? Many claim it is their fear of Bears. After spending more nights out in the Alaskan and Yukon bush than I can count, I believe that the Bears have far more to fear from Humans than the contrary. Of course extreme occurrences can happen, but being smart about the way one camps greatly diminishes these chances. In fact, I believe that having Bear problems are increased in public camping areas where Bears may be conditioned to Humans and their glorious trash. As far as the social thing is concerned, well, to each there own. Camping alone in these wild places allows me breathing room and a purposeful reflection towards the natural world and creates in me a great and humbling respect for it. This is where I can watch the river flow and the Falcon soar; hear the wind blow and smell the sweetness of the North in the air unencumbered by a Human world that tends to feel dominance toward all I see before me. That said, loneliness could from time to time drop in for an unexpected visit. But not tonight.
The morning sees rain pattering the rain fly of the tent and I must say I dread it, since today is a big climb up to Chilkat Pass, where I am hoping to spend more than a day hiking and bagging a peak or two if the weather cooperates, But, cooperating it is not and I pack up my little world and spin the mile up the road to the Canadian Customs gate and soon I am climbing upward into the big grind known as “Marinka’s Hill”, the primary climb up to the pass. The rain shows no sign of letting up and I don rain gear and continue, sweating as much on the inside of the clothing as the rain on the opposite. As the storm intensifies, I realize there will be no hanging around and leisurely climbing mountains, but instead, waiting the fury out tent bound. Just past Three Guardsmen Lake, in a low hollow just before the main summit, I pitch my tent and dive in. For the next 18 hours I read, eat, drink a beer or two, and sleep. The following morning the rain is continuing, but I must go on and the tent is put away wet and the pedaling continues. At the pass proper, the rain stops, clouds open, and glorious sunshine reveals itself, if only for a few minutes. Then it begins again. But heavier this time. Soon torrential downfalls of drops appear, and for a moment, even the roadway ahead is barely visible to my eyes. Although a part of the journey, especially in the North, rain can make the difference between pure suffering and pure bliss on a bicycle voyage.
Later, after the rain lets up, I cross the Yukon’s Takhanne River and set up a pleasant camp next to the water and bathe my foul clothing and myself. Snacking on my supper that evening, I watch a Hawk harass the Swallows at the entrance to their mud nests burrowed deep into the ancient riverbank. Clouds gather and then part again while the sun peeks in to cast great and colorful splashes of yellow and orange against the rocky mountainsides before me. Patches of deep blue sky swirl around the sun/cloud union like a predator in pursuit. At midnight, a Loon cries out from somewhere nearby, and the only thing stirring now is the soft and occasional breeze gently touching the tops of the Spruce and Aspen stands situated nearby camp.
To my ears, the call of the Loon is one of the most enjoyable and haunting sounds coming from the forest and lakes. It is nearly as engaging as the sound of the Wolf howling in the dark of night. And as I pedaled the next morning up a monstrous Yukon hill, one of the biggest of the trip, the Loons were creating a symphony of joyous monotony pushing me upward and over that mound and deeper into the great Yukon interior I love so much. I meet a 64 year old French man on a decrepit bicycle, heavily loaded and carrying an axe for which to chop twigs for his home made hobo stove. He has spent a great deal of his life traveling by bicycle in various parts of the planet, and travel in these parts is not alien to him. Later in the day, I take a side trip to the ancient native village of Klukshu. A side trip of about a half mile leads to the small but Salmon heavy Klukshu River, where native people have been harvesting Chinook, Sockeye, and Coho Salmon for millennia. I arrive at the bank of the tiny river; a Sockeye splashes about as it sees me, there is not a soul around but the fish and myself, lest a Bear hidden in the forest nearby. The village is deserted. There is something going on here that is unexplainable; there is an ancient sensation that I am somehow connected to that feels both like sadness and deep connected love. The air feels thick with history and community. Tears swell my eyes as I sit next to the river; this strange place I have never been feels like home. It is strange indeed. If there is such a thing as past lives, then I’m certain I was a Native North American. I pedal onward and past the equally haunting and beautiful Kathleen Lake and the beginning of the colorful and rugged Kluane Range, forefront to the overwhelmingly enormous St Elias Range and Mt Logan. Home to the second tallest peak in North America and some of the biggest and expansive ice fields and glaciers on Earth. The Yukon is a mind-blowing place indeed. Soon I am rolling into Haines Junction for a meal and some re-supply on food and luxuries.
Now I am into the thick of things. The Alaska Highway is traffic heavy compared to the mellow Haines Highway, where trucks shipping supplies from Canada to Alaska whiz by at maximum speed and clueless tourons barely in control of bloated recreational homes-on-wheels as big as my house meander down the pavement, gawking at the scenery and not watching the road, too lazy or disinterested to actually stop and explore beyond their steering wheel, most of these southern travelers never really see much at all.
The pedaling is flat and windless; miles fly by. The Ogre slithers along in silence. The endless boreal forest of the interior swallows me up and I am one with it. Arctic Ground Squirrels scurry in and out of the roadway as if attempting to throw themselves under passing vehicles. I often hear bicycle travelers complain about the sometimes endless and monotonous stretches of Alaska and the Yukon’s boreal timberland, saying that it is a dread to ride through it. Beats riding through most anywhere down south if you ask me. I connect with this forest; to me, this boreal play land is an endless supply of tranquility, animals, lakes, rivers, muskeg, swamp, taiga, streams, and beauty. There is a living breathing force here that cannot be ignored. To me, there is nothing monotonous about it. Riding through endless highway traffic and Human civilization is monotonous, dangerous, and disturbing-nowhere to camp either.
The climate and terrain is changing rapidly from a wet mountain environment, to an almost desert like boreal landscape that reminds me somewhat of western Colorado. A several mile gravel section of road appears near the Native village of Champagne, and I unknowingly watch as the last stream goes past and some 25 miles later, I am running low on water. At the 61 mile mark for the day, I emerge on the banks of Stoney Creek; a crystal clear mountain stream perfect for both drinking and bathing, and with an endless supply of ripened Raspberries growing adjacent to it’s flanks. I call this lovely place home for the evening and settle in with a sizeable grin adoring my mug, all the while snacking on raspberries for dessert.
In Whitehorse, I’m tossed into a world I have not seen in a long time. Since moving to Haines nearly three years ago, I have not left at all, except to go see an orthopedic last year when I broke my ankle at work. Haines is a quiet little Alaskan town; very little commotion at all. Whitehorse on the other hand, although quite tame by modern city standards, was abrupt, fast, and in my face a bit. I actually like Whitehorse. It is a small city of about 40,000 souls, with tons of mountain bike and hiking trails, the glorious Yukon River, and surrounded by endless wilderness. But on this day, to me here and now, I just wanted to get through it and back to my forest. Pedaling through town finds me along the Yukon River and past the hydro power dam and on the shores of Schwatka Lake, a Human made reservoir with float planes and powerboats here and there, but still a beautiful and serene place to be camped. That night, I awake about 1:00 am and noticed the first star in the northern sky since late April. Summer is slowly closing down and the days are getting a hair shorter each cycle. Before you know it, there will be some of the white stuff back on the ground, the tourists will be back in Florida, Texas and all parts south, and the Bears will be heading to their high country denning grounds to await the next round of Salmon entering the rivers in May.
Heading south on the Klondike Highway in the morning, I pedal all the way to Spirit Lake and devour a breakfast there before spinning down into Carcross (Caribou Crossing) and the beginning of what is known as the “southern lakes region” of the Yukon. In this part of the Province, there are many, many extremely long, deep, cold water lakes; meltwater remnants of the massive glaciers that covered this part of the Yukon a millennia ago. These lakes are a thing of beauty to say the least. Encased in wilderness, and rising from them mighty mountain ranges so remote, few have seen their endless and omnipotent shores outside of a powerboat. Soon, I can see the coastal mountains rising from the horizon and the beginnings of small yet prominent glaciers adorning their sides. The road now traverses the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake and around the bulk of Tutshi Lake, where this highway begins to tilt upward a bit, and the Yukon/B.C. border comes and goes. More climbing in the distance I can see, for White Pass is ahead, separating Canada from Alaska and the end of my Journey at Skaguay.
Finding no outstanding place to camp, I reluctantly pedal mile after mile, passing mediocre spots hoping the Golden Camp Spot will appear. After 76 long and exhausting miles, the fabled glory camp does not appear, and I throw down my nylon ghetto onto a deserted gravel pit and enjoy myself regardless, happy to be off the bike once and for all for the day.
Up bright and early the following morning I am sore, and there are rapidly moving clouds and wind coming through, but I feel good. It is only about 20 miles to White Pass from here according to my calculations. The road turns gently and ever so slightly upward from here and the landscape changes once again from the sub-alpine boreal forest to the higher and more colorful alpine arena of tundra, swiftly moving streams, and low lying brush and stunted Pine and Spruce. The route follows a glorious emerald river, adorned with many rapids and small waterfalls. A Bald Eagle soars overhead, and a Gull meanders behind, perhaps hoping to reap any benefits the Baldy might conjure. The wind picks up and it is a struggle to keep the Ogre upright on the hills. At timberline, the first of many low lying alpine lakes appear, and the stiff breeze grows fierce. Glaciers show themselves briefly during interludes in the cloud cover and before long they disappear once again into the thick alpine mist. Near the pass, I clamber over granite boulders to get a good look at Summit Lake and onslaught of the storm; wind and whitecaps embellish the lakes surface. A Gull scares up and hovers over me, squawking loudly that I must leave. She must be protecting a nest. I wish her well and skedaddle back to the bike and finish the last bit of the climb to the pass. At the top, a great and magnificent alpine meadow sits below and decorated with a mighty waterfall, so picturesque it is difficult to believe it real. At the pass, the weather is foul, and thoughts of espresso and a hot meal entice me. I peer at the highway ahead and it is a steep downhill for 14 miles to the sea. I had ridden up this massive hill back in 2013 when I rode from Skaguay to Deadhorse to Valdez, so I had gained a healthy respect for it’s magnitude. After tossing on my jacket and sporting hat and gloves, I fly downward and into the fantastic canyon, past more waterfalls and jagged peaks and soon there is no more. A gigantic cruise ship appears a half mile off; perched in the waters of the upper Lynn Canal, it’s passengers flooding the streets of Alaska’s biggest tourist attraction. I meander through the insanely crowded streets attempting not to hit or be hit by those not paying attention, which are many. It is a shock to the senses again. Haines will feel quiet and pristine compared to this insane asylum. Later, after a meal and some casual town observation, I board the marine vessel Le Conte for an hour ride down the canal to Haines, where a six mile ride from the ferry terminal deposits me back at my quiet little crib.
All in all, I had ridden most of this trip previously: the Alaska Highway portion back in 2011 when riding from Moab to Fairbanks, and the Klondike Highway/White Pass section in 2013 on the way to the arctic. Only the Home stretch of the Haines Highway over Chilkat Pass were new, but it is an outstanding pedal through some of the most beautiful countryside the North has to offer. I may even ride it again. Complete with a side trip to Klukshu, some exploring of random dirt roads in the forest and the pedaling in Whitehorse and looking for camp spots, I had pedaled about 385 miles over eight days. I can’t think of any reason why one would attempt to do it any faster; there would be too much to be missed, and in my opinion, far less enjoyable. These trips are not a race folks; they are to be felt and appreciated.
The bicycle know to me as the Surley Ogre has been on hiatus for some time now…over two years in fact. Like a horse put out to pasture, she has endured this lengthy time situated in the garage amongst the miter saw, planer, router, and other tools of construction. Not fitting in with these apparatus, she squeals and begs for a letting of road miles. In anticipation of an upcoming trip upon her to the mighty Yukon and beyond, I strip the old gal down to her bones and a cleansing and rebuilding ensues.
It has been far too long since the Ogre and I have embarked upon the open road together, and in a quick fit, I work out a stretch of time off from work and make preparations for us to engage the Alaska Golden Triangle; Riding from my house in Haines to Haines Junction to Whitehorse to Skagway. A 360 mile loop through the northern panhandle and into B.C. and the Yukon, ending back in the good ‘ol AK in Skagway, where a quick ferry ride home ends the adventure. With plans to leave on the 29th of July, and returning on the 13th of August, I must say that these bicycle trip are certainly not about the bike. Or even riding them. These excursions are about being there. Or more precisely, being out there and taking in the tundra, mountains, rivers, and wildlife. If I was in shape and looking to make some quick time, I would theoretically make the journey in six or seven days. I think not. I intend on going slowly and enjoying the vast and wonderful summer in the North. Summertime in the regions of Alaska, Northern B.C., and the Yukon are stuff of fantasy to me. It is a time of exploding life and glorious exploration. There is nothing better on Earth than summer in the North.
Having a couple of weeks lead time to the trip in question, I head out to test the newly constructed Ogre for a quick 20 mile excursion up the wonderful Haines Highway, and as luck would have it, a spectacular day of temps in the 70’s, glorious sunshine, and the glaciers of the Chilkat’s shining brightly.
The old girl, spaced out from many months at pasture, bucks wildly when I attempt to pedal forward. After a rough patch, we hit our stride and suddenly it’s just like old times.
As out of shape as I am, I am looking forward to that big nasty climb up Chilkat Pass and into the Yukon I love so much. Two weeks and counting…
Even before moving from Fairbanks to Haines last November, then as now, Google Earth has been a friend to me insofar as giving me an opportunity to seek out many of Haines’ lesser known treasures. I remember the evenings in the cabin up on Himalaya Road, north of Fairbanks 30 miles or so, after my chores tending to the sled dogs were over for the day; I would skim the earth utilizing this amazing piece of technology to familiarize myself with the place I knew would become my home.
Last April, after the bulk of the winter’s snow had become a molecular part of the heavens’ above, I decided to drive out to explore an area I had “discovered” by means of the previously mentioned technology. But after getting out there, I became confused with what road was what, and not wanting to get tangled into someone’s property, I abandoned ship and opted for a hike across Mud Bay proper and over it’s adjoining ridge through the area’s old growth forests.
This morning looked reasonable, weather-wise, so I decided to let the Ogre out of the corral and saddle up. It was chilly out, but at least it wasn’t raining, and the cool wind felt downright invigorating. Spinning softly along the shores of the Chilkat inlet, I whizz past Letnikof Cove and the small harbor there, past the old cannery, through the Community of Mud Bay, past the road to Chilkat State Park, and on the the seemingly dead end of Mud Bay Road itself. This where I had been deterred before, but was determined to find what I was looking for.
The Chilkat Penninsula, at just over 59 degrees north latitude, holds 2 or 3 tiny lakes on the flanks of it’s forested hills overlooking the Lynn Canal and it’s various arms. The most commonly known lake is Lilly Lake, which also serves as the drinking water supply for our little town. One other tiny lake, more remote than Lilly, called Rustabach Lake was what I wanted to see.
The Ogre seems to have a third eye for this sort of thing, so I shrug my shoulders and hang on for a steep climb up the narrow dirt track leading upward. Shifting into the wee tiny gears of the upper end finds us at a pull out about a mile up. I stop and can see that there is a well traveled trail leading from the pull out and decide that a short hike is in order. Not far into the old growth forest, the trail is smooth and I figure must lead to someone’s cabin. After a short bit, there is the Lake! Rustabach! It appears smaller than Lilly Lake and perhaps a shallow one at that, but it is a peaceful place surrounded by magnificent forest and some of the thickest, greenest moss forest carpet I have ever seen. I walk back to the bike and we continue on up the road and finally come to someone’s beautiful cabin homestead, complete with a big green peace symbol on it’s woodshed. Not wanting to disrupt, we turn around for a fast and fun blast down the road to the saltwater, where big views of Alaska’s great Coast Mountains and her mighty glaciers are visible. Also visible, is a storm quickly approaching from the open waters of Icy Strait, not far south. The peaks are quickly engulfed and the Ogre and I head back to from where we came…
A full day off and fine weather to boot is a rare day indeed in these times of deep employment and mortgage. The venerable Surly Ogre and I decide, after a brief discussion, that a trip down peninsula to the enchanting Paradise Cove will do just fine. It is a road ride all the way, but the Ogre does not mind and says nothing about it. So off we go, down the hill to the Chilkat Estuary and a smooth, flat spin along the coastline; Eagles overhead screaming their mating call and sea Gulls drifting silently in search of a meal. We are a happy pair, the Ogre and I; We pedal along the rocky shores of Letnikof Bay and past the old cannery to the brief hill that rounds the bend to the ultra hip “community” of Mud Bay. Weeks past, I had the pleasure of working out here on a set of “backcountry” stairs for my friend Jake. The location, an entirely awesome cabin parked atop the beach rocks directly across the inlet from the Rainbow Glacier, Chilkat Mountains, and Kochu Island. This area is true deep salt water and sports untold numbers of rich and broad marine life and mammals.
Today, I have brought the camera and mini tripod to shoot a time lapse of the unnamed peak I have a desire to climb someday. It is a majestic mountain above the Rainbow Glacier and offers a nice, moderate looking multi pitch alpine ice route up it’s north eastern face. The only trouble, is how to access it? The area below the Rainbow is definitely out: cliffs, several hundred feet tall and consisting of a chossy looking substance sitting quietly below a barrier above of gently perched seracs, waiting to fall and clobber the unaware.
Today, I was hoping for a few clouds to make the time lapse more interesting, but alas, it is a crystal clear day. The sun playing it’s rotation game of light will have to provide interest enough as it moves slowly across the sky and illuminating the upper icefalls of the Rainbow Glacier.
As the camera clickity clicks away, I have an hour to kill, so I set myself down, and with the always necessary binoculars in hand, begin to scope the water and shorelines for animals. I scan the far shore of the inlet for Bears and the eastern shore of Kochu Island for Sea Lions and such. At the northern tip of the island, a lone Bald Eagle is perched atop the furthest tree out, scanning the water and shoreline for tasty snacks. I return to scanning the water. Soon I spot several Harbor Seals frolicking together in a group. They disappear and then again return. Then a lone Seal pops it’s head just feet away from my perch to say hello. We stare and I talk, and then it is gone. Looking out across the sun glistened water, I spot dorsal fins. It is a school of porpoises moving past. Then far beyond, a larger fin appears, then dives. It resurfaces and then blows. I can see it is a large Orca and soon it too disappears into the deep. More Eagles cry overhead and I realize once again just how much magic this place conjures. It is true paradise on earth.
On the ride home, I spot a roadie on his ultra light, ultra thin specimen of speed and agility, and with stylee super shades adorning his skull, he turns onto Mud Bay Road and I wave; he looks at me squarely and does not wave, but instead hits the pedals harder. Does he imagine that the dude on the heavy and slow Ogre with the loaded down panniers full of camera gear is not really a fellow cyclist? Perhaps his lycra is too tight and restricting blood flow to critical areas of the body. Or perhaps the high dollar Italian gadgetry bolted to his bicycle is too shiny and was perhaps blinded by their light and there for could not see me. Perhaps, he is simply an elitist bugger. The Ogre snickers, and Eagle screams, and my legs pedal on home.
After hearing one of my work mates mention there was a snow storm headed our way, I decided that evening to check out NOAA’s website for details. Sure enough: “snow expected, 12-15 inches likely”. So that night, it began to snow softly. 22 hours later, there was 40 inches of snow covering the world., and after spending a good portion of my weekend shoveling snow, I decided that enough was enough and decided to go for a grocery run to town and pedal around a bit. The Surly Ogre, now equipped with the awesome Kenda Klondike studded tires, was just itching to get out of the basement and onto the snow packed streets of Haines. A stop at Mountain Market for some items and then a quick layover at Olerud’s for more grocery items put me pedaling around Old Fort Seward and the hills south of town. Just a quick jaunt to snap some pics and get the beastly Ogre out for a spin…