The Alaska Highway greets us with a determined headwind. Rather than let it shake our determination, we hunker down and vow to push the pedals those 1,390 miles to Fairbanks.
The entire length of the highway connecting Alaska to the lower 48 was completed in 1942 in just 8 months’ time.
We hope to make it to Alaska before the snow starts tumbling from the sky.
Which probably doesn’t sound like much of a challenge since it’s mid summer in the rest of the northern hemisphere.
In northern Canada, winter is already on its way.
Locals warn us that by mid-August the landscape will be awash with color as leaves turn golden.
Slowly, we warm to the idea of scaling back our original plan of riding the Dalton Highway all the way to Prudhoe Bay. We focus on Fairbanks and resign ourselves to a trip back to Alaska one day to do the state justice.
A steady stream of humungous RVs towing SUVs lumber past, motorbikes whiz by and we’re all headed to the great north in search of an Alaskan adventure. It seems Americans who hit retirement age are pre-programmed with an unstoppable urge to embark on a pilgrimage to the 49th state.
Apart from gas stations and RV parks, government campgrounds and mining installations, most stretches of the Alaska Highway are pretty desolate.
Sure it’s remote, but with all the tourist traffic, biking the Alaska highway is about as adventurous as trekking to Machu Pichu and sharing the trail with a hundred other hikers all testing their limits on a South America adventure tour.
Swarming with Cyclists
We spot the bright Ortlieb panniers far off in the distance. A fellow cyclist! Time for a chat.
Where ya comin’ from? Where ya headed? See any bears? Many hills ahead?
Cyclists sizing up cyclists like two fighters in the ring.
Looks like you’re pretty loaded. Heading all the way to Ushuaia? How many kilometers can you crank out in a day?
And so on goes the ritual.
The Alaska Highway attracts all types of cyclists. Two-wheeled American retires more energetic than those who rumble by in their RVs, young Europeans experiencing the vast open spaces of North America for the first time, seasoned cyclists finishing off another leg of their round the world tour. Everybody’s got a story to share
Bears on the Road
Our bear count is up to nine. For the most part these massive creatures seem intent on devouring berries and foraging for roots roadside. We’re of little interest. Sometimes I’m so lost in my thoughts or caught up in a podcast I’m almost on top of the bear before I realize there’s a potentially dangerous animal just a few feet away and I’m a helpless human on a bicycle.
Then I speak calmly to the bear, as the guidebooks say I should.
Hello Mr. Bear. Just passing through Mr. Bear. Take it easy Bear. I’m on my way now, no reason to get riled up.
In spite of my valiant bear calming efforts, one bear appeared quite perturbed. I speeded up and kept a furtive eye on him. He was up on his hind legs, casting a glance my way. Looked like he was trying to catch my scent.
Fortunately, three days of accumulated body odor did not particularly entice the finicky bear and eventually he turned back to his berries. WHEW.
Bears can give me a mild scare, but it’s the bison that really set off my fear mechanism. These hardy animals stand up to 6 feet at the shoulders and weigh up to 2,600 pounds. Just south of Watson Lake, we crossed paths with a herd of around 100 animals blocking the road.
We knew they were coming. Every driver for the last 50 kilometers had slowed down, flashed his lights and shouted out some variation of, “Bison ahead. Watch out. They’re really dangerous.”
“Hey, thanks for the encouragement,” I felt like hollering back.
A long standoff ensued when finally we came upon the obstinate herd. Traffic started backing up. You know you’re in trouble when some guy behind the wheel of a 7,000 pound RV is afraid to take on wild animals blocking the road.
Everybody just watched and waited, hardly taking notice of the two defenseless cyclists.
Eventually, it dawned on somebody that we might be in an ever so slightly dangerous situation.
A middle-aged woman in an SUV teamed up with a group of brave young guys in a Toyota and they escorted us past the bison, protecting our flanks from a possible bison charge.
WHEW, again. A quick thanks and I was cranking those pedals, flying down the road as if I were being chased by a pack of Turkish sheepdogs.
A night with the First Nations
It’s the usual story. The day is winding down, we’ve put in our requisite 100 kilometers and now it’s time to search for a camping spot. A few minutes later we’ve pitched our tent on the banks of the Muskeg River thanks to hosts Wally, Jo, Leon and dog China.
They spoil us with homemade bannock, a type of traditional bread made by the Cree Indians. Jo regales us with tales of her childhood growing up far from civilization. She learned to make teepees (really!) and when her father heard the sounds of one of the white man’s vehicles sputtering in the distance he knew it was the authorities coming to drag off his kids to a faraway boarding school.
Jo and her brothers were instructed to scurry off into the woods and lay low until it was safe to return. A story we’ve all heard, or perhaps seen portrayed in movies, but so much more moving when it’s related first hand.
An all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast at the senior citizens center. What a powerful symbol of small town life. We’re elated to find out that, yes, even, tourists can partake.
The flapjacks are smothered in thick maple syrup and slathered with creamy butter and go down like a treat. The locals couldn’t be kinder, insisting we fill up on seconds and even tossing a few homemade blueberry muffins in our bags so we won’t get hungry later.
10 dollar showers
It’s seems there’s no limit to how high prices can go along the Alaska Highway. Eric is outraged at the cost of staying clean, and I resort to sponge baths in the public restrooms.
Cyclists we meet confess they are forking out $50 a day just for camping and meals. Naturally, we’re not following suit.
At the Tetsa River Lodge I break down and splurge on a piping hot cinnamon bun smothered in cream cheese frosting for a whopping $5. After days of predictable oatmeal, I pronounce it the most delicious food I’ve ever encountered. Eric chides me for days. Five dollars for a cinnamon bun! In India you can get a decent hotel room plus dinner for two for that price.
At one with nature
Camping along the Alaska highway can be lovely. We doze off to the sound of a stream gurgling in the distance and wake to the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels racing about. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a few deer wandering through camp and if you’re unlucky a bear will sneak around at night and nab your food because you were unsuccessful at hanging it up in the tree.
The Yukon is Canada’s equivalent to Alaska. The Last Frontier. A land where there’s one bear for every two inhabitants, a place where crisp, cool air invigorates the mind and soul, the streams run clear and the forest almost envelops you.
I can feel adventure beckoning. Real adventure. Far from the RV parks and the service stations, the cheesy souvenir shops and the overpriced tourist stops.
Our plans are fluid, but winter is knocking at the door and that makes me nervous.
Just 600 kilometers separate us from the Alaska border. Then it will be on to the Top of the World Highway, down to Dawson City, further south on the Klondike Highway back to Whitehorse and then south on the Cassiar highway as we head to Vancouver and a flight to Asia. Well, that’s the plan for now, anyway.