Bikes, Ice and Bears

If only the summer could last just a little bit longer, I think we could stay in the North forever.  Unfortunately, after a month and a half on the road exploring the wild, the weather began to turn and the cool nights prompted us to start looking south again. After leaving spectacular Kluane National Park we headed south for Haines, our last sojourn into Alaska for the time being.   Although the cooler weather kept my arms tucked securely under the duvet at night, it also brought the bounty of migrating salmon, and with them, those that feast on their return.  For hours we sat upon the river banks surrounding town and watched as bears themselves watched the waters, combing the shores for that which will help sustain them throughout the winter as they hide from the cold dark days in their dens.  Absolutely fascinating, beautiful and brilliant beings, the bears we saw on the latter half of our trip illustrate the power nature holds and the strength of survival in a climate so variable and harsh.

After a few days exploring the area on our own, we met up with some old friends for a night of socializing and tasty home-cooked food.  Seeing family and friends, old and new, has been a highlight of the trip up North; one of the biggest banes of limited holiday time when you are working is trying to find a balance between spending your hard earned vacation days on yourself, and also fitting in visits with everyone in your immediate (and sometimes extended) family too. Without this deadline, the conflict for us has been erased; not only have we been able to commit a healthy amount of time to ourselves, but also to spending as much time as we can with those we love along the way.

Departing Haines by boat, we left our wilderness trekking and travels behind and began to make the journey south.  Itching to get back on our bikes, we made way for Carcross, a small town southwest of Whitehorse, where the Carcross/Tagish First Nations youth have developed an amazing network of mountain biking trails.  Although the weather wasn’t in our favor we persevered (there’s a great little coffee shop in the main square where you can warm up after a particularly cold and wet run), riding the trails with namesakes such as ‘Wolverine (in the woods), ‘Grizzly (charging steep lines), ‘Goat’ (technical rock lines) and AK-DNR (think Pseudo Tsuga for those of you who have ridden Squamish) for three awesome days.

From Carcross we headed south into our home province via the Cassiar Highway, a beautiful and much lesser-traveled route through Northern BC that parallels the boundary of the coastal and interior mountain ranges with (thankfully) much less road construction and potholes than it’s sister highway to the east.  After making a side trip to visit the spectacular Salmon Glacier west of Stewart (omit the note about better roads here) we continued on to Terrace, the first stop on what would become a week of amazing riding in the region.

Terrace has a few different spots to hit the trails, and the type of terrain you find varies greatly.  Copper Mountain was the talk of the town though, and much to our delight it lived up to expectations (Trailforks said STEEP and they meant it; think Cypress Mountain for those of you that ride the North Shore).  We spent the afternoon with adrenaline coursing through our veins as we rode the mountain and brought home a few bruises to boot.

After saying goodbye to Terrace we headed for the coast to visit some dear friends in Prince Rupert who not only gave us use of their cabin while staying in Terrace, but allowed us another night under a dry roof along with a hot shower, good food, and a few glasses of craft beer from the local brewery.  Seeing and meeting those along the way who also love to travel and explore the world brings a smile to my heart, as it only feeds our addiction and enthusiasm and makes me excited for all of the adventures that still await us.

From the coast we headed back inland to Smithers, a beautiful little alpine town surrounded by high mountain peaks, world-class fishing rivers, and a few more mountain biking trails to boot.  Fortunately for Byron (but unfortunately for me) a stomach bug kept me from riding that day, so he took advantage of my offer to shuttle while he checked out the local dirt.  Huckin ‘Eh turned out to be the day’s favorite, so while I curled up to play countless rounds of Angry Bird (yes, it still exists), Byron coated himself with mud and grit, claiming it to be one of the best trails of the trip thus far (a statement he still stands by too).

Whether it’s just local rivalry between competing trail builders or town councils I don’t know, but as i’m sure its becoming obvious, you don’t have to go far in the region to find more mountain biking trails than you can ride in a day, maybe even a week.  From Smithers we made the quick trip to Burns Lake, the second to last of our stops on our southwards journey home.  With a beautiful little rec site and lake awaiting you at the base of Boer Mountain, bikers can shuttle or pedal up the mountain and do endless laps throughout the day.  Those that enjoy a little more speed and structures can check out the likes of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ (fast, steep and flowy) and ‘Water Lew’ (an impressive amount of woodwork), while those looking for a longer cross country ride can spend the day out on Razorback, although be warned, I think there was more up than down.  After two days the rain found out where we had moved to, and we decided it was time for a hot shower and some rest.  Heading into Prince George was almost a shock to the system after our time up North, where one is more likely to see more moose than traffic lights on your daily commute. Nevertheless we quickly adjusted, and spent the evening enjoying a bounty of craft beer and delicious food from The Copper Pig, a great little BBQ joint in town that I highly recommend for anyone passing through.

Will full bellies and clean clothes we set off on the last few days of our Northern road trip, with the frequency of familiar places and faces quickly replacing the nights of solitude and days in the wild we had become so accustomed to. Not wanting to miss one last opportunity to ride, we made a stop in Williams Lake, where the trails rivaled any of those found in it’s neighbouring towns of the north.  Let me just summarize it this way: if you’ve always wanted to ride a suspension bridge on your bike, I highly recommend making the trip.  Like surfing a wave on the ocean, there’s something quite unique about the ground underneath you moving as you move, swinging under your weight and rolling tires as you traverse the boards strung high up over a gulch.  If that doesn’t suit your fancy though you can always hang back and practice your wall rides and moves on the teeter-totter, the latter of which I was much more comfortable on.  There’s something about being perpendicular to the ground on my bike which I haven’t quite mastered yet.

With that one last stop we came full circle and have now landed back in Vancouver for some rest, laundry, and family time.  In a few days we’ll make our way east to pick up Winter (video requests of our reunion have been stated), then we’ll start the drive south to the Baja.  From there we are planning to fly overseas (Kathmandu is the rumoured destination at this point!) and our adventures will continue.  We look forward to seeing as many of you as we can along the way, and continuing to share our adventures as we go.

Until then,

xo, Alison and Byron

A sow and her two cubs comb the tidal shores of Haines, AK, in search of salmon and other seafood snacks

A sow and her two cubs comb the tidal shores of Haines, AK, in search of salmon and other seafood snacks

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Mother bear patiently watches for dinner…

While the cubs goof off and brawl on the shore behind..

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An eagle watches the river mouth for dinner at Lakelse Lake, BC

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Back to BC, and free rec-site camping.

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The bears and eagles weren’t the only successful ones..

Salmon Glacier, BC.

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Clouds hang out over the Salmon Glacier, BC.

Glacier lines. Salmon Glacier, BC.

Stewart, BC.

Stewart, BC.

Stopping to admire the historic totem work in Gitanyow, BC.

Bear Glacier, BC.

Black bear sow and cub, Stewart, BC.

Totem poles and clan totem paintings, Carcross, Yukon.

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Jump, this way. -->

Jump, this way. –>

Air time (Carcross, Yukon).

Navigating the end of the rock slabs on 'Grizzly' in Carcross, Yukon.

Navigating the end of the rock slabs on ‘Grizzly’ in Carcross, Yukon.

Bridge to rock to bridge to rock to bridge - and done! 'Goat', Carcross, Yukon.

Bridge to rock to bridge to rock to bridge – and done! ‘Goat’, Carcross, Yukon.

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The forest starts to show its fall colours in Burns Lake.

Playing on the trails above Bohr Mountain in Burns Lake, BC

Byron tackles the woodwork on Snakes and Ladders in William’s Lake, BC.

The Tall One, and the Tall One’s Wife

How could we top Tombstone?  Leaving the Yukon last week, it was hard to imagine what we might find in Alaska that could rival the spires and scenery we crossed paths with in our previous wilderness adventure.  Crossing over between the Yukon and Alaska via the Top of the World Highway, we made our way into America’s northernmost state with high expectations of what the state might bring.

It was immediately apparent that just like its southern neighbours, Alaska continues the trend and indeed provides scenery that rivals any of which you may find in British Columbia or the Yukon.  Most of its population has quite happily removed itself from present-day life, and can be found scattered across the vast wilderness that makes up Alaska.  Gold prospecting is still a prevalent life for many in those certain regions, and providing for one’s self through hunting and harvesting is not a recently developed habit of the hipster era, it is a way of life.  While the few major hub cities that dot the state’s landscape may showcase residents in suits and ties during the week, these same residents can be caught fishing the seasonal salmon run on their lunch hour just a few blocks down from the office in the heart of downtown.  Essentially, Alaskans mean business.

So where to first?  The last of our known must-sees, Denali National Park boasts wildlife for days and scenery to boot.  At 20,320ft, Denali (or Deenaalee as it is called by local Athabaskans, roughly translating to ‘The Tall One‘) is North America’s highest peak.  To its side lies Deenaalee-Be’ot (The Tall One’s Wife), or Mount Foraker, at 17,402ft.  Knowing this, it only seemed fitting that we spend some time in the company of these two great peaks.

Let me preclude our park trip by saying this; American National Parks are a bit of a culture shock even to a Canadian who has just a few short weeks ago left the buzz of Banff and Jasper National Parks.  The Americans know how to take a natural attraction, and organize and commercialize the hell out of it.  There is nothing more soul-sucking that leaving the remote wilderness and entering a visitor center for a large National Park.  The tour busses, the RV’s, the motorhomes…..the people. (And that’s not to mean the American people, it’s just the sheer number of people in general).  It can leave one a little daunted and skeptical that any type of wilderness experience may occur on the other side of the park boundary when you are gathered with so large a group of seemingly inept individuals completely content with being herded around like cattle.  Have you ever looked into the eyes of someone fresh off the tour bus?  I dare you.  They could give the walkers on the ‘The Walking Dead’ a run for their money.

Now that I’ve had my chance to rant, however, let me tell you that Denali is 100% my top recommendation of parks to hit up in Alaska. (I know it’s the only one we’ve been to so far, but I don’t see it moving far down on the list even after then next few weeks).  The daunting thing about Denali is that for a short time, you do become one of the cattle.  You have to register to camp (last-minute trip planners beware), and private vehicles are not allowed onto the one road leading into the park.  You must make a reservation to get on one of the operated busses that run into the park (either one that includes a ranger, or a simple hiker/camper bus), and if you are camping in the backcountry you must go through a tutorial video, register with the park service and adhere strictly to their bear policy.

Unless you are one of the aforementioned Alaskans that lives out in the bush and has done so for the past 50 years, I can almost guarantee that you will see more wildlife in Denali National Park than you have seen in your entire life. Hands down. At last count, we stopped counting the number of Caribou we had seen (and groaned whenever the bus actually stopped, again, for another one), moose, countless Dall sheep, over a dozen Ptarmigan, and over ten Brown bears (it was hard to tell which ones were repeats from the day before).  This included a Sow and her two little cubs, which were inevitably, the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.

In essence, becoming part of the tourist herd has its perks.  In an effort to keep the park wild, the limitation of vehicle traffic and the control of the travelers to and from the park has allowed Denali’s wild to flourish.  It becomes old news to see another Caribou or Ptarmigan, because they’re everywhere.  And as one bus driver that we had commented, ‘If you don’t see the animal, then it just means you’re not looking hard enough.  Because I can guarantee that there’s a moose, bear, caribou or sheep out there, it’s just a matter of timing and good eyesight.’

And Denali has a great little secret for those that manage to weather the entrance gate storm; once you’re on the bus and in the park, you’re free to go wherever you want.  Because the thing about the American’s National Park mentality is this; Parks are public property, and as such they have no reason or authority to tell you when or where you cannot go.  As a Canadian, who grew up with designated trails and the mentality that you must stick to them, this was overwhelmingly exciting beyond belief.  Jump off the bus wherever your heart fancies, and climb whatever peak suits your eye?  No problem.  Hope you’ve got whatever you need to do it, and have fun.

And so off we would get, and away the bus would go….

It truly made me look at parks in a whole new manner.  Because for the first time, we weren’t looking for the trail.  We were just looking for a trail, or sometimes, no trail at all until we, or something else, had made it for us.  We were free to roam like any other creature of the park, wherever we wanted.

And so we did.  For three nights, we camped at Igloo Creek (only 7 tent sites, but they’re almost always open to book with only one day’s notice.), and each day, we either hiked from our camp site or caught a passing bus until we saw a peak that looked appealing and jumped off to go climb it.  If you’re simply doing day hikes while staying at a designated camp site within the park, you don’t need to register as a backcountry traveler or sit through any VHS-era tutorial, and merely need some basic backcountry smarts about being prepared and traveling in bear country.  Having equally terrible singing voices and some good whistles (thanks John!), Byron and I managed to ensure the bears maintained a two valley gap between us and them at all times.

To top the trip off, which was already going to be hard to do, on day three the skies cleared and we saw what only 30% of visitors to the park get to see; Denali itself.

A recent geological survey found that Denali’s current recorded height of 20,320ft measures the mountain 82ft higher than it actually is. Although once corrected it will be moved from 109th to 110th on the list of the world’s tallest peaks, Denali is a beast to be reckoned with.  It simply dwarfs all other mountains which dress its flanks, and stands to challenge those who seek its lofty summit.  In 2015, 1089 climbers had registered to ascend Denali, and only 601 successfully reached the summit.

We left Denali four days after we first stepped across its park boundaries with hearts and minds brimming with gratitude and happiness. The uninhibited manner in which one is free to wander and explore this great park left us both with a great appreciation for everything it can offer you if you choose to seek it.  With Deenaalee and Deenaalee-Be’ot presiding over us as we did, we couldn’t help but feel right at home.

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Ferry leaving Dawson City taking us across the Yukon River and on to Alaska.

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Cairbou along the top of the world highway

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Dall Sheep

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Base camp

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