Мамай

We’re taught that first impressions are important, but once again, travel has shown us that things aren’t always as they seem.
At first glance, the town of Irkutsk was grim. Crumbling roads emerged from the melting cover of snow as beat up cars, trams and buses jostled around town in no tangible order. Our taxi driver delivered us to a tired wooden house that on first glance appeared to be sinking into the muddy earth surrounding it. He assured us that it was the spot, although the lack of conviction in his voice as he unloaded our entourage of bags left me doubting otherwise.

To our surprise the building did indeed house our accommodations for the next several days, and the interior was in much better shape than the exterior. We were greeted at the door by the owner, a tall and lanky young Russian named Maxim who spoke sufficient English with a typical Russian drawl. He’d been working on renovating the hostel over the past several months and had turned it into into a comfortable and cozy retreat from the outdoors. As we settled in and got our bearings, we began to realize how much Maxim’s hostel was a metaphor for his people; at once cold and unwelcoming on the outside, the longer you stayed the more the facade crumbled (or sank, if you will), leaving nothing but a warm invitation to stay on the inside.

It took us two days to convince Maxim we didn’t want to walk on a frozen lake or trek through the frozen tundra; we were here to ski the Siberian mountains! Some phone calls were made and the next day we found out that a group of locals were heading to the mountains in 3 days time; if we were able to feed ourselves and find some sleeping bags we were more than welcome to join them. We were overwhelmed by Maxim’s help and his friends’ willingness to let us tag along on their trip; Russian hospitality was definitely shaping up nicely, and we could only hope the snow proved to be just as good where ever the heck it was we were headed.

The following day Maxim put us in touch with the first of the many Serge’s we’d end up meeting throughout our travels through Russia. Through many rounds of Google translate Serge welcomed us into the fold of the Baikal backcountry ski community. It would be Serge’s cabin which we would be crashing at for the next four nights, and that night we went to dinner to meet up with his friend Stepan, who would be our guide while we navigated the slopes of the Siberian backcountry. Although Stepan wasn’t certified, he knew the area well and was happy to have more guests along on the trip, proud to show off the knowledge and skills he had acquired while exploring his regional mountain playground.

Situated three hours from Irkutsk by car, the mountains that sit on Lake Baikal’s southeastern shore form a natural boundary between the motherland and Mongolia. A unique microclimate from the lake allows cold air moving down from the north to pick up moisture and dump it on the opposing shores – creating a skiing paradise that begins in late fall and continues into the following new year. Ten years ago the recreational possibilities were realized and the first accommodation was built, which it turns out, meant a shipping container was hauled up to the bottom of an avalanche chute and fixed with a stove that vented to the outside. It was enough to house those hearty souls passionate for the sport however, and since then the area has only grown in popularity. Fortunately for us the container has long been abandoned (but still remains in place), and we were treated to stay in Sergey’s cabin, one of approximately twenty that are now used throughout the year.

Arriving at the cabin that afternoon after a quick snowmobile lift up (from a kind gentleman named Sergey nonetheless), we were soon introduced to the rest of our crew; Kes, a young pilot from Moscow, Sergey “kamikaze” from Sheregesh, Yannick from Chamonix and Aubrey and Marie from Quebec. With just enough time for two laps before dark set in we strapped on our skis. Spring conditions were setting in and the snow was soft and crumbly under our feet, and we skied it with grins on our faces, whopping and hollering the whole way down. Somehow, beyond our greatest expectations, we had made it into the backcountry of Siberia, and to our delight, by the time we pulled back up to the cabin, it had begun to snow.

The next morning we awoke to a foot of fresh power. Our motly crew enjoyed an excited breakfast knowing it was ours for the taking; such are the rewards of backcountry skiing. With only a small handful of other locals there during the week, we would have our pick of lines on the mountain all day long. After everyone was strapped in and a safety check was done, Sergey led the charge up the mountain, breaking a trail with the finesse and ease of someone who has spent the last ten years of his life exploring these hills. Later we would learn that it was only three years prior that someone had introduced the locals to ski touring equipment; before then they had simply strapped everything on their back and walked up the mountain in their boots, or if they were lucky enough to own a pair, snowshoes. Such was the way of the Russian though, and it was inspiring and infectious; like stories from our grandparents time, they didn’t wait for someone to come along and show them where to find adventure and explore; they took the lead and the risk and made the adventure their own; simply teaching themselves as they went.

As we wound our way up the valleys and onto the ridge line of the mountain, the sun broke through the clouds, highlighting beautiful alpine bowls that ran into long treed descents. The group excitedly switched over our gear and one by one enjoyed our first taste of Siberian powder as we descended to the valley bottom. We did three more runs on that day, stopping only briefly for lunch and tea in the warm sunshine of the valley bottom.

Over the next few days we enjoyed beautiful sunshine and warming temperatures. Although quickly changing spring conditions steered our decision making process we were still able to find fresh snow on the northern aspects, skiing hard all day and basking in the sun with a cold beer back at the cabin by late afternoon. As the weekend approached the locals started to trickle in, joining in on the turns when they could and stopping by the cabin at night to swap stories and drink. Although a little off the mark Alison was delighted when a group of four barged into the cabin one evening demanding to know which one of us was ‘Alice’. After deciding that it must be she they were looking for and declaring so, the group burst into song, serenading her with a full rendition of a popular Russian tune which revolves around the bearer’s name. It was heartwarming and hilarious all at the same time, and only stood to reaffirm our love of the Russian people. With open arms we were welcomed into a close knit community of friends and quickly became one of their own; with a shared passion for the outdoors we bonded, never having felt more at home.

As we packed our bags four days later plans were already in the works for the adventure to continue. Marie and Aubrey and Alison and I would end up renting a car and driving two days south to see Sergey (kamikaze) in Sheregesh, where a few more days of skiing awaited us on his local mountain. We bid farewell to the rest of the group after one last night of debauchery and dinner back in town, sad for the trip to end but looking forward already to everything that lay ahead. Russia was continuing to prove itself beyond expectation, and we couldn’t wait to see where else the road was going to take us.





Hokkaido Deep

 

     As we wound our way North from Sapporo on Japan’s largest northern island, Byron and I quickly began to understand what all of the hype was about; Hokkaido meant snow, and a lot of it. Cold dry Siberian air collects moisture as it crosses the Sea of Japan heading south, depositing it in the form of the lightest, driest powder snow on earth. On average Hokkaido and its surrounding mountains receive seven meters of average snowfall, which rarely sees the freeze/thaw cycles we are used to in North America, meaning that that seven meters is there to stay for the winter. We arrived in the small town of Furano mid-February, eager to experience what we would quickly start to term ‘Japow’. 
     Furano is a small town right in the middle of the Hokkaido island; not quite as developed as the Niseko resort area made famous in recent years through various ski movies and magazine articles, it was a great place to get our ski legs back, make some new ski buddies and enjoy our first real taste of winter. After enjoying a couple of rare sunny days exploring the resort area and its backcountry, we had our legs back and were ready for some steep and deep. Our prayers were soon answered, and the snow began to fall. And fall it did. Throughout our stay in Japan, the weather patterns and snowfall would be a constant learning experience. Everything we knew about snowfall and snow conditions changed; snow fell at -5C but also -30C, and it was always dry, always light, and always bonded quickly and well to existing snow to create a stong, stable snowpack (ie a backcountry skiers dream).  

   After our few introductory days at the local resort, we began to explore the surrounding backcountry terrain with new friends we made at the local hostel we were camped out at in town. Seeing our lust for snow and the desire to explore more of the region, they put us onto a backcountry area accessible from a few small onsens (locally developed hot springs with attached accomodations) located only a short bus ride away across the valley in Hokkaido’s largest mountain range, Ishikari. Surrounded by the Daisetsuzan National Park, these onsens were open year round via a narrowly plowed mountain road, and guaranteed fresh tracks for days. If the weather happened to clear while we were there we would also be afforded views of Ishikari’s highest peak, Ashahi-Dake; an active volcano topping out at 2200m.

     With the promise of fresh, deep tracks and hot springs at the end of each day, we bade goodbye to our new friends and the little town of Furano. After many rounds of “sumimasen” (excuse me/sorry in japanese) we wedged our over sized load onto the mini bus loaded with Japanese elders heading for their daily mountain onsen (it’s hard to remember who ‘sumimasen’ed’ more, us or the bus driver. As we quickly learned the Japanese are ten times more polite than your average Canadian, and will apologize for even the slightest inconvenience, even if it’s clearly us that should be apologizing). Our lodge for the next five nights was perfect; a spotlessly clean dorm room (the Japanese are also fastidiously clean, another welcome trait), kitchen for cooking, and an expansive network of hot spring baths to spend hours in after a day out playing in the snow. At the end of each day everyone gathered in the kitchen regardless of language or age and ate, laughed and drank together.

       During our stay at the onsen we met a pair of adventurous and hilarious friends from Colorado also out in search of deep snow in Japan. The four of us hit it off immediately, and after bidding the Ishikari range goodbye we spent the next 5 days together road-tripping through Hokkaido skiing powder, eating sushi and sharing new adventures and a lot of laughs. When me met Phillip and Jeremy we’d been on the road for over 6 months; their energy and enthusiasm for adventure was, for us, a needed recharge. They lived and travelled with an infectiously calm but fierce love for adventure and life; they traveled and started each day with little expectation other than to enjoy and live in the experience, a motto that Byron and I wholeheartedly embraced and still try to carry forward with us each day still. Their thoughtful yet carefree attitude toward adventure made us all fast friends, and we were very sad to say goodbye when it was time for their flight home. 

       To most, Japan seems like a daunting and expensive travel destination, and they’re not wrong; unfortunately, south east Asia this is not. We knew that our time in Japan would quickly deplete our resources the longer we stayed, so we did everything we could to find ways to minimize the blow to our budget.  

       As it turns out (and not surprisingly), this is a common conundrum for travellers everywhere, and several networks have been set up to accommodate those looking for a live/work exchange. After completing our profile we were bonafied jobseekers according to workaway.com, and after a few emails we were set to swing hammers and help out with some renovation work while our host put us up in a shared house with others in the same boat; the deal seemed pretty reasonable, and there was a network of local hills in the area to ski at during our time off. After six months of total freedom this would be the first time we would be required to answer to someone and return to a semblance of responsibilities. All we could think was it was a good thing there was a ski resort in town.

        Our communal house was located in Kutchan, a small town about ten minutes from the resort center of Nesiko. The Aussie whom we were working for had lived in the area for twenty-odd somewhat years, and had grown accustomed to using ‘workaway-ers’ to staff most of his commercial operations, which included a few restaurants, a hotel and a small ski school. Although we didn’t agree with all of his business practices, the situation did allow us to prolong our departure from the endless snowfall of Japan. We committied to a month of hard labour before we moved on; and just as with most of our other experiences in the country thus far, it turned out to be a worthwhile one. For one month we found a place to call home, and were able to share it with others from around the world, adding to a long list of friends whom we’ll forever be grateful to have met. For one month we skied together, “worked” together, cooked together and partied together. It was an awesome family of travellers who for a short time made a home away from home that much better.

      The area around Niseko is blessed with some of the highest snowfall in Hokkaido, and even on this reported ‘low snowfall year’ it didn’t dissapoint. One morning we woke up to almost a meter of fresh snow; it took us nearly fifteen minutes to shovel a short path for the van to the street but everyone knew we weren’t going to work until it was skied; there was so much powder that we enjoyed fresh tracks all day that day and even the next. At one point when we had to do a short boot-pack Byron volunteered to cut the trail; I was shocked into giggles as he plowed into the snow; waist-deep on his 6’5″ figure. The longer we stayed in the region the more secret pockets of fresh snow we found, a few quick minutes from any of the resort trails would often lead to soft, fluffy turns undiscovered by those skiing the groomers only a hundred meters away. 

     Dominating the Niseko area is the dormant volcano Mt Yotei. This massive 1900m beast dominates the local vista on the rare days when the clouds part, and with constant snowfall throughout the winter her flanks are constantly filled with deep snow just waiting to be skied. With a clear day in the forecast coinciding with our day off Byron and I along with two others from our house made plans to get an early start on the next day and summit the volcano. After an early start we were already cutting our track up the side of the mountain when the sun came up, giving light to the birch above us and sparkle to the snow crunching below our skis, promising a day that wouldn’t soon be forgotten. After six hours and 1600 vertical meters of breaking trail we crested the peak and got our first glimpse down into the crater; it was perfect. After a lap down into the belly of the beast we cheered and screamed every exclamation and explicative we knew (at least I did); we had just skied into a volcano! I was beyond giddy to say the least; if the volcano decided that was the moment to come back to life and blow her top I would have died a happy girl. 

     Our luck with the weather held and we descended into the crater one more time before we headed for home, enjoying the vertical mile of powder skiing we had worked so hard to gain that morning down the other side towards home. We owe the weather and volcano gods a huge arigato gozaimos for our day on Yotei, as it will be one that will live in our hearts and memory forever. 

      Unfortunately our love and pursuit of snow in Niseko didn’t always coincide with our work responsibilities and we usually neglected the latter. Our volunteer boss eventually felt that we were no longer holding up our end work/live deal, and so it was on this note that we were unceremoniously fired from our ski bum jobs. This was a first for both of us, and one we did in the end, take very lightly, and with a large dose of humour. We spent a few more nights in our Kutchan house as refugees, and after a large farewell party with our adopted workaway family left the Japow behind and boarded a short flight to Beijing. Little did we know our ski adventures were only getting started.

   

     
   
    
   
   
    
   
   
    
  

   

  

  

  

  

   
    
    
 
   
    
 

Tokyo, Welcome to Japan

  As our flight slowly banked toward the final approach to Haneda we got our first glimpse of the sprawling Megapolis of Tokyo. The forest of high-rises and endless sea of city that spread out beneath us was spectacular. Stepping off the aircraft into the chilly January evening was confirmation that we’d left the tropics behind. After collecting our ski gear which had been shipped from Canada, we marched onto the Tokyo subway skis in tow. This was a fairly awkward affair, public transit and skis don’t mix all that well. We extracted ourselves and our gear from the subway at the correct station, and promptly got lost looking for our AirBNB rental. With our ridiculous amount of gear, and stunned looks, a older Japanese couple noticed our situation and kindly walked us to our house.

  

     I think I’d describe Tokyo not as one large mega city, but as a collection of cities within a city. Take the metro to any of the major stops and when you reach street level you’re in the middle of a new city. We stashed our stuff, grabbed some saké and set out to Shinjuku. Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s major commercial centers, the municipal government buildings are also located there. It’s a bustling mix of old and new. Gleaming corporate high-rises and the Golden Gai, its narrow streets packed with tiny bars and restraunts, lay side by side. The 47th floor observation deck of municipal building provides a stunning (free) view of Tokyo and its surrounding areas, complete with Mt Fuji in the background. To the south of Shinjuku we explored the shopping streets of Kabukichō and walked into Shibuya crossing. Where every 90 seconds the traffic lights turn red and 100s of people make there way across the intersection, an endless sea of people. And while the traffic flows, the sidewalks fill up anew with people waiting to cross. There is a unique energy to Tokyo, millions of people going about their daily business. But horns don’t honk in frustration, sirens don’t wail in panic, people don’t even walk against the signal. It’s a quiet, dignified order. It’s not Asian, It’s Japanese. The unfaltering politeness of the Japanese, their fastidious attention to cleanliness and order makes Tokyo peaceful yet bustling. 
      With more restaurants than any city on earth, great food was always easy to find. It was always nice to step in from the cold and enjoy a bowl of ramen or pull up to a Sushi bar. Most of the popular ramen spots would have vending machine at the door where you’d select your meal of choice, pay for it, and receive a chit with which you’d then present to the staff. A very efficient procedure, and very Japanese. Vending machines are everywhere, over 5.5 million of them across the country, selling everything. Our favourite choice soon became the “Fire” brand coffee, the cans came adorned with characters from the Star Was rebel alliance. If you found the good machines, there’d be a red button under the can of Fire. Pressing the button would produce a smoking hot can of coffee, perfect for January in Japan. 
    Seafood is a huge part of the Japanese diet, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Tsukiji fish market. The largest seafood market in the world, almost 6 billion USD worth of seafood passes through the market annually. It’s home to the world famous tuna auction which gets underway at 5am. We slept in and showed up for the wholesale market at 9am. You can meander up and down isles stocked with basically everything the ocean holds, for now. It’s a carnival of sights and sounds. Thankfully in the chill of January the smell was absent. It’s really an accidental tourist attraction, we can’t buy anything, we just get in the way and make photos. The merchants tolerate the gaijins getting in the way, but you’re wise to look out for the forklifts buzzing around. This is, afterall, a place of business. Feeding the people is very serious business. The Market is scheduled to be relocated later on this year as Tokyo will be redeveloping the downtown site in preparation for the 2020 summer games. 
   Our Air BNB pad was located in the Akihabara hood, it’s basically a huge arcade. We spent our final Tokyo night drinking saké and playing video games. Byron was pretty good with the claw and scored us some very plush stuffed animals, which soon replaced our less than adequate pillows. Our time in Tokyo had been short, We really only scratched the surface. But it was time to fly north to Hokkaido and see what the snow in Japan is really like.  
 

   
  

Our Tokyo Home

  


  
   
    
    
   
   
    
    
    
    
 
   
    
   

Four Wheels and a Scheme…Biking Vietnam Part 1

Well, against all odds we found two bicycles and bags that would fit our (excessive) gear, and made it out of the city of Hanoi alive.  Our crazy scheme came to fruition and our legs were only starting to realize what they were in for as we pedalled out of the city at 6am 22 days ago, with little to no idea what was in store for us.  It all started out so simple.. I came across A Cruising Couple’s blog post while we were still finishing up our time in Laos, and it sounded like a great idea; buy some bikes in Hanoi, pedal roughly 1600kms to Ho Chi Minh City, sell the bikes, and call it a day.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t think either of us were under any illusion that this was going to be easy; but we figured we’re both pretty fit, we enjoy biking, and we were looking for a new means of travel through Vietnam, so how hard could it be?  As we sit a little under 400kms from Ho Chi Minh City though, I realize this has been the most physically and mentally challenging experience of my life.  But it has also been one of the most rewarding.  After we stopped for a water break at the top of a series of never-ending hills the other day, Byron turned to ask me if I would ever consider doing this again, knowing what I know now.  And I said absolutely.  There have been moments where I have cursed myself for coming up with this idea, cursed Byron for being stronger and faster, cursed the wind for blowing in my face and not at my back, and cursed the sun for not spending enough time behind the clouds during the heat of the day.  But each time my mind turned sour, it would only be a matter of minutes before the vista of green jungle would remind me of the beauty surrounding us, or a sharp ‘hello!’ would come crying from the depths of a house we were passing by, as the delighted and humoured Vietnamese would see us and shout out a greeting. I swear if we were counting, there may be a hello for every kilometer we’ve pedalled.

Yesterday we came across the first bikers we’ve crossed paths with so far on our journey; it was like we found the only other fish left in the sea, we were so excited to stop and share our stories with each other.  And they said something interesting that stuck with me; of all of the countries they’ve pedalled through so far (Vietnam is their fifth!), Vietnam has been their favourite for one simple reason: the people.  And it couldn’t be more true; whether they’re laughing at or with us or offering a helping hand, the Vietnamese people have warmed our hearts and given us a boost whenever we’ve needed it most.

So for now I’ll leave our story at that and wait until we’ve pedalled our last kilometer into Ho Chi Minh City to write about this jouney at length.  But I will also recommend that if you’ve got a harebrained idea up your sleeve and you’re not sure if it’s going to work, go for it.  You never know where the road will take you, and you can be sure you’ll at least get a few ‘hellos’! along the way. 🙂

ps – check out Tan and Aleu’s blog and facebook page on their biking journey so far…they make us look like amateurs over here!

xo Alison and Byron

A Little Laos

    From the beauty of Chiang Mai, Thailand, we left heading north then east, bound for a border and river journey into the heart of Laos. With new friends by our side we stocked up on a few essentials and prepared for the cruise that would take two days down the Mekong, stopping only to spend the night in a remote village perched on the edge of the swift moving muddy water. The trip down the river was beautiful; with time on our side we were afforded scenes of towering limestone peaks jutting up out of the landscape like lost teeth, remote villages reached only by boat, and slowly spiralling whirlpools our captain kept only faintly out of reach. After many hands of cards, chapters of our books and stories later, we arrived at Luang Prabang in the heart of Laos. Once under French colonial rule, the heart of this old city still holds on to many architectural pieces influenced by the time, and is now recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. We spent our days touring around the city and then its surrounding countryside, enjoying waterfalls and swimming holes by day and the food, culture and people by night. With hidden bars tucked over the river, colonial architecture, croissants and sprawling night markets, the city offers a beautiful blend of old and new as two cultures mesh into one unique urban atmosphere. It was a warm welcome to the country, and definitely a city we’d return to in a heartbeat.      

    Since we had run out of river boat options, we were left with limited options to head south to Vang Vieng and ended up on one of the more harrowing bus rides of the trip thus far. Unfortunately, as a local later explained, corruption runs rampant in the road building industry in Laos, and more often than not the funds allocated to the winning contractor end up being used for only half of the agreed upon work; the other half is used to pay off those that helped said contractor secure the work in the first place. Unfortunately those that suffer the worst of the consequences of these backdrop deals are the likes of us, and any other motorist on the road. It’s a wonder that the bus had any shocks left in it at all by the time we finally reached our destination. 

  A very touristy town which has built its reputation renting inner tubes and hot air balloon rides, Vang Vieng thrives on churning the tourists through the natural wonders and beauty that surrounds the small town. Unfortunately as the hours creep on into the evening and the drinks keep getting poured, some of the less admirable traits of travellers come out, and at times, you aren’t sure if you’ve been transported to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or an LA nightclub. With a good set of earplugs and a reminder that you can act over the age of 21 however, Vang Vieng is still a glorious spot worth the stop on your travels through Laos. We spent our two days there biking through rice fields to azure blue swimming holes, floating casually down the river, exploring stunning caves with hidden temples and enjoying all of the local treats the street vendors had to offer.

    With a growing idea of what our next adventure might be we made way for Vientiane, Laos’ capital city in the South. Plane tickets in hand for Hanoi two days later, we spent our last days in Laos exploring the city and learning a little more about the country’s history. Although we had read snippets of stories in our travel guide and rumours of the problems the country’s people still face today, we had no idea for what was in store for us when we visited the COPE center, a facility created by a not-for-profit dedicated to the manufacturing, education and distribution of prosthetic limbs for those affected by both the Vietnam and Secret War between 1964 and 1973. During those years, the Americans completed more than 580,000 bombing missions, making Laos the more heavily bombed country in the world per capita. Over 2 million tons of ordinances were dropped on the country, many of them cluster bombs containing dozens of smaller ‘bombies’ inside, set to detonate either upon impact, or through a variety of either trip-wire or time clock mechanisms. With only a 70% detonation success rate, approximately 80 million of these ‘bombies’ remained undetonated throughout the countryside following the war. More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of unexploded ordinances incidences in the post war period between 1974-2011, and today approximately 100 new casualties occur annually. COPE has done an amazing job in the country thus far to help rehabilitate those affected by these ordinances, and to educate the population on proper recognition and reporting of those remaining in the field. While Canada has never used cluster munitions, they are still available and used in war around the globe today. Warfare is a powerful and indiscriminate means to an end, and it was eye opening and powerful to see a country still in the recovery stages of a battle largely unknown to us both.

  We enjoyed our visit in Laos, but if we returned we would do it different. I think this spectacular country has a lot to offer if you wander off the beaten track, which is unfortunately what we failed to do. But with a little bit of luck we’re going to try and avoid making the same mistake again; once we land in Hanoi we’re setting out to find bicycles, and if all goes well we’ll set off what should be the most challenging adventure of our trip so far as we  attempt to bike from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a distance of over 1600kms. With too much gear and not a lot of money to spend on bikes, no matter the outcome I know it will be a journey we’ll never forget. 🙂

Until next time, 

xo Alison and Byron

Our trusty riverboat that guided us down the Mekong

 

Our view over Vang Vieng

  

A sun bear surveys his domain at the bear sanctuary outside of Luang Prabang, where those seized from paochers and illegal traders are brought

  

On the streets of Luang Prabang

A hot air ballon catches the last of the sunset over Vang Vieng

 

Through the rice paddies on our way to the swimming hole outside of Vang Vieng

     
  
 

Kuang Si waterfalls, Luang Prabang

       

Exploring the caves, Vang Vieng

    

Being a tourist and loving every minute of it…

 

Found a rope swing!!


 
   
  
    

But it’s good to know everyone enjoys the water just the same 🙂

  

Prosthetic legs collected and exchanged for newer models hang on display in the COPE education center, Vientiane

  

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

DSC_0083

DSC_0080 (2)

DSC_0079 (2)

Mother bear patiently watches for dinner…

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

DSC_0088

DSC_0096

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

DSC_0164 (2)

Back to BC, and free rec-site camping.

DSC_0110

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

Salmon Glacier, BC.

DSC_0130

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.

IMG_1352

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.

IMG_1357

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.

DSC_0951 (2)

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

DSC_0977

Cairbou along the top of the world highway

DSC_1024

DSC_1053

DSC_1071

DSC_1085

DSC_1116

DSC_1130

DSC_1136

DSC_1141

DSC_1144

DSC_1158

DSC_1186

DSC_1189

DSC_1197

DSC_1217

DSC_1257

DSC_1265

Dall Sheep

DSC_1272

DSC_1275

DSC_1316

DSC_1328

DSC_1366

DSC_1394

Base camp

IMG_0973

IMG_0975

IMG_0990

IMG_0996

IMG_1012

IMG_1037

IMG_1038

IMG_1067

IMG_1032