Pre-departure, I’d enthused on my blog about how being anxious about a trip is a surefire way of knowing you’re onto a good plan. Now, on my first full day on Kodiak Island, I considered that being nervous about a trip can also indicate that you’ve come up with, essentially, a bad plan.
I’d beaten a very hasty retreat to the safety of Kodiak airport that morning, where I finally ate the soggy sandwich in a deserted check-in area before raiding the vending machines for sugary solutions. On top of the jetlag, I’d just missed most of another night’s sleep and my nerves were shot. Only the news that Pasagshak, my next destination, was ‘one of the least bear-y places on the island’ was keeping me going and, according to Google maps, Pasagshak was only 34 miles away, three and half hours by bike.
I learnt a few tough lessons that day. The Google maps cyclist, for example, is much fitter than me, is not cycling a bike laden with gear, and almost certainly doesn’t take snack breaks every couple of miles. Three and a half hours by bike it was not. Also, elevation profiles matter – a lot.
I was barely an hour into my journey when the second bear sighting occurred. Seeing a huge dark animal amongst paler reedy vegetation a couple of hundred metres from the road, my first thought was ‘that horse is really hairy’. By the time my brain computed that it probably wasn’t an extremely hench horse, there was taller vegetation blocking my view so I put my head down and cycled on as fast as I could, heart thumping and adrenaline surging.
I was still fighting panic when I met Mike a couple of hours later as he supervised an area of roadworks. Twinkly eyed and jovial, he remined me of The Stranger from The Big Lebowski. Spotting my laden bike, he let out a cry of “that’s what I did!” and waved me over. Running his eyes over my bike set-up he reeled off his thoughts on wheels, tyres and handlebars. He stopped at the airhorn velcroid to my crossbar.
“What’s this?”, he asked.
I gave it a short blast and said it was to scare off bears. Laughing, he said he’d seen guns fired at close range to bears and them not even flinch.
“Why would they”, he added, “they’re f**king massive!”
“Well, blasting the airhorn helped me feel a little better at Buskin River last night”, I countered.
He stopped laughing straight away.
“Oooh, that is a bad, bad place. A bad place for bears”, he said, shaking his head. That was something we both agreed on.
“You’ll be fine at Pasagshak though”, he added before instantly diluting his reassurance with the words “you probably won’t even see one”. Probably?!
After politely declining his offer to loan me a pair of binoculars (“I hate little binoculars, they’re useless”, he’d said when I’d shown him mine) and promising to stop for another chat on my way back through, I carried on. The miles crawled by, my knees creaked and I cursed my ridiculous adventure ideas.
Finally reaching Pasagshak, I immediately found the road blocked by some of the Highland cows I’d been warned about. In no mood for their bovine intimidation tactics, I cycled straight for them and let loose with an impressive (albeit quite polite) war cry. They turned tail and fled, causing me three days of guilt.
What I took to be the rocky carpark for the campsite soon transpired to be the campsite and I tried to select the least boulder-strewn of the pitches. After a short but violent struggle against a brutal onshore wind, my tent was pitched, and I clambered in to help weigh it down. Wearing thermals, a fleece, down jacket, hat and gloves against the Alaskan chill, I wriggled into my sleeping bag as the tent flapped and flexed around me and slept like the exhausted cyclist I was.