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To Pasagshak

25th September

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. 

Scottish scenery but with Alaskan levels of fear

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. 

Autumn scenes and streams full of salmon

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.

Home sweet home

Buskin River State Park

24th September

Landing on Kodiak Island and reassembling my bike at the airport felt like the real start of my journey: my first miles cycled and my first night under canvas. In preparation for almost a week on Kodiak Island – an island with one of the highest densities of bears anywhere in the world – I’d read up on bears. I knew all about storing food well away from my tent, making noise when out and about to avoid catching a bear by surprise, and always keeping bear spray to hand. Perhaps the only thing I hadn’t considered was how it would feel to actually set eyes on a bear, to see my first bear as I cycled through, or camped in, their habitat. Or how I would manage to lie inside my tent listening to the sounds of a bear beyond the canvas in the hours after sunset.

It didn’t take long to find out. Low water levels had closed Buskin River to salmon fishing and the State Park was deserted. My plan to camp near the loudest group I could find quickly evaporated. The only sound as I cycled the pot-holed forest tracks looking for people was the scrunching of the damp, grey gravel beneath my tyres. I don’t recall any bird song or movement amongst the lichen-encrusted trees, all was still and quiet. Emerging from the gloom of the forest, I rolled to a halt on a wooden viewing platform beside the river. Dead and dying salmon languished in the shallows, those that could still pushing slowly upstream.

One of the tired salmon in Buskin River

The light beneath the trees was fading fast as I put up my tent, bear spray in hand and heart thumping. I scanned for movement between the trees as I secured the fly sheet and rolled a couple of boulders into place to keep each of the porches open. Finally, it was time to scoff a quick sandwich then crawl into my sleeping bag for the 12 hours of darkness. Keen to eat far from my tent, I hopped back on my bike and headed for the river, the weak light of my headtorch barely reaching the ground ahead of my front wheel. Looking up in the hope of some light to steer by, the beam of my headtorch illuminated a pair of green eyes directly ahead of me on the track. My bike and breathing stopped simultaneously, my body completely frozen. The eyes were marginally higher than my own and not more than five metres ahead of me. For a moment, neither of us moved. It was only when the eyes swept sideways off the track and back into the forest, that I swung my bike back round and cycled at full speed back to the tent, pausing only to throw my unopened sandwich into a bear locker.

An illustration of my bear encounter by the incredible Alina Loth of Engaged Art. I love it!

What followed was undoubtedly the most terrifying night of my life. I’m amazed I managed to sleep at all, but it wasn’t for long. The scrunching of gravel not far from my head woke me soon after midnight. Sounds came and went, none of them reassuring. Every so often, I’d let out a shout and give a blast on the airhorn I’d left beside my pillow, next to the only knife I had. Wired with fear and jetlag, I wrestled with the part of my brain that was flicking through worst case scenarios as the minutes crawled by. Eventually, finally, the light slowly arrived, heralded in by the national anthem blasted over crackly loudspeakers from across the river and, just like that, I’d survived my first night of camping.  

Serious scenes in the early hours

Guns and scrimshaw

23rd September

My two main tasks for my full day in Anchorage were to buy supplies from an outdoor store and visit the Wells Fargo Heritage Museum. In the cavernous REI store, staff outnumbered customers and a woman with a pierced septum and broad range of tattoos approached as I considered bear canisters. She was surprised to hear I was going to be cycling on Kodiak Island.

                ‘Normally only fishermen and hunters visit’, she explained.

                ‘Do they ever camp in tents or do they have RVs?’, I asked, hopefully.

                ‘They all have guns’, she answered, and I stopped asking questions.

Heart still racing from my dash across six lanes of oversized traffic, I immediately started to relax in the quiet of the museum. In a single room beneath a tower block of banking offices, glass display cases house treasure. Collections of lances and harpoons, narrow baleen sledges, woven baskets and 1,000-year-old sunglasses hewn from rock surround the centrepiece; the curved tusk of a woolly mammoth that towered above me. Fascinated, I read every plaque, learning how the coastal Inupiaq, Yup’ik and Cup’ik people survived off seal, fish, whale, walrus and berries. Every scrap of every catch was used: seal meat was eaten, their oil lit lamps while their skins were turned into clothes, floats, ropes and tents. Stretched over driftwood frames, seal skins became boats. A umiak vessel 15 to 20 feet long could transport more than 20 people to summer fishing camps or be used to hunt whales in the frigid coastal waters.

A model of a umiak vessel in the Wells Fargo Museum

I slowly circled a glass-topped display, peering at the carved walrus tusks from every angle. Intricately etched scenes depicted walrus on ice floes, men in canoes and boats, and caribou, seals, birds and polar bears. Others had three-dimensional figures – polar bears, seals and Arctic foxes – on pegs that slotted into holes in the tusks and I imagined the hours they must have taken to carve, perhaps as ferocious winds raged outside, or northern lights wavered overhead during long winter nights.

Scrimshaw scenes

Welcome to Anchorage

22nd September 2019

Ideally, my journey alongside the gray whales would have started even further north, perhaps on the ice strewn shores of the Chukchi Sea amongst the Inupiaq communities that go way back with the whales, or on Unimak Island watching migrating whales funnel between the Aleutian Islands like sand through an hourglass, nudged south by I don’t know what. Do environmental cues alone prompt their departure, the cooling seas and shortening days? Or simply an inexplicable urge, an overpowering desire, to head south? Or maybe they have, in fact, been deliberating the best day to begin their migration, casting their minds back to previous years and weighing the advantages of another day feeding against an extra day in the warmer waters of the south?

Instead, constrained by ferry schedules and visa limitations, I had 36 hours in Anchorage where snow already cloaked the mountains and was forecast to soon settle on the flat expanse of the city. Taking the public bus downtown from the airport plunged me straight into America’s deep end. As I wrestled my bag into the luggage rack, a wild-haired gentleman boarded the bus behind me in a fug of fumes, slurring that he was missing dinner. A woman sitting alone across the aisle from me nose-snorted to herself regularly as we rattled along the wide highway. A sudden bellow from the bus driver at a passenger who’d put his feet up on a chair prompted another nose-snort and woke the flammable guy. He looked around, hazily.

                ‘Which route are we on?’, he mumbled.

The wrong one, apparently, although he didn’t move. Then it was my stop and bus driver’s tone softened as she told me to ‘stay safe’, instantly making me feel anything but.

Of course, I set off in the wrong direction and soon lost my way in a city of streets with numbers for names. Wanting to ask directions, I spotted four young men coming out of a boarded-up building. Closing the warped door behind them with a mallet, they shouted and spat in the direction of the blinkered building before piling into a weathered wreck of a car and wheel-spinning out of the gravel car park.

Welcome to Anchorage.

Photo of Anchorage by Simon Hurry on Unsplash

Reliving the dream

And just like that, it’s been almost two years since I set off on the Gray Whale Cycle. Not just any two years but long, long months of infection rates, border closures, lockdowns, and vaccinations. Travel ground to a halt, loo roll was hoarded, hugs were banned, and exercise was rationed. Fingers crossed we’re now over the worst, with perhaps one more quiet winter ahead of us before we welcome in an easier year (if I’m being way too optimistic about this, please don’t tell me). And what better way for me to spend these next quiet months than reliving the Gray Whale Cycle, day by day.

There was so much more to the trip than I was able to share at the time – people I met, places I saw, things I learnt. So, my plan is to post daily blog posts as I relive the trip from my journal entries, photos, videos, and memories, starting on the 22nd September when I landed in Anchorage and instantly realised I needed more clothes. Please join me for the journey.  

One year on

It’s already been nearly a year and a half since I touched down on Kodiak Island, reassembled my bike and gingerly pedalled onto the ‘wrong’ side of the highway, my sights set firmly on Baja. After months of anticipation it was exciting to finally be on the road, albeit on a small island with a big bear population and savage weather.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and the daily routine of cycling a heavily laden bike through the Pacific Northwest in autumn was becoming second nature, even if the cycling itself was still a struggle. Logging trucks engulfed me in cold spray as they roared past and hard shoulder debris punctured my tyres. I’d seen gray whales though, plus killer whales, bears and raccoons, and I’d woken in my tent beside vast lakes, rivers, dune-backed beaches and ancient temperate rainforest. The relief of waking in the quiet early morning as the daylight transformed the sinister campsite of the previous evening, when danger had lurked in every shadow, into a tranquil campsite complete with flitting birds and territorial squirrels, was immense.

Fast forward a couple of months and I was borderline feral, happily eating instant noodles for breakfast as well as for supper. Noodles and muffins. As gradually as the miles had clicked by, I’d accepted I wouldn’t make it to Baja by bike. Instead, I made the most of the places I reached, meeting with as many people as possible and learning as much as I could. A few days in Monterey stretched into a week as I met local experts to hear more about gray whales, osedax worms, killer whales, sea otters and local conservation initiatives, and passed happy hours whale-watching and visiting the aquarium. Camping was still enjoyable and, getting late in the year, I often had the hiker-biker area to myself, local wildlife aside.

Nearly three months later, my time was up and I flew home from Los Angeles, already hatching plans to return. Having landed back in the UK days before Christmas, it initially felt hasty to fly back out to LA in early February. Those worries subsided with each southbound whale I spotted from the end of Ocean Beach Pier, San Diego and had evaporated entirely by the time I bumped across the choppy waters of Scammon’s lagoon near Guerrero Negro, Baja Sur. There, the whales I’d sought, searching from clifftops, headlands and roadside laybys, came to me. Why they’d do that puzzled me beyond measure, then and now. Getting a close-up view, an arm’s length view, of these long-distance travellers, with their barnacle and whale lice passengers, was incredible.

Almost 18 months on, and over a year into the global Covid-19 pandemic, I treasure my memories of this journey more than ever, particularly grateful I returned so soon to complete my journey. Except it still doesn’t feel over. With plenty more to write and hours of video to edit, the endless cycle of the gray whales’ migration continuing and the mysterious western population to ponder, I have plenty to keep me going until travel restrictions ease and I can get back on my bike, on the trail of the gray whales.

Gray whale mural in Guerrero Negro, Baja Sur

Friendly whales

The gray whale surfaced with a blow alongside a panga full of whale-watchers and hung there, huge head held above the water as the passengers leant over the side. Some lay their hands flat against the whale’s skin, others scratched and patted the whale vigorously like you might pat a big dog. The whale rolled slightly onto its side and opened its mouth revealing the creamy coloured baleen I’d previously only seen on stranded animals or in museums. As the freshening breeze blew the panga downwind, the whale sank then resurfaced, actively working to stay alongside the boat.

That might sound magical but did I mention the screaming? Over the whirr of outboard engines, the slap slap of waves against hulls and waterproofs flapping in the wind, were the shrieks of excited whale-watchers. And it was exciting but, for me, magical it was not. More than anything I was puzzled. I’d heard plenty about encounters with friendly whales in these salty lagoons but seeing it for real was something else. Why would the whales actively seek contact with people, was it just that they liked to have a good scratch? And why only do this here, in the lagoons of Baja? The whales had been hunted almost to extinction in this very place, and now they liked to be tickled by tourists? The panga next to mine burst into song.

With time, and some jostling from our captain, the whale surfaced beside us. The feathery appendages of the whale’s barnacles, now thrust above the surface, worked the air furiously. Whale lice clustered around the whale’s blowholes, pastel peach against the grey of the whale. It blew and a blast of spray shot past us. I reached out instinctively, as I would if a horse had trotted to a fence beside me. Far from stroking the whale or doing the recommended hearty scratch, I prodded it square in the rostrum and immediately felt a fraud for having touched it at all. I stuck to filming with my GoPro after that, capturing the details of this incredible and, to me, inexplicable encounter.

The encounter went on. Others joined the whale until we had three whales around us. The jostling and singing continued. If that was part of what attracted the whales, I was glad of it.

Later that evening, as the wind gently rustled my tent and the town’s dogs barked in the distance, I sat with my laptop warm against my knees and watched the day’s footage. Plunged beneath the waves into a steadier world of hissing waves and engine noise, my GoPro had captured the encounter from an entirely different perspective. I held my breath as a whale filled the frame; narrow encrusted rostrum then arching jaw, skin a patchy grey palette. Sunlight bent by the waves illuminated then shaded the whale as bubbles from a breaking wave fizzed to the surface. Then, as the whale cruised slowly by, an inquisitive eye. Perhaps I had seen the whale before as a distant blow in Alaska or feeding in a Californian cove. Now, at the end of our journeys in the shallow lagoons of Baja, the tables had turned.

Droning

“When you launch, you’re going to need to go up and out”, Emily told me as I surveyed our small launch area with horror. The stern deck of the boat was covered and our drones would be launched and recovered at arms length from the bobbing vessel. I was still staring. “Have you ever caught your drone by hand?”, Emily asked patiently. Of course I hadn’t, I like my hands. Empty fields are my favourite launch areas and, even then, I find it all a bit nerve-wracking.

Flying over water from a small, moving platform was always going to be mildly terrifying at best. Luckily I was under the close supervision of Emily, a calm, experienced drone pilot, and with her help the flight ended without mishap. Seeing the whales from the air had been the aim of the workshop but several factors needed to align for that to happen. We were in luck: we had good flying weather, calm seas and a trio of gray whales moving steadily south towards the lagoons of Baja.

From the air we could suddenly see them all, from their barnacle-ly rostrums to their broad tail flukes. They were huge, streamlined and making their mammoth migration look effortless. Their mottled grey bodies glowed in the sunlight, their blows forming fleeting rainbows (rainblows, if you like). It was an impressive sight and absolutely worth the raised blood pressure.

Of course there are regulations to adhere to when operating drones, particularly around wildlife. Many areas are off limits to drones altogether. If you are allowed to fly, there may be local regulations or flight restrictions to adhere to. In addition, because marine mammals are protected by law it’s illegal to disturb them. With that in mind, federal guidelines recommend keeping a safe aerial distance of at least 1000 feet (300 yards) from marine mammals in the wild. More information on how to view marine wildlife responsibly can be found here on NOAA’s website.

Migration update

When I visited the Gray Whale Census and Behaviour Project at Point Vicente centre on 8th December, it was a year to the day since the team had seen their first southbound gray whale of the previous year’s migration. Although we didn’t see any gray whales that day it was lovely to meet census director Alisa Schulman-Janiger and her fantastic team of volunteers. The day hadn’t been entirely blubber-free though, I’d passed a pod of bottlenose dolphins cruising along the surf zone as I’d cycled out to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a real treat on a squally December day.

This year, the first southbound whales weren’t seen from Point Vicente until 12th December as they started trickling south. Almost two months later, the migration is now in full swing and, as of 3rd February, 302 southbound gray whales have been counted including 28 calves that have been born along the way. The counts are updated daily on the Gray Whale Census and Behaviour Project website along with information about how this year’s migration compares to last year’s.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch, to the north, has been enjoying plenty of gray whale sightings too. Monterey Bay is where northbound mother calf-pairs returning from the breeding lagoons of Mexico are forced to run the gauntlet as they cross the deep water of Monterey submarine canyon, where killer whales wait. If you’ve seen footage of killer whales hunting gray whale calves, chances are it was filmed in Monterey Bay with input from Nancy Black, the local killer whale expert. Unusually, this year the killer whales have also been hunting southbound gray whale calves (this video on the Monterey Bay Whale Watch Facebook page has amazing drone footage of killer whales and gray whales from 26th January). Killer whales are just one of the dangers the gray whales face on their incredible journeys.

Further north again, the Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study has been also been keeping watch. Despite some days with heavy whale traffic, overall they’ve had their lowest January count since they began monitoring the gray whales seven years ago. This could be due to changes in the timing of the migration (a later start was observed this year), the detectability of the whales (because of poor sighting conditions, for example, or behavioural changes) or their abundance.

Of course, the migration isn’t a clear-cut event and some individuals will be way ahead of, or far behind, the crowds. Two very keen gray whales were seen in the most northerly of the Baja lagoons – Ojo de Liebre – on 10th December. Further south in San Ignacio lagoon, boat surveys conducted by the Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program to count the whales don’t begin until late January. Last year the highest whale count was on 25th February before the numbers began dropping off as the whales returned north. Again, not all whales are on exactly the same schedule; 10 northbound whales have already passed Point Vicente on their way back to their feeding grounds. Whichever way they’re going, the whales are on the move!

People

Dodgy drivers aside – which I attributed to carelessness rather than malice – I was shown nothing but kindness during my trip. From the driver who saw me cycling on a chilly day and chased me down with a huge hot coffee, to the friends of friends who took me in, fed me, housed me and did my laundry. I was given food parcels and boat trips and put in touch with even more friends and family further down my route; passed along like a smelly cyclist baton by a team of awesomeness.

Cyclists I met along the way helped with my bike, fixed punctures, shared route updates and waited for me at the top of hills, while people I’d contacted completely out of the blue gave up hours of their time to share their knowledge with me, show me the sights and then feed me too. And, of course, friends and family back home provided a magnificent flow of advice and encouragement, even when I was mostly grumbling.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re one of the people that’s prompted this post and I’m immensely grateful. A massive grizzly-sized thanks to you for helping to keep me going.

Something I noticed, though, was how frequently people I met along the way, including these lovely, helpful people, told me “you’re brave”. By and large, it wasn’t the likelihood of being knocked off my bike by passing traffic, drowned by the torrential rains of Washington (or Oregon, or California), or having a run in with some of the massive, toothy, local wildlife that they thought I needed to be brave about (I asked). It was other people. Whilst these kindly people were going out of their way to help me or chat with me, they worried that others might do me harm.

Of course, I realise that bad things happen. And it was impossible not to see the struggles that so many people were facing along my route. Homelessness, drug use and mental health issues were apparent in every town I visited and on a scale I’d neither seen before nor expected. It was heart breaking to see. Whilst I didn’t always feel comfortable, none of the people I chatted with were anything but kind and curious.

It reminded me of a story I heard at a talk by the adventurer, Jenny Tough. As she ran through the Andes she was welcomed into the remote villages, offered shelter and food, and vehemently warned about how dangerous the people in the next village were. Upon reaching the end of her run, and having met only welcoming, friendly villagers, she was tempted to run her route in the opposite direction to let everyone know about their delightful neighbours.

For sure, I’m not going to cycle my route in the opposite direction, not now that I know how hilly it is, but you get the gist. With some sensible precautions, a pinch of good luck and the odds massively in my favour, the people I met along the way will be remembered as one of the highlights of my trip.