“Nothing will guarantee your safety in bear country”. That was the opening line of the first article I read about how to behave in bear country, and it’s the gist of every other article I have read since then. Information gathering is usually my number one tool for overcoming worries. It hasn’t worked on this occasion.
They can charge at 44 mph, climb trees at top speed and smell food from miles away. Anything I can do, a bear can do better.
And, I need to know my grizzlies from my black bears because they play by different rules. If a black bear approaches my camp, I’m meant to shout, bang pots together and wave my arms around, perhaps lob some rocks at it. A grizzly, however, should be spoken to calmly as I avoid eye contact and back away slowly. Never try to move a grizzly bear.
Avoiding close encounters is the way forward and there are lots of things I can do to help with this. I’ll be storing all my food, toiletries and rubbish in a special bear-resistant canister. There’ll be no cooking or eating anywhere near my tent, that’ll happen downwind and far away. Only nice open spaces will be considered for camping spots and, when on the move, I’ll be making plenty of noise. No bear surprises, please.
I have only seen a bear once, a fleeting glimpse of a black bear in Big Bend National Park, Texas. A persistent snuffling noise emanating from a bush beside the path got my spider senses tingling. Then a bear poked his head out, looked around and vanished back into the bush. Fingers crossed any future bear encounters are of a similar nature — brief and peaceful.
The whistling call of curlews mixed with the shrill peeps of oystercatchers and acrobatic lapwings entertained with me their erratic flight as I cycled between wind-ruffled fields. Most impressive were two curly-haired Hungarian sheep pigs who trotted over to see me, hairy ears flapping enthusiastically (theirs, not mine). Wanting to dust off my panniers and stretch my legs, I had cycled off the ferry in Stromness that afternoon and was on my way to visit my excellent friend, Moni. The weather moves quickly in Orkney and by the time I arrived, 28 miles later, I had experienced brilliant sunshine, buffeting winds and stinging rain.
Saturday was a wildlife frenzy as Moni showed me the sights. Starting early, we quietly crept up on the local harbour seals: basking adults snoozed, pups swam in the shallows and a defensive mother saw off a grey seal with a short but convincing charge. Terns nesting on a nearby beach shrieked at our approach as their chicks scurried around in the dunes, then we were off to the Brough of Birsay in time to cross the causeway in search of more seabirds. Puffins, guillemots and razorbills lined the ledges, fulmars cruised over the cliff tops and shags stretched out their drying wings on the rocks below. A seal surfacing in the wash below us was our only marine mammal sighting of the afternoon, no killer whales for us.
Despite an excellent forecast, light rain pattered against the windows as I repacked my panniers on Sunday morning. I was taking the scenic route back to Stromness via the north coast to complete my lap of mainland Orkney. The slow slog to Kirkwall gave me time to reflect on the rumour of Orkney being flat.
Brighter weather and easier miles followed after that, along with a welcome lunch stop near Tingwall and an excellent cake break in Birsay. One more hour of cycling and I was rattling over the narrow cobbled streets of Stromness to a busy campsite beyond the harbour. I celebrated my 55-mile day with a warm rum and coke in the evening sun as I rehydrated some spicy noodles and listened to the hum of fishing boats heading home. With clouds approaching and the wind picking up, I retreated to my sleeping bag and was asleep by 9pm after a brilliant mini-adventure in Orkney.
During The Gray Whale Cycle, I will mostly be camping and I could not be more excited, I love camping. Until recently I had two tents: my trusty stormproof North Ridge tent (like North Face, but not) and an ultra-lightweight Nordisk one. Unfortunately, neither tent seemed right for the job.
My North Ridge tent is pretty much indestructible and I’m very much hoping we’ll grow old together. It’s kept me snug in howling gales on an exposed headland on the Isle of Skye, incessant rain in Yorkshire and plenty in between. Its strength comes at a price though, it’s heavy and bulky and, sadly, is just too big to lug all the way from Alaska to Mexico.
My Nordisk Telemark tent, on the other hand, packs down nice and small and is as light as a feather. It’s also a minuscule canvas coffin that barely accommodates me, let alone any of my ‘stuff’. Perhaps I’ve never mastered pitching it correctly but its one pole gave up on a breezy night in Skye (different trip, Skye’s a windy place!) and heavy dew can spell disaster. It’s just not adventure-ready. Its future more likely involves Ebay.
After reading most of the internet, quizzing friends, borrowing tents (thanks Jon!) and visiting shops to stroke and prod their products, I settled on a winner. Over budget but bursting with promise, I went for an MSR Hubba Hubba NX. It has glowing reviews and even came with a free hip flask, what more can I say?
It arrived on a blustery Fife day and we immediately headed to the nearest hilltop. It passed that test with flying colours and, so far, I love it. It’s light (1.9 kg with the footprint), packs down to a manageable size, and is easy enough to put up and take down. It’s yet to be tested in heavy rain but I’m feeling optimistic. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Running across Scotland from east to west was a huge success. Whilst the wildlife sightings were distinctly underwhelming (no golden eagles, no red squirrels and only a small herd of apologetic deer on the penultimate day), the scenery was fantastic. Winding our way up the rough track at the head of Glen Affric before bounding and whooping our way down the other side, with the waterfalls and streams tumbling off the Kintail mountains now flowing alongside us for the first time, was the absolute highlight. Not even 22 miles of incessant rain and an ice-cream headache inducing wind could dampen our spirits after that and we hobbled across the bridge to the Isle of Skye already planning future runs.
Whether it was the run across Scotland that helped get me through London marathon or the incredible atmosphere and cheering crowds, that was another day to remember. A punchy mix of bone-rattling bass from countless bands and speakers, bowls of jelly babies and slices of orange, smiles and shouts of encouragement from strangers, and the determination of all those runners who made it to the start line, never mind the finish. With survival my only goal, I soaked up the atmosphere and took it on the chin when a rhino overtook me in the final mile. Within 24 hours of finishing — with so many muscles still groaning and my running shoes sticky with Lucozade — I entered the ballot for the 2020 Virgin London marathon. Fingers crossed!
Really I should be cycling. Cycling from Alaska to Mexico will hurt less if I train more now. However, I have a couple of marathons coming up — London in April and Edinburgh in May — and I want them to hurt as little as possible too. As part of my training, I am travelling to Inverness this weekend to attempt to run coast to coast across Scotland. That’ll be from Inverness to the Isle of Skye, approximately 86 miles over five days. Some will be over fairly friendly terrain, alongside Loch Ness for example, while other sections will be remote and more gruelling.
Elements of the trip will undoubtedly parallel The Gray Whale Cycle: getting up each day with a destination to reach and only myself to make it happen, watching the scenery evolve as I progress, documenting and sharing my journey as I go, cursing headwinds and, hopefully, having a sense of achievement when I reach my goal. Whilst I’m not convinced that running fitness equates to cycling fitness, I’m excited to consider this a practice run.
It has now been over a month since I heard that I have been awarded the David Henderson Inspiring Journey grant and the news still excites and terrifies me in equal measure. Being anxious about a plan is a surefire way of knowing it’s a good one, so I’m not overly concerned about that. More of a worry is how much of the last month I spent sitting around eating mince pies and Terry’s chocolate orange.
With that in mind I have been making a concerted effort to get out on my bike when I can, which wasn’t today because I was hurrying to catch a flight. It’s not tomorrow either; I’ll be on another plane then. Then I board a ship the day after. Luckily it’s a ship with an exercise bike and a treadmill, but also with excellent and abundant food. The struggle is real.
As well as training, there are routes to plan, people to contact, kit lists to refine and anti-bear strategies to devise. I’ve more questions than answers right now: are any of the ultralight tents on the market really weatherproof? Can I remember how to repair a punctured inner tube? Do muffins really cost $5 in Alaska? My to-do lists (yes, there’s more than one) keep on growing and October is creeping closer. It’s time to get moving; the countdown has begun!