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

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

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.