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

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