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

Two months!

It’s been two months! I’m not going to ask where the time’s gone, much of it passed exceedingly slowly as I crept uphill in granny gear with trucks almost grazing my elbow, sweat stinging my eyes. The cold nights, sudden noises in the dark and feeling of utter exhaustion with half the day’s mileage still to do are all fresh in my memory. So, though, are the albums worth of beautiful coastal views I’ve seen, the sunshine, the chats with new – and incredibly generous – friends I’ve made along the way and the times I’ve made it to my intended destination and happily crawled into my sleeping bag. Those days are the best.

Then there are the gray whales. They’ve eluded me where I was sure I would see them and then popped up when I’ve not had such high hopes. As I continue south, I’m ahead of the peak of the southward migration and will be leaving the Pacific Coast Feeding Group’s hotspots behind but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll continue to surprise me.

My bike has been the source of more delays and frustrations than I would have liked this month and we’ve almost fallen out a couple of times. The conditions have been demanding though, with debris-strewn hard shoulders, rough sections of road and a heavy load. With better mechanical skills, I’m sure I could have prevented some of these issues or dealt with them more swiftly. In that regard this has been a valuable lesson and, should I undertake another cycling trip in the future, I will most definitely pimp both my skills and my bike more thoroughly beforehand.

Right now, with solid puncture-proof tyres and a full set of new spokes on the rear wheel, Bertha the bike is – hopefully – ready for the final month of adventuring! I won’t even try to pretend to know what that will entail but I’m curious to find out. Massive thanks, as ever, to the David Henderson Inspiring Journey grant for making this trip happen, it’s truly the adventure of a lifetime.

Some summary stats (to Sunday 17th November):
Total countries visited: 2 (USA and Canada)
Total US States visited: 4 (Alaska, Washington, Oregon & California)
Miles cycled this month: 689.4 (1,293.4 in total)
Cumulative elevation gained this month (m): 7,315.5 (14,019.3 in total)
Number of sore knees: 2
Number of punctures: 6 (then solid tyres!)
Number of broken spokes: 2
Times gray whales seen: 6, probably 7 (once in Alaska (Pasagshak Bay), once in Washington (Neah Bay), twice in Oregon (Depoe Bay and Rocky Creek/Whale Cove), and two, possibly three, times in California (a stranded gray whale at Patrick’s Point, a probable gray whale at Point Arena and a lovely sighting from the highway near Meyer Gulch)
Things I appreciate more than ever: music, chairs and washing machines

One month in!

As of Sunday, it’s been a month since I arrived in America. In many ways, the time has flown by (not on the hills so much, perhaps) and the journey has already been quite the adventure! Here are some summary stats (up until Sun 20th Oct).

Countries visited: 2 (USA and Canada)
US States visited: 3 (Alaska, Washington and Oregon)
Miles cycled: 602
Cumulative elevation gained (m): 6,704
Number of sore knees: 2
Number of punctures: 4
Times gray whales seen: 2 (Pasagshak Bay, Alaska and Neah Bay, Washington)
Other cetacean species seen: humpback whales, killer whales, Dall’s porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphins

This has already been my longest stay in America and, at times, the learning curve has been steep. My first five minutes in Oregon were almost my last five minutes as I encountered another variety of zebra crossing. I’ve mastered cycling on the right though, and bagels. Pretzels and the tiny, ill-fitting cubicle doors in ‘restrooms’ still confuse me.

Life on the road has been even tougher that I expected. The wind and rain have far exceeded anything that Scotland prepared me for. Turns out Scotland knows nothing of rain. And while cycling through heavy rain for hours on end, with my toes squelching in my shoes, is miserable, having to stand on the narrow hard-shoulder for up to an hour wrestling with a puncture while lorries swoosh past, sending another wave of spray down my neck, is even worse. By the time I get moving again I’m cold, plastered in road grime, behind schedule and fed up. There’ve been five punctures so far this trip, three in the last three days. They often cost me the crucial bit of daylight I need to reach my destination and the frequent micro-tweaks to my plan will, sooner or later, amount to a bigger tweak. But, for now, I’m pushing on while I can.

In terms of distance to cycle, the bulk still lies ahead of me and the hills will continue. The lure of warmer, drier weather and further gray whale encounters – both of the Pacific coast feeding group and migrating whales – encourage me onwards and I’m hoping my knees will cooperate. Here’s to the next month, whatever it may hold.

Cruising the marine highway

Day five of life on the M/V Kennicott, sailing the Alaska Marine Highway System, has come around quickly. Day one was an overcast day of adjusting to life onboard, deciphering the café menu (biscuits and gravy anyone? how about some grits?) and watching a group of Dall’s porpoises splash past. The 16 passengers onboard quietly rattled around the 116 metre vessel, reading in the lounge and doing jigsaw puzzles. Our numbers grew that evening after we stopped in Whittier, a tiny outpost connected to Anchorage by a one-way tunnel shared by cars, lorries and trains.

Day two brought challenging sea conditions that kept many passengers in their bunks and had the rest of us staggering around like drunks. Our speed was reduced to 10 knots as we punched into a convincing swell and were engulfed by frequent squalls. It wasn’t until evening that we reached more sheltered waters close to our port call at Yakutat, arriving under the cover of darkness and in a heavy downpour.

The reprieve was short-lived as we headed back out to sea again, although it wasn’t as bad on our return and sleep was possible, albeit in short stretches. Since then we’ve cruised calmer waters through a labyrinth of pine-covered islands. Dark clouds have accompanied us with rain never far away and wisps of lighter mist clinging to the treetops. Smoke rises from the chimneys of the few waterside homes we pass and navigation lights blink from rocky promontories.

The marine mammal hiatus was broken by a group of snoozing sea lions on the imaginatively named Rocky Island, then came a few humpback whale sightings, their light blows standing out against the dark forest. This afternoon was the grand finale, with killer whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, humpback whales and sea lions in glassy seas.

As we approach Bellingham, having travelled 1,935 miles from Kodiak, it’s time to think of cycling again. Island hopping between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island, then back to the mainland at Port Angeles, will hopefully ease me back into my cycling routine. My schedule gets hectic after that, with ambitiously long days. Let’s see how that goes.

Piece by piece

It was in May 2000 that Stacy Studebaker found a dead gray whale washed up on Pasagshak beach and saw an opportunity for the whale to become an educational project. Just four days later, she’d pulled together a team and the whale was buried beneath 10 ft of soil in a trench 45 ft long where it was left to decompose.

The real work began four years later. Piece by piece, the whale’s bones were excavated, cleaned, left outside to be bleached by the sun, then dried in a heated basement. Two years after that, the skeleton was ready to be reassembled, supported by a custom-made steel support system.

Next, the whale was carefully transported to the new Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Centre in five pieces and duly reassembled. In 2007, seven years after first being found, the whale’s skeleton was finally back in one piece.

Now, in 2019, the skeleton display is as impressive as ever, suspended in the visitor centre. I squelched around it in waterlogged shoes having just arrived from Pasagshak myself the day after kayaking with gray whales in the bay. Seen from a kayak or as a skeleton on display, these whales are huge. As big perhaps as the challenge of moving one, although that too was possible piece by piece.

Kayaking with whales

A week on from my kayaking trip from Pasagshak Bay and the excitement hasn’t even started to fade. I don’t think it’s going to. Jen from Kayak Kodiak was kind enough to drive out to Pasagshak to run a one person whale-searching tour and we pushed off from the beach into a grey bay with strong winds and rain forecast.

It wasn’t long before we spotted distant blows out beyond the bay. We pushed on, chatting and searching the shoreline for any other wildlife. As promised, the wind arrived suddenly, a line of ruffled water advancing towards us, and I had to turn to shout to Jen behind me to be heard. Further out and more exposed now, the sea picked up too, the bow of the kayaking lifting and dipping with the waves.

We paddled on keeping our eyes on the blows when all of a sudden there was a blow much closer to us. We were almost there. Barely a few minutes later, the hollow whoosh of a whale’s breath was audible over the wind, then another! After half an hour of paddling we were with two gray whales inside Pasagshak Bay.

They were surfacing regularly, emerging in a flash of white water and sending a plume of spray and vapour into the air with an echoing blast as they rolled forward, already submerging their mottled grey heads again. Sometimes that was it, they just sank back beneath the waves. Other times they arched their scarred backs high out of the water, hinting at their huge size and revealing the knobbly ridge of their back, making us think they might lift their tail fluke clear of the water as they dived. They never did. By paddling from time to time against the wind and waves that pushed us back, we stayed with them, in awe of their size and marvelling at our good luck.

Gray whales aren’t known for the dramatic breaching or fin-slapping of humpback whales, the incredible size of blue whales nor the stealth and speed of the more streamlined rorqual whales. They’re awesome in their own way though, if you ask me. Their skin becomes more mottled as they age, lightened by barnacles past and present. Whale lice also hitch a lift, living amongst the barnacles. The only species of whale to feed on the seafloor, the side with fewer barnacles gives away if the whale’s left or right ‘handed’.

Just as my hands were beginning to complain about the cold, Jen checked her watch and announced that, after almost an hour with the whales, it was time to head back. Assisted by the wind this time, we paddled happily back to shore after the best trip I could have hoped for.

Massive thanks Jen for making this trip happen!

Thar she blows!

Seven miles beyond Pasagshak, Fossil Beach really is the end of the road if not the end of the world. Beside the road, a massive rusting corrall on a massive scale, with tree-trunk fence posts, must have been for the infamous Pasagshak buffalo. Opposite, the swings of a deserted play area swung in the breeze beside a small cabin with smashed windows.

Next I passed an old rocket launch site with towering fences, signposts to ‘Area 4’ and an evacuation warning system. Eerie tall, windowless buildings stood incongruously against a background of pristine beaches, blue skies and brilliant sunshine. It all felt a bit Russian and I kept on pedalling.

Bald eagles patrolled the cloudless sky over Fossil Beach, where my fossil hunting was cut short by regular showers of rocks from the overhanging cliff above. Instead I walked the kelp-strewn tide line, balanced on the sun bleached tree trunks piled up at the back of the beach and ate M&Ms in the sunshine.

My goal was, of course, to find gray whales and I saw them almost immediately after crossing the headland from Pasagshak. Cresting the ridge after a brutally steep uphill struggle, I had excellent views across the bay. Within 10 seconds of stopping on the side of the road, the first blow – a bright white puff of spray – stood out against the sparkling blue sea. Within a couple of minutes I’d seen clusters of blows from two other locations and counted at least six whales.

The whales were closer to shore by the time I cycled back from Fossil Beach and I stopped again to watch. This time I could make out the backs of the closest whales as they surfaced, with their barely-there dorsal fins and knuckley peduncles. They were still here and I’d seen them.