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

The Spoke Saga

Not being a cyclist, I hadn’t experienced a broken spoke until that fateful day south of Fort Bragg when a metallic ping rang out halfway up a killer series of switchbacks. That innocuous ‘twang’ resulted in me becoming semi-resident at the KOA campsite near Manchester beach, which – thankfully – was no great hardship.

Three days, a couple of bus rides, a new spoke and $50 later, I was back on the road. Having had the broken spoke replaced, and all the spokes re-tensioned, my bike was almost pleasant to ride. We still crawled up hills, of course (that’s my fault), but we could cruise downhill without the bike threatening to wobble itself into oblivion. The pleasantness didn’t last long, about 50 miles. Then there was another snap followed by my thoughts on spokes and their lack of commitment to this trip. This latest casualty didn’t buckle the back wheel too much and, as I was far from anywhere, I pushed on.

San Francisco

Seventy miles later, a San Francisco bike shop suggested a new rear wheel. My solid tyres were a problem though, they didn’t have the correct tool to work with them and two of their mechanics has previously broken their thumbs trying to wrestle the tyres. Two mechanics. Broken thumbs. What can you say to that? Plan B was to change all the spokes but not the rim. Cycling out of San Francisco I was $98 poorer but a set of spokes richer and relieved to have resolved the annoying spoke issue. The bike shop had suggested getting the new spokes re-tensioned in about 100 miles time, which would be in Monterey Bay or thereabouts. I’d barely covered half that distance when one of the new spokes called it a day. Sorry if this is getting boring, it was for me too. I limped into Santa Cruz on what felt like one of those wonky fairground bikes and consoled myself with a burrito the size of my head.

Limping towards Santa Cruz

The bike shop fun continued the next morning. Why explore Santa Cruz and go looking for sea otters when you can do a tour of the bike shops instead, right? One shop could work with solid tyres but didn’t have a suitable wheel while another couldn’t work with solid tyres (thumbs!) but had a wheel. All in, that came to another $170. The financial damage of this issue (we’re at $318 now) was greater than I had expected, the time cost was considerable and, as bad as either, this cemented my conclusion that my bike is not up to the job. My main concern when shopping for a touring bike had been that it would be tough enough to survive the journey and I don’t feel that it has been. We’ve managed another 76 trouble-free miles on the new wheel but, for sure, this will be the one and only big cycling trip we do together.

I’ve now visited bike shops in Victoria, Astoria, Newport, Fort Bragg, San Francisco and Santa Cruz
(photos from Google maps)

Sproken!

The sharp crack as I crawled up a series of stupidly steep switchbacks in granny gear sounded serious but it was the wobbly back wheel and the rubbing brakes that confirmed a glitch. I was racing the sun set at the time and pushed on. The sun won and it wasn’t until this morning that I could see my first broken spoke. Shucks.

Spot the broken spoke

The nearest bike shop is a hilly 29 miles back the way I came. Not too bad, you might think, I can hop on the bus and be on the road again in the blink of an eye. Except today’s a holiday and the once-a-day bus service wasn’t running. Tomorrow then! Except the mechanic in that bike shop is away for a week. The next closest bike shop is 39 miles back the way I came. They can only help if the spoke can be replaced without the tubeless tyre needing to come off, which I’m very much hoping it can.

I knew this journey would be tough and it is. It’s even harder than I expected. I thought the cycling might get a little easier as I built up the miles but, if anything, the miles are getting harder. And I didn’t expect these kinds of logistics – part and parcel of the journey though they are – to be so time consuming and utterly frustrating.

There are lots of exciting gray whale opportunities coming up as I head south and that’s keeping me going. I’m getting short of time to make the most of those opportunities though, and unexpected delays such as these aren’t helping. Striking a balance between cycling their migration route, meeting the people with links to these whales, and having the time to record and share the journey, is becoming increasingly difficult. Any wise words gratefully accepted.

Orkney on wheels

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 window 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.