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

What3words

So far I have camped at crispy.endpoints.pacifist, certified.jumper.canines and unroll.pester.making, amongst other places. Each three word combination reveals my location to within three metres and can be found, and navigated to, using the what3words app or website. It’s a very cool system and quite addictive, I absolutely recommend checking it out!

What3words was initially created by Chris Sheldrick and his team after they had trouble finding the locations of music gigs. Launched in 2013, what3words assigned each of the 57 trillion 3×3 metre squares on the planet a unique three word combination, giving billions of people an address for the first time and what3words is now used by postal companies, emergency services, aid agencies and businesses across the globe.

I’ve not yet moved my tent to get a catchier what3words but I love checking my latest address. In quieter moments, thinking of more appropriate addresses has also kept me entertained. I’ve had varying amounts of sleep at what.was.that, probably.another.raccoon, bear.munch.nom and please.send.help, and there’ll be more.

You can find out more about what3words in this TED talk and here.

Vancouver Island

Two days on Vancouver Island was nowhere near long enough but I gave it my best shot, visiting the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea, going whale-watching with Eagle Wing Whale and Wildlife tours and hearing about local marine mammal matters from Dr Anna Hall.

The whale-watching trip started slowly, searching the Salish Sea under sunny skies but a biting wind. Areas that had been brimming with humpback whales just a few days before now yielded nothing. Time slipped away, followed closely by the feeling in my fingers and toes. Then, a blow! Our first humpback whale, heading steadily east. Then two more blows, a pair of humpbacks diving together. Next, a small group of Dall’s porpoise whizzing along so quickly I didn’t even raise my camera. Instead I watched the little black and white torpedoes shooting through the swell in a flurry of splashes. Then, the highlight for me, southern resident killer whales!

The southern resident killer whale population numbers less than 80 individuals and is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The scarcity of salmon (their favoured prey), persistent organic pollutants in the environment, vessel disturbance and underwater noise are all considered factors in the population’s decline so it was an honour to see them. Amongst the group was an adult male whose impressively tall dorsal fin just kept on rising out of the water, and a mother-calf pair, one of only a few calves born to the population in recent times. Massive thanks to Eagle Wing tours and Anna for such an incredible trip!

In other news, whilst camping in the ancient rainforest of the Goldstream Park, I coped bravely with my fellow forest inhabitants. Paw-steps around my tent prompted only occasional outbursts of abuse and I slept through an assault on my bear canister of food entirely. Having seen my first live raccoon of the trip the evening before, I put the attack down to the little masked bandits, probably nothing to do with bears at all.

Beware the buffalo

After telling me how careful I needed to be camping at Buskin River, the shop assistant in Big Ray’s mentioned that my next stop, Pasagshak, was one of the least bear-y places on Kodiak Island. My spirits rose immeasurably.

“I’ve only seen one bear there in 30 years. There are wild horses and cows on the way, and the Highland cattle can be obnoxious”, he explained. “Oh, and you need to watch out for the buffalo”. Wait, what? “Sometimes I’d rather deal with a bear”, he added. Great.

The cycle out to Pasagshak was a slog. Exhausted after my night of bear terror, my bike was heavy with supplies and the hills felt endless. Strong gusts of wind seemed to hinder me no matter how much the road twisted and turned. Mike the friendly roadwork guy waved me over to talk bikes, offer me energy bars and share bear stories. Initially teasing me for having a bear bell jingling as I cycled, he grew serious when I said I’d just come from Buskin River. “That’s a bad, bad place for bears” he repeated a couple of times. “You get 1000 lb bears there every day.”

Many hours later, having taken nearly twice as long as Google had expected, I rolled into Pasagshak. A bay hemmed in by mountains, with a shingly beach and river mouth, Pasagshak is very nearly the end of the road. A small campsite, a few houses set back from the beach and a boat ramp, that’s about it.

The campsite – more of a gravelly car park – was empty so I claimed the least rocky pitch as my own and battled to set up my tent in the blustery wind. Between the gusts that tore at my tent and the surf that crashed onto the beach, a whole team of bears could have been tangoing around the campsite all night and I wouldn’t have known. Perfect. Now my main concern about getting up in the night was that my tent might blow away without my weight to anchor it.

I spent three happy days at Pasagshak exploring, testing Alaskan camping food, collecting water from a nearby stream and trying to befriend the ‘obnoxious cows’ that turned and fled each time I approached. Reggie, the campsite warden, told me of summer months when the whole bay fills with gray whales, and how they come to the shallows to rub on the rocks. Puzzled that I wasn’t fishing, he delivered some salmon he’d caught and smoked himself. It was delicious.

Had the weather not turned, it would have been difficult to leave this quiet bear-free haven. As it was, fierce winds brought relentless rain that made the return journey an uncomfortable one but the prospect of heated accommodation in Kodiak all the more tempting.

Local knowledge & spider senses

Just a mile from Kodiak airport and four miles from town, Buskin River Recreation Site was conveniently located for my first night of camping on Kodiak Island. Having reassembled my bike at the airport, I wheeled into the park.

I was hoping I could manage a night without bear spray, camping gas and matches, all things I couldn’t bring on the plane, and my plan was to see what other campers at Buskin River reckoned. Except there weren’t any other campers. The place was deserted and my spider senses were on high alert.

Plan B had me bursting in to Big Ray’s outdoor store three minutes before they closed having cycled into Kodiak at top speed. As the shop assistant directed me towards the bear spray, I asked if he thought I would survive a night in a tent at Buskin River. He didn’t laugh, or even smile. After a pause, a list of rules followed: always have bear spray in your hand, with the safety catch off, and test fire it to know its range. There was no debating whether there were bears there, there were. But with the abundance of salmon in the river at the moment the bears were well fed and quite mellow. Massive but mellow.

Back at Buskin River it was getting dark. I cycled a lap of the site, pinging my bell as I went. Some cars passed through but none stayed. Site selected, I quickly set up my tent. Bear canister (the bear-proof container my food lives in) and toiletries went into a bear locker about 70 metres from my camping spot. The bear spray stayed by my side. By the time the tent was set up it was pretty dark, just time for a sandwich then bed.

Not wanting to eat near my tent, I cycled towards an open area near the river. Cycling through a darker stand of trees the light of my head torch suddenly illuminated a huge pair of eyes directly ahead of me. They looked straight at me, bright and green, then moved smoothly sideways back into the trees. Screeching to a halt, I turned circle. The sandwich went back in the bear canister and I dived into my tent.

What followed was a night of terror. Noises in the darkness had me shouting at the trees, blasting my air horn and gripping the bear spray, putting way too much faith in a can of aerosol-propelled vegetable extract. Something – perhaps the wind, perhaps not – caused one of my tent’s porches to collapse against the tent where the fabric rustled in the wind. Those were slow, slow hours. My fear levels spiked during a pee expedition in the dark hours before dawn.

Unhappy face at 04:00

Daylight eventually crept through the trees. Jet engines roared from the airport and the national anthem played from somewhere. My bike was loaded in record time and it wasn’t until I reached the airport that I finally ate my sandwich.

Since then my friend, Lars, has asked how I can know how bear-y a place is. I’m sticking with local knowledge and my spider senses, but with more attention paid to my spider senses. I won’t be camping at Buskin River again.

Packing up in double quick time

Bear aware!

“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.

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.

Tent-tastic

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 storm-proof 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 miniscule 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.