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

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.

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.

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.