Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Alaska Highway
Episode 1- The Alcan

Alaska Highway – for us just the beginning of our adventure, for many an adventure itself. There is something special, kind of mythical about this road, the history, the wilderness,  space and emptiness – something people from the south miss, so they come here for adventure, they come to encounter ‘the Nature’, as they say here  is ‘the last frontier’, the last real unspoiled beauty of Northern America.
The road was built in 1942 for military purposes and at that time that was the only road to Alaska. However, white people had been visiting this forgotten place long before – first fur trades from Russia, then gold seekers and then army – it was either trekking, by sea or air. No-one thought Alaska could be habitable, pleasant or interesting place to visit. The war turmoil however, made wide public realize about an existence of this piece of land and so just after the WWII had finished adventure seekers started hitting the road north. There was virtually anything at that time; few small communities, few petrol stations, where you could also buy some food, and the road was hardly drivable in all four seasons (even today there are still long stretches where permafrost and wetlands damage the road nearly every year). So even for a car it was a big challenge. Nowadays is different – there is plenty of services along the road; for a car it is an easy drive, for a bike the distances are still significant. The road is very touristy – between June and August, when all the services are operating, the road is full of RV’s, motorbikes, 4x4 and delivery trucks. The ride is easy; you can sleep in bed and eat in a restaurant every day, spot a bear and take a picture and look at the immensity of Nature; the beauty of northern lands is simple, it is not something that makes you to say ‘wooooooooow’ the minute you see it; you need to get engaged with it, be there for some time and feel it. There is just forest, but the forest is endless and so dense that you can barely go inside (if you dare to encounter its wildlife), there are just rivers, but so ‘free’, ‘untamed’, like none of the one in our civilized, organized part of the planet and there are those distant mountains. I thing only cycling the Alcan you can still feel the wilderness and get the sense of adventure the first travelers came for.

Alaska Highway
Episode 2 – The Last Frontier

The Alcan is still the only road that connects, links the last frontier, the wildness, the far North with the "conquest" lands.
 I someone like us who comes from the safe and comfortable  Europe to see,  to experience the way that Nature sets the rules so strongly to those few o that were brave enough to settle down around the Alcan. The way they cope with the almost endless Winters and Wildlife around them it is inspiring. In some conversations we had with locals it came up the idea, the feeling of being small, fragile against the Nature and how they have to learn how to survive in the Woods. Yes in the Woods that is where most of them live fully surrounded by an endless forest that covers everything that your eyes can reach to see. I have never seen something like that before I came to the North. The idea of being in one of the biggest "lungs" of the Planet Earth is unique and also a bit frightening for someone like us that we are not used to with the Nature face to face.
 The image that comes to my mind is the 4 Elements, when I try to describe the Alcan

The biggest rivers I have ever seen in my life not even in my dreams, they are not just massive but wild, uncontrolled, you can really see that the water goes wherever it wants and there is no way for humans to "tamed" those rivers, when you get closer to any of those rivers and you see as we did the strength, the power of the current, the white water "roaring" dragging any tree does not matter how big it would be that attempt to grow too close their water.
It comes to my mind this place where we stopped to have some lunch and we found that river pass with a piece of land in the middle of the river and how the water was "eating" everything that was on its way, huge trees lying on the water, trapped between rapids. Waiting to be released from one rapid to the next. The strong feeling of fear while holding ourselves against a rock where we were standing, thinking if I fall down into the river that is it! No way I can survive and this feeling made me to understand a bit more the connection with Nature around me.

The forest and the animals they live on it, it is already two months we have already been here and it still surprise me all the time the idea of being surrounded by Wildlife  ,some of the animals could be fatal if We have a bad encounter with them. For the first time in my life I had and still I do the feeling of fear when I'm walking in the Woods, when I'm looking for a place to camp, and it is something totally new for us, back home when I have been camping in the back country there is nothing can be dangerous but be cold or wet at night nothing else.
Having bicycle as a transport makes you tune in very much with the natural speed of the forest and makes you able to see every single meter of it and we have learnt from that a lot,  our fear has reduced and our knowledge and respect for it has grown. The first time you see a bear by the road you flip out. We did not know what to do, everything we read about how to deal with a bear was gone, but bear by bear you learn what signs you need to look for. Do they have caps with them, if so where are they next to the mother bear or far away? You really don't want to be between them or you can be in serious troubles. With some other animals we has just to try to cope I am talking about mosquitoes and for someone who has not been in Alaska or North of Canada you do not know what a mosquito look like over here. They are huge!!!  They are millions!!!  And they love blood!!!  It doesn't matter what you try to avoid them, what stuff you put on you they are waiting with patience until the mosquito repellent stop working or a bit of your skin is uncovered between the layers of your cloth or this tinny hole you have forgotten to zip up in the tent. They have made us crazzy!!!
I was born and grew up in a very dry place where we don't have hardly any forest,  and to see how the Planet may looked like in the past before we cut down most of the forest,  it has been something very magic. The gloom of life,  the vast variety of plants and trees covering it everything it is the opposite of those small patches of green that you get in parks, along the street dividing the traffic lines, they look like islands on a Ocean of concrete that is unfortunately the way it looks back home. For us go to the countryside is very much mountains covered with few pines, olive trees and some lucky places they still have some bits of old forest, the rest is just Mediterranean bush. After what I saw here my idea of what a forest is has changed radically.

The next element is Fire, keep us close to the forest e over here fire is very much a way that the Nature controls the growth of the forest to keep it young and healthy. It was so surprising that in Summer huge, vast areas of forest are burnt out every year cause by lightning storms and how the local authorities wisely let the Nature to do its job, just intervening in the case that the fire could be a risk for the communities nearby. The fire for some pine species is the way of reproduce and also the way that many of the poor soils over here can be enriched again with nutrients to keep it fertile.

The last element and perhaps the most important while cycling is the Wind and the Alcan has been wild with that I don't know if normally is as windy as it has been for us, but most of the time we have cycled with head winds,  specially up in the mountains or through Valleys or close to Glaciers, sometimes with winds up to 45-50 km. Perhaps the most windy day was at the Kluane Lake, due to the huge glacier that made this lake long ago there is a permanent wind blowing from the East-South to the North -East and that was our way, frustrating, tiring, all those miles uphill. It was a real test for us a reminder of how small we are and how influence by the Outside so the nightmare turned into an excellent, vital lesson as a cyclist.

Alaska Highway
Episode 3 – Cycling Alcan, our experience and few useful (in our opinion :)) tips

The historical Alcan is over 1422 miles long (we tried to find out how long it is nowadays, but we think no-one knows as they are upgrading and straightening it every year and so it is difficult to keep record of the actual length) and its conditions varies significantly along the whole stretch. There is wide enough to cycle shoulder for most of its length and in terms of traffic, although there are mostly big cars (trucks and RV’s), they will normally give a cyclist plenty of room. In our opinion the worst bits are:

  1. From port Alcan to Burwash Landing (less than 200km); the road condition there is very bad; it is mostly gravel and if paved full of cracks, holes and bumps. 
  2.  Liard Hot Springs to Fort Saint John; lots of hills of any kind; there are three big passes before Fort Nelson (Summit Pass, Sikhanni Pass and another one by Steamboat) ant then the last 100ish km before Fort Saint John is a rollercoaster – up and down and not a single flat stretch.
  3. Along Kluane Lake (about 50km); the strongest head wind we came across so far; this stretch is known for its wind, blowing normally from the south-east (so if you come from the North as us, you will have to go against wind); it is a glacier wing, so in sunny days expect it to be stronger.
There are maps and more info about road conditions in ‘route’ section on our web.

If you are planning on cooking your own food you must be prepared to carry supplies for stretches up to 500km. Alcan runs through very deserted areas, there is few towns, where you can find bigger supermarkets (small shops in small communities are super pricey). However, it is touristy route, so there are lodges and various kinds of road bars and restaurants, but mostly they have menu limited to burgers and sandwiches. So if you are vegetarian, you might have to stick to veggie burgers and fries. There was one exceptional place that’s worth mentioning; it was in the very last Canadian community called Beaver Creek, far away from everywhere (and certainly from a good source of fresh food) and yet they serve fresh and freshly made food. We didn’t eat out much, but definitely it was the only place along Alcan, where we had a good meal. Be also prepared that some of those places can be shut down (even though the guidebook says it’s open) and the opposite – we came across services in the middle of nowhere that weren’t mentioned in any of the guidebooks we had (they don’t seem to update them annually).  
We found northern Canada expensive and there is not much you can do about it. Moreover we try to eat healthy (fresh, organic, good quality food) and we eat a lot! Food is our fuel, so saving on food is really hard. In one of the groceries we were asked if we want saving card and it actually turned up to be a good idea. The one we have works in few shops in western Canada (south from Fort Saint John you can pretty much find one of them in any town) and the savings are not bad at all. In term of shopping in small places, if there is a shop in small community or in petrol station, don’t expect to find there much more than some sweets, chips, soda drinks and maybe sometimes hugely overpriced cheese and bread.
Water is generally clean up north and some people don’t even filter it. We do filter however, and if you are planning on doing so, there is plenty of creeks, river and lakes along the road. Occasionally we came across stretches of 40-60km of ‘desert’, so just always make sure that you have enough water for the next 2-4 hours.

There is option between private and provincial/state campgrounds. The private ones are obviously more expensive, but also have luxuries such as warm showers and Wi-Fi (be prepared that sometimes they will charge you extra for having shower or making fire!). Provincial ones are basic – there are toilets (but no running water), access to water, firewood (for free only in Yukon) and kitchen shelter – but cheaper. As for summer 2011 the prices were: $10-15 in Alaska, $14 in Yukon, $16 in BC and $16-23 in Alberta. If you plan your trip a few days ahead you can easily sleep every night at a campground.
But if you prefer wilderness, free camp is allowed everywhere along Alcan. You obviously have to be aware of wildlife and follow a few simple rules, which were totally new and strange for us, people coming from Europe, where humans have no natural predators. I think it is useful to read at least a little bit about bears, to understand them more and then is easier to know what to do. If you go up north you will find plenty of information about safe camping in bear country, so there is no point to repeat it here, but just to give some idea, the basic rules are:
  • Camp in open space (so if a bear is approaching your tent, you can see it in advance);
  • Avoid places, where you see sighs of bear presence or places, where bears can come for food (berries patches, rivers);
  •  Don’t cook close to your tent and if possible, cook something that is not very aromatic (cooking curry is probablyy not the best idea); 
  •  Store food and all smelly stuff (like toiletries and including the clothes you have on when  cooking ) away from tent (min.100m), preferably hanged somewhere high (min.5m up);
  •  Learn about bears’ habits, so you will know how to avoid an encounter and what to do if you see one;
In our experience it is not always that easy to find an open space (there is forest everywhere), cooking away from tent means you cannot hide from mosquitoes-beasts and trees are small with tiny branches, so hanging food is a challenge. Not quite a relaxing camping evening you would like to have after the whole day cycling…However, to actually have an encounter with a bear is something very unusual and there are other animals that are worse and more common – squirrels! They are real plague; they are everywhere and have no fears of humans; they’ve been stealing food from our plates and made a hand-size hole in one of our panniers!

Bike maintenance
There are very little towns along the Alcan and even less bike shops; we didn’t have to look for one, but I’d say there is probably just two - in Whitehorse and Fort Saint John. So you should probably pack more spare parts than you would take in more civilized place. It is difficult to say what to take as you cannot know what can get broken – unless you know the weak points of your bike; so you need to make reasonable compromise between the weight and the stuff you might need.
The other thing is the grease; we took the finish line ‘wet’, which turn to be not the best choice. The North is very dry and at the same time very dusty and so all this dirt and dust was sticking to this grease; the result was that we had to be cleaning chains more often that we normally would. So we suggest using the ‘dry’ grease, which doesn’t catch the dirt that easily.
The last thing is about tires; if you planning on staying on Alcan only the touring tires are fine (you will manage this few gravel bits with them), but if you are thinking about going off the main highway, you’d better take mountain biking tires, as those roads are mostly gravel.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Alaska Highway
Episode 4 – Hosting Communities

 Recently we have joined two of the travel hosting communities, Couchsurfing and Warmshower. What are they? How do they work? What is the idea behind them?
The idea the spirit behind them is to built a community a net where the traveler and the host has an opportunity to share experiences,  where the mass tourisms is bitten by a closer,  warmer approach between the travelers and the locals. There is a big sense of trustfulness on human kindness overall.
Those communities work over the internet, once you has joined in you have access to look for people along the places you are planning to go, then you have a list of people in those places with theirs profiles so you can read them and contact the people you think have the most in common with you then you can contact them regarding to host you. It is totally up to the host if they want or not to host you and how long and that is arranger on the internet or over the phone.
Our experience as new members is not very big but so far We have to say that is being amazing, it has totally blown our head away all those people who has opened their houses totally to us, sharing their time, food and life with us, with two strangers, and how We have felt with some of them part of their families for a while. It's amazing to arrive to a new place and have a place to stay and people to host you, to share with you and vice versa, definitely is a two ways experience which enriches both parts a lot host and traveler giving and receiving.  Many of those experiences We had come to my mind I've remembered very warmly those two days We've spent with Tony and Sara,  after 16 km of tough uphill looking for their place which was farther and tougher than Tony described to us on the last email,  We were a bit disappointed but when we arrived to their place all this silly feelings were wiped off by these wonderful people who for a couple of days adopt us as part of their family feeding us with great food,  taking care of us,  fantastic conversations,  sharing experiences by the bonfire or those pancakes Tony prepared for breakfast for all the family(us too) and we had the by the terrace enjoining the morning while chatting,  laughing. Experiences like that makes the traveling a unique experience, to us the best you can get out of traveling is to meet all those people.
Or this other one We got to a big town and there was this lovely girl waiting for us to host us for a night at hers and surprisingly after We had a cup of tea with told us I "I' m going to my boyfriend's tonight so you can enjoy the house for yourselves, sleep on my bed better than in the couch so you will get a proper rest and she left us in her place with all her stuff, trusting totally a 2 strangers, waooooo!!!! That is what comes to my head.
These people are opening, widening our way of seeing other people, making us in a way better person than we already were. I have been all those years traveling and avoiding going to hotels or even hostels that are so far from the communities and people who live around them When I have been spending a night or so in one of those "spaces „I felt always as a tourist, having tourist conversations and ending gathering just with other tourists, sometimes it was fun though, but not even getting a small sense of the place you are visiting or traveling through or the people who live there.
Alaska Highway
Episode 5 - Mosquitoes

People joke in Canada that their national bird is a mosquito; not super funny, I know, but true. Mosquitoes of the North (Canadian and the one from Alaska) are world famous.
Before this trip my understanding of mosquitoes habits was that they live in warm places, near stagnant water, bite in the evenings and not necessarily like me (I’m one of those lucky ones whose company, but not them, gets bitten). Well, the mosquitoes here are total exception from that rules. First of all there are at least twice bigger than the one in Europe (they say everything is bigger overseas…), you can find them by the sea and as high as 2000 m a.s.l.; they will bite whether it is 2C or 32C, whether it is early morning, midday, afternoon or in the middle of the night! And they are super aggressive; apparently they can drink over 0.5 l of blood from a moose a day! Poor moose sometimes gets mad and runs where is too cold for it and die.
However, we were lucky not to meet the worst ones. First mosquitoes appear in Alaska in mid May and last until August. And as their reproduce they are gaining better survival skills; each generation grows bigger and more aggressive, so if the first ones take some time flying around you before biting, the later generations just bites. Apparently tourists can barely stay outside by the end of August.
Though they can be vampires, they are not bad everywhere. We’ve been camping all the time and in some places, against all odds (damp and warm) there where hardly any mosquitoes and in others we had to be moving literally all the time to not to bet bitten. However, we both agree that our worst mosquito experience was not when camping, but when cycling; sometimes when we go up a steep hill we are so slow that these little beasts can actually catch up with us and be biting us! So imagine – warm day, us tired, going uphill, trying hard to pedal and breathe to keep the rhythm, eagerly looking at the top of this f… hill and suddenly feeling something itchy here and there, and there, and there...aaaaaaaaaaaa! And there is really no solution – it is too hot to put more clothes on and any repellent we will just sweat out in half an hour.
If it comes to dealing with mosquitoes on a regular basis, human’s creativity goes beyond expectations; or actually I should say tourist, because locals somehow get used to them. In supermarkets you can find the whole section with anti-mosquitoes stuff; repellents, nets (starting from just a head cover and finishing on whole body suit), ‘smelly-smoky’ stuff (apparently coils work the best), there is even an anti-mosquito application for smart-phones! Some people told us also that some type of washing powder rubbed into skin works well…they might’ve tried to trick us though…However, everybody says that, at the end of the day, DEET is the only thing that really works. So how are we dealing with mosquitoes? We have, let’s call it, our anti-mosquitoes outfit, which is long trousers, long-sleeve top and buff to cover head and neck (they will bite through hair and some don’t even have hair…) and sometimes this is enough; but if they are very bad we spray clothes with DEET and use some herbal repellent for face and hands (DEET is apparently cancerous, so it shouldn’t be used directly on the skin and it can melt synthetic fabrics, so cotton clothes are best for it). Nothing creative, but old tested method.