Tuesday, August 9, 2011

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.

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