SUNLIGHT streamed through the wide streets of Fairbanks as we pedalled out feeling like battered war veterans.
My legs still felt as though they’d gone nine rounds with a cricket bat and my backside still burned from the saddle sores that brought me to my knees days earlier. We might have survived the Dalton Highway but it felt as though that stunning, brutal stretch of highway was having the last laugh and the only thing to console us was promises of a considerably nicer and flatter Highway 2, that runs east out of the city.
In fact the asphalt was smooth, the hills were non-existent and while there was a slight headwind we soon found ourselves cruising along comfortably on about 20km/hour.
The Dalton, and it’s rollercoaster of hell, soon became a distant, painful memory and the change on conditions had an almost laughable effect. Richard, the quirky pom we’d met in Hotspot, where the women were nice but a little too obsessed with their guns, was grinning and announcing to anyone who would listen how much he liked cycling again. He claimed it was the improved conditions and not the fact he’d decided to cycle with us for a few days but we knew better.
Just 25km out of town we hit the village of North Pole. It had been touted as a mini Santa’s workshop complete with reindeer pens, quirky street names (think Santa Claus Drive) and a handful of gift shops to make you feel as though it was December 25 all year round.
Instead it was more reminiscent of the week at work leading up to Christmas – bugger all enthusiasm, some half assed attempts at getting the job done and a tonne of end-of-year apathy.
We had a giggle, moved on and while munching down on some cookies 25km later, spied a familiar figure hurtling down the highway.
Enrico, the animated, slightly wacky but absolutely marvellous Italian.
We’d met the 30-something-year-old adventurer on the Dalton Highway, when he was cycling in the opposite direction and we were again eating cookies under a tree, and had a brief chat before wishing each other luck and moving on.
Enrico had made it up to Prudhoe Bay in seriously impressive time and then hitchhiked back to Fairbanks before heading east-bound with a loaded trailer and four panniers.
We decided to head off together and so the speedsters (not Scott and I, in case you were wondering) set off while we tagged behind like geriatrics on a Sunday stroll.
It was a little bit too unfair that Enrico was towing the equivalent of a small Elephant at Lance Armstrong speeds, with fast and furious Richard close behind him, and by time 5pm rolled around we looked as though we’d finished an Ironman while the Pom and Italian looked as though they’d finished a lap of the park.
Enrico had promised us a great wild camp spot “that could fit all of Woodstock” just 75km from Fairbanks near a pull in rest area. In reality it was about 100km and the scrubby patch of bush could scarcely squeeze in him and his tiny two man tent.
We teased him solidly for about five minutes and then decided to pitch on some posh turf just near the loos and opposite a stunning lake sporting “no camping signs”.
At one point some official looking blokes rocked up in their Alaskan sized pickups (Enrico quickly said “guys, guys, let me handle this” while patting his Rambo-esque knife on his belt, amid gales of laughter) but they couldn’t have cared less and we went back to enjoying our picturesque camp.
Richard, who eats like Kate Moss, was keen to get on the road first thing in the morning, but the rest of us (who couldn’t make it 100 yards without a big brekky) hooked into our oats and coffee before pedalling away from what we’d all decided was a five star campsite.
The pint-sized village of Delta Junction lay about 65km and the aim, for three of us, was to pedal into town just after lunch and pitch at the state camp grounds.
Not for Señor Energetic Enrico and his Fancy Pants Trailer, oh no. He was keen to continue on for another 15km to where he swore there was a nice wild camp spot! But we’d had enough of his shoddy distances (it was probably another 50km) and so sadly said goodbye. He was an absolute laugh-a-minute and while we hadn’t known him long we already missed him!
For the afternoon we sat in the local library that had all the features you need in life – chairs, a bathroom, wifi and books – before eating a quick dinner and rolling into our tents.
The little town of Tok, which is pronounced Toak and thus ends the list of interesting facts about this um village, sat 160km from Delta Junction so the aim was to polish it off comfortably in two days. Richard was still pedalling along with us at granny speed despite itching to turn the pedals twice as fas and 90km or so later we pitched at a place that looked as though it could have featured in Deliverance. The only points of interest were a lake, a tiny church that condemned evils such as alcohol and some ramshackle houses so we camped near the church and had a slightly uneasy dinner before diving into our tents. Days later we would find out a bizarre religious cult sits a stone’s throw from the settlement which went a long way to explaining the strange vibes.
Overnight the heavens opened and when morning swung around the world had become a miserable painting of grey, soggy forests, shrouded in fog. The road had at best been a bit “meh” in terms of scenery (the pine trees looked like they suffered from Leprosy and there was none of the sexy mountain horizons doled out on the Dalton) but now it just looked like nature’s version of depression.
Speaking of which, there’s nothing worse than cooking breakfast in a downpour and packing up a soaking tent so we put off the moment for as long as possible before deciding to bite the bullet. But there was a tiny problem. One of Scott’s panniers hadn’t been closed properly and as a result our Mac laptop and hard drives were absolutely drenched (they were inside another dry bag that also failed!)
Several tantrums later we realised there was nothing for it but to hit the road and hope to dry it off in Tok.
Five miserable, wet and windy hours later we pulled into Tok’s first campground. I was properly on my way to a full blown attack of the soggy hangries but Richard the darling – who had arrived an hour before us and claimed and paid a campsite for the three of us – informed us that the showers were delicious and the laundry fabulous.
The shower was so good it entered my top five of all time and later that night we were kicking back in the cosy office living room, drinking free coffee and snapping our fingers at bad weather, weird Deliverance towns and soaked laptops.
The plan was to take a day off but Scott and I took three. I was feeling like crap thanks to Alaskan-sized allergies and we both felt washed out. Richard sadly said goodbye to us on the second day in a bid to hit the road and make up some miles and we gave each other hugs with the promise of meeting up somewhere in Canada.
By time we rolled out of tiny old Tok we’d started to form some interesting opinions about Alaskans based off a month’s worth of observations.
Firstly – and this is very important – to be a proper Alaskan (baring a few exceptions) you must irrationally hate all Californians. In the space of a few weeks we’d listened to wild-eyed rantings of how “those damned Californian liberals” are to blame for everything from Alaska’s economic woes, all the bad drivers in the state and just in fact the nation’s woes. Apparently they were all too rich and bought up property everywhere else, but were simultaneously on welfare and wanted everything for free. We were left feeling a little baffled.
Secondly, to be Alaskan you must own several guns (all loaded at all times) in case of bears, wolves and Californians.
Thirdly, you must consider yourself to be a wild and tough frontiersman who knows what real life is all about (unlike those damn Californians) because of the bears, -40 degree Celsius winter temps and lack of unlimited wifi (the struggle is real).
All that said we met some of the most fantastic people in our lives in Alaska and later down the road we would go on to meet the most amazing couple – Mollie and John – who were from the Kenai Peninsula and were just about the coolest pair out!
So with mixed feelings of Alaska and wondering if anywhere would be as beautiful as the Dalton Highway we cycled on to the Canadian border. We’d hope to average about 80km a day and make it to the pint-sized Canadian village Beaver Creek by day two but with our legs rebelling and a nasty headwind slowing us down it meant more long days in the saddle. The first night we camped at an awesome (and free) state campground by a gorgeous lake where we met an absolutely exhausted Spanish bloke who was about to wrap up his Patagonia to Alaska cycle (and was very over it, thank you very much).
The second night (just before 8pm) we made it to little old Beaver Creek.
Crossing borders always make us nervous. Maybe it’s something to do with authority figures, maybe it’s the fact that we’re Aussies and come from a long line of dodgy convicts, or maybe it’s just because our passports are a little too colourful, our job situation a little too non-existent and our finances a little too broke. Whatever the reason we always feel nervous and going back into Canada was no exception.
There’s an enormous no-man’s land (sort of) between the US and Canada on the Alcan highway so we had about 30km to think about the crossing before the tiny border popped up and a friendly looking woman asked for our passports. She asked the usual questions – but then upon realising we were essentially travelling bums, decided to ask a few more. Where were we going after Canada (um why does it matter?), when would we return to Australia (ummmm…. definitely this century) and when was the last time we were in Australia (do we have to go there?). In the end she decided we weren’t going to hike off in to the wilderness and live in a van eating poisonous berries and minutes later we were in front of Beaver Creek’s seriously cute Visitors Centre.
For a town of 90, Beaver Creek not only has a lot going on, but has a lot of awesome people. Sid, the Visitor Centre’s man-about-town, pointed us to a free camping spot (the town’s disused ice hockey rink where we we could camp undercover) and then invited us to the Canada Day parade (kicking off at 11am the following morning). High on the good vibes of the locals – not to mention the promises of a free barbecue – we went to bed feeling pretty damn good about Canada. It was to be the first of many amazing nights in the Great White North but as the rain beat down on the old hockey rink roof it was hard not to fantasise about somehow moving here… one day.