SOMETIMES, bike touring is all about timing.
We pedalled into Belfast a few years ago just in time for their epic Orange Day Parade; we were in Istanbul when a Pride Festival was violently brought to its knees with tear gas and water cannons and in Chengdu, China we managed to meet and stay with a pair of cyclists who changed our entire trip trajectory.
The experience sparked us to teach English for a year, gave us lifelong friends and opened our eyes to life in another culture a million miles away from our own.
After just one day in the Great White North, Canada was proving to be no exception.
We crossed a quiet border into the rugged Yukon on an overcast evening to discover we’d made it just in time for not only Canada Day, but the nation’s 150th anniversary.
As a result Beaver Creek’s population of 90 were putting on a parade and there would be free food, drinks and candy for all.
Our trip might not be all about the food, but it’s a pretty big bloody part of it. So when the word’s free and food ran together we set our alarm clocks and made sure we were there to be first in line. Shameless, you say? Well, when your budget is 20 dollars a day and dinner highlights include pasta with a soup packet mix there aren’t a hell of a lot of things you wouldn’t do for free food.
And so after the most Canadian night ever – sleeping in an old ice hockey rink – we woke up ready to witness the most Canadian parade ever.
The town’s enthusiastic populace marched proudly down the main street, decked out in all things red, white and maple leafed, while our friend Sid, from the Visitor’s Centre, dolled out free coffee and our new friend Matt (a young mounty) dolled out free caps, water bottles and Canadian flags.
A couple of hours later we were hooking into plates of burgers, salad and fruit while slurping down juice boxes and chewing the fat with the locals.
Aside from Matt the mounty, we’d met his boss (the chief mounty) his wife and his daughter Katherine who was preparing to move to Whitehorse.
The rain had set in for the day and while we had a deadline to get going it became harder and harder to haul ourselves away.
Eventually our new friends asked where we were headed and then warned us that not only was a hell of a lot of muddy construction under way down the road, but an angry grizzly with his nose missing was seen hanging by the side of it just 20km out of town.
“My advice to you,” said the chief mounty, “would be to get a ride for that section.”
We’d said from the get go that we wanted to be as purist as possible for this leg – cycling as much as we could, while eschewing short cuts. But we’d also said we wouldn’t be stupid.
To add to that was the very real deadline of making it to Whitehorse in time for a flight south to Vancouver where we’d be reunited with some of Scott’s family for a couple of weeks.
After some pretended umming and ahhing we agreed and by late afternoon we were driven out of town in not just one pick up, but three.
Katherine was on her way to Whitehorse but couldn’t quite fit both our bikes in so her mum had agreed to take us in her enormous truck while chief mounty dad decided to come along for the ride. It was the most bizarre/awesome convoy we’d ever been in and upon seeing the construction (coupled with rain and a headwind) we felt pretty relieved. We’d just gotten past the worst of it when ahead we spied two miserable looking cyclists with their thumbs out. And so the convoy pulled in to give them a lift.
The couple turned out to be Mollie and John – two amazing Alaskans who were headed to Haines Junction (and then south back towards their home) who were at their absolute wits end with the weather. They’d suffered through the construction but then the wind had all but broke them. They were cold, miserable and just desperate to get a little further down the road past all the horrible crap.
To make matters worse it was Molly’s first bike tour (John had promised daily banquets and meandering sunny paths laced with flowers) and she was finding out the hard way that not only was the reality a bit different, but John was a bit of a fibber!
By time we farewelled our convoy there were about two days of cycling into Haines Junction and so we casually set off together the following day. The wind was again howling and the gun-metal clouds threatened another downpour but miraculously it held off. By midday the sun made an appearance to light up a world of blooming wild flowers and rugged tundra framed by snow-capped peaks. Just 20km past Destruction Bay (three guesses on how it earned its name) we found ourselves cycling up to what looked like a wildlife encounter.
The AlCan Highway is so full of tourists and particularly ginormous motor homes (RVs) that look like a rockstar touring bus (they usually tow a car as well) that when any kind of wildlife at all pops up on the roadside everyone stops to have a smart-phone fest. We could see a collection of cars and RVs ahead and so figured something good was nearby.
We pedalled hard to reach it but as it came into view we quickly clenched on the breaks.
An enormous, scarred looking grizzly was right on the edge of the road and he looked angry.
It could have had something to do with the queue of RVs (hell they irritated the hell out of us too) but whatever the reason there was no way in hell we were riding past that big papa.
Luckily for us a sweet Californian with a big pickup truck was there to the rescue. He pulled over, asked if we wanted a lift past the bear and then loaded up our bikes and drove us a couple of hundred metres further down.
It was amazing to be that close to one of the nation’s biggest predators in one of the nation’s least populated territories and while that sounds like a recipe for a bad Liam Neeson movie it’s also important to remember the statistics. There’s scarcely more than one fatal bear attack a year across North America, which means you’re more likely to die from, say, bee stings, geriatrics wielding RV’s the size of tour buses and – this goes without saying – trigger-happy cops.
One close-encounter with a grizzly later we pushed our beasts into the pint-sized Kluane Lake Visitor’s Centre where a friendly Quebecois gave us some fun facts on the local Dal sheep population that do their best impressions of mountain goats in the nearby range. He also talked to us about the rapidly disappearing Kluane Lake (one of the nation’s biggest) which had literally started drying up overnight when a glacier changed course. Scientists were baffled and feared the lake would disappear for good.
By 5.30pm we were pedalling slightly uphill and into a headwind and so decided (at the eventual bottom of the climb) to pitch our tents in a gravel parking bay and call it a night. Ahead of us snow-capped peaks framed the horizon while vibrant strips of lavender wildflowers lined the winding tarmac. Since leaving Beaver Creek the views had slowly but surely turned from “meh” to “wow” and left us head over heels with the raw and rugged beauty of the Yukon.
John was off investigating the local river and the rest of us where just in the throws of pulling out our tents when a big pick up truck pulled in and out popped some of Mollie and John’s mates. The Alaskan couple, who were travelling with the their two young kids, were keen to join the party and soon it became a real rager thanks to a small fire, some foldable chairs and a creamy, chicken pasta courtesy of our new best friends. The party was so out of control that a bloke from Toronto pulled in on his motorbike and asked to join us.
I went to bed feeling full and pretty damn happy about life, while trying to ignore the fact it was again raining and the following day would start with a climb.
Only 50km or so remained between our rocking parking bay camp spot and Haines Junction and so we said goodbye to the awesome Alaskan family and began pedalling uphill, into a headwind as a steady drizzle soaked into our bones (also known as the cyclist’s trifecta of sh#t).
Luckily for us the climbing part only lasted for about 20km and it was pretty gentle with a few undulating hills. We knew a downhill section led into Haines but a few reports had us confused as to how long it was. Being the skeptic that I am, I wouldn’t let myself believe it was more than 5km (just in case) but it turned out to be almost 15!
Suddenly we were back in love with cycling again and by time we reached the charming and cheerful village we were high-fiving each other and preparing to celebrate with pie from the nearby bakery.
From there we headed to the quaint and aptly named Wanderers’ Inn Hostel that offered camping and it was just so darn quaint we decided to stay an extra day and postpone the separation of the John, Mollie, Sarah and Scott quartet.
Later that night we were joined by yet another pair of John and Mollie’s friends (these guys were seriously showing off now) who turned out to be the fun, musical and hospitable Wendy and Jim from Austin, Texas. We would have loved them for their accents alone but they then went on to cook for us, play music for us and remind us of just how hospitable and amazing Americans typically are.
We could have stayed in that hostel for weeks but in the end we stayed just another night, promising ourselves we could just do slightly bigger days to make it to Whitehorse.
The eventual goodbye was about as having gastro in the tent but somehow we got through it and hit the road – feeling content that we’d at least made some awesome friends.
As the road gently roller-coasted east my legs started to struggle and I checked my tyres for flats (nope nothing wrong there) before realising it was all in my head.
It should have been easy to smash out the miles but as the day ticked on I slowed down more and more until I’d utterly convinced myself I wouldn’t make it.
Scott was the perfect picture of patience as I dawdled along at a snail pace and somehow – and I’m still not sure how – we made it 85km to the essential halfway mark.
We pitched our tent that night in an abandoned cabin and fell asleep early with vague hopes the final leg would be a breeze.
It turns out it was a breeze – but just in the wrong direction.
With the end in sight I somehow managed to find my mojo the following morning but Scott had spectacularly lost his.
An annoying headwind had turned into a raging gust of doom and he sunk into the kind of black pit of pain that’s made worse by the fact the only person near you is feeling cheerful.
I wasn’t really – but it was nice not to be the equivalent of the last draft pick for a change.
By 3pm we’d made it to within a stone’s throw of Whitehorse when our maps announced we had a nice downhill to put us out of our misery.
Considering lunch had been reminiscent of a scene out of Castaway we needed it. But the wind gods weren’t having it.
The headwind had picked up to the point that when the slope finally arrived we found ourselves cycling down it with top speeds of a whopping 13km per hour.
We all but crawled into Whitehorse before throwing ourselves on the steps of our Warmshowers hosts Bryan and Kathryn.
It seemed we were to be on a roll with meeting amazing people and within minutes our new friends had ushered us into their home, provided us with home-made pizzas and treated us like two of the family. They had a cat that loved nothing more than cuddles, a dog that looked as though it was eternally smiling, an enormous garden full of herbs and veggies and a home full of books, potted plants and comfy places to sit.
We gossiped for hours and swapped travel stories before leaving all our kit in their garage and spare bedroom and boarding a plane to Vancouver.
A bizarre array of emotions bowled us over as Whitehorse disappeared throw the clouds.
In just a few hours Scott would see his mum and step dad for the first time in three years and in a couple of days we’d be on a proper family holiday complete with his sister, a mini van and the kind of hotels that don’t just provide spare towels – but have coffee machines.
I was excited but nervous. Would it mess up our cycling psyche? Would it make us miss home and our family and friends more than was bearable? Or would it be the perfect break with loved ones we’d long hoped to see.
In the end it was all of the above.
For two weeks we were spoiled so rotten that our pants tightened, our standards sky-rocketed and we became accustomed to being ferried about in a super-sized van that came with arm rests for each chair.
We napped, snapped photos of BC’s and Alberta’s best sites, joined the hordes of tourists oggling road-side bears and got used to hugs every night and morning. Scott’s parents marvelled at how much we ate and we marvelled at how much they didn’t. Over the course of 14 days we hiked wilderness trails, biked around Vancouver’s Stanley Park, soared over the country in the city’s simulated Fly Over Canada and gossiped about life, family, future plans and everything in between.
We’d gotten so caught up in the holiday it almost felt strange to contemplate the bike and the many thousands of kilometres that lay between us and Ushuaia. When the time came to say goodbye, on a sunny Sunday evening, just the knowledge that we literally had to cycle to fit into our pants stopped it turning into an all out sob fest.
We boarded a plane back to Whitehorse knowing it would be about 20,000km and more than 18 months until we’d see them again but for our own sanity we had to focus on the task at hand and try not to think about it.
The task at hand turned out to be a week of cat and house sitting courtesy of Bryan and Kathryn. We’d meant to stay just a couple of days but as our Whitehorse pals were off canoeing and we were given the option to stay as long as we liked – we did just that.
For a week we watered the gardens, collected the chicken eggs, baked cookies, worked on the bikes and began scheming ways to get Canadian citizenship so we could move to Whitehorse.
Knowing 1300km of bugger all via some epic Yukon and British Columbian scenery lay between us and the next real town made us want to lap up every ounce of home life and made us realise how reversed bike tourers often are. Ninety per cent of our time is spent in the outdoors and large chunks of our days are spent pushing the weight equivalent of a hippo along a road while stopping just to eat and camp.
So when we get the chance to chill out – we bloody well relish it. The simplest pleasures – turning on a kettle, kicking back on the couch, baking a pie and standing under a hot shower – become almost magical in their magnificence making you eternally grateful for first world life’s oft-dismissed privileges.