Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Alaska here we come!

I'm writing this in the basement of Freddy and Kay's beautiful handbuilt home 20 miles out of Fairbanks amidst a forest of aspen and birch trees. This is my first time to Alaska and after 2 days of being here sorting gear, reassembling bikes and shopping for supplies, I can't wait to start pedalling and exploring this part of the continent.

After much emailing, phone conversations and a few brief meetings, Robert, my cycling companion, and I managed to meet at the precise agreed time at the departure platform of San Francisco's airport. Thanks to Robert collecting my bike box the day before, I was able to enjoy the walk down to the Mission station BART with Kristen's help sharing the rest of my load. Being early Sunday morning, the streets were quiet - no towering drag queens or overflowing bars, just dog walkers and sleeping homeless.

Checking in and flying went smoothly, and even the brief escape from the airport in Seattle to find some lunch in the downtown area on a cheap local bus was straightforward. I had a window seat on both legs and with clear conditions, I was able to get a better picture of the immense undertaking we have ahead of us.

On the flight to Seattle, the snowy volcano cones of mountains Lassen, Shasta, Hood, St Helens, Adams and Garibaldi poked up above the clouds. We looked down over Victoria, on Vancouver Island and Port Angeles – the bay crossing where we will return to the States from Canada. North of there, the mountains marched out into the water on islands and into the distance with steep-sided fjords and gorges. Glaciers, milky-green rimmed lakes (caused by glacial rock ‘flour’) and crocodilian ridgelines reminded me that there will be some chilly and steep parts of the journey back south. Snaking rivers surrounded a paisley pattern of ox-bow lakes suggest some flatter areas.

An old friend of Robert's, Penny, gave us a whirlwind tour in the 10pm sunshine, with running commentary of Fairbanks and all the buildings that have been demolished. Maintaining built-heritage is clearly not a priority when new buildings can be bigger and boxier (the Alaska Museum at the University and the airport terminal are the two buildings of architectural note that I saw). As a result, the town has a generic feel. A box town has sprung up on the edge of Fairbanks - a cluster of all America's biggest megastores surrounded by a sea of carparking. We lost hours over the next two days, in these energy-sapping hulks seeking last minute gear and food supplies.

Houses vary from log cabins (more traditional) to simple boxy forms clad in plywood and twee European-style chalets. Windows tend to be minimised to cut out the summer sun and store winter warmth. Yards are spacious with many filled with skeletons of cars and other flotsam. With a very short summer, well kept gardens are a rarity.

The town of Fairbanks may not be much of a beauty but its surrounding landscape is completely different from any that I’ve experienced before – rolling hills covered in spruce, birch and aspen with permafrost beneath the spongy ground and views of the distant snow-topped Denali Mountains. Wildflowers are everywhere - wild rose, bluebells and many others.

The days are impossibly long (endless, in fact), and it's easy to lose track of time when the sun is still shining. I fall asleep pretty instantly when I do go to bed, however, but that may be due to the fact that staying up until midnight is easy to do without keeping an eye on a clock. I have a blindfold at the ready for when we start camping tonight.

After 2.5 weeks of public transport, aeroplanes, walking and car travel - all been fun and adventurous - I'm looking forward to finally starting to cycling this morning towards Haines. Robert seems like the perfect cycling companion. Let's see how we go when we start pedalling!

Time to load up my bike and give it a test ride.

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