Friday, July 3, 2009

Leg 1 - Haines Junction to Haines

Day 12 (28th June) - 98km (979km total)
Other cyclists! eagle, dead porcupine and mozzies. Camped at Million Dollar Falls
Day 13 (29th June) - 110km (1089 total) 6.25 hours in saddle
Yukon, British Columbia and back to Alaska. Chilkoot Pass highlight and soaring descent to USA
Day 14 (30th June) - 53km (1142km total) 3 hours
Broad river flats, wind and Haines - end of leg 1

Finding it hard to leave our beloved hosts and homely Haines Junction, we finally pulled out of town near noon, with fresh buns in our panniers along with other heavier fuel types. Recharged and freshly clothed and gently nudged by a tail breeze, we took off up the first of many long, gentle uphills with ease.

There were a few cyclists out and about on the road, some day riders, a solo cyclist heading to Fairbanks and a couple cycling "Golden Loop" (Whitehorse, Skagway, ferry to Haines, Haines Junction and back to Whitehorse)to celebrate their 8th anniversary.

Robert, enjoying the aid of the tailwind, sailed past the turnoff to Kathleen Lake - a not-to-miss diversion recommended by Darlene. I couldn't resist, despite the corrugated dirt road of uncertain length and Roberts rapidly diminishing silhouette. Mirror-perfect, the lake with its fringe of ever-present floral blooms, reflected the mountains beyond demanding several photos which hopefully I'll successfully upload someday.

The sky had been clear but for one small dark cloud, almost the size of the mosquito swarm that descended on us at the same time while we stopped for lunch by the roadside. Very quickly (and thankfully briefly) the cloud dropped pea-sized slushy hail/snow on us, forcing out the wet weather gear for only the second time on the ride. The temperature plummetted from what had been easily classified as hot, to chilly. After that little cool down, however, for much of the remaining ride to Haines, the storm clouds parted over our route and dumped their loads elsewhere. It was quite incredible fortune! Lucky I brought my trusty red gore-tex jacket which always seems to guarantee decent weather.

The headwinds off the ocean began long before we reached the highest point on our ride. At Klukshu, a semi-deserted First Nation village, an information sign made our battle with wind seem a breeze. The journey of a salmon is far more exhausting than any cycling into a headwind could be. In this area, these fish travel more than 200km from the gulf of Alaska up into the mountains we were crossing, to Klukshu Lake and River, not only swimming against the current all the way but ascending around 650 metres. I'm not sure if salmon can draught like cyclists but it certainly helped us cover ground.

Somewhere along the way, we crossed from "Larger than Life" Yukon into "The Best Place on Earth" (British Columbia). That is an ambitious claim and there is some pretty stiff competition but I agree that is one of the most beautiful areas on earth.

We had been warned of large climbs on the route but for me there is always a positive to this - grand views and very rewarding downhills. Before reaching the high point, Chilkoot Pass, we decided that perhaps a night's rest might be beneficial (I was still energised by the scenery and long daylight).

The road climbed into alpine meadow territory where for the first time since our start in Fairbanks, we were finally above spruce forest, with lower vegetation for wider views. There were new flowers and plants and armpit-high bushes which grew up to the roadside well concealed the cheeky bears which left frequent scat piles in our cycling lane about 1km apart. We never saw one.

At the summit, we had to stop to capture the panorama and our breaths. Rugging up (including balaclavas) was necessary as the wind was becoming colder and we had a fast, fun descent ahead. Dropping down the south side of Chilkoot Pass went exhilaratingly fast. The road ran parallel to a long wall of ragged peaks with a deep river valley between. We quickly went from open alpine terrain to the depths of a tall, lush pine forest with thick leafy undergrowth more in place (in my mind) in the tropics rather than the sub-arctic.

After a brief interaction with US immigration and the confiscation of our two fresh tomatoes destined for the evening's daal, we found ourselves at the valley floor, beside the large-pebbled, grey glacial river. After a very filling meal of lentils (without fresh vegetation), I re-read the Milepost (a detailed description of stops and sights for RV travellers) and discovered the 33-mile roadhouse only a short pedal away. Pies, beer and wine were on our minds and soon inside our bellies as we soaked up the hunting/shooting atmosphere of the log-constructed establishment.

We spent our last night in transit on the pebbly river bank which Robert suspected was "beary" (confirmed the next morning by a local but not by any encounters, thankfully), enjoying sunset and a fire but starting a bit late as Robert washed in the river. That was futile as the whole area was composed of glacial silt, a fine grey powder like bulldust, which permeated everything.

Juvenile bald eagles (replacing trumpeter swans of the higher lands) waited for the salmon run, when the river swarms not only with fish but birds of prey and bears. After long stretches without human habitation, the increasing concentration of vehicles, fishing camps, letterboxes and private driveways and well-tended gardens were a positive reminder of the closeness of Haines as we once again rode head to tail, swapping at each milepost (at the end, Robert galliantly offered to draught all the way in and I reluctantly accepted).

Haines ties with Haines Junction as my favourite town so far, with its beautiful harbour setting, mountain views, ready access to rivers and walking and biking trails and quaint timber architecture. Having glorious weather helped too (normally much wetter) with all the surrounding peaks visible.

Only small cruise ships can enter Haines' harbour, limiting the drive to construct "tack" to house souvenir junk and icecreams. The main street has a few historic buildings (with some modern insertions between), ending at the harbour with the big, red shed of the Harbor Bar and Liquor Store.

Being a former naval base, high on the hillside is a quadrangle with grand officer's homes, admin buildings and a former gymnasium all in distinctly American timber style. These now house cosy B&B's, museums and families.

A town with a fantastically stocked wholefood shop and cafe, Mountain Market, always gets the "thumbs up" from me and we indulged in some of their wares. I'd heard of Mountain Market way back in Beaver Creek, Canada and had it in my mind as a driving inspiration to get through the headwinds at the end of the ride into town.

Mosey's Cantina spared us from cooking, at substantial cost, but we did eat 2 entrees, 2 mains and a dessert, all of decent proportions. I think we were the only two in the atmospheric Mexican who didn't take doggy boxes home.

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