Friday, July 31, 2009

Roberts Creek Cohousing

Roberts Creek is a well-appointed artistic community on the Strait of Georgia on the Sunshine Coast of BC. With beaches, forest, a creek and community hub, it had immediate appeal.

On the edge of Roberts Creek and beside Clack Creek, sits Roberts Creek Cohousing, a leafy, car-free settlement shared by 31 households (70-80 people) within the trees on 20 acres. Alan Franks (and later, Jane) welcomed me, sweaty and tired, into their home, with delicious wine, nibbles and stir-fry and neighbour Judith, landscape architect for the project, joined the fun.

Cars are restricted to the side of the site in group parking and 3 large-wheeled trolleys are used to transfer goodies from vehicles to homes. This eliminates traffic noise, loss of garden space to driveways and garages and makes much of the site safer for small children.

  • Roberts Creek Cohousing gave their land immediately beside the creek to the regional district to be shared and accessed by the wider community. The creek has several swimming holes in Clack Creek (far too chilly for me).
  • Only 6.7 acres is occupied by housing (and other buildings) with the remainder of the 20 acres used for gardens and retaining and rejuvenating the natural forest.
  • Waste water is treated with a septic system whose output is tested weekly for water quality. The system is maintained by council and the water is cleaner than the creek.
  • Heating is subfloor, fueled by gas
  • Photovoltaic panels have been installed on a couple of homes. Efficiency is restricted by forest surroundings and long winters.
The homes and Common House were designed by local architects (Mobius Architects and Teryl Mullock), and constructed, primarily in timber by Burtnick Enterprises.

Community Facilities
The topography meant that the more preferred model (perhaps) of the Common House encircled by homes, was not possible. Instead, a long spine layout with footpath connection was established.

Mail is often collected from the Common House but in Roberts Creek, being so small, mail is collected from the post office in the village.

Meals are shared twice a week and are prepared by mixed-household cooking teams including "The Laughing Stocks", "Galley Slaves" and "Jolly........ Non-cooks pay $5 per meal to contribute towards ingredients. They also celebrate TGIF (thank God it's Friday) as a less formal gathering.
  • Main space - eating, lounging, meeting
  • Kitchen - 2 sets of sinks, industrial dishwasher, 1 stove, 1 cooktop, 1 wall oven. Additional cooking outside is provided by a barbecue. The large pantry is stocked with food basics - oils, flours, spices etc.

  • Lounge connected to main space
  • Wide corridor/entry space to encourage residents to walk through Common House from carpark to the pedestrian spine
  • Office
  • Guest room with en suite
  • 2 x WC's
  • Multipurpose room - small lounge and TV
  • Children's play room
  • Laundry nook - wahser, dryer and fridge
Post-occupancy feedback on the design of the Common House includes:
  • the large common space is too large to feel cosy in winter
  • need a mid-sized space for meetings, separate from kitchen noise (currently open plan)

All recycling is sorted in one area (another chance for people to meet). Bear precautions need to be taken as with most of north America.

Two transportables, tastefully modified sit high on the site (top left on map) and house a woodworkshop (fully equipped) and a gym/music/pool/teen/craft space.

As with most of BC architecture, the houses are built from timber (in plentiful supply in this state). Follow this link to their detailed description of the considerations and features in their homes.

Some of the design elements which assist in social and environmental sustainability include:
  • infloor radiant heating (optional on some lots) - more efficient than air heating?
  • covered outdoor living connecting to the shared pathways
  • designed for adaptability and extending
  • designed for "aging in place" (i.e. bathrooms can be made fully accessible with minimal effort)
  • non-toxic interior finishes
  • energy-efficient appliances
  • gas stoves (options exist for electric as well and electricity in these parts is hydro-generated)
  • plumbed for future solar hot water heating (many residents have already installed solar panels)
  • energy efficient lighting
  • polished concrete floors on the main level to provide thermal mass


Hired cleaners keep the Common House in sparkling condition but outdoors, the gardens are managed by volunteer work parties, overseen by the gardening committee. Residents pay $85/month for contingency and maintenance, insurance, heating the common house, portables, tools and cakes for celebrations.

More information? Visit their community website

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Quayside Cohousing, North Vancouver

I just visited another cohousing project this morning, making use of the super efficient seabus (the heat still got me, though). Resident, Elizabeth Kewin, gave me a tour. The more cohousing projects I visit, the more I want to be a part of one. Photo not by me but standby until I can download mine

Quayside, several blocks up from Lonsdale Quay and the harbour in North Vancouver, seemed particularly cohesive, with generous and diverse common spaces, a vibrant garden and very rigourous community recycling of everything. With a mix of cultures, household types and ages ranging from not-yet-born to 78, it's an ideal example of diversity that makes cohousing so rich.

Quayside has been lived in since 1998, after several years of forming the group and development, and has a long waiting list of hopeful future residents. Designed by The Courtyard Group, there are 19 residential units, ranging from a studio flat to 3 bedroom 2-story townhouses and a commercial space rented as a convenience store. 4 homes were (and will continue to be through a covenant) sold at 20% the market rate to enable lower income people to be a part of the project. Ownership of each unit is through strata title with contributions to the gardening fund, cleaning of common areas (once a week by lady)

Environmentally, the complex recycles all its greywater, for reuse in toilets and on the garden, rainwater is collected for irrigation, food is grown in private gardens, the courtyard and on the street. It is close to the Seabus, a fast link with Vancouver's CBD, has a library, shops, hospital, community centres and markets within easy (hilly) walking distance.

Cooking and heating is with efficient gas appliances and light fittings were chosen for their efficiency. Many homes have recycled hardwood floors and timber doors from the building formerly on the site and most units have incredible views of the harbour with good natural light. Stained glass windows were also saved from the earlier building and have been incorporated into the Common areas.

The common areas are much larger than those provided by conventional apartments - 2500 square metres is filled with:
  • Foyer and entry - notice boards, mailboxes, central fireplace and book exchange with inviting comfy seats and view to courtyard.
  • Kitchen - used for communal meals twice a month except in the 2 months of summer, also used for meetings, parties and social events. Some people cook, others prefer to wash dishes or do other kitchen chores. People pay for the common meal (nominally $4 each) to cover costs of ingredients
  • Guest room - used for short or long stays with a financial contribution by the guest (around $10 per night)
  • Bathroom - used by guests and people using the common areas, including clients visiting the common office space.
  • Office space - this is shared by several residents and once a week is a midwife's (resident) clinic, bringing in women from the wider community
  • Laundry - industrial washers and driers, drying racks and storage of detergents. Also several shelves of give-away things too good for recycling. These are left for 2 weeks before being taken to the local op shop
  • Children's play area and tv space
  • Courtyard - sunny leafy place with communal herb garden, fish pond and external stairs to upper floors. In the summer, this is where some shared meals are enjoyed, with a bbq
  • Dome deck and dome room - a rooftop space on the corner of the block with great views. Lots of potted vegies. The dome room is available for music practice, yoga, meditation or just relaxing.
  • Underground parking - not all own cars and this space also houses the greywater recycling plant and the extensive recycling bins
  • Gardens - these are cared for in a very casual manner by various residents and worthily have won a sustainable garden award. All houses share one compost system at the north of the block.
Some things that residents would like to see in this or other cohousing projects:
  • Big common store room - for fire reasons, storage is limited in the basement carpark
  • Main level bathroom to be wheelchair accessible
  • 2 types of work spaces - quiet office and consultation and computer and crafty space where noise and mess is ok

Here is a bit more information if you're curious

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sweltering Vancouver

Wow! Vancouver is hot. I'd imagined this great city as a cool retreat from the dry desert-like heat I experienced for the last week. I was mistaken. 35 degrees in the shade slows down sightseeing a bit, which is probably good.

This city is so civilised. Polite people, tree-shaded cycling streets and a great network of well signposted and mapped cycle routes, sparkling ocean, mountain backdrop, beaches everywhere (smothered with sunseekers and colourful umbrellas), tidy buildings and a few great ones, like the new green-roofed convention centre (below). Construction sites and vacant lots are filled with luscious food gardens - English allotment-style.Bicycles are everywhere of all different types and although helmets are enforced many defy this to feel the cooling sea breeze in their hair. All buses, trains and ferries take bicycles and car drivers give way even if they have right-of-way on larger intersections.

Highlights of Vancouver so far have been:
  • Cruising the waterfront and suburban cycle paths
  • Circumnavigating the huge, leafy and cool oasis of Stanley Park along the sea wall along with a steady stream of buff roller bladers, cyclists, skateboarders, joggers and walkers
  • Food in the markets at Granville Island and finding the Light House ecocentre

  • Stumbling across the new Convention Centre (see photo above) beneath 6 acres of green roof - click on link for more information
  • Exploring the beautifully detailed 1930 Maritime Building in town.

  • BBQ'd dinner on the back deck with my new friends, Andrea and Yvonne last night

I'm off now into the heat to visit the Museum of Anthropology, set on the coast within the University of BC grounds before cruising back to Vancouver for a walking architecture tour in one of the older suburbs of Vancouver. Tango tonight too! So much to see and do but after I've been here 4.5 days, i'll be ready for less cultural and architectural stimulation! Unfortunately my next cycling leg clashes with a long weekend so the road and all camp spots are likely to be very busy.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Middle Road Community, Nelson

The Middle Road Community is the second cohousing project I've visited on my travels. Located about 10 kilometres from Nelson, British Columbia, on a lush hillside on 52 acres, it is home to 11 households (20 children and 20 adults ranging in age from 2 to 63) scattered over the sloping site. 50% of the land is shared for any use that the residents may wish (with community approval). Much of this is left natural with just the area around the Common House actively used.
In the lower part of the site sits the Common House, a spacious converted barn, which houses a large kitchen, toilet, boot and coat room (and airlock), utility room, meeting space, study/film room and upstairs - 2 guest rooms, a pingpong room, a weights room (to reduce the car trips to town to the gym) and a shower/bathroom. Resident, Stuart McKinnon, said that initially he thought it was too large a space for so few but that it has been a blessing, enabling broader community events to be held there. Beside the common house is the chicken run and orchard and the most floral vegie garden I've ever seen.

Residents own their share through a strata-title structure and there is a gradual joining process (see below). Wednesday nights, each household takes it in turns to cook a communal dinner and Saturday nights is a potluck (bring-a-plate) evening for all those at home. Some nearby residents have joined in on the Wednesday night roster, extending the community beyond its site boundaries.

Individual houses are each unique and there doesn't appear to be a building covenant, giving freedom of design but not enforcing high levels of sustainability or efficiency of building size.

Water is collected from a nearby creek and power is from the grid (hydro-electric).
The Common House:
Working with a local building designer, David Dobie, the group developed a design within an existing timber barn on the property. The total area of the common house including the upper floor is 370 square metres (4000 square feet). The design of this building and its surrounding homes were not driven by strong sustainable design principles.

  • Two very large double sinks. There was an intention to add a dishwasher but dishwashing has been a pleasurable highlight of using the space - a chance for one-to-one interaction.
  • Two commercial-grade gas stoves
  • Open shelves (no cupboard doors) and well-labelled drawers for easy access, finding and stowing
  • Standard fridge - by keeping minimum in shared kitchen, less food goes off. People all have their own fridges and when they cook they bring down the ingredients. Eggs from the chicken house are stored in the fridge so residents can pick them up when needed.
It was decided that TV is not conducive to social activity in the Common House. However, there is a TV (without cable connection), used for shared screenings of DVD's and is enjoyed by many residents as another source interaction.

Spacious rooms used by visiting family and friends.

  • Common house - meals, meetings, pingpong and weight room
  • Shared meals
  • Plots within shared garden
Joining the community:
This is a multi-step process to ensure that both the community and the buyer are happy and compatible - a type of informed self-selection. It rests on an agreement that the seller can only accept an offer from a buyer who has completed the process.
  1. In the initial meeting with the potential buyer, the seller provides an information summary prepared by the community along with information about the private home.
  2. Buyer expresses interest in the community to any of four designated community representatives. Two of the community reps then meet with the potential buyer to share information about the community and explore the potential buyer’s interests in community living.
  3. If the potential buyer wishes to proceed further, more detailed information is provided and the community reps (all of them now) meet with the potential buyer for exploration in greater depth toward ensuring clarity and understanding of the community and to learn more about the potential buyer's hopes and dreams for community living. Contact details are exchanged. The potential buyer is invited to community meals / potlucks. Community members are encouraged to initiate opportunities for interaction such as household dinners or cups of tea, walks around the common land, etc. There is a focus on idenitfying and exploring any issues or concerns that may arise for either party.
  4. Community, including the seller, meets to discuss their feelings about how things are proceeding and decide whether to continue through to conclusion.
  5. Full community meeting with the potential buyer and seller to discuss what draws everyone to the community to ensure that the buyer is on the same wavelength.
For more information, visit The Middle Road Community website


Nelson was high on my list of must-see places with many praising its location and its architectural heritage. Beautiful landscapes with water and mountains and the odd bit of well-preserved historic buildings are an irresistible combination.

Having cycled the dry, hot lands from Radium Hot Springs around to Creston, the steep, forested hillsides, distant snowy mountain and cool, long lake was a refreshing contrast to brown grass and pines. Lupins and other flowers blossomed and thimbleberries (just like raspberries), blueberries and Saskatoon berries were everywhere for the taking. I'd gorged myself on raspberries and cherries in Creston but wild and fresh off the bush was all the more special.

A thunderstorm was looming overhead and I rode faster than I've ever ridden before to outrun it. When it caught up with me, I didn't mind as I needed a shower. All I had on my mind for the last 20km was finding a comfy bed. I didn't find that - every accommodation in desirable Nelson was booked out but I found a wedge of sloping grass in the council campground in town to pitch my tent.

Nelson, on a very steep hillside, kept me busy for a whole day, meandering around the streets and lanes, looking at the timber, stone and brick buildings (dating from the 1890's to 1920's) and seeking out scrummy organic beverages and food. Nelson was clearly a prosperous city in its heyday and still is but now with tourism and the artist and alternate community that resides there.

I eavesdropped and participated in some odd conversations with local astrologists and others into the weird and wonderful. I found it hard to keep a straight face at times but enjoyed the experience while the rain poured down. The Cottonwood Park markets were another hub of all the local colourful characters. I first walked down for breakfast. Lucky I'd packed some as Canadian markets start at a far more civilised weekend time of 9.30am (Brisbane's are around 6am) but I returned later for a fantastic pie in spelt pastry, homemade root beer and some baked goodies to take to the cohousing project that evening.

The multiple dramatic thunderstorms on the Saturday encouraged visits to cafes, galleries and the local library. Sadly I didn't find the local gallery and museum until after closing time.

I felt very at home in Nelson - leafy streets, organic supermarket (amazing array of bulkfoods to fill panniers with), organic bakeries, art galleries, yoga, local produce market, street festivals, bike shops and bicycles. I'm adding it to my list of favourites, now joining Haines and Haines Junction.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Canadian hospitality

Canadian hospitality has been wonderful. Some unplanned home stays have been - Dave and Darlene in Haines Junction, Paul and Jo in Houston and the Feldmann extended family east of Burns Lake (tent site, warm drinks out of the rain and "Tour de France" viewing). All shared a common interest and passion for cycling and it is always rejuvenating to share some time with local folk (and refreshing, being able to have a shower and wash some road and bike grime off clothes).

Warm Showers is an international network of cycle tourers or those who find them curiously fascinating. People offer a hot shower and a place to sleep (in the garden or in the house) to pedalling travellers (Robert and I have both been hosts). We have met three great families this way on our journey between Prince Rupert and Prince George and I hope to visit some more. Not only is it guaranteed that they will be wonderful people, because they all do or have cycled, but they can offer local tips on cycling highlights. Late nights are a high probability with the exchange of stories on and off the bike.

An alternative to RV campgrounds, hostels and wild camping, I'd say visiting local people is by far my favourite and I hope it continues, particularly on the next leg which I'll be doing solo.

We spent a wonderful afternoon and night at the Thompson home in Prince George last night. Alfresco dining in their courtyard with Richard, decorated with patchworked flags from last weekend's wedding. The house is rich with home-crafted artworks, wall-hangings, sculptural furniture, patchworks and paintings which have inspired me to get more creative when I return home. Time I took my sketchbook out of the pannier again!

2000km to Prince George

Yesterday, my bike computer ticked over 2000km! That was quite an achievement for me and my body is still feeling pretty good.

Over the 750kmish from the ferry terminal at Prince Rupert, to Prince George, the landscape has changed dramatically, from fjords and dramatic snowy mountains with broad, fast-flowing rivers and sparsely scattered habitation to broad open valles with neat fields of hayrolls and straight rows of fences, power lines and cut crops. Neat chocolate-box farmsteads painted in matching colours and flourishing gardens sit at regular intervals.

We've crossed British Columbia in record-breaking speed (my records, anyway), assisted by tailwinds, draughting with Robert, friendly terrain and, of course, pie. Yesterday we reached the pie destination we'd salivated over since the tip from tandem cyclists, Roberta and Kevin, at Fort Fraser's Petro Canada. We had delicious big slices but my favourite was still the one on the first mega day out of Prince Rupert.

I've now had 4 flat tyres! The last, immediately after eating pie was a double-whammy from broken glass.

I've been very impressed with the heavily used railway line that runs from Prince Rupert east for cargo. If the loads had been transported by trucks, our ride would have been far less pleasurable. Some trains pulled cars with double stacks of shipping containers and yesterday, I decided to count the number of cars pulled and stopped at 78 as I was in danger of falling off the road or into the traffic.

Robert made a great discovery of wild strawberries one morning on the roadside. Tiny, but sweet, they filled the fresh fruit void that day. We saw some roadworkers pulled up on the edge, wondering what they were up to. On closer inspection, they were all squatting in the grass, picking berries. I'm surprised we didn't see any bears doing the same. Perhaps the very smelly, decomposed black bear carcass on the roadside was picking the earliest of these.

The smell of pine sap early on, signalled the start of logging areas amongst the forests. Logging trucks started to make their unavoidable appearance (though mostly very courteous drivers). Peculiar domed cones of pulp mill furnaces poked out through the trees and close to Prince George, there were seemingly endles piles of pine poles ready for pulping.

Having had enough of truck traffic and eager to get into the Rocky's, I'm catching a train this morning to Jasper, which should enable me to have some time to meander through the Kootenays and sample wine and cheese but still reach Vancouver as planned around the end of the month (with a little more mechanised assistance at that other end as needed).

Houston hello

We have found ourselves in Houston after a half day's ride (65km) following a very sociable breakfast with our Warm Showers host, Emily, in Smithers. We've been doing some huge days, way beyond what I thought I could do. My body doesn't seem to be changing shape much but my fitness is improving and my colouring is taking on a healthy glow (no sunburn yet), with the raccoon look more and more evident (glowing cheekbones and lower face with pale eye sockets and forehead). I wish what fat remains could shift to my backside to provide a little more padding. I've now improvised with my fleece neck tube as extra saddle padding but it's not a huge help.

Expecting to have another wild camp tonight, instead, we were greeted on the edge of town by the very friendly and warm Paul Comparelli and his equally fun and welcoming daughter, Jo (aged 13). They sweep in cycle tourers regularly when they're not off on family adventures, cycling to Mexico or around Canada or heading to Peru or Cambodia. An inspirational family with so many cycling trips under my belt, I feel inadequate. Robert has been insisting that 100km/day is a sustainable and easy distance to work on with cycle touring and I've been in denial until Paul told us that he and the family cycle 100-150 miles a day (160-lots more km/day) in good conditions. I'm inspired to start earlier each day so bigger distances are bigger.

It's been roasting hot here on the Yellowhead Highway. 30 degrees in the shade with the hottest blast from 2-5pm. I'm keen to rejig our cycling days so that we can ride more before the heat of the day.

I've updated the blog a couple of times ( but need to add more pictures. Some entries I wrote after the 160km day (Prince Rupert to Terrace) so apologies for any errors during my delerium! <,-135&spn=69.492148,186.152344&z=3> . We've covered amazing ground these last few days: 160km to Terrace, 105km to wild camp, 135km to Smithers and a half day today of 65km. We've stayed with 2 Warm Showers hosts and the wonderful "Team Compi" tonight so we've had a lot of wonderful Canadian hospitality in only 4 days!

Too many stories of how fantastic Icefield Parkway is has made me return to my old travel plans. I think I'll be catching a train to Jasper on Thursday (1 day rest on train rather than 3 days' riding) and perhaps the last bit into Vancouver if needed for time, to reach there by the end of July. Robert will probably remain faithful to the cycle and keep pedalling but I'm sure will catch me up down the way.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Back on dry land and pedalling

Arriving at dawn this morning on the ferry, at Prince Rupert, we were ready to burn up some of the energy and fuel we'd stockpiled in the previous 8 days of ferry travel, hanging out in Juneau and stopping off at villages along the way.

After a misty start where we were covered with a fine dew, the sun emerged from behind the mountains and the breeze started to blow on our backs. We hadn't planned to cycle all the way to Terrace, just over 150km away but despite our very minimal sleep (about 4 hours), we somehow did it.

Sunshine, tailwind (28km/hr without effort was a breeze), flat road, wildflowers, spread out rest stops, many waterfalls, unfolding valleys the broad waters of the Skeena River (river of mists) and beautiful mountains (much like in Yosemite) kept us rolling. So too did my mega polenta breakfast after the first easy 40km (polenta, coconut flakes, dried fruit, milk powder, agave nectar and tahini). We found a delectable cafe after 90km (and only 11am) and the still-warm freshly baked pumpkin pie with icecream kept me going almost all the way to Terrace.

The lower mountains and hills are heavily scarred from logging in this area, more so than anywhere else so far. The clear-felled areas are all covered with new growth but very obvious and the zigzagging roads carved into the hills mar the otherwise picturesque terrain.

I saw my first black bear today, crossing the road between Robert and me soon after a failed attempt at having a rest (mosquitos scared us away). Fortunately, the space between us was large, so no risky close encounter. My bear spray is still within quick and easy reach.

Robert and I have agreed that the distance we did today with so little sleep is not sustainable so that record won't be broken in a hurry. I don't like to think about how we'll feel in the morning.

I've just got an email message from Robert that the local warm showers folk are happy to have us to stay and have a baby that needs to sleep. Only another 5km to go, then bed!

The Alaskan Marine Highway and its villages

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Juneau, the capital

The large, old ferry chugged its way down the Alaskan marine highway to Alaska's capital, Juneau. With clouds low on the hill and mountainsides, our focus was on lighthouses, wildlife on buoys (pronounce boooeees) and the odd whale and porpoises. There are another 48 hours or so of boat travel to get back to dry land, beyond Juneau, before we can start pedalling again, so plenty of time to enjoy the marine scenery. The southeast panhandle consists mostly of a string of islands, most inhabited by humans and certainly by bears and other wildlife. There is a coastline, carved by fjords but is impassable on the ground.

Juneau has a long history and relics of its golden past still remain in its architecture, and mine workings. Quaint narrow streets on the hillside and down near the harbour (now crammed full of massive cruise ships) are now scattered with tourist shops but also some very delectable destinations for hungry cyclists - Rainbow Foods (huge wholefood store), gelati at the Heritage Coffee House, a huge array of bagels, sweet treats at the "Pie in the Sky) and now, our favourite beans and rice at this internet cafe (buy a meal and get an hour of internet free!!).

Sailboats, dinghies, ferries, cruise ships and float planes negotiate their place in the Gastinau Channel between Juneau city and Douglas. A city is probably an over-statement for this Alaskan capital, strung out along the channel with the heart and stark contrast of early mining/frontier buildings and Russian architecture built from timber juxtaposed with functional concrete government buildings and mega stores.

We cycled in from the ferry along the long Pacific Highway, avoiding the fast-flowing traffice on the former highway and with a few misjudged diversions. When studying my bike computer to see how much further, a black bear crossed the road in front of Robert - totally missed by me!

Across the bridge, in Douglas, Roberts old uni friend, Meg, welcomed us into her home - a timber 1940's building with a history of many alterations but a broad view of the channel (and it's passing water-borne cities, cruise ships, and air traffic) and to the forested, snow-topped mountains beyond. From Meg's back door, there is a network of forest trails up the mountain side, through magical mossy forest, open alpine meadows with soggy muskeg under foot, which Robert and I explored one day to keep the blood pumping and make sure we didn't turn into squidgy blobs filled with pie, icecream and bagels.

Our visit to Juneau coincided with the 4th of July celebrations which also double up as 50 years since Alaska became a US state (and the 49th star on the flag). What a parade!! The river of floats, marching girls, dancers, bagpipes, first nation folk dressed in wolf hides and bicycles, vehicles and dogsled wove through the streets of town and ended up sandwiching us on the island in the middle of the main street. When we arrived to take up our position, I was intrigued by the number of children carrying plastic bags. Each group threw out a steady spray of sweets! There is no doubt that there were some very hyperactive children in town over the following few days.

Essential/favourite cycle touring gear bits for Alaska

I have to say that my favourite bit of kit so far is my pair of Keens Commuter cycling sandals. Despite having cycled at dawn with a subzero windchill factor, through drizzle and slushy hail, with toasty socks (a bit daggy, I know) my toes have stayed warmer than in my old cycling shoes. And, in the sunny weather, I can let my feet breathe and see the sunshine!

Diet, favourite foods, favourite song and matching tents - MSR Hubba Hubba. I love mine for space but bright orange is not great for stealth camping (which would be 80% of our nights) and the fly is always wetter in the inside than outside (even if raining).

Risks of punctures and extra weight aside, this 15 year old ¾-length piece of luxury has guaranteed blissful nights of sleep on pebbled river banks, forest floors layered with small pinecones, sand and grass. I have an end of a foam mat which I move around for extra padding and have at the ready for sitting on if the bitumen or gravel roadside is too firm for my bruised sit-bones.

Trusty Swedish Trangia. This is hugely popular in Australia where methylated spirits or methanol can be purchased with ease (except in remote communities where some like to drink it). I think we’ve now found the right translation – shellac thinner – and look forward to less sooty bowls (we are always covered with streaks of black war paint) and faster cooking.

Beloved Saracen – steel framed, recently upgraded to 27 gears and v-brakes. It has been on every cycle tour since August 1996 and we will share another birthday together next month.

When the sky is bright for up to 20 hours a day, a way of masking this for good sleep is essential.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Food and cycling

Food is a major highlight of any cycle touring adventure, or should be, if the right delectable delights can be sourced. Fortunately, Robert has a similarly hearty and wholesome pescetarian diet (vegetarian with the odd bit of fish) and we have been eating surprisingly well. I may have lost weight on my face (as always) but no marked difference elsewhere (I need all the padding I can get on my backside!)

Here is a sample of what we munch on to fuel up to 6 hours of exercise a day:
Breakfast: Organic oats, dried fruit and agave syrup (vegan honey subsitute and much easier to source in Alaska) with bananas on top
Snacks: toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds, dried fruit, muesli bars, tahini cookies (just baked a batch for the next leg), apples, pears
Lunch: flat bread, pumpernickel or bagels with rehydrated hummus or spicy Mexican bean salsa, cheese, green leaves (sometimes roadside dandelions), fresh tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, peanut butter (thanks to Paul)
Dinner: cous cous, pasta or rice with a variety of flavours, spices, lentils, TVP, cheese, savoury yeast flakes.

We've just acquired a jar of organic coconut oil (fortunately stays solid this far north, avoiding messy leaks) which I've just learnt is not only fantastic for frying, baking, spreading on bread and skin and possibly lubing chains but also is a very concentrated source of protein!

Most food is prepared quickly as my trangia stove is small and doesn't burn too hot. Finding the right fuel (methylated spirits) in the US and Canada has been a challenge but I think Robert hit the jackpot today. We have roasted some vegies in the fire (spot the roasted potato amongst the pebbles), which were delicious.

I have taken a distinct liking to north American pies. No, I haven't become a meat eater in these energy-burning times. Meat pies don't seem to exist with an Australian persistence, however large, thick, homemade pies filled with local berries and fruits and varyingly glutenous goo are served warm at appropriate intervals for a calorie-craving cyclist. "Pie a la mode" is a common and very elaborate way of saying "pie with two big blobs of icecream". Usually I go for this more posh version.

Mostly we cook dinner - sitting on the edge of the road, on a specially chosen rock or patch of grass or if we're lucky, at a picnic table. We have splurged a couple of times so far and amazed ourselves and the waiting staff at the volume we can consume. Our last feast was at Mosey's Cantina in Haines (see photo of the spread below) - 2 dips, 2 main meals (everyone else took doggy bags home) and a dessert. Divine!

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.

Leg 1 - Tok to Haines Junction - 22nd to 26th June

TOK TO HAINES JUNCTION – 22nd to 26th June

6 Tok to wild camp north of Northway Junction – 82km (447 total)
Weighed ourselves with loaded bikes at weighing station – Robert and Paul 300lbs and me a lightweight 260lbs (+-20). Gentle undulations, deserted towns, wide views to St Elias range, other cycle tourers (Dirk 33,000km and all of Africa to go and an elderly German couple), slow broad rivers
7 Beaver Creek, Yukon, Canada wild camp – 113.4km (560km)
Icy rain, border crossing into Yukon, Canada (my first time) and sunshine. Moose, trumpeter swans, ducks
8 North of Bonjek River wild camp – 113.8km
Mosquito territory, Koidern River Lodge quirky cuppa, Pickhandle Lakes, undulating ice-heaved roads
Mother bear and 2 babies, Lynx?, beaver
9 Destruction Bay wild camp – 97km (771)
Short beautiful leg of old Alcan Highway beside river (near Kluane Wilderness Lodge), long dusty roadworks, headwinds!!!, huge pizza reward at Destruction Bay
10 Haines Junction - 110km
Beautiful dawn ride marred only later by wind. Mountains, wildflowers, glassy Kluane Lake

Having spent a few days cycling with Paul, we spent a long time at Tetlin Junction, outside Tok, trying to decide which path to take – the shorter, more beautiful route as originally planned or the longer, more historic (gold mining) loop via Dawson City and Whitehorse to spend more time with our new chum. At the extensive and deserted former lodgings and cafĂ© (sadly unstocked with pie and beverages) at Tetlin Junction, we delayed the decision, crawling around the buildings, taking photos, snacking and chatting with an overloaded German cycling couple in their late 60’s (?). We pondered why such establishments are now deserted and can only conclude that with the vast majority of travelers now moving about the countryside in vehicles with more features and fittings than a basic home, the need for cosy timber cabins and log-filled hotels are out of vogue.

Once we had agreed on the most reasonable scenario and with no other excuse to delay our decision any longer, Robert and I decided to stick to plan A, with the promise of fine mountain views, a more direct line to the ocean and the promise of a live music gig for some much-needed culture in Haines Junction.

We eased our bodies back into cycling mode, adjusting saddles (sore knees), adding saddle padding and adjusting loads as we cruised with pleasant tailwinds through new landscapes (ever-present spruce and wildflowers the common thread). Parts of us exposed to sun have begun to get a golden glow (Robert more than me) – fingers (not protected by cycle mitts), wrists and faces from the cheekbones down. Belgian Dirk who’s been on the road for over 2 years and 33,000km was looking pretty weathered from the sun and wind so I’ve made a note to keep layering on that oily natural suncream and lip balm on such long-sunshine days and have almond/jojoba oil and coconut oil to rehydrate my very parched skin after a day in the weather.

Preparing meals, stashing food bags and setting up and packing up camp are all becoming smooth rituals.

During our first bout of real, cold rain, following a short, beary walk down to a lake, we sought shelter at the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge information centre. According to the chirpy national parks guide, cyclists lunching inside the very picturesque centre is not uncommon, especially with hot water on tap for warming beverages. Coach loads of tourists filed by and asked questions about our journey, intrigued or admiring.


With a tailwind, aiding an escape from the icy, cloudy weather of Alaska, we crossed the border into Canada late in the evening and cycled until 12.30pm (1.30 Canada time). As we passed the welcome to Canada signs (after obligatory photos), the sun came out, the wind dropped and despite the loose, gravel road the easy cycling, sunshine and the scenery inspired us to keep going. Leaving the US was a complete non-event – noone to check or stamp my passport. Canada, on the other hand, warmly welcomed us 27 km down the road and gave me a stamp for my collection.

Snowy mountains, strings of mirror-flat lakes edged with reeds and complete with ducks with ducklings, large white Trumpeter Swans and, at one, a large male moose made me fall in love with Canada as I imagined I always would. Canada’s pavilion at Brisbane’s World Expo 88 was my favourite of them all and on first impressions, I knew I wasn’t going to be disappointed. “Larger than Life”, the Yukon’s slogan, couldn’t be more appropriate – with size of the broad glacial valleys, high peaks, expanses of wetlands and mosquitoes.

Campgrounds in Canada thoughtfully provide a cooking shelter – open, roofed structure with wood heater in the middle and picnic tables. Beams are sufficiently high for bear resistance and the shelters can be used to sleep in in emergencies (mosquito protection essential). Pit toilets don’t sparkle in Canada like they do in Alaska but their often-broken insect screening provides some protection from the sometimes ferocious mega mosquitoes.

Roads in Alaskan interior and the Yukon suffer from the effects of permafrost – frozen soil beneath the thin layer of humus and vegetation. As roads heat up, the permafrost can melt, causing huge potholes, cracks and big dippers in the road surface. All drivers complain of this and signs and bright flags warn of the worst patches. As cyclists, we barely noticed the effect with some of the bigger ripples adding interest and fun to an otherwise unchallenging road surface. Road works with long gravel stretches abound at this time of year, making cycling dusty and tiring and potentially hazardous with stones thrown up by inconsiderate RV drivers. One friendly woman truck driver pointed out a 6km diversion to avoid one stretch, along the old Alcan Highway, beside the broad, beautiful river. Without the traffic, there was an abundance of small birds and there was a heavy honey scent from new flowering bushes along the narrow road. We cycled up the middle to reduce risk of unexpected bear encounters and pass several beautiful camp spots.
Photo of Dorothy by Jungle Ling

We encountered a few interesting characters on our journey to Haines Junction and beyond. One unplanned stop, in the always-important search for pie, at the Koidern River Lodge, at mile 1164, felt like we’d stepped into a comedy act. The untidy yard, decorated at the fringes with an abundance of fake flowers stuck in the dirt, didn’t look too inviting to most, despite the “open” sign, but curiosity had to be nurtured. Inside, with the TV blaring out “The Simpsons”, our hosts were hard to spot amongst the Aladdin’s cave of stuff for sale – rocks, trinkets, food provisions (dubious age), pots and pans, books and scruffy chairs under 40 years of dust.

Dorothy and Frank remarkably resembled Miracle Max and his wife from “the Princess Bride” (without the Jewish noses) and bickered in the same hysterical way. They had pie! Rhubarb, my favourite. Dorothy cleared some of the old cups and books off the dusty tablecloth, muttering about threats of divorce over The Simpsons and her husband’s untidiness after their long marriage. They joined us for a cuppa and talked of the changes along the valley. Our brief time with them was one of the highlights of local encounters to date.

Robert spotted a beaver, enjoying the fast-flowing river and I think I saw a lynx (something of that size). The biggest highlight was a mother grizzly and her 2 cubs crossing the road – my one and only sighting of a bear for over 2 weeks of travel.

The last legs of our ride to Haines Junction, from before Burwash Landing, approaching Kluane Lake, reminded me of Patagonia. Headwinds flattened us and our concentration went from enjoying the scenery to watching the distance tick over to 1km on our bike computers when in the lead or keeping an eye on the back wheel of the leader, with heads down to reduce wind resistance. We averaged 7km/hour in tight formation and made a quick decision to eat, camp and

Quote for this leg of the trip from poet Robert Service:
There's a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There's a land--oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back--and I will.
It's the great big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It's the forests where silence has lease;
It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace.

-from Spell of the Yukon

Haines Junction and Ecohouse

As we cycled into Haines Junction, I couldn’t help noticing a house contruction site and made a mental note to go back and visit it after a much needed icecream and bakery treat to re-energise after our long ride (110km) into the wind and 4am start (to avoid the worst of the flattening Kluane Lake headwinds).

Synchronicity works in wonderful ways. Our hosts, who we didn’t yet know as we pedalled into town, were the owners and labourers on the house project I’d spotted from my bike. Dave and Darlene being infamous adventurers (two of my new heroes!) who have crossed several continents on their mountainbikes (Africa, Asia), were easy to track down through the visitor’s centre. Despite our out-of-the-blue phonecall and a very tenuous link from a passerby we’d met 3 days before, they welcomed us with open arms and absorbed us into their lives for the too brief time we shared with them – live music at the Bakery (our motivating force for cycling such ridiculous distances from Tok), home brews, delicious food, soft beds, hot showers, clothes washing, shelter from the icy drizzle on our rest day and a trip out of town to visit their friends (and chief builder of their house). With the fantastically long days, we stayed up and exchanged cycling stories, slide shows and upcoming adventure plans into the early hours of each morning.

Building for Yukon’s extreme climate couldn’t be more of a contrast from the subtropics, understandably. Dave was delighted to show off his plans for the house before our site tour – a simple squareish plan with a kinked south-facing wall for extra space and interest, double-height void in the living space, verandahs and high gable roof. Dave and Darlene have done lots of research into sustainable design appropriate to an almost arctic climate and here’s what’s emerged with some limitations inflicted by their isolation:

  • R60 insulation value to external walls – necessary for when temperatures are 40-50 degrees celcius below freezing!! Achieved by external cladding (yet to be confirmed), full external sheeting in bracing ply, 150 thick external studs, 75mm air space, 100mm inner studs with 75mm girts, separated by a film of poly (over 450mm of timber-framed construction). Between each external stud, is an impermeable membrane, against the external ply, then wrapped back around the inside face of the external studs and fully sealed against the face of each stud with black goo. Hugely insulating fiberglass (12” of blown-in fibreglass insulation but couldn’t encourage any installers to travel so far) is packed between the external studs. R8 batts sit between the inner girts (on the face of the inner studs) behind plasterboard wall lining.
  • The basement is timber framed and ply-clad (5/8”) to floor (with R28 fibreglass insulation) and walls (R12 batts + 7” blown in fiberglass) – insects can’t survive below the ground in permafrost and cold. Building a basement in timber in Queensland or much of Australia would be a termite’s dream!
  • The one small area of concrete slab in the basement is for the root cellar (storing root vegetables and other foods through the winter) but more importantly Dave’s extensive home brew collection of beer (mostly Australian Coopers) and wine.
  • Roof framing is of prefabricated pine scissor trusses with very deep junctions over outside walls (not like ours that taper to nothing). This is set by building standards to provide sufficient insulation. Roof pitch has to cope with huge winter snow loads.
  • Windows are triple-glazed, argon-filled with aluminium to the outside for durability with timber framing with air gaps between inside and outside faces to stop conducted heat.
  • Roof sheeting colour is light to avoid overheating in summer (though unlikely with the thickness of roof insulation) and to reduce expansion and contraction in huge temperature changes which can create large, leaky holes in roof sheeting.
  • They would have loved solar power but costs are prohibitive with no government assistance and likewise with evacuated tube hot water systems. With the surrounding mountains, the reality is that in the winter months, the sun would only hit the panels for an hour or so a day, if the sun was shining. Summer, however is the opposite story.
  • Heating is with an electric baseboard system (don’t really understand this) and a slow-combustion wood stove.
  • There is a small 5,000L tank to for collecting and storing rainwater for Darlene’s garden.
  • Household water is “hauled” from a central village water supply by all residents. Perhaps the bursting of pipes and maintenance outweighed the convenience but the residents don’t seem to mind. It creates another opportunity in this vibrant, positive little town for community interaction.

Raising of the trusses was booked in for 2 days after we left and we were both very tempted to stay on and be a part of that. Haines Junction has such a good feel about it (wholesome food, strong community, arts scene, stunning wilderness) that, without time constraints, I could happily have spent more days there and with our wonderful hosts.