Thick with grizzlies

🕔Jul 24, 2007

“That highway is thick with grizzlies!” our daughter warned us before we departed on our bicycle trip.
I had filed that tidbit of terrifying information in the back of my mind until now, as I dodge enormous mountains of bear poop on the smooth, traffic-free pavement between Haines Junction in the Yukon and Haines, Alaska.
I catch up to my husband (eventually), and together we regard a steaming pile. I can tell by the look on his face that he’s thinking the same thing as me: enormous poop means enormous butts, which means…enormous bears. We laugh nervously and get the bear spray out of our bags.
I’ve been worried about this portion of the trip since we left home. Everything about this trip has been enormous—the distances, the hills, and the vast, endless scenery. It’s also enormously beautiful.
This is our very first bike trip. That’s the way we are—buy bikes, plan a few weeks in advance, and go. Unfortunately, I don’t pay attention to details; I’m a big-picture kind of person, and when my “adventurer” husband shows me the map, it only looks like a couple of inches of pedaling per day. How hard could that be?
Our plan is to start at Prince Rupert, a four-hour drive from our home in Smithers. From there we’ll board a ferry and sail up the inside passage to Skagway, Alaska. This is a spectacular two-day voyage along the edge of the world’s largest temperate rainforest. With almost 18,000 km of shoreline, Alaska’s panhandle receives over 100 inches of rain a year, contains over 50 major glaciers, and grows trees up to 200 feet high. Even though 70,000 residents call this place home, what was wild 10,000 years ago is still wild today.
When we disembark at the final terminus of Skagway, we’ll ride over the White Pass to Whitehorse, on to Haines Junction and over the Chilkat Pass to Haines, Alaska—a 600-km loop from one port to another. The entire trip will take eleven days: seven riding, and four nap-filled, whale-watching days on the ferry.
We arrive in Skagway on the 4th of July and, with a bit of luck, get the last campsite in town. Skagway owes its birth to the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1897, 100,000 fortune seekers headed to Skagway, gateway to the Yukon goldfields. After hauling their required 2000 pounds of supplies over the treacherous mountain passes, only 30,000 actually reached Dawson City, Yukon. Few struck gold, but all of them came away with something. In their search for the elusive yellow rock they discovered an escape from ordinary life. Today, Skagway still attracts adventure seekers. We also hope to escape our ordinary life, but at this point my anxiety level is extraordinarily high.

Journal Entry (Kym) July 5

What on earth was I thinking? I knew the White Pass was high, but we are starting at sea level! And short means steep: 3,292 feet straight up, with a fully loaded bike. I start to whine first thing in the morning. After stopping at the bike shop to enquire about the ride up the pass (the young iron man there said it is a pretty tough climb even for him), I really start to whimper, and have grave doubts about making it.
I’m scowling and hyperventilating when we ride out of town, but Brian is not being the slightest bit sympathetic to my anxiety. Even at my snail’s pace I realize there’s no turning back and get into a rhythm—if you can call barely moving a rhythm. I actually end up walking my bike most of the way up the pass—I’m faster that way. It’s only 19 km to the summit but it takes 4 hours.

Journal Entry (Brian) July 5

Broke camp, cruised around Skagway, and hit the road. 5 minutes out of town and I’m in my lowest gear. Four hours of grinding uphill in low gear. Once over the pass, it’s rolling terrain. By 6:50 we are camped at km 65 on Tutshi Lake. Fabulous scenery. Tomorrow I’ll wear six pair of underwear—OUCH my butt is sore.

Over the hump

After that first day everything else seems easy. The next day we ride 120 km at a leisurely pace into Whitehorse. The day is brilliant, the smells berry delicious, and the lakes, deserts, and mountains seem to roll past effortlessly. It is a day to savour—except for that last 23 km when I start to whimper in the heat and beg for a taxi; fortunately, we can’t find a phone to call one. I surprise myself and easily ride into Whitehorse.

July 6 (Kym)

This is so cool. I get out of the tent at midnight to pee and it’s still daylight.
I’ve told Brian I’m not riding today. He wants to do a major 160 km day from Whitehorse to Haines Junction–as if I haven’t done enough. I’m taking Bernie’s delivery truck ($55 per person) to Haines Junction tomorrow. I don’t care what he does. I tell him I think he’s nuts and ask him why he wants to kill himself.

*July 7(Brian) *

I had planned to ride to Haines Junction today, meeting Kym there tonight, but opted out and spent the day in Whitehorse with Kym. Nice reading day.

  • July 7(Kym)*

I am so glad we didn’t ride from Whitehorse to Haines. Just one long undulating boring highway: head wind, thunderstorm, no rest areas, water or food. We treated ourselves to a night at the Raven Motel in Haines Junction, accompanied by a gourmet dinner which cost as much as the room but was well worth it. Anyway, tomorrow we might be dead since we are entering the ‘thick with grizzlies’ portion of the trip. Might as well spend all our money now.

Only 230 km to go. I know this is the most beautiful part of the trip, but also the one I’m a bit worried about. This section is full of glaciated peaks, alpine tundra—and those grizzlies. We’ll ride past Kluane and Tatshenshini-Alsek Parks, over the Chilkat Pass, and down, down, down to the sea.

Grizzly warning

The bear droppings, our first warning, remind us to get the bear spray out. We ride along and Brian just can’t go slowly enough to stay with me, no matter how hard he tries. I keep my eyes peeled left and right along the side of the road. Brian is a kilometre ahead of me, and I won’t be catching up to him unless he stops.
The big grizzly casually steps onto the road between us. My first reaction is one of awe and excitement; it is bigger and more beautiful than I expected. My senses are tuned right up by now and I start to yell, “Hey bear! Hey bear!” Unbelievably, I keep riding towards her—and I’ve just spotted her cub, too.
I keep yelling and she meanders down into the ditch beside the road as I pass. Brian can’t even hear me but looks back and sees me wildly gesturing and pointing at the long grass beside me. He stops, I catch up and we both look back. The beautiful beast steps back onto the road with her young one trailing behind, and they saunter away.
We stick closer together for the rest of the day and encounter three more bears. One pair is near a pack of howling wolves. “How ‘Yukon’ can you get!” we remark.
The last one is a big male who found us more interesting than the cars stopped along the side of the road. He ignores the people in the two cars beside him, with cameras pointed, but when we cycle by he stands up and takes note of us.
“Hmm…” he’s thinking, “here’s something different.” But, like a good bear, he keeps his distance.
It is a most memorable day, and we finally end up in a maintenance yard to camp for the night. Every other desirable spot seems to have big bear beds tamped down in the grass.
The remainder of the ride is bear-free but full of sunshine, fabulous mountains, glaciers, lakes—and one enormous downhill to our final campsite in Haines. We board the ferry that evening and nap our way home.
And what do we say about this trip to friends who ask? It was wonderful—we saw FIVE GRIZZLIES!! It’s true that our biggest fears can be our most thrilling memories, and with them we are able to break away from the bonds of ordinary life.