Thursday, September 25, 2014

From Ferry Fun to Ferry Fenzy

Wrangell, Alaska, socked in with fog

After pedaling for 6 week, about 4,000 kilometers (2,600 miles) north from the US/Canadian border to Homer, Alaska, I knew I was in for quite an ordeal in order to return south. If there was a more developed network of roads in Alaska and northern BC, I would have pedaled, but the ferry was the most practical option, making for another exciting adventure.

I was excited to board my first ferry, not so much the second....
They call it the Alaska Marine State Highway, a truly deserving name for Alaska's ferry system. I'd say their marine highway is more extensive than their paved highways because of the state's geography. There is an impressive (and expensive) network of ferry routes that service Alaska and all the peninsulas and archipelagos. For the price I was paying to get from the Kenai Peninsula to Vancouver Island, I could have just about bought another one way ticket from Australia to San Fransisco. Swiping my credit card at the ferry terminal, I had high expectations for my ferry ride. In fact, riding the Alaska Marine State Highway ferries was probably going to be the closest I will ever get to being on a cruise ship. Confined to a boat for a few hours with gorgeous scenery is fun; day-after-day, for 4 nights and 6 days, is a whole other story, especially for an active person like me!

I must admit that while most everyone else dreads traveling by plane, I absolutely love it! I'm normally so active and have a hard time slowing down. When you put me on a plane, all of a sudden I'm forced to stop and have to surrender. Before security was so strict in American airports, I brought my jewelry supplies and would make necklaces and bracelets, sometimes even sew on the flight to and from college, across the country. On my countless international flights, when I should have been sleeping, I become a movie junkie, watching one new release after another to catch up on the movies I had missed over the past year. Therefore, aboard a ferry and confined to a boat with a bunch of amenities, I would again be forced to rest, relax, and catch up trip logistics.

I went for a nice long run right up until the last possible boarding time in Whittier
Aboard the Kennicott, my favorite of the two ferries
In Whittier, Alaska where I boarded, I had gone straight from shrimp fishing to running 10 miles back-and-forth on the 2 mile stretch of road in town before boarding. I wheeled my bike on to the Kennicott, at 10:30pm, the last possible boarding time and I was greeted by Gary who worked on the boat. He was fascinated with my bike and travels, but I was equally curious to learn about the ferry journey and the amenities on board. He gave me the inside scoop as to where I should sleep and gave me a tour so I'd know how to navigate my way around the boat efficiently. Although my ferry ticket was outrageously expensive it didn't include a sleeper, so I had to find my own place to camp out on board. All the cyclist I had encountered on the road told me to sleep in the solarium, a covered and heated, exposed on one side. However, the Kennicott's solarium was entirely enclosed and with all the backpackers and travelers camping inside. A repulsive stench wafted out when Gary open the door. The solarium was definitely out of the question; it stunk!

I settled for the upper deck viewing area at the bow which was enclosed, carpeted, dark with shades I could pull down, and a row of chairs to hide my sleeping bag. To my surprise I had the whole room to myself. I left my bag and mat on the floor and went to use the shower. Gary had also pointed out the nicer shower facilities on board. My shower was absolutely delightful including blow drying my hair and a powerful heater so I could dry my towel and the clothes I washed afterwards. Life on the ferry was off to a good start! It was like a luxury cruise ship if you asked me! When the motor started, the vibrations peacefully rocked me to sleep and I was out cold for 9 hours, waking up the next morning to the first car call of the day so I could swap my sleeping gear for my food and computer.

I worked away editing photos, drafting a few blogs, and writing emails. I was a productive passenger although I would occasionally drift off and day dream looking at the scenery. The scenery is definitely worth mentioning. The most picturesque scenery was on my first ferry from Valdez to Whittier, right along the shore of the Prince William Sound. It was a clear day and there were plenty of snow-capped mountains jetting out of the ocean to observe, brilliant blue icebergs floating in the water, and glaciers that ran down to meet the ocean. The scenery went from an arctic climate to a more temperature rain forest the further south we went and occasionally there were whale sightings announced by the captain.

While sitting and doing my work the first day, the watchman on board came up to me, addressed me by first and last name and asked me to accompany him, as there was someone who needed to talk to me. I thought I was busted, but couldn't figure out why I was being hunted down..... The watchman brought me up to the bridge where Gary was waiting with a handful of other crew members. Little did I know I had befriended the first chief. Gary was the 1st Chief of the Kennicott and the captain's right hand man. He wanted to introduce me to the other crew members and give me a VIP tour of the bridge. He took the boat off cruise control and tried his best to explain how to steer the ship, which sounded much easier than it actually was. There were too many screens and numbers to look at on the dashboard, much too complicated compared to the handlebars and brakes on my bike. I quickly passed the wheel back over to Gary so I could sit back and enjoy the fresh smoothie another crew member had made me.

It is way more complicated to steer than you'd think.  
Gary, the first chief, was actually from Whitehorse, MT.  He has been to his fair share of Rodeos at Blue Moon!

After my visit to the bridge I was treated like a VIP passenger the rest of my time on board. When we stopped in Yakutak, the purser watched my belongings while I went for a run on the only road in town. We were only docked 45 minutes, but it was long enough to stretch my legs. That night I made my way to the back viewing lounge again and got another 9 hours of sleep, waking again to the car deck call. I survived the ferry keeping plenty entertained until 1pm when we arrived in Juneau. I said good-bye to my friends and pedaled off, eager to ride after being cooped up for two days. Juneau has about 100 miles of roads and I rode on 70 miles of them to the tip of the borough and back to my host's house. It is an odd feeling of confinement being on a piece of land that isn't an island, but can only be accessed by boat or plane.

Welcome to Juneau!  Thrilled to be off the ferry!

Juneau, is the capital of Alaska, but if you ask me, it isn't really centrally or conveniently located. It is however, nestled among some gorgeous mountains with water all around, making for scenic bike riding and outdoor activities galore! My hosts in Juneau, Stephanie and John were avid tour cyclists. They were a retired couple with the best espresso maker I'd tried in all of Alaska! I must have drank about 4 lattes while at their house, in about 24 hours, while I waited for my ferry to Prince Rupert. I also did a nice run out to the Mendenall Glacier, where Stephanie waited for me to walk around. She was retired from the education field and also had teaching contacts at the local elementary schools so I was able to visit a local school, my first since Flagstaff, Arizona, after the long summer break! I quite enjoyed being back in the classroom and talking with kids.

The reward after a long run, Mendenall Glacier, Juneau
An impressive reflection in the lake from the glacier

Stephanie should have been a barista with her famous lattes!
It was great to be back in a classroom at Juneau Harbor Elementary

If only I had 4 seats to pedal my big, but I do like my big bike too! 

There was no VIP treatment on the second ferry to Prince Rupert. Unfortunately this one was filled with high school kids on their way to a track meet in Petersburg, AK. If you live in the lower part of Alaska, ferries turn into school buses transporting kids to tournaments and intercollegiate activities. They were frequent passengers and had taken all the good places to sleep when I boarded in Juneau. However, the bar was completely off limits for minors, which is where I ended up sleeping after it closed at night. It was clean, dark, quiet and had comfy sofas; a perfect place for sleeping, which I did for another 9 hours that night. In the morning, the ferry was much quieter ferry as the high schoolers had gotten off in the middle of the night.

The ferry to Prince Rupert hugged the coastline going through the Inside Passage with clear blue sunny skies that restored my faith that I might just get lucky and encounter summer weather conditions. Autumn was just beginning in central BC, but in Alaska it was nearly over! Despite stopping in Ketchiken, where I stretched my legs again, I was eager to disembark my second ferry. What had once been a fun rest from cycling had turned into a four day frenzy! My patience was running out and so was my ability to sit still. After 2 days on the second ferry, we arrived in Prince Rupert at 2:15am. Just in time to go through customs, ride to my host's house and attempt to get a good night's sleep. Who signs up to host a cyclist arriving in the wee hours of the morning? Tim and Simone from the Prince Rupert Rotary Club, who were also new parents with a five month old daughter. I'm grateful to The Rotary Club that has pulled through for me at critical moments when I was in need of a host in far off places!

Simone & Tim took me to another Rotarian's house for dinner that night!  I get the red carpet treatment I tell you!
After enjoying my brunch the next morning, I was in for a huge surprise! I realized I had been reading the BC ferry schedule wrong for 2 months (which I'm told is easy to do on the BC Ferry website, especially when their schedule changes from summer to winter sailings) and I would have to wait another week in Prince Rupert to catch the Vancouver Island ferry. My plea to be done with ferries had been heard, but I wasn't quite ready to embrace Plan B. With only one road out of Prince Rupert heading south to Vancouver, I had no choice but to start pedaling! Plan B added a few hundred extra kilometers to my route and brought me from Prince Rupert to Vancouver, via Prince George (again) and then up to Whistler before descending into Vancouver. Since I had already pedaled part of the route on my way up to Alaska, I opted to back track in a vehicle.

Mountains, rivers, trees, optimal scenery on this portion of the road

You can't imagine how happy I was to see the sun and feel its warmth

The following morning, I left Prince Rupert and was ecstatic be pedaling once again. The road from Prince Rupert to Kitwanga Junction was a scenic ride, that many other cyclists had recommended. I was pleasantly surprised that summer was still in the air in central BC; blue skies and warm weather accompanied me to Kitwanga Junction as I followed the Skeena River along the gorge. I was going to take the bus to Prince George because this stretch of the Yellowhead Highway is known as the “Highway of Tears”. Numerous young women, mostly natives, have been murdered while hitch hiking which made me hestitate, but never-the-less, I pressed my luck and pulled up to the gas station finding an older man who looked friendly and safe, driving a company truck. I approached him and before I could even ask to hitch hike, he said, “You!?!? You made it down from Alaska already? We saw you in Stewart a month ago!” George was a land surveyor, who really should have been retired, but he loved his job too much. He had traveled all over the world on different assignments and had plenty of stories to share with me making the road trip pass quickly. He happened to be going to Prince George and took me all the way, treating me to dinner as well. Yes, I lucked out!

The road from Prince Rupert to Kitwanga Junction
George and his company truck
From Prince George, my route was less scenic. The Cariboo Highway is not particularly an ideal cycling route. Big trucks, a narrow shoulder, and a lot of traffic make it far from spectacular, but eventually I knew I'd be getting to some terrific scenery once I hit the Coastal Mountains on my way to Vancouver. When I could, I opted for parallel secondary road alternatives, but they brought me on some super steep gravel sections that weren't fun! Thankfully the weather held for me the entire way down the Cariboo Highway. I was lucky to find three hosts at the start of this portion of my trip as I was in a pretty remote area. For the last five days, I camped, anywhere and everywhere from behind schools to native reservations, to forest roads. At the start of my trip, I would have been disgusted not showering so many continuous days, but after a few days without a proper bath, you get used to it! There were rivers and streams, but I rode so late into the evening, jumping in was beyond refreshing. Without a showering consecutive days, I discovered an interesting correlation between random acts of kindness and the lack of personal hygiene. The longer I went without a shower, the more generous the unsolicited donations; from cups to coffee and fruit, to entire pizzas and a bag of groceries! An older woman wanted to gift me $50 to pay for a hotel room, but I insisted she save her money. I would have spent the money on food rather than a room. Maybe I should have had fewer showers my entire trip!

Gravel roads on steep inclines or descents are always fun!

Parts of the canyon reminded me of Bryce Canyon and familiar landscapes back in Utah, USA

My general rule of thumb......always take the scenic mountain road!

The awesome scenery started when I arrived to the mountains! I was greeted by a heat wave and shocked to encounter desertlike arid conditions in southern BC. I had planned my route ambitiously which made for big days in the mountains, not an ideal combination at this stage in my trip. But I was determined to arrive at a host's house that were few and far between but did in fact exist in some of the small mountain towns. Unfortunately, my planning was wishful thinking, as my legs just couldn't make it as far as I had hoped each night. I neglected the monstrous elevation gain that I found coming out of the Okanagan Valley on Highway 99, an old scenic byway that is less traveled going through the Coastal Mountain range taking me into Vancouver via Whistler. There is no official mountain pass on this road, but the climbing is brutal and relentless. I had days of daily elevation gains that reached over 1,500m (5,000ft.) with distances from 110 to 150 kilometers (70 – 80 miles).

The desert landscape coming into Lillooet took my by surprise, so did the river canyon

Some green for farming hay, it has to be very fertile land!

I started the massive ascent from Lillooet in the late afternoon, hot and exhausted, with a head wind and temperatures reaching 32C (90F). I wanted to make it to the free government campground up the road where there were pit toilets I could store my food. Little did I know I had to traverse the steepest part of the entire climb within the first 15 km, advancing ever so slowly. In fact, at one point, when the sun was just about to go down and I didn't think I was going to make it to the forestry campsite I thought about lifting my bike over the guard rail to camp on the 3 foot stretch of pavement that hugged the cliff before dropping off into the river gorge. Thankfully the climbing leveled off and I was able to make it to the first campsite. There, I was all alone, surrounded by unspoiled nature, next to a river with spawning fish, at a primitive campsite that had hunks of black fur all over the ground?!?! Yes, you got it, bear country! I could have spooked myself out or pedaled in the dark to the next campground, but I was too tired. Instead I had a frigid sponge bath, pitched my tent, and started a fire. If there is one thing I learned from studying jewelry, it is that hair is flammable! I collected all the bear hair I saw and added it to the fire making it roar beyond belief.

Starting the ascent from Lillooet to Pemberton, the landscape changes
A lake at the bottom of the valley outside of Lillooet
Even though I had been through quite a workout making it up the steep road, I hardly had any energy to prepare dinner and settled on a can of tuna, some carrots, and fruit, and called it an early night. With my food inside the pit toilet stall and my ear plugs in, I went to bed hoping that bears would stay away and I could get some well needed rest! Tomorrow I was in for another section of steep climbing and I needed all the rest I could get!

My campsite.  What you can't see if the fire pit to the right and the clumps of bear hair on the ground!
When I awoke the next morning, I packed up faster than ever with temperatures hovering around freezing. I thought I'd warm right up ascending, but strangely, the climb wasn't as strenuous as the night before and I stayed cold the entire morning. Too stubborn or lazy to put on more layers, I climbed a good 30 kilometers, completely focused on the road. It blew my mind that the day before temperatures hit 32C (90F) and now they were around 1 or 2C (33 to 35F). I was so focused on the road the "summit" came sooner than I expected. I stopped to take a few pictures and when I turned around there to greet me was an old college friend Wes Choy. He told me he'd be driving down from Alaska to Las Vegas in the next couple of days, but I didn't think he'd actually find me on the road. I was so happy to see him, I let out the biggest scream, ran over to hug him, and ended up hanging on him for a good half minute, my cold legs wrapped around his warm body, not wanting to let go! Wes had come to the rescue at just the right time and with a huge bag full of food! I had enough food for the entire day (or so I thought)!

We went over to his car and he unfolded a chair for me to sit in while we talked and talked for what seemed like hours. I devoured the entire bag of food: a breakfast sandwich, footlong sub, and a bag of nuts! I would have probably eaten more, if there was more, but this replenished the energy I had used last night and that morning. Wes continued on to meet some friends in Vancouver for lunch, and I hoped back on my bike and started to pedal again, faced with much easier terrain for the mid part of the day. Seeing Wes had given me the motivation and energy I needed in order to make it to my final destination that day.

Amazing scenery, good company, and a bag full of food to eat.  What more could I ask for?

I pedaled to Whistler, where my host, another Rotarian, came out and met me on the road, guiding me into town for the last 5 kilometers. Gordan and Carly took me into their home, dirty, smelly, and low on energy, but when I left I was a changed woman, clean, refreshed, and with a full stomach! I got a brief bike tour around Whistler and saw the facilities built for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Whistler is almost just as busy in the summer as it is in the winter with the mountain bikers and hikers.
Gordan, my Rotary host in Whistler with his wife Carly.  He was a cyclist, skier, and golfer

Whistler Village, the park built for the medal ceremony and an ice skating rink.

From Whistler, I headed down to Vancouver on a terribly busy highway, but the only paved road option between the two places. Plan B had been a long, hard ride, and had almost gotten the best of me. I hit a huge milestone while on the road: 20,000 miles in the last year and 2 weeks and my body was beginning to signs of exhaustion. It amazes me how I can go for stretches of road where I have a host lined up every night for two or three weeks, and then have a good 500 to 1000 kilometers of wilderness without a host let alone a big town for services. Your priorities totally change and so does your perspective in these remote areas. These stretches of road make me appreciate the simplest things in life and help me focus the present moment. Yes, I would love a nice hot shower every night, but the memories, experiences, and anecdotes that come about from a more primitive lifestyle are priceless!

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