The North. My tour so far had passed through familiar ground: the trip down memory lane on the European prologue, the prairies and dustbowls of the southern US, the well-used bike trails of the west coast. While many of those places had been new to me, all were versions of terrain I’d experienced before. This, however, would be something else. Welcome to the Yukon, welcome to Alaska, welcome to my own personal Terra Nova. This trip just got serious.
The line on my map spent a worryingly long time in the north, stretching out a far greater distance then I was comfortable riding before winter closed in for real. In fact this was an illusion: Canada and northern Russia are enlarged by several times on most maps, due to the impossibility of projecting the earth’s surface onto a flat piece of paper. What a relief!
It wasn’t all good news though, because although Canada might be smaller than it looks, it’s also less populated. You know how you imagine Canadians as being hardy northern souls, gaily dog-sledding through the snow without a second thought? It’s a lie: most of them live right up close to the border, south of a significant proportion of Americans. The rest of Canada – if this is even possible – is even more empty than you think.
The route I’d be taking, the Alaska Highway, was hurriedly bulldozed in the second world war to protect against a Japanese invasion over the Bering Straits. That at least explained its long looping route through inland Canada: it was built to be out of range of Japanese bombers. I’d hoped to use a later, shorter road, the Cassiar Highway, but wildfires on that route forced me onto the older, longer road. Oh well. From the top of the Highway I’d go west to the border, up to the city of Tok and then down to the cost at Anchorage. Simple, right? At least navigation wouldn’t be a problem.
“Those mountain bikes strapped to the tops of cars are a sign of wealth.” That was Ivan, my expat host in Vancouver. “The city’s become very rich recently due to the house price boom. If you’ve got money and want to show it, you can strap a few grand of bike to your car for all to see. Some of them hardly come down off there.” The wilderness certainly felt a long way away in central Vancouver, surrounded by skyscrapers. Those mountain bikes still signalled something though: that while Canadians might not be the igloo-dwellers of popular myth, outdoor sports are in their blood.
What the Canadians also had was an open mindedness , an acceptance of new experiences and perspectives that – with apologies to any American readers – I’d found lacking in the US. A British friend concurred, “There really is a palpable change as soon as you cross the border, isn’t there.” Perhaps it’s the living next to a more powerful neighbour that makes them less prone to retreat into the familiar and away from the outside world. In Oregon I’d met my first Canadian family, there, on a camping trip south. The father listened to my whines about the standard American responses learning I was on a cycling tour (“Be careful out there”, “Are you armed”, “Anything might happen!”), before nodding and giving his own appraisal:
“Yeah anything might happen, you might meet lots of interesting people, broaden your mind and have a lot of fun.”
Quite. One thing’s for sure: if you ever want a quick way to a Canadian’s heart, insult the Yanks and you’re onto a winner.
Vancouver might have felt like any city on the continent, but after a day’s ride to the ski resort of Whistler I’d already left the bulk of Canada’s population behind. At that moment it was packed full, housing a big mountain bike contest, so although I did eventually find a camping spot – in a patch of woodland ten miles outside of town – I still had to share it guyline to guyline with thirty other tents. I suppose I should have been pleased: I’d never had a hope of seeing so many tents together back in RV-Land down south, and at least it meant that some of them were using those bikes I’d seen back in Vancouver. Normal service would in any case be resumed the next day: 100 km with nowhere to meet, talk or resupply. Shortly after this the settlements would start to take on a frontier town feel; some of them grubby, some touristic but all at the end of a very long supply chain, isolated from the world except for this road I was now riding, and for an increasing number of light aircraft I saw parked up at airstrips by the side of the road.
As the days grew longer and the distances between towns increased accordingly, the people changed too. Whether white or part of the growing proportion of First Nations people, these were the far northerners, the tiny percentage in the long tail on Canada’s population graph. Snowshoes, kayaks and skis became commonplace in people’s houses where I stayed. People had guns here but they had a purpose: hunting was a way of life, not a pastime. In the Yukon I’d stay with a real life Mountie who explained over home-shot bison burgers: “Hunting season starts about now. Next month I’ll go out, and if I get a moose and a couple of sheep then that’s my family fed for the year.” It all made sense, and yet this mentality was as far away from the metropolitan high-rises of Vancouver as that had been from the US below it.
One night, soaked through to the chattering teeth, I pulled into a campsite to meet Cathy and Dale who took pity on me, split some wood and started a fire in the camp brazier. I slept by the fire that night, dried my clothes and was able to make up the distance the next day. Dale nearly persuaded me to carry a hatchet so I could repeat the trick, maybe if I’d been further south or later in the year I might have done. As it was, the kindness was repeated the next day: I camped next to an RV in a roadside rest spot and borrowed a mallet to drive my tent pegs into the hard ground. Who should appear the next morning but Brian the RV owner, bringing me coffee and toast in my sleeping bag! That day turned out sunny and I was, almost literally, on top of the world. As one guy put it, pulling over to check on me while I fixed a puncture, “We’re in the Yukon man, folk gotta look out for each other!” I’ll bet they did. Outside of a very few largish towns, people here lived in tiny hamlets, several days’ drive from the outside world. “I don’t know how I could live in a city” opined Michaela, a local I bumped into at a hot spring resort halfway up the trail, “It would be weird.” Perhaps so, but I equally struggled to imagine her life – I who had never lived in a city smaller than 150,000 and with millions more only a train ride away. The only people with whom I might share this view though were the other brief sojourners in this land: the cyclists. About a dozen in all, most of them were riding to Argentina. Invariably though they were all going the other way – south – and I was going north. North, to Alaska, in what was already September. Remind me why I was doing this?
Truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to Alaska. Canada had been such a breath of fresh air that I wished it could stay that way. Also, Canada was cheaper. Some things were as expected: it got more expensive when I was back spending US dollars. In other respects Alaska was like many enclaves: more American than the Americans, if not it quite caught up with the latest trends. All the usual services were here: USPS, FedEx; all flown up over the ground I’d expended so much effort to cover. The people were a mix: some were Alaskan by birth while many had moved here. For the ones who’d moved there was almost a party atmosphere: kids let out to play from the rest of class, free to do you-don’t-want-to-know-what while teacher wasn’t looking, and while no-one else has discovered the fun they were having up here in this winter playground. “It’s special up here” was a common refrain, and like an expat British community I’d visited in France they had an identity apart: Alaskans separated from the rest of the US, part of the breakout club, the ones who’d discovered this special place.
The Huntin’ Shootin’ Fishin’ vibe was strong up here: this was Sarah Palin country after all. Not that you had to be a republican to hunt or shoot: I met a collective of impeccably left-wing types who organised themselves to hunt, process and pack each other’s meat, dividing it up at the end of the season according to work done. These activities, which would land you firmly in the tweed-wearing set back in Britain, were fully nonpolitical here. Alaska was full of people who ever so slightly threw me, such as the impeccably-informed, strongly-opinionated Brexiteer Trump supporter I met on the road, or the guy who’d moved up from the Lower 48 and who visited his old home frequently but who had never been to a country outside the US – even the Canada he’d flown over so many times. The axes were shifted here; what made you one sort of person in Britain, didn’t make you that sort of person in Alaska.
The rain was pouring, the wind was blowing and I was standing beside the road, a picture of misery. This was my last day in Canada, just shy of the border, and one of the last days before my time buffer grew big enough that I could stop riding in these sorts of conditions. A car drove past … then drove past again … slowing down … with a beer can held out the window. World, meet Stephen and Sarah, a fisherman and a nurse, two housemates off on a mountain biking trip.
I stayed with them for five days in Anchorage – time in which to relax and get ready for the continental shift. As their friends drifted in and out I heard stories of recent trips, packrafting up rivers with fatbikes then riding trails that no road could reach. If I hadn’t known it before, I certainly knew it now: by sticking to the road I’d barely scratched the surface of Alaska. This country held almost undreamed-of possibilities, but could also be harsh and unforgiving; it demanded respect, not cheap romanticising. Come here to have fun, but first make sure you’re properly prepared.
And so to leave Alaska – and with it the western hemisphere, the English-speaking world and the longest leg of my journey. What is my lasting impression, my sound bite-nugget to sum up the post and leave you with a pithy ending? I don’t know, I really don’t.
I did like Canada though, I’d certainly go back.