A perfect day on the Alaska Highway
There aren’t adverse weather conditions. There are only yielding men. – Aldo “Rock” Calandro
Tuesday, 8 September 2015
I’ve been on the road for almost a month. By now, I’m wishing I had already written about how I made it through the Dalton Highway, my departure from Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay), my face-to-face with a grizzly bear, my hypothermic hands. I’m wishing I had already had the time to write about the days of incessant rain, the snow, the pain of pitching and dismantling the tent in the cold and wet with soaked gloves, the meals skipped out of sheer fatigue or cold or fear of bears, of not being able to move in my sleeping bag to prevent a rush of freezing cold air from seeping in.
The truth is that for a month I have not done anything else other than getting on the bike in the morning and staying out until evening. Pushing myself to gain some speed, to raise the average, trudging up long straight climbs without a single hairpin, dragging 135Kg (me, bike and luggage) and hoping for a bit of descent to catch my breath; meals eaten on the bike – cold meals of course; seeking a place to “stealth camp”; hiding away the food, creams, medicines, and toothpaste to ward off the animals; finishing the day falling asleep in a sleeping bag that with each passing day becomes more humid, damp and cold. It has been a month spent trying to leave the coming winter behind, an early winter that caught up with me for a week with three days of snow and temperatures that have touched -6° Celsius.
I wish I had already written all this… the tears shed for the loneliness, for the fear of being alone in the wild, or rather in the wilderness, at the mercy of animals I’m not used to: bears, moose, wolves, bison – I simply did not have time to write about any of this. As soon as I am in warmer and dryer parts, I’ll pick up my journal and write more about the Dalton Highway and the Alaska Highway, which is the first part of my journey that leads me to cross the wild and rugged lands of Alaska, the Yukon, and British Columbia. Lands where a small amount of carelessness can cost you dearly, where the tundra slowly becomes an unbearable seed in the mind, where the wetlands lick a piece of land created by man on strip of permafrost and the map calls it a highway. Lands that maybe you happen to cross in July with the heat and the dry and maybe even think that this is heaven, until a swarm of vampire mosquitoes remind you it’s an earthly place.
For me it was a month in hell. A month where I felt trapped in a vice: squeezed between the inhospitable climate and wilderness and the commitment to myself first and to many other people to complete this journey from Alaska to Patagonia. I could not and I cannot give up, keep on struggling on is the only possibility.
With the exception of the first few days of excitement when I began my journey and finally started to ride along the Dalton Highway, I pretty much hated this trip. I was cold, wet, and miserable; in the freezing temperatures, but especially the rain. In nearly a month of travel it has rained or snowed every day since I left Deadhorse on August 13. The rain leaves me vulnerable and wounds my hands, the rain soaks my tent and makes it a chore to pitch it or pack it away in the morning. Starting the day with wet gloves and sore hands is unbearable at times, miserable for sure. I hate the cold; it gets to me easily, overwhelming me, and my fingers start to hurt even at the first hint of chilly temperatures. Cycling in a cold rain only worsens the problem.
Many times, I thought of giving up. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not with all the support that I am receiving, from my family and friends and people who follow me on social media, but also kind and welcoming strangers that I meet on the road. Some offer me food and clean water, some offer comfort, help, shelter, a roof or a room to take a day of two off (two days off in Fairbanks, two in Whitehorse and a day off on the Dalton due to a knee injury).
At times I think that my physical problems with the cold and the rain are just in my head. Maybe I have to temper my character and pay more attention to the thoughts that I have during the day. After all, it’s only a month that I’ve been on the road and I had been warned it would be a rough and brutal start and that August (which in Alaska is equivalent to autumn and autumn within the Arctic Circle can play funny tricks) was a “bit late” into the season. Surely I have to try to manage the situation with more serenity and recognise that my mind is not yet conditioned to the stress of this trip. The conditions are difficult; the stress of finding a suitable hiding place to build a shelter for the night, being alone at night and frankly scared in my tent in the middle of nowhere out in total wilderness in a land full of potentially dangerous animals is taking its toll and clearly I still have to get used to all this.
And then after a month of melancholy days, the perfect day arrives.
Maybe this trip follows the Pareto’s principle, the famous law of 80/20 but in my case, it seems to be 99% of suffering and 1% of joy and ecstasy. One day to savour the ride, to enjoy the landscape, the company of caribou, bison and even a black bear.
Today was marvellous. Maybe it started badly, I woke up in high humidity, bitter cold, sleeping bag damp, covered with moisture, wet, wet flysheet inside and outside (mesh too was pretty damp), skipped breakfast due to cold (also I had skipped dinner because it was already darkish when I finished pitching the tent and started setting up for the night). But this morning is different. I feel it. It’s just fog and haze, but I’m sure the sky will open and a hot sun will emerge. And so at 11am the mist gives way to clear skies and bright sunshine, even crackling, which warms my hands, mind and spirit. Given the festive air, I decide to remedy my empty stomach in a big way, stopping at one of these few and far between outposts that are along the Alaska Highway where you can refuel and sometimes even grab a hot bite to eat. It really is my lucky day because a nice lady here prepares a nice treat with a big side of potatoes on the stove – I can only ask for a second helping. I write my name outside the entrance with a permanent marker – I was there and I’ve been well fed!
I get back on the road and after a few hours pedalling with two wooden legs I decide, it’s better to take a break and take advantage of the still hot sun in the sky to dry the sleeping bag a bit, with the hope of guarantee of a dryer night and fresher legs for the afternoon.
Taking to the road once again, a bison runs next to me, shortly after a herd of bison decide to play with me, crossing the road back and forth – I had to wait almost half an hour for a truck to come by and put the bisons in their place and finally allow me to resume pedalling – traffic jam on the Alaska Highway. Even a young caribou wants to run with me.
Nevertheless, I cannot look around too much and I have to commit myself to get to Liard Hot Springs early enough in the evening. Running into the bush to go to the loo and coming out back on the road, I realize I’m in an area full of berries with a nice black bear that is doing lunch. My hands are already clutching the bear spray but there’s no need for any of that; we look into each other’s eyes and quickly reach a gentlemen’s agreement: I would not have eaten his berries and he would not eat me. I ask permission to take some pictures and move right on.
Wearily, but with a smile on the face, a face framed by sunglasses nonetheless, I get to my destination for the night where there are natural hot springs in the middle of the swamp: Liard Hot Springs.
The hot springs are in the provincial campground, which is manned, unlike other provincial camp-grounds where the camper pays to stay overnight by self-registration. I decide to camp within the grounds even if it costs me 25$ Canadian – they tell me it includes access to the hot springs. In reality, access to the camp is manned only until 19h00 or 20h00, so in theory if you go after that hour you don’t have to pay anything, no coverage for access to the springs.
Once I pitch the tent, I run to the lodge across the street to see if I can wash my clothes. After six days of cycling technical clothing, it starts to get a bit … to put it nicely … acrid. Three loonies (three Canadian dollars) gets all my battle gear washed and dried. I leave the laundromat dry and fragrant smelling and around 22h00 I dash to the hot spring.
To access the hot springs, you have to make a little journey of about 700 meters on a catwalk in the middle of the swamp. I undress quickly in the locker room and in the dark I get in the natural pool. The heat is almost unbearable at first, for many, but not for a warm blooded Italian like me; I get used to it immediately and start to explore the environment. The bottom of the pool is rounded pebbles so it’s nice to walk on it barefoot. From the main pool through two waterfalls, water pours into a second pool with water slightly cooler – I’ll quite happily stay in the warmest one. I find a way to place myself belly up on the slide above the waterfall between the two pools and enjoy the starry sky when it begins a great and phenomenal show: the northern lights. Enchanted and bewitched by a natural phenomenon so sublime I stay another two hours in the pool. An Eskimo passes me a cold beer. Going back to the tent, in the swamp, there is the grand finale with the northern lights dancing above my head with new violet colours added to the display. For the most part, the northern lights were of a bright yellow/greenish/phosphorescent shade.
The warmth of the water calmed me, the Aurora Borealis rocked my thoughts and a shooting star gave me the opportunity to think about what’s to come and I quickly make a wish. But now I try to live and savour this moment with awareness, enjoying it fully, shaking off the pain that I experienced to get here and the fears for what still has to come. For the first time in a long, long time I’m finally serene, in harmony with myself and with my surroundings, refreshed, satisfied and pleased. An ecstasy of my own.
I fall asleep dry, hot, tanned, clean and with the scent of fresh laundry. A day I will never forget; a month of suffering is the price I had to pay.
Who knows how many tickets I have to pay in this long journey and how many and what will be the shows I’ll get to attend; what lies ahead in this long journey? For now this is definitely one of the best and extraordinary days I’ve ever had, and I can only be grateful and thankful to everyone who made sure I got to this point. I am grateful to myself for not having given up and I hope to have the strength to continue. For tonight it does not matter. This was one of those days of a lifetime.