Biking to Alaska!

July 18, 2014

It has now been over four and a half months since I arrived in Squirrel Camp on the first of March. Sitting here at 10 am on a Friday morning listing to Jian Ghomeshi hosting Q on CBC radio it is hard to believe that when I first got here we would spend our breakfast listening to this program before heading out to trap at 10:30 am. Now days we are up by 6 am and in the field by 7.  I’ve seen three seasons, three different crews, and with less than two weeks left I find that, despite the fact that I’ve been away from home for almost 5 months, I am not ready to leave. This place has grabbed a hold of me in a way I had not expected and where I thought I would be filled with excitement at the thought of returning home, I find I am torn. I am thrilled to go home and spend the last big of summer with family and friends but I also don’t want to leave my family here.  I have slept, eaten, climbed trees, played frisbee and rugby, and hiked mountains with these people. We have bonded over fits of laughter at the dinner table, late nights playing Cards Against Humanity, sticking our arms up to our biceps in squirrel tunnels in search of pups. These are the people that accept me at my grimiest, unshowered for two weeks, smelling like squirrel, and covered in silt from playing rugby on the beach of Kluane Lake. I can’t, currently, imagine life without all of them any more than I can imagine sleeping in a real bed, curled up in a sleeping bag instead of sheets, or waking up to the sound of cars and people instead of birds and squirrels, or even peeing in a real toilet. I am enraptured by the simplicity of life here and the thought of returning to the complex demands of the real world is daunting in ways I find difficult to express. But there will be time enough for lamenting about the leaving I have yet to do. For now I plan to enjoy every minute that I have left.

Well despite all appearances from my latest blogs life at squirrel camp is not entirely fun and games and I do actually work every now and again. Lately day-to-day life consists mostly of sitting in one place for hours at a time watching a large pile of bracts for squirrels to come and steal cones. And in between these riveting hours I scoop poop into little vials for hormone analysis. Thrilling work, really. If you think finding a needle in a haystack is hard, try finding a squirrel poo in a pile of spruce bracts. Not to mention the soggy, mush diarrhea from lactating females that has to be scooped and scraped into a vial because it has lost all semblance of a solid shape.

So. Now you can understand why I spend less time talking about my own work and more talking about those fleeting moments of fun. And in that spirit I want to jump back a few weeks in time once again and tell you about the bike relay that the crew did at the end of June. As a side note in advance, a big thanks to Alexandre Mischler for allowing me to share many of his photos in this blog post. Often I was too busy cheering my teammates to take my own!

On June 21st eight of us from squirrel camp participated in the Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay from Haines Junction to Haines, Alaska. It is a 238 km (148 mi) race that runs along the beautiful Haines highway, past lakes, rivers, and wetlands, up mountains and through tundra. This year was the 22nd annual relay and there were over 1,000 bikers who participated. It was quite possibly one of the most fun-filled days I can remember.

Race day saw me roll out of bed after only about 4 hours of sleep, having been up until almost 1 am with last minute preparations. And so at 5 am, 4 hours before the start of the race, eight of us are scurrying around camp, still without a clue which of the shitty bikes in camp we are actually going to ride. Not to mention the fact that we are all about to jump on bike and ride anywhere between 11-25 miles after not having sat on a bike once this entire season. Great team preparation. And in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, I can’t quite figure out whether the fluttery feeling in my stomach is the bubbling of excitement or if I am on the verge of panic. But more than anything, at that moment I am just excited to get on a bike, any bike, and ride and get my muscles pumping.

The solstice dawns sunny and clear despite predictions of rain and turns out to be a day more beautiful than we could have hoped for. The day before had been gray and cold and spitting rain so we were more relieved than words can express by the change in weather.

We drop Christina, our Leg 1 rider, at the start of the race in Haines Junction and one support vehicle stays behind for moral support as she heads through the start line and up the first big hill of the race. The rest of us make our way up to the top of the first hill to cheer her on as the racers go by. Luck was with us when we chose a spot to pull over because just as the race begins a man a few cars ahead of us jumps out in a kilt and begins to play the bagpipes for all the riders and onlookers. With the morning sun just cresting the mountain tops, the bikers pedaling their way up from the valley, and excitement rising hard and fast in your breast at the sound of bagpipes echoing across the mountains- it was a morning to commit to memory.

Bikers at the start line.

Bikers at the start line.

Heading over the first bridge, just outside of Haines.

Heading over the first bridge, just outside of Haines.

Bagpipes in the hillside.

Bagpipes on the hillside.

The first bikers coming up the hill.

The first bikers coming up the hill.

And there's Christina!

And there’s Christina!

After cheering Christina on we hop in the car and race to Checkpoint One to get me ready for Leg 2 of the race. I am riding 40 km (25 mi), the longest leg of the race, although over reasonably flat terrain. The moments before starting my own leg of the relay are a blur- racing to get the bike adjusted to my height, taking layers off, then assessing the strong headwind and putting them back on. Frantically pinning our race number on my leg and strapping it onto the bike. Running the bike up to the checkpoint and then standing in line for the porta-potty (there was no way in hell I was biking 25 miles with a full bladder). Feeling small and insignificant in my random assortment of field gear, standing with a no-name SuperCycle bike in hand while all around me racers are dressed in their sweat-wicking fluorescent fabric, sunglasses perched on their foreheads, Fujis, Cervelos, and Giants in hand.

But then Christina is through the gate and there is time only for a splash of hand sanitizer run absentmindedly through my hair, jamming the helmet on my head and slipping the time stick around my neck and I’m off, Christina and Lisa already cheering far behind me. In the mass confusion the rest of the team hasn’t even had time to catch up.

The first mile is glorious. The wind is sharp on my face, chilly on its own but a nice contrast to the heat that is already building beneath my jacket. The headwind I’m facing is strong enough toe keep me pedaling even on gradual downhill’s. But I realize quickly that the bike’s lower gears do not work and so my pedals spin freely, at a loss for traction as I speed down the road.

By the first meandering uphill I realize that I may have bitten off more than I can chew on this crappy little bike. It’s not so much that my legs are tired yet (God forbid that should be the case 2 miles in) but I can feel the start of a dull ache that is likely to become a not-so-soft roar before this race is done. The bike seat that felt reasonably wide and comfortable when I took her for a spin down the road this morning at 5 am is now digging into places in my crotch that it should not go. Moreover, I can tell that the bike is not adjusted properly and the bike seat should be raised and inch or two so I can get full extension on my legs. But now that I have forward momentum I am loath to stop- not quite sure how I will ever force myself to get back on that bike seat if I do. So I pedal, pedal some more, and pedal again.

Periodically my team is there by the side of the road to cheer me on. They scream and wave and dance to music blaring from the car. I fist pump and cheer back but inside I’m dying a little bit. Not because I am physically exhausted, but because the little shitty bike I’m riding is killing me slowly but surely.

My teammates cheering me on.

My teammates cheering me on.

Still full of energy!

Still full of energy!

The support teams for other bikers are just as enthusiastic, clapping  for me, cheering me on, giving me a high-five on the way or a just a simple smile and thumbs-up. I am eternally grateful to all of them and their bottom-less wells of support and energy. Their excitement and indomitable high spirits are what keep me pushing, pedal after pedal, mile after mile.

Somewhere along the way, I’m not sure where, someone yells to me, “Keep it up, you’re almost there!” Even though intrinsically I know this can’t be true, I’m probably halfway at the very best, I feel my spirits rise. I can do this, I think. I really can. And my pedals spin a little bit faster.

Snowcapped mountains slip by, streams, rivers, and lakes, little rivulet waterfalls flowing down the side of he road. I can see Dezadeash Lake shining ahead and the headwind is buffeting me strong than ever. Somewhere at the far end of that Lake I know is my checkpoint. Sometime in the midst of all of this there is falling away and I feel like I could go on pedaling forever. Forgotten for the moment is the pain in my butt, the ache in my thighs and the burn in my upper back, it’s just me and the road, feeling it’s curves and rises under my legs, watching the landscape open before me in a way that can never be experienced from the window of a car.

By the time the next hill comes and I begin climbing again, the feeling is forgotten. The aches and pains are back in earnest and I’m wishing I had paid closer attention to the description of my leg of the race so I would have a better sense of where I was and when I would be done. Someone shouts to me again, “Only 14 km to go!” Yes, I think, okay great, that’s only 8ish miles, meaning I’ve done 17 miles already. Piece of cake. A mile spins by. Then another, and another. I’m watching for signs on the side of the road now, 2 km to this, 2 km to that, trying to keep track in my head of how far I’ve gone and how far I have to go. Someone else yells “10 km left!” I’m baffled, sure that I’ve gone more than 4 km by that point and starting to wish people would stop yelling things to me if they don’t actually know how far we have left!

I can feel myself starting to slow, and if a few bikers were passing me before, now I am getting passed in earnest. There is not much I can do but plod on. The last section of the leg is a lot of uphill and I’ve realized that my high gears, as well as my low gears do not work. Wonderful. So I’m stuck in a middle gear which is not awful but on this shitty little bike my legs are cramping and could really use a break. I’m reduced to inching my way uphill with no end in sight and singing to myself the song that my mom always sang to us when we were kids, worn out from biking the Cape Cod canal, “I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can. I think I can, I think I can to it! Choo choo choo choo!”

This last stretch is brutal. There is a brief respite as I reach the top of a hill and float down the other side, Dezadeash glittering in the morning sun and the mountains rising beyond. It is the moment in the ride that I really wish I had a Go-Pro strapped to my helmet. Then it is back to climbing again. A touch of loneliness has begun to set in. I haven’t seen my team in what feels like forever, no doubt they are already waiting at the checkpoint thinking, like me, that it wasn’t all that far ahead.  I also haven’t seen another rider and I’m sure that I have now been passed by every other biker in the race and have effectively put my team in last. These thoughts, of course, are doing nothing to boost my morale as the road stretches on and on and on. How many kilometers has it been? 5, 10, 20? I have no sense nor any idea if the last person who told me 10 km was even correct. I am still not physically tired, per say, but my legs are so cramped from the little bike that I have to stand up in the pedals at periodic intervals to stretch them and give my butt a break which is so sore at this point that I am sure I won’t be able to sit properly for a week. At this moment I hate the bike I’m riding with a passion, like I have never hated anything in my life. The support teams are fewer now and farther between and in my warped mental state seem to be half-heartedly cheering me on or giving me a sarcastic thumbs up.  I want them to go away. In my worst moments of self-loathing I am sure I look like a hunched little gnome with my knees bending somewhere up around my ears as I make my way, what feels, excruciatingly slowly, up the hill.

Finally, finally, I can just make out the flash of neon orange cones ahead and I know the end is in sight. The relief that washes over me is surpassed only by the thought of the food that awaits me in car. I climb the last little bit of hill and coast into the checkpoint where my team is cheering with all their might. Even as I approach the stopping point I’m not sure how I will unbend from my cramped position and get off the bike, but somehow I manage it, my legs wobbling like a newborn fawn’s as I try to quickly pass off all the equipment to Sarah, our Leg 4 rider. As she rides off I realize I have forgotten to tell her about all of the gear problems with the bike and realize she will have to manage as I did.  Then people are hugging and high-fiving me, and the thrill of what I have just accomplished is finally washing over me. We make our way to the car where I stuff my face with as much food as I can find, pumpkin muffins, fresh bread, cheese and veggies. The pain has passed and now I’m left with the satisfied feel of hard-worked muscles and the excitement of the full day of bike race ahead.

Finally crossing the finish line!

Finally crossing the finish line!

Making the switch with Sarah. It was happening much more quickly than it appears...really...

Making the switch with Sarah. It was happening much more quickly than it appears…really…

Every leg after mine seems to fly by. Sarah finishes up 15 mi of Leg 3 and then passes the baton off to Alec who begins the 4-mile uphill climb of Leg 4.

Sarah making her way up the first of many hills.

Sarah making her way up the first of many hills.

None of us envies him this leg of the race but he speeds right along looking like he is barely working and loving every minute of it. He is riding a newer road bike that I am eyeing with envy after the torturous end to my ride.

Alec cruising on by as casual as can be.

Alec cruising on by as casual as can be.

Leg 5 is the only leg where the weather takes a turn for the worse. We are high in the mountains at this point and sitting smack in the middle of a cloud. Jess has a brutal 19-mile ride through fog and rain.

Jess emerging from the storm at the finish line.

Jess emerging from the storm at the finish line.

At checkpoint 6 we are prepping Lisa for her leg, trying to keep her warm and pumped up as it begins to hail. “It will be sunny!” I keep yelling to her, “And you will see a bear!” (For some reason that’s what she really wanted to see on her leg of the race.) And miraculously both things come true. Ten minutes into her leg of the race the sun is shining again as she makes the climb up the last hill of the race. From that point on it is all downhill, quite literally. As she speeds down the Haines highways toward Checkpoint 7 there is a small cinnamon black bear high on the hill to her right. I think she makes record time to Checkpoint 7.

Lisa begins her leg admist much cheering.

Lisa begins her leg admist much cheering.

Squirrel crew doing a little dance for Lisa.

Squirrel crew doing a little dance for Lisa.

Lisa headed up the hill at the Three Guardsmen.

Lisa headed up the hill at the Three Guardsmen.

Cheering Lisa on. Naomi is very excited. As you can see.

Cheering Lisa on. Naomi is very excited. As you can see.

Jordan picks up after Lisa and barrels into Leg 7 of the race. For each of our team members we stop and cheer, and dance, and blare music along the way, keeping their spirits high and their legs pumping. Our team spirit is contagious. Other bikers and support teams smile and wave at us and yell, “Keep it up!” We cheer for our riders, we cheer for other riders, we cheer for anyone who seems to need cheering. Leg 7 is a crucial leg as we have to make it to Checkpoint 8 before 7pm in order to not get disqualified from the race (you can still finish the race if you are DQed but will not receive an official time). We stop at one spot to cheer Jordan on and Alec and Sarah climb a small little cliff to cheer her. Sarah, who has been driving, has the keys to the car in her pocket. When she comes down, the keys are no longer there. The panic sets in. We have 30 minutes to get Naomi to Checkpoint 8 and the keys are currently lost somewhere in the scree at the base of the cliff. I am starting to think our amazing day is about to take a drastic turn for the worse. Everyone is now in frantic mode switching bikes and gear around to different cars in order to get Naomi to the checkpoint. But before things can get too out of hand Alec spots the keys and we quite literally dive into the cars and are on our way.

Jordan biking along the Klehini River.

Jordan biking along the Klehini River.

The infamous cliff...just before the keys are lost.

The infamous cliff…just before the keys are lost.

We get to Checkpoint 8 with 15 minutes to spare. As we pull the bike out of the car we realize it has a busted front tire. Alec frantically starts to change the tube but it is clear that there isn’t enough time. There is a fair bit of swearing but we pull out a different bike, adjust it to fit Naomi and then are running down the road to the checkpoint. Jordan screams through the checkpoint, helmets are shoved on, time sticks exchanged and Naomi is off at 6:56 pm.  Four minutes to spare. We all breathe a sigh of relief and take off down the highway after her. It is the last leg of the race and we are running low on energy and starving (since the last of the food has long since been consumed) but somehow we find a burst of energy for Naomi. We do pushups on the side of the road for her…pushups

…and even make a pyramid. Naomi was quite impressed, to say the least.pyramid

Naomi biking along the Chilkat River.

Naomi biking along the Chilkat River.

Crossing the official finish line in Haines!

Crossing the official finish line in Haines!

By the time we finally roll into Haines it is nearing 9pm. We stumble to the food tent and have a mediocre dinner of salad, seafood chowder and rolls. And the cookies were raisin, not chocolate chip. Lame. We were all expecting a salmon dinner (as advertised) but either we were too late or misunderstood. I can’t say it was the most filling dinner I’ve had after a 148 mile bike race. That night we camped on the Fort Seward Parade Grounds with a 1000 other bikers and although we were anticipating a night of partying on the solstice it decided to begin raining just after sunset and most of us were well and truly conked out by 11pm.campsitecampsite2In the end we ended up finished 63 out of 65 teams, not exactly a resounding victory but for us, a) not being disqualified and, b) not coming in last was, in fact, a huge success indeed.

backoftruck

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