Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part V – The Last Leg

Destination: Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

Mode of Transportation: Bicycle

Route Taken:  Alaska Highway

I’m calling this section “The Last Leg.”  There were still over 950 km to go but this section involved a lot of riding through consistent terrain and scenery.  I rolled out of Fairbanks on day 6 of my tour and continued pedalling down the road for the next 9 days without any serious mechanical or health issues.  The road conditions were variable, sometimes gravel with potholes, sometimes rough chip seal with regular frost heaves and on more rare occasions short sections of smooth asphalt which my butt thoroughly appreciated.  My impression is that the freeze thaw cycle and swampy environment that the road traverses are not ideal for maintenance.

I passed by Eielson Airforce Base where the runway ran right next to the road.  There was a lot of very loud activity with planes taking off and landing and circling the base.  Fun to watch for a few minutes.  Then farther down the road was North Pole and Santa Clause House.  Santa was available for photos and Christmas wishes but he was busy entertaining some southerners and I wanted to get back on the bike.  Delta Junction was my rest stop for the night.

Some interesting sights along the way ….

DSCF4520a DSCF4521a DSCF4526a DSCF4535a DSCF4528a DSCF4527a DSCF4538aAfter Delta Junction it was 180 km to Tok, the next town/campsite so in an attempt to gain some local knowledge I stopped in at the visitor information centre to find out if there was anywhere in between that I could set up my tent.  The woman behind the counter couldn’t find anything official in her book but remembered calling the Dot Lake postmaster for information about camping when another cyclist had asked the same thing.  The postmaster apparently has a reputation for providing tent space for wayward cyclists.  The Dot Lake postmaster is another angel along the way.  There is nothing at Dot Lake but the post office.  At one time there was a campsite behind it but that has been taken over by the forest.  The outhouse is still there though and the postmaster was happy to fill up my empty water bottles in exchange for an adventure story.

Dot lake postmaster

Dot lake postmaster

Alaska pipeline crossing a river

Alaska pipeline crossing a river

Day 8 was another epic day, from Dot Lake to Northway Junction 158 km.  I hadn’t planned on going that far but Tok wasn’t quite far enough.  My intention was to wild camp at one of the many interpretive pull-outs along the way but none of them had level enough ground for setting up a tent so I just kept on pedaling.  Just when I thought my legs were about to fall off from fatigue, I pulled into Northway Junction with a corner store.  I could use a drink!  I also noticed a giant camp ground sign.  That looked promising until I approached the door and saw the “Campground full” notice.  Sigh!  All I needed was a small rectangle of grass ……. no harm in asking.  The camp ground was definitely a no-go.  It was fully taken up by forestry service people and there was a baseball tournament in Northway so there wasn’t much available.  The woman, Sharon said I could camp in the grassy area in front of the gas station, but rowdy baseball players would be raucousing all night.  In the end she offered me a patch of grass in her yard by the state trooper station. Nice!  My third angel!

On day 9 I landed back in Canada.

As I was riding along the road I kept coming upon scat of different varieties with some unnerving frequency.  I wondered to myself what manner of beast would be crapping on the road.  Wish I could identify it and know whether or not I should be worried about bears or wolves.  I did recognize the occasional horse dropping interspersed between the unidentifiable  varieties.  I’d heard a story somewhere along the way about a Mexican who was riding his horse from Alaska to Mexico.  I wondered how long it would take to catch up with him.

Further along the road was the Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.  Perhaps this refuge has something to do with the quantity of crap I was seeing on the road.  I stopped for a refueling break and went inside to see if they had something to drink.  No beverages but I did note that they had books on scat identification.  They also had telescopes sited on a huge bull moose eating grass in one of the lakes.

Back on the bike after refueling, I finally made it to the US Customs area.  Built on the crest of a hill of course.  As I was riding by, a Mexican on a motorbike stopped me to chat.  He was riding across all of the continents on a motorbike and had plans to repeat the trip on a pedal bike.  He really liked my ortlieb panniers and wanted to take a picture with me.  Ok?!

Canada Customs was another 27 km past the border and the no-man’s-land section in between was all bumpy chip seal.  Not an easy ride. It was slightly easier in the middle of the road where it had been worn down by cars.  And since I was encountering cars so infrequently, that’s exactly where I rode.  Somewhere in this section is where I also passed a convoy of about 100 north bound cyclists from Texas doing a Livestrong charity ride.

I finally arrived in Beaver Creek and decided to get a room and have a shower and a good night’s sleep.  It was an awful, smelly room with shared bathroom.  But 4 walls is what I needed right now.  I did wander down the road and found an awesome burger joint, Buckshot Betty’s.

I woke up at 6 am on day 10 to the sound of rain.  Sure glad to have those 4 walls and a roof over my head, hope it stops before riding time. Back to sleep. Zzzzzzzz ……

I’d planned a super easy day and after my requisite stop at the info centre found out that another Lakeview campground was a reasonable 80 km down the road.  More construction and more rides in pilot cars – short rides.  The next 40km was mostly loose gravel, packed gravel, a few paved sections and one more ride in a pilot car.  I battled a mean headwind as well.  But up to this point I had been quite lucky with the winds.  It meant hard riding up the hills and no coasting on the downs.  A mentally and physically draining day.

Dragonfly

My dragonfly friend

I pulled in to the campsite around 4 pm and I was literally the only person there.  I went for a walk just to make sure when another cyclist (northbound) pulled up behind me and asked where the water was.  There was no water, except for the creek running beside the campground.  The thing with most of these campgrounds is that the maps show things like fresh water wells and garbage bins and toilets but a lot of the time they don’t exist when you get here.  And riding down the road, especially in the 27 km of no mans land between the US Customs and Canada Customs there are numerous signs promising rest stops with food and water which, in reality, don’t exist. Do not count on the maps and information to be right.

The campground slowly filled up with people in giant RV’s over the next few hours.

Campsite by the river

Campsite by the river

 

On day 11 I was awakened by stoopid motorcycles at 6 am.  What assholes!  Is that kind of noise necessary?  Could still hear their bikes for miles after they left …. finally fell back asleep for a bit.  Woke for good at around 8 am.  I was trying for an earlyish start for a slow and easy 100km day.  It rained a bit over night so packed up a slightly wet tent.  I was ready to hit the road at 9 am.  The weather gods had other ideas though.  The downpour started at 8:59 and didn’t stop for 2 hours.  So much for my slow, easy day.  I hid out under the cooking shelter with Richard (the northbound cyclist) waiting for the weather to break.

Finally at 11 am we decided to take our chances as the rain had lightened up a bit.  We said our good-byes and good lucks and headed out in opposite directions.  The rain stopped completely after a few kms.

It would seem that this was headwind territory.  The uphills were gradual and not too tough but it’s really demoralizing to not get a break on the downhills.  Camped at Destruction Bay.  A bare bones ugly campsite, but the only one around.

Day 12 was another extreme headwind day.  Another day of battle.  I tried to take it slow and easy.  Kluane lake is a beautiful glacial green through my sunglasses.  It didn’t really tranlate in the photos.  The mountains were also amazing.  Tall and green but not many trees, with glaciers hanging in the tallest ones in behind the green ones.  Stopped to check out Soldier’s Summit, the site of the 1942 opening ceremony of the Alaska Highway.  After feeling like I was riding up-hill all day into the headwind the last 20 km down into Haines Junction was a dream come true.  I stayed at the Cozy Corners Hotel.

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It’s amazing how the wind at your back for even a short while can be a game changer.  Finally had a tailwind for a couple of hours on the morning of Day 13 where I cruised along easily at 27km/hr. I made significant headway before noon so didn’t even mind when the wind changed direction.  I’ve been seeing a lot of horse manure on the road and today I saw hoof prints in the dirt on the side of the road. I must be catching up with the Mexican.

I encountered a coyote today.  It popped up on the road right in front of me.  It didn’t know I was there until I gasped.  It looked at me for a few second and then turned back into the forest.  Glad I found Irene’s place and will be staying in the shed out back.  People have been asking about wildlife but apart from the muskox at Deadhorse, the Moose in the marsh and the coyote today, I haven’t seen much ……. and not one single bear.

Irene's Place

Irene’s Place

Shed behind Irene's

Shed behind Irene’s

 

On day 14 I finally arrived in Whitehorse.

Some photos of what I encountered on my last day ……..

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My overall impression: An exciting ride and adventure which was by no means lonely to do as a solo trip.  I met a number of people heading north along the way.  Mostly solo cyclists.

Read the continuing story here:

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part I – Conquering the Fear

Deahorse to Whitehorse Part II – The Sun is Shining

Deahorse to Whitehorse Part III – Atigun Pass

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part IV – People

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part III – Atigun Pass

Destination: Fairbanks

Mode of Transportation: Bicycle

Route Taken: Dalton Highway

Day 3

I had a much more restful sleep last night.  There was some comfort in hearing the trucks rumbling past frequently enough that I didn’t feel completely alone in the universe and infrequently enough that I could enjoy the solitude.

I broke camp at around 9 am local and headed down the hill.  At the bottom there was a road crew flag person fully outfitted in mosquito netting.  He advised me to take a ride in the pilot car for the next section as the road was a “real mess.”  Some hard core cyclists a few days ahead of me had insisted on riding the entire way and found it pretty rough.  I’m no super hero – I’ll take the ride!

Sixteen miles and some great conversation later I was dropped off at Galbraith Lake.  My goal for yesterday!  Doh!  If only I had ridden to the bottom of the hill the night before …..  I learned a bit about the road and how it is so hard to maintain on the melting permafrost.  It just slides down the hills leaving behind giant gaping holes or craters the size of cars give way as the ground melts and subsides.  It is apparent in the Arctic that global warming is real and accelerating.  As we were driving I noted that I most definitely would not have made it past this section had I chosen to ride.  After unloading my bike, taking on water and spraying down with the industrial strength bug poison offered to me by the road crew, I continued pedaling down the road.

I am struck by how everyone I have met so far has been amazingly friendly and helpful and giving and concerned for my well-being.  I have a feeling that nobody in trouble is left behind on the Dalton Highway.

Now for the major challenge of the day – Atigun Pass …..

The clouds were high in the sky and puffy and white with sunny breaks.  The weather was looking good for summit day 🙂  I had been closely monitoring the reports for the last week or so and there had been snow fall warnings for Atigun Pass 4 days ago. Word from the work crews was that it had snowed and stuck a couple of days ago but things were looking great today.  The terrain right up to Atigun pass was gradual and rolling,  not too difficult.  And then THE PASS!  My left knee had been giving me some grief this trip but now the pain was getting intense.  So pedaling a 100 lb bike up what I estimated to be a 6 – 7% grade (based on riding up Cypress Ski Hill Road back home) with one functional leg for approximately 3km was a serious mental challenge.  I took a lot of breaks to admire the view back down the valley and am not ashamed to admit that I walked for a ways.  I finally made it to the top!  Anticlimactic much?!  There was no sign telling me I had arrived.  No sign reading “Atigun pass, elev. 4800 ft.  highest highway pass in Alaska.”  So I uneventfully rolled over the top and started the steep descent.  I took as many breaks on the way down as I had on the way up.  The road was rough and my brakes needed to cool down frequently.  Also my hands were cramping from gripping so hard.  I descended into a beautiful green valley bottom where the grade and road surface were perfect for letting go of the brakes and cruising along for a while.

The pipeline runs close to the road as I approached the Brooks Range

Approaching the Brooks Range

Approaching Atigun Pass with the pipeline running along side the road

Approaching Atigun Pass

Atigun Pass where the grade steepens

Atigun Pass – The grade steepens. You can barely make out the switchback at the base of the mountain on the left where the road turns up towards the right under the rocky part of the mountain straight ahead.

Looking back down the valley from Atigun Pass

Looking back down the valley from Atigun Pass

Trucks passing me on the way up Atigun Pass

Atigun Pass

Me on the downslope after cresting Atigun Pass

Me on the downslope after cresting Atigun Pass. Happy to be going down.

Green, lush looking valley on the south side of Atigun Pass

Green, lush looking valley on the south side of Atigun Pass

It was dreamy riding for quite a long time with the occasional rough patch.  I eventually came upon another serious downhill I later found out was called “The Shelf.”  Brake cooling, finger relaxing, and vista gazing stops were required.  I landed in another  green valley bottom and the first trees I had seen since leaving Vancouver.  I made it through Atigun pass and landed in sweet paradise!  The sun was shining, the mountains were magnificent, it was finally warm enough for shorts and the mozzies had all but disappeared ………… well, until dusk anyway.

The first trees I have seen since leaving Vancouver

The first trees I have seen since leaving Vancouver

I continued down the gradual rolling terrain that was more down than up, thinking I will for sure have no problem reaching my goal for today.  I was aiming for Marion Creek campground at mile post 179.  Another paved section started at around mile post 209.  Yes!  Smooth sailing for a while ………. wait a minute, what is wrong with my bike?  Why is it wobbling so much?  After a quick inspection I found 2 serious looking bulges in the sidewall of my back tire.  Who knows how long it had been like that so I kept going along the smooth road.  A half mile later it blew up.  Dammit!  I changed the tube and reset the tire hoping that would help.  It didn’t, the bulges remained.  I continued on for a ways until it felt like my second tube was going to blow.  Conveniently I made it to a rest stop at mile post 204.

Blown sidewall on bike tire

Blown tire

My grand total on the Dalton highway was 210 miles (340 km).

How disappointing …….. of all things to fail me, tires were just about the only thing I didn’t have spares for.  I had brakes, brake cables, shifter cables, extra chain links, tubes and screws for my racks but no extra tires.  After all, my Continental touring tires were only 2 weeks old and every other pair I’ve ever had were bomb proof.

Now what to do?

The end of my Dalton Highway ride

The end of my Dalton Highway ride

The end of my Dalton Highway ride

The end of my Dalton Highway ride

Without really thinking much about it I stuck out my thumb for the next vehicle that came by (20 min later).  They stopped but didn’t have enough room for me, my gear and bike so I stayed put.  I checked the time and it was about 9 pm which I realized that would put me in Fairbanks at a very inconvenient hour for finding a place to stay.

New plan!  Set up camp and start hitching in the morning.  At least I’m in a convenient place to pull over, with a pit toilet and bear proof garbage bins.  I noticed some handles on the back of the bin and opened it.  Hmm …….. this could be a good place to store my food bag.

I was just getting ready to bunk down when a big tanker truck pulled into the stop …….

Read the continuing story here:

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part I – Conquering the Fear

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part II – The Sun is Shining

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part IV – People

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part V – the Last Leg

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part II – The Sun is Shining

Destination: Fairbanks

Mode of Transportation: Bicycle

Route Taken: Dalton Highway

Day 2

I survived the night!  I wasn’t eaten by a bear, or a wolf or a raven ……. have I mention the ravens are huge up here? …… and my food cache was untouched by the tundra scavengers ……..again, have I mention the ravens are huge up here?

At some point I finally warmed up and was actually quite cozy when I awoke although I’m not really sure how much real sleep I got.  My face felt like a giant puff ball and my eyes were swollen almost shut.

I packed up camp and set out into the misty morning.  It was pretty easy going for a while as the road was packed down by the trucks and was almost as smooth as an asphalt paved road.  Outside of the wheel tracks though it was definitely not bicycle tire friendly.  A tip to remember is that this road was built to transport supplies to the work camps along it and to Prudhoe Bay so the haul trucks have the right of way.  They do most of their hauling in the winter months when the road becomes solid ice and much easier for transport.  During the summer months they are still hauling but I think I only encountered one every 30 to 45 minutes.  It wasn’t a big deal to move over to the side of the road give a wave and let them pass before continuing on.  And a vast majority of them slowed down as they passed in an attempt not to fling rocks and dust in my direction.  They slow down when passing each other as well.  Nobody wants a cracked or broken window  hundreds of miles away from an auto body shop.  Courtesy goes a long way on the haul road.

I learned quite a bit about the Dalton highway and the people that work on it as my adventure took a detour from the plan on day 3 …….

Muddy dalton highway stretching off into the misty distance

Heading out into the mist …….

Interesting tundra flora

Interesting tundra flora

After riding for a couple of hours the sky cleared and the sun came out.  I made it to Last Chance Wayside with a pit toilet and over-flowing bear proof garbage bins …. its probably a good thing I didn’t make it this far yesterday.  I stopped for a lunch break and as I was finishing up my feast of PB&J wraps a van pulled into the rest stop.  I chatted with the driver for a bit, he was surprised to see a solo female cyclist out on the haul road.  By this time I was starting to feel much more comfortable with my new reality and enjoying being out on the open road.  He offered me some bottled water before continuing on his way.  Never pass up a water opportunity.  Up to this point I had only passed small ponds with standing water looking more like mosquito incubators than re-hydration opportunities.

After lunch, It was slow going again but there were 2 long paved sections I tried to take advantage of.  At about the 90km mark (for the trip) the mosquitoes came out in full force.  It seems that when the sun comes out and the tundra warms up a bit the mozzies come “Alive.”  They didn’t bother me too much for the first 3 hrs but they were relentlessly dive bombing my head, buzzing my ears, and trying to get up my nose, in my mouth and in my ears.  It makes breathing a bit of a challenge.  I sprayed down with bug spray which worked well for about 20 minutes until I sweated it off again.

Note: Definitely need a no-see-um head net for this trip.  I put a half-hearted effort into finding a head net before I left for the trip.  Checked the local MEC store but no luck so didn’t pursue it further.

Despite the mozzies, I really enjoyed the landscape.  Green rolling hills with a wall of snowy peaks rising out of them.  Beautiful!  The scene is big  and wide open and there is no way I could capture the vastness in my tiny camera lens.   But I made an attempt anyway …….

Blue Bird Day on the Dalton Highway

Blue Bird Day on the Dalton Highway

The pipeline

The pipeline

Snow Capped Peaks of the Brooks Range from the Dalton Highway

The Brooks Range from the Dalton Highway

Near the end of my day I came upon a caribou with the most massive rack I have ever seen.  By this time I had packed my camera away and was focused more on finding a good camping pullout than Arctic wildlife.  The caribou was relieving itself at the side of the road.  I stopped and stared.  It stared right back at me and continued to relieve itself.  I went for my camera but it wouldn’t come loose.  The caribou walked up on the road, stopped and posed perfectly for me – stoopid camera not coming loose – it walked across the road and looked at me again – poser – stoopid camera – and then wandered off onto the tundra – finally my camera came loose.

Caribou on the tundra

Caribou wandering away from me after posing so perfectly on the road just in front of me

I rode on a little farther feeling more exhausted than ever.  Crested a hill around mile post 289 and looked over the top to see another fairly steep down hill followed by another uphill.  There was no way I had another hill in me.  Construction on the other side meant loose gravel anyway and generally hard riding so I set up camp at the top of the hill.  It was super windy – a blessing as the mozzies left me alone.  The goal for the day was Galbraith Lake at milepost 274 but I just didn’t have it in me.

Camping on the hilltop provided spectacular and unobstructed views of the tundra and sky as the sun sank low on the horizon.  Again, the camera just didn’t do it justice!

Day 2 camp set up on pipeline access road

Day 2 camp set up on pipeline access road

The sun dipped low behind the hill in the back ground creating this sunset effect.  It's 2 am.

The sun dipped low behind the hill in the back ground creating this sunset effect – it’s 2 am.

Pink mountain scene behind the tent at 2 am.

Pink mountain scene behind the tent at 2 am.

2am sunset/sunrise

2am sunset/sunrise

Stay tuned for the continuing mission to conquer the Dalton Highway ……………

Read the continuing story here:

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part I – Conquering the Fear

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part III – Atigun Pass

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part IV – People

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part V – The Last Leg 

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part I – Conquering the Fear

Destination: Fairbanks

Mode of Transportation: Bicycle

Route Taken: Dalton Highway

My latest adventure began on July 26 2014 in Deadhorse Alaska.  The goal was to ride the Dalton Highway from Deadhorse to Fairbanks, Alaska and then continue on to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory along the Alaska Highway.  I had initially planned to do this trip with a friend but due to a  scheduling conflict it morphed into a solo venture.  I had never really questioned whether I could do the trip physically and the reality that it was an unpaved haul road for big rigs was not lost on me.

The psychology of doing a trip like this solo was daunting though.  But why?  I’m not sure if the fear was emanating from me, or if it was projected on me by others.  My family, friends, the oil field workers at the airport, people I met along the highway?  Would they have expressed as much concern for my safety if I had been a man doing this trip solo?  It is true, the first full 24 hours were a bit rough as I transitioned from my familiar busy city life to remote solo cyclist.

Day 1

I was feeling fine for the flights up to Deadhorse.  I had some anxiety over my bike having to be transferred between 3 planes which increased slightly when I saw them taping the box back together in Anchorage before loading on the final flight to Deadhorse.  My anxiety increased further upon disembarking the plane and realizing I was the only girl getting off and everyone else was being greeted by someone who would bring them to their respective work camps.  While waiting for our luggage, a few of them were putting the fear of god into me about bears.  I put my bike together and questioned over and over again “What the hell am I doing here?”  All the while seriously considering buying a plane ticket home immediately.

After my bike was assembled, the first order of business was acquiring bear spray.  I found the Deadhorse store after navigating some extremely muddy streets and miserable, misty weather, all the while considering ordering up a hotel room and buying that plane ticket back home.  It was 6 pm local time when I finally hit the haul road with my 100 lb fully loaded bike.  Food weighs a lot!!  I had to transport it from Vancouver as there is no real grocery outlet in Deadhorse.  Fresh food is delivered directly to the camps where the oil field workers have all meals prepared for them.

Fully loaded touring bike outside Deadhorse hardware store

The requisite photo of my fully loaded bike outside the Deadhorse hardware store after picking up bear spray (a.k.a. my super powers).

I made it all the way to the Deadhorse city limits when I encountered a Swedish cyclist trying to hitch a ride back to Fairbanks.  He had ridden north from San Francisco.  He gave me some tips, affirmed that the Arctic Ocean tour wasn’t worth it, we said our “good lucks” and I headed out into the mist.  Deadhorse is about 10 miles from the ocean which is inaccessible except by tour bus as civilians must be escorted through the oil fields.  I had considered taking the Arctic Ocean tour to say I had put my foot in the ocean but would have had to wait another day until the next tour so decided to ride on instead.

Deadhorse city limits

Deadhorse city limits

Muskox by the river

Muskox

I made it another 100 m down the road and saw a heard of muskox down by the river.  Cool!  It was exceedingly slow going on the variable road.  Sometimes it was hard, sometimes bumpy, sometimes soft and muddy ……. still questioning my sanity.

Bear Spray a.k.a My super powers

My Super Powers

My goal was Last Chance Wayside at mile post 354, approximately 96 km from Deadhorse (the mile markers count down from Deadhorse which is marker 414).  This would have been no problem at home on smoothly paved roads.  I gave up from exhaustion at 11 pm (local) at mile post 373.  The sun was expected to set on July 29th so still plenty of light.  I set up camp on a pipeline access road and nearly froze to death in the wind.  There is no protection from the elements on the tundra.  Not sure if I got much sleep.  Had nightmares that made me want to turn back, heard lots of noises (mostly the tent flapping in the wind), thought the ravens were eating through my food pannier.  I had the bear spray at my side the entire time like it was the holder of my super powers.  Without it I would lose all powers and courage to move forward.

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

View from tent my first night.  The sun as it swung low on the horizon at 2am.

The view from my tent the first night as the sun swung low on the horizon (at 2am).

A close up view of the muddy Dalton Highway

The muddy road ahead

One of the millions of ponds I passed on the tundra

One of the millions of ponds I passed on the tundra

Stay tuned for the continuing adventure …………….

Read the continuing story here:

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part II – The Sun is Shining

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part III – Atigun Pass

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part IV – People

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part V – The Last Leg

Atraxia Part IV – Snorkeling San Blas

Our next stop was Cayos Chichime where we anchored over night. We were immediately approached by another 3 Kuna men in a dugout canoe filled with live lobsters.  We bought 4 lobsters for the exorbitant price of $20 and had a feast on the deck. Yum!!!

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Cayos Chichime

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Bucket of Lobsters

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Lobster feast on deck

After the lobster feast we got down to the business of snorkeling.  I’ve been looking forward to this since I joined Atraxia in Huatulco, Mexico.  No tropical vacation is complete for me without a day observing life under the sea.  We jumped off the boat and snorkeled around the hull.

At this point Captain Ron decided I had to prove my swimming skills, as everyone who joins the boat does, and do a full lap around the hull.  I raised my eyebrow and chuckled to myself and then did as he asked …. I didn’t point out that I probably wouldn’t have jumped, of my own free will, into the Pacific Ocean 100 nautical miles off shore if I didn’t know how to swim (see post Atraxia I – The Open Ocean).

The current was a bit strong and the water was a bit murky as we were anchored in a channel between two islands.  The low angle of evening light also didn’t help with the visibility.  There were some interesting things to see out there nonetheless.  I could definitely see great potential for this area.

The next morning we moved on to another island in the Chichime group at 9°33.763N, 078°51.787W.  We jumped off the boat again and swam along a sandbar to the island checking out the bottom which was mostly eel grass, sea stars and urchins …… very beautiful and clear with the sun at just the right aspect.  Brian swam out to where the waves were crashing and stood up on a sand bar to wave me over.  I tried to find my way out but every way seemed to be blocked by really shallow eel grass on the sandbar.  How did he get out there?!?!?!  Finally I decided to go for it and had the creepy eel grass brushing my belly as I swam by.  When I finally got out there it was an amazing reef with some exciting corals.  Brain corals (possibly the inspiration for the mola patterns), staghorn corals, pipe organ corals, sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers and many different types of fish.  We decided to swim back to the boat along the edge of the reef and as we swam, it just got better and better. More diverse coral shapes and colourful fish. The best snorkelling was about 30 feet from the starboard side of the boat. Surprise!  I wish we had more time there ………..

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Brain coral – ?inspiration for mola patterns?

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We moved on from there to Cayo Hollandes where we anchored for the night in another channel between two small islands  9°35.899N, 078°46.528W.  We went snorkeling again, not much to see so we swam ashore and circumnavigated the island on foot ….. all 2 km of it. Encountered the most gigantic conch shells I have ever seen.  They are much heavier than you’d think.

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The next day we headed deeper into the Hollandes narrowly avoiding a disastrous landing on a submerged rock as we tried to approach a small sandy cay with potentially awesome snorkeling.  Having been to the Great Barrier Reef, I can attest to the potential awesomeness of snorkeling near a sand cay surrounded by boat sinking reefs.  Captain Ron decided to abort the mission due to strong winds and current making navigation sketchy so we sailed on to Cayos limon.

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Brian trying to direct us through the reef

After arriving at Cayos Limon, Brian went exploratory snorkeling of Elefante Island while the rest of the group went to Elephante Island in search of a good internet connection. I stayed aboard for a chill session.  Turns out the snorkeling around Elefante Island is not that great but somehow Brian convinced me to go snorkeling on the far side of the other island in the Limon group.  It was spooky at first as the water was murky in the lagoon but when we finally got around the corner to the exposed side of the island and out of the eel grass the water cleared and the coral appeared.  We had to swim out to where the waves were crashing to find the good corals.  A little scary to realize that the good corals are out in the danger zone where the waves are crashing.

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The Kuna will make their home anywhere ……….

An observation I cannot pass on commenting on is the amount of garbage that is accumulating on the shores of the San Blas Islands.  It is disheartening to know how much effort I put into finding places to recycle or reuse everything right down to my old ski boots.  I try to make an effort to asses whether or not I even need an item before I buy it with the knowledge that it will someday end up in a landfill.  My toaster and kettle are someone else’s cast offs and work perfectly fine.  I do not need a shiny new iphone every year.  This is a small example of my attempts at reducing my impact and I am by no means perfect in this struggle.  It is hard not to succumb to the pressures of a disposable culture.  But I see the flotsam in oceans (Pacific and Caribbean) and the shores of the San Blas Islands and I wonder if there is any hope for the future of places like this.  Who is going to clean this up?  What are you doing?

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My time is up and we are now heading back to Shelter Bay.  I will leave Atraxia in Shelter Bay, take a cab back to Panama City and head back to work in Vancouver.  I’m sad to leave this adventure behind ………. hopefully it won’t be long until another one presents itself.

Johanna and Ron

Thank you Captain Ron and First Mate Johanna and Atraxia for this unique experience!

Read the continuing story here:

Atraxia  Part I – The Open Ocean

Atraxia Part II – The Panama Canal

Atraxia Part III – San Blas Island Culture

Atraxia Part III – San Blas Island Culture

From the Panama Canal we sailed through the night towards the San Blas Islands.  After a couple of weeks of relief from the sea sickness it returned with a vengeance in the Caribbean.  The water was much more turbulent than it had been on the Pacific side.  My first watch was at midnight and I was in no condition for it so Brian took it thankfully.  I woke up about 45 minutes later still feeling awful and managed to stay focused for about  an hour and a half.  It was the best I could do.

Later in the morning we arrived in San Blas home of the Kuna Indians.  Captain Ron had to clear us in again.  Apparently San Blas considers themselves a separate region from Panama.  While waiting on board Atraxia for his return, we were approached by several Kuna men in dugout canoes asking if we wanted diesel and to take our trash, for a fee.  Not sure where they were intending on taking the trash as it is doubtful there is an actual sanitary garbage site in the area.  None of the islands are more than a 10 minute walk across and are barely above sea level.  We chose to hold on to our trash for now.

The San Blas islands don’t seem to be more than about 1 meter above sea level and some near the main village of Porvenir appear to be built up with berms and are possibly slightly below sea level.  Many of the structures are built out over the water on stilts including the outhouses which are reminiscent of the opening scenes of the movie Slumdog Millionaire.  The Kuna people live off the grid for the most part, with no running water or electricity or sewage treatment.  Touring the village it was hard not to notice the solar panels and bright red Claro Satellite dishes on the palm thatch roofs.  It was also apparent that the roofs are the fresh water catchment areas with troughs leading to big plastic collection barrels.

A major source of income for the families are the needlework craft made by the women called mola.  The Kuna women typically dress in traditional brightly coloured wrap skirts and blouses with a patterned mola panel on the front and a second on the back.  The outfit is finished with a colourful headscarf and bead bands covering their lower legs from ankle to knee and forearms from wrist to elbow.  They shy away from the camera and move into the shadows unless, of course, you offer money for a good photograph.  Another source of income is coconuts which the men are primarily responsible for harvesting and selling.

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Shopping for molas

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Mola

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My newly acquired tortuga mola! :)

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Outhouses and dugout canoe

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Hmmmmmm ………. is this where the trash ends up?

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After a brief introduction to the Kuna culture, we are ready to board Atraxia and again set sail for some lesser populated San Blas Islands.  After all, there are almost 380 islands in the archipelago and according to wikipedia only 49 of them are populated.  Looking forward to some great snorkeling ………..

Read the continuing story here:

Atraxia  Part I – The Open Ocean

Atraxia Part II – The Panama Canal

Atraxia Part IV – Snorkeling San Blas

Atraxia Part I – The Open Ocean

Back in October if someone had asked me, “Where do you think you will be a month from now,” I never would have answered “On a sail boat in the middle of the Pacific ocean”. Well, it’s mid November and I’m on a 50ft sail boat called Atraxia sailing from Huatulco, Mexico through the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean.  I’m not a sailor and when I joined this boat two weeks ago, I knew almost nothing about sailing so how did I get here? On the whim of a nutty friend, Brian who responded to a blog written by Atraxia’s owners looking for crew to help get the boat from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to the Caribbean. “It sounded like a cool thing to do,” he said. So here I am, way out of my element.

Atraxia is a 50ft cutter rigged sailboat owned by Captain Ron (Israel) and First Mate Johanna (Sweden), two very experienced worldly sailors. The crew members include Johan (Sweden) who has quite a bit of sailing experience around the Stockholm archipelago, Brian (Canada) who has taken a couple of sailing courses in the last couple of years, and me (Canada), who has been on a boat once or twice in the past. So almost two weeks later I now know a little bit about raising and lowering jibs and genoas and main sails. I’ve been trusted to take the helm and do my two hour night watches. I’m getting pretty good at reading wind, swell, weather conditions and battening down the hatches. Captain Ron is a very patient teacher and an extremely accomplished sailor. As somebody in the group said at one point “He probably doesn’t need crew to get this boat to its destination. He just wants people around to keep a weather eye on the horizon so he can get some sleep, arrrr!”  Did I mention everyone seems to have seen Pirates of the Caribbean a few too many times ….

It’s been about 7 days since I’ve seen land and 12 days since I set foot on land. We’re taking the offshore route from mexico straight down to Panama and there is a lot of free time between raising and lowering sails for sitting back and watching the world go by. There really is no choice but to unwind and forget about city life. The days are usually sunny and hot with a 0.5 to 1 meter swell and not much wind. The trend is toward  motoring with the sails up on most days with the big excitement being spotting marine life. Dolphins quite frequently swim with us playing in front of the bow. Manta rays jump out of the water on occasion and do somersaults before disappearing into the water again.  Turtles, swimming crabs 60 nautical miles off shore and sea snakes seem to appear in clusters on the surface.  A real highlight was the whale that breached on one side of the boat, swam underneath and then breached again on the other side.  On one calm, windless, waveless day we dropped the sails, turned off the motor and jumped in the water. That was an experience! Swimming 100 nautical miles off shore in a seemingly bottomless ocean. Shortly after we re-boarded the boat, the wind picked up and we were under sail again.  Perfect timing for a dip in the ocean!

I have seen some of the most amazing sunsets out here and one of the most fascinating phenomenon happens at night.  Looking out at the turbulence created by the boat moving through the water we can see blue sparks in the dark water caused by bioluminescent plankton, I think.  On one occasion the dolphins swam along with us at night and the turbulence created by them moving through the water caused the plankton to sparkle like a comet trail from their dorsal fin past the end of their tails.

Sunset Pacific Ocean Offshore

Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

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Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

Sunset Pacific Ocean Offshore

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

Sunset Pacific Ocean Offshore

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

The most dramatic events also seem to happen at night.  Typically on my evening watch we are sailing along on a beautiful, warm starry night. Being so far from land there is no light pollution from cities making conditions ideal for stargazing with the help of Google Sky map. Suddenly the wind picks up and within minutes we are in the middle of a lightning storm. No warning!

My one major issue is sea sickness. Everyone has suggestions on what I can do but really what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. I’m learning to manage it though, trying to recognize triggers like spending too much time below deck or not eating and drinking enough. At first I was feeling pretty awful all the time but now I seem to be fine for most of the day with minor episodes around dinner time. It makes me feel pretty useless when it comes to cooking and cleaning duties below deck but hopefully I can make up for it with  on deck duties. I’m not sure if the sickness will ever go away completely.

Despite the sea sickness, this is a great experience and an exciting new adventure.  I hope to learn a lot more along the way and see many more creatures of the deep blue sea.

Stay tuned …….

Read the continuing story here:

Atraxia  Part II – The Panama Canal

Atraxia Part III – San Blas Island Culture

Atraxia Part IV – Snorkeling San Blas

Challenging Time of Year

Destination: Up the Creek Backpackers, Roberts Creek

Mode of Transportation: Bicycle

Route Taken: Vancouver to Roberts Creek

It is a challenging time of year in Vancouver. The weather is such a major player in deciding what to do with time off and waning light makes self propelled travel a bit sketchy in the evenings. So, the decision was made to ride to Up the Creek Hostel in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast. Rural enough to satisfy the need to get out of the city for a couple of days and still close enough for an after work bike ride.

It was a great evening for riding, warmish (for October) and dryish (only a light sprinkle of rain). We arrived at Horseshoe Bay two minutes after tickets stopped selling but thankfully the kind ticket lady sold us a couple anyway. Note to self: leave 5 min earlier next time. After the requisite stop in Gibsons to fill our panniers with wine we arrived at Up the Creek Hostel and were greeted by our host Martin and a cozy fire. A very welcoming site on a cold October night.

Up the Creek is a very bike friendly hostel and Martin is a well seasoned cyclist himself, with lots of stories to tell.

Next day was an exploratory mission of Roberts Creek also known as the Gumboot Capital of the World …… A short mission in this one stop sign town.  After our initial success in finding  amazing cinnamon buns at the Gumboot Café we wandered on down to the beach and happened upon the very colourful Roberts Creek Community Mandala.

The afternoon was spent trekking through the waterfall and fungi filled Cliff Gilker park.

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The ride home was a dream. Unseasonably warm and since the ride over was in the dark we took our time and really enjoyed the scenery.

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