Thursday, September 6, 2012

The State of Cycling in Alaska

As I mentioned in my last, disjointed post (and, if you read that, why are you reading this?), RandoGirl and I took an Alaska cruise last week. We sailed from Seattle, stopping at the Tracy Arms fjord, Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, and Victoria. Victoria is in British Columbia, which is a province of Canada, which is a country to the north of the United States of America, in which Tennessee and Florida are currently located until the inhabitants decide that they will not pay for anyone else's health care and start lobbing "Sorry, your medical insurance claim has been rejected for no good reason" letters at Fort Sumter, turning Charleston harbor into a soggy mess so that the Ashley and Cooper Rivers back up and flood the world. At which point Kevin Costner will be the only man-fish to survive, and he will laugh and laugh and laugh as he sails off into the sunset.

But I digress.

This being a cruise, and the airlines being the selfish butt-heads that they have been forced to become by paying egregious prices for their forlorn employees' healthcare, we did not bring bicycles. We managed to take some spin classes while on the ship -- an activity that I've decided is eerily similar to a form of self-abuse that I frequented in my teens, but rather than Mom ruining things by yelling at me to come downstairs for dinner I had a stringy Serb named Olecks shouting at me to keep my shoulders down, chin up, spin faster, turn up the resistance, and "smile ... smile ... DA!"

Nonetheless, irregardless, and ionothermically, between having fun doing mostly non-cycling things and enduring bouts of interval interruptus with Olecks, I did manage to observe the state of bicycling in Alaska. To be honest, I don't think that I could avoid such observation unless I was somewhere that had absolutely no bicycles (maybe Antarctica?) since I just love looking at bikes.

I really didn't expect to see as many bicycles as I did, since the part of the world in which we were cruising is quite remote and I did not think the roads would be much fun to ride on other than from June through August. As so frequently happens, however, I was wrong. This turns out to be because we were in coastal towns (duh), which get more rain than snow, and most of the bicycles that we saw are used just to get around town. With gas over $6/gallon, this kind of cycling has more of an economic foundation than a fitness one ... but whatever gets people out of cars and onto a bike works for me.

Since it was still the "salad days" of cycling in Alaska (meaning that they would put a sprig of dill on your salmon steak), I also saw a few tourists. Since we were taking buses to tourist spots like glaciers, many of them looked as if they had stashed the big bags at the hotel and ridden their bikes there. Since gas is, as I said, over $6/gallon, there were usually not too many cars out there, which seemed as if it would make for rather comfortable distance riding.

As to the bikes themselves, they tended to be mountain bikes or distance cruisers. I saw a lot of bikes from REI, a few rusty Mongooses (Mongeese?), and lots of Surly Long Haul Truckers. The serious bikes all had fenders -- either full or of the little plastic appendage "keep the spray off my butt" variety -- and wider tires. Knobbies were rare, but probably came out when things turned more icy. There were a few filthy chains, but not that many really rusty ones. One of the bikes had a small tupperware box mounted on the handlebars with a screw. At first I thought was a poor man's iPhone case, but upon reflection I decided that it was just a smart man's iPhone case.

RandoGirl and I actually did get on real bicycles for an hour or so. In Skagway, we took an old train up the valley, following the route used by the prospectors heading to the Yukon during the Alaskan gold rush. The scenery going up was incredible, and we even saw a caribou in a field. He was drinking coffee, of course, and he promptly mooned us, yelled "Starbucks sucks!" and headed off into the underbrush with the remnants of his fat-free banana walnut cake leaving a crumbly trail.

At the top of the mountain, after crossing into British Columbia (which is part of Canada, which is ... well, you know), we got into a van and back-tracked a few miles to the top of the mountain, where we were given bicycles. You see, they couldn't give us the bikes and expect us to actually pedal them up any hill, since that is not the level of pampering that people on cruise ships demand. All hardships beyond the periodic suffering of standing in line for another pizza are forbidden -- with the exception of that painful cash extraction that you suffer at the beginning, end, and during most shore excursions.

Once given our clunky hybrids (which, frankly, had enough gears so that you could climb just about anything out that way), we rode the 15 miles back to town. It was almost all downhill, and we probably never hit 20 mph ... although, in Canada, I think we were allowed to go 30 kph. With regular stops to admire the incredible views, it was definitely the easiest bicycle ride that I have ever been on.

At one point, heading down the mountain, we saw a bicycle tourist coming up. He was fully loaded with panniers and camping gear, and had probably been climbing for almost 10 miles by then. Smiling, he waved and called out "hello" as we coasted wobbly past, and we all hollered "hey" in return. Our guide -- a young man named Ryan who I found out has already biked across the US once and plans to work in Nashville during the winter as a bike messenger or mechanic -- told me later that the tourist was probably nearing the end of his trip. The roads up there would only be passable for a few more weeks, and there aren't any good routes south from that point.

As he was telling me this, Ryan and I kept looking up the mountain that we had just come down, thinking about the long climb up. I'm pretty sure that we were also thinking of the solitude and beauty to be found up there, and the peace of setting up your tent by one of the many alpine lakes. It would be a little scary, sure, with bears and moose and angry caffeine-addled caribou roaming around, and the next day would probably bring another long climb and tough miles over ice-cracked roads. I would be riding in a seaplane over another gorgeous fjord, and Ryan had two cruise ships coming in with folks to wanting to coast bikes down a mountain. Ryan and I smiled at each other and got back on our bikes, trying to forget about the lone guy working his bike and its 100 pounds of gear up that hill.

Lucky bastard.

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