June 13. 2012
Kluane Lake, YT – Haines, AK: 239 miles
Ah, yes, an evening without rain! Regardless of the lack of precipitation, I was still reluctant to leave the cozy warmth of my double sleeping bag protecting me from the bitter cold and wind outside. I don’t know what the temperature was, but it was cold enough to wake me every hour past 3:00am with a chilly shiver.
Hearing the water lapping against the edge of the lake, while serene in sound, only reminded me of its icy temperature making me that much colder. It was kind of like when the sound of water makes you have to pee, only this time, it was making me cold.
I finally decided if I wasn’t going to get any sleep, I may as well get to Haines and enjoy the day there. I braved exposure to the elements outside my modest abode and pulled out my alcohol stove suffering bare hands to fumble a frozen lighter. While waiting for my water to boil, I reminded myself to change the fuse on the bike so I would at least have warm hands in this freezing weather.
I ate my hot oatmeal fast, enjoying the temporary warmth from the inside. Unable to sit still for a moment, I packed the bike swiftly and was on the road by 6:00am.
Kluane Lake is the largest lake in Yukon Territory covering 154 square miles between the Ruby Ranges on the east and the Kluane Ranges on the west. The Alaskan Highway follows the perimeter of the lake, winding along its edge parallel to the continuous chain of magnificent mountains averaging 8,000 feet.
I sensed I had the road to myself and was humbled by how small I felt in a land so grand.
After thirty miles I came to Bear Creek summit, the highest point of the Alaskan Highway, at just 3,294 feet. Clouds covered the sky but the sun pierced through to one high peak like a halo. I stopped to stare in awe at the radiance and flurries floated from the sky.
It was a cold ride through the last bit of Yukon I would see, but it was dry and gorgeous. At Haines Junction, I only stopped for gas before turning off the Alaskan Highway towards Haines. I savored the scenery enjoying every moment I had left.
In 60 miles I said goodbye to Yukon, the land that truly was and felt “larger than life”, and entered back into beautiful British Columbia, “the best place on earth.”
I followed the broad alpine valley of black spruce until the road climbed up to Chilkat Pass at 3,510 feet, the highest point of the Haines highway above timberline. As the road became steeper and twisted its way up the mountain, the tundra grew thinner, the air became colder, the fog became denser, the snow became deeper and I felt an arctic wind sway me at times.
I refueled with the RotoPax, unnerved by the cold wind and snow, before descending the mountain to the U.S. border of Alaska.
I crossed the border with another friendly encounter. The officer was kind and impressed to hear my story. I was only there a few minutes and continued for the last 40 miles I would ride on Alaskan terrain.
Repressing sadness, I softened my mind to be in the moment and always remember this miraculous journey I was fortunate and thankful to experience.
Just 20 miles from Haines, I stopped at Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. I walked along the Chilkat River hoping to catch a glimpse of a massive raptor and within moments saw one fly directly over my head. I sighed and thought of Dan.
At 9:00am I rolled into the quaint settlement of Haines, “the adventure capital of Alaska.” Located at Portage Cove on the Lynn Canal of Chilkoot Inlet, it remains the home of two Tlingit tribes, the Chilkat and Chilkoot Indians, with a meager population of just 1,700.
Originally, the Indian name for Haines was Dei-Shu, meaning “end of trail.” It was where they would trade with Russian and American ships and transport canoes from the river to the canal. For me, I felt it too was the end of my trail, the end of my trail in Alaska.
I wandered up and down the streets of the tiny town wondering what to do for the day. I decided I better find the hostel first and stopped at the information center for directions.
The lady there showed me on the map that it was a few miles outside of town past Chilkat State Park. I headed down Mud Bay Road and passed it at first. After turning around, I saw the tiny sign, “Haines Hostel,” and a group of little green cabins situated in a half-circle off the road.
When I pulled in a nice man greeted me and informed me although it was only $12/night, they only took cash. I asked if it would be alright to pay later since I had no cash on me. He didn’t have a problem with it so I settled into my unoccupied bunkhouse and took a tour of the hostel grounds.
There were six or seven cabins, each with four bunks. There was a shower house with hot water (so he said) and flushing toilets, one for men and one for women. There was a kitchen cabin with a stove, sink, refrigerator and any cooking utensil one would need for a nice meal, plus complimentary hot chocolate.
I suddenly felt excited I had the entire day to explore. My ferry to Prince Rupert didn’t leave until tomorrow morning and with no more riding to do, I was eager to use my legs and get out for a hike around town and hopefully find a trail somewhere.
I enjoyed a light ride on the gearless bike back into town and stopped again at the information center. I asked about where the bank was and where I could find a good coffee shop, hopefully with WiFi so I could check in with family back home.
I left the Radian parked and risked leaving my helmet and armored gear. Since it was parked right in front of the information center, I felt okay with it. But throughout the day, paranoia would kick in and I’d walk in a direction where I could catch a glimpse of the bike from far away.
After getting some cash I dove into a little coffee shop for a fresh scone and a cup of espresso while I updated Facebook and family with my whereabouts.
The main tourist attractions in Haines are the Sheldon Museum and Hammer Museum. I walked by, but decided to refrain from spending cash to walk through a door. Instead I bounced between art galleries and talked with local artisans about their work and learned the symbolism behind the tribal images often seen in native Alaskan art.
One woman explained to me how to look at the animals often carved on totem poles and seen in prints. Some were so abstract they were hard to distinguish. She showed me how every circle was figurative of a joint or body cavity. There was a circle for not just the eye and abdomen, but for the wrist, tail, fluke, jaw, and ankle.
She also informed me how the Tlingit society is divided into two moieties (descent groups), the Raven and the Eagle. These are also divided into clans which are then subdivided into house groups. The house groups would display their heraldic crests on totem poles and canoes.
I struggled to see the difference between the two birds but then she pointed out the Eagle always had a curved beak, sometimes yellow, and large talons unlike the Raven with a longer thin beak and smaller talons. One must always marry the other she explained. A Raven could never marry a Raven and an Eagle could never marry an Eagle.
There were many stories about the Raven and the Eagle passed down generation after generation. Telling and remembering these stories was a big part of their culture and society illustrated in their art. I felt Haines ought to be the art capital of Alaska.
I walked over to the Chilkat Art Center. It is a beautiful old building next to Fort Seward that was previously a hospital for the fort. Now it has been converted into a center full of several artisans and their working galleries. I had the opportunity to walk along the length of a totem pole lying on the ground in the process of being meticulously hand carved. It was amazing to stand close enough to see the thorough detail of the piece. I can’t imagine raising the giant to stand vertically.
As I was making my way to another gallery, I suddenly realized the population of Haines seemed to of tripled. There were crowds of people, mostly elderly with cameras, fanny packs, and binoculars. A cruise ship the size of the entire town had ported and the simple local community impression of Haines’ character left.
I retreated into another gallery that seemed empty. I walked around gazing at beautiful handmade jewelry with jade and gold and carved beads. Some hand carved pendants, similar to the totem pole carvings I had been seeing, caught my eye.
I asked the artist if I could just buy the pendant, and not the whole necklace. He hesitated but then said he had never done that before and had a bunch in his shop I could choose from for $10 apiece.
He walked me down the hill from Fort Seward towards the crowd of consumers making their tourist trap investments on T-Shirts, key-chains, and bumper stickers to prove they had stepped foot on Haines, AK. He asked if I was on the cruise ship and I quickly said, “Hell no!” I could never do that. It takes all the adventure out of a trip getting plopped out at your destination with no effort while being catered to in-between ports.
I felt slightly important following him into an old wooden building from the early 1900’s next to a smoked salmon shop with a line out the door. The room was scattered with paintings, masks, sculptures, and prints. He dug out a bowl and poured across the table probably twenty pendants, all carved from cow bone and stained brown with tea he said.
They were all different and unique in their own way. I picked several for some close friends back home to carry with me until I’d see them again. He asked where I was from and about my journey and when I told him he said, “Well that’s different.”
We walked back up the hill to his gallery so I could pay him and I thanked him for this exclusive experience.
At this point I decided I had had enough of the town and wanted to get some groceries for lunch and for the ferry ride. I walked back down to the salmon shop which was now empty and bought a couple packages of Coho and Sockeye salmon.
I found a little natural foods store where I got some nice cheese and crackers to go with the salmon and splurged on some chocolate covered blueberries. Then I made one last stop, the most important stop, before heading back to the hostel- the liquor store. I bought some Canadian whiskey to keep me warm and busy. What else was I gonna do on a ferry for two days?
I headed back to the hostel to unload my groceries and dress for a day hike. It was mid afternoon and I still had time for a moderate hike. I drove down to Chilkat State Park and saw Rainbow Glacier and Davidson Glacier from the visitor center. They were stunningly impressive.
I talked with the ranger there about trails and she suggested I hike Mt. Riley down the road. It was 2.8 miles up the mountain, 5.6 roundtrip, and with a 360 degree view of Haines and the Chilkoot Inlet on top. She warned me there would be a lot of snow on top and to be careful not to get lost. She said several people lately never made it to the top because they couldn’t find the trail in all the snow.
It was the one and only day-hike I got to do in Alaska. I was slightly nervous leaving my helmet and jacket on the bike at the trailhead. But then I thought, fuck it. It’s my last opportunity to hike on Alaskan soil and if someone steals my shit, I have two days on the ferry to figure something out.
The hike started off lush and green with moss laden roots and soft ferns scattering the forest floor. I tried not to think of stumbling across a grizzly bear. As I climbed higher the trees became smaller and rougher and the trail became rockier. Snow was more frequent and spotted the path with icy patches.
As the snow got deeper I struggled following the trail. I followed the footprints that at times lead me in the wrong direction. Occasionally my feet would sink below soft spots and I would be up to my hips in a snow drift.
I started thinking this hike may not have been a good idea to do alone. What if I fall in a drift over my head and can’t get out? What if I get all the way up here and can’t find the trail back down? Well at least I know to go downhill to get back I guess.
Mt. Riley is the highest point on the Chilkat Peninsula at 1,760 feet. The elevation gain getting up there was 1,600 feet. I made it to the top and was humbled by a breathtaking view. I have thru-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and seen a lot of vistas, but this was the most magnificent.
The navy blue mountains covered in virgin white snow, untouched and faultless, endlessly following the deep indigo inlet is the most elegant piece of the natural world I have seen.
I felt a quiet, calmness come over me while I sat there taking in the spectacular sight.
I took my time heading back down the mountain only getting lost a couple times in the snow, but I wasn’t worried. I didn’t even think about the bears. Once again I came to the dirt path and strolled back through the enchanting mystical forest with a peaceful composure I hadn’t felt in a long time—I felt free of anxiety and free of grief.
When I got back to the trailhead, thankfully my bike and gear was still where I left it. It may have ruined the moment if it wasn’t.
I headed back to the hostel to take a hot shower, make dinner, and get to bed early. When I got in the shower I had just enough hot water to get wet. By the time I got soap on my hands the water was so cold I had to jump out.
Oh well, guess I’ll stink up the ferry. Its only been four days since I took a shower at Denali Mountain Hostel, but its been a week since I did any laundry. And considering how wet the weather has been, well, I’ll leave it to your own imagination.
I informed the keeper the situation with the water and he apologized unsure of what the problem was. Instead of getting clean and warm in a shower I warmed back up in the kitchen with hot chocolate and made my usual rice dinner with tuna and lemon pepper.
I recognized two boys in there from Germany I had seen at Denali Mountain Hostel. We talked for a while and sipped a little on some whiskey. I wanted a good night sleep to have time in the morning to get breakfast in Haines and maybe go for a quick ride before tying myself down to a boat for two days.
Although I knew it would be a fun experience and beautiful trip on the ferry, I knew it would be torture. Being stuck on a boat with nowhere to go and hide and with people everywhere and expensive beer (hence the liquor) was going to be a mental challenge for me. I just hope I can go sit on the bike when I start to go through withdrawal.