Update number two from our intrepid Explorers in Residence Luke and Hazel Robertson who are on the third leg of their Due North:Alaska expedition!
After the weather had other plans for our first kayak leg, the bike part of this expedition actually went relatively smoothly – rather unusually so!
We knew it would be tough but were confident that the scenery would help with the sore bums and legs and in the end the only real surprise came at how the beauty and scale of this part of the world just surpassed both our expectations.
Setting off from the coast at Haines we left the temperate rainforest behind and quickly started to climb up the old Chillkat Pass (once the only access road from the coast into the Klondike during the goldrush days) as our legs, underused from 3 weeks of kayaking, started to adjust to what would eventually be 650 miles of cycling over 20,000ft of elevation.
With each summit came the reward of a new mountain vista laid out before us and the anticipation of long, fast downhills with very few vehicles to worry about. As we entered Canada, first British Colombia and then the Yukon, the dramatic scenery and equally dramatic hills increased and soon we were passing through one of the most beautiful sections in Kluane Lake National Park, a landscape with mountains surrounding a huge U valley, scoured from glaciers.
Some days the sun blazed as we snaked our way up hills in 32°C heat, with mosquitoes drafting us at speed and buzzing in our ears with not a breath of wind. On other days, we had heavy rain, as only our eyes poked out of many layers of merino and waterproofs. As the latitude digits increased from 59 to 64 degrees North the mileage to Fairbanks decreased on each road sign we whizzed passed.
Although not the same feeling as in Southeast Alaska with the sea down there teeming with life, we saw wildlife every day – from skittish black bears at the side of the road that ran away when one of us shouted “bear!” in surprise as we both slammed on our brakes, to larger light brown grizzly bears with the distinctive hump on their neck. Needless to say, bear spray was always to hand.
Then close to the end the biggest surprise of all. As we approached Fairbanks – a sign outside a house welcoming ‘Luke & Hazel’. Hazel’s work colleagues family had found out about our trip and invited us in for some delicious tea and scones. A great treat at the end of our ride, and just another example of the welcome and hospitality we have received in this wild place, strangers willing to open their homes and lend a hand however they can.
Of our few days in the Yukon, Canada, as we peddled northwestward towards the Alaskan border, the most beautiful and dramatic spot we cycled through was Kluane Lake National Park, a landscape with towering snow-capped mountains surrounding a huge U-shaped valley.
Cutting short one day of cycling, we took a flight-seeing tour with IceField Discovery Tours up over the St Elias mountains, where we landed on the Hubbard Glacier, part of the largest non-polar ice cap in the world, containing enough water to fill all the lakes and rivers in Canada! Strapped into the tiny plane, designed for interesting takeoffs and landings, including on snow and ice, we flew over the Slims River and Kaskawulsh Glacier, both of which recently made the news.
Due to the receding Kaskawulsh Glacier, its usual meltwater flow into the Slims River has diverted into the Kaskawulsh River, now ending up in the Gulf of Alaska, instead of Kluane Lake. And so the water levels of the Slims River has fallen significantly; a dramatic change that’s taken place in such a short space of time. It’s one thing reading an article about this, but seeing it from the air really enforced the magnitude of these changes.
As we followed the road-like medial moraine of the Kaskawulsh Glacier up the valley, the ice cap opened up before us, a white blanket to the horizon, broken only by nunataks, the tips of enormous ‘new’ mountains buried under the layers of ice. This area is so vast and so untouched that many of the 14,000ft plus peaks don’t even have names.
We landed on the ice cap and got some respite from the 32oC heat in the valley we’d been cycling in just hours before. In an unplanned but very welcomed twist of the day, we were left alone on the ice cap for 45 minutes. The only people around for miles. We sat in the sun and listened to the sound of the ice cracking and the distant hum of the odd plane. It was absolutely magical.
On the way out to the ice cap we flew out at a higher altitude to get a good overall picture of the landscape, and then flew back much lower, where we could see the bright blue pools of meltwater on the surface of the glacier and a closer look at the distinctive lines of moraine, which the pilot informed us was often used as his main line of sight during bad-weather med-evac rescues. Our pilot could not have been more interesting and knowledgeable and this tour has been a real highlight of the expedition so far.
After our time up in the vastness of the mountains and ice, we landed again in the stifling heat of Kluane Lake National Park and walked across the runway to our spot for the night, the Kluane Lake Research Station, part of the Arctic Institute of North America. A wonderful and welcoming place used by researchers and scientists working in the area and up on the ice field, we had the most amazing dinner cooked by the chef and slept so well in our little cabin. A bit of luxury in the wild Yukon.
Thank you again to Luke and Hazel for their updates! We look forward to hearing more.