The Wilderness

The Wilderness

Beijing to Anchorage by plane. Whoosh

Diary Entry, 26th July 2015: “I sit in the tent and see something moving under my food. I stay still. It comes back. I thought it was a fox but it looks wrong, the tail isn’t bushy and it’s too sleek. It has a cat-like face and a muscular body like a lion, big feet. But about the size of a big dog. It is unsure of me, I’m sure it saw me through the mosquito net. It crouches down in low plants and sparse grass on gravel to hide, occasionally popping up to take a look. A beautiful animal. Just darker than the blonde of a lion, slightly coffee colour, maybe caramel. I wonder if it is something Jim told me about, an animal called a Martin. Have to research. Definitely feel more wild in the Yukon than Alaska. Raised wildlife concerns.”

Approaching the end of summer it’s still light well into the night, three hours of darkness at most. Three hours more than the midnight sun of Fairbanks a month before. Long days in the wilderness slowly becoming shorter, the the season passing with each south-east pedal stroke. Cold, wet hours in the saddle traversing great distances between hamlets of gas stations and handfuls of houses amongst dense forest. At the border in Beaver Creek, Alaska ends and Canada begins.

Vivid rainbows cut colourful swathes across a heavy sky. I fill my stove bottle with petrol and pack minimal overpriced rations into a pannier in front of the old road house, simultaneously swiping the air and slapping exposed skin in a rabid dance. The insects bite furiously in the fifteen minutes before rain. A few kilometres out of town, a bridge on the Alaska Highway passes over Beaver Creek itself, a clear river running over boulders, banks littered with huge tree trunks washed downstream when this docile summer current turns fierce in spring. The far north reaches of Alaska and the Yukon Territory have taught me about the “wild” in “wild camping”. I check the river for the rich red run of Sockeye Salmon, they’re absent, which hopefully means the bears are too, so I set up my tent on a flat area of the river bank just before the rain starts. Out here we are far from the top of the food chain.

I cook in the drizzle, far from the tent, keeping food smells away from where I sleep and as the rain builds, I throw a rope up and tie my heavy food bag high in a tree. The “bear hang” is intended to keep any bears away from the tent and give me time to get away from any carnivorous would-be thieves. The tree should be about a hundred metres from the tent, but I’m tired and wet and there’s a convenient tree five metres away so that will do. In bear country, anxiety plagues me until the food is away, like chumming the water for a shark dive but without the cage, a bear’s sense of smell is two thousand times more sensitive than that of a human. In the tent a false sense of security descends, rain beats the flysheet as a breeze blows through the trees. Warm and dry and protected from the outside world, sitting in my sleeping bag, calmly writing about the day’s events, reflecting on the world. Sticks crack beneath my food outside, I record the encounter in my diary on the 26th of July.

Few on the road in Alaska had seen bears, myself included; the imagery of moose cow and calf in the middle of the road began and ended my list of iconic creatures seen. In Yukon Territory the stories begin to change, accounts of how many black bears drivers have seen each day or descriptions of the giant grizzly I should expect to see in the road ahead of me. Questions of what a cyclist does in the road with a bear, to which I don’t know the answer, and questions about deterrents or weapons I carry to which my only answer is “a big stick”. It seems I am the only person on the road without pepper spray. Where wild camping had always meant hiding from the eyes of interested strangers, now it is about finding a place where I can run to their help if needed. Still, cycling continues free of animal intervention to Watson Lake.

Another enormous restock of food before a long stretch down the Cassiar Highway, the strip mall of Watson Lake filled an empty bag with heavy, expensive provisions before a double back to a bridge where I’d seen a disused camp site. I pedal the dead weight of an over loaded touring bike down the gravel entrance path and accelerate around a corner. Perfect camping! The concrete platform where the office used to stand, nature reclaiming the flat sites which once accommodated RV’s, pylons missing their power lines. Following the inviting sound of rushing water, the worn trail leads me, meandering between overgrown bushes towards t… BEARS! Gravel. Skid. Freeze. Two metres before a collision, one bear darts away while another jumps behind a tree for a stare-off. I stand motionless. Strange, the things that go through the mind in a bear stand-off, and what came is this… On arrival in Anchorage, a friend from university invited me to stay with him and his family for a week. His four year old daughter had a book about bears, in which was a poem to recite to bears if you should encounter them. And so alone, slowly edging my way backwards away from a bear, five metres away at most, in a child’s voice I sing “Hey bear, Ho bear, I’m just coming through. Hey bear, Ho bear, what ya gonna do…” and it works!

No pepper spray, no guns, no sticks, just singing. I back away and the bear stays behind it’s tree.

My reasoning for camping only two hundred metres away from my first encounter with them, was that at least I would know where the bears are, and so my tent is erected on a patch of gravel and I cook on the old office base. Returning to the tent for forgotten ingredients, I realise my bag of snacks is missing. “Screw you, wildlife!” I find the half gnawed bag in the bushes near an amused fox, and so ensues an evening of Leigh vs. Wilderness. One eye on pasta and sauce, one eye on a far too confident fox who finds my tent to be a new foxy department store. A pick-up drives down the “bear track” where dogs in the back bark furiously and horns beep and the bear is driven away from his dinner, towards me, and now I need three eyes; pasta in my mouth, fox in my tent, bear in the bushes… Darkness comes well after tiredness, I tie the food high up in a power pylon, see the bear run down the road and lay down to rest, once again under the false security of canvass. All is well until a crash near my food in the night. Hesitantly but frustratedly unzipping the tent, the light of my head torch is reflected back in the eyes of the fox, eyes of admittance and apology, eyes that say “Sorry, Leigh, I jumped off that road and the bush was bigger than I thought, I’m silly, sorry for waking you up…”. Stupid fox.

To wake every morning in the wilderness of the north is a blessing, “I outwitted nature, or I worked with it and I’m still alive!”. It is one of the beautiful realisations of bicycle travel, to feel how incredibly small we are, to feel the fragility of life and how lucky we are to have it. To wake in a tent in Alaska or Canada is to wake and feel truly alive, just as is waking in the desert of Australia, the altitude of Tibet or in the hull of a yacht at sea.

The familiarity of bears on the road brings comfort, the gentle giants forage for berries at the roadside, noticing my approach or hearing me shout before looking my way with distain at the thought of lugging their fattening bodies up, out of the road. “Stupid cyclist, making me move…”. The Cassiar Highway forges south through its namesake mountains, trapping rain from the Pacific and bringing bitter northerly winds from the largest ice packs outside of the Arctic Circle. Bright blue glaciers top mountains towering above giant red barns of North American agriculture. In Kitwanga, at the intersection where the Cassiar meets National Highway 16, a free campsite accommodates me and a few RV travellers. Around a camp fire in the evening with beers and clear skies, I describe the animal I had seen on the 26th of July. The older Canadian travellers use their iPad to show me a picture of a Bobcat, thinking that is what it could be, but the fur and ears are wrong. “Well there’s one other thing it could possibly be, but you would be very lucky to be so close to it” they explain as they show me a picture of exactly what I saw on my first night in Canada. A Martin is a small rodent; I was metres away from a Mountain Lion.

Cycling Highway 16 toward Whistler and Vancouver begins the slow transition back into civilisation and my final bear sighting. The body lies motionless in the road, eyes staring up, blood still pooling beneath her mouth, there a matter of hours at most. She could easily be a person in a fur coat, the size and shape so similar, a thought which had arisen in a conversation about hunting a few weeks before, how skinned and hung bears have a striking resemblance to humans. But there are no traffic jams or ambulances, cars just swerve to avoid the obstruction. It strikes me that these two worlds that I traverse, the wild and the civilised, in which I find equal wonder, exist in such opposition to each other. It has taken months of learning and understanding the wild, appreciating the habits of animals and adapting my lifestyle to accommodate and enjoy them, but here there is little acceptance as traffic increases, cities expand and wilderness regresses.

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