As I am writing this, I am sitting at the beautiful Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Centre, only 10 km from Canada. After only about 500 km, my knees finally hurt enough that I can’t even ride the last 10 km to the border, let alone the extra 30 km to Beaver Creek, the first village in the Yukon. I came to the conclusion that stopping here is the best option, not wanting to damage my knees for good.
I am of course extremely disappointed, also feeling bad that so many people helped me in many ways for what ended up being a very short trip. But it wasn’t without at least a few extra adventures…
Yesterday morning, I spent a lazy morning in Tok, where I met some nice people and other tour cyclists. I was even considering staying an extra day in Tok, but there was a strong tail wind and I knew the forecast was for a strong headwind today. So I decided to get on my bike and ride as long as I was feeling good.
The first 5 miles, my knees didn’t feel so good but then it got better so I just kept going. It was a lovely ride, the best day so far, I felt stronger and was truly enjoying it. I met some nice Americans from Arizona at a rest area, sat there with them for a long chat, then they refilled my water bottle and gave me some snacks.
A little later, I reached Northway Junction. I was tired and decided to camp for the night. But the campsite was like a junk yard with no water, so I ate supper and rode the extra 7 miles to a beautiful, peaceful (and free!) campground in the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. It was right by a lake, the view was fantastic and I spent the evening chatting with a French speaking European family. One of those blissful days.
At 10 pm, I went to sleep. I slept in my hammock, next to my tent (where I store my gear and as a back-up plan if it starts to rain!). I had a hard time falling asleep because I probably installed my hammock on a red squirrel’s favourite tree and he was very vocal about it.
I finally fell asleep to wake up again around 1 am, thinking “Boy, those squirrels sure are noisy”. But soon I realized that this was no ordinary squirrel. I reluctantly lifted my head to see what I really didn’t want to see: 3 black bears, a stone throw away from me. Well, if you can throw about 20 meters.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Play dead in my hammock? I didn’t think the bears knew I was there yet. But I didn’t want to surprise them either if they came closer. However, getting out of the hammock is not a simple thing either. I sleep in a silk liner inside my sleeping bag, on my sleeping mat, in my hammock, which is inside a mosquito net. It takes a while and some dexterity to get out of all this without falling, at the best of times.
My bear spray was next to me, so I unzipped the mosquito net, grabbed the spray and poked my head out at the same time. 2 of the bears climbed in a big tree (amazing how agile they are). The other one seemed bolder, a little bigger, and looked at me straight in the eyes.
It is a strange feeling to face a big animal like that, especially when you are still coccooned in your hammock. I managed to get out of my sleeping bag, hammock and net, without falling over, and slowly walked to the outhouse that was about the same distance as the bears were from me, but in the other direction. However I can tell you that the outhouse seemed a lot farther than the bears!
I yelled and slammed the door several times to alert the other campers and hopefully scare the bears away. I wasn’t sure if the European kids were sleeping inside or outside the vehicle.
The bears didn’t seem to care at all about the noise I was making, they didn’t seem aggressive but they were not spooked either. The bigger bear sat between my tent and my bike. I was hoping it wouldn’t rip my tent or mess with my bike. My food was safely put in a bear container that campgrounds provide in the north. I felt safe near the outhouse but somewhat outnumbered.
It took what seemed like an eternity (but was probably more like 15 minutes) before the other campers got up and came to see why the cyclist was making all that noise. By that time the bears had run into the campsite where a guy was sleeping in his tent next to his car. He must have had one of those panic buttons on his car key and honked the horn several times. I think this is what eventually spooked the bears away.
Slowly, bear spray in hand, and with another camper nearby holding his bear spray, I gathered all my gear, put everything in the bear container, pitched my tent next to the outhouse, without the fly, so I could see if the bears came back. I even considered sleeping in the outhouse but there wasn’t much room and it wasn’t on my bucket list.
Needless to say, it took me a while to fall asleep again. Every squirrel (and I tell you, there are many there) was a potential bear, and after 3 hours of snoozing, I decided to get up, pack up and go. I knew my legs were not quite ready for another long day, and a few days off may have allowed me to go further, but I wasn’t too keen on staying another night in that campground so I left anyway, hoping to reach the Tetlin WIldlife Refuge Visitor Centre, 45 km away. The wind was calm so I didn’t want to wait.
It didn’t take long that I had a very stiff wind in my face. Every mile counted at least triple compared to the day before.
It wasn’t a very pleasant ride, and after about 2 hours I felt some really sharp pain in my knee. It came and went and I managed to climb all the hills on the way to the Visitor Centre. It was one of those days where you have to pedal going downhill.
I asked about camping at the centre, but they said they have too many bears in the area and did not want people to camp here. Hum… Getting a ride to the border would be difficult as most people either don’t have room or (understandably) won’t take a stranger in their vehicle to get across. And they had no water.
I tried to nap on the grassy grounds around the centre but just couldn’t. By now, both knees were hurting more as I was cooling down.
When I finally got up, it was clear that I wasn’t going to leave this place on my bike today nor for several days. Both knees are bad. I weighed my options for a long time and came to the conclusion that since I have been dealing with knee pain for almost 3 months now, I wouldn’t solve the problem quickly and it seemed wiser to quit before I cause permanent damage to my knees.
It is not an easy decision, and I feel very sorry that I couldn’t go further despite of all the effort and support I received. At least I had a real adventure and learned a lot. The CAT project is on hold, but not abandoned.