It was with much trepidation that I started up the Alaska Highway. Would my knee hold out or would I once again be forced to stop? As I climbed away from the Athabasca River, the familiar feeling in my knee returned after a couple of kilometers, but with more manageable pain. I stopped to stretch and that seemed to help a little, as did the acupuncture to release the tight muscles. (A pattern seems to have developed for my knee pain: It hurts when I start to ride but eventually the pain subsides.) Soon the day turned into what can only be described as cycling bliss, -5 and sunny riding on a dry road: a day that reminded me why I love touring on a bicycle.
As the sun went down the temperature dropped quickly and by the time I was over half way to Grande Cache and had found my campsite (50 meters from the road in among pine trees), it was -20. I tried to light a fire with dry grass but had no luck. Then I remembered that I was carrying gasoline. It lights well at any temp. Soon I had a blazing fire and was toasty warm.
The next morning the inside of the tent was covered in frost. I quickly got the fire going again to melt snow for the day’s water. I expected the day to be an easy ride into Grande Cache, but the wind gods had different ideas. The headwinds grew stronger throughout the day and at one point maintaining 10 km/h on the flats was difficult. Early in the day I came across a semi that was stuck on a side road. The driver asked if I could drive a semi or heavy machinery. I offered to pull him out with the dummy but he was skeptical. He later passed me on the highway.
I managed to climb the final hill into Grande Cache, exhausted. Jerald, my couch surfing host, met me at the Esso. Shortly thereafter I was at Jerald and Wendee’s place enjoying a stir fry. Jerald likes to spend his off time in the summer white water rafting, kayaking and canoeing. Grande Cache offers ample opportunity for that. Jerald’s stories of polar bears when he was working in the north made me question my understanding that they will all be out on the ice when I am up there. More research and perhaps a call to wildlife officials up there may be in order.
The road out of Grande Cache to Grande Prairie initially follows the Smoky River (190 km between the two without a single habitation). I love riding along rivers, especially downstream. After 30 km I found myself on a long climb out of the valley.
The vastness of the country comes into consciousness on rides like these: for mile after mile all you can see is forest. On a bike you feel like the only person for limitless distances (when there are no vehicles). And with lots of time to contemplate your place in the vastness, it is hard not to wax existential. But in this part of our vast country when the sun goes down, all the activity around comes into view. The horizon fills up with the lights from the fires of all the gas plants. And they were not the only fires that night. Slash piles were burning in all the recently logged areas. At a few points the smoke on the road was so bad my lungs hurt and the ash burned in my eyes. I went further than I had intended on this day in order to find a spot to set up camp where there was no chance of smoke.
Water became an issue again, but when someone pulled over to ask if I needed help, he had a couple of litres to give me (melting snow takes so much time). The good folks at Valhalla Pure here in Grande Prairie donated a thermos for my trip. Now I have more capacity for water – Thanks!
The next morning I built a fire and filled my thermoses with water from melted snow. My sleeping bag was a little wet by morning as the humidity in the air was high. This is something I have to be vigilant about: a wet sleeping bag is a cold sleeping bag as the down loses its loft.
I have to admit that the ride into Grande Prairie was not one of my favourites. I was tired after the long previous day, and the humidity made everything feel cold and uncomfortable. Needless to say, I was happy to see the city and even happier to get into the warmth of Myles and Esther’s apartment.
Tomorrow I’m back on the trail, and leave for Dawson Creek and then Fort St. John.