I leave Vancouver, followed by Grin’s videographer, Aaron, who is getting coverage of me riding for their latest YouTube video. This spectacle seems to turn even more heads than the solar bike alone. I pretend that I am comfortable with this kind of attention. A panhandler working an intersection in North Vancouver abandons his post to come over and ask, “Hey, is that the bike from the Grin website?” Aaron can’t believe it. “You’re a celebrity!”
A two night stop to visit with my parents near Squamish turns into eight nights when we all come down with Covid. The home tests are all negative until we have full blown symptoms. Everyone eventually recovers at their own pace.
After the prescribed self-isolation period, I continue north through Whistler and Lillooet. I feel weak for a few days but eventually regain my strength. The scenery here is some of the most spectacular of the entire trip. One particular hill has sustained grades of 8% – 14%. I end up having to stop seven times to let the motor and controller cool down while climbing 1050 meters. The 30°C+ temperatures push both bike and rider to their limits.
A problem with my rear solar panel which I initially noticed in Arizona and fixed in San Diego comes back. I am missing 25% of the solar energy I should be getting. The lead time to get a new custom lamination made means I would get it when I reach Alaska or possibly Australia. Instead, I order a 100W SunPower panel from Grin Technologies and have it shipped ahead on my route to Prince George.
Cutting the solar panel down to fit my trailer is a delicate operation and takes a day and a half. Fortunately, I know how the panel was constructed so I know exactly where I can cut. Removing the EVA encapsulant and soldering new connections is a delicate surgical operation but the patient survives. The white back sheet on the new panel doesn’t match the rest of the bike but I think I can get used to it since it means that I’m back up to nearly 100% of my original solar capacity.
I follow the Yellowhead Highway to the Cassiar Highway and begin the first truly remote stretches of this journey. Food resupply options are 2 to 3 days apart, more if the weather is rainy. There is no phone or internet connectivity of any kind. I plan my days around off-line route elevation profiles I saved ahead of time and read the weather by scanning the clouds on the horizon. Refilling my water is a matter of stopping at the next glacial mountain creek and running it through my filter.
I ride all day until I feel tired and just pull over on the next forest access road, hang my food bag in a tree and set up camp.
In Stewart, I “sneak” into Hyder, Alaska… at least it feels clandestine because I’m crossing from Canada into the United States without showing a passport. The Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Platform operated by the US Forest Service affords close-up viewing of bears catching spawning salmon from the safety of a raised, gated walkway. I have to wait a couple of hours but my patience is rewarded. Seeing a grizzly catching a salmon in its natural habitat is a memorable experience.
At Bell II, I meet a deaf couple from Minnesota touring on a motorcycle. We manage to have a chat writing things out on our iPhones and some lip reading. It ends up being one of the most interesting conversations I have had since I started this trip.
I see my first black bear in the wild, without the relative safety of a raised viewing platform or a metal box on wheels. It is grazing on berries by the side of the road. I’ve known this moment was
coming for several days because I’ve been seeing fresh bear scat and bushes full of ripe blueberries, raspberries and salmonberries everywhere. It takes me completely by surprise. My heart rate goes up. I try to remember what I’m supposed to do in this situation.
Play dead? No, that’s only for grizzlies and only if they are actually mauling you. Climb a tree? Again, only if they are stalking you and not recommended for black bears whose curved claws allow them to climb trees easily.
I slow down and move to the center of the road to give myself more maneuvering options. I sound my electric horn. The bear looks up and scampers off into the underbrush. Over the next few days, I have another 8 or 10 bear sightings without incident. The key is that the bear doesn’t want to have anything to do with you.
I get a couple of overcast, rainy days in a row. The sun comes out for a few minutes mid-afternoon but otherwise it’s cloudy or drizzling all day. I struggle with the hills and press forward with grim determination. I need to remind myself to be thankful for the things that are going well — I am in good health, I have plenty of food, I have plenty of water, the bike is working well, and the rain is hardly even noticeable!
Mosquitos swarm aggressively as soon as I leave my tent. They’re drowning in my oatmeal. They’re drowning in my coffee. The headnet I’ve been carrying for thousands of kilometers finally comes out of my bags and saves the day.
As I’m getting ready to make dinner in Dease Lake, two electric Rivian trucks pull into the RV park. Curious about how they’ve made it this far in terms of charging stations or lack thereof, I walk over to have a look. The passenger door swings open and out pops a young man who runs around the vehicle and shakes my hand. Kendrick works for Rivian in the “customer experience” department.
The group consists of two owners/drivers and they are accompanied by several representatives from Rivian to help ensure the trip goes smoothly from a technical perspective and when interacting with the public along the way.
They’re heading from Irvine, California to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Apparently, they’ve just run out of fast charging stations (high voltage DC) and are figuring out how to proceed. The RV park has 50 amp AC hook ups but the limiting factor is the AC/DC converter built into the vehicles. It’s looking like it will take a day and a half to take the batteries from 2% to 100%. They end up checking into the local hotel and I never get the end of the story.
If anyone knows where to find them on social media, please let me know. But what I really want to know is how do I get myself a Kendrick who pops out and runs interference when people approach me to ask questions but maybe I’m too tired or hungry to be a good solar ambassador?
I meet about a dozen cyclists traveling south, some heading all the way to South America. We swap tips about the route ahead, say our goodbyes and continue on in opposite directions. One such tip is about the free camping, free hot coffee and $5 showers available in “Jade City”, a gift shop/motel up the road. @pedalsandpuffins for the win!
Jonas is giving me a tour around Jade City and I ask about breakfast options. Apparently, they had some Airbnb guests cancel so there might be a breakfast available. “I’ll go ask Claudia.”
“Claudia,” I think to myself. Good, strong, German name. I suppose she will be Jonas’ wife? I don’t meet Claudia but I’m told that I’ve been invited for breakfast.
While setting up camp, I meet Robert, a prospector who spent most of his life in the Yukon, looking for gold, copper, and diamonds. He has a unique ATV from the 1970s with a DIY shack on a skidoo trailer that he uses in his trade. He is keen to learn about my solar bike and I’m delighted to learn about his experiences.
“Ever had any trouble with bears?” I ask, hoping for a good story.
“Nah. As long as you take the right precautions, they leave you alone.” In hindsight, his response is far more comforting in my current situation than a harrowing tale of survival in the wild.
The following morning, I meet Claudia. She is not Jonas’ wife. Walking around the jade gift shop, I see a set of DVDs: seasons 1-7 of “Jade Fever.” It was a reality TV show about Claudia and her family which ran on The Discovery Channel and has been syndicated to 150 countries. “Claudia! You are a reality TV star!”
“You’ve heard about people seeking fame and fortune? Well, we found fame,” she laughs.
I didn’t expect to buy a rock that I would carry in my panniers on this trip but I end up getting a tiny carved jade bear with a salmon in its mouth. They sure know their clientele. I vaguely remember something about restrictions on bringing jade across international borders so I consider asking Claudia, “Do I need to keister this when I cross into the US?,” but think better off playing this bit on her.
Having found the Jade Fever experience I didn’t know I was looking for, I fill my thermos with fresh hot coffee, top up my water reservoir, and hit the road.
As I approach the 60th parallel, the Yukon border and the end of the Cassiar Highway, I meet more southbound cyclists. Most seem disappointed to tell me, “I have not seen any bears.”
“Don’t worry,” I tell them, “you will.”
Word of the day: “skookum“ meaning strong or impressive (Chinook jargon, referring to a person, animal or thing).