Alaska – Canoeing to the Bering Sea
»Big River« is what the Athabascan Indians call the Yukon. It’s one of the mightiest rivers on the planet. In this episode, Dirk Rohrbach travels the river all the way to the Bering Sea in a self-made canoe.
I arrived only a few days ago in Cortez, to the far south-west of Colorado. I’m not far from the Four Corners Monument, where four states meet and tourists love to take photographs of themselves in whimsical poses. While your hands are on Arizona and Utah soil, your feet can be in New Mexico and Colorado. I decided against it.
My forty-year-old truck had just broken down on the Navajo reservation. Dynamo issues. Luckily I had my phone, and an hour or so later, as the sun was setting, the tow truck dropped me off with my friends Judy and Gay in Cortez.
I asked the Indian driver whether working in this scenery ever became routine.
‘Never,’ he answered succinctly.
I knew the area, having biked across America two years before. Back then I wanted to explore the USA from East to West, New York to Los Angeles, travelling the byways of small-town America, which has always fascinated me. It’s the small, rural towns – their tranquillity, the friendliness of their occupants and the countless stories – that keep me coming back.
Like Gay’s, for instance, who hit the headlines in the 1990s with his ‘prairie dog vacuum’. He’d repurposed an old sewage truck to suck prairie dogs out of their holes, so they could be moved elsewhere. His services were especially popular with property investors, as the small rodents ruin the land with their tunnel-filled colonies, endangering the stability of the houses on it. Since the property crisis, Gay has made ends meet by picking up jobs as a welder and setting up a small gun shop in his cellar, where he sells shotguns and ammunition to hunters.
Gay Balfour, the inventor of the ‘Prairie Dog Vacuum’, is an impressive man of traditional American virtues: ‘The only difference between success and failure is how long you keep trying!’
Gay with his wife Judy. They got married in high school.
With this repurposed sewage truck, Gay catches up to 1,000 prairie dogs per job.
The integrated braking device restricts the speed at which they’re sucked in, and cushions ensure a soft landing…
… the adorable little rodent.
Over the next few days, as his neighbour Bob takes a look at my truck, I’m going to explore the mountains, biking the San Juan Skyway.
The over-four-hundred-kilometre round trip winds through spectacular gorges, over some of the highest passes in the Rocky Mountains, and past some historic nineteenth-century mining towns. In those days, the earth’s buried treasures lured many a hopeful prospector to try their luck. Gold, silver, minerals. The houses’ restored facades are a striking reminder of the towns’ glory days. Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride – the names are evocative of the great Silver Rush.
Though this time my trip will only last a few days, my bike is heavily laden with supplies: a tent, sleeping bag, ground mat, change of clothes, toiletries, repair kit and food. I leave the camping stove behind, as I’d rather stock up in mom-and-pop stores along the way, and maybe get to talking as I do so.
An hour after I set off, I reach Dolores – and my heart leaps. The semi-desert landscape drops away precipitously, and I cycle through a tranquil valley that’s only just shaking off the Alpine-like winter. The poplars and aspens along the Dolores River are beginning to bud, but a few last vestiges of snow still linger in shaded corners.
The sun is already quite warm in an almost cloudless sky. Only a cool tailwind reminds me that the usual hot, dry summer is still some way off. In the Food Market there is freshly brewed organic coffee, home-baked bread and a small but well-organised selection on the shelves, which leaves almost nothing to be desired. ‘You find everything you’re looking for?’ asks the cashier. Unlike at many branches of the giant supermarket chains, it doesn’t sound like the usual mechanical spiel. I buy two bananas, a baked ‘Cajun-style’ catfish fillet, homemade potato salad, a raspberry-shortbread bar, a brownie and a small loaf of banana-nut bread for breakfast.
Country music from the local radio station in my ears, I cycle on. Drivers greet me by lifting a hand briefly from the wheel. Round these parts people own Subarus with four-wheel-drive and bike racks on the roof. I’m overtaken later by two motorcyclists; the man in front raises his fist to the sky in a gesture of respect. The friendliness and consideration of the other road users is striking. I’m enjoying the journey.
Cycling might well be the best way to travel.
Moving at a relaxed pace under your own steam allows you to experience the landscape much more intensely. You have sufficient time and opportunity to appreciate roadside details. Again and again I pass campgrounds and restaurants whose season only begins towards the end of May or even early June. In Rico, a small town of two hundred with a row of historical buildings dating from the previous century’s Silver Rush, I stock up on drinks: water and coke. A few miles further on I find my first place to camp – five metres down from the road, directly by the stream.
There’s a reasonably flat surface, enough at least to pitch my tent. The sun has long since disappeared behind the mountains, and an icy coldness descends across the valley. I bolt my evening meal and hunker down in my sleeping bag.
* * *
I’ve slept badly – my feet are freezing, despite numerous layers and thick socks. The sun is already warming the mountain slopes, but my shaded camp remains frosty. My hands numb, I nibble unenthusiastically at the banana bread.
I could really do with a hot coffee right now. But I left the camping stove at home – I wanted to stock up on fresh things regularly, especially since there are supposed to be plenty of shops along the way. I set off around nine. By now the sun has flooded the whole valley, including the highways, which lead me steadily uphill. Unlike in the Appalachians in the eastern USA or the Alps back home with their brutal inclines and hairpin bends, in the Rocky Mountains you climb steadily, following the road for hours before hurtling down into a ravine on the other side.
Sometimes you can be moving upwards at no more than six or seven kilometres per hour, pedalling out of the saddle.
Only to fly down the other side at sixty or seventy.
Luckily, the thin air doesn’t seem to affect me much – at least, I’m not gasping for breath. Kilometre after kilometre I cycle uphill, again under perfect conditions, even if by now it’s markedly cooler than yesterday. Protected by lycra arm- and leg-warmers and a yellow reflective jacket, I finally reach the Lizard Head Pass, which is easily 10,000 feet high – more than 3,100 metres.
After a brief pause to catch my breath, I begin my first descent. The weather here seems less friendly than on the other side of the pass. Clouds gather, blocking the sun and looking as if they might pour with rain. So I bike onwards in full cycling gear, even grabbing two jackets.
It’s only when I reach Telluride, at the low end of a long dead-end road, that the temperature rises again and the sun re-emerges. Here, too, many shops on the usually bustling main street have closed for the off-season.
Originally a mining settlement, Telluride’s name has possessed a certain glamour since the nineteenth century. The legendary gangster Butch Cassidy robbed the local bank as early as 1889. Two years later, the railway came to town, leading to the first boom. The mines in the surrounding mountains brought jobs and prosperity to the small town and its inhabitants well into the 1970s. As the resources dwindled, enterprising investors built the first ski-lifts. At the same time, hippies began moving into the area, displacing the miners, who took their families and sought work elsewhere in the region.
The new occupants were attracted above all by outdoor activities – climbing, hang-gliding, canoeing – as well as the promise of a more relaxed lifestyle in a valley far away from the hustle and bustle. The now legendary film and music festival was established, alongside one of the best ski resorts in North America. So was its reputation as a trading post for drug smugglers and a haven for their moneyed bosses. Glenn Frey even immortalised it in a line from his 1980s hit ‘Smuggler’s Blues’. Evidently this Wild West image in no way detracted from Telluride’s renown; rather, it augmented its attractiveness. The first celebrities began to arrive: actors, directors, TV stars. Today the town is still a mecca for outdoors activities in summer, and in winter a playground for ski fans from across the land.
Then, a Kitzbühel breeze sweeps down the historic main street.
I buy a coffee from the only shop currently open – one for the locals – and am completely overwhelmed. It’s high-noon rush hour: everywhere there are mothers in yoga outfits having noisy lunchtime chats as their small children, barely out of their prams, run wild across the floorboards.
I phone Joanna, at whose house I’ve arranged to stay overnight via Warmshowers.
Warmshowers connects cyclists across the globe, developing into a thriving community in a few short years. It costs nothing to set up a profile on their website, warmshowers.org, where you can find like-minded people to stay with, most of whom offer room and board as well as a warm shower. All free of charge, as today’s host could be tomorrow’s cyclist, seeking friendship and hospitality on his or her trip.
Joanna lives with her husband Daniel and two daughters a few miles outside of Telluride. I’m simply supposed to follow the highway downhill.
Before I go I purchase a few extra supplies for the next leg of the journey in the tiny supermarket, perusing the brochures in the visitor’s centre over a pain au chocolat. I learn about the rediscovered Ski-Eldorado of Colorado – the trendy areas in the coastal mountains to the west and in Alaska have been repeatedly lacking in snow, while the Rockies have had record snowfalls. I read about John Denver, himself a passionate skier, who despite being born in New Mexico felt such a connection to Colorado that he borrowed his stage name from its capital city and moved to Aspen.
In ‘Rocky Mountain High’, which the state of Colorado later declared an official state song, he sang about someone who leaves his old life behind him and moves to the mountains to find himself. The title long ago became a buzzword for opponents and advocates of the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use – in other words, for the consumption of marijuana for non-medical reasons. In 2012, Colorado voted for legalisation with a slim majority of 55%. It was a world first.
Overall, I get the impression that people here enjoy taking on the role of pioneer. Colorado seems to attract more than its fair share of progressive lateral- and forward-thinkers. The houses here are not sterile, mass-produced boxes, but creative, self-built constructions of adobe, wood and stone. Even out here in the countryside there are organic shops, where locally grown fruit and vegetables are for sale.
And nowhere else are the people so active. Mountain biking, rafting, hiking – there are cycle paths everywhere. This is the life, I think, as I bike towards the valley in the by now twenty-degree heat, the trees and bushes around me a lush and vibrant green.
* * *
I slept soundly on Daniel’s ‚Siesta Rest‘. Better than on any luxury mattress with feathers or latex.
The idea for the comfortable sleeping mat came to Daniel some time ago, after many nights spent on extremely thin, spartan ground mats. ‚Why should someone at the advanced age of forty be deprived of a good night’s sleep when going camping?‘ he thought, and developed an entirely new concept. Instead of air, Daniel incorporated a substantial layer of memory foam, a premium-quality substance that adapts to the individual contours of the sleeper’s body. Additional layers of firmer foam ensure stability.
Furnished with a top layer of fleece and packed in a robust, washable shell made of a synthetic woven fabric, the Siesta Rest is neither lightweight nor a space-saver, but there’s nothing more comfortable for long trips via canoe, car or motorbike. So when will Daniel start mass-producing his mat? ‚At the moment I’m looking for the best offer for supply and production. Originally my idea was to have everything produced in the US,‘ he tells me one morning over breakfast. But the prices weren’t competitive, so he’ll probably have to fall back on materials from Asia, and have at least part of the production process done in Mexico.
‚If it all works out, by the summer we’ll be able to deliver the first models!‘ he says, sounding pleased.
But it’s not all about business for him. The forty-four year old is originally from California, where he led guided backpacking tours and met his future wife Joanna. He studied art in Taos, New Mexico, eventually ending up in Telluride. ‚I get claustrophobic pretty quickly whenever I’m anywhere with more people than trees,‘ he jokes. ‚Here there’s plenty of space, fantastic ways to spend your free time and lots of cultural stuff on offer.‘
As well as developing the ground-breaking sleeping mat, Daniel is currently working on a degree in painting. He sees deep parallels between the two. ‚It’s about helping somebody to enjoy a wonderful experience at that particular moment, whether it’s through a good night’s sleep or through art.‘ I want to know why he and Joanna signed up as hosts on Warmshowers, even though they themselves have never used the service. ‚It’s great when travellers show up with their stories. It brings a bit of excitement to our everyday lives!‘
I doubt those lives are dull, I think to myself. With their two daughters, Ayla (eleven) and Shay Ann (seven), and their dog Breezy, they’re about to set off on their first trip – in the recently renovated camper van that has been my cosy refuge for the night. Before we say goodbye, we swap addresses. I definitely want to be on the pre-order list for the first Siesta Rest mats.
The sun caresses me as I journey on, and a gentle tailwind.
The twenty-kilometre climb up to the Dallas Divide, my next pass, are quite bearable. At the top I bump into Teddy, who emerges on her racing bike from the other side almost at the same time as me. We chat briefly. She asks about my route, and where I’m staying tonight, spontaneously inviting me to stay with her. American hospitality, already overpowering, is yet more so among cyclists. I think it over during the rapid descent towards Ridgway.
Teddy’s house is just outside Ouray, and I actually wanted to get a bit further today – at least over the Red Mountain Pass to Silverton. But the weather report forecasts storms and rain, and the first clouds are already looming over the snow-capped peaks. So I end this leg of the journey after just fifty kilometres, and accept Teddy’s invitation.
Her name is actually Mary Edna, but no-one has called her that since childhood. Four decades ago Teddy came to Telluride, got married, and after her divorce she redecorated her spacious home according to her own taste. I’m impressed by the unconventional combination of styles. European, Asian and American elements blend to create a unique fusion that very evidently reflects Teddy’s multi-layered personality. Over baked chicken fillets, vegetables and quinoa we chat animatedly about American ignorance, the divisions in the country and about Europe – in the end, perhaps a freer place.
This is also typical of Colorado. Foreigners who rage about conservative fundamentalists and the superiority complex of American politics will find plenty of liberal allies here in the mountains, people who have analysed key issues like immigration, gun legislation and the war on terror in much more detail, and who form America’s rational conscience. It’s balsam for the stricken European soul – for those who lost faith in the American Dream in the face of militarism, evangelical values and bigoted prudery, and yet who, deep down, want to live the dream themselves.
* * *
The Million Dollar Highway winds upwards into the sky in a nearly endless series of hairpin bends. The origin of the road’s nickname – officially it’s called Federal Highway 550 – is much debated. Some people claim it’s down to the enormous cost of building it. Others say the rubble used during construction, taken from the surrounding gold and silver mines, was full of valuable minerals.
Teddy, who after breakfast was going to accompany me as far as the Red Mountain Pass, stops after a few kilometres when brutal down draughts nearly sweep her off the two-lane road and into the abyss.
There are signs everywhere warning of falling rocks, and it’s no route for people with vertigo.
There are guardrails only at a very few, especially hazardous places. The weather has turned, the sun veiled by heavy clouds.
Further up the mountain I’m surprised by a shower of snow and sleet, the temperature falling almost to zero. After twenty extremely tough kilometres, however, I reach the Red Mountain Pass – at well above 3,000 metres it’s the highest pass of my trip.
I pull on extra layers of clothing, even fetching a down vest from my backpack. But the sixteen-kilometre downward journey, which I thought would be the easy bit, turns out to be the most physically demanding part of the trip. It’s so cold that soon I’m unable to feel my hands; I stop and wind a T-shirt and scarf around them. It helps a bit, but the wind lowers my body temperature so much that after a while my teeth are chattering uncontrollably, like a skeleton in a ghost train. Is this the first sign of hypothermia? I keep stopping to warm myself up, without much success. In the end I just go as fast as I can, trying to reach Silverton as soon as possible.
In the village store I try to warm myself up with thin coffee. I’m still shivering an hour later, but the rain clouds have retreated and the sun tries to make it up to me for the rest of the day. After a brief detour to the end of the main street I feel the urge to travel onwards – though I now realise I won’t make it to Durango today. There are two more passes waiting for me on my route, both of them well over 3,000 metres. There’s just enough time for a few snapshots of historical Silverton, which like Telluride morphed from a mining town into a tourist spot and possesses a rather rough charm that is down to more than just its considerable altitude: 2,800 metres above sea level.
Last night I found a place to pitch my tent in the dark. At the largely deserted Durango Mountain Ski Resort one of the remaining occupants had refilled my empty water bottle and told me about a gas station a few miles down the road where I’d be able to pick up a few snacks. It was long closed by the time I arrived. Instead, I crossed the road to a converted schoolhouse – now a bar – and ordered a meatball sub with grilled cheese and fries.
After sweating through all those passes, I was craving salt. The dim room was dominated by an enormous pool table in the middle, where last season’s guides and ski instructors passed the time. At least, that’s how I interpreted the group of bearded young men in canvas trousers and ball caps. The bar was very busy, with TVs all over the place, announcing the boxing match of the century. When I climbed back on my bike forty-five minutes later, darkness had fallen. A few miles down towards the valley, I followed a sign and soon discovered a small hill between two riding paths, just big enough for my tent. Good night…
After a few chocolate chip cookies for breakfast, which I bought in Silverton yesterday, I cycle onwards into the valley. To the left of the road I soon see a bright, oddly coloured rocky pyramid, water apparently flowing out of the point. A sign explains that it’s the Pinkerton Hot Springs, named after James Harvey Pinkerton, who moved here in the nineteenth century and built a hotel with a pool and holiday resort around the hot springs. Apparently Marilyn Monroe took the waters here, many years later. The stone pyramid was constructed by the local authorities about fifteen years ago, a pipe leading the thirty-eight-degree water through it to the surface.
As I take a photograph, I can hear the whistling of the historic narrow-gauge railway, which has shuttled between Durango and Silverton without interruption since 1882. It was originally built to transport silver and gold.
I was hoping to meet up with Daniel in Durango. Not the one with the sleeping mat, although that’s his name too. Daniel and his wife Diana were my first Warmshower hosts on my long cycling trip two years ago. Daniel is currently mountain-biking, he explains to me on his mobile. So I just grab a few snacks in town and head westwards, uphill. The landscape seems wider and more desert-like once more: the vegetation is sparse; rocks and cliffs dominate the edge of Highway 160. Somehow I don’t feel like I’m making progress.
Then, just outside of Mancos, I get my first flat in my ‚flat-less‘ tyres. I can’t see a hole, and change the tube as fast as I can, as there are stormclouds brewing above me. A final ascent follows the swift descent into Mancos, and as the first heavy raindrops begin to fall I escape into the Zuma Market, an organic store with a small cafe. Dustin, from Connecticut, bought it just six months ago. He was drawn to Colorado by the mountains, he tells me, but in a few years he wants to go on a cycling tour of Patagonia. The gear is already in the garage. We talk shop. After three americanos with milk I move on, as do the clouds, which are no longer threatening. I can see farmland; I must be nearing Cortez. I pass the turning for the Mesa Verde National Park, and pedal with renewed energy.
I’m on the home stretch.
Two hours later I’m sitting at the Dairy Queen in Cortez, treating myself to a Blizzard – a calorie bomb made of ice-cream, cookie dough, pecan nuts, chocolate sauce and butterscotch – to round off my trip. After all, I don’t want to get hypoglycaemia.
Five days, 400 kilometres, a 5,300 elevation gain. I would be ready and willing to travel on, but I’m looking forward to a hot shower at Judy and Gay’s. And to the next trip.
* * *