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Riding on a perfectly firm beach with beautiful light. We had lots of days like this; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

Alaska’s Lost Coast: Dog Sharks, Bears, and Cape Fairweather

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Miles of dead Dog Sharks littered the beach as we rode south; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

Thousands of dead dog sharks are scattered along the beach from a high tide that vanished hours ago. The sun is intense today and the fish are literally baking in the heat. Wafts of decay fill the salt air as we weave around twisted carcasses and watch flocks of seagulls peck away at a free meal. I roll past several sets of bear tracks, but the bruins don’t seem too interested in the rotting fish. I stop for a moment to rub my finger along the rough, mud-colored skin and take pictures of these dwarf-size sharks. As I get back on my bike, I think about what could’ve caused their demise.

The Lost Coast is rich in biodiversity. Nature truly runs wild here, and all living organisms have their role in a balanced system.

Off the coast, we see enormous humpback whales surface and erupt massive spouts of water and steam from their blowholes. The prehistoric mammals are center stage and provide a great show by slapping their flukes and breaching. In the distance, blue water explodes into white, as semi-airborne whales succumb to gravity and splash back into the sea.

Full of excitement, Iris looks over at me. “Hey Cam, did you see that one?  There’s a whale 20 meters from shore.” I stop and scan the horizon for any sort of movement. In a few minutes, a black hump speckled with grayish-white barnacles rises from the ocean like a surfacing submarine, then disappears without a wake.

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The rivers were starting to run with salmon, which attracted lots of bears; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

I have a suspicion the whales near shore are feeding on herring or hooligan, and might explain all the dead sharks on the beach. Dog sharks get their name by hunting in packs, like dogs, and it’s likely they were feeding on the smaller fish. Surprisingly, dog sharks aren’t the most aggressive swimmers, and it’s possible they were tossed on shore by a powerful beach break and a retreating tide. Their bodies won’t go to waste—scavengers and micro-organisms will be having a feast at their expense.

Miles of firm sand pass beneath our squishy, fat tires as we continue pedaling south. On the horizon I can see Cape Fairweather poking out into the glittering Pacific. We stop our bikes and take a quick break to snack, look at our maps and gauge the distance to our next big obstacle.

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We took a small break to rest and have a snack. On the bluff above us, a curious bear peered through tall grasses and brush; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

While enjoying the sun, I almost choke on trail mix when Iris shouts “BEAR!” Surprised, I quickly turn to face the forest. Above us on a grassy bluff, a fat coastal brown bear pokes its head from tall grasses. I grab my bear spray, flick off the safety, and keep my eye on our new visitor. The bear isn’t displaying threatening behavior, but it’s not running away either. Not wanting a closer encounter, we pack up and get rolling.

Through a low layer of misty coastal haze, we see more bears lumbering down the beach toward us. At this range, they’re small, ash-colored specs, but with each pedal stroke they’re getting closer and bigger. The wind is blowing in our faces and the bears can’t smell us, but I’m surprised they haven’t noticed us.

“Hey Iris, I wonder if bears have bad eyesight? If we can see them, they should be able spot us.” Even though these thousand-pound bruins look plump, they’re plenty fast and can easily sprint 35mph for short bursts. Knowing they could be at our feet within 15 seconds, I’m nervous about getting closer. We stop and assess the situation. It’s a sow and two cubs and they keep plodding in our direction.

I grab our cooking pot and a carabiner and start banging the metal together above my head. “HEY BEAR, HEY BEAAAAR!” The sow stands up and she is huge. I bang on the pot harder and faster and yell louder. The bear drops to all fours and scurries a short distance, then stands up again. “Now what?” I say to myself, as I watch the bear tower on her hind legs. The bear eventually drops and slowly jaunts into the forest with cubs in tow.

With no bears in sight, we get back on our bikes, splash through a couple salmon-choked streams and continue riding. Hours pass, until the setting sun is swallowed by a darkening, violet sky.

“Hey Cam, we’re not going to get to Cape Fairweather tonight. It’s getting dark and we should find a place to pitch our tent.” Just as the words leave her mouth, we watch a large dark mass exit the forest and move through what looks like a prime campsite. “Yea, I agree. Too dark to ride, but I don’t want to camp near the bear. Let’s turn around and ride for ten minutes or so.”

Choosing our campsites always creates a debate between Iris and me, and tonight is no different. Our campsites are often sandwiched between a dense forest and moist debris left at high tide. There’s not a lot of wiggle room for suitable camping, and it’s also the roaming grounds for nocturnal bears. Paw prints on top of paw prints create a shallow trough in the sand where the beach meets the coastal grass. “If I was a bear, I’d walk through this area!” I say randomly. Iris shakes her head. “Let’s just pitch it. Bears are everywhere. We’ll be fine.”

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After exiting the forest near Grand Plateau Lake, Iris gets ready to ride south towards Lituya Bay; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

She’s right about bears being everywhere, but I’m skeptical about the “fine” part. We usually do our cooking miles from our campsite, but we always sleep with our food. Most bears are solitary and want to avoid humans, but the thing that keeps me twitching is an encounter with a random, curious bear while we’re asleep. I try to dismiss that we’re traveling through some of the densest populations of brown bears in the world.

With our floorless tent pitched and in my sleeping bag, I pull the edge of the tent up and stare into darkness–desperately looking for any movement or listening for what might be a bear. My senses are a hair-trigger, my imagination grows. With heavy eyes I start to fall asleep, only to waken to what I think is the sound of crunching grass or driftwood underneath paws. This lasts for hours, and by morning I feel as if I’m recovering from an extremely heavy dose of hallucinogens. Groggy from another sleepless night, the only remedy is a couple cups of hot Foldgers coffee and pedaling on the bike.

The next morning brings us to Cape Fairweather and the end of cycling. Slimy, lime-colored cobbles soon give way to big, earth-colored boulders. The big rocks are left over from a retreating glacier that flows from the Western flanks of Mt. Fairweather. Back in 2010, a friend and I encountered a similar stretch of rocks at Sitkagi Bluffs, North of Yakutat. Memories of strained shoulder muscles and a sore back, remind me that Iris and I are in for a very long day of laborious work.

I shoulder my bike and begin hopping from one, polished granite rock to another. The process isn’t technically difficult, but it’s not pleasant either. The repetitive travel through the boulders is mesmerizing, but I don’t get complacent. Slipping off a rock and breaking a leg in this jumbled mess would be a catastrophe and the end of our trip. Wanting to get my bearings, I find a noticeably massive boulder, drop my gear, and scramble to the top.

Far behind me, I can see Iris and she looks like a colorful ant finding her way through a field of jumbled gravel. I’m stronger than Iris in this terrain, and decide to retrace my steps and help her out.

Just as I get ready to split, a patina copper disc in the rock catches my attention. I crouch down for a closer look. U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey placed this stamp in 1940, using triangulation to survey this section of the coast. Knowing someone was at this exact spot is both intriguing and ironic, and I wonder if Cape Fairweather looked the same back then.

I leave my gear and work my way back to Iris. As I get closer, she looks tired and her face is shimmering with sweat, but she also looks determined. This is a major obstacle for our minds, and I can tell this isn’t going to stop us. “Iris, let me grab your pack. I left my junk at that big boulder on the horizon, and I’ll drop your pack there.” Iris looks thankful and replies, “Ah thanks! Can you see the end?”

I grab her stuff and start to walk. “I can’t see the end – just more rocks. But remember … It doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun! We can do it!