Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Look for the second half of the Metcalfe family biking adventures in next week’s Outdoors section.
Leo Helmar, 10, was riding what his cousin, Luke Metcalfe, referred to as a “40-pound” mountain bike and he wasn't happy about it.
“I can remember him holding his bike over a ledge near a bridge screaming that he wasn't going to ride another minute. I don't recall which trip it was, but we were definitely nowhere near civilization,” Luke said, 17 years after the incident.
“Nowhere” was a high, windswept plateau between Haines and Whitehorse. There were no trees, just stark tundra with melting snow and lots of wind going the wrong way.
“Dad played the role of lead negotiator talking him down,” Luke said. “Or, yelling him down and telling him it would be easier riding home than walking.”
Now, as I remember the incident, I only offered support to our friend, Barb Murray. Murray, as Leo said, “was really reasonable and she had a way with kids.”
My wife Ann and I were extremely lucky to have Murray with us on many of our cycling adventures. She was another authority figure but with a different voice. Since she wasn’t related, she possessed a critical distance.
Back to the story, as the family saying goes, Leo had “cracked.” Cracking, we learned, is a common experience on bike trips for adults and children alike. The physical causes are typically a combination of fatigue, dehydration, and under-eating. On the psychological side there’s usually a conflict; something is grinding away at you, maybe a disagreement with another cyclist or a nagging headwind. When conflict rubs up against fatigue there is a meltdown.
The simplest way to deal with meltdown is to give the person time to put their emotions in order. As a family, we’ve learned to use these events as the raw material for family folklore and storytelling. Tears turn to laughter after tempers cool.
The kids developed their own angle on our experience.
“Like what my Grandpa Vinnie said, ‘when you’re scraping paint, you’ve got to concentrate on one square foot at a time.’ With bicycling you concentrate on the next sign post or a rock in the distance. You break it down into manageable chunks,” Leo said.
“Looking back," he said recently, "we were out there on those trips like a lost tribe in the wilderness and you see how people interact under pressure.”
In 2009, as Ann and I pedaled through Vancouver, British Columbia, my mind drifted back to events like Leo’s “cliff hanger.” It was a good time to reminisce because we were riding alone-together (no kids) for the first time in 25 years.
This was our “smell the roses tour,” and there at the end of a long narrow Vancouver street was our cruise ship, docked and waiting to take us back to Juneau. We were moments away from sipping cold beer and sampling the ship’s buffet.
Ann’s voice ended my reverie.
“We’re late,” she said.
My fantasy banquet dissolved, replaced by the image of our ship pulling away, our life of luxury just beyond our grasp.
Racing to the dockside check-in desk we slammed on our brakes and jumped off our bikes and before we could ask if there was still time to board, the hostess pointed to a sign that said “Crew This Way.”
“What the hell?” our looks said.
After showing our tickets we were allowed to proceed. As it turned out, only crew members took bikes on cruise ships, but we weren’t taking guff from anyone and with good reason. With over 30 years of bicycle touring behind us, first on “Top Ramen” budgets, then pulling kids and diapers, and finally with juveniles in their terrible teens, we figured we had done our time in “crew quarters.”
Ann and I met in Juneau in 1976 and discovered a common interest—bicycle touring—and we were soon pedaling to Whitehorse. We spent our summers exploring Europe by bike until our first child, Luke, arrived in 1983. Sister Lynn was born in 1986, and Nellie in 1989, which forced our bike trips a little closer to home.
By 1985, we were itching to get back on the road but with our new responsibility, Luke, but there were some basic questions to answer about distance, weather and shelter. Alaska, after all, is a giant wilderness and often there are 50, even 100 miles, between towns with basic services.
In the late 1970s, a new dirt road opened a route through the coastal mountains from Skagway to Whitehorse. The total distance was 112 miles, which seemed a good distance for a trial run, so off we went on a late summer afternoon in 1985.
We left Skagway with Luke strapped into a black plastic seat that sat over my rear wheel. It was typical Southeast weather; the temperature in the mid 50s and rain. We planned to get over the 3,200 foot pass that day, but by the time we reached the summit, the rain was near freezing and we knew we had to stop rather than ride downhill with the wind-chill. Not wanting to risk hypothermia we crawled into our dry tent and warm sleeping bags and Luke entertained everyone by bouncing around the tent.
DRENCHED IN SUNSHINE
Our first trip with two children, from Prince George, Canada to Banff in 1987, gave us a new sense of time and speed. Luke was 4 and Lynn was 1. I am not sure how much weight we were pulling but our bikes disappeared under loads of food, diapers, clothes, biking tools and camping gear. Some days we had to dig to find our kids.
We had hoped to do 50 miles a day but that wasn’t happening. Instead we averaged about 30 miles in four or five hours.
“Doing more miles wasn’t fair to the kids, especially Luke,” Ann said.
Luke needed interaction with other children and found it in campgrounds, which is where he had the most fun.
PEDALLERS FROM HELL
A few years after Nellie’s birth, in 1989, we added a sag-wagon vehicle to our trip from Haines to Skagway. The girls were too young to pedal so we brought a Burley trailer so the girls could take turns rotating from the car to the buggy and feel they were part of the bicycle trip.
In addition to our friend Barb Murray, another good friend, Tony Armlin, was with us. Tony was a videographer and was making a short feature on the trip. Wanting to involve the kids in the production, he hooked the buggy to his bike and gave Lynn the camera.
“I remember holding that camera and thinking it was really heavy. I don't think I really knew what I was supposed to be filming so I filmed Tony's butt [as he pulled the buggy] because I knew it would anger him and I always thought Tony was really funny when he was mad,” Lynn said.
• Mac Metcalfe is a Juneau resident and cycling enthusiast.