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Medicine for the soul

Pair of bikers ride northward and explore inward

Posted: June 14, 2012 - 11:00pm
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Pals Mike Hoyt, left, and Jay Lee pose in the driveway of Diane Comer's house in Portland, Ore. in April before departing on a bike tour from Portland to Skagway. The pair said the tour took them 34 days and along the way the two lost between 15 to 20 pounds each.   Courtesy of Diane Comer
Courtesy of Diane Comer
Pals Mike Hoyt, left, and Jay Lee pose in the driveway of Diane Comer's house in Portland, Ore. in April before departing on a bike tour from Portland to Skagway. The pair said the tour took them 34 days and along the way the two lost between 15 to 20 pounds each.

The route two good friends traveled between Oregon and Juneau is familiar to many. The mode of transportation they chose, however, was unusual. Their arduous trek on 70s-vintage 10-speed bikes through forests and mountain passes was not about the scenery or the destination. It was medicine for their souls.

Mike Hoyt and Jay Lee, both 24, said they quenched their thirst for adventure over the course of approximately 2,100 miles and 34 days, while exploring the lands and history of the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and the Yukon.

“This trip was cathartic, for the both of us, in our own way,” Lee said. “We saw 41 bears, camped alongside the roads, bathed our hair and feet in the rivers and lakes and met wonderful people along the way. The 34 days we spent on the road was truly life-changing. Our ‘zombie’ bikes ... (carried) us on a journey we have no way of ever forgetting.”

Hoyt is Tlingit (of the Teeyhittaan clan, from Wrangell), and had accepted an offer to work for the Sealaska Heritage Institute this summer as an intern. Lee, who was still reeling from the loss of his grandmother, needed time to look inward and recover. For both, the idea of completing such a ride had simmered in their minds for more than a year.

The two set off on April 30 from Hoyt’s mother’s driveway in Portland. They had to reach Juneau by June 4, so Hoyt could assist with Celebration, a biannual festival organized by Sealaska to highlight Alaska’s various Native cultures.

“We weren’t even sure if our bikes or bodies would be able to handle 2,100 miles,” Hoyt said in a statement. “Most people who bike tour use new bikes with at least 27 gears. We were using 10-speed bikes built in the early 70s.”

He said this aspect of the unknown added an extra layer of challenge to the trip. Within the first 1,000 miles Hoyt said his gears had become so worn that only two that were fully functional. He said Lee’s tires were nearly bald. Both bike wheels had endured so many bumps they were bent.

Hoyt said he remembers pushing the last 300 miles to Smithers, British Columbia with a 40 mph headwind. It was there they hoped to find a bike shop.

Logistics aside, both Hoyt and Lee said they used the trip as an opportunity to learn and reflect.

“For (Hoyt), the theme of this trip was about exploring the lands and history of the Pacific Northwest,” Lee said. “For me, it was to find peace and self worth before reaching Alaska and before experiencing Celebration.”

This peace Lee sought came on the heels of what can easily be described as a trying time in his life. He had become the primary caregiver to his grandmother, who suffered a debilitating stroke in November and was facing a losing battle against a lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain. It was his job, he said, to manage her medication, cook her meals and maintain an organized household.

“It was a bittersweet experience,” Lee wrote. “On the one hand, I spent two full months in my grandmother’s company, but on the other I was witnessing her declining health. She passed away Feb. 3, the day after my (twin) sister’s and my birthday.”

But before things got better for Lee, they took a turn for the worse. In the late spring he heard from his recruiter about a teaching opportunity in Korea. He did not make the cut.

Hence, he said, the decision to accompany his good friend on a bike tour to Alaska was an easy one.

Hoyt said the journey brought his study of Native cultures to life. He said he noticed many similarities between his Tlingit people and the other Native cultures of Canada’s Interior.

“This is something I knew from books, but to see it in person made it hit deeper,” he said. “Many of the same stories and customs were present.”

He said he saw how many Native cultures still face challenges when it comes to preserving natural resources.

“We would continuously see the effects of logging, fishing and mining throughout the trip. I would often think about how my grandma would tell me that trees knew when other trees fell, because their roots were so intertwined, they could feel each other. I wondered if the same is true for our people still.”

The route these two good friends traveled was one many have done before. For them it wasn’t about the path they chose — instead it was about the journey.

“(Completing) a trip like this is an extremely solo and individualistic accomplishment. Either you can handle it or not,” Hoyt said. “No one else can peddle you up the mountain or into the wind.”

• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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