Follow your passions, the self-help gurus said. So I followed my passion for cycling to Alaska. I may not be the fastest or the skinniest guy on a bike, and I’m certainly not the richest. But where other people pay to ride, spending their hard-earned dollars on entry fees and bib shorts and bike vacations, I get paid to ride.
My passion is my profession.
I stumbled into a cycling career, midlife. My high school guidance counselor never suggested that I be a bicycle guide. Or a bicycle courier. Or a bicycle mechanic, a bicycle writer, or a bicycle builder. Or a bicycle podcaster, photographer, videographer and t shirt artist. It’s been a do-it-yourself ride.
For my second summer, I’ve had the luck and tenacity to get paid full-time (and sometimes overtime) by Sockeye Cycle Company to shuttle cruise ship passengers up to the top of Alaska’s White Pass. Then we kit them out in helmets, and occasionally rain gear, and lead them down the Klondike Highway for fifteen miles, past marmots and bears, from alpine tundra into the coastal rainforest of Skagway, Alaska.
It’s good work if you can find it.
There’s a rhythm to the days. Seven AM client transfers from the cruise ships to the trains. Eight AM van drives up past the treeline to the summit. Two hours and twenty minutes from pickup to conclusion. Three and a half hours of work per tour. The daily rotation from tour to tour as the lead guide, tail guide, and driver. Some days are “Trondikes:” three Klondike Tours in a row. Rare days are “Trifectas:” a Klondike, a Train & Bike, and a Rainforest Tour. Five or six days on. One or two days off. Six PM Monday guide meetings.
Eat. Ride. Rain. Rinse. Drink. Sleep. Repeat.
In the land of the midnight sun, the absence of darkness makes the summer days feel endless. We fall into a groove of eating, riding, drinking, sleeping. From the front of the van, we spin twenty-minute long stories of salmon and glaciers, raven and lichen, stampeders and packers and soiled doves. We are safety officers; “Both wheels on the ground, please, sir.” We are motivational coaches; “There are only ten more blocks of headwind, you can do this.” Occasionally we are arbiters; “Ma’am, I think your son would have a much better experience going down the Hill in the van.”
We have the unalloyed joy of creating bucket-list moments for people.
From my bedroom window over the shop, I can hear satisfied clients on the boardwalk below gush to their friends, “That bike ride was the best thing I’ve ever done!”
Sure, it’s a totally manufactured experience. Every highway and trail is a man-made artifice. We drive our clients in fifteen-seat vans, towing just as many bikes on a trailer behind us. We drape them in synthetic materials to keep the wind and rain at bay and wrap their brains in styrofoam. We sit astride robotically manufactured bicycles. There’s precious little “natural” about our encounter with nature. The Klondike Highway and the Dyea Townsite are not truly wild. But their three-hour tour with Sockeye Cycle Company is far wilder than any cruise ship go-kart track or a portside t-shirt shop.
I like to think that we inspire our clients to get on their bikes again after they get home. We know our clients who show up at the dock with their bike gloves and bike shorts on need little reminding to ride. It’s the other folks that I want to nudge onto their bikes. I want them to feel freedom and exhilaration and wonder and awe, and just a little bit of fear. I want them to rediscover the childhood joy of riding down a hill. I want them to look at their bikes and remember that joy.
As we near the summit of the White Pass, as the majesty of almost-untrammeled Alaskan wilderness unfolds in front of my clients through the van windows, I recite the words of Robert Service,
It’s the great big land way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease,
It’s the beauty that fills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.