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Cycling the Klondike Highway between Skagway and Whitehorse

by Greg Klupar

A month ago

When Matt Jillson was a young boy, biking was just a function of getting there.

“I always had a bike growing up in Vermont,” Jillson said. “I lived on a farm outside of town, so it was nice to have a bike. The swimming hole was four or five miles away, so it was great having a bike to get around.

“When I was younger it was just a means of getting around until I was old enough to drive.”

Now, it’s a way of life.

Jillson, a guide for Sockeye Cycle in Skagway, has a passion for cycling that has taken him around the world, well past the local swimming hole of his youth. In fact, he didn’t even consider himself a real cyclist until he toured places as diverse as Colombia and Australia.

The thing he loves about tour biking is the freedom and the pace.

“You’re in control of where you’re going,” said Jillson, who often camps during long trips. “You don’t have to get hooked on finding a hotel or a hostel or get tied to a bus schedule. When you’re tour biking it’s not a race. Touring bikes aren’t meant for speed. They’re meant for comfort while you’re riding for hours and hours.

“Touring is about getting into that rhythm and watching the scenery and seeing the world go by. You’re going fast enough for the scenery to change and slow enough to stop and take a picture. You sometimes encounter wildlife or a beautiful vista and you can stop and get pictures.”

Jillson said he gets frustrated when touring other countries by bus “and you see something and you want to take a picture but you drive right past it.” So cycling the countryside allows him to actually stop and see what he’s traveling through.

That’s the goal of the bike touring company Sockeye Cycle, which encourages visitors to Alaska to experience the local landscape by bike.

Sockeye Cycle offers day trips, including one in which you travel the White Pass Train 15 miles to the summit of the White Pass and cycle down, an exhilarating experience for all ages, as well as multi-day cycling tours that take you deeper into Alaska and the Yukon, including the breathtaking Golden Circle route, a 9-day trip from Haines to Skagway.

Jillson said the cycling season lasts about five months, roughly the same as the cruise ship season, with “fever pitch” coming in June and July. He said from Skagway most tours tend to be about two to three hours but not much longer because the cruise ships that arrive in Skagway are only in town for the day.

Jillson, who said he spends half the year in Skagway “and half the year somewhere else,” has been coming to Skagway for the summer since 2015. He had always wanted to go to Alaska.

“You hear about all the adventures and the places you can go,” said Jillson, who has spent the last 10 years in Seattle. “I was waiting for the right time to go up. I didn’t want to just stay there for a week.”

Jillson has run marathons, but his favorite activity is tour cycling, and he has had his share of adventures on his bike. This year he biked the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay from Haines Junction to Haines, a distance of about 150 miles. Typically a breathtaking ride, this year four inches of extremely rare June snow had fallen (and too cold for “the naked lap”, a tradition among Sockeye Cycle guides.)

Sockeye Cycle guides after the Kluane International Road Relay near Haines, Alaska

“The last 15 miles, which I guided hundreds of times, was tough, with snow plows going by,” he said. “I was happy to get over the last pass because I either had to walk down or turn around and go back to Whitehorse.”

Luckily, it started to rain and the snow abated. If the snow had continued, he said, he probably wouldn’t have been able ride. But he was able to get back to Skagway safely. “It was good to end that trip,” said Jillson, who has also completed the Golden Circle, the 360-mile route from Haines to Skagway. As the crow flies that distance is only about 15 miles, but the road is long and winding from one point to another through mountain passes and circuitous paths.

Routes like the Golden Circle and those that go through the Kluane National Forest offer Jillson a chance to enjoy the natural surroundings of Alaska.

Jillson said cycling on long tours is a matter of getting your “legs.”

“On an average bike tour, I’d say most cyclists do between 40 and 60 miles a day,” Jillson said. “If you’re in really good shape you can do 80 to 100 miles a day, but that’s a pretty long day. If you’re fit, you should be fine.”

Jillson has advice for those who are interested in seeing the country by bicycle.

“Buy a good touring bike,” he said. “You can get one for $400 or $500. It’s a great commuting bike, and that’s a cost you can incur just by commuting in every day.”

But there is one piece of advice Jillson has for new cyclists.

“Invest in a comfortable saddle,” he said. “Try different saddles and find out which is the most comfortable. You have to work your body into it. Brooks England has some nice saddles. After you’ve gotten a lot of riding in, that’s when the comfort happens. You can ride all day and never feel sore.”

Jillson has traveled a long way himself, far from the swimming holes of Vermont, and he can’t imagine being without his bike, although he is philosophical about his life as a cyclist/hiker/marathon runner.

“I wouldn’t be terribly happy if somebody took away my bike, but I have a lot,” he said. “But biking is a great way to travel and explore. It’s a great tool for exploration.”

Sockeye Cycle's bike tour in Dyea