We’ve been moving for a week now. It’s Monday, July 9th. This morning we boarded a train from Anchorage to Denali. It feels a bit strange to skip ahead this early in the trip, but the forecast is projecting 25-40 mph winds and hellatious rain over the next few days. Riding and camping in that would be miserable if not impossible. We would not be able to make any worthwhile progress, so rather than sit and wait it out we decided to get ahead of it. The train takes about 8 hours. We will camp this evening, take a shuttle 90 miles to Wonder Lake, and cycle out. After this we will head south to the town of Cantwell and then ride the Denali Highway to Paxon.
In our first week we rode 4 days and covered about 192 miles. I felt surprisingly good.
Day 1: Homer to Ninilchik
Seven thirty wake up and pack bikes. Mostly done and bakery breakfast with grandma at 9:00. Turn back and pack the rest. Crossing fingers that local reporter forgets to come by but she does and is a nice Northern Michigan girl with purple hair. Chit chat and ready to roll at eleven thirty. Hugs and “I love you”’s. Too fast for tears. Reporter awkwardly snaps photos as we say goodbye to the click of her camera pointing at us.
First 3 miles out of town are up hill. Not terrible, but a hard start. Shoulder appears on road at the top, but traffic makes it difficult to enjoy the scenery. Immediate realization that I have too much weight. Bike bending and flexing. Pay attention to what lies ahead and slowly re position yourself around broken glass and debris in much the same way that a large ship avoids icebergs. You have to be moving relatively fast before you really have control, although once hitting higher speeds it begins to rattle violently. Best way to control is to let go of control. Let the body absorb the shaking so the bike stays straight. Any attempt at correcting the path is an over correction. It takes a while to get used to, but is ultimately a great exercise in Zen.
Lunch at sad roadside remnants of a town that never was. Old man mean mugs us as he pulls into lonely apartment with sign on door saying, “The best way to meet God is through prayer. The fastest is by trespassing.” Alaskans love guns. Everyone is concerned with your safety and the questions is always, “What sort of gun you carrying?” as opposed whether or not you have one. People like to show you their guns. When I purchased our bear spray a guy walked by and said, “Make sure you’ve got a gun too for when that shit don’t work.”
35 mile day to state park in Ninilchik. Easy camping experience for the first night. The park gives a funny sense of security from bears for no reason other than the fact that it is a park. At some point you look around and notice you are the onlyone using a tent, all the RV’s have left food out, and you’re only 100 feet from the dumpster.
Day 2: Ninilchik to Soldotna
Hard day. Woke up around 8. Leisurely packing the bikes and eating cereal. Coffee shop at end of campground road and old man telling stories of picking up a cyclist north of Anchorage. “He left his bike in the ditch and I says, ‘Dontcha want yer bike,’ and he says, ‘Fuck that thing, I’m buying a car.’ That was in 1976.”
Steady headwind and lots of traffic. Cars passing like a pendulum. Getting louder as one approaches and quieter as it leaves. Before it can disappear another one passes in our direction and the roar comes up from behind this time. You learn to tell what is coming up from the sound and vibration. Smaller cars sound like a weed whacker. Large semi-trucks sound like impending death. As they approach, the ground shakes. They push so much air that it forces you toward the outside of the road. You can’t hear a thing as they pass. As you’re struggling to not get pushed off the road, it passes and the drag from behind now sucks you into the trailer. Eventually you learn to time them.
Stop at silvery river near Kasilof and wash face. Keep moving to make Soldotna around 5 and get greasy super market chicken for dinner and spend 3 hours trying to find a place to camp. Local park has too many people. Big beautiful hill behind the grocery store, but too much trash laying around and we’re afraid of bears. Frustrated and tired we decide to pitch tent at end of dirt road in a cul de sac. Knock on door of nearest house to ask if anybody cared.
Lonely old man in wheel chair sitting in the dark 3 feet from a massive TV. There was trash all over the house and it smelled like dog piss. He didn’t take issue with us squatting nearby. In the future, we will camp several miles outside of towns. Not sure why that wasn’t obvious from the start.
Day 3 and 4: Soldotna to Cooper Landing to Girdwood
Despite a bad night of sleep due to the realization that we were sleeping in bear country starting to sink in, we woke up feeling great and ready to move. 10 quick miles and burrito breakfast at roadside shop to fuel up for the day. A man we had met the previous night drove by and stopped to make sure we had everything we needed and to warn us about 4th of July traffic and the road to Cooper Landing. A number of people had told us about the curves and lack of shoulder. We learned a few years ago that although most folks are good natured in their advice, they have no idea what makes for a good cycling route. They typically try to steer you toward whatever route they find best in a car. This usually involves long straightaways and 60 mph traffic.
A large shoulder offering safety is a misconception often times. Drivers use the white line as a psychological boundary. If you’re on your side and they’re on theirs, then everything is fine for them. They will happily pass you within six inches as long as you’re on the other side of that line. Take away the shoulder, step over the line, and all of a sudden you’re in their arena and they remember that the same matter cannot occupy the same space at the same time. You now get treated like a car and rather than pass as closely as possible they will usually change lanes to go around you.
The riding was spectacular. Winding along the Kenai River. Silvery blue from glacial runoff. “Beehives” by Broken Social scene provided the perfect audio backdrop and I played it on repeat. I couldn’t help but smile and yelled back,
“We’re riding bikes in Alaska!”
Mama and baby moose. Good old boys fly fishing the river. Motorcyclists giving us a fist in the air in respect of our efforts. Picturing in my head a world built for bikes. Alaska might be that world. Tiny villages every 30-40 miles with a single store to get everything you need until the next stop. Ever changing scenery. Plenty of water.
The original plan was to pass through Cooper Landing to get close to Girdwood. As we were riding along the emerald green Kenai Lake I started to think about how our down time was equally as important as our riding time. I didn’t want to repeat the night before so I made the call that we should stop early and try to find a spot on the lake. Amazingly we turned 30 feet off the main road and found a trail through the woods with a perfect place for our tent just above the water. I asked a local couple that were stocking their boat full of beer if there was any issue with staying there and they said “It’s public land! Enjoy the shit out of it. Just don’t burn it down.”
Quick dip in the lake to ice my sore muscles. We could walk 200 feet through the woods to a bar. We had whiskey, wine, and wifi. I could have stayed in that spot for a week.
As great as the riding felt that day, Thursday was a complete one-eighty. All we could find at the local store for dinner on Wednesday was boxed mac & cheese and a can of Vienna sausages. We woke up sluggish. I laid in bed trying to remember where I hid the bear canister with our food before realizing that I had left it next to our tent. Most of the day consisted of riding up hill and into the wind. We couldn’t get a break. I usually know about how far we’ve gone, but I always tell myself that it is probably 5 miles less than that before checking the GPS so there is no disappointment. Even with this buffer, we were never as far as I hoped. On the rare occasion that we got a downhill section we would still have to pedal against the wind.
It calmed just in time for a 7 mile section of down into Portage. From there it was 10 flat miles back into the wind before Girdwood. Merrideth had set us up to stay with some friends of hers and there was a steep hill before their driveway. Soph had kept it together all day, but this was too much and as she had to walk her bike for the last 100 feet of the day.
The Girdwood Forest Fair is one of those spectacular collisions of time, space, and humanity. For over 40 years Alaskan Hippies have been gathering in this little enchanted forest for arts, music, food, and excessive drinking. On the way into town there are hand painted signs with fairies on them that say “Don’t trash yourself, don’t trash our town.” This year’s festival had a bit of drama. The townspeople, being a relatively eclectic bunch, try to create an environment free of the modern banterings found on social media. There is a sign at the entry that reads, “No politics, no religion, no dogs.” Apparently a small religious group tried to enter the festival and proselytize last year and were escorted out by security. They sued the festival committee on the grounds of encroaching on their right to free speech. I overheard a few organizers lamenting over it and trying to figure out how they could legally keep them out. The irony of a festival centered around love and inclusiveness needing to hire a lawyer to keep religous groups out did not escape me....
Our hosts, Meg and Spencer, were shining examples of everything that is good about humanity. Having never met us, they graciously offered their futon for 3 nights. We decided to cook them dinner on Friday to show our thanks. Meg walked in from work with a garbage bag dripping water all over the floor.
“Do you guys know what this is?” As we scratched our heads she reached inside and pulled out a bowling ball sized chunk of ice. “It’s a mother fucking glacier!” She guided kayak tours had brought it back on a 2 hour train ride. It was dripping onto the floor the whole way. She let a few people break some chunks off to chill their whiskey. The next day she arranged for us to take the train to Spencer Glacier. The formation is named after a young railroad worker, Edward Spencer, that lost his way (and his life) while trying to traverse the ice in 1905.
Girdwood to Anchorage
On Sunday we got an early start to get ahead of the weather. We were able to beat the rain, and the wind was actually at our back most of the time. A forty mile per hour gust is enough to blow you over, but from behind it feels like somebody giving you a nice push. Once in Anchorage we grabbed a drink with a couple named Roger and Mary that I had met in Utah. They’re in their 70’s, but still running, biking, and climbing. They had some great insight on the availability of food and water during the next few sections of riding.
That evening was spent packing everything up at Merrideth’s place and getting reacquainted. Despite growing up in the same town and having many of the same friends when we were younger, we had only met once on my first trip to Alaska 15 years ago. It’s strange to think that there are millions of people around the world that you could be great friends with if your paths would just cross. When you travel you get little reminders of this constantly as you find new relationships that are meaningful at that time, but ultimately fleeting. It’s a nice thought though to know that you have friends sprinkled around that are willing to offer a place to sleep for a night knowing that you will do the same for them should they ever pass through your slice of the world.
Early morning ride along the coastal trail to catch the train. We saw 2 other couples loading their bikes on board to cycle through Denali. Looks like we may have some company in the next week or two. We arrived in Denali around 4:00. Shuttle scheduled for 11:00 tomorrow morning and camping spot secured. Looking forward to getting dropped 40 miles in the back country tomorrow.