I’m writing this as our first month on the road – and our time in Alaska – draws to a close. We are currently in Tok, a ‘town’ 90 miles from the Canadian border. Every place we’ve been to over the past four weeks has been so beautiful, it didn’t occur to either of us that Tok might be anything but. It turns out, however, that it’s a dusty little town, set along a flat, heavily forested highway, and has no obvious redeeming features. We planned a two-day R&R stop here, and having ridden our first four days of 50+ miles in a row, we really needed it. This experience has made me think that perhaps we should rest when we find somewhere we want to stop, rather than stop somewhere when we want to rest.
That everywhere else we’ve traveled through in Alaska has been beautiful is barely an exaggeration. We started our ride on July 2nd in a sweet little hippy-ish town called Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula. The first four days of riding, from Homer to Girdwood we took deliberately slowly, trying to find our groove. We actually drove the first day’s worth of our riding route before we set off, which felt a little ridiculous, as it’s the only time in two years we’ll have the luxury of knowing what is up ahead. At the same time it gave us a sense of security going into our first day of many days. In fact, the drive made the route seem much longer and harder than it felt actually riding it, and when we pulled into a campground overlooking the sea in the early afternoon, with enough time to stroll along the beach and cook a leisurely dinner, we felt pretty accomplished. To make it even more perfect, the beach was lined with bald eagles, which seem to be about as common in Alaska as pigeons are anywhere else. A nest must have been located just under the cliff where we camped, so a mature bird and a juvenile taking test flights swooped back and forth not thirty feet in front of us.
The following three days were a mix of charmed biking and camping, and not so good experiences, but from which lessons were quickly learned about what to do and not to do. Perhaps our best riding day to date was through Cooper Landing. We got an early start and arrived 45 miles later at Quartz Creek around 2pm, where we stumbled across a wild-camping spot a few feet from a glacial lake. The site was a short walk from a bar and a grocery store, so even though it was only the early afternoon and we easily could have gone on for 20 miles more, we quickly decided to stop for the day. We read in the sun and soaked our aching legs in the icy water. It was a fantastic end to a near perfect day of riding. It perhaps struck as even more perfect as we had started the day a little anxious, because people had warned us that the road through this area was narrow and winding and that the riding would be scary. In fact, a narrow winding road with no shoulder means you have to assert yourself, taking space in the lane, and cars have to wait to pass. In any case, the scenery was so stunning that drivers and bikers alike seemed relaxed and just happy to be in it. The lesson in this was that most people have no idea what makes for a good or bad road to ride on; if someone doesn’t bike regularly, take any advice they offer with a healthy pinch of salt.
The weather for our first stint of riding was perfect – low 70s, with a mix of sun and cloud. We hadn’t really appreciated how spoiled we were, until our hosts in Girdwood (the phenomenally generous Meg and Spencer), informed us these were the hottest days in Girdwood either of them could remember. As we started to plan our ride up to Denali National Park, we were confronted with what is perhaps more typical Southeastern Alaskan weather: Days upon days of torrential rain and gusty winds. Fortunately, we were in easy agreement that riding in conditions like that was not only unpleasant but also dangerous, and so we splurged on a train ticket from Anchorage to Denali in an attempt to get ahead of the bad weather. This partially worked…we managed to avoid any prolonged torrential downpours and gale-force winds, but the weather in Denali certainly gave us some training in non-fair-weather riding. The skies in Denali were mostly grey, and it was cold (low 40s) and on-off wet. The 90-mile dirt road ride that we did out of the park was about as challenging as I could have imagined. We sweated our way up the steep ascents and froze our way numb down the steep descents. We limped into a campground one night looking so pathetic that we were given whiskey, beers, hot chocolate and a steak dinner. Chris went to bed that night in another man’s shirt and socks! Lesson learned here: the RV community will not let you die of starvation or hypothermia (or sobriety). Despite the challenging weather, Denali National Park was incredible. We saw fox, moose, caribou, and SEVERAL GRIZZLY BEARS. All but one of the bears were specks of brown way out on the tundra (perfect!) and the one that was close enough to worry about was entirely uninterested in our presence, his back turned to us, walking away, nose to the ground. The Denali Highway was more of the same: challenging elevation, weather and road conditions, combined breath-taking scenery and vast wilderness. Since leaving Denali we haven’t seen any bears (we are quite alright with this) but we have had some close encounters with a couple of moose cows and their calves – close enough to make tired legs peddle faster!
The contrast of our first week’s weather to our second has made me acutely aware of how much the weather impacts how I feel. Riding and camping in the rain is tiring. Everything takes more time and more thought, since getting wet when it’s also cold can quickly become dangerous. In contrast, the last few days have been sunny with highs over 80f, and while that’s much more pleasant, it comes with its own challenges of hydration and shade-seeking (yes, even me!). It’s amazing how quickly you can go from worrying about hypothermia to worrying about sun stroke. At the same time, while I feel at the mercy of the elements and the wildlife of this vast state, I have also always felt like there are enough people around that I don’t feel unsafe. On any of the roads we have been on, I don’t think we would have waited more than 30-minutes for a truck or an RV to roll past that could have provided us assistance should we have needed it.
Tomorrow we will get up early take the Alcan (Alaska Highway) toward Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory. We’ll cross the Canadian border on Wednesday. After two days of resting my body feels (mostly) ready to get back on the bike, and after a month on the road my brain feels (mostly) ready for our nearly two thousand miles of Canadian biking touring. Thanks for the lessons, Alaska.