After Denali National Park, our next stretch was The Denali Highway. This was slated to be the most desolate section yet. The road runs from Cantwell (about 35 miles south of the park) for 135 miles to Paxson. Most of it is moderately maintained dirt with a few sections of chip seal and asphalt.
We left Denali on Saturday, July 14th. The day was cold, grey, windy, and uphill with intermittent rain. Soph was struggling. I took her laptop as well as the toiletries so she had less weight. I have a tendency to set lofty goals and sometimes have a hard time understanding that they look daunting to others. To make it through Canada and back to the states before snow in the mountains, we would need to be averaging 60-70 miles per day 5 days per week. That is quite a bit on a 100 pound bike. It usually doesn’t occur to me to ask whether or not I can do something, let alone whether or not somebody else can, my approach is simply to come up with a plan to do it. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t, but you never know if you don’t try.
We had a small bout about how much ground was realistic to cover. In the end I realized that these numbers might not be realistic and we would likely need to hitch a ride at some point in order to safely make it back to the lower 48 before the cold weather.
As we approached Cantwell, there was a small white cross on the side of the road. It reminded me of memorials put out for cyclists that have been hit by a car. The tradition is to take an old bike and paint it completely white and leave it at the spot of the crash. They’re hard to pass without thinking of your own brushes with Buicks.
Cantwell consists of two gas stations. One of them is nice. Locals sit inside at picnic tables and discuss shooting things, welding things, and local political things. You can get some “groceries” if you need to. The other one is probably a front for a meth lab. There are a few canned goods covered in dust. The guy at the counter doesn’t seem interested in serving you anything. None of the gas pumps appear to work.
I went out to fill our fuel canister and a man offered to pay for it with his tank of gas as it only takes thirty five cents worth of fuel and seemed silly to get a credit card out for it. His name was Mitch and he was a highway patrolman, originally from Jackson, Michigan. We chatted for a few.
“Not sure if you noticed, but there is a little memorial about 200 yards north of here. Just two days ago a couple of kids swerved and hit a tanker.”
“You said it man. I’ve been to over 150 wrecks in twenty years. I’ve never seen a body toasted like that. Shame.”
I thanked him for the gas. Back inside the clerk had been impressed enough with our endeavor that he gave Soph a 5 Hour Energy Drink and two bananas. As we walked out and got on our bikes a white truck pulled up and a man hopped out and exclaimed, “Hey, I follow you on Instagram!” We’d apparently just posted a picture and it popped up on his phone a few minutes before. Small world.
I felt terrible the second half of the day. The gas station was smoldering inside and my body never cooled down from riding. Fortunately the energy drink was working on Soph. I tucked in behind her and drafted so she could block the wind for me. We ended the day at Brushkana Creek. We camped by the river; campsite number four. On the other side was an old abandoned cabin that was no more than another year’s worth of erosion from falling into the water.
There are three lodges on the Denali Highway. From west to east they are The Tangle river Inn, Alpine Creek Lodge, and McLaren River Lodge. We passed the Tangle river Inn early on Sunday morning. The place is a compound. Restaurant, bar, cabins, and a lodge. One of the buildings had an earthen roof, although I am not sure if that was intentional or if it had just gotten covered with moss over the years. The bar was named the Sluice Box, which a thing you use to pan for gold. The inside walls were papered with dollar bills. This is apparently an Alaska thing. It was too early for a stop though, so we had some ice cream and moved on.
In Girdwood I had shipped a large amount of gear back to Utah that I had deemed as superfluous. Included in this shipment were my spare cleats for my riding sandals. I decided that having never lost one in 7 years they were probably overkill.
The first 30 miles of the road were relatively well groomed. From there it gradually turns to washboard with rocks the size of baby heads. In the mountain biking world these rocks are referred to as “baby heads.” The vibration of these roads takes an impressive toll on the bikes. My rear rack basically fell off in Denali and every day I found new bolts that had begun to loosen. I noticed my sandal becoming a bit sloppy to remove from the pedal and figured one of my cleats was getting loose. I stopped to inspect it and it had actually lost a bolt. I had to remove the cleat which meant I lost the mechanical advantage of being able to pull up on the pedal with that foot. 20 miles later we met Ed.
Ed was the first touring cyclist we had passed going in the opposite direction of us. He was 65 and it had always been his dream to cycle through Alaska. He had an aluminum framed bike with relatively thin tires. A terrible choice for the current terrain. He’d had a heart attack a few years back and decided that he’d better get working on the bucket list. His route was a loop; starting and ending in Fairbanks with the Denali Highway being the Magnum Opus of it all. I mentioned my cleat and happy to shed a quarter of an ounce he gave us two spare bolts to reaffix it.
At the time we didn’t realize it, but in retrospect Ed was the first of a handful of older men riding alone that we would pass. As we met more of them, there was a striking characteristic that they all seemed to share. The wanted to tell you about every granular detail of what is ahead for you.
“Well in about 1 mile the rocks will turn to loose gravel and you’ll climb a hill. After that you get back to the baby heads. Two miles back it will turn a bit to the east and there will be some trees and a small creek…….” I generally try to ask specific questions about food and water locations, but there appears to be an innate desire to recite their entire turn by turn experience. “Sixty five miles back the road is sort of paved, but not really paved,” (this is chip seal. They pour tar all over compacted dirt and then dump gravel in it. It is basically a controlled oil spill on top of a dirt road). “The sort of paved stuff will last for 10 miles or so. Half a mile into it there will be a hill. At the top of the hill there will be a sign. The sign says ‘Highest point on the Denali Highway’,” and so on. Eventually I just look at my wrist as if I’m wearing a watch and say, “Shit Soph, look at the time! We better move.”
The wind, road conditions, and hills forced a pathetic pace and we rode less than 40 miles in close to 10 hours that day. We finally arrived at the Alpine Creek Lodge early in the evening. Camping was $10. Rooms were $85 per person. Showers were $10 (clean shower and towel not included), “all you can eat” dinner and breakfast were $20 and $15 respectively. We camped, skipped the shower for a bird bath in the bathroom sink, and bought both breakfast and dinner. They unapologetically ran out of food before we had much time to eat……
Monday was one of our best days. Despite the premature cutoff of breakfast, we had relatively full bellies and everyone we’d met said this was one of the best stretches. Having not paid much attention to Ed’s mile by mile description, everything was a beautiful surprise. The road is set thirty feet above the valley floor and winds across the prairie like an endless dragon tail. Several miles on either side are 12,000 foot peaks. Rain threatened almost all day. There were storms on each side of the road, but somehow there was a narrow strip of blue sky above us most of the way.
Our goal was the McLaren River Lodge. Seven miles out we could see the road turning into a narrow slot between two mountains and both storm systems appeared to be converging there. The rain started to hit, but knowing that we had a dry lodge ahead where we could get a room we decided to push on rather than get the rain gear out. It was mostly downhill and winding and my back tire would skid from under me a bit as I took corners. By the time we reached the lodge my fingers and lips had gone numb. All of my clothes were dripping. Denali’s lessons of hypothermia had yet to sink in. There was a small covered picnic area in front of the restaurant and we wrapped our sarongs around ourselves so we could completely change without putting on too much of a show. When we walked inside, the place was everything a wet traveler could hope for.
“How can I help you?”
“I’m sorry, I’m too cold to talk right now but I see that you have a couch and blankets and a TV with Lord of the Rings. How about we go veg out over there for two hours and get drunk, then we can discuss business?”
“It’s actually the Hobbit, but sure.”
We grabbed our sleeping bags and watched six hours of movies, ate ice cream, and drank whiskey. The rooms were utilitarian, but dry. The next day they let me use their shop space to make a few repairs and we generally did nothing of value. The forecast had been for torrential downpour, but it was sunny all day. This is how the weather tends to work. The mountains push all of the systems around and you end up with a bunch of microclimates. I’m sure it rained somewhere.
We left the Mclaren Lodge on Wednesday. It was July 18th, our fifth and final day on the Denali highway. We had one big climb and then we were back on pavement. We started to get views of Mt. Sanford in the Wrangell Mountains. 16,000 feet tall. Air force exercises nearby breaking the sound barrier and the whole world shaking. Trying to explain to Soph how to find something to be angry about and channel it against the hills while listening to Them Crooked Vultures. Dead Paxson town at end of the road. Soldiers giving us MRE’s. On TV they always look strong and grown up, in person you realize they are just kids.
That road was the highlight of Alaska. If I had to choose between it and Denali Park, I would take the highway. It is more remote, and you’re not bound by the bureaucracy of the National Park Service. Although we stayed in established campsites and lodges, knowing that you can camp anywhere is reassuring. I was still thinking about what the park ranger had said about wilderness. Traveling for 50 miles at a time without seeing a person helped me gain an understanding of what this meant.
Just beyond Paxson we saw a home for sale just off the road that appeared to be vacant. We had read that these spots made for good camping up here. Perfect dock for dinner on glacial lake. Amazed by the MRE’s. Just add water to mysterious pouch of chemicals and you have a beautiful fire and environmental hazard that also makes over processed and preserved food piping hot. Beef stew with a PB&J, mustard pretzels, and an apple muffin. Chili with cornbread, crackers and cheese, and cheddar pretzels.
Couldn’t tell if the place was empty at first. Walked around and tried plugging my phone into exterior outlets and checked all the faucets. No electricity, no water. Vacant. It was a beautiful and easy place to camp. We had the dock, the lake, a flat spot sheltered from the wind for the tent, and even an outhouse. Ultimately we both felt strange about staying there without permission. “This isn’t who I am. I don’t take things without asking,” Soph said. In the end we decided that we were stealing and did not want to camp like this again.