On Thursday morning we woke up to a flat mattress. It was the 19th of July. This had been going on for the last 10 days or so. There were close to 10 pathces in it at this point. It took me an hour to get out of bed. Our tent was over a small hill at the top of a driveway only 50 feet from the road. Trucks would pass and the ground would shake. I laid there thinking about riding next to them.
The day was beautiful. Blue skies, eighty degrees, no wind. The snow covered peaks of the Wrangel Mountains were in the distance. I thought they were clouds at first because of how high the pushed into the sky. We stopped for lunch at an old fishing lodge that was far past its day. The restaurant was closed, and the gas pumps were empty. The owners ignored us at first, but somehow took a shining to Soph and we ended up leaving with almost two pounds of salmon. Most of the day was downhill and we ticked off 50 miles by lunch time.
Our destination was the Gakona Lodge. Rebecca and Cliff are the owners. They get it. The food and atmosphere are top notch. They allow you to camp for free and understand the updated Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which wifi is foundational. I had prearranged our new sleeping pad to be delivered to them. It was the first town with a post office in about 250 miles. Most homes and businesses do not get mail delivered directly to them in Alaska. You get a PO box and have to go to the post office to pick everything up.
Waking up to a sleeping pad still inflated was a treat. We cooked the salmon for breakfast. Rebecca gave us coffee and sold us a 12 year old bottle of Canadian Club for $24. We’d heard about a nice private campground called Grizzly Lake and worked our way toward it. Twenty dollars seemed like a lot for a camping spot, although the place was nice. We set the tent up on the lake next to a little dock. The water was cold but refreshing. I ended up bartering the campsite for a few aerial photos of the place captured with our drone. There were kayaks and I took one out and followed small birds around the lake until midnight; hoping for but never encountering a bear on the shores.
I was up at 5:45 on Saturday and felt good. It was 70 miles to Tok. We stopped by the bathrooms on the way out and a guy started chatting to us about our bikes. I was looking forward to riding and was a bit dismissive. I went into the bathroom at sat down in a stall. A moment later the one next to me was occupied and I heard the voice of the man outside.
“You’ll like Tok. It reminds me of Anchorage 30 years ago.”
“Yeah. What you’re doing is great,” heavy breathing……… “How long did you say it would take?”
“Oh yeah, that’s fantastic.” Sound of diarrhea. “So what do you guys eat?”
I decided to cut things short. I quickly flushed, washed my hands, and said goodbye as I walked out the door. I felt violated somehow.
The day was harder than anticipated. Uphills were too large to carry the momentum from the down. Soph’s gear starting to weigh on me. Headwind the whole way. Most desolate I have felt despite the paved road. Two families of moose and bear shit near animal carcass. Resupply at little store. Rest under bridge just after seeing 3 moose. A bit unnerving, but I still got a quick nap in.
Rode hard for the last 25 miles. 14 mph into the wind most of the time and then chilled out for last 5 miles. We had a short look around town and procured some groceries at the first real store we had seen in over 600 miles. We had to backtrack a bit to a private campground.
The human condition is to believe that the current condition will forever be the future condition. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Denali Highway would last forever. It is a beautiful way to dream of the world. It is almost like riding through the forest in Bambi, before the fire of course. Even after the dirt turns to taramac, the vistas continue for well over a hundred miles. Then you approach Tok.
Tok is an effervescent hellhole of Polaris ORV’s with rifles strapped to the side rails driven by war veterans on patrol of the woods with an eye out for Smokey the Bear as if he were Charlie. Cheerful mockery of preventative measures such as not leaving half a roasted chicken next to your tent; you either kill the bear or you die. Garbage cans are left unsecured almost as a form of bait as even a small grizzly could provide a winter’s worth of meat. Tok is the Bambi forest after the fire.
The only dry spot in all of Alaska as far as I can tell. You ride through the most beautiful sites you have ever seen with joyful anticipation of where you’re going to be camping while you take a 2 day rest and then you come to find a fudge shop, $8 per pound bruised strawberries, an entire chicken in a can, and $5 rotisserie day old hot dog?. Vacant of the cool river to bath in. In desolation from the crisp breeze. Somehow barren and dry earth, yet a sticky humidity in the air that makes one’s fingertips sweat and leaves those annoying smudgy lines across the capacitive touch screen of modern communication machines.
Tok’s only redeeming quality beyond a rich history in competitive pancake throwing was a reliable internet connection. A new client had approached me with a small project before leaving and somehow felt that I was right for the job despite the vagabond lifestyle. I had been chipping away at it since we left and spent most of Sunday finishing it.
On Monday I did a bit of maintenance on the bikes. I had gotten covered in mud in Denali and decided that I wanted fenders. The reality is that these would not be feasible to purchase and install until the states so I wandered the grounds looking for old water bottles to make a crude version. I met a woman named Tracey. She appeared to be in her 50’s, was a bit of a smoker, but was also a cycle tourer. She had a bag of recycling and I made a convincing mud guard.
There is always an old lady at these campgrounds that runs the day to day show. She is pear shaped with short grey hair. Wears glasses. Rarely smiles and usually smokes. She drinks (but doesn’t really enjoy) white zin, bud light, and cheap whiskey. She wears faded cargo shorts past her knees. Her shirts are always a mystery to me. It is as if she walked into the thrift store and said to herself, “I need a shirt.” She then grabs the first shirt she sees. Rather than try things on she errs on the side of caution and just buys one that is really really big. There is always a logo for a video game or a truck or maybe even a drawing of a cute little fairy in a tattered mini skirt slaying a fire breathing dragon in the sky above some post-apocalyptic medieval world. She does not appear to give a damn what these representations say to others. To her, an article of clothing is a purely utilitarian device used as a layer of armor between sun, wind, and bugs.
We left Tok Tuesday morning and made it to Lakeview campground, about 40 miles from the Canadian border. It was a relatively peaceful night that is detailed HERE.
In the distance earlier that day we had seen a small plume of smoke. As we cycled it grew larger and eventually we realized that it was a forest fire. By the time we ate dinner at Lakeview the smoke had eclipsed the entire horizon. When we awoke on Wednesday, the campground was hazy. We rode for about 5 miles, but could really feel ash in our lungs as we breathed in on the uphills. We decided to hitchhike out of it. A few cars passed us by, but it didn’t take long before a road worker picked us up. He drove us straight to the border. I made a comment on how friendly Alaskans had been to us and he said, “Yep, we’re just like Canadians but with guns.”
For some reason the Canadian customs post is 20 kilometers beyond the border. The road feels different as soon as you get to Canada. The air is crisper compared to Tok. The first town is Beaver Creek. It’s not really a town. It is a gas station, a small convenience store, and a motel. Just passed town is a bridge. We camped under it along bBeaver Creek, shich seems more like a river. I was looking at bear prints all around where we had pitched our tent when Soph asked if I thought we would be safe there.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine.”