06.13.2002-06.26.2002 Anchorage, AK to Valdez, AK|
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|This was my first visit to Alaska so I wanted to spend some time getting acquainted with the state and giving my body a chance to firm up. I intended to spend the next three weeks cycling through Southcentral Alaska. I would cycle up to Denali National Park, across the Denali Highway and down to Valdez. From Valdez ferry schedules would determine which port on the Kenai Peninsula would receive me. I planned to spend the last week on the Kenai Peninsula before returning to Anchorage for my flight to Prudhoe Bay on July 6th. With this plan in mind I arrived in Anchorage, anxious to experience the long summer days. Clear skies upon my arrival soon turned grey and rain began to fall. The sky began to clear after nine at night so I went for a walk along the Coastal Trail. After some time I stopped at a park bench to nap under the late-night sun. Soon afterwards I was woken by feasting mosquitos. Late-night walks along the Coastal Trail would become the norm during my stay in Anchorage as bellowing snorers at the hostel, not lack of darkness, made sleep nearly impossible. The next day I bicycled further on down the Coastal Trail. I was amazed at the change in scenery--peaks not visible the day before now appeared crystal clear in the blue sky. Even the top of Denali, more than a hundred miles away, was visible. I cycled for several miles and then almost cycled into a moose. I was busy watching the coast and failed to see the large brown head protruding from the bushes on the other side of the trail. Unalarmed, it continued eating while I steered clear. I passed the remainder of my time in Anchorage wandering about the city and making numerous trips to REI to make last-minute purchases.
Eventually the time of departure arrived and I cautiously mounted my heavily-laden bicycle. I wanted to avoid riding on the main highway and therefore spent much time, perhaps too much time, exploring various side roads. Soon what should have been an easy forty mile ride turned into a nearly sixty mile ordeal. Of course, there's nothing "easy" about riding a bike with 75 lbs. of gear for the first time. Nor is there anything easy about riding in what was nearly record-breaking heat. The next day I started my approach to Hatcher Press, a scenic area which also contained the ruins of an old gold mine. As I began my ascent I came across a section under construction. More disturbing, however, was the sign stating that the pass itself was closed. A nearby highway worker informed me that I would not be allowed to ride through the construction zone but that she would find someone to transport me. I inquired about the pass and she replied that yes, the pass was closed to vehicular traffic, but that it would make for an interesting bike ride. A park ranger later drove me through the construction zone( and then some ) before dropping me near Independence Mine Historical Site. He also said the pass would make for an "interesting" bike ride. I didn't know what they exactly meant by "interesting" but I realized then that in a land of extremes like Alaska I'd best recalibrate my adjectives. I spent some time wandering through the gold mine ruins and admiring the beautiful backdrop of snowy peaks. Somewhat tentatively I made my way on to the road up the pass. Steep grades with loose gravel and several snow fields required dismounting and walking but achieving the pass was not too difficult. The descent on the other side provided more beautiful scenery and little traffic. Eventually the road joined the Parks highway and I joined the throngs heading North towards Denali National Park. My only planned diversion along the route was a stop at Denali State Park to do some hiking. I had been told that a ridge within the park provided the best view of Denali, and then arguably, the best view in North America. But Mother Nature would not cooperate and a nearby forest fire left the area in a haze. Instead of stopping for a hike, I simply stopped off to cook lunch. Before doing so a man approached
me to ask me about my travels. He then asked if I had any protection against bears. I told him that I had yet to buy any but I did intend to as soon as my route necessitated it. He lectured me for quite some time on the dangers of bears and then offered me a new canister of bear spray. I thanked him and then he said the Good Lord had told him to give it to me. He repeated this several times. I hoped that didn't mean that the Good Lord intended for me to be attacked by a grizzly bear.
The ride into Denali National Park marked the end of the fair weather: I arrived in a downpour. I had originally contemplated touring the park by bicycle but the foul weather made my decision. I would experience the park from the dry confines of a park shuttle bus. In Denali the park shuttle buses carry passengers to given points along the park road. Along the way passengers are welcomed to tell the driver to stop whenever they sight wildlife. This is a fine system as 40 sets of eyes are better than a few but it does lend itself to the abuse of certain over-eager wildlife spotters. These are the people who, in their eagerness to be the first to spot wildlife, often mistake inanimate objects for wildlife. Our bus had one such person. Fortunately, after spotting several rocks for us in the first few miles he realized the group no longer appreciated his efforts and remained silent for the rest of the trip. Ironically, I would soon realize that on this trip, where the wildlife was always far from the road, the differences between rocks and wildlife were more subtle than one would expect. I mean, if you've seen a brown blob moving around on a distant hillside have you really seen a grizzly bear? On our return trip we were held hostage by the Bird Watcher. This is the person who, though quite adept at spotting wildlife, spots wildlife that, sadly, nobody really cares about. A good-natured group can turn ugly in a hurry, especially when all they really want to do is catch a glimpse of the park's namesake animals and return to the warmth and comfort of their RVs or lodge rooms. After several prolonged stops for distant birds the group's discontent began to materialize in the form of derisive comments. Me, I just had a cold and damp tent to return to so I would have been content if the ride lasted all day.
Eventually the rain stopped and I departed the park with dry gear and rested legs. I backtracked to Cantwell and, leaving the tour buses and all but the most hearty(and friendly) RVers behind, made my way on to the Denali Highway, a 135 mile stretch of mostly gravel road connecting the Parks and Richardson highways. I had been warned that the highway was in especially bad condition this year. But this only served to raise my expectations for a rewarding ride. And the Denali highway did not disappoint. Along the way it provided beautiful views of the Alaskan range to the North, endless tundra and plentiful birdlife. I didn't expect much in the way of services along the road and so was surprised to come across a cafe/lodge by the name of Gracious House on the second day. This is the kind of place that, even if you're not tired or hungry, you feel obligated to stop by because it's the only habitated place on a long, lonely stretch of road. I went in for some lunch and wasn't surprised to see several campers from the night before. Soon the two inward facing counters were filled with other travelers from the road. Conversation came easy, as it often does when strangers meet in far-flung places, sharing a common experience. After lunch, recharged, I made good time on the road that alternated between unavoidable washboard and exposed rock. Since I had spent the night before at a campground I was looking forward to spending a night alone on the tundra, free from the din of generators and barking dogs. I had spotted many idyllic turnouts during the day so my expectations for the perfect campsite were high. But as nighttime arrived rain began to fall, threatening to choose my site for me(I try to avoid setting up or taking down camp in a downpour at all costs). Just as I was about to be forced off the road due to heavy rain I came across the perfect site--a level turnout overlooking two ponds. Waterfowl was plentiful: two trumpeter swans greeted my arrival. After cooking dinner I made a quick retreat to my tent, not desiring to do battle with the swarming mosquitos any longer. Once inside I saw several hundred mosquitos prancing on the walls outside my tent. The buzz of the mosquitos, the chirping of the birds and the pitter-patter of rain on my tent would keep me company throughout the night. The next day I had to ride through Maclearan pass, one of the highest highway passes in Alaska. Given the nature of the road I expected a stiff grade and wondered how my legs would fair. As I settled into the slow pace the pass dictated I soon realized that my legs would be the least of my worries. I already knew that below 7 MPH mosquitos became bothersome. On the pass I learned that below 5 MPH they swarm. To retain my sanity I had no choice but to put on my headnet.
The first few days of the Richardson Highway were uneventful. One night I stayed in a private campground and was able to witness Alaska fishing, RV style. I watched dozens of RVers back their RVs to within feet of each other and within feet of a salmon-filled river. From the back doorsteps of their RVs they needed only to walk a few steps down to the river to start hauling(perhaps dragging is a better word?) in salmon. I also witnessed my most absurd instance of RVing to date: a bus-sized RV with Chevy Suburban in tow. There was only one real physical challenge on the Richardson Highway--Thompson Pass, gateway to Valdez. But beautiful scenery often accompanies physically challenging sections and the ride through Thompson Pass was no exception. Glaciers accompanied me on the way up and a beautiful river canyon on the way down. Waterfalls fell on both sides of the road. I imagined that on a warm, sunny day I might be tempted to stop and cool off under one of these waterfalls. But it was anything but warm and sunny and I'd been riding under a waterfall of a different sort(called rain) most of the day so I didn't linger. Instead, I made haste to Valdez, eager for a good meal and my first shower in five days.
|Distance||Elevation Gain||Flat Tires|
|Leg||523 mi/841 km||22650 ft/7431 m|
|Trip||523 mi/841 km||4 mi/6 km||