It’s been a few weeks (months, perhaps?) since I last posted. I know.
For better or worse, after leaving Banff and picking up the Great Divide I was under a bit of a time crunch. With three weeks in September carved out for work, and a little off-the-bike play, I needed to push the pace to make it as far south into Colorado as I could. My fear of an early winter in the Rockies kept me in the saddle — and off the computer.
While I relish the physical and mental challenges that come with setting lofty goals, I’m also aware of the potential for burnout. This time was no exception. After a month of pounding pedals on limited rest, my legs were drained, my ass sore and I was in deep caloric debt. When mid-September rolled around, I still felt motivated to ride. Then I hung up the bike for a few days; up went the bike, down went my motivation to get back on it.
Wrapped in the comfort of the world of Backroads, replete with three weeks of abundant food, soft beds and familiar friendly faces, I’m left softened like a couch potato. Two extraordinary weeks with Erin hasn’t done much to refuel my motivation, either.
I’m currently waiting out the early winter storms I feared would halt my progress along the Divide, holed up — on a couch — in Denver with my cousin Stephanie. The good news: the weather forecast is for sun and warmer temperatures next week. The need to push miles has passed. The luxury of slowing down has returned.
Into the Great Basin after a few days of rest in Jackson.
Dinner along Little Sandy Creek.
Jim rejoined us out of Jackson.
This stretch of winding road straddled the Continental Divide, offering sweeping views of the Great Basin to the south.
Favorable winds and gently rolling terrain made for perfect riding conditions.
Jim waiting patiently. At 60, he had no problem "finding his groove" and riding us off his wheel, effortlessly plowing ahead while we struggled to keep pace.
Riding at dusk proved the best way to beat the heat. With endless opportunities for camping, we had the luxury of riding until sunset, my favorite time of day.
Aspen Alley, a gateway of sorts from the rolling hills of the Basin into the mountains of Colorado.
No bikes here. In Steamboat I hopped a ride with Greyhound to rendezvous with my good friend and climbing partner, Nick. We bee-lined to Jackson, WY where the weather window for the Grand Teton welcomed us with open arms. Here, we're midway between the Lower and Upper Saddles. Parking lot to summit and back in a one-day push is no easy feat, but now that the pain of a 26-mile, 17-hour day climbing 7,000 feet is behind us, mostly good memories remain. The highlight of the day: Nick's first lead placing his own gear -- at 13,000 feet!
Then it was on to Connecticut to support a 450-person charity bike ride with Backroads where I was lucky enough to spend a second straight birthday with 64 friends and co-workers. Panda says hi. (Photo courtesy of Erin Barr)
Plaid on plaid -- on plaid! The collision of bicycle and girlfriend has the wheels turning for a possible change in plans. Last I checked, Erin has a pretty solid touring bike...! (Photo courtesy Sam Pope)
In the few short weeks off the bike, Autumn settled in nicely outside of Steamboat Springs, CO.
The hills ablaze with yellow Aspen leaves.
The chase is on. A friendly reminder that an endless summer can only be found south of here.
Muddy, leave-covered dirt can be expected for the next couple weeks. Here's hoping for an Indian Summer!
Here’s a photo recap of the ride through Montana, a slice of Idaho and over the Tetons to Jackson, Wyoming.
The town park was crammed full with tents, bikes, random assortments of gear, a six-pack of Deschutes paired with chips and salsa. For the night, Eureka, MT was host to a mini reunion of Divide riders, all slightly surprised by the number of late-season dirt seekers.
Bruce, Dave and Jim stayed for the night, lured by juicy burgers, beer and a shower. A speedy Kiwi had passed through earlier in the day, eager to cover more ground southward. There was the burly Dane, hauling the kitchen sink in full panniers and trailer, just days from finishing his ride in Banff. Greg and Sadie were sipping cold beer and dining on gourmet vegan food, resting for the day while Greg’s achilles soaked in ibuprofen.
The weeks ahead were bound to be fun.
The Great Divide continued to impress from the border through the Whitefish Mountains, along Glacier National Park and into the vibrant mountain town of Whitefish. The road was wide open descending Whitefish Divide; under sunny skies I rode 25 miles without seeing another soul, a perfect morning on the bike.
A lighter, cleaner Troll, courtesy of the Backroads leader house in Whitefish.
If you find yourself on the Divide in northern MT, a night at the Arnone's is a must!
Tom and his wife Pat have been hosting cyclists as long as the Divide has been around. A frame builder (notice the decal?), former racer and all around avid cyclist, Tom is still riding strong just shy of his 80th birthday!
Tom had cold beer waiting when I arrived and Pat walked me through the garden to whip up a fresh salad for dinner. A pot full of fresh raspberries was the perfect dessert. The following morning I was woken by the sweet sound of Pat grinding spelt for pecan pancakes and before I could finish unzipping my tent Tom was halfway across the yard with a glass of OJ in hand! These folks know how to treat a touring cyclist!
Tom gave me a tour of his shop, showing off his motorcycle collection and a few of his favorite bike frames, along with a house full of hand-carved rifles, furniture and other decorative wooden pieces.
This little Italian job looked like a blast to whip around. Before I could finish breakfast Tom was down the road, riding with the spirit of someone half his age. I nursed my coffee, soaking in the sun and chatting away the morning with Pat, in total admiration of their life on the farm.
Sunset behind the Mission Mountains above Seeley Lake. Not long after, I spooked a massive elk while rounding a corner, rounded the next and launched into a game of hide-and-seek with 3 wolf pups.
Soaking up the Big Sky sun on my way out of the Swan Mountains.
I reconnected with Greg and Sadie a week after meeting them in Eureka.
Sadie crushing it on her 700c Specialized CrossRoads.
With similar paces and laid-back styles, we were happy to join forces against the brutal terrain of Montana. Try as we did, we quickly discovered these mountains were beyond conquering.
Through all of the jello-legging, we were treated daily to blue skies, quite roads, lush forest, expansive views of uninhabited wilderness and nights around campfire wrapped in the blanket of a radiant Milky Way.
Thanks, but I'll walk.
Resupply in Basin, MT.
A dream deferred.
Since when did Interstate rest areas stop stocking cold soda? The 2-mile diversion for an icy, caffeinated beverage at least provided a shady retreat from the midday sun.
The LEGENDARY Fleecer Ridge. Warning: Ride at your own risk!
More downhill hike-a-bike.
Greg and Sadie live in Duluth, Minnesota where they've helped form the Bike Cave Collective, work closely with the Catholic Worker movement and ride bikes year-round. And yes, that means in -30*F weather, too. Greg also sews with Black Rose Bags, a collective of cyclists crafting beautiful handmade bike bags from recovered materials. Check 'em out!
Idaho, for a day.
Ah, the comforts of town: shade, soft green grass, beer from a bike bottle...
...and a couple nights with a Warmshowers host. No better way to cap a blissfully grueling run through Montana!
After years of ogling at maps and photos of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route — daydreaming of narrow dirt roads winding through broad mountain valleys and over high rocky passes, imagining the sound of knobby rubber floating over lightly-traveled gravel, yearning for the cadence of a more simple life upon a saddle — I finally hit trail on August 4 outside of Canmore, Alberta.
Just above Canmore on my way to connecting with the Divide.
With snowmelt from a late, wet winter overfilling many rivers and creeks in the Rockies I was forced to reroute from the traditional singletrack start in Banff and instead picked up route after cresting the pass to Spray Lakes out of Canmore. From there it was 50 miles of well-maintained dirt road through the beautiful Spray valley up and over the first Divide crossing at Elk Pass into British Columbia.
A day along the Elk River and a short stretch of pavement through the town of Sparwood brought me to the slopes of Flathead Pass, a gateway to the type of remote backcountry riding I’d been dreaming of. With nearly 100 miles of uninhabited dirt road spanning the Flathead and Wigwam River valleys to the border of Montana, this three-day stretch will go down as a highlight.
Blue skies and smooth dirt along Spray Lakes.
The ridge of the Great Divide frames the route through British Columbia
Try as I might, I still haven't seen a big cat in the wild. A late day swim followed by a warm campfire made for comfortable camping at Blue Lake, threats of vicious wildlife aside.
Creek bed or dirt road? Either way, descending Flathead Pass provided a welcome diversion with slightly more technical riding and a few creek crossings.
I'd been chasing three sets of tracks since crossing into BC and finally caught these guys along the Flathead River. Dave, Jim, and Bruce (from left to right) are riding buddies back home in western Massachusetts.
It was nearly 20 years ago when Jim caught wind of Adventure Cycling's plans to develop a long distance mountain bike route along the crest of the Rockies. Bruce and Dave joined him for the beginning of his Divide thru-ride, Bruce along until Whitefish, MT and Dave through Butte, MT.
The map showed singletrack. We found a 1-mile muddy bushwhack straight uphill.
Exhausted after pushing uphill -- twice. Working in pairs to hike our bikes up the muddy slope was a plus.
Dave topping out Galton Pass, a brutal 7-mile climb on the heels of our hike-a-bike.
Headed for home. Back on pavement to the border after a brake-burning descent off of Galton Pass. Pleasure riding with you guys!
Not so much live but here’s a little video sample/test post of what I’ve been riding for the past week, from Banff, Alberta south, through the Kananaskis Valley into British Columbia’s Flathead and Wigwam River valleys before descending Galton Pass back into the US of A.
I have a full post on the way, highlighting my first week on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. So far the riding has been a spectacular mix of fire roads through quiet river valleys and over mountainous passes with the occasional stretch of singletrack, and a vertical, muddy, 1/2-mile hike-a-bike thrown in for good measure. I’ve been blown away by the quality of riding and hear it only gets better!
I’ve been a little slack on the blog front lately, mostly in favor of the welcome company of a riding buddy and a string of extremely generous Warmshowers hosts. Here’s a quick recap of the past two weeks:
Well over 700 kilometres of British Columbia pavement stood between my last rest day in Smithers and my entrance into the Canadian Rockies at Jasper, Alberta.
Luckily I was joined by Salva. A self-proclaimed half Don Quixote, half Little Prince gypsy traveler from Grenada, Spain, Salva has been traveling the world by bicycle since 2006. As a teacher who spent every free holiday exploring the ends of the Earth on his bike, he was finally "fed up with coming home, having a return ticket" booked before he left.
The hospitality of kind Canadian souls propelled us through "the wettest summer in decades," as every local was quick to point out. Curtis and Bonnie Culp's farm along the Fraser River in Dunster was a highlight. Here Curtis waits patiently for Hummingbirds to feed on the irresistible nectar.
At just the right moment, he releases the net.
With a gentle touch the birds are corralled for a brief trip to the 'lab.'
Nestled in the fertile Robson valley, the Culp's farm sits amidst a major migratory path of the Rufous Hummingbird. With up to 250 winged visitors per day (consuming over 2 gallons of sugar-water nectar daily!), Curtis decided to help with a Cornell University research study documenting these beautiful birds.
Blinded and bound by a soft cotton cloak, the hummingbirds are relaxed long enough for a quick measurement and tagged with the smallest of bracelets.
Flying north to Alaska each spring, the male birds pass through before the females to find safe breeding grounds. As the migration south was just underway, Curtis was tagging mostly females during my stay. Part of a North American Rufous network, birds tagged at the Culp farm have been spotted as far south as Texas, and the research indicates they spend their winters in Central America.
Salva carefully cradles the 3.5-gram female before she darted off in a wing-flapping flash.
After tagging a few birds, Curtis took us up the hill to scan through images on his motion-detected camera in the woods. With 175 acres of farmland and pristine forest, the Culps have regular visitors including grizzly and black bears, cougars, moose, white-tailed deer, wolves, wolverines, and this friendly little ground squirrel.
Genuinely warm and generous, Bonnie and Curtis welcome any and all cyclists. At the Dunster turnoff on the Yellowhead, cross the Fraser and follow the Lilac signs. Watch out though, Bonnie will charm you with her quick wit and fill you with homemade beer and pancakes with fresh berries, whipped cream and syrup--you'll never want to leave!
Farewell to friends in Jasper. I hope to reconnect with Salva and Bob further south.
Solo once again on the Icefields Parkway. Rolling through Jasper and Banff National Parks on a busy, 3-day weekend isn't a recipe for quiet enjoyment. The RV traffic seems to thin out by early evening, though, and battling for a slice of pavement gives way to the sound of wind funneling through the jagged, glaciated valleys in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
Indian Paintbrush bursting through a thicket of 'Hippy on a Stick.' The parks are truly magnificent. Bring your backpacking gear and spend time exploring the endless backcountry, load the camper with charcoal and grill and settle in to a day-hiking/road-riding base camp, or join the ranks of the loaded touring cyclists passing through. Either way, there's something for everyone.
I was high-tailing it to Banff to catch up with Scott Felter, Mr. Porcelain Rocket himself. He was prepping for a week of backcountry hiking with his girlfriend, Naomi, and her father, Bob, and I was eager to hit town before they left. A consummate bikepacker, mountain biker, general bike geek, Scott knew just what I needed out of a 'rest day': good food, rippin' Banff singletrack, cold beer and more good food, multiple juicy burgers and endless Southern-style potato salad!
Scott at work on a quick late-night addition to my setup. The man works some serious magic.
Just south of Banff I caught up with my Canadian Backroads co-workers in Canmore (Emily, Felicia, Sarah, Jake and Antione) for a couple more days of 'rest' and relaxation.
With perfect weather we had the 1500+ metre hike to ourselves.
Jake making it official. On top of the Middle Sister with Elsa, 360-degree views and all.
Gnome Sherpa would be proud.
From Canmore, I hook up with the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, 2,700 miles of dirt passing through Alberta, BC, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, all the way to the border of Mexico. I’m trading pavement for dirt, guard rails for fresh mountain streams, motorized traffic for the tranquility of high mountain passes and wide open spaces.
With a little help from the Alaska Marine Highway, and 7 days of rest, I’ve made my way to the little mountain hamlet of Smithers, British Columbia. Legs fatigued from a day and a half of heavy lifting on a ‘construction site,’ I decided to take today to recover. My guilt over riding only 3 of the last 11 days is quickly being washed away with the relentless morning rain.
A week off the bike in Southeast Alaska left me with restless legs, ready for the road east as my ferry pulled into Prince Rupert. I was also anticipating the freedom of traveling solo once again.
Riding in a group has its obvious advantages: the camaraderie of a shared journey, endless upbeat energy, split costs for camping, stories around an open campfire. It was tough to part ways after such an incredible week, with a group that bonded so quickly and traveled together so well. On the other hand, I find that traveling alone allows for a more whimsical flow to each day. I decide when the day begins, how far I’ll ride, where to eat and make camp–if I decide to ride at all.
A solo rider is also far more approachable than a menacing mob of misfits. Doors open with less hesitation, conversations with locals are more frequent, meals are shared without fear of the hungry hoard cleaning out the camper cooler. Invitations to stay with Warmshowers.org hosts (a CouchSurfing for cycle tourists) are also far more likely when alone.
Overall, I’ve found that riding solo allows me to connect with local people and places on a much deeper level. But that’s not to say I don’t get lonely. Long, uninspiring stretches of quiet, wet road can sink even the highest of spirits. Upon landing in Prince Rupert with fresh legs, I charged 150km along the Skeena River on the Yellowhead Highway with blue skies overhead. The high of beautiful, effortless riding and my sense of freedom on the open road didn’t last long.
Rain returned the following day. The freedom I felt just one day before was slowly being overtaken by loneliness. I recognized this transition while riding (another benefit to solo travel is the time it affords for processing) and remembered the feelings from my first week on the road. Adjusting to the solo life isn’t easy, but I’m gradually learning to balance the emotions and appreciate the challenges involved. Gaining perspective often takes time. Sometimes it magically appears around the corner.
Late that rainy night, Thom Henley magically appeared around a corner. That chance encounter was a reminder of why I’m once again on the road alone, embracing each day as it comes — open to Soaring Spirits, and otherwise.
Oh, the temptations of rest days. In Skagway, it was quarts of ice cream and Season 1 of Mad Men, with a run and workout thrown in for good measure!
Monkey in the middle. Blue skies and free beer on the ferry to Juneau.
I spent 4 days in Juneau, mostly relaxing in town, spending time with friends Mari and Dan, who I trained with at Backroads.
When not on a cafe couch, I was swimming in Auke Lake and grilling with an incredible group of friends. Dan sells tours on the docks as passengers file off one cruise ship after another and was able to arrange an incredible whale-watching tour. I've spent plenty of time viewing humpbacks in SE AK but never while bubble-net feeding. Typically solitary creatures, for a brief few weeks during the summer--and only in SE AK--groups of up to 30 humpback whales gather and begin herding schools of fish to the surface with air bubbles from below. In an amazing display of synchronized aquatics they all reappear at the surface, heads bobbing out of the water, in a feeding frenzy. The little ones typically pass the time nearby, breaching and showing off their whale tails.
I hopped the next ferry from Juneau, along the inside passage, to Prince Rupert, BC. With a 30-hour ride ahead of us, passengers adventurous enough to sleep outside under the solarium quickly became close friends. Looking for some early morning refreshment as we neared Petersburg, Mira, Taira and I spotted this empty dock ...
...as our launching pad.
You can't spend too much time thinking about how cold it will be...
It wasn't as bad as we expected. All three of us even took a second plunge.
Sisters originally from Oregon, and more recently Ketchikan, they're riding a single motorcycle from school in Fairbanks, AK to San Diego, CA. From there, Taira is off to Puerto RIco to study abroad and Mira is entertaining the idea of riding back, solo.
We passed the hours on deck practicing yoga, reading aloud from Spanish-written books, and taking in the surrounding beauty.
Being back on the bike felt like a million bucks. Blue sky broke through the clouds and a gentle breeze followed me inland along the Skeena RIver.
With towering granite cliffs and snow-capped peaks behind every sloping ridge, the stretch of highway along the Skeena River attracted a crowd. Though light by most standards, I wasn't accustomed to normal levels of passing traffic. And most of those vehicles were large trucks carrying fishing boats. The second longest river in BC sees plenty of recreational use but remains a significant source of life for native communities. Aside from boasting one of the largest salmon runs in Canada, the Skeena has long been an important transportation artery, from passage on the river to the Canada National Railway and more recently, the highway. It's also possible the river has greater historical significance than conventional archaeology suggests: First Nations lore tells of pre-Ice Age settlements along the Skeena.
As the sun disappeared behind the clouds, so to did my perspective on solo travel. While cleaning up after a roadside dinner though, I was greeted by Thom Henley. Curious as to where I'd sleep that night, he suggested I pitch my tent at his camp a few kilometers down the road....
With a name like 'Soaring Spirits,' there was no way I could turn down his offer. Thom Henley runs "'International Rediscovery Camps' in over a dozen countries around the world. Founded on Native principles, these camps allow kids to reconnect with local cultural traditions and gain an appreciation for the natural world, while teaching respect for the self and others.
Before I could set my bike down I was welcomed inside for a warm cup of tea and a plate of salmon with curried vegetables, straight from the garden. The following morning Patch, pictured at the open window, was at it again. Fresh eggs, pancakes, toast with homemade strawberry rhubarb jam and all the fresh berries I could eat.
Just a day prior to my arrival, Wade Charlie, a longtime friend of Thom's from the Kwakwaka'wakw nation, brought back 67 salmon from a brief afternoon on the Skeena. While the generator hummed day and night keeping the freezers cold, these were being prepped for the pressure cooker.
After breakfast I took a walk through the camp, in complete awe of the surrounding landscape: the Skeena River and Frog mountain framing the north border of the property, dense Poplar and Cedar forests east and west and the Seven Sisters mountain range to the south.
Despite the long break just days before, I was compelled to lend a hand that morning. Wade's son Eli, 13, is hard at work measuring support beams while Walter digs a hole for a 12-foot cedar piling.
The project? With 67 fresh sockeye salmon to move, construction of a smokehouse was made a priority. With an emphasis on tradition, most materials were sourced locally--on property, if possible. The design was based on a traditional longhouse and called for 12-foot yellow cedar pilings, which we later stripped to the sap ring and burned, to preserve the buried portion of the wood.
A few modern touches to speed things along. Wade Charlie was quite the character: jack of all trades, his true passion lies with passing on the traditions of his people, which he finds are slowly being swallowed by Western culture. He's currently earning his Certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization at the University of Victoria and, once fluent in his native Kwak'wala, hopes to begin teaching his outdoor education courses using the native language.
A hard-earned spot on the rocker! Elijah,17, was there as a carpenter's apprentice. He's saving money to someday join the ranks of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The one morning I planned on spending in camp turned into two! My warm, dry home for the two nights at Soaring Spirits. I was in the Frog Clan tent.
Experiences like this don't come along everyday. It was truly inspirational. (And dark; this was the first night I needed a headlamp)
Without a timeline to stick to for the near future I would have stayed for the first smoking -- perhaps longer. After one more morning on the job, though, I said goodbye to new friends and was on the road to Smithers, BC.
Open fertile pastures have been a nice change of scenery from the heavily forested land west of Smithers. I bet Photoshop could really bring out the double.
It doesn't get much better than this!
Solitude has reigned supreme during the first three weeks of my ride. From the vast wind-swept North Slope to a snowy Brooks Range teeming with wildlife, south to the giant, glaciated peaks of the Alaska Range giving way to broad, braided rivers of silt, this 1,000-mile stretch has offered a peaceful quietness ideal for settling into the rhythms of everyday life on the road.
Upon landing in Tok, 90 miles shy of the Yukon border and serving as the gateway to Alaska on the ALCAN, that tone quickly changed. I ran into seven other adventurous cyclists ready for a day off and eager to ride as a group. Over a shared campfire we hashed plans for the following week that would surely be anything but quiet.
Andy calls Yosemite National Park his home, living just outside of the park and teaching for the Yosemite Institute when not climbing, Telemarking or bike touring. Check him out at: http://lazymanadventures.wordpress.com/
Mario, the 'Grandpa' of the group of four from Guadalajara. His nickname was spot-on. Wise beyond his years, this globetrotter had stories from far and wide.
Lou, the philosopher. Always up for a challenge, this crazy Swiss from Mexico quietly earned Swiss Machine status by charging up a mile-long gravel hill, off route, on a dare. I still owe you a beer, Lou!
Alejandro, contemplating the crushing defeat from the previous night's game of Pente. Don't be fooled by his quiet demeanor, this guy can hammer on a bike!
Lang, always smiling, from Daegu, Korea, has worked as a translator in China and is on his way to Toronto for a year of work and to study English.
One tough dude, Kanetomo, a truck driver from Japan is on a 5-year world tour. Hope to see you down the road!
Enough with the pasta and canned tuna! With Three Bears Grocery in Tok as our last hope for honest shopping for the week we made good use of the grill: marinated steak, sweet potatoes and grilled veggies, washed down with 'Glacier Fresh' Kokanee and gallons of ice cream made for the perfect rest day feast.
One for the road!
It's hard to resist the temptations of town. Fast Eddie's quickly became our favorite hangout in town. We filled up with one final breakfast as we headed into the emptiness of Yukon, stomachs heavy with syrupy, never-over-buttered pancakes.
There's never a dull moment traveling with such a large group. Although our paces differed we often chose to ride together, sharing laughs and stories of home, quickly becoming close friends.
A sunny 4th of July lunch on the porch of the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge visitor center, just shy of the Canadian border. As the lone Americans, Andy and I struck a patriotic chord with our rendition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Little did we know we'd draw a crowd; a standing ovation was in order and with it came leftover pizza from a couple traveling north by RV. Eight hungry cyclists vying for a slice made for quite the sight.
Rising gas prices have kept traffic light this summer. These prices paled in comparison to those just across the border. No complaints from our perch in the saddle.
Long, cold winters wreak havoc on the roads up north. With a short window of warm weather and 24-hours of daylight, it's all hands on deck for road crews during the summer. The first 200 kilometers of road in Canada were under construction and we were "forced" to hop a ride with pilot cars on two occasions.
Finishing the day with a 12-k shuttle!
With stoves blasting away and gear strewn about, the idea of "stealth camping" is lost on a group of eight. Lang adds the perfect touch to his meal under the warm shelter at Lake Creek.
Strength in numbers. Another benefit to group riding is the respect we receive from passing vehicles. Friendly honks and waves greeted us in a way a solo cyclist rarely experiences. Or maybe it's just that friendly Canadian spirit...
The relatively casual riding through the Tanana River valley from Tok into Canada came to an end as we edged closer to the Saint Elias Mountains and battled headwinds into Destruction Bay.
The fierce headwinds were worst along the shores of Kluane Lake. We took to riding in a group, swinging leads at the front and hiding in each others slipstream, when possible. The distracting views of the surrounding snow-capped peaks caused a couple hair-raising fender benders, just to keep things interesting.
I'll take headwinds with blue skies over heavy clouds any day. With the exception of a couple overnight showers the sun found its way through the clouds each day.
Climbing out of the lake before descending to Haines Junction on our last day as a group of eight.
Mario says "thumbs up" to the 10-kilometer descent ahead.
And the descent continues.
Moth balls to keep bears away at night? If I had a nickel for every story or warning of lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) I've heard in the last month.... Pablo was a believer, though. And who am I to argue; we made it out alive after he littered our camp with them on the bear-friendly trail along the Dezadeash RIver.
No farewell is complete without a push-up pyramid -- but not recommended for large groups! LTD!
After a week of amazing fun my group shrank from eight-large to two, as Andy and I weren't done exploring Alaska. We headed south on the Haines Highway while the other six continued east on the ALCAN towards Whitehorse.
Aside from the usual mid-morning armada of migratory RVs, we had the road to ourselves. The 150 miles from Haines Jct, YT, through a slice of British Columbia and back into Alaska is --by far -- the most scenic stretch of road riding I've encountered in North America. Our first day on the Haines Highway was without a cloud. We were greeted by stunning scenery at every turn, eagerly charging over each pass to see what the next valley revealed.
With 80 miles remaining to the coast, a marine layer crept in overnight blanketing the peaks of Three Guardsmen Pass.
A dedicated Telemark skier, Andy was lost in imaginary free-heeled turns from the porch of this ski hut/cyclist shelter along the Haines.
One final climb before zipping back into Alaska.
The REAL reason for riding the Haines Highway to SE Alaska: Mosey's Cantina in Haines, AK, hands down the best Mexican food in all of Alaska.
Gone was the cloudy weather from earlier in the day. Clear blue skies are a rare sight in SE Alaska and we celebrated with pints on the Fast Ferry to Skagway!
What does it mean!?!
Andy and I finished this stretch in Skagway, AK, at the end of the northern most fjord on the Inside Passage. We were quickly welcomed in by the tight-knit outdoor community and didn’t want to leave.
But as the bittersweet ‘Shooting Star Syndrome’ would have it, Andy was bound for Whitehorse and the road south. He took off the following afternoon and I’ve since made my way to Juneau for a few more days off with old friends.
After prying myself from the black hole of cozy lounging, warm coffee, the company of fellow travelers, and plate after plate of food at Billie’s Backpacker I was glad to again be on the road south, away from the hustle and congestion of Fairbanks.
The direct route to Canada follows the Alaska Highway east out of Fairbanks. But after two summers of guiding bike trips from the Kenai Peninsula to Denali National Park and passing the turnoff for the 135-mile Denali Highway each time without turning east, my curiosity got the better of me. With stories of this remote, wild, winding dirt road as my only reference, I was eager to see for myself.
Completed in 1957, the Denali highway offered the first road access to Mt. McKinley National Park, traversing the 134 miles from Paxson to its western terminus in Cantwell. In 1971, with the completion of the George Parks Highway — Alaska’s main thoroughfare between Anchorage and Fairbanks — the Denali Highway remained, gaining status as one of the more scenic drives in America.
Without the 18-wheeled trucks of the Dalton, the Denali Highway was quiet. With the exception of the occasional RV, traffic was limited to trucks hauling ATVs, gun racks and all. The Denali is a popular jumping off point for hunters, fishermen and recreational miners searching for their own secret spot in the backcountry playground of the Alaska Range. Passing through three separate drainage basins (the Copper, Yukon and Susitna River drainages) there are endless opportunities to float, 4-wheel, hike or, in the winter, snow mobile to hidden corners of the interior.
Farewell to Fairbanks. Joe framing for the new porch and Ringo lounging, waiting for the next break in the clouds.
Just as I was leaving two motorcyclists came roaring in off the road. Eddie and Stan had gotten after it , riding 5700 miles in 9 days, all the way from Wilmington, NC. Neighbors from a far away land.
Shadows on the run. Outpacing spare tires shipped from home, these two quickly slipped in and out on their way to the motorbike shop, stopping only to exchange a quick word about eastern NC.
Just shy of Denali National Park I stopped for the night along the Nenana River, a glacially fed river popular for its summer whitewater.
A quick 2 miles in the morning and I was back to the old summer stomping grounds of Glitter Gulch, eagerly awaiting some Raven's Brew at Black Bear Cafe.
In between gulps of coffee I looked up to see a familiar face. While stopped for lunch over a week prior on the Dalton, I met Chapman as he was guiding a tour group north to Deadhorse.
After meeting a few of his friends and hearing talk of hiking and swimming on a sunny afternoon followed by pizza and beer with live music, I was sold on a day off. Watch where you swim in Horseshoe Lake!
Amazing pizza at Prospector's. And to honor Alaska as the 49th state, 49 beers on tap! Try the Arctic XPA from Kenai River if you're looking for hoppy summer refreshment.
Can't spend a night at Denali Park without a trip to "The Bake." Beers and live music with Michael, Megan, Brooks, Katie, Chapman, Becca and Ryan. Thanks for a great day!
Another round of coffee and breakfast biscuits at Black Bear and I was off. Sadly, though, no views of the mountain this time around.
Buses shuttling rafters upriver whizzed by all afternoon.
And the clouds lifted for a brief afternoon sun soaking.
Dinner in an open meadow on the serene Denali Highway.
With weather and riding like this, who wouldn't smile?
I was greeted by clouds the following morning -- par for the course for the next week plus.
Clouds make for quite the dramatic background, though.
Six wheels beats two when dodging softball-sized rocks strewn across the road. But I prefer the view from my seat any day.
With strong recommendations I sprung for a night camping at The Gracious House. Run by Butch and Carol, this little lodge has been serving travelers of the Denali Highway for 55 years.
A warm shower and cold beer is the perfect way to wash away a dusty day.
Phil and Brenden of Motoquest Tours stopped in that night with a group touring the Yukon and Alaska for 6 days by motorcycle. An entertaining bunch never shy to share a beer, stories of faraway tours were swapped over the mosquito-repelling bonfire. Growing organically from his passion for leading small groups of friends on tours of his home state of Alaska, Phil now operates in 13 countries around the world, seeking out hidden dusty roads to share with his guests.
The man of the hour! Just the vehicle you want to follow on a rutted, rocky road. It wasn't meant to be. Rain ended his day shortly after I caught him.
Clouds began to stack over the Amphitheater Mountains as I approached the Maclaren River crossing.
On the run! The liquid sunshine left me scampering for shelter, which turned into breakfast for dinner at the Maclaren River lodge. With food prices nearly twice what they are in the lower 48 -- and my appetite twice what I'm used to -- my budget is being blown to pieces for the month!
A soggy final day on the Denali.
The name isn't necessarily directed at the clientele...
Covered head to toe in mud, and most likely smelling like a Grizzly Bear, I wasn't so well received by the waitress when I stopped in for coffee. A disgusted look up and down was all I needed to know the rain gear had to come off before I sat down.
Roadhouses like the one at Meier's Lake provided my only resupply options along the way to Tok.
With stock thin on the dusty shelves, one has to be creative to whip up a hearty meal at the end of the day. Stagg Chili with pasta, Ramen, garlic and olive oil and a side of peas did the trick along the shores of Paxson Lake.
I dodged construction for the next 125 miles to Tok, careful to avoid being rolled or crushed.
Nine days after leaving Fairbanks I’ve arrived in Tok, ready for laundry, a shower, a day without bike shorts. With over three full weeks of solo riding the flood gates opened wide as soon as I hit town. I met up with Andy, an outdoor instructor with Yosemite Institute, riding from Deadhorse to Vancouver, BC and shortly after met Lang, from Korea, Kanetomo, from Japan, and Mario, Pablo, Alex and Lou riding from Anchorage, home to Guadalajara, Mexico.
With a campfire heating in anticipation of grilling steak and potatoes, we’ll share one last meal in Tok before riding out of town tomorrow as a group of 8, headed for Canada and Haines Junction — where I hope to convince them to join me for a couple days in SE Alaska.
Riding out of the Brooks Range into blue skies, dry roads and lush, green forests.
My first 9 days on the road can be characterized by one word: HARD! I tend to relish the occasional challenge, and was welcoming of those I anticipated encountering on the Haul Road, but ran headfirst into a host of other unforeseen hurdles. Compounded by one hell of a knee injury (suffered on Day 2 from an ever-so-slightly higher saddle height–I think) I can safely say the 9 days from Deadhorse to Fairbanks were the hardest of my life.
After 3 full days of rest, recuperation and an eating binge of A.T.-sized proportions, my spirits are on the up and up and I’m excited to skip town for Denali National Park and the Alaska Range beyond.
With promises of smoother sailing as the Brooks Range faded behind me, I was quickly reminded that a lack of tall peaks doesn't always equate to easy riding; think Vermont-sized "hills," with the grades to boot, on rough dirt roads. This lovely stretch of fresh blacktop just north of Coldfoot gave brief relief to my now nauseatingly painful knee. A steady diet of Vitamin I was soon to follow.
With mud-clogged brakes and a gritty drive train it was time for some maintenance as I rolled into Marion Creek Campground. My motivation for spending any amount of time off of a moving bicycle or out of an enclosed tent was quickly zapped as I was introduced to the interior's mosquitoes.
Typical view at either end of the tent, all throughout the night. Just a few of the billions...
To celebrate the passing of Horace Mountain the previous day--thanks Horace! (There's a photo of the mountain somewhere, shrouded in clouds) Eating proved to be the most difficult challenge when it came to the mozzies; for fear of spilling food in the tent and attracting bears I was forced to don the mosquito net and start walking. I'd scoop a bite of food, pause long enough to eat and leave the cloud of bugs floating just behind.
Impromptu burger and fries in Coldfoot, merely 5 miles after downing the bacon and eggs with oats breakfast-of-champions.
Pumping crude oil 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay south to Valdez, the Alyeska Pipeline is always within site on the Dalton Highway. Zigzagging across the landscape to allow flexibility for expansion and contraction with temperatures swinging from 80* to -80*F, the line is mostly elevated to prevent the hot oil from melting the permafrost.
Clearly it wasn't all pain and suffering. I caught back up with the Swiss crew a couple nights later along the North Fork of Bonanza Creek.
We celebrated Xavier's birthday in style, his last one with a '5' in the front. The bug canopy made for a more pleasant, stationary meal.
The beginning of a brutal day on the road. I'd be seeing my first sunset later that night.
Carved into the landscape in just 154 days, the Dalton has no regard for gently graded climbs. Most longer climbs checked in around 8-9% while the shorter ones, like the Roller Coaster--Alaska's steepest grade at 14%--take the form of a straight line. It's a wonder dirt sticks to the hillside on some of them.
King of the Road. Trucks own the right of way on the Haul Road. With the exception of one buzzing (my fault for not hearing it approach from behind), the truckers were quite respectful, often slowing down to lighten the dusting and always passing wide to the left. My Ibuprofen stash was also restocked by a female trucker--in her 20s--at the Hot Spot Cafe.
Snacks from a passing team of researchers. With the exception of the Swiss couples, I saw 1 other rider over 500 miles--and he was asleep in his tent...
Mostly it was me and the wildlife. Thousands of Monarch butterflies, 3 grizzlies (2 of which were feeding on a caribou carcass directly downwind from my first planned campsite), moose, foxes, caribou, Dall sheep, Trumpeter Swans, geese, ravens, marmots and one large, unsuspecting wolf that ran across the road 50 yards ahead of me.
End of the road. A left on Route 2 and 80 miles to Fairbanks.
A common scene in the summer, forest fires dot the Alaska interior's horizon. In 2004, fires scorched an area of land equal in size to the state of Massachusetts.
Motivation for a 90-mile push on my final day. Beer, green salad, burger, fries and a massive pants-tightening piece of bread pudding!
A night in an eclectic neighborhood in Goldstream with Emily and the dogs, a solstice cookout with friends Jennifer and Pete from the Dalton Highway, a couple nights at Billie's Backpacker Hostel, lots of coffee, vegetables and Ben & Jerry's and I'm ready to hit the road again.
With months of “planning,” fiddling with gear and futile attempts of wrapping my mind around this bicycle ride, I invariably came into the final days of prep with errands un-run, gear scattered about, transportation unplanned. Procrastination perhaps a way of pushing back a mounting anxiety.
Travel to Alaska from anywhere in the lower 48, however, provides plenty of time for reflection. After two full days of rental cars, taxis, vans and planes I landed in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, nerves frayed, exhausted but optimistically excited by the unknown. Such is travel.
It didn’t take long for two days of thoughtful anticipation to be swept away as an icy 15-degree wind snapped me into my new reality when I stepped off the plane. With a bike to build and gear to organize before the terminal closed for the night, the trip was under way.
Prudhoe Bay lies roughly 500 miles north of Fairbanks, AK accessible by the mostly unpaved Dalton Highway (a.k.a. The North Slope Haul Road). Built in 1974 after black gold was struck on the North Slope, the road functions as a supply line to both the oil fields on the Arctic Ocean and the Alyeska Pipeline which it parallels for the 414 miles from it’s northern terminus in Deadhorse (the “commercial” area of Prudhoe Bay) south to the junction with Route 2.
As the northern most road in North America, the Dalton Highway also boasts the longest stretch of road without services. I was starting with 10 days of food and on a fairly fixed schedule of 50 miles a day, completely self-supported until reaching Fairbanks.
The post-flight purge. Thankfully everything made it intact (well, mostly everything; my front disc brake rotor was bent out of true on the flight and took some icy-fingered finagling to get it up and running).
Oil production rules supreme here, architecture and ambiance be damned. Deadhorse is all aluminum, heavy machinery, 4wd trucks, dirt and dust.
My bear-proof, snugly sandwiched home for the first night. The Slope being exceptionally flat and just miles from the ocean, a relentless Arctic wind pounds the landscape from Deadhorse to the Brooks Range 100 miles inland.
A fitting first night. Seems the start of most of my long journeys feature the obligatory overnight dusting. Ambient temperature hovered around 20 degrees while I was in town.
No turning back here.
Morning snow gave way to windswept blue skies and my first taste of the dusty tailwind that helped push my load up the gentle slope towards the Brooks. The North Slope landscape is dominated by tundra, a treeless pancake-flat patchwork of streams and pools forming a quilt-like boggy layer above the permafrost. (A lack of photos is a testament to the Slope's flatness--and my entranced staring w/o camera from my window seat on the plane)
After a couple days of clear skies and warm sun, the clouds gathered at the base of the mountains and dumped another overnight snow. Morning 3 at Galbraith Lake campground was motivation enough to send me over Atigun Pass in anticipation of warmer interior temps.
Marking the Continental Divide between Arctic and Pacific Oceans, Atigun Pass sits at over 4,700 feet and presents one of more serious challenges to truckers and cyclists alike (all you Ice Road Trucker fans know what I'm talking about). This was my clearest view from the north side and I've been told on more than one occasion that I missed some spectacular scenery as the snow continued to fall.
Still climbing. Still snowing. The north side of the pass was all snow, slush and mud. At over 8% grade the additional challenge of grinding through the muck kept my speed well below 3mph and the tiny gearing on my Rohloff hub was just enough to keep me from walking.
After a screaming, muddy, disc brake pad-wearing descent to the south the skies parted and I was treated to my first panoramic mountainous views.
The mud was phenomenal! And with each additional descent the snow quickly faded to lush green forest.
Taking stock of the mud and worn disc pads at Farthest North Spruce Wayside, literally the first tree of the trip. After sipping hot tea offered by some friendly Swiss, I waded through the inches of mud on the road to stretch my legs and noticed a few sets of "dog" prints, without the accompanying owner's prints. Who would let their dog wander off leash with semis whizzing by at 60mph? Not until I saw the freshest of prints (merely minutes old?) did I realize what I was looking at. The thing was the size of my face, trailing off into the woods just feet from my bike. Pardon me for not snapping any photographic evidence...
With a pack of starving wolves on my tail (don't laugh, you'd be paranoid, too) I wasted no time catching the Swiss couple riding up the road. Barbara and Edi Brand were traveling with lifelong friends Doris and Xavier Fust, each with a truck and camper, two riding, two leap-frogging with the trucks, as they make their way south to San Diego this summer and fall--retirement done right! They were kind enough to share a camp along the banks of Nutlrwik Creek and invite me in for dinner, replete with wine and my childhood favorite, Chips Ahoy!
Aside from being as friendly and welcoming as can be, these Swiss know how to tour! No day is done without a whiskey nightcap. Proscht, to the North Slope, Atigun Pass and new friends!