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Alaska

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Larger Than Life: AK to Yukon, and back

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!

The life of the party, Pablo was always there to crack a good joke. Could use a little work on those salesman techniques, though. Check these guys out at: http://proyectopanamericano1.blogspot.com/

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.

Denali Highway: Fairbanks to Tok

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.

 

Into the Interior

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,┬árecuperation 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.

Up on the Slope: Getting Underway

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!