Hitching to Prudhoe Bay… or NOT (Part 1)

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After 4 great days around Anchorage, it was time to continue North.  It’s funny to realize that even as I write this post from a cafe in Fairbanks that I’ve not yet made it to my “starting point” in Prudhoe Bay. It seems like the longer the journey, the longer it takes to truly begin. In some ways I felt a beginning as I rode out of Seattle 2 1/2 weeks ago, but really I’m still on the final approach.
I was set to ride about 30 miles outside of Anchorage to the highway cutoff where I was told I could most easily hitch a ride North to Fairbanks. Gathering my stuff back on the Ogre, I swung by the coffee shop for a last kick in the arse before hitting the road. I ran into Nick Carman again there with his partner Lael, who graciously offered for me to stay in Lael’s family cabin about 80 miles outside of Anchorage. How could I refuse??? Lael escorted me through the bike paths out of town and onto the Glenn Highway toward Fairbanks.
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Having passed through the colorful culture of Wasila, I was alone, on the open road heading North.
One thing that is so amazing about Alaska at this time of year is the light. It doesn’t get dark here, even in Anchorage. It just gets a little dusky. So when Lael and I left Anchorage at nearly 3pm with 80 miles to go, it was a refreshingly calm feeling knowing I didn’t have daylight hours as a pressure to get to my destination. I didn’t arrive at the cabin, which was nestled deep within the woods of the tiny settlement of Willow, until about 11:00pm. The sun was just starting to set off of the deck of this wonderful little cabin.
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Perfect little A-frame in the woods!
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I awoke from the tiny loft of this cabin to look out over over a beautiful little lake, with a clear view of Mt. McKinley off in the distance!
I seriously considered asking Nick and Lael if I could stay another night just to enjoy this perfect cabin for another day, but the North continued to call. I was set to start hitching, and suddenly realized that Denali National Park was only about 175 miles North of the cabin, and Fairbanks only about 120 miles North of that. I could just ride it… So I did.
Accompanied by perfect weather and clear views of Denali all the way North, I somehow hoped I could ride the 175 miles in one day. You may ask, “What on Earth is the rush??” I don’t know. I think in that moment I was just wondering if I could actually ride a bike that is this heavy for that distance in a single day. After all, the light wasn’t going to stop me. There is nothing like the feeling of pushing my body to the edge of its capacities, and I felt excited to try. I started early, and so did the head wind. The whole way. I made it about 120 miles before I was completely wasted and wasn’t having fun anymore, so time to stop. It was about 13 hours of riding in headwinds, slowly uphill, and I needed rest. Finally, my first night camping in a tent since arriving in Alaska. Albeit it was next to an AT&T tower, but still!
The last 60 or so miles to Denali were beautiful. Stellar views and low winds!
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They even have igloos down here! Well, an attempt at an igloo hotel. It supposedly was closed down due to being insulated by cheap foam and had no fire exits. Now just a palette for graffiti along the Parks Highway…
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Perfect reflection in a calm lake along the highway.
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Great views into Denali National Park and Mt. McKinley all day!
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Finally I saw the first other bike tourist on the road, heading South from Fairbanks.
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I got into Denali NP in the afternoon and watched the requisite videos for backcountry camping in bear territory. They got me a little nervous but gave me some good pointers for good bear practices once I’m on my own up North. I set out around 6pm, hoping to make it about 40 miles in on the park road that night. This road is interesting in that private cars are only allowed into the first 14 miles of the 92 mile road. The rest is unpaved and reserved to park shuttle busses, hikers and cyclists.
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I figured this would mean I’d pretty much have a silent road, but it was amazing how often these loud busses would pass me on steep cliffsides along the mountains!
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I camped up in the woods the first night, then headed onward into the park. The perfect weather which had guided me North from Anchorage was shifting as heavy thunderclouds rolled in throughout the morning. By 10am I was soaking wet, trudging through the soft gravel road, climbing up to the park road’s zenith of about 4000’. Conditions and 3 previous days of hard riding got the better of me, and I only made it about 30 miles before I took refuge at the last visitor center near Mount Eilson.

DSC00853Sometimes it’s good to know what’s coming… sometimes it’s better not to know…

 

I hiked up a steep 1100’ trail to an overlook that afternoon and set up an early camp, thinking I’d hike around and explore the park more by foot. Funny how a dry tent and a warm sleeping bag can beckon after a hard day of riding and sleeting rain all around you… I slept for 13 hours that night. Longest sleep in months. It was delicious.  Then I awoke to see the clouds had finally begun to part, offering one hell of a view for my morning coffee…

 

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DSC00885These mountains are unreal. Looks fake, doesn’t it???

DSC00888Sometimes under appreciated is the beauty that lies up close, in the wide variety of plants that compose the sub arctic tundra…

DSC00892I think perfection was in the combination of the two however, when I laid down in the soft cushioning of the tundra and stared out at distant peaks.

The perfect weather beckoned me deeper into the park. I had reserved an area to camp within that was back toward the park entrance for my last evening at Denali, but decided I’d pull the bags off the bike and stow them at the visitor’s center to make it to the end of the park road so I could see the legendary Wonder Lake.

 

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The ride was breathtaking. A long descent the whole way for 25 miles, with sweeping views all around me.

 

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At the end of the road was Wonder Lake. It was beautiful but as with reaching many destinations, I realized I preferred the journey. I did get the requisite picture of the lake with McKinley behind it though:

 

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Wonder Lake was beautiful, but as with all low alpine lakes in Alaska in Summer, the mosquitoes were awake and on the hunt for blood. Once the swarming started to overwhelm me, I started back. After all, I still had about 80 miles of riding left that day to get to my camping area, and a lot of hills!

Speaking of living things… There was a lot of wildlife in the park!

 

DSC00838I saw this mama moose with a calf from a bridge. It’s hard to describe the scale of how big these animals are. Trust me. Big.

DSC00966I heard from a ranger that not 30 minutes after I came down the trail from my 13 hour sleep spot, a mama bear and cub were on the trail, forcing them to close it.

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DSC00912Bears like to use roads for ease of travel, just like we do…

DSC00973Baby caribou hanging out on a ridge.

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All in all, the Denali experience is rich. If I had known how inspiring it would be to spend time in the park I’d have packed food for more days there. But with no food restocking inside the park, I had to ride out after my 3 days of food ran out, and again, the North was still calling to me. I rode out of the park in the early morning with a light breeze in the air, wind at my back, and a heart full of the wilds of Denali. Thank you for your gifts. I will be back to stay longer some day…

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