Date: Sat, 20 Jul 1996 10:26:47 -0400
Copyright (c) 1996 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 24 - June 24 to July 6 Denali Nat'l Park, AK to Cantwell, AK - 8797 miles cumulative
more riding on some sort of motorized transport than riding lately and I'm getting real anxious to exercise these leg muscles. But, after a couple days of very painful walking it became quite evident that it would not be wise to ride again until my ankle was back to normal. So once again we climbed aboard a bus headed to Anchorage. Our plan is to spend a week resting the ankle and shopping at REI once again, visiting my cousin and some areas on the Kenai panninsula south of Anchorage. We'd then ride back north to Denali where we caught the bus before heading south once again along a differend route. Our objective is to ride a completely connected route from Fairbanks to San Diego. So we need to return to Denali.
So 10:00 AM June 24 found us waiting outside the rustic Denali visitor center for the baby blue Denali Express school bus. A relatively new transport, the owners have done an excellent job in creating their new business. One guy is from Sweden and the other from Norway. They bought the school bus for about $10K, took out the back seats for baggage and bicycles, and started advertising. They run on schedule, beat the competition's prices of $35 by $15 from Denali to Anchorage, take the bikes at no additional fee, provide free sodas, and have a good knowledge of the area and wildlife that they freely relate along the way. The old school bus seats are a bit uncomfortable with their super straight backs. But they even have plans to replace them with more comfortable recliners, if they can just find enough. There were about 10 to 15 people onboard for this particular ride. The owners say they're starting to actually make money in just their second year of operation. I wonder if they'll totally beat the competition or if the competition will change their approach.
We have decided that outside of Anchorage there must be only about 50 tourists running around and we are continually meeting each one. Once again we ran into a couple we'd met 2 weeks earlier. A couple from Europe, the woman from Denmark and the man from Sweden, had camped by us at the Haines walk-in camp sites. As we were climbing on the bus this tall, skinny, very blond and blue eyed man stood right in front of me. It took a while to recognize him, as I wasn't expecting to run into anyone I knew. In the 2 weeks since we'd met they'd taken the bus from Haines to Fairbanks and then to Denali, spent 8 days backpacking in Denali, returned to Fairbanks to get his sister, and were now headed to Anchorage. They were students attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks for one year, which was now over. So they're taking their grand tour of the state before heading back. I could note a bit of regret in their voices as they talked about going back. They'd learned to love the shear wilderness nature of Alaska during their stay and had made many friends. He told me that with each passing day they learn to love Alaska more and more. I'll bet they'll be back someday.
The bus dropped us off in downtown Anchorage about 5 hours after climbing aboard. From there we rode to my cousin's, Eric, house with me gingerly nursing my ankle all the way. I hate to admit it, but taking time off was probably wise. Eric lives in one of the older neighborhoods just southeast of the main downtown area, about 10 miles away at most. The house is one of those small, 1950s style homes that has a great big yard, alley in back accessing the separate garage, and that older home metal siding that was so popular in that time. Originally it had just 2 bedrooms and one bath with a small kitchen and living room upstairs. Somewhere along the way a third bedroom was added in the basement along with a rec room/office and half bath. The size really is perfect for a small family. After dealing with that huge house we had in San Diego I can't help but wonder at this late 20th centure preoccupation with huge houses and itsy bitsy lots.
Standing at a bit over 6 ft, obviously the other half of the family inherited all the "tall genes", Eric has given up the long pony tail of his Virginia school days in favor of a goatee and moustache. Unfortunately he did inherit the family's thin hair which results in a rather sparsely populated goatee. But with blue eyes peeking out behind wire rimmed glasses, the sandy brown hair, and slight paunch resulting from a few too many good meals procured during the cold Alaskan winter, he does remind me of a bit of an unconventional college professor. Dressed in sweats to head off to work it's hard to believe he has his law degree, has already passed the Alaska bar, and works for the Alaska Supremecourt. But, Eric has chosen an unconventional professional path in keeping with his desire to assist the less fortunate with legal issues which is an ambition to be admired.
Eric shares the house with two friends who are also products of the Stanford School of Law. Teasingly we had to remark that two engineers entering a house full of lawyers was a recipe for trouble. Roseann is Italian, Italian, Italian from her long dark brown almost black hair to her tiny feet. A wonderful lady with a most interesting past. She's taught in China, done a stint with the Peace Corps, completed her pilot's license, and finally wound up in law school at Stanford. There is Italian excitment in her voice and a sparkle in her eyes as she talks of someday taking off just as we've done.
Roger, the other roommate and Roseann's beau, is originally from Jamaica. After spending time in Massachusets and then Stanford he wound up in Anchorage to be with Roseann. I don't blame him. He's got a great mellow quality that is so calming. He's the kind of person you could come to in a real panicy crises and he'll have you back under control in no time. I'm a bit surprised that his stint in Massachusets didn't take that quality out of him. We really liked Roger and Roseann but didn't have too much time to spend with them. Both work horrendous hours during the week and have just a few hours to spend together on weekends. Ah the joys of working full time.
Much of our time in Anchorage was spent shopping for replacement equipment ... again. When we left Denver last year much of the equipment we carried was what we'd been using for several years. Consequently after nearly a year of continual additional use, much of it was falling apart. This time we needed to get new rain jackets. We also had to replace the tent once again. The Sierra Designs tent just didn't make it. Within just 2 weeks the pole sleeves were ripping, the ends of the poles were sharpened to nearly knife edges, and we'd grown to hate the rainfly zipper (it gets stuck in the flap). So once again we spent several hours checking out every tent available at REI. This time we chose the Marmot Bastille. Like the Sierra Designs it's a reasonably large 2 person tent with about 40 sq ft sleeping area and 11 sq ft vestibule area for gear. However, the Marmot is a 4 pole, 4 season tent. Additional features such as a much more durable pole sleeve material, seam binding sewn where the poles cross, rubberized gortex at the high stress points at the bottom of each pole, the best UV resistant nylon material in the rainfly will hopefully make this tent last much, much longer. I also like the fact that it has 2 doors, lots more hanging pockets, even the tent bag clips on the inside creating a gear loft, the rainfly can attach to the footprint without using the interior tent, etc. It's a much, much better and well designed tent. Of course, it also cost much more, $470, as opposed to $275, and weighs more, 9 lbs instead of 6. So we'll see how well this one works out.
After all this shopping we did have a few hours to visit the Portage glacier about 1 hour south of Anchorage. The visitor center was located at the far end of the lake formed by one of the earlier deposited terminal moraines and the glacier itself was just barely visible, tucked between hills at the end of the lake. What we found most remarkable were the floating icebergs in the lake. Huge ice sculptures with that typical ice blue glacier color clustered around the visitor center. Most were the size of a small car, at least what was above water. Only about 10% would be visible. Their icy blue hulks would float silently in the milky jade water until enough underwater ice had melted to cause a shift in center of gavity. Breaking the erie silence with a lound thunderclap sound the iceberg would roll or split creating an entirely new display of ice art. If it weren't for the hard drizzle and the need to get back to Anchorage we would have been mesmorized by these blue sculptures for hours.
We did get to spend one weekend with Eric camping and hiking along the Kenai penninsula. We all crowded into the front of his little Toyota truck, I was squeezed in the back with camping gear all round, we headed south to the town of Seward. This road passes by some of the most spectacular scenery to be seen so close to a major city. The road wound through rugged mountains. Valleys of dark green spruce trees gave way to the lighter green and very dense willow and alder bushes which gave way to the still lighter green alpine grasses and finally the black and gray rocky peaks. Here and there snow white glaciers hugged the valleys between the peaks. No houses, no roads to break up this wilderness.
As we drove along, Eric pointed to certain valleys saying that that one and this one were slated for clear cut logging. The Forest Service has devised plans to clear cut some pretty major sections of the forest right along one very popular hiking trail. Eric has joined a grass roots group aimed at preventing this. Their approach is to write newsletters, have protests, and try to talk to as many people as possible about the potential loss of habitat, the forest destruction, and the general messing up of a really great hiking trail. It seemed to us they'd do much better convincing the general populice that this logging wasn't such a good idea if they really publisized the economic aspects. Demonstrate that the Forest Service spends more money than it gets in return. Show that more jobs are lost than gained. Discuss conflict of interest of senior statesmen owning stock in the logging companies. Give facts and figures that show in no uncertain terms the U.S. citizen stands to lose more than gain both in loss of beautiful wilderness and money. I think then they'd have a much more vocal response from citizens both near and far. Well, maye somewhere they've done that. We just didn't see it. We hope they win the battle, though. From what we've heard, this particular logging plan really doesn't make any sense.
Tromping through the woods, down a steep slope, through wet grasses and nasty thorny bear claw bushes we managed to push our way through to a wonderful gravel bar located on the Resurrection river. With views of the Exit glacier coming from the Harding icefield on one side and glorious mountains on the other, we set up our little yellow tents proclaiming this our condominium complex, for the next 2 nights. Bright and early the next day, OK not so early, we headed for a rough 3.5 mile hike up 3500 ft to the Harding ice field. The day was perfect, blue sky with scattered clouds that dropped an occasional sprinkle, and the icefields were simply awesome. We stood on a mound of broken black rock looking down at a huge field of pure white snow broken only by an occasional black mountain peak that has been chiseled by the moving ice. Yet, turn around and you see the dark green spruce lined valley. Two completely opposing visions, cold snowy icefield right next to what appears to be a green tropical paradise. How could two so different environments coexist so close. It's Alaska.
On our second day we took the long drive from our campsite on Resurrection River near Seward on the east side of the Kenai to the town of Homer on the west side. The rugged mountains of the east side quickly gave way to rolling spruce covered hills that looked more like scenes from the California coast. As we took a short hike along the shore, we looked at shoreline cliffs overlooking rock strewn beaches and miles upon miles of blue ocean water. Flowering blue lupis were shadowed by green spruce. It was so easy to be lulled into the impression that this was just another walk along Torrey Pines beach in San Diego. But, turning around to face the Harding icefield and it's many glaciers I was jolted into the realization that this is Alaska not California.
It was Monday, July 1, my ankle was normal once again, our shopping done, and we needed to get on the road. Summer is upon us and we have many miles to go. So I gave Eric a big hug goodbye and we mounted our trusty metalic steads for the push to San Diego. But first, back to Denali.
Riding out of Anchorage was essentially like riding out of any medium sized city in the U.S. Four lane, busy roads lined with Wendy's, MacDonalds, and Taco Bell restaurants took us east and then north to the suberb of Wasilla. From there we turned left onto the Parks Highway and finally started seeing life outside the big city. The road continued along the flat bottomed, glacier carved valley of the Susitna River. Large Spruce, birch, and ash trees lined the road. In the small permafrost areas the stick like black spruce pointing in all directions looked more like a very sickly version of the rest of the forest. The erratic directions of the trees is caused by the frost heaves of the permafrost. These oh so strange looking forests are nicknamed "drunken forests" by the locals. They really do look like forests of another planet.
The Parks highway rolled up and down small hills as it gradually climbed up to the peak of 2300 ft Broad pass. Despite the enormously tall Mt. Mckinley, the road passes in Alaska are all quite short. I suppose keeping roads at 10,000 ft or higher clear during the winter months would be a hopeless task. Consequently there are no roads at those altitudes. The peak, aptly named Broad pass, is really just a wide valley between fairly short but rugged peaks with an ever so slight rise in the middle. With our tailwind for the day, winds seem to be generally out of the south in this valley, we hardly noticed the climb and before we knew it we were headed down again.
We finally saw an igloo and a real biggee at that. Ok it wasn't exactly made of ice since the temperatures were well into the 80s. At mile 187 on the Parks highway, everything is located by the mile markers along the highway, is the huge, white igloo resort. Started in 1973 the former owner had this lifelong dream to open a hotel/restaurant in Alaska that was shaped like a giant igloo. He'd been sinking his life's fortune into it, building it by hand. Unfortunately last year he had a heart attack and the doctors told him he had to quit. So now it stands, empty, not quite finished, with broken windows and a general look of abandonment. Yet, there is hope for this enormous, white mound. It's been sold to new owners who are now making plans to finish it and open it next year. So even though the original owner may not be able to complete the structure himself, perhaps he will live to see it finished.
Once again one of those strange coincidences that have been haunting us during our stay in Alaska occurred at the Cantwell RV park. Not more than 10 minutes after we pulled in for the evening another group of 4 riders, 3 men one woman, also pulled in. These folks had left Anchorage in late June, ridden the Glenn and Richardson hwys to Paxson, and had just arrived after 3 1/2 days of dirt road riding across the Denali hwy. For the couple in the group, this was their first long tour and it seemed to us that the jury was still out as to whether they really liked this mode of transportation. They told us that after 2 weeks they were just sick of having to unpack and repack each day, keep track of who has the pot who has the food. They were surprised to learn we weren't sick of it yet.
The two other men, were old hands at backpacking and bike touring. In fact their tour leader, here comes the coincidence, Duane designed and has been leading Adventure Cycling's Alaska tours for years. His long touring experience has put him in contact with one of our many keypals, Judy. He has even received and read some of our previous newsletters. Now this is a first. The first time we've just happened to meet someone who's heard of us through these postings.
They say Alaska is a land of magic and wonder. I'm begining to wonder if the magic doesn't manifest itself as a continued string of most unusual "small world" type encounters.
We rode north as far as Cantwell, dropped our load, and continued the last 27 miles to connect with our route from Fairbanks to Denali National Park. We reveled in the near perfect riding conditions. Terrain, weather, road surface, and scenery were A+. We eagerly anticipated a hot shower and laundry at the end of the ride. Yet as we wandered around the familiar grounds of the park hotel, a great stop for a hamburger by the way, we couldn't help but have this nagging feeling in the backs of our minds. It was the 6th of July. Summer was quickly ticking away and we needed to start our southerly trek. In this respect we are much like the pioneers of that great western migration along the California and Oregon trails. Our time of reference is months and weeks rather than today's fast paced days and hours. Even though summer was hardly half over, we needed to start south to make the California/Oregon stateline by mid October. We've well over 4,000 miles to go. Reluctantly we turned our eyes and wheels, bade farewell to the tallest mountain in North America, and officially started the long trek back to San Diego.
Appendix A - Route
Bus to Anchorage Parks Highway to Cantwell
Appendix B - Camp sites
Cousin Eric's place, Wasilla RV park ($), Willow Creek State Rec Area, Timber Creek Trading Post ($), Byers lake campground in Denali State Park, Cantwell RV park 2 nights ($)
($) indicates fee camping
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.