Sunday, July 13, 2008

From Kantishna or BUST!

Temps: 50ish to 75ish
Mileage: 91
Elevation climb: > 11,000 ft
Flat tires: 0
Rain showers: 0

We made it!!!!

This weekend my friend Debbie and I finally went ahead with attempting to bike all 90 miles of the Denali Park Rd. from the end of the road at Kantishna all the way back to our campsite at the entrance of the park. This is my fourth time biking any of the park road, but I have never done the whole thing or ever biked more than 62 miles at a time anywhere. The trip was kind of last minute, since a week and a half ago panic set in that we were losing daylight and it would be best to do the trip with maximum daylight so riding through the night was more enjoyable.

Debbie and I took the 7am camper bus into the park.Along the way, we picked up a big group of Fairbanks friends who were doing a hiking/packrafting trip the same day. See Dea's blog for awesome pictures. (Sorry Dea for not getting you in the pic!) They got off about 30 miles in to start their adventure.Holy cow!! The mountain was out!! Unfortunately we were still on the bus at this point. I still have to hold onto my dream of holding my bike up in front of this sucker with it fully visible. But I still felt soooo lucky to see it.. first time seeing it well in the park.

On our way to Kantishna, our bus had mandatory stops at Eielson (mile 66) and Wonder Lake (mile 84) so we had a lot of time to toot around.
By the time we got to Eielson the mountain was already becoming obscured in clouds.Moose tracks, anyone?
Finally! Phew.. that was a long bus ride. We made it to Kantishna and got rolling around 2:30 after being attacked by some serious mosquitoes. They were almost Brooks Range intensity mosquitoes. We were glad to get a move on.
By Reflection Pond, where the famous pictures of Denali are taken. Too bad the mountain was completely hidden by this point.

Ok, so story time. I started going into "la-la" land like I normally do biking.. and all of a sudden a brown thing is up ahead on the road. Debbie points it out as the caribou is quickly trotting towards us.. I would call it a bit of a gallop instead of a "trot", he was coming STRAIGHT FOR US! We immediately got off our bikes and are thinking, "oh my goodness, what the crap is this caribou doing??!" I have never ever had a caribou walk TOWARDS me, they are skiddish animals and normally run away. So, we began yelling at the caribou and holding up our bikes trying to look bigger, and it finally reacted to us and stopped dead in its tracks when it was a distance of 10 feet away... stared at us bobbing its head side to side to check us out, and then bolted the other way. Then, it continues on doing its thing right on the road. THAT was a cool experience. We were shocked for a few seconds and weren't sure whether to ride by or wait for him to move. Two buses full of tourists came by and blocked the road right by the caribou so we were behind them waiting to go. Here is a picture of him from farther away after we scared him the other way. If only I had a video camera taping the original encounter it would have been priceless.
Josh took the 11am camper bus and got to us around mile 75. The first 20-something miles were brutally slow. It took us almost an hour to get the 6 miles from Kantishna to Wonder Lake. I thought it was flat but instead it was all uphill, and we were getting adjusted to our bikes at the beginning so there was some stop and go, but still.. 6 miles in an hour?! It was going to be a long, long day.
It took us a lot of time to get to Eielson Visitors Center. I was a bit worried at our slow pace and was hoping that things would speed up, which they did.

Here the mountain lies, if it were out. Near Stony Dome (mile 28 for us), we were warned by several vehicular travelers that there was a big grizz on the side of the road. Sure enough, the sucker was ~30 feet away on our left, luckily there were two buses stopped alongside the bus warning us of the location. The big grizz was minding his own business just chowing down on some brush. Thank goodness the bear didn't have cubs and was minding his own business. We VERY slowly and quietly rode by him and then bolted the hell out of there. I almost stopped to take a picture but was too nerved and decided it was better to get out of there before he noticed us.

At one point of the ride, another biker (Alex) was riding alongside us and I got to talking to him. He works in the park and was just going for a leisurely ride. What a great life! He rode with us for awhile until a ride came to haul him back to camp... he did his undergrad in PA (small world) but is getting his Master's now in Vancouver. He is interested in biking the Denali Highway (different road!) that I am planning later this summer so maybe we'll meet again.

Below is ascending Polychrome Pass, by far one of the best overlooks in the park. I like riding this section because there is a massive fast downhill after the awesome overlook. The road just weaves in and out of the mountains with a cliff on one side. And this was the farthest I went in on my first bike ride and trip in Denali.. I guess it's a bit sentimental like anything from my first summer in Anchorage and first summer in Fairbanks.
Josh had to bail out at Polychrome and took the camper bus back to camp, but Debbie stuck with me through the next half of the ride. This girl is AMAZING. She was hurting from mile 45 onward but still completed it. A serious trooper! She totally gets an endurance award and patience award for putting up with my plan of riding the entire way all at once.
At mile 68 for us we stopped by the Sanctuary campground to see if the other Fairbanksians were back from their adventure, and they were. They had just gotten back to their camp a half hour before we did and were chowing down on some delicious Mountain House.
The sun began to go down but this was by far the greatest weather I ever had biking the park road. We encountered some good winds through some areas but by the end most places were calm and the sky was clear enough that it never did get dark enough for a headlamp. The temperature was perfect and there was not one drop of rain the entire time!! I don't ever expect it to be this nice again.Mile 70-something and still going!!
Right before our 75-mile mark, there was a serious population of rabbits and I felt like Moses parting the red sea of bunnies. Left.. right.. 10 at a time.. it was hysterical! I was getting pretty goofy at this hour of night and the bunnies were making me laugh. Had a close call or two.. that would have sucked to hit a bunny and go flying off your bike. But really, I was in a very good mood the entire ride. Because mountains + bikes + good weather makes a perfect day. Someone recently suggested that I should put a weather station on my bike and just start riding and be a mobile weather station. I think its brilliant and it would be the perfect job. You could see the world and meet lots of interesting people along the way.

Mile 80 of our trip I began struggling for the first time, but it was not a physical struggle. I was beginning to nod off on my bike!!! I have never ever almost fallen asleep riding before. It didn't happen once or twice but 10 or so times. Either I was too comfortable riding at that point, or maybe too warm under my extra layer that I put on for the last screaming downhill of the road.. but it was like being in an 8am class and trying furiously to stay awake. So strange. Once we started on the last leg which is all downhill and the cold wind was screaming through my jackets then I woke up. :-)
Nearly 12 hours later including many stops and roadblocks along the way, mile 90. Who wants to go 10 more for 100?!!

Hands down, best Denali trip on record. Here is a map of our trip, bear with me because I took a picture of the map and drew the line and dots in with Paint. The green dot on the left is where we started, the red where we ended. The purple-ish dot is where we had our caribou encounter and the brown is where the grizz was.
Huge thanks to Debbie and Josh for being up to the challenge and helping to make my dream of riding the park road become possible this summer! To Debbie for putting up with me and being way less cranky than she deserved to be, and to Josh for making that really nice fire for my cold feet. :-)


Maria said...

wow, 90 miles!! that looked like quite the adventure, wildlife close-calls and all.

Kevin said...

Very jealous! I've had my fun riding around Juneau, but 90 miles is amazing. Perhaps one day for me! :-)

theorbo said...

Thanks for retelling the story of your fun-filled day. I like the part about the rabbits!

Emily Benson said...

Hi! I was googling some info on riding to or from Kantishna and came across your blog.

Do you know much about the shuttle? Can our bikes and gear go on it?

Why did you choose Kantishna back to park entrance? Is this due to elevation/steepness?

We are trying to decide whether to do what you did, or to ride into Kantishna, camp there, then shuttle back.

I guess this depends on the time of the shuttles too.

Do you know where/how to find shuttle time information?

Who operates the shuttles? The National Park Service?

Thank you so much for your advice! Your blog is lovely!

Julie said...

Hi Emily! Yes, the camper bus can take bikes and gear. It is ONLY the camper bus though, not the "shuttle buses". The reason is, the camper buses have the last few seats of the bus taken out to accommodate two bikes and backpacks. The question of course is though, if there are more than two of you and you need a ride out, what do you do? I think if you are leaving the park road, instead of hitching a ride into the park road, then they will take more than two (but I could be wrong). There were three of us and we had to take two separate buses, so our male in the group took a bus until he saw us and then requested to get off. The camper bus will stop anywhere along the road.

This information is of course several year old, so check out Denali's website for the latest! It looks pretty much the same.

It does in fact look like a couple of shuttle buses have room for bikes.. in case you need a ride out of the park.

We chose Kantishna because it is the end of the road. You can go no further from there. It is technically out of Denali NP, but only by a couple of miles. That first 6 miles (or however many) from Kantishna to Wonder Lake was misleadingly difficult. It doesn't look uphill, but it is. :-)

As far as bus schedules, check out that link above and on the left toolbar there is a lot of information.