Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Denali Highway Bike Excursion

High temps: 60-65
Low temps: 30-40
Mileage: 158
Max speed on bike: 35.6 mph
Liters of water consumed: Lots
Clif shot bloks consumed: 5 packages
Pieces of pie consumed: 1
Number of rain showers encountered: 0
Flat tires: ZERO.
Animals: 2 caribou
"You have a lot of courage." - a passerby on the Denali Highway - this quote will reverberate through my head for a long time.

"You're nuts." - old timer at the Maclaren Lodge - this one I'll also remember, haha.

I had one goal left before classes start and my fun life becomes non-existent.. to bike the 135 mile Denali Highway! (Highway 8) I can't believe the summer is over and for the first time in a few years I stayed in the same place and didn't wander off to some faraway land to start a new life.

Below are my awesome friends Carrie and Brentha who dropped us off down in Paxson to begin the journey. Without them the weekend would not have happened. The Denali Highway is a mostly gravel road which begins in Paxson on the Richardson Highway and runs west 135 miles to end in the town of Cantwell off of the Parks Highway.

Carrie caught a couple of shots of last minute bike maintenance, which she calls me in "my element".. Ok, we have to start RIGHT at the beginning! No cutting corners on this.I need to look at the map to figure out what glacier this is. There were a few...
Mile 22, Tangle Lakes Lodge.
The mountains just came.. and came.. and came. It was absolute heaven one mountain range after another. I am glad that the Denali highway is not paved because it keeps the traffic down so that complete silence is a real possibility. I hadn't "heard" silence in awhile.. that is something that I value most being up here.
Maclaren summit is the second highest point on an AK highway, dwarfed by Atigun Pass on the Dalton highway at 4643 ft/1415 m. Remember, we don't have a lot of highways. ;)
After the summit, there was a fast 5 mile downhill to the Maclaren river where we would be stopping for the night. It was sketchy in parts with the gravel but I was able to hit 35 mph going down it. Weeeee!
On the way down it was a cloud watcher's dream, lenticulars lit by the setting sun.
The first night, we met an awesome couple, Ed and Bonnie, who traveled from Washington to spend a month in AK driving around seeing the state. They let us share their camping spot for the night across from the Maclaren Lodge. We were totally not roughing it at all like I expected. They were my favorite people that we met along the way.. at 71 years old they regularly travel and explore. They got into bicycle touring in their 50s and have gone all around the world biking since then. They were extremely inspiring people and I honestly could have talked to them for hours but Alex was itching to get going for our long day so we got going after a short chat with them.

Monday, our long day, looked very promising weather-wise. I have had crummy weather for a lot of my trips this summer so I'd rather be pessimistic about the weather and expect rain and crappiness so that when the weather is halfway decent it's a pleasant surprise!
Day two was by far the most scenic but also most difficult. Past Maclaren Lodge, the mountains just went on and on and on and the colors became more vibrant... but the road became rougher as we went on. Below is one of my favorite pictures with some of the last blooming fireweed before winter ensues.
The road became really rough in spots for my commuter bike. My arms were really tired by the end of the day from all of the shaking from the washboard and potholes. I knew a few hours into the day that I made a mistake not bringing my mountain bike. Oh well.. next time!
Below is the Susitna River... Lil' Su, here I come!The Gracious House cafe, at mile 82 was another nice stop. Here I thought there was nothing on the highway but I was wrong. They even had gasoline here and it was only $5.50/gal! That is cheaper than a lot of other places up here with similar access. The Gracious House has delicious pie, recommended by Carla. There were even nice bathroom facilities here!
During day 2, we gathered a fan club driving the Denali highway. Two groups of tourists, one group from Japan and another from Germany, were so excited about us and taking our pictures and asking if we needed anything. It was awesome!! I felt like a well-liked celebrity. I wish I would have gotten pictures of all of these people that we met.At mile 104, we came across the Brushkana Campground, maintained by BLM. I was hoping for free camping, but they wanted $8 for a spot. We were going to head up the road a few more miles and just pitch the tent but made a friend who let us stay at his spot. Sweeto! Because of this, we had a nice warm fire to sit by, someone to chat with, and a food locker to put our stuff in so the bears wouldn't eat us. Our fan club was also at the campground.. they were excited to see us again.
Brrrr who turned off the heat?! Decent frost the next morning and a very frozen water bottle.Day 3 we only had 30 miles to travel to get to the Parks Highway.
We got to Cantwell around 1:30pm, 135 miles from our start! Hooray!
Although many people (including myself before this weekend) think that Cantwell is on the Parks Highway, the small town is actually tucked away two miles at the VERY end of the Denali Highway. Here is the official end of the highway.Since I couldn't contact Carrie to come get us until we were 8 miles from the Parks highway, we decided to just start biking north towards Denali. It was awesome biking along the highway.. the colors were spectacular. About 20 miles up the road we intercepted Carrie and headed home.We were prepared to be completely self-reliant, but the people we met along the way and the stops available made the trip far from uncomfortable. For the first time, I felt like I packed the right amount of weight, aside from a bit of extra food. If I do this again, I'll take my mountain bike, carry less water, and ride around town beforehand with 25 lbs on the back of my bike to get used to the sluggishness.

As always, special thanks to my friends who let me borrow gear.. panniers, tent, etc. Thanks Fairbanksians!

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