The latter third (of the Denali Highway)

Another edition of racing from rainclouds:

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I’ve posted about the nature of the Denali Highway, which is a more typical American playground that the highly regulated Denali Park Road. On the Denali Highway, feel free to roar around on an ATV, shoot a gun, burn your beer cans in a campfire and generally, excercise your liberties. The first portion of the road passes through the drainages of the Nenana (Tenana, Yukon) and Susitna Rivers. Crossing the Maclaren River begins a climb up to the second highest motorable pass in the state. Maclaren Pass, at 4086 ft is the gateway to a tangle of kettle lakes and classic glacial terrane–U-shaped valleys, eskers, glacial erratics, and palsas are omnipresent. In the current climate, alpine glaciers are tucked back in the valleys, pouring milky meltwater downslope into ever-larger channels and finally into the Yukon, Susitna and Copper Rivers. Spring has finally arrived at 4000 ft and is progressing at a rapid pace. However, summer will have to hurry to find a few weeks before fall arrives in late August.

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My purple rando-monster, as I call it, continues to prove itself as a viable hybrid. The French word “randonee” refers to any sort of overland (or water) travel, as we might use the work “trek”. Modern American connotations suggest randonee to be the kind of spirited riding associated with brevets. This bike is capable of spirited riding with the appropriate motor and fuel, which I supply. But, it is a monstrous vehicle capable of real overland travel, especially when fat tires come back into the picture. I’m thinking that MIssoula will be a good place to make the switch. I’d estimate that my operating pressures are between 15-25 psi for most riding. I’m not obsessing about it and probably tend towards lower pressures, as I often do. Last summer on the Divide, I remarked that Greg’s tires seemed really hard. We measured his pressure at about 50 psi on 2.25 Schwalbe XR tires; my 1.75 Schwalbe Marathons were at 20 and 25 psi (front and rear). Without monstrous loads I can operate at lower pressures, floating over gravel and washboard. Lael says, it’s like riding a gel pen.

The Revelate bags are working out nicely and fulfill my desire to tour rack-free, or rack-lite in this case. The frame bag is designed for the current medium Pugsley and isn’t perfectly mated to my frame, but it’s all Eric had available in his shop in Anchorage. Boxes full of top-notch bikepacking kit were awaiting shipment to QBP, where they are undoubtedly already spoken for by shops all over the country. No matter– the misfit bag still holds food, clothing, a tube, and a tangle of electronic cables and chargers. Without the laptop, camera, external hard drive and associated cables I now carry, I’d be able to remove either the framebag or the Carradice saddlebag. The smaller pocket on the other side of the frame bag holds my toothbrush and toothpaste, along with some zip ties and a steel spoon. Between spooning peanut butter and toothbrushing, this is the most used compartment on my bike.

In the uplands between Maclaren Pass and the Tangle Lakes Inn are multiple opportunities for trail-riding. Most are multi-use ATV/bike/ hike routes, but would seem to be ridable in drier conditions.

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The eastern section (42 miles) of the highway climbs and descends several times before meeting the Richardson Highway in Paxson, which isn’t much of a town. Actually, Paxson is mostly a crossroads with a dilapidated roadhouse that manages a little business, despite appearances. The Tangle Lakes Inn (about mile 20) is a hospitable place and has a bar and restaurant that is a popular local spot for fishermen. The eastern twenty miles of road are paved. Amidst a rainstorm, I encountered the most beautiful roadkill; I prepared a gravelly grave aside a lupine. Glacial topography abounds.

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Better weather and breathtaking scenery encouraged some fast riding. Dodging rainstorms from multiple angles continues to be my game, and encourages even faster riding. I remain relatively dry.

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Racing away from rainclouds, my reward comes in the form of a thirty mile-an-hour descent into more promising skies.

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Maclaren River Lodge

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Alaskan hospitality can be hit or miss, but the folks alongside the Maclaren River are wonderful and a ride down the Denali Highway should at least include a slice of pie and a coffee.  On a clear day the dining room has views of the Maclaren Glacier about a dozen miles upriver, and a BLM mountain bike trailhead marked “Maclaren River Road” will take you to the terminus of the glacier.  Unfortunately, a river crossing four miles down the road was impassable after several days of rain.  On the other side of the river, the trail continues another eight miles.  Glutenous, homemade country bread is just like grandma used to make and an entire loaf only set me back $7.  I tried eating it with drops of honey alongside the road, but it’s so good that it’s best enjoyed on it’s own.  It’s a real fine food source in a land of understocked grocery stores and dusty Hormel cans.

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A nagging cold and a persistent rain led me to take a day off the bike to enjoy bottomless coffee and internet.  Somehow, four homestyle meals and an equal number of hot showers along with a day-long coffee fix only cost $40.  The Maclaren River Lodge has a reputation for being kind to cyclists, but the experience outweighed both the modest price and the reputation.

Alan and Susie spend the winter here and use snow machines to transport goods to the lodge, which remains open to winter enthusiasts even though the road is closed.  Yes, it’s cold here in the winter.  Yes, they get a lot of snow.  And yes, it’s dark.  “But it’s worth it”, they say.

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Boy Scout bicycling merit badge

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I encountered a group of eleven young cyclists and several leaders on a semi-self-supported tour of the Denali Highway, which is almost entirely dirt road.  They carried their own tools and clothing for the day; at night they camped and cooked and told ghost stories.  The group from Cordova has done rafting trips and hiking trips and at least one other cycling trip, which sounds like an active troop.  The three riders in the back were the oldest, and carried tools in the event of a mechanical that one of the younger riders couldn’t handle.  Apparently, there is an official Boy Scout merit badge for bicycling and bicycle maintenance which they were unable to show me as it was sewn to their uniforms at home.  While I was whittling balsa wood cars and wind-up “rockets”, I could have been riding a bike?  I never made it past cub scout status.

Their plan was to ride three twenty-five mile days, and then one big fifty-miler on the final day which will take them the complete length of the 135-mile Denali Highway.  I met them as they had just descended from Maclaren Pass at 4086 ft, which put smiles to their faces.  I laid my bike down on the gravel shoulder and one rider remarked, “I’m surprised a bike like that doesn’t have a kickstand?”.  For what it weighs, I am too.  As I pedaled away, they wished me luck for the big climb ahead.  Thanks guys.  Merit badge: earned.

 

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If only I had something like that to show for all my pedaling.

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The (blue-collar) Denali Highway

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The Denali Highway is the workingman’s version of the Denali Park Road.  Constructed in 1957 as a public highway, it was a vital connection between civilization and Denali National Park before it’s utility was eclipsed by the paved George Parks Highway in the 1971, which promoted a shorter, easier drive from Anchorage.  Not to be confused: the Denali Highway is a public though-road that connects Cantwell to Paxson, and the George Parks Highway with the Richardson Highway.  The George Parks Highway is not the same as the Denali “Park” Road, but they do intersect at the entrance to Denali National Park.  The Denali Park Road is a 92 mile road to nowhere, excepting the small settlement of Kantisha.  The Denali Park Road is highly regulated; the Denali Highway is not.

Carving it’s way through the headwaters of three major river drainages– the Yukon, Susitna, and Copper– the Denali Highway is mostly situated on BLM lands with very few private land tracts.  As a result, camping opportunities abound in hundreds of roadside turnouts, or for the more adventurous down a muddy ATV track to a more remote setting.  With less pronounced climbs than the Denali Park Road, it’s still a moderately challenging ride with rolling topography and a few longer climbs including the ride up to Maclaren Pass.  At 4086 ft, Maclaren is the second highest motorable pass in the state.  The surface is generally quite good, but not quite as refined as the Park Road, which is maintained to serve tourists riding in school buses.  The 135 mile Denali Highwy is graded dirt, except for the paved end sections which remain open during the winter to accommodate local residents.  The area floods with RVs, ATVs and pick-ups during the summer.  Early June is still early in the season for this part of Alaska, and traffic is minimal.

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The weather continues to be unpredictable and I’m doing my best to dodge rainclouds.  Raindrops catch up with me while riding uphill, even with the wind at my back.  Then a downhill scorcher puts me a few hundred yards ahead.  Climbing, the raindrops return.  I did this for half the day as spoonfuls of peanut butter fueled me from breakfast until dinner.  The riding was swift and large volume tires were a treat for fast descents and washboard.  Mostly, I had nothing better to do than to dance with rainclouds.

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Further up the road, spring comes late.  Approaching 4000ft, small buds were adding to the tundra hues– deep reds and lichenous whites and yellows.  Low clouds settled like smoke from a wildfire.

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There are few services along the highway.  The Gracious House, located a short distance from the Susitna River bridge is said to have great pie, but was closed.  The Maclaren River Lodge (about 42 miles from Paxson) has nice sandwich plates, delicious Maclaren berry pie, and has offered a hot shower, wireless internet and a campsite for $5.  A hearty breakfast in the morning and a day off the bike should help me overcome a nagging cold.

I’m planning a full discussion of my curious touring bicycle soon.  Lots of changes were taking place right before I left, but the dust has settled.  For now, I’m happy to have fenders.  Lights are nice on dark, rainy days.  Big tires are always great.

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How tight is too tight?

I’ve seen so many loose bolts this past week, I can’t contain myself.  Broken racks and rattling fenders and spinning SPD cleats are no fun.  Tighten those bolts!

On the Dovetail Bikes Blog:

I’d guess that half of you have a loose bolt on their bike. Take a wrench to all the attachment bolts for racks, fenders, and water bottle cages and snug them up. Even if it’s not loose, give it a quarter turn to ensure that a big load or a rough road does not loosen them in the future…How tight is tight enough? An experienced mechanic says to me, “a quarter turn before you strip the threads”. With a hint of hyperbole, the answer is as tight as possible without damaging the frame…more from “Tighten Up!” on the Dovetail Blog.

Some developments are brewing at Dovetail, including a collaboration with Swift Industries for some super bike touring bags made by real people in Seattle, WA.  Wanna tour or commute “rack-lite”?  Coming soon!


The Denali Park Road: Toklat to Kantishna and back

Day 2: Toklat to Kantishna and back to Highway Pass

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Clear skies and views of Denali define the morning, while scattered showers and mosquitos send me looking for a dry place to rest in Kantishna, at the end of the road.  The Kantishna Roadhouse has the best saloon for ninety miles; John the wisened bartender has been around the world a dozen times, and knew a little bit about everything.  As the rain let up I climbed out of Kantishna, retracing my route back towards the park entrance.  A tempest sent me surging uphill to the Eielson Visitor’s Center to seek cover and a warm pot of food.

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Tighten those bolts!  I encountered this cyclist whose shoe was fixed to her pedal, as she sat on the ground enjoying a snack with only one shoe.  A missing bolt in her SPD cleat was the problem.  Also, the rack had been mended with a dozen zip-ties and upon closer inspection, all but one of the rack mounting bolts was loose.  I tightened things up, and supplied a bolt for the SPD cleat and the rack.  Finally, I straightened her seat, which was curiously off-center by about 15 degrees.  This detail, in addition to the loose bolts, had us all laughing.

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Wonder Lake:

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Kantishna:

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Headed back, dodging rainstorms.  With such broad views, it’s possible to plan your resting and your riding around the rainclouds.  It wasn’t foolproof, as I still got a wet a few times.

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Bears:

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Day 3: Highway Pass to Riley Creek

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Climbing and descending, sun and rain; it was a great day to practice layering and moisture management on the bike.  In total, I met six cyclists riding the road: two Germans, two young girls from Girdwood, AK, and two guys from New Orleans.  At the Toklat Visitor’s Center I spotted a 1987 Schwinn High Sierra.  I know this bike well as I converted one for touring purposes with Schwalbe Marathon tires and a Nitto Moustache handlebar several summers ago.  The owner of the bike, Charlotte, was flattered that I liked her bike so much, although she seemed a bit astonished.  Connecting the dots, it came to light that she had been involved with the nascent Bikecentennial organization beginning in 1975 when she moved out to Missoula with only a small backpack.  Bikecentennial was to eventually become the mammoth Adventure Cycling Association.  She participated in one of the first TSORV rides in Ohio in 1968, and had ridden through several South American countries with Greg and June Siple’s famed Hemistour ride from Alaska to Argentina in the early 70’s.  She was impressed that I knew about all that old stuff.  I was impressed at all that she had done.  As I described my curious touring bicycle and my lifestyle, she smiled, and pegged me as a “bike idealist”.  She’s right and that’s the best compliment anyone could give.

I found an interesting article about the development and execution of the Bikecentennial event on the ACA website.  Charlotte is quoted in the article, referring to her position with the young organization, “Bicycling to me somehow symbolized clean, moral living. I was really caught up in the whole thing. I was never going to own a car.”  Charlotte is one hell of a gal.

Charlotte’s 1987 Schwinn High Sierra: Check out the lugged Unicrown fork, smooth brazed head tube junctions, and Suntour Roller-Cam brakes.  The bike is mostly original (the copper-colored anodized stem has been replaced) and is ridden up Highway Pass from the Toklat River every day during the summer, as much as a thousand feet in elevation.

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Up and over a few familiar passes, I am once again on pavement and losing elevation.  Descending out of the park is thrilling.  While a free shuttle will take you from the Savage River gate at mile 14 to the entrance, a several thousand foot descent is a nice way to finish the ride.  In the canyon outside the park, called “Glitter Gulch”, all kinds of hot foods and cold beverages can be found.  A well-stocked outdoor store can supply any necessary gear for the road ahead.

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The Denali Park Road: Riley Creek to Toklat River

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In a search of exceptional bike rides in this country, several results turn up.  The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is the longest dirt route anywhere; the GAP/C&O trail and the KATY trail are some of the longest rail-trails around and offer pure traffic-free riding.  The paved TransAmerica Trail (TransAm) is historic, winding along America’s backroads, while the Pacific Coast route is ever popular.  Every state has it’s hallmark routes, and the western states feature an incredible network of public roads on USFS and BLM lands.  Even, other National Park roads such as Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive and Glacier’s Going-to-the Sun Road are conversation pieces of places people like to ride.  However, nothing compares to the 92-mile Denali Park Road.

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Climbing from the Nenana River at the park entrance, the road travels westward along the northern side of the Alaska Range over a series of low passes, crossing several major rivers to achieve banner views of Denali and the range.  Riding high above the braided rivers– the Savage, Sanctuary, Teklanika, Toklat– several passes are carved from mountainsides to avoid the ever-changing floodplains below.  The effect is otherworldly; at least, roads like this are known only from snapshots of Himalayan and Andean roads.  In this part of Alaska spruce forests give way to sub-alpine shrubbery at about 2200 ft, and to a mossy alpine tundra further up.  The main section of the road from the Savage River entrance at mile 14 to Wonder Lake at mile 85, is mostly above treeline except when at river level.  Aside from the scenery and the wildlife, the lofty peaks and the wildflowers, it is the “atmos” of Denali that is the most engaging.

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Incoming air masses are regurgitated by the highest peaks.  The result is a witches brew of weather, with blue skies and thunderclouds competing for space.  The feeling is electric, and as Denali comes into view, shocking.  Clear blue skies are not unknown here, but are uncommon for any length of time and many visitors to the park never actually glimpse the Denali, “The Great One”.  The occasional views to the north or south of the range, toward Fairbanks and Anchorage, often show uniformly calm skies.  But these are big mountains rising from a broad flat landscape– they make their own weather.

Day 1: RIley Creek to Toklat River

I rode the full length of the road from the park entrance at Riley Creek to the gold-mining district of Kantishna at mile 92, and back.  Wishing to spend less time riding, many visitors combine a green shuttle bus with some riding and camping.  The green “camper buses” can drop off or pick up anywhere along the road, space permitting– simply wait for the next bus and flag it down.  A BRC (bear resistant container) is provided for storage of all food and scented items to hikers and cyclists.  I wasn’t sure how to pack it at first, but the Carradice Camper swallowed it up, thanks to the “longflap” feature.  I’ve been abusing this bag for almost two years, and it’s due to receive a little TLC.  Repairs are simple, and a durable needle and upholstery thread do more than solve the problem.  When I’m through, the bag will be better than new.  That’s the beauty of a durable canvas bag– it wears in.  An plastic Ortlieb-style dry bag wears out.

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Above, the Park Road is shown by the dashed yellow line as it passes the Muldrow Glacier near the Eielson Visitor’s Center at mile 66.  The Muldrow Glacier (the blue lights are at the foot) was the first route used by climbers to ascend Denali.  The impetus for Mt. McKinley National Park (renamed Denali NP in 1980) was not only to encase North America’s highest peak, but to preserve the Dall sheep and their habitat that were in danger of decimation by market hunters.  Charles Sheldon championed the Dall sheep as a unique species worth preserving, and assisted in the formation of a national park in 1917, several decades before statehood.  These days most visitors come to see the brutish bears, but it is the Dall sheep that are the most regal and unique.  From craggy perches they survey the land around them, enjoying the respite of the summer season.  Their snow white coats are camouflage in winter but make them highly visible this time of year; thankfully, few of their predators can approach their rocky dwelling.

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From atop Polychrome Pass, look a little closer:

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Descending down to the Toklat River, I made my camp on a gravel river bar.  A glacial bath washes away the dust and sweat; clean wool long underwear and a down jacket are a rare treat after a cold swim.  At 8 PM, it’s as bright as day.  Over twenty hours of sunlight right now, and we’re still gaining.  Looking south from my camp, the freestanding interior netting of the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 keeps mosquitos at bay, while letting in some midnight sun:

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Looking north, about 3:30 AM.

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The best road in America

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It exists so that tourists could experience the wilds of Denali without enduring a month-long trek into the soggy backcountry, many decades ago; it remains unpaved thanks to the steadfast efforts of Adolph Murie, who first rescued the park’s wolves from misunderstanding; it remains untravelled by private motor vehicle traffic, thankfully, for our benefit.  There are many pleasant and cycleable tracks in this country, including rural routes, rail-trails and canal trails, and even other national park roads, but the Denali Park Road might be the best road in America.  This time, they got it right.

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The Hooligan

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Coming and going and going and coming.  I hitched from Denali back to Anchorage to buy a new laptop, a mighty MacBook Air.  I spent the week in town outfitting Lael for her European travels and sent her flying over the pole to Frankfurt and London this morning.  Accompanying her was a new bike, a sprightly 20 inch wheeled bike–a Cannondale Hooligan 8.  The 20 inch wheeled bike in question is not a folding bike, but it is super fun and features disc brakes and huge tire clearances and a 1 x 8 drivetrain.  It packs small if properly disassembled and will be able to handle country lanes, canal trails, and some light single track.  For the price, it is a fun, practical bike that ensures reliable transport.  The plan is to remove the front wheel and the fork, and avoid airline surcharges.  It’s not a folding bike, and as a result it sports a rugged, rigid aluminum frame and a steel fork.  There are no moving frame parts to be concerned about, such as on a folder.  Upscale folding bikes such as those from Bike Friday are rugged, but inexpensive folders won’t stand up to the riding that Lael will be able to do on the Hooligan.  Hopefully, as planned, it’s a fun solution for getting around Europe this summer.   With Revelate bags and the Inertia Designs frame bag she’ll have an ultralight Continental tourer, ready within a few minutes after deboarding.  If you haven’t ridden a bike with small wheels, try it.  It’s fun, and it’s not that weird.  Mostly, it rides like a bike.

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We’d like to fit Schwalbe 20 x 2.15″ Big Apple tires and a handlebar with a mild sweep, such as the On-One Mary that she has enjoyed so much on her Surly LHT.  For now, some Ergon grips make things more familiar.  I packed the Hooligan into a large cotton drawstring sack sold by an outdoor outfitter, designed to carry moose and elk quarters out of the backcountry.  It fit the Hooligan and a light load of camping gear quite nicely, and cost $8.95.  Add some duct tape for extra security and some Alaskan flair.  Hopefully, the airline believes that it’s a cello or a large backpack or a “mobility aid”.