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.
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.
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.
If only I had something like that to show for all my pedaling.
Trying and trying to leave town, although I’ve put off making fenders and wiring my rear light for several days while I tend the lists I’ve scribbled onto the back of receipts and napkins. Planning to be on the road for several months, a few extra days of preparation and planning will help to ensure a reliable bicycle and a smooth trip. I’m planning to ride the Denali Park Road and the Denali Highway on my way out of the state. The Park Road is a 90 mile dirt road into the heart of the park to the settlement of Kantishna. Private motor vehicle traffic is extremely limited as most visitors are required to travel in Aramark-operated school buses, which reduce traffic volume to several dozen vehicles a day on the only road in the park. The unpaved park road offers some of the best dirt road riding and scenery in the entire state, and free wilderness camping permits are issued to hikers and cyclists, who are required to hide their bikes from view of the road and make camp a short walk further. It’s a highly regulated system, but it effectively preserves and simulates the kind of wilderness experience most visitors expect.
The Denali Highway, not to be confused with the Denali Park Road, is a 135 mile connector between the Parks Highway at Cantwell and the Richardson Highway in Paxson. Most of the surrounding land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, including several official campgrounds, which makes this another favorite Alaskan ride. Before the (George) Parks Highway was built in 1971, the Denali Highway was the main automobile route to Mt McKinley National Park (since renamed Denali). The Denali Highway was built as recently as 1957.
I have a short shopping list including a 1L drink bottle for my fuel, some scrap metal to complete a custom taillight bracket, and bear spray. I’ve made a 4″ wide rear fender out of an $8 piece of aluminum from Lowe’s, some coruplast signage promoting Joe Miller’s Senate bid in 2010, and salvaged stays from a Planet Bike fender and an old chrome balloon tire fender. In short supply of the proper tools, I managed to piece the whole thing together with the leather punch on my Swiss Army knife and a Park multitool. The front fender will make for some conversation, as it features Joe Miller’s campaign slogan in four-inch tall lettering. It’s nice to have lights and fenders again. The bike is finished, finally. It’s ugly, and purple and excessively practical, but it’s done.
By now, I’m gone.
Boz Scagg’s song “I’ll Be Long Gone” is a classic from his eponymous 1969 Atlantic release. The album was recorded in Muscle Shoals, AL with the usual cast of Swampers, and features Duane Allman on guitar. Check out the guitar solo on “Loan Me a Dime”, from the same album.