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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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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