A Ride across Alaska
When it all began
This was a journey that began well before the actual start date. As John Steinbeck wrote in his memoir Travels with Charley , "My own journey started long before I left and was over before I returned". While flying over the barren landscape of the arctic tundra we had mixed feelings of excitement, fear, anticipation, nostalgia and curiosity.
Thousands of small lakes dotted the horizon. We landed at 70 degrees north in the settlement of Prudhoe Bay. Up until this point we had heard so many opinions and bits of advice from people about Alaska, notably about all the dangers we would encounter. Most people seem compelled to tell us the most horrific story they have heard about people being mauled by bears or trampled by moose. We came to accept this common trait people have in telling scary stories and simply learned all the ways to minimize the risks and focused our attention on the positive people. However, the comments had still instilled an underlying fear regarding what we were about to begin.
The night before the start of the ride, we stayed at Deadhorse Camp - a workcamp set up mostly for people working on the oil pipeline. Our room was in a small, very well-heated portacabin. A kitchen and restaurant was located in another portacabin close by. Over a hot meal loaded with vegetables, meat and gravy (our last for a while), we conversed with people who were working in the area and others visiting as part of a tour. Once again, conversations led to danger: "oh there's bin loads'a bears in camp lately, bin seein'em all over the road." And so it goes.
Biking across tundra and mountains from the Arctic to Fairbanks
And then it began. With light snow and grey skies, we set off from Deadhorse Camp down the gravel Dalton Highway that stretched south across a grey, desolate landscape as far as the eye could see. We immediately saw two Musk Ox grazing by the road (of course I initially thought they were bears and was already eyeing my bear spray located on my handlebars). Further down the road, two gangly caribou started running alongside us as the clouds became more and more bruised. After our first lunch (peanut butter, cheese and jam sandwiches) the sleet and rain commenced, and we and our bikes became plastered in mud. After 60 km, we set up our tent behind a parked bulldozer - which we thought made a fine windbreak! We crawled in our tent and quickly fell asleep.
"Hello? Anyone in there?" A heavily loaded biketourer stood dripping with rain outside our tent. Bearing in mind we saw no other cyclists for the next few weeks, it was quite astonishing to meet someone on day one. After a brief introduction and learning how Dan was in his fourth year cycling around the world, he set up his tent next to ours and told us that one of the workers from the camp close by told him that a large grizzly had been seen hanging around where we had pitched the tent. Lo and behold an hour later while cooking our dinner we spotted a big grizzly rummaging around in some brush just a few hundred meters away. Watching it through my shaking binoculars (which I confess was not due to the cold), I stood completely fascinated and overwhelmed with how incredible it was to be watching such a large and graceful wild animal.
Despite the 24 hour daylight and the presence of a brown bear in proximity, we slept perfectly well. The next day while cycling we came across another grizzly and two cubs sliding around in the snow above us. In hindsight, it was a good thing we encountered four bears in the first two days, as we took our 'camping in bear country' practices very seriously!
Only 100km into the trip and we had already made a great friend, we rode with Dan all the way to Fairbanks. You can read Dan's superb writings from his around the world bike ride here.
"People don't take trips - trips take people"
While we may have mapped out a desired line across this frontier state, our real journey was conceived as each day unfolded. Day to day happenings and the vast and ever-changing landscapes filled our fields of vision and swept us down the road.
After 10 days of riding, we arrived in Fairbanks and stayed with Marilyn - an absolutely lovely lady and host who provided us the best rest and comfort we needed after our first stint. An unusually long high-pressure system was hanging over Alaska during July, so after a few days rest, we bid farewell to Marilyn and Dan, and headed south to Denali National Park.
Denali National Park was a wildlife haven. We decided to spend three days cycling through the park to Kantishna, located beyond Wonder Lake at the end of the only road. We purchased wild-camping permits for three nights in the park that were set in different locations. Blessed with blue skies and warm weather, we journeyed through this emblematic wilderness stopping often for endless vistas that took our breath away.
While there are tour buses that take people into the park, we found them to be extremely courteous, slowing right down as they overtook us. But in the moments between we felt as though we were the only ones in the world.
One evening before setting out on foot to find a place to camp that was well away from the road, we decided to make dinner in a wide stony river bed. While boiling water, three light brown shapes became visible on the hillside opposite us: a big grizzly bear with her two (two year old) cubs. They seemed preoccupied with digging up roots but began meandering down towards the river bed and then, into the river bed. As they wandered humbly in our direction (no doubt following their noses) we packed up our things post haste and climbed back to the road. We were somewhat relieved to see that they had changed direction and we watched them amble off in the distance as we attempted another cup of a tea and waited for our heart rates to recover! Hiking down the river bed the other way to find a spot for our tent later that evening, we also found various wolf and caribou prints in the sand.
Another surreal wildlife moment we experienced was during an evening we stood watching the sun set on Denali. An old bull moose strolled into the lake and drank while Denali changed into various shades of orange, red, pink and grey.
To a mountain bike ride on the Kenai Peninsula
After leaving Denali National Park, we cycled east across the Denali Highway parallel to the rest of the Alaska Range, and then south towards Valdez on the coast, where we had decided we would take a few ferries as part of our exploration of Alaska. Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the US combined, and we felt that our tour of Alaska would be more complete if we did not exclude travel by ferry. Besides, the wildlife in Alaskan water is as rich as that on land, so this alone would make it worth it.
During this time on the road south to the coast the glorious high-pressure system turned into an intensive few weeks of heavy rain and strong winds. But as with many maritime environments, gaps between the rain revealed the splendor of the surroundings - such as the numerous glaciers surrounding Valdez.
We had read about several remote single track rides in the Kenai peninsula, just south of Anchorage that we wanted to explore, notably the Resurrection Pass trail which connects the charming village of Hope with the river settlement of Cooper Landing.
We rode a ferry for five hours across the Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 fortunately had a more lasting impact on environmental regulation than on the environment itself, which after much dedicated work has, it seems, recovered well. Though we had not been lucky with weather on the ride past the Wrangell-St Elias range, seeing little of the huge peaks we had hoped for, this time we got lucky. This must be one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world - we lost count of the number of immense glaciers.
Singletrack sweetness: Resurrection Pass Trail
After a couple of fine ales and a monster Reuben sandwich (which I devoured like a snack and felt as though I had impressed the bartender), we set off under blue skies. At the trailhead a poster warned of an aggressive black bear that had recently stalked a runner, so we set off with bells ringing and making up songs that would have scared anything away.
After our glorious two-day dose of singletrack on Resurrection Pass we needed to head back to the ferry terminal in Whittier. The road back to Whittier includes a series of tunnels that are forbidden to cyclists. Fortunately, not long after waiting at the tunnel gate looking as clean and friendly as possible, a couple called Jessica and Chris kindly let us load our bikes in their pickup truck and brought us through the tunnels while feeding us pizza. We then ended up having beers together and hearing their fascinating life stories. We left later that night, sad to leave our new friends but also excited by the prospect of another journey by ferry, this time a two night journey that would bring us to Juneau, where we would be staying with friends. The ferry ride did not disappoint - great food, orca whales, sealions, humpback whales...
Bears up close, friendship at first sight and Canada
After a few days in Juneau, kindly hosted by Rob and Kate (an unbelievably adventurous couple that has sailed the entire ring of the Pacific), we took a ferry north to the beautiful town of Haines. A local man on the ferry told us about a weir that we ought to see just outside of Haines due to the high number of brown bears feeding in the river. While a bit of a detour of out town, we were absolutely thrilled to have taken it. We spent a couple of hours watching a large sow with her three cubs traipse their way upstream, sweeping their massive claws in the water every now and then to snatch up a fresh sockeye salmon. As this is an area that attracts a number of bears and fish, people congregate to watch fishermen and wildlife. Standing on the bridge, we watched the bears stroll underneath us; their paws holding enormous machete-like claws.
We made our way back to Haines to find a campsite (we had heard of a free camp by the sea) but were first interested in grabbing a bite to eat and a beer. While in town, we spotted another couple on bikes, Jamie and Gabi. As we exchanged tales from the road it was like seeing ourselves in the mirror. We had taken a very similar journey, botth physically and mentally it seemed, and had an instant connection. Unbeknownst to us when we parted ways, we would be spending over two months together later on in the year, but we kept in touch via Whatsapp, feeding one another little bits of advice and amusing anecdotes along the way.
The riding from Haines to Haines Junction (Canada) was yet another highlight - mainly due to the grandiose views of glaciers and mountains. But also because of an overnight in Kluane National Park. After purchasing a camping permit and leaving a few items to lighten the loads, we set off into what felt like a very wild and dramatic landscape. We were warned about the very high density of bears and wildlife in the park and this was confirmed by the number of fresh bear prints on the trails and the sound of wolves howling at dawn.
The final section to Whitehorse saw us contemplating our route ahead. Temperatures had begun to drop, day light hours were starting to diminish, and our preference for off-road was confirmed by the few days "following the white line" of the main road into Whitehorse. Our original plan was to follow the Stuart Cassiar highway south across Canada and to work our way towards the start of the Great Divide. But our pace and realization of what we were after confirmed our decision moving forward. The Great Divide Mountain BIke ride was our next focus.
Writing this months after our ride across Alaska, we realize how much we absolutely loved our time there. The characters we met and the scenery we discovered were unparalleled and wonderfully unique.
We'd like to thank a few people who gave us invaluable advice before we traveled to Alaska: Mark Gnadt for a lesson in Alaskan geography, Ian Lacey for his enthusiasm and tips about the Dalton Highway, Eric Parsons (creator of Revelate Designs bikepacking bags) for the excellent route advice including the idea to take the ferry, Lael Wilcox for mentioning Resurrection Pass as a favorite, and Rob Cadmus and Kate Glover for the tips for Kluane National Park.