Thursday, June 13, 2019

A Photo Journal: Falling in Love With Alaska - Part I

It has taken me my whole life to get to Alaska. It has taken me my whole life to truly fall in love.

I felt very much in my element in Alaska,
which made me incredibly happy through-and-through.

Just a few minutes before my plane landed in Alaska, I looked outside my window and saw this: 

Triple hubba deliciousness!

It was at this moment that I fell in love.

This was the planned route for my month-long bike ride through Alaska:

This was the planned route for my bike ride,
starting in Anchorage and heading counterclockwise.
The actual route added the spur to Talkeetna
and scratched the Hatcher Pass cut-off from Willow to Palmer,
as the pass didn't open until mid-July.

In addition to making cue sheets of the above route, I also made a very annotated version of The (very heavy) Milepost, in spreadsheet form. For those of you not familiar, The Milepost is "The Bible of North Country Travel." It shows everything you ever cared to know (and didn't care to know) in immaculate detail.

The (Very Annotated) Milepost, in spreadsheet form. 

My adventure buddy was Craig, of The Happily Married Man Rides the Olympic Peninsula fame. This was our third trip together; in addition to cycling around the Olympics, we also biked in Patagonia (see To The End of the World).

Craig, guarding his fabric lair.

Kicking Off the Trip

This was everything I brought with me to Alaska.
Thank you to Alaska Airlines for considering a bike box -- even though
overweight and oversized -- to be standard luggage, checked for just $30.

I've found that a sweet message on my bike box helps to ensure
my box is handled with care.

Our home base in Anchorage was provided
by the adventurous'n'hospitable Mike & Ann Marie.
I met Mike when I was leading a trip down the Pacific Coast in 2016.
At that time, Mike and Ann Marie had already been dating for five months.
(Photo: Mike & Ann Marie.)

You know your host is cool when he has a photo
on his fridge of himself and Conrad. 😍

Waiting for Craig to arrive, I rode The Coastal Trail in Anchorage.
I love this view from Point Woronzof, looking up the Knik Arm towards downtown.

The Seward Highway

I couldn't resist a "Woohoo! We're off!" jump-for-joy outside
the Bird Treatment & Learning Center just before we turned onto the Seward Highway.
This building has the coolest facade in all of Anchorage!

This cone was in the middle of the path leading into Girdwood.
I chuckled when I saw it, as I thought perhaps I'd get a chance
to continue my Spanish practice in Alaska after all!
As it turns out, the piso wasn't mojado on this particular day,
but it certainly was mojado three days later!

We had to ride in a pilot car to bypass construction on the way to Seward.
We were entertained by the driver, who reeked of cigarettes
and whose sun-tattered skin advanced her age by at least two decades.
The driver told us about how she had told friends to moon and flash
her (presumably male) boss as they passed by in their RV headed to
weekend festivities in Seward.
Flashing and mooning became an inside joke between me and Craig.

These folks were dipnetting for hooligans in the Twenty Mile River.

Seward is located on the Kenai Peninsula.
The Kenai Peninsula is the favorite place of many Alaskans.
I can't wait to come back and explore the peninsula more thoroughly.

Seward welcomed us with cold, blustery weather
and a flood of tourists fresh off the cruise ships.

After visiting the town of Seward, we headed to the
Kenai Fjords National Park to see the Exit Glacier.

Craig found this decorative rock sitting aside the National Park sign.

How fun! I've heard that Homer rocks.
I can't wait to visit Homer on a future trip.

Like most glaciers, the Exit Glacier has been receding for years.
This sign shows the location of the glacier's toe nearly fifteen years ago.

These are the prettiest girls in Alaska.

We were pummeled by cold rain on our ride from
Seward back to Anchorage.
We decided to bike 85 miles (instead of the intended 45)
so we could get back to a warm'n'dry night at Mike & Ann Marie's.
Though we rode a couple hundred miles of dirt and gravel roads on this trip,
Shirley and I got the dirtiest riding on the shoulder of
The Seward Highway in the rain. Yuck!

The Glenn Highway

The views along The Glenn Highway are hubba hubba.
The dandelions were the first wildflowers to bloom.
I've never seen such ginormous'n'beautiful dandelions.

We enjoyed views of the impressive Matanuska Glacier along The Glenn.

The Road to McCarthy

After three days on the Glenn Highway, we headed south towards McCarthy.
In doing so, we entered the Wrangell - St. Elias National Park,
the largest of America's national parks.

Throughout our trip, we saw various sections of the Alaska Pipeline.
In this age of digital communications, it seems foreign to me
that we have a physical pipeline transporting oil.
(I know this doesn't make any sense, but that's just the way my brain works.)

Alaskans are not shy about their "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs.
Look closely at the image below the words on this sign.
As one who prefers flowers over guns,
this sign certainly does not extend a warm welcome.

Shortly after passing Kenny Lake, we saw a heard of Alaskan Yaks
on the side of the road. We sat down and had lunch with them.
This was the only yak curious enough to cross the field to check out us cyclists.

Just after passing Chitina, we began our 60-mile pedal on the gravel road to McCarthy.
This was my favorite riding of our entire trip.
There were so many sections that reminded me
of our adventure through Patagonia three years earlier.

The first view of the braided Copper River. Gooooorgeous!

The Copper River is well known for prolific runs of salmon.
(It is also well known for RVs that drive too close to the water
and get sucked into the silt. If you look closely, you can see some of these RVs.)
The salmon weren't running when we passed through...

...but look at the salmon Mike & Ann Marie caught on the Copper River
just two weeks later -- 19 sockeye and 2 kings!

Seventeen miles into McCarthy Road, we saw this in the distance...

...the bridge over the Kuskulana River!
Little did I know at the time I took this photo that not only would this
be the location of my favorite campsite,
but that I was also just about to meet two awesome people.
More on the awesome people later.
For now, just know that there are two people in this photo
at the far end of the bridge and that I was hoping they would disappear
so I could capture a truly pristine, people-free photo.

Craig and I set up our tents beside the river.
Above may be a more apt preposition, as the river is waaaay down below.

At the suggestion of the ranger we talked to at the Chitina Ranger Station,
Craig and I climbed onto the bridge and walked the catwalk.
There's no ranger in the Lower 48 who would dare suggest such a thing --
'tis proof that Alaska is indeed a Wild West.

Doin' my walk on the catwalk.

The Kuskulana River rages 238 feet below.
What a rush to have a few inches of metal suspending us above the river.

When it started to sprinkle, I moved my tent under the bridge.
Craig kept his tent out amongst the trees and got more wet than me.

This view of the red prop planes against the green trees and
the snow-capped mountains captivates me.

A few miles shy of McCarthy, we came across this sign.
"Travel beyond this point not recommended. If you must use this road,
expect cold/heavy snow, carry cold weather survival gear,
and tell someone where you are going."
And onward we went!

At the end of McCarthy Road, cars can go no further.
Folks must walk (or bicycle!) across the above bridge to travel
the final stretch into the town of McCarthy.

McCarthy is colorful...

...and somewhat rundown, but in a quaint way.

The bumper stickers on this old Datsun include
"I 🧡Gluten" and "Pee Free or Die."

There is something whimsical about seeing this lush greenery,
framed by the broken windshield of an old, beat-up truck.

Just a few miles beyond McCarthy was Kennicott, my true interest
in traveling to this part of Alaska. The valley, neighboring 27 mile-long glacier,
and river are all named in honor of Robert Kennicott,
the scientific director of the 1865 Western Union Telegraph Expedition.
Robert Kennicott lived in the town where I grew up; his home, called "The Grove,"
is located in Glenview, a northern suburb of Chicago.
The visit to Kennicott was particularly meaningful for me;
not only were my visits to The Grove
as a child instrumental in developing my love for nature, but... 

...I also got married at The Grove exactly 18 years, to-the-day,
that I cycled to Kennicott, Alaska. I hadn't planned to visit
Kennicott on my anniversary -- it just happened that way.
Though I am no longer married, my anniversary reminds me
of a special landmark in my own personal history.

The Kennecott Mines, pictured above, are also named after Kennicott.
Notice the misspelling, which has stuck after all these years.

Just past the Kennecott Mines is the trail to the Root Glacier.
Along the trail are primitive campsites, where we camped for the night.

Some of the trail was rideable. Some of it was not --
at least not on our fully-loaded, sans suspension bikes.
It was fun nonetheless. Shirley, my Surly, had a blast!

Along the Root Glacier Trail, we had to pass this makeshift
bridge over Jumbo Creek. Once we were past the bridge,
we found our primitive sites.
(Photo: Craig)

After setting up camp, we hiked down to the Root Glacier.
If you look closely at the glacier,
you can see two sets of people walking. How's that for scale?

The previous photo actually shows the convergence of two glaciers --
the Root Glacier converges with a
surface moraine-covered glacier.
This "dirty glacier" is the Kennicott Glacier.
In the photo immediately above, you can see better see that the glacier
is covered with a layer of eroded rock and dirt.

We got poured on that night, and so the next morning we took the liberty
to air out our sodden tents beneath the overhang of the
Kennicott Wilderness Guides...

...which had this irresistibly cute flower sitting aside its front door.

Remember those two people who I was annoyed to have in my photo
of the Kuskulana Bridge? Well, I'm now grateful to have those two dots in my photo.
Meet the two dots -- Robyn & Chuck.
We met Robyn & Chuck on the Kuskulana Bridge and two days later,
Robyn & Chuck were kind enough to give us two bike bums and our two dirty bikes
a lift back to GlenAllen so we didn't have to backtrack so many miles.
We were incredibly grateful to have met Robyn & Chuck; not only did we get
to pass a few hours of enjoyable conversation with Robyn & Chuck in their truck,
but we later spent two days with them in Anchorage,
where we were regarded as royalty!

The Richardson Highway

Robyn & Chuck dropped us off at the IGA in GlenAllen so we could
restock before we headed out on the next leg of our journey. We wouldn't see
another true-ish grocery store for more than a week, and so I stocked up on
five cans of garbanzo beans. Beans were my main dinner course on this ride.
One thing is for certain: I can compete with the best of the bachelors
when it comes to eating grub!

We were treated to an amazing display of clouds as we started out north
from GlenAllen along the Richardson Highway. (Note: The above photo is not doctored.
Nor nursed either.) We were also treated to an amazing tailwind.
Truth be told, we had tailwinds nearly every day of our ride, which is pretty incredible
considering that our route was a loop.

The Richardson Highway had some oddities. I'm certain all the kookiest
of the Alaskan kookies live on or near this road. One stretch of the highway
had different stuffed animals tethered to anything and everything vertical --
mailboxes, trees, etc. That's weird. Just plain weird.

Between Mileposts 135 & 136, Craig and I came across the most unique
shoulder rubbish I have yet to come across.
Here Craig is propping up the roadside find with his foot,
for scale, of course.

There's even a wire attached! This roadside rubbish vibrates!
I commented to Craig that the Alaskan ladies must be lonely.
Craig corrected me; certainly this was owned by an Alaskan man.

Just one more photo of the roadside treasure -- a more artsy photo.

As we pedaled under the blue skies, we noticed violent storm clouds off in the distance.
We knew they were headed in our direction and us in theirs.
Impending doom is never a stellar feeling. At Milepost 168, the skies began to tear.
Craig and I pedaled like crazy, as we knew there was a roadhouse at Milepost 170.

Just as we pulled into the Meier's Lake Roadhouse, all hell
broke loose from the skies. We ditched our bikes and ran inside.

For the next few hours, Linda and the crew at the Roadhouse took good care of us.
They served warm beverages and the best dang food we had eaten in miles.
Linda empathized with our concern (hypothermia!) of riding in the cold rain.
She kindly offered that we stay in her little cabin aside Meiers Lake.

Here's the adorable little cabin we stayed in for the night.
The most wonderful things about this cabin were the roof and the walls;
a solid roof over our heads and solid walls around our sides
ensured a dry and warm night!

I loved this little cabin in the grass outside the bigger cabin.

Linda's hospitality was amazing.
We left this note for her in her guestbook.
Thank you, Linda, for being our road angel!

Every time I saw these Caribou Crossing signs,
I was troubled by the perspective;
it looks as though these guys have TV antennas strapped to their noggins.

Speaking of large creatures...we saw lots of 'em.
 I won't bore you with wildlife photos except for this one -- my favorite -- of a moose.

Craig had pre-scheduled, weekly calls with his wife, Dianne.
Before we turned off onto The Denali Highway,
Craig called Dianne from this payphone in Paxson.
Nah, just kidding. This payphone hasn't worked in ages.
Paxson, like many Alaskan towns, is entirely defunct.

To be continued...


  1. Great photos. My wife and I have talked about an Alaskan trip for years. Gonna have to bump it up on the travel sheet. Love the wedding dress. Take care.

  2. Can’t help but wonder if the previous rubbish owner is now sad or frustrated having lost said item! Excellent photos as always!


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