Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A Photo Journal: Falling in Love with Alaska - Part II

The Denali Highway

Kali Ma, The Great Protector, joined me again on this summer's ride.
She sat perched atop my handlebars and reminded me to regularly
give out a great, big, hearty lion's breath.

The first 21 miles and the final 3 miles of the Denali Highway are paved.
The middle 110 miles are gravel.
Sometimes the gravel was rather large and cumbersome to navigate.

As a tribute to the cold temps, some of the lakes on the Denali Highway
still had big chunks of ice floating atop them.

Despite the ice, the daytime temps were relatively comfortable --
enough so that I was able to don shorts
for the first time at Milepost 26.

I kept my eye out for cabins and properties
that piqued my I-could-see-myself-living-there interest.
This one certainly did some piquing.

The perfectly blue sky days were definitely my favorite.
As long as it wasn't precipitating, even the overcast days were rather pleasant.

After what seemed like 40,860 feet of climbing,
Craig and I finally reached the highest point along the entire route -- Maclaren Summit.
Although we stayed mostly in the 2,000-2,500 ft elevation the whole trip,
the gigantic peaks surrounding us made us feel
as though we were pedaling at much higher elevations.

Along the Denali Highway, I just had to stop for a photo at the makeshift "Sarah Lake" sign.

I'm so glad I stopped for a photo, because when I looked down,
I saw the first and only bear paw print of the entire trip.

We saw a number of willow ptarmigans along the route.
The birds' coloration changes to match the seasonal changes;
they turn completely white to match
the cold winter snow of the arctic tundra.
This one was a little slow in changing back to its summer outfit.
These "Alaskan chickens," as I called them, looked and clucked like chickens.

We also saw two young caribou walk across the road.

I love how this photo shows the stark contrast in colors
of the human-made versus the nature-made.
The guardrail and my panniers were clearly painted from the same bucket of yellow paint.

Kali Ma and I are in heaven.
Gravel roads. Green trees. Mountains. No traffic.

Look at this scenery!
Wow, just wow!

I love this image, with the two-toned snow-covered peaks
behind the pile of multi-colored rocks.

The Denali Highway was speaking to me --
with both Sarah Lake AND the perfectly gorgeous Seattle Creek!   

Denali National Park & The Denali Park Road

After traversing The Denali Highway and then pedaling 30 miles north past Cantwell,
Craig and I arrived at Denali National Park.
We had originally planned to hop on The Denali Road right away and
camp in the backcountry for two nights. Alas, the forecast showed a
severe weather alert, with 1-4 inches of rain.
Instead of heading out, we decided to pass a day exploring the front country instead.
And so it was that we ended up with one, true, no-pedaling rest day.

In the morning, we arranged our backcountry permits.
In the afternoon, we visited the sled dog kennels.
These are the only dogs whose job it is to protect the National Parks.
Some of the dogs were extroverts; I felt for the introverts, like Behnti.

After walking the kennels, we were then treated to a sled dog demonstration.
Five dogs pulled the sled once around a track.

The sled wasn't truly a traditional sled.
As there is no snow, the dogs pulled a four-wheeled cart around the track. Wheee!

The ranger then gave a brief talk.
 She told us that each dog runs an average of 1,400 miles in the winters!
That's further than Craig and I pedaled on this trip!

As we rode a Park shuttle to the sled dog demo, we got to experience
how most people experience the park -- from the seat of a crowded bus.

The next day, after the brunt of the storm had passed,
we set out along the Denali Park Road,
with the Eielson Visitor Center as our destination.
I was hopeful we might see some sled dogs exercising.
Alas, we did not.

The first 15 miles of the road are paved; the 55 remaining miles are not.
Personal vehicles are allowed on the paved section,
but after 15 miles, only the Park shuttles can pass.
Judging by how dirty the buses were that passed us,
we assumed we'd get pretty dirty as well.

Indeed we did! Here is my water bottle, which I have
stored in a cage attached to the underside of my down tube.

And here are my sparkly, mud-speckled pants, compliments of Denali.

At Milepost 27, after a somewhat soggy ride,
we pulled off into the backcountry and set up our camp.
Our first goal was to dry out everything from our previous wet night.

My feet had been enclosed in soggy socks and very much appreciated
the opportunity to breathe and walk freely on the forest floor.

Although the sun quickly dried out our gear, we didn't feel as though we were
definitively in the safe-zone from the rain.
The sky above looked confused -- partially sunny and partially stormy.

The next morning we continued on our way.
We saw the glorious braids of the Teklanika River.

Nearing Polychrome Overlook, we were informed by a bus driver
that a grizzly was on the road ahead.

That's a grizzly's bum for sure!
The grizzly was taking his dandy old time walking along the road.
Apparently grizzlies often walk the road in this section, as they prefer
the flat surface over the steep embankments off to both sides.
A shuttle driver let us put our bikes and our bodies on his shuttle.
He drove us a mile beyond the bear before dropping us off to fend for ourselves.

These antlers make for a nice prop at the Toklat River Rest Stop.

Craig rides along the scenic Park Road...

...pointing to the cloud-veiled Denali.
Off the road to the left was Denali and her snow-capped brothers and sisters...

...while off to the right was this snow-free pasture-like hillside.

Our destination along the Denali Road was the Eielson Visitor Center.
I love this photo of Craig looking out towards the mountains.

A poster on the wall at the Visitors Center showed this season's
climbing statistics for Denali (20,310 ft) and Mt Foraker (17,400).
A whopping 499 climbers were on Denali on June 3rd.
Of the 306 climbers who completed their climbs of Denali,
only 144 summited. Surprising to me,
no climbers were on the apparently unpopular Mount Foraker on June 3rd.

After exploring the Visitors Center, we put our bikes on the Parks shuttle bus
and rode the four hours back to the front country.

The bus stopped for every moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and bird-larger-than-a-robin,
which got a little old for us. Rather than make an effort to stand up
and shuffle to the other side of the bus to see the animals with my own eyes,
I nonchalantly glanced at the boy's iPad screen next to me;
his screen showed me exactly what I needed to see -- in convenient full zoom!

Oh, and we summited Denali, too!

Parks Highway

At Milepost 188.7 was this...Igloo City.
What an oddity!

The igloo was constructed in the 1970s, with the intention of being a hotel,
but it never opened due to structural issues and code violations.

One of the biggest code violations was the undersized windows. 

Another oddity was this woman, who was driving her truck at the lead of an
"oversized load" brigade. She rolled down her window to notify us that a 20 foot-wide
truck was about to pass. Notice the matching jacket, nails, hair tie,
and trim around her fighter pilot glasses.
I was a wee bit disappointed that her doggie wasn't similarly color-themed.

Trip Takeaways

  • Alaska had been on my "Places To Visit" list for a long time. For some reason, it always seemed like there were many barriers to overcome to make a visit happen. What complete'n'utter hogwash! For one, the flight was shorter and cheaper than a flight to see my family in Chicago.
  • I was concerned that a mid-May to mid-June trip might be too early in the season, but it ended up being a pretty dang good window to visit Alaska. It was cool, but not cold. It was rainy, but not unbearably so. Places were open, but not deep into the pandemonium of tourist season. And the mosquitoes were not a problem -- until the last few days. 

While the early season mosquitoes are gigantic, they are sluggish and dumb.
It is the later season mosquitoes,
the ones that started to appear the last few days of our trip, that are an annoyance.

  • The sunny'n'warm(ish) days were incredibly beautiful; the rainy'n'cold days were downright brutal. 
  • Alaskans sure are hardy creatures! While Craig and I were bundled up in our puffy jackets and wool caps, the Alaskans were donning shorts and t-shirts -- goosebump-free.
  • We saw two vehicles with Google Street View cameras in Alaska before we saw out first bear. Even then, we saw only one bear the entire month we were in Alaska. I've experienced a higher density of bears in The Lower 48!
  • The 21-ish hours of daylight has its pros and cons. On the plus side, there is no need to pack a headlight. On the downside, I really missed seeing the stars when I got up to pee in the middle of the night.
  • My record for the longest time without a shower stood at 17 days pre-trip. This record was set in March 2016 on my trip to Patagonia. I set a new record on this trip -- 18 days without a shower!
  • Speaking of Patagonia, Alaska reminds me a whole bunch of Patagonia. It blows my mind that Ushuaia, the southernmost point of South America and where we started our Patagonia trip, is at is 54°48'7"S whereas Cantwell, the northernnost town on our Alaska trip, sits at 63°23'17"N; it felt as though we were way closer to a pole in Patagonia compared to Alaska. Wow, my spatial understanding of the globe is quite skewed!
  • Oh my, food is crazy expensive in Alaska!
  • I don't think I'm chemically capable of ever tiring of snow-capped mountains. There was so much clean air and forest bathing on this trip. What a complete turnabout from my trip to Guatemala earlier this year!

This trip was intended to be a bike-only "survey" trip of Alaska. The survey was a success, and I can't wait to go back -- this time with a kayak, a packraft, a backpack, a sailboat, a set of skis, and a whole bunch of other outdoor gear. I have fallen in love. Alaska is my new favorite playground.


  1. Oh Sarah, what amazing country! So great that you got to experience it on your bike an feel the climate first hand. Take care and enjoy the ride!xb

    1. Thank you for the note, Brigid. Hugs to you!

  2. Wow... I love my ocean, but I have been anxiously awaiting you photos! You did NOT disappoint!

    1. Alaska has its oceans, too. Those will be explored on another trip. 😁

  3. Wow great travelogue Sarah. Thanks for all the info & gorgeous photos, I got a good sense of your bike sojourn. I will put Alaska on my list. Now I need to go back and read your Part I.


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