Some years ago I learned of a long beach ride that had been undertaken by Alaskan's Pat and Kathy Sarns-Irwin. I knew a bit about Pat because he had once been a Surly-affiliated rider taking on some of the 'big boy' winter rides in Alaska. His wife Kathy is an artist printmaker who also makes the Alaska jerseys that you may have seen. Their beach ride is one of the coolest things I've ever read of. I encourage you to click on that and read of their experience.
When the chance to go to Alaska for some riding came up, 'beach ride' immediately came to mind. My friend's Pierre and Cheryl Ostor had moved to Homer this past summer and I got in touch with Pierre to see if he was interested in hooking up for a ride. Any of you who know Pierre know that he is always up for an adventure, whether on bike or foot. Pierre and Cheryl were the former promoters of the Arrowhead Ultra 135 here in Minnesota, and Pierre is a former product designer for Park Tool. You probably have tools in your bike workshop that he helped create. He's also taken on the Iditasport (I still use the old name) many times and is training to make it the full 1100 miles to Nome this year.
A quick email to Pierre confirmed that he was up for a ride. I'd hoped that Pat or Kathy might be able to join us but they were gone to warm beach somewhere on vacation! Cold beach vs. warm beach…hmmm, which would you choose!
We left Anchorage early and in the dark and headed for the Kenai Peninsula. Even in the dark you could get a hit of how beautiful the Turnagain Arm area must be. Icy spots popped up every so often and we passed on flipped over SUV while an Alaska State Trooper tended to the occupants of the vehicle. Eventually the sun came up and we got to see more of Alaska's incredible beauty. Once again, some of the terrain reminded me of Minnesota's north shore. We passed over rivers that must be prime fishing territory as outfitters and guided trip businesses were everywhere. Next trip to Alaska I really hope to get a chance to do a little fishing.
We stopped at the scenic overlook just before dropping down into Homer. Incredible mountain ranges met the ocean.
Someone had told me 'Homer is where Alaskan's want to live if they can figure out how to make a living there'. Apparently, the temperature stays a bit warmer there, it has a small town feel, and has many artists. Of course, when I'd told another Alaskan that we would be heading to Homer he had remarked 'Have you ever had sand blown up your @$$'. There's a flipside to everything I guess!
Pierre was ready to go when we arrived, his bike fully loaded and ready to roll. It took us a bit of time to throw the bikes together, add a Minimalist rack, and get dressed to ride but within an hour of arriving we had rolled down through town and were on the beach.
Pat had suggested that we ride toward Anchor Point, as we would have a neap tide. A neap tide essentially means you have the lowest of the high tides. That tidal information is imperative when considering this ride, as there are times when the high tide meets the inland cliff walls, removing any place to ride, and potentially trapping you. Make sure you check this out before you attempt a similar ride, as I'd hate to see you washed out to sea!
Once on the beach we immediately dropped some tire pressure. Later on I'd drop a bunch more. The surface varied dramatically from dry sand to wet sand, gravel to pebbles, and palm-sized rocks to babyheads to full-on boulders. At times the riding was dead flat, but at other times my choice of lines would take me down the slope necessitating an eventual slog up through loose pebble beds to get back to an easier riding surface.
Boulder fields were surprisingly rideable but not without effort. Look ahead, pick your line, apply some power while out of the saddle, mash your way up and over, repeat. Extremely fun, but definitely a workout. I was running super low pressure for the boulders and could feel the rim hit from time to time.
Via the highway, Anchor Point is 16 miles from Homer but I'm sure we rode much further. The shoreline moved in and out and we were constantly rounding the corner that had been a few hundred yards ahead.
Fresh water poured off some of the cliffs and ran in streams down to the ocean. Eagles and ravens flew overhead, often gliding in the updraft created by the cliff walls. We passed two large dead stingrays and many massive bull kelps that had been deposited on shore. At times, seaweed piles dominated the surface and were extremely slick, similar to riding on ice.
Eventually we came upon a large group of sea otters enjoying the relative warmth of the sun. Some were tuned into us immediately and headed for the safety of the water, but two were so oblivious to our presence that we were convinced they were dead, until they suddenly woke up, freaked out, a bolted for the water when we were a mere 30 feet away.
Once safe, they bobbed in the water and watched us as we rode along the beach, looking at each other from time to time as if saying 'What the heck was that all about?'
A bit further on we had a similar experience with sea lions as well.
Throughout the ride we had a hearty off shore breeze creating a headwind during the ride. As the tide came, in the ocean eventually closed to within 30 feet of the cliff walls but we always had plenty of room to ride or push. And yes, there were a few instances where pushing became either the only, or the logical choice. The longest of those pushes was only about 20 minutes and didn't result from boulders, but from deep pebble beds that were just so deep and soft that the bike just wallowed in them.
As the sun dipped lower and lower we kept rounding the corner hoping to find the campgrounds in Anchor Point. Eventually we came upon a sign that of course said 'NO CAMPING' but a couple hundred feet later a park bench appeared and a quick check revealed that we had arrived. With the sunlight disappearing and the winds picking up (it was really, really blowing at this point) we selected a campsite inland that offered us a bit of wind protection.
We quickly set up our shelters and then proceed to gather up some seriously damp wood by the light of our headlamps.
That night we enjoyed our meals and then listened to a few hour worth of Pierre's tales. He's got no shortage of stories to tell and is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to what works and what doesn't. Pierre isn't they kind of guy that pretends he's never made any mistakes during his winter adventures. Storytelling, damp wood, and smoke in our eyes got us to our goal of midnight and then we all hit the hay for a good nights sleep.
During the night we could hear the snow start as it hit and slowly built up on the megamid. By morning we had a good 3 inches of wet, white stuff covering everything that had been outside. We quickly packed up and hit the road. David and I had to get back to Anchorage for his flight out so we all elected to take the pavement as we didn't have the time for another 5+ hours on the beach.
Riding on the Old Sterling Highway took us past some beautiful homes and cabins and presented no shortage of gorgeous winter scenery. Eventually that road hits the much busier Sterling Highway that leads directly back into Homer. One thing I would have to mention is that the folks driving on the highway weren't particularly bike friendly. Even when no traffic was coming toward them and they had plenty of opportunity, they would not move over to give us a bit of room. Frankly, I'd do my best to avoid being on the road in the future, as it just wasn't very fun.
Many thanks to Pierre for the ride and the stories. Also, big thanks to Pat and Kathy for the informational help and for their pioneering ride from Hope to Homer. Someday I hope to go back and do that whole route as it looks like an absolutely fantastic experience. Floatation, floatation, floatation.
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I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.