It must be about five years ago that I ordered a bicycle frame bag from a shop in Alaska called Wildfire Designs. That website had photos of fat bike rides to the Knik glacier. Most of the pics looked to have been taken during winter. You can still see some of those shots on their site.
Before heading up to Denali, David and I talked with Eric Parsons from Revelate Designs and he helped us figure out what seemed like a decent starting point.
Armed with a good Alaska road map book we made our way from Wasilla (where we'd driven from Denali) to Palmer and then found the access point we were looking for. Turns out we were entering on some trails in the Knik River Public Use Area.
Some initially mellow two-track later turned into massively rutted four-wheeler territory. It turns out the area is very popular with jeepers, 4WD, and mudrunners. The sign saying ‘NO TARGET PRACTICE’ made us wonder how many folks used it for shooting guns as well.
We wound our way back on the twisting network of trails. Much of the trail was shaded from the sun and held either a thin snowy crust or a heavy frost layer. Our goal was to ride those trails as far upriver as we could, and then hopefully find a decent gravel or sand bar to transfer over to.
Well, eventually the trails we were on just ended in the brush. A short backtrack led us to a spot where we could drop down onto the river. Of course, we had to re-cross a partially ice covered log enroute. Trust me on this…watching us cross an icy log will tell you why we weren't gymnists. From there we had a great view of our goal: the Knik Glacier. Even from as far away as we still were, it looked absolutely massive.
The day was another nice one. The sun was working its way in and out of well-spaced clouds, but there was quite a wind blowing, and we’d be riding into a headwind on the way toward the glacier. That’s usually best though anyway, right? The river had mountains on both sides of it. Bush planes buzzed overhead periodically. Perhaps taking people on sightseeing flights of the glacier?
The Knik River is a big river, but it was clearly low water season while we were there. The river looked to have great riding opportunities if we could just get across the small channels to the main non-submerged riverbed.
It took a while for us to find that crossing spot, but eventually we found one and rolled down to it. There were a myriad of small channels that were quite shallow and were easily ridden, but a deeper channel stopped us quite abruptly. I played guinea pig and found out just how deep a few of them were, waist deep and forced off the bike. Hey, at least I didn’t fall in! Eventually I found a spot that was only about knee deep while riding and made the crossing.
Now, let me tell you this: I’m a guy who takes pride (perhaps foolish pride) in being able to handle cold water. My son Jordan and I enjoy swimming in Lake Superior till our feet turn numb while others won’t even submerge themselves. But this…this was my first time in glacial run-off and holy smokes it is cold, folks! Seriously cold! Probably just about as cold as water can be I suppose since not many miles upriver it had melted from a glacier!
David was smarter than I and made his way across with his shoes and socks removed. The look on his face will tell you how cold that water was!
Down on the river we met a duck hunter who was hauling his boat back out after a morning on some nearby lakes. Another guy was firing his semi-automatic rifle into the river bank a few hundred yards away. That and the huge number of tire tracks going everywhere created a rather surreal almost ‘Mad Max’ environment. Albeit an absolutely beautiful 'Mad Max' environment.
Riding toward the glacier was fun. The ground surface changed every so often. Sometimes it was frozen, sandy silt, at other times rocky, and sometimes made up of gravel beds. There were patches of brush at times. Moose tracks were everywhere.
Everything is so big in Alaska that it can play with your mind a bit. We really couldn’t tell how far away that glacier was, but we could see that we were slowly moving closer.
Oddly enough, we eventually encountered ‘land’ again. By that, I mean more wooded, brushy terrain. More heavily eroded Jeep trails wound through those and as the day warmed above freezing, some sections proved a handful. I had one of those ‘hit the ground so fast you can’t even think about trying to stop it’ moments.
That brushy terrain was filled with vacated moose beds. We eventually found the bones and hairs from a long dead moose as well. I was expecting a large mammal encounter at any time, but thankfully it didn't happen.
A short while after stopping for a snack in a windbreak our trail suddenly hit another deeper water channel with no option for moving around it. We knew we would run out of daylight on the way back to the vehicles so made the decision to turn back. The bummer at the time was that we couldn’t directly see the glacier from that point because of brush across the channel.
We turned around and enjoyed our first tailwind of the day. Eventually we were back at the deeper channel that we had crossed and we both took off our boots and socks and made the crossing.
The 4WD crowd was out in force playing on the steep sandy banks of the river. We’d been told ‘They like to blow things up in Wasilla/Palmer’ and sure enough, we saw a snowmachine that had been ‘blowed up real good’. But no bullets were whizzing over our head and David and I finished up the ride, going back out the way we’d come in the morning. It was getting colder as daylight faded away, but we tried to bang the not quite frozen mud off our bikes before destroying the rental vehicle.
It had been quite a ride, and one unlike any I’ve done before. Here in Minnesota, we have a couple big rivers but they don’t present the same sort of riding scenarios, as did the Knik.
I’ve got unfinished business there. I’ve checked it out on GoogleMaps and I’m quite convinced we were just a handful of miles from the glacier when we turned back.
Yes, unfinished business. Plus, I’ve got a photo in my mind that needs to be taken…and I want to take it there, on the Knik River.
Alaska continues next week…
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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.