It is often assumed that ‘Working in the bike industry must be great’. Assuming the individual likes bikes, bike riding, and so forth…what could be better?
Well, just remember that ‘working’ was the first word of that sentence. In truth, working in the bike industry has its up and downs just like any other job. There are good days and bad, great days and horrible days, and everything in between. Combining passion and work isn’t always a pleasure.
But every once in a while I’ve been fortunate enough to take part in something work-related that is a really special experience. A couple weeks ago, I got to take part in one of my best yet.
Alaska. The name alone conjures up images in the mind’s eye. Wilderness, rugged country, bears, moose, bush planes, big mountains, salmon, fish that are bigger than ‘fish stories’, trappers, dogsleds and mushers, the Iditarod Trail, cold, snow, the native Inuit, and much, much more.
I hadn’t been to Alaska in some 30 years. Some of you may know that I grew up in Korea (Lutheran missionary parents). Well, in the early days planes couldn’t make it from Korea to ‘the states’ (as we called it) without stopping for fuel. When booking flights there were two choices: Honolulu or Anchorage.
We stopped in Anchorage a couple times when I was just a young boy. My parents had friends that lived there so the re-fueling stop was always turned into a short, few day visit with them. I don’t remember much from those visits, but three things stayed in my mind.
1) Stopping on a highway to look at a moose just off the road
2) Going to a glacier, but I don’t know which one
3) The giant taxidermy Kodiak bear and Polar bear in the Anchorage airport
Two weeks ago, I got to go back.
Our dealer in Anchorage, The Bicycle Shop, organized an event to welcome the Mukluk to the Alaskan landscape. David flew up there to take part in the shop event (I had a wedding to attend), then I flew up a couple days later so we could take the bikes out and experience just a small taste of what Alaska has to offer. We wound up being truly blessed with some incredible good fortune.
Less than 24 hours after landing in Anchorage, I was in Denali National Park. For those that don’t know me well, I’m not just a cyclist. I consider myself an outdoorsman. I love kayaking, snowshoeing, camping, and backpacking. Being a backpacker, Denali had always been pinging on my radar. Now it is no longer a ping…but more of a loud jack hammering.
The drive to Denali was stunning in itself. The roads were surprisingly good and we stopped a couple times en route to check things out.
Once we arrived at the park we found most of the buildings closed for the season. Eventually we found the open ranger station and were greeted by a ranger named Claire. She gave us loads of info, is a cyclist herself and knew about fat bikes, and surprised us with what turned out to be incredible news: that the park road was closed just up the road.
Here’s the primer: Denali is a massive park. Beyond massive. It has one out-and-back road called the Park Road. That road is 90 miles long. Automobiles are only allowed to travel a short distance on the road, but park users have access to busses that move people through the park on tours, or to backcountry campsites, or to drop them off for some true backcountry hiking or backpacking. Some of the busses will transport bikes as well, I guess. You could ride a bus in and ride your bike back out.
The park was installing a massive new 15-foot culvert under the road, hence the road closing. You know the saying ‘Four wheels bad, two wheels good’? Well in this case that was 100% true. Claire told us to go ahead and carefully move past the construction and to enjoy the park.
David and I quickly went down and set up camp in the campgrounds. We were the only people there. We were also soon to be the only people in Denali on the Park Road. Eventually we came to understand the real beauty of coming to Alaska in the off-season. It must be quite a different place during tourist season.
We were pushing the time envelope a bit when we started riding at 3pm. The day was sunny and in the mid-30’s, perfect riding weather.
There was so much to see. Mountain ranges surrounded us. Beauty was everywhere.
Being Alaskan-newbies we were pretty ‘self-aware’ that we might run into some large mammals we typically don’t run into very often in Minnesota. For example, during my 21 years of living in Minnesota I’ve seen a total of 8 moose. I finished my 8 days in Alaska with a total of 13 moose sightings. And that doesn’t include the bones and hair of the dead one we found on one of our other rides.
We rode along, stopping to take photos, and doing a lot of whistling and calling out ‘Hey bear’. That first day we saw reasonably fresh bear scat (massive and filled with berries).
And eventually, we got our first view of an Alaskan bull moose. We had the perfect vantage point as we were on the road, looking down upon it. It knew we were there and ambled off a bit to feel more comfortable.
After watching for a short while, we moved on for a few more miles. We’d hoped to get a view of Mount McKinley (Denali) but on this day it wasn’t to be. I guess a lot of people come to Alaska and wind up skunked when it comes to viewing North America’s tallest peak.
The Park Road eventually turned to gravel and we were only on this for a few miles before we needed to turn around because of sunset. Darkness settled slowly in Alaska at this time of year so dusk seemed to last about an hour.
Heading back to camp we noticed another bull moose we hadn’t seen earlier. It was lying on the ground and we eventually convinced ourselves that it was dead. The next morning the rangers told us it was probably just resting, as bull moose had just come out of the rut and are often exhausted.
Before we made it back to camp darkness set in. We got out our lights for the final few miles and had a great horned owl glide down across the road in front of us and land on top of a tree. There was so much grace in its flight. What an honor to be so close to such a magnificent bird. It sat patiently for us until we tried to get at our cameras, and then it departed.
Back in camp we scrounged up deadfall and leftover wood from other campsites and kept a good fire going till midnight. All of you who have winter camped before know how nice it is to not have to crawl into the sleeping bag any earlier than needed.
Eventually, clouds moved in and overpowered the full moon we'd been enjoying.
That night we had a couple inches of snow. Heading up the Park Road was a totally different experience from the day before. Temps in the mid-20’s still made for a fine day, but visibility started off poor until it stopped snowing.
Then the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the park.
Even granting us a look at the Park's namesake.
A construction vehicle had driven part way into the park until a barricade stopped them (who could blame them for taking that opportunity), but eventually we again had the road to ourselves and were leaving fresh tracks.
Speaking of tracks, the fresh snow brought into focus just how much wildlife was on the move out there. Moose, bear, fox, rabbit, and eventually lynx tracks greeted us. As a bonus, we actually got to see the lynx, although it disappeared as quickly as possible once we were aware of it.
Perhaps the best moment of the day came early on, on the first climb. We’d seen a series of tracks crossing the road diagonally, spaced about 15 yards apart from each other. Suddenly, as we rode and talked, a group of wolves starting howling at us from within a couple hundred yards. We couldn’t see them but they were just beyond the trees. I fumbled trying to get my point and shoot camera out to record some audio but they stopped before I could turn it on. Perhaps we should have just kept talking?
We rode as far as the moose sightings of the day before and found that the rangers were right, our ‘dead’ moose had moved on.
Eventually we turned and headed back toward camp to pack up and head south.
Denali had been a wonderful experience, especially the blessing of the closed Park Road. Both David and I have thoughts of returning here during a summer season to bikepack or tour the full length of the road. We got just a glimpse of this magnificent place. I can only imagine what else it holds in store.
Alaska – continues next week