Riding To A Glacier

It is possible to ride from the city of Anchorage to a glacier, in a day.

Last spring, Lael and I pedaled groomed multi-use trails across the Campbell Tract towards the Hillside singletrack trails, arriving at a blue painted circle on the white bark of an aspen tree, our usual counterclockwise entrance. Since arriving in town in December, we have pedaled circles around the snowy streets and trails of this city on our Mukluks. Winter commutes across town include a variety of terrain from fresh snow over hardpack on major greenway trails to brown sugary snow concealing rutted, icy boulevards, all of which changes daily. We'd meet friends at “the ballfields” for night rides, linking hours of perfectly packed singletrack with low pressure tires and high-powered lights on popular trails named Blue Dot, Moose Meadow, Baseball Boogie, and our favorite, Rover's Run.

Riding Anchorage singletrack…

Some of these trails are rideable in the summer, despite roots and mud and mosquitoes, but only for a few months. In winter, the trails are transformed by the hundreds of riders in town, whose tires impart a 4” footprint onto the surface, acting as a natural groomer for the otherwise unridable inches of snow that fall every year. Summers in Alaska are nice, but the winter riding in Anchorage is best. Even so, something about our trajectory on this day is stale. The trails are populated by part-time skiers and dog walkers, coming out of hibernation in tandem with the sun rising from its seasonal slumber. The route across town is familiar. Our minds are static and our legs, stale. Surfers at the nicest beaches and skiers in the best mountain towns must have similar days, I think.

I have been working six and seven days a week at The Bicycle Shop as a mechanic, helping as much as I can—I am giving a lot to my job. Riding trails nearly every day of the week in addition to daily commutes is consuming. I write stories and magazine articles into the night. This is the pattern of life I have chosen which enables me to spend the other six months of the year on a bicycle. But these six months are mostly about hard work, and fatbiking.

This is the first week in April and sunglasses have grown more important than down jackets. Each day grows in length by six minutes. January night rides require planning, including a few extra layers in the framebag, pogies, lighting, and a snack, just in case. By this time of the season we roll out the door in blue jeans and a light jacket. My daily winter wardrobe calls for gaiters, as Lael zips into a favorite pair of knee-high boots.

Our Mukluks are true all-terrain, all-season bicycles, and have become treasured tools as we choose to live without a car at 61º N. We use these bikes to commute across town in any weather, reliably, yet expect to be able to keep up with our friends on spirited singletrack rides. Our Mukluks are also built for adventure. Already this season we've enjoyed many exploratory rides including overnight trips up to Resurrection Pass, sunset rides along Anchorage's urban coastline, technical trail rides on the bootpacked Middle Fork Trail in Chugach State Park, and new routes and trails throughout the city. The bikes are mostly stock, save for the addition of Grip Studs to our Surly Nate tires, which are set-up tubeless to drilled Rolling Darryl rims. Wide platform pedals and our favorite Ergon grips, as well as a framebag and pogies, are standard equipment in winter. Lael's got a favorite handlebar that makes it onto every bike.

A week ago, Lael and I attempted to ride to the Knik Glacier with our friend Christina. The ride follows the frozen Knik River to the lake at the foot of the glacier. In late fall, giant icebergs are trapped within its boundaries, resulting is an ethereal blue playground of iceforms towering above the surface of the frozen lake. By spring, the ice thickness and snowpack on the river typically enable safe passage to the glacier from several trailheads. This year, warm weather and low snowpack lead to questionable conditions, and by the first of April long days and strengthening sun result in rapidly changing and rapidly deteriorating conditions. Doing best to gather information about river conditions in town, we choose to attempt the northern route from the Jim Creek Trailhead. This route requires about 22 miles of upstream pedaling from the small township of Butte, AK. After a half a day of riding, including a few shallow stream crossings and some navigation, we turn back towards the car, several miles short of the lake. The route is fast at first, over sheer ice and solidly frozen mud and gravel, but later in the day melting slows our pace considerably. The bikes are muddy. Lael must be at work in an hour. She combs the silt out of her hair, locks her bike outside The Rustic Goat, and goes to work.

A week later, staring at the entrance to Blue Dot, I sigh apathetically at our afternoon ride. “Let's go to the glacier!”, Lael suggests. She's known for harebrained ideas. I think about it—about the distance from our house to the end of the paved road, the time of day we'd want to be on the river and on the lake, and the possibility of returning in time for work the next day. I call her bluff, which she knows I will, and we turn around. Within the hour we are back at home looking at a small pile of luggage and equipment on the ground, only a few hours of daylight ahead of us. The weather will be cool and clear, down near ten degrees at night; we decide not to bring a tent and to rely on summer-weight sleeping bags, pads, and a VBL in addition to the clothing we will be wearing. Luggage includes a mix of Revelate Designs and Porcelain Rocket equipment and simple drybags strapped to handlebars and seatpost. We'll pick up food at the Carr's in Eagle River on the way. Gloves, wool Buff, an extra pair of socks, down jackets, multi-tool, pump, extra sealant—alright, let's go. We snake through slush puddles in our neighborhood connecting to the shady Chester Creek Trail, a wide multi-use greenway trail which is still easy to pedal following an afternoon of sun. At the end of the trail, we ride the sidewalks of wide boulevards to the icy paved bike trail alongside the Glenn Highway, continuing out of town and into the shade of the Chugach. Surly Nate tires and Grip Studs buzz underneath us as we descend the pavement into Eagle River. We buy food at Carr's, including bread and a brick of cheese, a bar of chocolate, nuts, apples, and a pint of whiskey. It is dark and we turn on our lights.

The evening grows colder, although we retain enough heat from pedaling. As always, we take extra care to keep our hands and feet warm, as once this heat is lost it is hard to regain. Eventually, we are forced onto the Glenn Highway. On this night the main highway is busy, but offers a wide shoulder aside two lanes of traffic. The descent to the Knik River, no more than a few hundred feet, seems to last forever. The last time we rode this route—two years ago—Lael accompanied me out of town on the first day of a trip that would take me all the way to New Mexico. A cold headwind blows down the river and it becomes apparent that we should sleep. It will be better to continue in the morning sun. It is midnight. Near the road, in a flat swamp, we lay down under the stars. I prepare a few bites of food. We make and contain as much heat as possible, and burrow deeply into our extra socks and sleeping bags.

I awake to a deep blue sky, whitening except for the orange glow on the Talkeetna Range to the north. A layer of heavy frost is crusted across our equipment. We are sure to be in the shadows of the Chugach for hours. At fifteen miles an hour in the shade, it is a cold ride upstream. Our friend Carp is planning to meet us at the trailhead. We pedal hard to meet him in time and despite sweating at the core, my fingers are cold. I get off the bike and run alongside for a moment to improve circulation to my hands and feet. It helps, and soon we are cresting a small hill into the sun. Carp is sitting with a thermos of coffee at the trailhead. We are an hour late.

The ride to the glacial lake from the south side of the river—from the Hunter Creek Trailhead—is only about 9 miles. Since last week we've learned that this route is still rideable, and as I've done it once before, navigation should be straightforward assuming the ice bridges are still holding. The three of us follow tire tracks along solidly frozen rivulets and braided channels, doing our best to keep away from ice bridges when possible. These are insignificant side channels, but unstable ice can be hazardous. Elsewhere, we will cross the main channel of the river.

That point becomes obvious as we come to a large clearing where we can see a wide channel of flowing water both upstream and downstream. A broad ice shelf crosses the river in front of us, with long fractures in a few places. We make our way across and continue upstream along the banks of the main channel towards the glacier, which comes into view as an illustrious blue hue on the horizon. The river curves right toward the mountainside where is passes rocky cliffs up to the lake. Our route leaves the river and crosses a broad gravelly outwash plain along a series of faint vehicular tracks toward the end moraine, a pile of cobbles and gravel which contains the lake.

Climbing to a high point on the moraine, we can see most of the lake and the glacial source of the Knik River in several directions. Hardly more than two hundred feet above sea level and twenty miles from saltwater, this is where the river originates. Three pairs of tires, two jeweled in Grip Studs, edge onto the lake. We pedal fast across the expanse, stopping to admire the iceforms. Carp and I try to ride the natural obstacles (the more studs the better), but are mostly unsuccessful. The lake meets the glacier in a series of corridors and secret rooms, contained by walls of ice. We venture as far as we can into the frozen slot canyons and settle for a break. Not until we stop do we realize that the sun is reflecting off every surface. Surely we will return to town red in the face, but the solar bombardment is heavenly after a cold dark winter in Alaska.

Riding back towards the city, we explore another route which has us pushing our bikes through woody seedlings and shrubbery, until we discover that we've stranded ourselves on the wrong side of a placid channel. The water is probably no more than knee deep, and a beaver dam of snags and saplings give us a second way across. We each approach the challenge differently. Lael delicately traverses the beaver dam as I pedal the shallowest crossing, trying to keep my feet dry, with limited success. Carp chooses another path—the confidence of wearing knee-high rubber boots and being a fishing captain, I think—and is soon pedaling wheel deep in water. By the time he is on shore pouring water out of his Xtra-Tuffs, I'm out of my clothes and into the water. Lael screams and sprints headfirst into the shallow pool. Carp takes a pull of whiskey and laughs. It feels like the beginning of a great summer.

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ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER: NICHOLAS CARMAN

Nicholas Carman left on a bicycle trip in 2008. Since then, he has chosen to spend more than half of every year on the bike; to ride bigger tires, off-pavement; and to cover less distance every year, in trade for riding over mountains and drinking with locals. He has spent time working in bicycle shops and restaurants, as a pedicab driver and a marine forklift operator, and increasingly, as a freelance writer and photographer. Recent credits include articles in Bicycle Times magazine (#25 and #30), Bunyan Velo, and Adventure Cyclist online. Nicholas and Lael have recently closed a chapter of off-pavement exploration across Europe, from Amsterdam to Athens, by way of Ukraine, and are beginning a new chapter in South Africa.

Nicholas shares words, images, and ideas at www.gypsybytrade.wordpress.com

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Explore Fatbike Guest Blogger Mukluk Overnighter Snow Biking

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COMMENTS (7)

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Pat Irwin | December 3rd, 2014

Always fun to read about fun trips in our back yard. Great photos, too!

Jarrett | December 5th, 2014

Fat biking around icy condition/snow looks like a lot of fun.  I will never see anything like that in south Texas.  How hard is it to ride through water that deep?  I’ve ridden up to the center of my wheels and that was incredibly difficult.

Kid Riemer

Kid Riemer | December 5th, 2014

Jarrett - From my personal experience, riding in deep water on a fatbike can be ‘surprisingly easy’ to ‘whoa, this isn’t going to work’. The direction and speed the water is moving plays a part in it of course, but also what the surface is like down below, where the wheels are actually maintaining, or fighting, for traction. Nice smooth bottom? Great. Big slippery bolders? Things just go tougher. One other note: there is a buoyancy to the tires that can help, but can also make you just float up and tip, when the water gets too deep.

Nicholas Carman | December 9th, 2014

Thanks Pat, it is great to hear from a fatbike legend.

Jarrett, As Mike describes, the bottom surface and flow conditions have a lot to do with it.  I wouldn’t expect to be able to ride through waist-deep water, but Carp can do a lot of things I cannot.  Hey, in South Texas you aren’t too far from the Samalayuca Sand Dunes in Chihuahua where Ray Molina tested some of the earliest fatbikes.  He was based between El Paso and Las Cruces.

Jarrett | December 11th, 2014

I had no idea that fat bikes were tested so close.  Hopefully things will calm down across the border and I can start fat biking too.

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Jeff Schmitz | December 17th, 2014

Thanks for a wonderful article Nicholas.  I “played” extensively in the Knik River area in the ‘80s on a four wheeler but all on the North side.  An area of many moods that take a long time to understand but as the pictures show, wonderfully glorious!  These days the fourwheeler takes a back seat to my Muk 3; am inclined to take a stab at the Knik or Spencer glaciers with it.

Nicholas Carman | December 18th, 2014

Jeff,

The Muk3 is a great bike.  I’ve heard about the ride to the Spencer Glacier but not been out there.  It seems to be popular with the snowmachine crowd so it shouldn’t be too hard to find some trail.  I know some riders have been taking advantage of the riding on Res Pass and other trails through November and December; might be worth checking those out before the big snows come, especially as it isn’t a snowmachine year on Res Pass.  Kevin at Paramount Cycles should have some good intel on trail conditions.

The Knik ride can be done from either side depending upon conditions.  As you know, the north side is longer and covers a more diverse range of riding conditions from frozen overflow, mud, stream crossings, and some forest track.  We didn’t make it to the glacier from the north side due to time constraints, although more info and images from our attempt from the Jim Creek TH in March can be found on the blog: https://gypsybytrade.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/knik-river-ride-butte-ak-to-knik-glacier/

My friend Abe had done the trip the week before and recommended the Jim Creek TH to us.  They made it to the glacier with an early start to ensure more solidly frozen terrain.  More words and images can be found on his site: http://www.akschmidtshow.com/2014/03/26/knik-glacier-biking/

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