Sunday, February 24, 2013

Snowshoeing and Fatbiking AK Jan '13

New Zealand.  My Long Haul Trucker touring bike.  One or two good friends.  A couple weeks of vacation time.  That was the plan. 

Well, that fell through, and became a one week tour of the Big Island of Hawaii.  Hawaii trips with friends/family have a tendency of coming apart in my experience, and this one did too.  I've only been able to make trips there work when it's just myself and Alison.  Work, plane tickets, non-revenue employee travel, and the costs associated with playing in paradise can doom a trip before it gets going.  One friend got a call for a job interview the week we were going, and another couldn't find airfare late in the planning game.  Strike two.  I could have gone solo, and I'm sure it would have been a blast, but I prefer touring with a friend or two.  

It's winter here in MN, and the idea was to get out cycling somewhere warm and spend some time with friends.  But things seemed to be fighting that theme.  I had a little over a week and a half off myself with no good plans anymore to use it.  Since the warm locales apparently didn't want me, I just changed the plan entirely and committed to the cold- Alaska in January.  I hadn't experienced it before, and had spent enough time reading adventure narratives and blogs of others to know that it was something I wanted to check out.  I'm still itching to ride New Zealand and Hawaii in the future, but this trip turned out pretty good to tide me over in the outdoor department for a bit.  

I almost didn't even make it to AK either, since I was traveling on my airline benefits, but I managed to score the jumpseat on a 757 late at night.  Six hours basically belted sideways to a cockpit wall is not a comfortable way to travel, but I got there.

My friends Edward and Teresa live up in Anchorage for now, and that would be home base for the trip.  I packed snowshoes, my nordic skis, winter camping and cycling gear to keep our options open.  I really had no way to get my Salsa Mukluk fatbike up there for any cost less than just renting, so I ended up renting partway through the trip from Billy Koitzsch at Arctic Cycles.   He's a bit of fat bike history, a very accomplished adventure rider/race, and was really fun to talk with and oogle over lots of fat biking gear. 

But the riding didn't happen right away.  In fact, the weather was complete un-seasonal garbage the first couple days of the trip.  48 degrees, steady rain, and in certain places in the area, up to 70 mph winds (winds vary dramatically due to the ocean/mountain topography).  We were getting skunked after changing the trip around several times, and I was in a pretty bad mood.  Edward and Teresa were great hosts, however, and we shared some good times at their house with games, Teresa's cooking, and some Alaskan beer.  

And that's not to say we didn't get outside during these stormy days.  We did.  We put on snowshoes and explored a couple good valleys Edward is familiar with in the Chugach Range.  The first day we hiked part of the Powerline Trail, and then up most of Flattop Peak.  The wind was serious, and we bailed out before the top due to having only snowshoes and not crampons, no ice axes, and no knowledge of the current condition/visibility of the route we were thinking of taking down.  We had a pretty good time though just getting out of the house and up into the hills.  


The second day's snowshoeing went far better, as the storm system was starting to move on, and the mountains and color finally came out to be seen.  We were hiking in the Arctic Valley area, and this time brought Edward's dog Outback, who is a trooper.  I'm used to the lazy fat pet variety, not the follow you up a mountain in sometimes deep snow type.  It was fun having an energetic dog with.  
We stayed out long enough to come down in the alpenglow, and it was the most colorful scenery of the trip by far.  When people think of Alaska in the winter, I'm sure they think of dark, depressing, colorless scenes.  And there are definitely some of those.  But there are also moments of intense color and surreal mountain-scapes, and it was fantastic to be immersed by them when they showed up.  Besides the mountains, my own Northern MN landscapes are very similar in that one learns to appreciate the balance between the colorful bursts and the drab other times. 

After the storm cleared and the temperatures returned to below freezing, as they should be in January, we rented the earlier mentioned fatbikes.  I was stoked to get out and ride some Alaskan scenery in the winter.  The only problem was that the storm had annihilated all of Anchorage's snow.  It was a brown, re-frozen icy mess.  (And snowing back in St. Paul- irony.)  So we had two options, go up in elevation, or drive north where the storm hadn't wrecked conditions.  We had two days with the bikes, so we decided on both.  The light hours were pretty much from around 10:40am to 4:30 pm, so we wanted to use our daylight the first day in the Anchorage area wisely.  We knew conditions on the road up Arctic Valley Rd were looking good from the previous day's snowshoeing, so we decided to ride that, and then head up to the Knik Arm to see if it was possible to get out to the braided river valley that looks out to the Knik Glacier.

The ride up Arctic Valley Rd was great.  I've always had a love of long steady, scenic climbs on bikes. It's never made any sense given my pectus problems, but I love it.  And I'd never done a good climb on a fatbike.  I know, something must really be wrong with me to like climbing and being on 4 inch low pressure tires, but here's my take- the effort is the same.  Whether you're on 700x23c road tires on pavement, or 26x3.8's on 100mm rims on snow, it's basically a matter of accepting whatever speed you get out of whatever energy output you can sustain for prolonged time.  It's just a slower slog, but the slog's the same.  Frozen gravel gave way to ice-glazed gravel, then snow dusted gravel, then packed/plowed snow all the way to the ski resort at the top of the valley.  It was Edward's first day on a fatbike, and I think it got him hooked.  We climbed to the resort, took a quick break and layered up for the descent, and then headed down.
We enjoyed some long San Francisco style skids (admittedly easier to lock a disc brake downhill on snow than surfing a fixie, but still entertaining) and Edward learned what can and cannot be ridden on a fatbike in relation to snow depth, and smiled big down our snowy canyon.

The riding in the Knik Arm later in the day was very different.  I wouldn't say it was bad, but that's just because I have a certain tolerance for trying to ride in garbage conditions.  From where we left Edwards truck, there was a main trail to reach the river, as well as a maze of ATV trail options that covered the area.  The main trail was full of a mixture of glare ice, slush, and thin ice over inches of water over glare ice.  If you got lost in that just read- a great big cold mess.  Not great riding.  We spent an hour biking what we could on the ATV tracks, and bush whacking where we couldn't.  As we were about to give up on getting to the river and seeing the glacier due to fading daylight, we popped out of the woods and saw what we were looking for.  The low light iPhone photography below is a far far cry from experiencing this place and riding in person, but it's better than nothing.  I need to go back to this place when it's frozen solid and ride out to the glacier for a night of camping in awe inspiring winter-scapes.  I have read comments from veteran adventure cyclists that the route can be one of the best rides of a persons life.  Our experience was a quick messy mini version of what can be done here in what were some of the worst riding conditions in a while, and I still had fun.  We stayed to ride the beaches a bit, gawk at the big scenery, and then had to make the trip back to the truck in some darkening woods.  On the way back, I was able to ride quite a bit more than on the way out.  I don't think the conditions really changed, but we just got more used to them and tried riding more and it worked out.  You should travel here and bring a fatbike!

After we finished riding in there, we made the drive up to our final playground for this quick AK trip- Denali National Park.  There are many many places to ride in AK, and it's a bit of a drive to get up to the park from Anchorage, especially on crummy winter roads after storms, but I had called up earlier, and the rangers told me conditions were pretty good for riding the Park's one road, which snakes into the Park from it's entrance at the main hwy between Anchorage and Fairbanks.  And, there was free camping at the Riley Creek Campground at the park entrance where we could start our ride in the morning.  The park road's winter conditions are extremely varied, and I thought we better take advantage of the chance to ride it this time around.  I didn't know if I'd have the chance again, and I love Denali National Park.

Before riding in one of the coolest parks on the planet, we first had to catch some rest.  I didn't have room to pack my winter tent amongst the gear I had brought up.   So it was bivy time, and it was cold.  Not at all cold like central AK can produce in nasty nights, but cold.  Zero degrees F.  And as we were unrolling our gear for the night, we made the discovery that some important pieces of Edwards sleeping system had not made it into the truck.  He was missing his sleeping pad, and had his summer sleeping bag instead of his winter one.  Ouch.  I gave him a bag liner that I had along as an extra layer for "just in case" scenarios.  He laid out some pine branches in lieu of a sleeping pad, and bedded down to try to sleep.  I got about an hour and a half of sleep in my bivy, and woke up to Edward moving around quickly to warm up, as he had gotten pretty cold by this time.  As we were car camping, he fired up his truck and warmed up with the heater.  I got up to try to help figure out a way for him to get some sleep, and we decided to try the old hot water bottle in the sleeping bad method.  But then we discovered another mistake- he's got a convertible fuel stove, which burns liquid fuel, which is great in the winter, and iso-pro canisters, which suck in the winter.  His gear bag had iso-pro canisters.  Bummer.  I had left my stove home for previously mentioned packing reasons.  So no warm Nalgene.  We laid down packs and got Edward into whatever extra clothing/gear we had left, and we got another couple hours of sleep before the same cold found him.  By then, it was time to get up anyway to get ready to ride.  Not a good start to our day, but oh well.  When you're traveling in winter, even when car camping, I'd recommend checking your trip partner(s) gear, and having them check yours before heading out.  This would have saved us a ridiculous night.  But it's all behind us and a story now.

We had some breakfast, and geared up to ride.  It was cold and silent, save for our tires crunching snowpack, and random howls from what were either wolves or sled dogs- I don't know my AK canine calls well.  I'm sure any local would know the difference immediately.  Sled dogs had definitely been in the area, seeing as they had blazed our trail down the road.  The snow was nicely packed and very well suited for fatbikes.  We had enough time that we figured we could make it out to the 9 mile mark on the road which is referred to as "Mountain View".  This title comes from the fact that the road climbs to this point where on a clear day would be your first view on Denali, which I would still not see on this trip up close. I did catch my first glimpse of it from Anchorage the day before- only time I've seen it at all.    We were cruising (for fatbikes) until the 6 mile mark, where the trail traffic faded off almost entirely.  The skiers and snowshoers seem to stop there to turn around, and there is a "staff only" service rd there that goes somewhere.  The only tracks going forward into the park there were from sled dogs and faint, or from moose and not so faint at all.  It became unrideable going up (we would ride it going down however), so we hike-a-biked for a bit until the trail firmed up again due to being windblown.  We pressed on and did make it to Mountain View, where Denali was hiding in cloud cover as expected.
The openness of Denali was inspiring.  There's not a lot of truly "out there" experiences left, and this wasn't even one of them.  We were on a road, and 9 miles from the park entrance, but all the same it was such a big hard place that I felt fortunate to be able to travel through such an environment that compared to my normal work and home life is very wild.  Plus it was via cycling- in January!  I'm amazed at the places I've been able to ride in my life and look forward to all the places yet to come.
The ride back was very cold.  I don't know what the temperature was, much less the windchill as we were headed into a light but bitter wind.  I kept taking pictures, and thus had my gloved hands out of the handlebar pogies too often (Edward kept calling them perogies, and I thought it would actually be nice to stick my hands into warm mash potatoes and cheese filled dumplings at the time).   So I ended up with overly cold digits, and had to stop a couple times for the shameless stick my hands down my pants warm up method.  I eventually gave up on taking many more pictures going into the wind, and just settled into a nice flow of peddling and taking in the winter lands around me.

We returned to the truck, and jumped right on the highway back to Anchorage as our rental bikes were due back that night.  It started snowing almost immediately, and I felt like we were driving to Santa's house.  There were billowy piles of snow on everything, and the trees were sagging under it's weight.  AK does an amazing job keeping this road going in the winter however, and we were able to make a slow but steady way back.

I'm not done riding AK.  I have many ideas for fatbiking from this trip and earlier ideas, as well as summer tour options with the LHT.  It's just going to be an issue of finding the time, money, and available friends to make more of these great trips come together.  And the openness to enjoy alternate trips when the stuff I've planned doesn't work out.  This was a good "alternate".  Thanks Edward!


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