Day 27-30, 7-10 Aug 2008: The Denali Highway! About rough roads, cold and more..
We both had a very strong love-hate relationship with the Denali Highway. It is a bit over 200km/130mi long, but 80% of this is unpaved. Sometimes tougher than the Dalton, wilder than the Denali park road, and wetter than the Netherlands :). ladies & gentlemen, we offer you: The Denali Highway in pictures, with some words as well…
It started out ok, with some nice roads from Cantwell, but soon the gravel came back with full force. Ivana had a bad day, so I just stayed away from her; I bit on front or a bit in the back. That is usually the best thing to do, when one of us has an ‘angry day’, when all roads are terrible, the legs won’t work or rain seems to hit you every minute. I was actually enjoying this road a lot.
It was nice to be away from the main traffic again. almost no people live here, rental cars are not allowed to drive these roads and trucks have nowhere to go to here, so all cars you see are travellers or hunters. All of them wave back when we wave at them and many stop for a chat. The landscape is simply stunning: from high mountains (even though most were hidden in thick, rainy clouds) to taiga forests and age -old glaciers. We cycled through valleys, crossed big rivers, saw al kinds of wildlife and met friendly people. We got rained upon, almost froze our hands and feet, downhilled in the dark and found cyclists’ heaven, all in a few days. Almost too much to process. Pictures do not do justice, but I will share a few, together with some short stories from the road:
Unlike the Denali park road, this area is not protected, but it feels wilder. Not being protected also means that a lot of hunting is going on. We saw many big-bellied men with big 4×4 trucks, carrying smaller 4×4 vehicles in the back. My theory is that all the glamorous hunting magazines they have out here paint this perfect picture, but in reality, works needs to be done and you need to get active and your feet wet (literally) in order to actually approach animals close enough so they can shoot them with the big expensive guns and feel like a ‘real man’.
Instead many are just nice guys, who just stay in lodges and drink beer, a more harmless way of spending time with the buddies. Somehow, those trigger-happy fingers need to shoot something, so they aim at the only things that are close enough to the road and that are even more defenseless than the animals: road signs. Every road sign between Prudhoe Bay and Canada has holes in them.. (‘I think I hit it Jimbo!’)
We camped at an official BLM campground (Bureau fro Land managemant). These places are nicely situated, not too big and mostly for small vehicles and tents. No power-hookups and free Wifi, but nice, quiet places. As we are travelling on a budget, we asked some guys if they would mind sharing their spot (you pay a fee per site, not pp), but they were happy to have us and did not want our dollars.
Ivana spent an hour picking more berries, making enough blueberry jam for the next week, to go with our peanut butter sandwich breakfast.. We also met another biketraveller, Thomas from Germany. he had come from Vancouver in a few months, was now racing around Alaska and was planning to cycle down again, so he will probably catch up with us.
The only thing that I did not like on this part is that the eternal layer of clouds took away most of the views of the high Alaskan peaks and the old glaciers. Guess we will have to come back one day.
All Alaskans we meet tell us that it is the wettest and coldest summer in 40 years, climate is changing..
A new friend!
The next day we stopped to take a look at the Gracious House cafe as it was recommended by Thomas. We were not planning to eat anything, but the aroma of food convinced us in about 3 seconds and we both got a ‘Denali burger’. Then we noticed this little guy, sitting in the corner of the gift shop. Was this the Polar bear we had been looking for, our Arctic companion for our Antarctic friend Pablito?
We brought him out to the waittress who looked as hse had never seen him before. ‘Ehm, ok, ehh, 5 dollars?’. Sold. Pablito immediately too his new friends under his wings. we are not quite sure what his name is as he does not speak much and is a bit shy, but for now we will call him Pedrito, after Ivana’s grandfather.
We were eating when an retired couple came in. They were so joyous, and clearly so crazy about eachother, it was great to see and very catchy. Charles and Elizabeth live in Las Vegas and come up to Alaska every year I think. They drive one of those huge motorhomes, but just enjoy camping out on a high spot and then watching the wildlife pass them by. They shared a large icecream and were enjoying every bite of if. As we had re-calculated our food supply after hearing that there would not be any store before Tok, about 400km away, we asked the waitress if we could buy a loaf of bread. We could, for $6.
Elizabeth went outside and came back a while later/ I left you some food on your bikes’, she said. ‘We always bring too much in our big motorhome, and you need it much more than we do!’
We thanked her and finished our meal. But when we noticed the huge bag filled with cookies, beef jerky, peanut bars and a huge jar of peanut butter, we had to get back inside and than them again, it was like cyclist’s x-mas!
‘She has been like this ever since I met her’, Charles said. ‘So generous, that it why I love her. I am not too religious, but I do believe in that you reap what you sow’. ‘Karma?’, I said. ‘Yep, that’s another way of putting it.’
Though I prefer to be totally independent, it is great to meet such generous people who know the relative value of things to different people. Even more, it is great to meet people like Charles and Elizabeth, who have been crazy about eachother for decades and still enjoy and have fun together.
We were getting quite good at dodging rain clouds, but it was getting harder as the clouds were getting bigger and well, there was only one road to choose from… Se we got soaking wet once again and decided to camp at a wayside; a small pull-out with some toilets and a stream to get water, which we could purify with our Steripen. But before we reached it we were treated on a spectacular road. We were actually riding on top of an esker, a natural sinusoid ridge, shaped by glaciers. We are cycling on age-old geography (am I correct Mike?) and without any other vehicles on the rainbow-covered road this late in the evening we felt on a different planet.
The next morning we passed some beautiful areas, including some lakes that were known for its wildlife. We already had seen some caribou from far away, but suddenly we noticed 4 huge ones, close to the road. We stopped to take a picture, but the noise of an approaching car chased them away. We searched a bit but could not find them again. I stopped a kilometer or so ahead to wait for Ivana, when the caribou popped up out of the bushes, about 2 meters away from me. We both looked surprised at eachother en then they were away. Just before, we had been watching some geese and other birds in one of the lake when suddenly a big bald eagle zoomed past on the edge of the road, maybe 3 meters away from us at about eye level. It just briefly glanced at us when it floated past, not even moving its majestic wings. Like with the caribou, we did not have time to take our cameras out and do not have photos, but the images will be etched in our minds forever.
Rain was pouring down again and we fled inside the Maclaren River Lodge, where we saw the sign: all you can eat chili and soup, with bread, for 8 dollars! yeehaw, a buffet, the cyclists dream. They let us use the Wifi as well, so we could answer some emails in the middle of nowhere, while eating hot chili with bread for several hours. It was too cozy and it was already late when we left the lodge. We had to climb a big hill, more than 10km uphill, while the rain was coming down again. We were both chilled to the bone, but the plateau we were riding on now did not offer any shelter, so we continued. We had heard that there would be a long downhill, but before we reached it it was already getting dark. Ivana suffers more from the cold than me, but I managed to convince her that going down meant being in a warmer place and so we zoomed the last 15km down in one long descent. Through the dark, dodging potholes as we went. Ivana’s Santos bike still had light, which helped a lot, but mine had been broken since the flight in, so I had to concentrate hard to find my way on the gravel road.
We made it to Tangle Lakes campground and camped right beside a toilet building, with bear-proof containers to keep our food (and the bears) safe. We only cycled for about 2km the next morning when we saw a lodge. Low and behold, there was an all you can eat breakfast buffet! I think I ate 14 delicious blueberry pancakes, as well as a great tortilla, bread, fruit salad and many other things. the women from the kitchen came to ask ‘where we could leave all that food’, but we just pointed outside and said: we are cyclists…
The road was paved again from this point, but the hills were just as steep. It took us a few hours more to get to Paxson, the junction with the highway leading South. We had rough roads and were wet most of the time, but both felt a feeling of already missing the beautiful Denali Highway.
It cleared up for a moment, when we cycled close to the wonderful Paxson Lake, but soon the rain really came down hard and at the end of a long day we tried to find shelter near a large motel. It was totally deserted and all houses were closed. Ivana found an old very small church nearby, which had its doors unlocked. All houses nearby were empty, but a few houses away a man told us that the church was not used anymore as the owner had passed away, so we could stay. So we spent a nice and especially dry night, getting ready for more wonders of Alaska…
Kowalski! Status report!
This road was way tougher than expected, partly because of the weather, but also because of the many hills and the rough gravel. Average ascent per day was about 750m and the days were about 65km long. Here are the altitude profiles for those who wish to venture here, it is still very much recommended, enjoy!
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