The Last Leg of Summer

Up ahead, just past the top of the long, mellow hill we are climbing, I can see the junction of the Elliott and Richardson Highways, where we will turn south and enter the sublime alpine beauty of the Chugagh Mountains, Alaska’s splendid “coast range”.  Last night’s camp, just past Kenny Lake was a fine birch forest scene with good weather and flat ground. Located just minutes from town, we were happily snuggled into the tent by early evening and a good night’s sleep was to be had. As we approach the intersection, there is a roadhouse visible just a few yards to the north and we decide to stop in for a coffee and some browsing at the roadhouse “garage sale” they are having. Angela begins browsing in a serious fashion and soon her arms are filled with trinkets and goods: a bicycle seat, a bicycle helmet, a candle holder, and assorted other comodities. I cheerfully remind her that we are traveling by bicycle; she reluctantly shelves her armload and we hustle inside to see what we can see.

After some local chat and too much cheap coffee, we are back on the road and headed south, toward the Klutina River.  The last few days have been filled with their fair share of cool temps and lots of rain and mud; as a result there has been little activity in the form of bathing, swimming, and river laundry, and right now, that’s exactly what I need. The Klutina River is just another fine example of a spectacular, yet small, Alaskan drainage, filled with fast moving, glacial melt water the color of a grey, cloudy sky. The water is ice cold and sweet to the thirsty tongue.  Ever since I began stomping around in these northern woods, I have seldom treated water for drinking. If it is standing water, such as a lake, I always filter; but generally, fast moving, glacial fed rivers are considered excellent “as is”. The Klutina is no exception and I drink freely and fill all of my bottles. A quick body dunk in the runnel is about all I can stand before a serious head freeze develops. I rinse a few clothes and hang them from my bike for a drying session while pedaling, and Angela and I are happilly heading, once again, up and into the alpine zone of Alaska’s mountains. Onward, the pavement snakes; deep into a forested valley filled with Birch and Spruce, Cottonwood and Alder. There is not a dearth of trees in Alaska, especially in the south, where permafrost is a rareness. Black Spruce taiga appears occasionally, a hallmark of the permafrost zone, but in the warmer and wetter areas of southern Alaska, large White Spruce and hardwoods are far more common. In fact, as we converge on the lower slopes of the Chugagh, the trees are very large indeed; magnificent specimens of a rich and healthy environment.

Looking ahead, I can now see small glaciers adorning the rocky peaks; sitting there quietly, keepers of time, observers of pattern, practitioners of routine. Collect, pack, advance; sit, melt, retreat. Repeating it’s endless yearly cycles, filling the rivers’, allowing the Salmon, feeding the Bears’, making the world. This is the interminable rythym of The North; it’s scale of balance all things wild and free depend on. Soon we are climbing upward; around every bend in the road, another glacier, each one bigger than the last. One is hanging in space, threatening to collapse and feed the one below it, like a hand me down from an older brother. As we ascend, the clouds become thick and a mist develops that is all but rain. The vegetation becomes greener and thicker, yet more sparce. Soon it is all tundra, and the final climb to the nearly three thousand foot Thompson Pass engages. Even though we are wet, we are ecstatic. This is another new place for my visual feast, for I have not been here before. New places always excite me, especially in Alaska. At the pass, it is damp and cold: we don more clothing for the giant descent towards the sea. Soon we are whizzing down, mile after mile, at high speed. 35 miles per hour in fact. Eventually it flattens out and we find ourselves deep within lush forest of Alder and Hemlock. Large firns are sprouting from the forest floor; a sign that we are nearing ocean. We cross a small stream and see the first of the Chum and Silver Salmon runs; ahead a bit further, there is a small black bear having a feast on the Salmon eggs, not even bothering with the flesh of the several dozen carcass’ lying about.

As we near Valdez, it begins to rain again, as it would do for another couple of days; in fact, early on the trip, we had promised ourselves a motel room somewhere, so now, in the rain at Valdez, it seemed appropriate. So a night with hot showers, a soft bed, and a rain free envoronment were to be had. We head to the ferry terminal the next morning, only to find that AMHS (Alaska Marine Highway System) had changed they’re schedules in the few short days time period since we had called for information; that meant another night in Valdez. So off down a trail we go, leading to the inlet of a small brook, to the kelp covered gravel beaches of the Valdez Arm. We stop for a bit and take it in, then head back the way we came to find a spot for the tent. Coming across another creek, it is seething with Chums and Silver’s. The grass on the shores of the water are totally flattened: we have just missed the Bears. We cautiously walk the perimiter of the area and see Salmon lying on the bare earth, with fresh bear tooth punctures. They must have been here seconds earlier. Had we startled them off? The scene is fantastic: a bear feeding ground, surrounded by salt water and a lush scene dominated by the peaks and glaciers of Valdez.

We board the ferry in the morning and across the Prince William Sound we go. Incredible coastline and calving tide water glaciers dominate the experience and soon we are in Whittier. Miraculously, the clouds break, and the sun shines strong upon our backs. A painless hitch hike through the Whittier tunnel (mandatory) puts us at Portage Lake and a spectacle of more glaciers and icebergs. It is still early, and we decide to try to make it to Girdwood by nightfall, which, after a couple of hours of battling heinous head winds, we accomplish. We camp next to a fast moving river, with glaciers viewable from camp, directly across from the Alyeska skii hill. Another great Alaska camp indeed. The pedal into Anchorage the next morning was filled with the terrible traffic of the Seward Highway, famous for it’s dangerous nature. we persevere and soon find ourselves in the hills above Anchorage, staying at Angela’s friends’ house. They are wonderful hosts and treat us like kings and queens; that night a delicious supper of Silver Salmon that was caught in Prince William Sound just few days prior. Stacey even supplies us with a box for angela’s bike to be shipped and gives her a ride to the airport. Angela and I say our goodbye’s for now; she is heading the the lower 48, and I heading to Eagle River, where I will meet my buddy Sven and we will drive back to Fairbanks and begin the fall season of training dogs for the upcoming winter, of which I will be staying in Bettles, AK.

It has been a glorious summer; nearly 2800 miles of pedaling, both solo and with Angela, across mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes, and ocean. I do love The North!

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