Archive for July, 2011

The twins go hiking – a trip to Stiles Creek cabin

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

Our family had been planning a hiking trip for a couple of weeks… This trip was to be the twins’ first “real” hiking trip. “Real” in the sense that it was going to be the first overnight trip where the twins walked the entire way under their own power. No rides on Mom or my back. No carrying. I have been eagerly awaiting this day for a long time – finally an end to the massive packs! The weather had been a bit rainy lately, so we decided to book Stiles Creek cabin in the Chena River State Recreation Area so we had a bit more rain-free room. Our neighbors, Trusten, Margaret, and their daughter Robin decided to join us for the adventure. Robin was so excited by the trip she packed a day in advance and even said it was ok if we left as early as 8am – a monumental admission for her while on a summer break schedule. The morning of the trip we left early, expecting little legs to walk slowly for the eight hilly miles to the cabin.

The dogs were very excited to be out on a hike. Only the youngest of the dogs had to carry a pack, but fortunately he didn’t seem to mind that he was singled out.

The weather was a bit rainy but never moved beyond the light drizzle stage while we were on the trail. The girls were troopers, walking along at a fast pace for their short legs. We engaged in many, many different games to distract from the walking and to keep the twins from getting bored. Songs were sung, words were spelled, riddles were told, snacks were eaten..

One of the more popular games involved a ferocious dragon who asked the twins questions, like for example how to spell “dog” or what was 12 plus 5. If the twins got the answer correct the dragon would roar and gnash its teeth. This was so popular that soon the twins reversed things and had the dragon asking ME questions, like “what is 1000 plus 1000”, “How many trees are there in Alaska?”, and my favorite, “How many lakes are there in Alaska?”. Tricky dragon!

The twins made a number of trail finds on the way into the cabin. Molly found a little brass bell, and Lizzy found several gloves and a flat piece of textured plastic that she became very enamored of.

By the time we reached the cabin we had found five gloves, including one pair.

We arrived at the cabin a little before Trusten and Margert caught up with us, and in time to escape a torrential downpour. The kids spend the rest of the evening exploring the cabin, rampaging and giggling in the loft, while the adults lolled about reading the magazines left in the cabin and playing cards.

In the early evening there was an epic downpour and we had to move the dogs to a more covered location, and let the oldest inside where she promptly curled up and went to sleep. Eventually we followed her example and hit the sack. In the morning it was drizzling on and off, but it appeared it might actually clear up. After a fine breakfast of cereal we headed out a little before the rest of the crew to get a head start for the little legs. The girls chugged away, climbing the hill that leads away from the cabin like little troopers.

The trail on the way out was a bit more muddy due to the heavy rainstorm that past in the early evening, but it was still passable.

The improvements to the trail DNR has made in the last few years have been pretty impressive. The girls made good time on the way out, zooming down the trail, and counting down to zero with the trail markers. Just before arriving at the parking lot Lizzy was very excited to find a “L” shaped stick. Lizzy is the master of finding letters and numbers in the natural world.

We arrived at the trailhead a little after Trusten and Margaret arrived, in time to join them for a trip to Mia’s. Mia’s is a small restaurant in Pleasant Valley on Chena Hotsprings road, and has the best burgers I have tasted and wonderfully fantastic Asian food. We enjoyed a wonderful after hike dinner there and everything was fantastic – that place is highly recommended!

This trip was the first where the twins walked entirely under their own power, and they did a truly fantastic job, covering sixteen miles in a total trail time of nine hours, with hardly a complaint despite all the drizzle and mud. I am very proud of them! Lots of adventures await..

More photos here: Family Trip to Stiles Creek Cabin

Biking the Haul Road – Deadhorse to Fairbanks

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

I have been thinking about biking the Dalton Highway for several years now. The road has a legendary reputation for long 13% grades, epic mud, windshield- and tire-destroying rocks, and headwinds of doom – all of which of course makes it a very attractive road to bike. Things came together this spring, and in mid July I found myself driving up the Haul Road with Tom on a grand adventure. Some friends of ours were on a long float trip that ends up on a village near the north coast of Alaska where they would then fly to Deadhorse and drive back to Fairbanks. Luckly for us, they needed someone to drive their vehicle up to Deadhorse, so early on a Tuesday morning we loaded up our bikes and headed out of town. It was a long, uneventful drive up to Deadhorse and took a little under 12 hours including a shortish stop at Coldfoot. We spend the night at Deadhorse at the aptly named Deadhorse Camp hotel. The hotel was composed of a main building made of stacked ATCO trailers, with a number of stand-alone trailers on skis pulled up around the main building.

This is standard affair for Deadhorse – nearly every building not intended for equipment storage is composed of an ATCO trailer of one sort or another. Our room was in one of the trailers alongside the main building.

This was my first visit to Deadhorse in the summer. I had been here several times in the winter while passing though on the way to Barrow and things looked quite different when it’s not -40F with 50 mph winds.. Deadhorse is a strange place and fairly hard to describe. Its consists mainly of a immense series of gravel pads connected by gravel roads with all sorts of heavy equipment, oil exploration machinery, and trailers of all type parked in various stages of disarray, along with a couple of active oil and gas wells.

I stopped by the hardware store and picked up a set of tinted safety glasses, and then we headed out to find dinner. Most of the folks here are not full time residents and are here temporarily for work, either for short stints or on some sort of 2 weeks on, 1 week off rotation. This makes for some unusual living conventions, including the all-you-can-eat meal – all the restaurants in Deadhorse serve all-you-can-eat meals cafeteria style. The food is not bad, but not particularly exciting. We ended up eating at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel, and some of the clients definitely showed signs of the “all you can eat diet”. Eventually we pried ourselves away from the trough, though not before I made a to-go bag with a handful of pastries and headed back to our hotel to get some sleep.

In the morning we hopped on our bikes and were off!

Our route was pretty simple as there is really only one road option to get back to Fairbanks. We were going to leave Deadhorse, bike on the Dalton until it ended and then take the Eliot Highway back to Fairbanks. Fairly simple.

Here is an interactive map of our route:

View Larger Map

Day 1
For the first mile or so we had to bike some local roads to get to the Dalton. There was a surprising amount of traffic, though the drivers were pretty well mannered.

Eventually we reached the start of the Dalton, and our trip began!

The first 60 miles or so of the Dalton are mind-numbingly flat, but quite scenic. It might go without saying, but this section of our trip was quite far north – in fact I think this might be the farthest north you can go by road in North America. There are no trees this far north, just small willow looking shrubs and things that look much like grasses (I am obviously not a biologist). We really lucked out weather-wise – it warmer than I expected. We had a wonderful 65F weather, which was quite a bit nicer than the 40F I was expecting. The road surface for the start of our trip was hard packed dirt with a fair bit of calcium chloride mixed in to harden the road surface and to keep the dust down.

I had been told that there was a good chance that we might see some Musk Ox, but alas we didn’t. We did see a lots of birds and were dive bombed briefly by some shockingly large terns. We also saw a fair number of fat arctic ground squirrels, of which there was a lot.

At around mile 53 or so the surface changed to chip and seal and we enjoyed a nice break from the gravel road for another 27 miles.

Eventually the road surface switched back to dirt near a collection of dreary looking buildings called “Happy Valley”.

Just past Happy Valley there was a motorcyclist stopped in the middle of the road. It was a bit of a strange place to stop so when I caught up with him I stopped and asked if he was ok.

We talked for a bit and apparently he had stopped to take pictures, and was completely unfazed that he was in the middle of a dirt road with large semi bearing down on him from behind. I talked to him for a couple of minutes, learning he had driven his motorcycle up from Georgia. We saw an amazing number of motorcycles. It appeared that there were more motorcycles than any other type of private traffic on the road… not what I expected.

We continued biking until we reached the “Ice Cut”, a smallish hill where the road cuts through the a bluff and apparently exposed a large ice-lens, thus the name, and we called it a day. We camped on a pipeline access road that leads to the Sag River. The Dalton has lots and lots of wonderful campsites – at regular intervals there are side roads leading to the pipeline. The pipeline access roads are normally blocked by gates, but the gates are easy to get around or under with a bike, and as far as I know its fine to camp there so long as you do not block access.

Day 2

In the morning we continued, though the weather was a bit less sunny. We had brief rain showers for most the day, though it never rained very hard. For the first day the road was mostly very flat, with only an occasional small hill. As we traveled south we started hitting the foothills of the north side of the Brooks Range, and things became a bit less flat

The hills continued to grow as we headed towards the Brooks Range and the high point of the trip, Atigun Pass.

We passed a number of construction and DOT camps, including one with an interesting sign.

A little before we entered the Atigun River valley, we passed Toolik Field Station, where some neighbors of ours spend part of the summer studying the Arctic ecosystem.

After passing the side road to Toolik, we passed Galbraith lake where some sort of massive excavation appeared to be going on, and started up the Atigun River valley.

The views were starting to be pretty nice at this point, but alas we were also on the receiving end of a stiff headwind. We spotted several groups of sheep sunning themselves on the other side of the valley.

On this section of road the trucks raised a fair bit of dust – fortunately the wind kept it from hanging around very long.

We did get to see some unusual cargo as the trucks drove by, including a rocket-shaped oversized load.

The Atigun River valley is quite beautiful and very scenic.

Eventually we reached the base of Atigun Pass, the only “big” climb of the trip, just in time for it to start raining in earnest.
Fortunately the rainstorm was short-lived, and by the time we were half way up the climb it had stopped raining.

The climb up the pass was a lot less of a climb than I was expecting – it is fairly steep but it is not that long and was over fairly quickly. At the top of the pass we were rewarded by wonderful blue sky and fantastic views of the south side of the pass – hurray!

From the top of the pass it was a wonderful ride downhill to our campsite for the evening near the airstrip at Chandalar Station.

We camped near the runway, but well off the section used by planes so we didn’t get in the way. The runway appeared to used only infrequently. The campsite had wonderful views of the Chandalar Shelf and the start of the Dietrich River valley.

Day 3
Our third day was pretty short, only a little over 50 miles and 4 hours of biking. We left pretty early, climbed up over Chandalar Shelf, and enjoyed a long downhill ride to Wiseman. We were starting to leave the Arctic and the vegetation was starting to change – we now had trees!

This section of the trip zoomed along, as it was mostly downhill with very few hills. About 10 miles or so before the turnoff for Wiseman the pavement started – nice new and fast pavement.
We arrived in Wiseman a little before 3pm, with lots of time to explore, shower, do laundry, and get other random tasks done. We stayed at the Boreal Lodge a nice little lodge in Wiseman proper. I explored Wiseman for a short time, seeing the museum and an old general store, and walked around town a bit. Eventually I headed back to the lodge and spent a bit of time relaxing in the sun, and enjoyed several ice cream bars.
(2021 Update – I now highly recommend The Arctic Getaway in Wiseman – they are great folks and are bikers. )

Day 4
On the forth day we headed out of Wiseman early and zoomed off to Coldfoot in an attempt to arrive in time to make the all-you-can-eat breakfast offering. We arrived with 15 minutes to spare, and quickly grabbed our food. Just as we were sitting down to gorge ourselves, the folks we shuttled the car for arrived. They had finished their trip a bit early and were heading back to Fairbanks. We had a very large breakfast with them, and eventually hit the road again, powered up (or slowed down) by the massive quantity of food we had we had eaten. The road south of Coldfoot is paved and was fast riding. A little south of Coldfoot we ran into our first biker (while on bikes anyway – we saw several bikers on the drive up, but as we were driving it does not count) of the trip – Rucker.

Rucker is from Ohio and is apparently friends with the cousin of one of my neighbors, who asked if we had seen him. Sometimes it is an amazingly small world.. We saw a handful of bikers on the drive up to Deadhorse, and two bikers on the bike ride back to Fairbanks, and Rucker was the only one who seemed to have things in order, and appeared to be carrying a reasonable amount of stuff.
The road south of Coldfoot is very scenic..

We stopped for at the Arctic Circle for a quick photo..

and made a quick pass though the campground looking for “bucket man”. On the drive up we passed a fellow biking in full bug gear with 5 gallon buckets instead of panniers. I thought about stopping to say hi and ask how the biking is, but since we ran into him around 10 miles or so outside Deadhorse I thought I would just catch up with him the next day. Alas, bucket man was hauling butt, while we kept an eye out for him we didn’t catch up with him until the Arctic Circle campground, where he was sleeping, so we didn’t get a chance to talk. I did admire his bike from a distance however.

The only major climb of the day was Beaver Slide.

Beaver Slide is a 9% grade gravel hill that is about two miles long and very straight. As we approached it I saw huge white ghost-like shapes descending it in an ominous manner. Fortunately they turned out to be wide load trucks with huge white boxes on them.

Climbing Beaver Slide turned out to be an amusing exercise in dust and bad driving. The truckers seem to take the hill pretty slowly, going up and down the hill at a reasonable rate. Alas, some of the private traffic seems to think this is a ideal place to pass, and we witnessed several very marginal passing maneuvers while climbing the hill. It was very dry when we were on this section of road, which ment it was very dusty. Fortunately it is only two miles long and it goes by fairly quickly.

The rest of the day went by fairly quickly. We biked until Dall creek, where we took a pipeline access road and camped under the pipeline.

The pipeline was amusingly adorned by lots of notes and a few strange symbols.

Disturbingly, one of the pipeline supports we camped under was labeled “Replace S Bracket”. We did survive the night.

Day 5 – the day of Mud!
The next morning we awoke to a light rain. We packed up and headed with with plans of getting an early morning burger at Hot Spot, a burger joint several miles from the Yukon River. The road quickly turned to dirt again, but it was not a big deal as it was not raining all that hard. This was going to change however…

The section of road before the Yukon River is scenic with wonderful sections of fireweed in old burns – quite beautiful.

For most of the morning there was a light rain, and it was starting to make the road a bit muddy.

Eventually we arrived at Hot Spot and had some burgers. After the burgers we headed out. While we chowed burgers it had continued raining, and as a result the road was a bit more muddy..

We stopped briefly at Yukon River camp and I grabbed two Dr Peppers and we then headed across the bridge over the Yukon River. The Yukon River bridge is pretty funky – it is the only bridge I have crossed with a definite slope to it. Biking up hill on a muddy wood decked bridge in the rain is an interesting experience.

The mud got progressively worse…

Fortunately we were saved by a brief bit of pavement after the bridge. While we were on the pavement we passed a fellow biker from Holland via Canada who was hauling a lot of stuff – a fully loaded B.O.B. and a full set of panniers, and was carrying food for full 14 days. It looked painful. Eventually the pavement ended and the mud began again. By this time the rain had stopped and things were drying out, but while the road was getting better the semi-dry mud was very sticky and our bikes required frequent de-mudding.

Eventually we had to stop at a creek and did a complete de-mudding and ate dinner while the road dried out. This worked wonderfully, as by the time we had finished and were ready to go the road was much dryer and almost mud free.

With about 10 miles left on the Dalton we ran into a fellow walking on the side of the road. We stopped and talked for a bit, and learned he was on day one of an attempt to Dalton Highway from the junction of the Elliott to Deadhorse. He was from Worcester, MA and was figuring on taking 18 days.

We biked the rest of the evening, and made it to the Elliott highway, which marked the end of the Dalton – hurrah!

We biked for another hour or so and made it to Fred Blixt cabin, which we had rented in case we wanted to spend the night there. It had been a bit of a long day and we were pretty happy to crash at the cabin.

Day 6 – the last day!
The final day was fairly short, but has a few hills. We got an early start and stopped at Joy, a small homestead and gift shop, grabbing a bite to eat. Several hours later we made it to Hill Top, a local truck stop at mile 5 of the Elliott, and dropped in for a (large) bite to eat. I had some pancakes and Tom enjoyed a burger. I was warned the pancakes were huge, but was not expecting the massive too-big-for-the-plate pancakes that I ended up with – alas I was only able to eat half of them. The rest of the trip was pretty mellow, though it was a bit hard to bike with so much food inside me. I made it back to my house at around 4 or so, just in time to meet up with my wife Nancy and the twins returning from picking up their veggies from the local CSA.

For those interested, here are our final stats for the trip:

  • Day 1, Deadhorse – Ice Cut: 92.5 miles, 8 hours
  • Day 2, Ice Cut to south side of Atigun Pass: 85.8 miles, 8 hours
  • Day 3, Atigun to Wiseman: 54.1 miles, 4 hours
  • Day 4, Wiseman to Dall Creek: 104 miles, 8:30 hours
  • Day 5, Dall Creek to Fred Blixt: 101.5 miles, 9:30 hours
  • Day 6, Fred Blixt to Tom’s house: 75.9 miles, 6 hours. +~3 miles for Jay.
  • Total, 513.8 miles, 44 hours

Notes for other folks interested in biking the Dalton Highway.

  • Food is available at several places along the road:
    • Yukon River Camp, MP 56
    • Hot Spot and 5 mile Camp, MP 60
    • Coldfoot, MP 175
    • Wiseman, MP 186
    • Deadhorse, MP 414
    • All these places (except Wiseman) have diner style food, and a selection of very basic snacks.
  • The Arctic Getaway in Wiseman is highly recommended as a place to stay in Wiseman – they are great folks and are bikers.
  • There is a post office in Coldfoot, so it is posssible to mail stuff there to be picked up, though the office hours are a bit strange – Mon,Wed,Fri 1:30-6:00pm
  • With all these options for food it’s silly to carry all the food for the entire trip with you the whole time. Unless you love hauling extra weight up and down the hills.
  • If you book a reservation with one of the places to stay along the road, its probably possible to mail them a food drop of some sort. Ask first of course.
  • There are quite a few hills – go as light as is reasonable.
  • Basic cross tires in the 32-40mm range with a little bit of tread are fine. Bigger tires will add more comfort but slower riding, smaller tires more suffering.
  • If the road is muddy and it looks like it might stop raining, take a break and let the road dry out. The road appears to dry pretty fast and the daylight hours are long. Go take a nap!
  • Fenders are a very good idea – not only for keeping you dry, but for keeping your drive train as clean (as possible anyway) of mud. If it rains there will be mud.
  • No bike repair stuff can be found on the Dalton, though there is a very well stocked hardware store in Deadhorse that might have some things (patch kits for example)
  • You can’t bike to the Arctic Ocean. You can take a tour there and listen to a talk about how clean and happy BP is, and splash in the ocean if you want, but you cannot bike there.
  • Bring at least one water treatment system! There is lots of water in streams and lakes along the road, but pretty much all of it needs treatment unless you want giardia or some other friendly gut nasties. We used an older model of the Steripen with backup chlorine dioxide pills and two part chlorine dioxide liquid. Treating water is fast and safe these days, there is no reason not to do it. The walker we ran into at mile 10 was planning on drinking untreated water for the most part, which I hope works for him, but for most people will end up with the “Giardia Weight Loss Plan” and an potentially aborted trip.

A simplified map of the route:


More Photos can be found Here.

The Summer 100 (non) race

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

For the last year or so there have been plans afoot to have a local 100-mile running or biking race. This summer one of the organizers of the White Mountains 100, Ann, got things going and set up a trial run of the non-race. “Non-race” as i, it was not an official, organized race, but more of a mass-start individual time trial. As soon as I heard about the idea I immediately knew I wanted to do it. We don’t have very many local off-road or trail-bike bike events. There is a 12 hour race on the Ester Dome single track, though that was canceled this year, and a mountain bike stage race, but that’s about all. Even more exciting was the fact the start was only four miles from my house, so I could bike to the start – wahoo! In the two months before the race, folks did informal Tuesday runs and ran most of the course in sections. I am not much of a runner these days. Biking has been my main focus, and its hard for me to get enough mental momentum to regularly bike and run in a semi-serious manner. I joined in for a handful of the runs and survived, but barely – running 8-12 miles at once is not a recipe for a happy run. It was pretty social, and it was interesting to talk to folks and meet some folks from the non-winter sports crowd. In the weeks leading up to the race I biked most of the course in a couple of sections to make sure I had an idea about what I was getting into and could prepare mentally for some of the tricky bits. Biking the course was a wonderful experience and exposed me to trails I would not know about otherwise, including some wonderful sections that are amazingly good biking. The course is a mix of dirt roads, single track, ATV trails, a brief section of the Alaska pipeline, a short bit of pavement, and several sections of tricky bits.

So, the “tricky bits”.. The course has several sections that are tricky biking for “normal” people (normal being not trials superstars like Danny MacAskill), and one section that could not be biked even by super-humans. The difficult sections consist of several shortish bits that have tight spaced roots, have lots of rocks, are very steep, or all three at once. I can, for the most part, bike these sections while fresh, but when tired it becomes a bit difficult – not the end of the world, just start pushing! There is one section that involves crossing Goldstream Creek, and is truly unbikable, though perhaps it could be done by winged monkeys. This section involves crossing Goldstream Creek, then crossing a swamp with a short deep section (deep as in more than chest, possibly over my head deep), then brush whacking though some alder for a mile or so. This is perhaps a bit different from what most folks might expect from a bike race, as the course will have fair bit of pushing, but in order to have a long course on trails, some sections of difficult or impossible biking are to be expected. Otherwise to link pieces of nice trail would require lots of sections (possibly pretty long ones) on paved or dirt roads. While these sections would zoom by on a bike, they would be miserably boring for the runners.

Hopefully this race becomes an annual event – it was a wonderful experience and a great fit for Fairbanks. Ann put a tremendous amount of work getting the trial run of the race going and deserves major credit for putting everything together – Go Ann!

Maps of the course of various sorts can be found here.

The rest of this involves my experience in the race – probably quite uninteresting to everyone but me so feel free to stop reading now, and go turn on the TV. Or go play outside!

On the day of the race I got up at 5:45, got dressed, had breakfast, drank several cups of coffee and left the house on the bike heading off to the race start. Just as I was leaving the sky opened up and started dumping epic quantities of rain. Hard rain, with big drops, and a stiff wind – a wonderful day for an epic bike ride! I had put aside two sets of rain gear the night before, and with the hard rain I grabbed the full-on waterproof jacket and pants, put them on, and headed out. The four miles to the starting point was mostly downhill and very wet. At one point the tracks worn in the road by studded tires were running with water like a small stream. I arrived about 20 minutes before the race started and ducked under an eve of one of the entrances to the UAF Patty Center, which was alas, not open, and watched the rain. It was showing no sign of letting up, and thunder could be heard in the distance – it was going to be an interesting day.

Twenty minutes early was apparently a bit too early, as no one else seemed to be around. Eventually other folks arrived and started splashing around in the rain getting ready to go.

It appeared there were going to be 18 or so people enjoying the fun. My friend Tom arrived pushing his bike up to the Patty Center – he apparently had massive chain-suck issues on the way to the start and his chain was wrapped around the bottom bracket in a difficult to extract manner. Several of the bikers attempted to extract the chain to no avail – eventually one of the runners, Rick, pulled the crank off, got the chain unstuck, and put things back to together for Tom. Just before the start two of the bikers headed back home to get more warm clothes and real rain gear. One of them was up from Anchorage and was pretty bemused by the rain, say something like “Isn’t it supposed to be sunny and dry here – this is Anchorage weather!” 7am came upon us and the non-racers lined up in the field outside the Patty, someone gave a count down, and we were off. The course starts on a similar route to the Equinox Marathon, and immediately heads up a small hill. The rain had turned the trail up the hill into a bit of a slippery mess – some of the bikers were already pushing and it was only a quarter of a mile in. The first miles of the course were on a mix of UAF trails and the Equinox, then onto the Sheep Creek bike path, and over to St Patrick’s. I was surprised to see Tom just before the Sheep Creek bike path – apparently he had a return of his chain suck issues on the muddy first hill and decided that was a sign to call it quits. That was a good call, as the mud was quite a bit worse later on. The rest of the morning was spent riding over to Ester, climbing Ester Dome, and riding down the back side of the dome to Goldstream Creek. Two guys had started several hours early in an attempt to get to mile 50 or so before one of them had to make a wedding in the afternoon, and for most of the morning I followed their footprints in the mud and rain-softened trails. Surprisingly, I was in the lead, and would stay in the lead for the rest of the race. When I reached the top of Ester Dome the place had an unearthly feel to it – it was very foggy and socked in with perhaps 50ft visibility at a couple of points, with the wind blowing though the transmission towers on top of the dome making some freaky howling noises. It was a strange experience.. On the ride down to the creek I passed a cheerful man working away on the road with a fairly large bulldozer. He seemed fairly surprised to see me but waved me by in a friendly manner. I bet he was amused and perplexed by the rest of the crew passing him thoughout the day.. The mud on the ride down was pretty intense, but my wheels and gears kept going, and I kept moving.

Crossing the creek was a bit tricky – the log across the creek was wet and slippery, but it was uneventful, though a bit nerve racking. I would later hear that one of the participants dropped his bike in the creek and had to fish it out.

(Photo is not from race day, but a pre-ride. Note the sunny weather..)

It was probably better to drop your bike than to fall in – getting out would have been a pain! After the creek crossing came the swamp, which was a bit of an adventure. There was a path marked though the swamp, and I stuck to it, but alas, I think the path was more intended for the runners as it moved in and out of the brush and though some pretty tight sections that were hard to carry a bike through. Not the end of the world, but there was a fair bit of chest-deep water, and lots of waist-deep water, and a short section separated by floating mats where I could not touch bottom. The short deep section I just left the bike on the floating mats, swam/flopped across, then grabbed the bike and yanked it across the open section. No one appeared to be near me which was good, as there was quite a bit of yelling and swearing as I floundered around. Soon after the marshes I hit the first checkpoint, and my drop bag of clean clothes. I grabbed my stuff, changed into dry clothing, and hopped back on the bike and was off. Later when I was washing my gear from this section I was really surprised to see that everything smelled like swamp – no sweat, no dirt, no mud, just swamp. The folks manning the checkpoint were very cheerful and happy, and understanding of my manic stripping and dressing while (very) partially concealed by some parked cars.

I should probably point out now that photo taking and racing don’t really fit together all that well. Stopping to get the camera out slows things down and slowing down is not how one goes fast. I am not very fast though, so I bring a camera and take pictures, figuring if I am too busy to take pictures and enjoy my self I should just go home as its not worth it. Alas, for lots of reasons I didn’t take the camera out all that much, but I did attempt to get pictures of all the checkpoints and the checkpoint staffers. The checkpoints are like little bubbles of joy in longer races like this one, filled with friendly people, food, and water. Sometimes nirvana is as simple as a can of coke and handful of potato chips.. Anyway, since checkpoints in winter races photograph poorly (because its dark, cameras coming in from the cold fog up instantly, among other reasons) and this was the first long summer bike race I have done, I made an attempt to get photos of them.

Just after leaving the checkpoint I passed the runner Mark, who was cheerfully running along.

The next section was on dirt roads of various sorts and sped by on the bike. Soon after the first checkpoint I had my first bike problem and broke a spoke on my rear wheel and soon things were a bit more wobbly and loose than I would have liked. After riding another half an hour I grabbed my cell phone, called Tom, unfortunately waking him up, and he amiably agreed to pick up a wheel I had on my porch and bring it by Ivory Jacks. I eventually passed Steve the runner, the second person to start early. He seemed to be having a wonderful time and had a huge smile on his face when I rode past. There is a brief out-and-back section where I passed a biker (Andi I think) headed the other way who seemed be having a good time and had a huge grin on his face. Soon I was riding on dirt roads which made for fairly fast but uninteresting biking. Eventually I reached the second checkpoint, an unofficial one staffed by a former co-worker of mine, Jen, and a fellow I had met once before but alas forget his name.

They were cheerfully enjoying a calm afternoon under a nice dry tent and seemed to be having a great time. I refilled my water and took off. The next section to Ivory Jack’s was very, very fun, with lots of fun biking on a mix of narrow dirt roads, ATV trails, and some single track. I really enjoyed this section, though alas someone had taken down the course markings here – bummer. This section features a wonderful downhill bit with lots of water bars that are ever so fun to hop over and a very steep, straight downhill though some birch trees – pure fun! I arrived at Ivory Jacks a bit later than I anticipated but was greeted by Nancy and the twins, and Tom with my replacement wheel – Thanks Tom!

I had a bit to eat, refilled my water, swapped out my wheel with the broken spoke, and was off.

Now with life like hand foo action!

Before I left Lizzy said to Nancy, “When is Daddy going to start biking again?” Obviously I was being a big slacker and should get my butt in gear! The next section was a mix of tricky biking (so more pushing than biking) and some wonderfully fun riding. At one point while on Cranberry Ridge I encountered a lady running who stopped to give me a lecture on how bikes damage trails. She might have had a point, but at the time I was pushing my bike though a rooty section after deciding that the constant pounding and effort required to ride the roots was making my neck and head hurt. She continued her run and I continued pushing my bike though the roots. Alas, at this point my neck was killing me, and my feet were numb and getting a bit sore. My shoes are regular mt bike clipless Shimano bike shoes. They are a bit short on grip, and the cushioning is nonexistent. After the event I had nice and tender forefeet for several days. Once I was past the roots the trail transformed into fun riding and I started to enjoy myself again. Just before reaching Hilltop the course follows the pipeline down a hill which provided some of the fastest biking of the course. At Hilltop I stopped briefly and chatted with the fellow at the checkpoint there, Andy, and snarfed down some snacks.

I had a bike bag blowout somewhere along the way and had lost my bike tools and my chain oil. Andy was super prepared and even had chain oil, ending the squeaking of my tortured chain. The riding from Hilltop to the final checkpoint was fantastic, though I had the funny encounter with someone who had a car breakdown. About halfway between Hilltop and the Skiland checkpoint someone started shouting from the bushes behind me. I stopped and waited a bit nervously for the fellow to catch up with me. It turns out he had driven his new VW Bug up to Pedro Dome Road, had hit a rock, and ruptured his oil pan, leaving him stranded. When I encountered him he was attempting to walk down to the Steese Highway – apparently his car’s GPS told him that it was close by, so he decided to just bush-whack down to it. It’s pretty close, as such things go, but a long steep drop down a brushy hillside. He apparently thought better of it, and was coming back to his car when he saw me and tried to get my attention. He borrowed my cell phone to call a friend to pick him up, and after making sure he was going to be ok, I took off.
A little while later, my phone rang. I dug it out of my backpack, and answered it – it turned out that his friend had gotten lost and needed directions. I guided him via phone to the right road and within sight of his lost friend, and I was back on my way. I made a brief stop at the Skiland checkpoint, getting a bite to eat, and said hi to the cheerful checkpoint staffers.

The final section is mostly downhill and was refreshingly nice riding, though by this time my legs were pretty hammered and I could barely bike up the hills. I rolled into the finish at 15 hours and 24 minutes, very happy to be off the bike. John Estle was at the finish line and did a quick video interview with me and I am afraid I was a bit incoherent and silly.

Soon after I arrived the two bikers who started late came in. They started about 20 minutes late and finished 10 minutes behind me and would have finished ahead of me if they had started with everyone else.

Hopefully this race will be an annual event – it was an amazing experience and a complete blast. With luck this race will be become a summer ritual! Thanks again to Ann and all the other volunteers – you guys made it possible and fun!

The finishing times for the finishers in the trial run of the race were:

  • Bikers
    • Jay Cable 15:24
    • John Shook 15:33
    • Chris Wrobel 15:33
    • Rocky Reifenstuhl 16:38
    • T. Herriott 16:38
    • Andy Sterns 19:43
  • Runners
    • Rork Peterson 21:47
    • Ann Farris 26:40
    • Rick Johnson 28:02
    • Anne VerHoef 28:08

There was also some coverage in the News Miner.

More photos from the race
Course pre-ride photos.

A family bike trip in Denali NP

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

It seems like every time I go to pick up the twins they feel heavier – they seem to be growing like little weeds. Little weeds who are now big enough to start hauling themselves on trips… and so we found ou selves setting off on a bike tour with the twins on the Denali Park road. I have always enjoyed biking the Denali park road – it is quite scenic, fairly well maintained, and once you get past the first 15 miles the only drivers you encounter are running tour buses. The tour buses always seem to give bikers lots of room and are fairly courteous. Our plans for the weekend were relatively modest – to bike the 30 miles or so into the Teklanika campground, spend the night, then bike back out the next day. The first 15 miles or so are paved and while there are hills, there is nothing tremendously steep so it should be a good introduction to bike touring with the twins.

The twins were very excited about the trip and were very eager to get started and have the adventure begin! After doing all the initial check in and paper work that visits to Denali NP seem to require these days, we started pedaling and were off!

The twins were riding their tag-along bikes , which are sort of a half tandem bike that attaches to the parent’s bike seat post. Nancy and I were hauling the gear in standard panniors, though for such a short trip not much gear is required. We have done bike trips with the twins before, but in those bike trips the twins spent all the bike time in a child hauling trailer – with the tag-alongs the twins could help power us along, as they could now pedal. The pressure was definitely on, because, as Molly pointed out, if they were not pedaling we could tell, as the free wheel makes a clicking noise while freewheeling. Molly and Lizzy are slightly different sizes these days, so they girls each get their own tag-along, and as they are a bit of a pain to swap back and forth, the girls did not swap back and forth between parents. Molly rode with me, and Lizzy with Nancy. The girls were quite good sports, chugging away while we biked up and down the hills on the first several miles of the road. After 7 miles or so a snack break was called and everyone pulled off the road to have a little something to eat. Biking is hard work when your legs are less than a foot long!

Eventually we reached Savage River where the pavement stops and the road is closed to the public. We waited in line with the other vehicles and eventually had our turn to get our passes checked and received permission to continue.

I should point out that we were definitely an oddity – we saw one other biker while biking in, a heavily laden European fellow who looked a bit shocked to see us. I expect passing two five year olds doing a similar bike tour to you makes your experience seem a bit less “epic”. The first section of the park road is open to the public and gets a fair bit of vehicle traffic. The girls had been instructed to wave at the passing cars, and took this to heart, waving to all the buses, RVs, and other random vehicles traveling the roads.

The last 15 miles or so of the of the road from Savage River to the campground we were staying at are on a fairly nice dirt road. When we were there it was in great shape, without a lot of mud, dust, or washboarding. It has some hills but nothing particularly steep, and having the twins help power up the hills was very nice – I could definitely notice when Molly was pedaling.

The riding with kids is a bit slower than with adults, as they are not quite old enough to snack on the bike, and of course need the occasional distraction. We stopped every 7 miles or so for a snack break. The twins got very good at spotting the mile posts along the road.

We also stopped to let them explore anything interesting on the side of the road, like culverts waiting to be installed.

One of our stops was at a pull-off with outhouses that is also used by the tour bus companies. When we arrived there were several buses pulled up and a the tour guide (perhaps color commentator is more appropriate description) was well into giving a talk about life in Alaska. Sometimes I wonder how the tour companies select these folks, as the talk mainly seemed to involve oil tax regimes and was given in a AM radio talk show style a-la Sean Hannity – riveting. The vistors were milling around and since we were doing something interesting like biking with kids and not talking about such exciting subjects like oil taxes a fair number of people came up to say hi and say how impressed they were we were out biking the road. This was fantastic positive reinforcement for the twins, as here real live grownups were saying they could never do this as it would be just too hard. It was also a bit depressing from my point of view, as really this trip was not particularly epic, and almost everyone I saw would have been capable of doing what we were doing, and a fair number of them would probably even enjoy it more than riding in a cramped bus. Such is life.. Eventually we arrived at the campground.

We biked around the two loops that form the campground, found a spot, and unloaded. The twins were very excited as our campsite was surrounded by small spruce with enough understory they could play under them – it was almost like having their own tree houses. They had a great time exploring and were very busy running around and checking things out. Nothing was left unexplored, even a random pile of gravel near a tent site, were they found a rock that could be used to draw on other rocks – exciting stuff!

Eventually we set up our tent and made dinner.

After dinner we joined the other campers and attended a talk put on by an interpretive ranger that included a wide range of subjects and ended with half the audience getting blindfolded and hugging a tree. Lizzy did the honors for us.

After the talk we headed back to our tent and got everyone ready for bed. While we were getting ready one of our campground neighbors who arrived in a large RV came by and talked to us for a bit. She seemed very baffled as to how we could survive the night and asked us “What do you do when it rains?”. She seemed very baffled by our attempts to explain that we had rain gear, and a tent, so rain was no problem. Eventually everyone was ready for bed, but alas sleeping in a tent is a bit exciting, so it took a while for everyone to calm down enough to go to sleep.

It took a while though.

It rained on and off all through the night and was still raining when the morning arrived. The twins were unfazed, as they have rain gear, sandals with plastic bags covering their socks, and rain paints, making them very rain proof.

The biking was quite good on the way out, and a fair bit faster as this section of the road has more downhill overall on the way out. It was a bit more muddy though, which Molly enjoyed, but Lizzy less so due to Nancy’s lack of fenders.

The road was still in good shape though and everyone had fun even with the mud.

When we reached the pavement we started seeing motivational signs and the occasional aid station – it turns out we arrived just before a half marathon was to start.

The last miles on pavement zoomed by, as they are almost entirely down hill. By the time we reached the parking lot everyone had impressive mud stripes.

After visting the bathroom for a little “de-mudding” we headed off to glitter gulch to get some pizza and ice cream. This was a fantastic trip – everyone had a great time even with the wet weather. Our first bike trip where everyone pedaled was a success, which bodes well for future bike trips. There are so many wonderful roads in Alaska to explore and as the kids get bigger I am looking forward to doing some fun bike adventures with them.

Major kudos to Molly and Lizzy for being such troopers!