Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bicycle Tour in Denali National Park

"Do you think we should ride back downhill?" asked Gretchen. 

After spending nearly an hour climbing in the lowest gear at 4mph, the last thing I wanted to do was bomb back down Polychrome Pass, but with a 400lbs grizzly bear sauntering down the firmly packed gravel road, we didn't have much choice. Bike tire poised downhill I twisted and fired a few more shots with my camera at the oncoming behemoth. The decision was made a lot easier when a tour bus suddenly rounded the bend above the bear, instantly changing the bear's pace from a saunter, to a jog, straight downhill, straight at us. 

We pushed off and put both feet on our pedals, with the hills downward slope and the weight of laden bicycles, we quickly distanced ourselves from the bear. 

Denali National Park is six million acres of wild land. The centerpiece is the highest mountain in North America, Denali (only tourists and outsiders call it Mt. McKinley) whose summit stops at 20,320ft. About 400,000 people visit Denali each year. Does that seem like a lot? It does to me mainly because the majority of those visitors come in the summer months, from Memorial day through Labor day. I'm not a mathematician, but doing quick calculator work, that's about 5,000 folks a day rolling through this park. And they're limited to an 85 mile road bisecting the park. And they're limited to riding tan and green park buses after the first 15 miles. Despite this heavy concentration of people we still experienced solitude on our bicycles and we saw more wildlife than I've ever seen before. 

The morning of day one making final preparations at the park headquarters parking lot.

The 85 mile park road can be reduced further to a series of long climbs, and long descents. In fact, Gretchen probably grew tired of my narration each day: "Two more climbs, three more descents, until we reach the campground." Or: "This is the longest climb in the park, followed by a medium descent and a medium climb."

Elevation profile of park road. Click to enlarge.

 Climbing out of Savage River.

Bombing down to the Sanctuary River

There are six campgrounds in Denali. The problem for cyclists is five of the six occur in the first 35 miles of the 85 mile road--Wonder Lake, the sixth is at the end of the road, mile marker 85.  So, this means it's impossible to evenly break up the miles, if you plan to bike over four days, like we did. Then there's the problem that some of the campgrounds can be reserved months in advance through an online system while others can only be reserved in person, first come, first serve. So, we showed up at Denali with a reservation for Wonder Lake while the other nights were up in the air. We wanted to camp at Igloo Creek, the fifth furthest from the park entrance at mile marker 35, but that was full. So we stayed at Sanctuary Campground, mile marker 22.
 The Sanctuary River after dinner. We packrafted this river in 2012.

This nalgene, like the red wine it carries, gets better with age.

Here's the run down:
Day 1- 22 miles, Sanctuary River campground
Day 2- 63 miles, Wonder Lake campground
Day 3- 0 miles, Wonder Lake Campground
Day 4- 52 miles, Igloo Creek Campground
Day 5- 33 miles, finish at Park HQ

 Looking for caribou, walking near sunset, 9pm

 Toklat River, morning of day two.

 Dall sheep perched on the northern slopes seen passing through Sable Pass.
Everyone has their favorite spot in the park, I have two. Sable Pass is my first favorite. Climb higher it's got a plateau like feeling as the tundra continues to rise and meet the road on both sides, yet looking of in the distance it's obvious you're perched higher than a lot of the surrounding country. I also love looking south from the pass and seeing the density of jagged peaks between the Toklat and Sanctuary rivers.
 Polychrome pass, seen from midway down Sable Pass.

Our second day we saw six bears. We saw a sow and cub pedaling up Sable Pass. Then we saw the grizzly pictured above digging roots and munching on berries--lower on Polychrome Pass.
I love hills. When I ran cross country in high school our mantra was "make the hill your bitch." I know, it's an awful thing to say, sorry, but that mantra has stuck with me ever since and I still love hills. I love to climb them. I love biking uphill. I love running uphill. I love nordic skiing uphill. I love skinning uphill with climbing skins attached to my skis. I don't think I'm particularly stronger than most on the uphill,  but I do pride myself on pushing it harder each and every climb I'm presented with. This summer Gretchen has biked and ran many, many more miles than me, but I still dominated the climbs. She was typically several hundred meters behind me on the climbs and when I saw a bear walking down the road, I was alone.
The upper portions of the road on Polychrome Pass are cliffs and scree. The edge of the road drops at least a thousand feet down to the East Fork of the Toklat River. When I saw the bear coming I knew he had no other place to go but up or down. And since he had come from up, he wanted to go down. I tried to remember how far the last slopes covered in vegetation were. Though I didn't want to, I knew I had to bike back down, hopefully without him becoming interested in me, and also hoping he'd take the first opportunity to wander into the bushes.

 My intuition was right, he was just looking for greener pastures. 

 Gretchen's aerobars were a great bear spray holster.

Gretchen and Denali looming like a monster above.

We had five days of spectacular weather, which came as a surprise after July was the second wettest month on record in Fairbanks and we were only .07 inches away from breaking the record. Denali, the show case of the park is only visible 20% of the time. It's even less common to see the summit in the summer than winter. It's beyond rare that we saw it for five days straight. Occasionally patches of clouds blew through and obscured parts of the mountain, but it was never completely veiled, and never for long.
These two photographs were taken from Stony Hill. When I first snapped the shot I was admiring the muddy coloration of the rock and soils pointed down this draw. After observing the greater mountain, I realized there was a caribou mother and calf walking the ridge just above the saddle.

Coasting down Stony Hill
 My steed parked at Eielson Visitor Center.

 This little arctic ground squirrel wanted to make friends. 
 Then he wanted to lick my shoes.
 Then he wanted cashews.

This is my second favorite spot in the park, just beyond Eielson Visitor Center looking south over the Muldrow Glacier and Mckinley Bar River.
Our "Denali view" campsite and the best place to spend one's 32nd birthday: at the end of an 85 mile gravel road.

 Avoiding mosquitoes and reading the short stories of Ernest Hemingway.
 The view out our tent's screen door.
The nearly full moon looked down on a clear Denali view.

 Admiring Denali after breakfast.

The nice part of staying in the park's designated campgrounds is the comfort stations. This means you get a toilet seat--flush or pit style. Most campgrounds have running water or at least a water source nearby. All have storage lockers to safely keep food from the large mammals.

There is always the option of camping along the road, but, this carries its own protocol. In order to camp along the road one must first get a backcountry permit from the Backcountry Access Center. The park is broken up into a series of sectors, each sector has a limit to the number of occupants by day/night. So there's not guarantee you'll get to camp where you want. And you have to camp where you say you're going to. And, you have to be out of sight and at least 1/2 mile off the road. And if you're not camping in one of the campgrounds you have to carry an awkwardly large bear barrel to store food in. Oh, and you have to listen to a "Backcountry Ranger"--that's usually a sophomore biology major from Loyola or Antioch University--give a talk on how to avoid getting eaten by a bear, of which they have great experience and knowledge sharing, because they've spent the last couple weeks of summer break in Alaska.

It's not worth it. 
 Wonder Lake on August 10th

 Caribou in the middle of the frame, just below the road.
 I have a lust for fireweed photos.

The majority of campers in the park ride the park bus, well, all the campers in the park ride the bus, except us. If you ride the bus you're essentially car camping, so people drag just about anything they want out to Wonder Lake.
 Soaking in the chilly lake's waters soothes tired 85 mile legs

 The mosquitoes are still out, but as the evening cooled they dispersed.

Denali, morning of the fifth day. This view looks across the tundra towards where we hiked in 2012.

 Serene kettle ponds are common in the miles nearing Wonder Lake

Bear scat, mostly digested berries, piled in the middle of the dusty road.

Day five temperatures hit the mid-70's, it was fantastic topless riding weather. 

The miles closest to the park entrance are notorious as moose havens.  

Biking the park road isn't overly hard. The climbs are long and sustained. The descents are fast. The wildlife is everywhere. The tourists are annoying, but in between the passing buses you do get a lot of time alone. Our fourth and fifth days we hit the road early and had several hours with almost no traffic except the occasional ranger or maintenance worker, there were no buses then. Bicycle touring isn't especially complicated, or hard to get into, we just use our lightweight backpacking gear. Gretchen and I both tour on cyclecross bikes. Her bike is a steel framed Lemond that's good for touring, except for the gearing, she has no "granny gear." My bike has disc brakes, which helps stop the load downhill. I think we'll eventually graduate to more touring specific bikes, but for now, these are fine.  
It's always great to complete a multi-day trip. Even though it never felt monotonous and always felt like something I could do day after day, my ass was ready to get off the saddle.