August 6, 2012
For an avid touring cyclist, there is nothing quite like the opportunity to check another item off your bucket list of places to ride. Alaska was one for me. It was my 45th state to visit by bike and until I came to Missoula from Massachusetts last August, it was one that I thought I would never see. Adventure Cycling's Denali Adventure, a 14-day romp through some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife that North America has to offer, was also my first Adventure Cycling tour as a participant and not as a leader. Leader Pete Strause did an excellent job of leaving me out of the loop so that I could enjoy my vacation.
Our tour offered up lots of challenges including primitive campsites, hours of riding where you would only see two or three cars, gravel roads, plenty of rain and cool temperatures, and of course the infamous mosquitos. Did you know that Alaska has 29 different types of mosquitoes? The largest I saw was 3/4" long. Fortunately I was in my tent at the time.
But this Alaska tour also offered up stunning glaciers, snow-capped mountains, clear streams and rivers clouded by glacial silt, abundant wildlife, great camp hosts and roadhouse waitresses, a nicely timed bunk-house when a mother grizzly and cub were roaming the local campsite, espresso nearly every day, a chance opportunity to meet the governor of the state during the Governors Picnic in Glenellen, and an opportunity to meet and ride with 14 great people.
One of the easiest aspects of this tour, which I greatly appreciated, was the simplicity of the route after leaving Anchorage. We departed Anchorage as a single group in the rain the first day with me sweeping the pack since we were traveling on bike paths and some surface roads. Once we reached the outskirts of Anchorage we are all free to ride as we wished as the remainder of the trip included only 4 roads: Glenn highway, Richardson highway, Denali highway (120 miles of dirt/gravel), and the Parks road. Most days found us on only one of those roads.
The hardest day of the tour happened to be the shortest day as well. It was the climb to Maclaren Summit on the Denali highway. The cue sheet read 28 miles, but when you look at the route profile you noticed two massive climbs at 8% for the first 21 miles of the day. The dirt/gravel naturally slowed us down as we climbed to the summit, but my gear hindered my top speed as well. As I remembered it, there were several moments during those climbs when my speedometer registered 3.4 mph. I eventually reached the summit where my son, Brandon, was waiting patiently to have his lunch with me. The remaining 7 miles were fast as neither of us used our brakes very much, maxing out at 35 mph as we hit the river basin below and giving up nearly all the elevation gain we racked up that day!
I was actually glad to see the 120 mile dirt/gravel portion of the Denali highway end after three days. Although it offered up some spectacular views, the 25 mile section of fresh gravel played tricks on my 20" Bike Friday wheels. The rear end was very loose with the weight on the back and often would swing around on the faster downhills.
When asked about my favorite part of the Denali Adventure, I have to say it was the opportunity to spend two intense weeks with my youngest son, Brandon. We had not ridden together for more than four years since he has been away at college and we had not really had a vacation together either. It was a very sweet time of catching up, sharing future plans, and enjoying the beauty of Alaska together. I teared-up when we arrived in Denali and when he hopped in a taxi heading to the Anchorage airport. Just like the two cross-country trips we had completed together in the past, we renewed a deep connection in our relationship and shared some awesome cycling. He even got a brand new touring bike as well, a Surly Disc LHT.
The tour ended with an spectacular 8 hour train ride on the Alaskan Railroad from Denali to Anchorage. I bid farewell to all those on the tour as Brandon and I headed to the hostel to begin our own preparations of returning home.
The most common question I heard on my return to Missoula was something to the effect of, "did you see Mount McKinley's snowy, 20,320-foot summit?" I replied as almost anyone would, "No, it was clouded in".
See you down the road.
Photos by Arlen Hall
ON THE ROAD is written by the tours team -- Mo, Paul, Madeline, and Arlen -- tours specialists and intrepid bicyclists, covering all things related to Adventure Cycling's Tours Department. Find your dream tour now!