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Posts tagged ‘Cantwell’

High One Highway

Denali_means_“the high one” in the Alaskan native Athabascan tongue. It refers to Mt. McKinley, the massive peak that tops the Alaska Range in Denali National Park. It is a very fitting name for the Denali Highway, due to its impressive views of the Alaskan wilderness.

Alaska is massive. It’s more than twice the size of Texas and compared to the lower 48, it dwarfs the entire Midwest region (here’s a picture for scale). In addition, the U.S. federal government owns and manages 65% of the state as public land. This means more than half the state is comprised of national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. Believe me, it’s enormous.

Late evening view from the Denali Highway

We are currently into our second week of riding and we have seen a lot. In relation to the state as a whole, however, we have seen very little. Over the past few days, I’ve begun to comprehend Alaska’s vastness and its seemingly boundless grandeur. Traveling along the Denali Highway, we experienced a small and magnificent part of Alaska’s beauty. We caught glimpses of glaciated mountain ranges and entirely new snowcapped peaks as the old faded from our view behind us. What baffles me still is that we’ve seen only a glimpse of all that is out there. As many Alaskans will tell you, Alaska may truly be “the last frontier” and that is what calls me back to return one day.

The scenery from the Denali Highway was spectacular. We saw wildlife including anxious caribou (hunting season started earlier this week), porcupines, and a black bear (at a distance, thankfully).  On the other hand, the ride itself along the Denali Highway wasn’t nearly as spectacular.

Washboard gravel on the Denali Highway

A majority of the “highway” is gravel. You would think three farmer’s sons from North Dakota would be well accustomed to gravel roads, right? Well, with tractors and pickups, yes. With bikes, maybe not so much. At first, the gravel was manageable. It was well kept and smooth. Later on the road became increasingly extreme alongside the challenging terrain. Large rocks, potholes, mud, and “washboard” gravel soon covered the road as we climbed up and down the mountain passes of the Denali Highway. It was exhausting, both physically and mentally. With no suspension, we feel everything. On top of that, it takes an enormous amount of focus to plot a line down the road and navigate where you think it’s smoothest. Like I said earlier, it was exhausting, so we would rest often.

Finding a spot to rest wasn’t hard. Resisting the urge to snap photos every hundred yards was (sorry bros). We had the road to ourselves, so if we needed to refuel or refill water bottles, we would stop and sit along the roadside or down by a creek (we came across them often). Between meals on the road, which normally consist of bagels with peanut butter and honey, jerky, and cookies, we would occasionally snack on candy bars and trail mix.

Our trusty travel companion, Skippy

We would also snack on blueberries, or rather gorge ourselves with them. Blueberries were so thick in spots, it was hard to stop. It’s prime blueberry season according to the locals, and we aren’t complaining.

Blueberries!

The ride so far has been challenging. Long, cold, and sometimes wet days have come and gone. We’re meeting new people every day; with towns few and far between, you would be surprised at the number of kind, generous, and encouraging people we meet each day. I’m thankful for the journey thus far and I look forward to each new day.

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Here’s a video from our last morning on the Denali Highway. Fighting the gnats, we attempt to recount our time on the highway.

Bound South – Denali Reflections from Bound South on Vimeo.

Milestones & Kindness

Since before this trip began, all of us had our milestones to look forward to: the first day of riding, the day we reach the Rockies, the day we reach the ocean, the day we reach Argentina.  Add to that the day we build a house with Habitat in North Dakota.  Yet I had my own personal milestone that was a little less inspiring: I was waiting for our first healthy dose of misery.

Breaks were short during a tough ride to Cantwell.

This might seem like a strange and negative milestone but it is important.  Anyone who has taken a journey with a group knows that nothing binds you together quite like adversity.  I remember during the summer of 2008 with Bike and Build when our negative milestone arrived inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  We went camping for the first time in the great outdoors, unaware that a severe thunderstorm was about to wreak havoc on our ramshackle campsite at 2AM.  By the next morning, we had taken refuge inside of a cinder-block latrine and barely slept while a park ranger recovered some of our belongings that had been blown three miles away in the storm winds.  We were exhausted, terrified, and sleep-deprived, but Hurricane Teddy became a legendary and happy memory that brought us closer together in retrospect.

On Saturday, we got cozy with misery.  We rode our bikes 100 miles from Trapper’s Creek (just above sea level on a flat valley) to Cantwell, AK in the mountains of Denali.  We had planned an early start for a long day of riding, but a missed alarm meant that we weren’t on the road till noon.  With serious mountain climbing and heavy touring bicycles, it took all of our strength to maintain a 10mph pace when we included rest stops and refueling.  We climbed close to 8000 vertical feet over the course of the day.  It was raining and in the low 40s.  Cold set in if we stopped.  My hands were so cold that I could barely open the Snickers bars necessary to my suffering, and I struggled hopelessly while the wrapper mocked me with its “Fun Size” designation.  There was nothing fun about those Snickers bars.  Pure life-saving necessity was their redemption.  We pushed on and on through the mountains with the mile markers passing by far too slowly.  There was no civilization between Trappers Creek and Cantwell.  We were tired, hungry, wet, and cold.  We had no choice but to make it to Cantwell where we heard of a lodge that could hopefully feed us and take us in.

Rest Day = Best Day.

We arrived in Cantwell at 11PM at night, just as daylight was failing.  We turned onto the Denali Highway and after a mile and a cruel little climb we arrived at the Cantwell Lodge which had transitioned into a bar with country music and lots of drinking and smoking.  We walked inside with our riding spandex and rain gear, chilled to the bone, white as ghosts.  We ordered food for six. After we demolished the best double cheese burger, mountain of potato salad, and spicy wing basket in Alaska, we passed out in a discounted double bunk room.

Bound South's best friend.

We woke up for church on Sunday morning.  We has passed Cantwell Bible Church on the way to the Lodge and took a guess on start time of the service.  We were ten minutes late in keeping with a proud Berg tradition.  Within their congregation of twenty we were a spectacle.  A couple in the church offered to take us in for the remaining duration of our rest day.  Rest was much needed after the century into Cantwell and we were treated to uncommon kindness.  Our hosts were superhuman.  While we passed out for an afternoon nap, they went for a vigorous mountain hike.  They have a team of more than a dozen sled dogs that are full of joy and vigor.  Bob, originally a farmkid from Nebraska, has climbed the Seven Summits and is a tremendous role model in is community.  His wife Janie is an accomplished veterinarian, spectacular cook, and nonchalantly describes her adventures mushing a dog sled through the Denali Wilderness in -40 degree temperatures for fun.

This journey is as much as about the people we meet as the places we see.  We have been so blessed and now we press eastward, leaving behind the challenges and rare comforts of Cantwell to ride the remote gravel passes of the Denali Highway.  The most desolate wilderness of our trip lies between us and Whitehorse.